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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VI, No. 3
Winter, 1982



Oddly enough, the mutual compatibility between the Christian and the apparently tragic doctrine which is suggested in Eugene O'Neill's early plays of the sea has sometimes been overlooked. More curiously still, it has been overlooked more often than not by Christian, themselves. In their eagerness to behold the apocalyptic vision of God's deliverance and man's ultimate redemption, some Christians have rejected, as irreconcilable with the human spirit, what they consider the essentially "pessimistic" nature of O'Neill's dramaturgy. They exclaim that O'Neill's tragic thought contradicts the Christian heritage of serenity and resignation by allowing man "to proceed from violence to violence, and to make of human torture not so much the occasion of other things as the raison d'être of drama."1

Likewise, contemporary theologians, in their zeal to afford a sardonic vision of man unable to escape his tragic destiny, have rejected the essentially religious nature of O'Neill's thought as an inexorable illusion of the human predicament; and have suggested that O'Neill's heroes are "forced through mechanical malice on the part of destiny or providence or the playwright to inevitable defeat."2

What the Christian and the theologian appear to confuse, however, is that for O'Neill irreconcilable opposites suggest a spiritual truth. They make man aware, that is, of the most fundamental law of spiritual evolution: the clash of antinomies which constitute human life and detail the progress from sin to salvation.

O'Neill's interpretation of life in these terms bears a striking resemblance to the medieval morality play. Both are concerned with the freedom of man to align himself with the forces of either good or evil, with the ultimate triumph of good; both see in the human predicament a certain degree of poetic justice; both envision a day of reckoning and a last judgment, when injustice will be redressed; and both demand ultimate allegiance to a Creator.

But here the similarity between O'Neill and the morality play appears to end. Unlike the medieval moralist, O'Neill is decidedly secular in his approach to individual responsibility and retribution. He does not define "goodness" in terms of moral do's and don'ts; he declares, rather, that, since all men are involved in the sempiternal act of evil, there is none who may claim total innocence. His characters, therefore, are what he likes to term "unmoral," not "immoral."3

That is why O'Neill's conception of drama entails a corresponding metaphysic, and that is why his characters are proof of a spiritual force which affirms man's triumph over adversity. And that is why O'Neill demands that

the playwright today must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it—the death of the old God and the failure of modern science and materialism to give an satisfying new one for man's surviving primitive religious instinct....4

Here, then, is the context in terms of which it becomes possible to understand O'Neill's concept of the relationship between suffering and religion: man suffers when he denies a paradisiacal vision of spiritual verity on earth and accepts the unrealistic truth of temporal existence, with its emphasis upon materialism and greed. In this respect, suffering is not a causal implication inherent in the death of the "old" God, but an unbearable consequence of there being no "new" gods.

It is precisely this miscellaneous theological thesis which leads to an examination of Fog (1913-1914). The play is O'Neill's earliest parabolic expression of the unbearable horror witnessed in man's being alive in a world without God. And it acknowledges that the spiritual tranquility and sublimity available to man as a consequence of having endured the agonies of a transfiguring self-destruction provide him with an insight into the tragic nature of human frailty and help him to bear suffering without being turned to stone by the vision.

The first point to notice in considering Fog in this light is O'Neill's early suggestion that "the one-act play is a fine vehicle for something poetical, for something spiritual, in feeling that cannot be carried through a long play."5 As his words suggest, O'Neill appears to have grasped the medieval significance of the one-act play as a religious or parabolic expression of Biblical doctrine, and to have employed its specifically Christian form for his own interpretation of the basic orientation of man to the will of God. Although the mood of Fog is more restrained and the dialogue more succinct than in the other early sea plays, the subtle Biblical overtones of resurrection and redemption suggest that here again is O'Neill's attempt to transcend tragic despair and to tranquilize spiritual doubt by an identification of the individual self with the mystic aspects of Nature.

The setting of the play is a "lifeboat,"6 which appears to be drifting aimlessly off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. A dense fog lies heavily upon the sea and a "menacing silence" broods over all. Adrift on the still sea are a Man of Business, a Poet, and a Polish Woman with her dead child. The characters, however, only gradually appear to the viewer, outlined for the opening part of the drama in a medieval tableau vivant against the veiled raft. It is only when a "vague twilight" creeps through the dense fog that the shadowy figures emerge. At first, the speaking roles are indicated only as a "Man's Voice" and "Another Man's Voice." Later, as the faceless figures become faintly illuminated, they are differentiated more fully as the "Dark Man" and the "Other Man." Finally, an exchange of harsh words establishes them as a "Poet" and a "Businessman." (pp. 85-93)

Against a theological background of two men debating the ambivalent condition of pain and suffering in human existence sits the "Polish Peasant," huddling stiffly and silently at one end of the raft, clutching "something like a bundle of white clothes" in her arms, and apparently asleep. (p. 91)

The Poet, obviously speaking for O'Neill, inveighs against the "frightful injustice" in life and views the effect of the child's death on its mother as "the most horrible thing I have ever seen or even heard of" (p. 87). The Businessman, in contrast, chooses "not to think" about the predicament; he sees the small one's death as "enough to give anyone the blues, that's sure," but admits that the real discomfort is his own wet clothes and the "freezing cold" (p. 87).

It is this indifference to another's pain and suffering, this disregard for the Christian precept of Samaritan compassion, which has led one contemporary critic to remark that "social ideas are more important in this play than the characters themselves."7 What this critic has failed to note, however, are the moral and spiritual implications inherent in O'Neill's treatment of the contrasting values of the Poet and the Businessman.

The association of the latter with all that is successful and possible in temporal life suggests a corresponding spiritual deficiency which cannot recognize, as the Poet carefully points out, the responsibility that each member of the human community must bear for the "injustice visited upon the heads of our less fortunate 'brothers-in-Christ'" (p. 90). Likewise, it is the Businessman's "shameful indifference" to the Polish Woman's misery and his refusal to "think" about it which reveals his own spiritual meaninglessness and characterizes him as one of O'Neill's spiritually dispossessed.

O'Neill himself provides the clue to the spiritual malaise of the Businessman in his treatment of the mystic effect of the fog on the castaways and in his treatment of suffering as an essential element of redemption for those who would assume the tragic burden that leads to self-recognition and redemption.

To the Businessman, who is not inclined to look beyond surface reality, the fog is primarily a threat to his temporal life. He curses it as a "damn" fog because it clouds his vision and prevents him from seeing a distant steamer which is apparently in search of the lost passengers. His seeming fear of the fog also manifests itself when an iceberg strikes the aimlessly drifting lifeboat. Taking the iceberg for some "horrible phantom of the sea," the Businessman shrinks in fright and almost causes the raft to tip over. Only the assurance of the Poet that this "phantom" is an "ice and water reality" calms the Businessman. (p. 99)

But that reassurance is temporary, for the fog and the iceberg present decidedly moral and ethical questions to both men. If the steamer were to seek a rescue and be drawn upon the white mass of ice, which now towers above the raft like "the facade of some huge Viking temple" (p. 102), she would sink and possibly drown all of those innocent sailors who are approaching, unaware of the danger that awaits. So the Poet warns the Businessman:

The steamer, man, the steamer! Think of the danger she is in. If she were ever to hit this mass of ice she would sink before they could lower a boat.... Not a sound if you have any regard for the lives of those on board.... We can die but we cannot risk the lives of others to save our own. (pp. 100-101)

But the Businessman has no regard for others. More concerned with saving his own life than in sacrificing it for the greater good of the innocent, he struggles to raise his hands to his mouth and shout a call for help:

if we don't let them know we're here they are liable to pass by us and never know it.... I'm not going to be left here to die on account of your damn-fool ideas. (p. 100)

'The Businessman's call for help is only thwarted by an heroic act of the Poet, who forces his hand over the Businessman's mouth in time to stifle the outcry. "You damned coward!" snarls the Poet, cursing uncharacteristically. "I might have known what to expect" (p. 101).

The viewer might also have known what to expect from the Businessman in this situation. Like his Biblical counterpart, he has allowed material wealth and personal welfare to substitute for morality; and his willingness to risk the lives of innocent bystanders for his own selfish desires makes explicit what the parable of the businessman and the pauper teaches about ultimate redemption and salvation: it is, indeed, easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

The Poet in Fog is apparently a combination of the Biblical pauper and an earlier self-portrait O'Neill drew of himself in a 1912 verse hymn, "The Lay of the Singer's Fall," in which the idealistic hero's faith in Truth, Love and God are slowly undermined by a sardonic "Devil of Doubt."8 As the hymn suggests, the ultimate meaning in life is to be found in man's inevitable progression toward death. The Singer, voicing O'Neill's theodicy that affliction arises from the fact that temporal reality is at variance with the religious conception of life as taught by the Christian doctrines of Biblical saga, attempts to give credence to this testimony in a contest for ultimate spiritual truth. Disillusionment, however, dispels the Singer's vision of bliss and eternal life, and he resigns himself to suicide.

Ironically, the Poet's own disappointment in being unable to prevent misery and suffering had also led him to contemplate suicide. "I was going to die," he reveals, "so I hid in the steerage fearing that some of the ship's officers would insist on saving my life in spite of me" (p. 94).

But when the ship struck a derelict the Poet discovered a solution to his religious dilemma. And his discovery suggests the spiritual evolution which O'Neill's religious thought had taken since the decidedly pessimistic treatment of man's fall from grace in the 1912 hymn. That solution lay in the "providential" discovery of compassion for the Polish Woman and her dead child. Seeing that the woman was "so happy in her love for her child that it would be wrong to let her die," the Poet had abandoned his idea of suicide and persuaded the woman to join him in the life raft as the sinking ship took its final plunge (p. 95). This Christian act of charity resulted in his affirmative conviction that all that has happened to him is "an omen sent by the gods to convince me my past unhappiness is past and my fortune will change for the better" (p. 95).

In addition, this subtle act of compassion, coupled with the resemblance of the poor peasant and her dead child to the Pieta figure, signals the transformation of the Poet from a man of folly, error and self-pity to a man of resolution and self-willed determination. The remainder of the playscript details the mutual concern and suffering which he shared with the Polish Woman as the dead child lay in its mother's arms, wrapped in the Poet's "ulster."

Implicit in this expression of the compassionate individual capable of self-sacrifice, and of abnegating his own desire for death so that others might live, is the Biblical suggestion of redemption and resurrection, the Biblical intimation that a "trumpet" shall sound and the dead shall be raised "incorruptible" when man affirms life as an act of Christian love and charity.9

O'Neill himself points to this religious motif by dramatically punctuating each of the Poet's acts of compassion and self-sacrifice with "whistle blows" that seem to be "drawing nearer" at each exhibition of love and charity. The most significant is the "deafening blast" which accompanies the Poet's assertion (p. 100) that the lives of others may not be risked to save one's own.

A further note of redemption and resurrection is apparent when the fog finally lifts and the rescue ship is able to reach the stranded craft—guided in its search by a "weird" sound: "If it hadn't been for the child crying," the rescuing Officer relates, "we would have missed you" (p. 104). Although both the Poet and the Businessman affirm that the child has been dead for twenty-four hours, the crew of the "deliverance" ship insist that the "sound" they had been steering by was "a kid sure enough." "We could hear the kid crying all the time," the Officer maintains. "It stopped just as the fog rose" (p. 105).

The Poet, redeemed apparently by his genuine love and compassion for the dead child and mother, is prepared to accept this "miracle" as an "unexpected return to life." It is only the Businessman who appears to be unaware of the significance which this miracle has with that other, more familiar, miracle: Christ's resurrection. Casting a "horrified glance" at the still figures at the end of the boat, he retreats to the rescue ship and, in the accent of one "who is rarely acknowledged to be wrong," confesses to the Officer that "what you have just finished telling us is almost unbelievable" (pp. 103-107).

O'Neill's unexpected disclosure that the Polish Woman has also died further suggests the affinity between suffering and redemption. The idea that the tragic situation may be conquered by a type of life willing and able to take suffering upon itself is inherent in the Poet's suggestive remark as he glances down at the two bodies frozen in silhouette against the now blue sky: "Poor happy woman" (p. 106).

A Biblical note is also struck when it is recalled that suffering is often likened in Old Testament parables to the care of a mother for her child, and that redemption is made possible by a God who assumes the allegorical role of "Mother Comforter" when man discovers the essentially religious nature of a "happy" death.10

To this theological discussion should be added the emphasis which O'Neill apparently places on the conclusion of the playscript. In contrast to the vague twilight and barely perceptible ocean swells which characterize the opening, "fresh morning breezes" now ripple over the water as the two boats glide swiftly away from the iceberg. The Poet, choosing to remain with the dead child and mother, sits in silence and stares at their still faces with "eyes full of a great longing" (p. 107).

As the sunrise filters through the misty fog, the Poet removes his ulster from the Polish Woman's shoulders and presses his head against her breast in a final act of compassion as the sailors from the rescue ship jump into their own boat. With a brisk "Aye, aye," they secure the towing ropes and both ships sail off into the dawn's beckoning light. (p. 106)

O'Neill's suggestion in Fog that suffering exists as a declaration of the religious impulse and that suffering itself is a means of resolution, or of overcoming the tragic dissonance, remains a unique thematic experiment in his early sea plays. His apparent choice of Biblical saga, however, as the model for the "rebirth" of man through acts of self-sacrifice and charity enables us to see how the concept of individual retribution is related to a universal spiritual truth, and how suffering justifies and redeems human existence.

And while Fog plants only the seed of suffering as the means of individual redemption from the tragic situation, it appears to represent O'Neill's earliest attempt to communicate the theological belief that pain and suffering may be exorcised through an unexplanatory metaphysical power, and that temporal life should be guided by an adherence to the Christian precepts of mutual love and charity.

Both as a result of his experimentation in Fog with the necessity of suffering as a transfiguration of the tragic situation, and his dramatic employment of the Biblical parable to point out the semblance of spiritual transfiguration, O'Neill has provided a clue to resolving the spectacle of misery and despair which appear with increasing regularity in his later plays. When the inevitability of suffering is grasped, and misery and despair are understood as part of a divine pattern of transfiguration, the darker side of life must appear to us permeated by a renewed belief in the immortality of the human soul.

—Gerald Lee Ratliff

1 Joseph Wood Krutch, "The God of Stumps," The Nation, 119 (November, 1924), 578-579.

2 Pierre Loving, "Eugene O'Neill," The Bookman, 53 (August, 1921), 514-515.

3 Eugene O'Neill, as quoted in Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Playwright (Boston, 1968), pp. 238-239.

4 Eugene O'Neill, as quoted in Edwin A. Engel, The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O'Neill (Cambridge, 1953), p. 95.

5 Eugene O'Neill, as quoted in Barrett H. Clark, Eugene O'Neill (New York, 1926), p. 40.

6 Eugene O'Neill, "Fog," in Ten "Lost" Plays (New York, 1942). All subsequent references are to this edition and will be given in the text in parentheses.

7 Sophus Keith Winther, O'Neill: A Critical Study (New York, 1934), p. 119.

8 Eugene O'Neill, Poems: 1912-1944, ed. Donald Gallup (New Haven, 1980), pp. 38-39.

9 I Corinthians, 15: 51-52.

10 Isaiah, 17: 13.



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