ON THE SHELF: NEW BOOKS BY AND ABOUT O'NEILL (PART TWO)
V. James A. Robinson, Eugene O'Neill and Oriental Thought: A Divided Vision. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982. 201 pp. $17.50. ISBN: 0-8093-1035-X.
Few if any of the major American romantics have failed to find nourishment in the mystical systems of the East, and Eugene O'Neill was no exception, as Professor Robinson shows in this exhaustive and illuminating study, which acknowledges the inspiration of Frederic I. Carpenter for its thesis that the Oriental religions—Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism—were an influence, not only on the plays of the 1920's, but throughout O'Neill's career. Because he studied the Eastern religions directly, and because the Western philosophers who most influenced him (Emerson, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Jung) were all imbued with the spirit of Oriental belief, "O'Neill's vision betrays deep and consistent affinities with Eastern mystical thought" (p. 2):
Not that mysticism was always predominant in O'Neill, even though its appearance came as early as "the serene stillness of The Moon of the Caribbees" (p. 7); nor did it more than once pervade an entire play. There was, as Robinson's subtitle suggests, a constant "tension in O'Neill's vision between two contrasting philosophical traditions (p. 3). One was the "dualistic Western tradition that divides self from God and nature" (p. 4); the other was the monism of the East, that enjoins one to reject the "false distinction created by rationalism" and to "assume a passive, meditative stance that allows an intuitive apprehension of the oneness of the universe" (p. 5). So the most characteristic work is not Lazarus Laughed, "O'Neill's most Eastern play" (p. 8), but Strange Interlude, in which "Nina Leeds' vacillation between serene, rhythmical mother god and interfering, judgmental father god duplicates O'Neill's own struggle between Eastern and Western thought" (p. 8)—a struggle that was never completely resolved, though the last plays suggest a man "resigned to the twin Western burdens of ego and history" and to the belief "that a Christian ethic of forgiveness and compassion is man's only hope" (p. 9). All this in the nine-page first chapter! Like the book as a whole, it offers struggles of its own, but struggles that are rewarding and that can be resolved through careful study of Robinson's commentary and the plays he discusses.
The second chapter examines O'Neill's personal library, specifically its eight books on Oriental religions, and discusses the three Eastern systems separately, since "O'Neill's divided vision ... varied according to which system influenced him more at the time of a play's composition" (p. 12). (The later chapters devoted to the plays trace these conflicting but complementary strands through the tapestry of O'Neill's oeuvre.) For instance, Strange Interlude's "picture of a world in flux, and a grasping heroine who finally moves beyond desire, clearly has Buddhist thought behind it" (p. 22) whereas it was Taoism (the Eastern religion in which O'Neill's interest was the deepest and broadest) that contributed to the "polaristic vision of reality" that is "the central issue in Marco Millions" (p. 30). Chapter Two also offers the most succinct explanation for O'Neill's fascination with Eastern mysticism and for why it never won his total adherence:
The third chapter examines three Western influences on the early O'Neill—Catholicism romanticism and American culture—that offered him, even before his study of comparative religions, a "circuitous route to the East" (p. 33), because each constituted an "East/West mixture" (p. 34). And the result, in the plays, is "an intriguing tension: the Western imperative expresses itself in the tragic personal conflicts depicted; the Eastern impulse appears in the rhythmic structure and mystical overtones of the work" (p. 34).
Perhaps the most interesting of the three Western influences was Catholicism, since its contribution to his Eastern bent was both positive and negative: its Neoplatonic and Gnostic components introduced him to some basics of Oriental thought; while the Baltimore Catechism, with its emphasis on "God's otherness" and its "cold emphasis on dogma" (p. 39), motivated (along with unhappy experiences at home and school) his rejection of Catholicism and his Eastward search for a more affirmative belief that "offered less morality and hence less guilt" (p. 40).
The romantic philosophers and artists most influential on him (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Jung and Strindberg) are all shown to embody the same blend of East and West, as are the cited exemplars of American culture (Emerson, Thoreau, Pound and Eliot). Given that ethos, that composite "battleground between Eastern and Western approaches" (p. 38), it is not surprising that O'Neill, "a true romantic," was imbued "with the same ambivalence toward Eastern thought as his major Western predecessors and sources" (p. 73).
The remaining three chapters comprise a chronological study of eleven plays that provides an evolutionary survey of the playwright's career-long affair with the East. In the first phase (1916-1925), "traditional Western dualism dominates O'Neill's vision" (p. 86), but during it his "growing affinity" with Eastern mysticism becomes apparent. (p. 87) In Moon of the Caribbees, it is the Donkeyman alone "through whom O'Neill dimly foreshadows his later attraction to Oriental thought" (p. 92). Indeed, the attraction is never total in the first phase, and the East/West tension is some-times clear in a single play, like Anna Christie, in which the heroine's discovery of "peace through symbolic absorption into the sea she worships" is balanced by the Western, man-against-nature emphasis in Chris's "distrust of 'dat ole davil, sea'" (p. 85). The other two early plays discussed—The Fountain and Marco Millions—epitomize, in their differences, O'Neill's "divided vision," since the former "optimistically implies the spiritual unity of East and West," while the latter "pessimistically delineates their differences" (p. 86).
Chapter Five traces "the rapid advance and subsequent recession of Orientalism in O'Neill's work between 1925 and 1928" (p. 122). While The Great God Brown offers little beyond "superficial" allusions to Eastern ideas (Nirvana, transmigration), it does treat its Western sources (Christian, Nietzschean and Jungian) "in an 'Eastern' manner" (p. 125). And while its conclusion "concedes that only death can resolve the oppositions of existence" (p. 132), it still "gives more expression to O'Neill's Eastern intuitions than any previous ... play" and "serves as an important preparation for the more pervasive Orientalism of Lazarus Laughed" (p. 125), in which the merging of "Buddha, Christ and Zarathustra into an eclectic Messiah" (p. 147) and "the focus on liberation from the ego and maya—the major goal of Hinduism and Buddhism" justify Robinson's claim that it is "O'Neill's most Eastern play" (p. 122). In Strange Interlude the Eastern influence ebbs and O'Neill returns to "a universe where conflict prevails" (p. 147)—conflict both within and between the characters. "Only after exhausting struggle do [they] attain peace; and that peace is not blissful, but resigned" (p. 147). And the "recession of Orientalism" increases in Dynamo, where he "repudiates Oriental thought by associating it with the modern electrical god worshipped by Reuben Light, whose devotion is psychotic and suicidal" (p. 122).
"If Dynamo did not purge O'Neill of his Eastern inclinations," Robinson writes, "the trip to China that followed its completion succeeded in doing so" (p. 165). After that disillusioning journey, he turned resolutely Westward and "examined [in the unfinished Cycle] a national history that also paid little attention to Oriental mysticism" (p. 168), the only echo being in "the Thoreauvian nature of Simon [Hanford]" (p. 169).
But the disappearance of Orientalism was only temporary; it reemerged in Iceman and Long Day's Journey, which "raise inaction to the level of art, thereby manifesting the quietism of Oriental mystical thought" (p. 170), and "view man's hopes and desires as illusions [the māyā of pipe dreams] that obscure the void at the heart of existence" (p. 171). While both plays, along with the "view of existence as māyā" in Hughie (p. 182), "point in some intriguing Oriental directions" (p. 174), Robinson says that "it would nonetheless be misleading to call these plays 'Eastern'" (p. 174), since they rest on a Christian humanist base—"a Christian ethic of compassion and mutual responsibility" (p. 174). Concluding that "Oriental religion was (in the words of Father Baird in Days Without End) 'not for the Western soul'" (p. 168),
Professor Robinson delineates O'Neill's "divided vision" with admirable care and offers many fresh insights about the eleven plays he considers at length. His book should be required reading for all students of Eugene O'Neill.
VI. C. P. Sinha, Eugene O'Neill's Tragic Vision. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1981. x+176 pp. $18.50. ISBN: 0-391-02203-2.
One must applaud Dr. Sinha for his scholarship and ambition. He has set himself the triple task, awesome in a short book, of surveying all previous studies of O'Neill and his work, correcting earlier misconceptions about the man and his view of the human condition, and striving (in the words of M. Q. Towheed, who provides a foreword) "to investigate the source that contributed to the evolution of O'Neill's 'Dionysian' tragic vision which sees tragedy as a 'celebration of life' notwithstanding its horrors" (p. vii). An awesome task—and, in the last instance, a most valuable one: whatever flaws the book contains do not undermine its importance as a testament to the essential and ultimate affirmation in O'Neill's tragic philosophy of life.
In a first, introductory chapter, after dividing O'Neill's career into five periods, Sinha summarizes O'Neill criticism from the 1920s to the 1970s, noting that, while there are many references to tragedy, there had not been any previous attempt to "study," "probe," or "examine" the playwright's "tragic vision." He further claims that the critics have spawned a number of false or partial O'Neills (16 are listed on page 6), while "the 'Real' O'Neill continues to remain a mystery" (p. 6). It is Sinha's intent to correct these errors of omission and commission: to show us the "Real O'Neill," and to delineate his "tragic vision"—a term which he admits at least twice is "difficult to define." That difficulty is inadvertently demonstrated in the first chapter, when, attempting to "establish a working meaning for it," he calls it "a positive protest against the prevailing temper of meaninglessness and nihilism" in the modern age (p. 12). Because it is hard to equate vision and protest—since the latter would seem to be an effect of, and not a synonym for, the former—I'm not sure that his "working meaning" works! But later chapters overcome this initial problem.
The second chapter begins with a brief biography of O'Neill, showing how the "objective facts of [his] early life" resulted in a "restless craving for 'love' and 'belonging" which in turn generated "the thematics of his autobiographical tragedies" (p. 25). Add to this the social and philosophical ferment of his creative years—the Darwin- and Marx-inspired "crisis of faith among the contemporary intellectuals," the "wave of social protest," the Freud-initiated "breakdown of traditional moral values" and "increasing obsession with sex," the Depression, the Second World War, and the intellectual crosscurrents prevalent in the interwar years ("realism, primitivism, pragmatism, naturalism, expressionism")—and you have, evidently, all the necessary ingredients for the (still undefined) "tragic vision" of O'Neill:
The third chapter discusses a variety of "external influences" on O'Neill's thinking and writing, both literary (the Greek tragic poets, Shakespeare, Ibsen, and —in O'Neill's own words—"especially Strindberg") and intellectual (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud and Jung). The coverage is revealing and sometimes exciting, as in the demonstration of Nietzsche's influence on The Iceman Cometh, in which "Larry Slade comes to attain the stature of a tragic hero by virtue of his awareness of the balance within himself of the Dionysiac and Apollonian elements, of death-wish, and resistance" (p. 71). I cannot agree, though, with Sinha's claim (p. 63) that "O'Neill's view of tragedy does not subscribe, even in part, to Schopenhauer's view of tragedy." His own presentation seems to refute that charge, which springs, I think, from the author's determination to prove that O'Neill, while a tragedian, is not a pessimist.
The fourth chapter, drawing on O'Neill's statements about his art, suggests his "poetics of tragedy" and emphasizes that he was neither a "defeatist" nor a "sadist":
Like his exact contemporary T. S. Eliot, O'Neill "expressed the tragedy of modern man crushed in a mechanical, impersonal, and alien world that valued science and materialism at the cost of art and religion" (p. 87). By emphasizing the primacy of the emotions, and by shifting the tragic focus from the "inevitability of destiny" (the pattern of classical drama) and from "the 'character' of man" (the pattern of Elizabethan drama) to "the individual 'psyche' of man" (pp. 88-89), O'Neill provided, in his plays, "an affirmation of the possibility of tragedy in the twentieth century" (p. 99).
The fifth chapter studies a number of the plays, from the early sea one-acts (such as Ile, which "manifests the inevitability of the 'tragic' and envisions the unconquerable spirit of man in his 'glorious, self-destructive' struggle against Fate," and whose hero, Captain Keeney, "may be designated the archetype of O'Neill's tragic heroes"—pp. 113-114), through the late quartet (Iceman, Moon for the Misbegotten, Touch of the Poet and Long Day's Journey) "which constitute the core of O'Neill's tragic vision" (p. 125). By this point, the reader has come to understand the meaning of that ubiquitous phrase: it involves a persistent "undercurrent of optimism; that if man could dive deep into the core of the false ideal he might discover the true nature of reality and build a meaningful life out of his cosmic anguish. It is this healthy view of life which is the essence of O'Neill's tragic vision" (p. 138). A precursor of Sartrean existentialism, O'Neill suggests a solution for man's nihilism and fear of death: "a sincere cultivation of mutual understanding and forgiveness coupled with the love and compassion of being for one another.... His tragic vision may be said to convey the idea that one can reach the Elysium of Light and Peace only after passing through Inferno. This was what Dante did in his Divine Comedy and this is what O'Neill does in his later plays." (pp. 139, 141)
Dr. Sinha offers a lofty vindication of O'Neill against such detractors as Carl Van Doren, who accused him of creating "dumb, tortured persons who come in the end to worse than naught" (p. 121), and T. K. Whipple, who found O'Neill's dramatic world "thoroughly hostile to human life" (p. 122).
One wishes, though, that the book had undergone a thorough revision and that a careful proofreader had checked it before publication, for the surface flaws repeatedly distract from the important content beneath them. Sometimes the problem is an excessive use of the passive voice, as here (p. 20): "Eugene was admitted to a Catholic convent school in 1895, which was somehow disliked by him." At other times the expression causes a disconcerting illogic, as in the comment that O'Neill's parents were "married in 1875 after James O'Neill had established himself as a matinee idol ... in the last quarter of the nineteenth century" (p. 16, italics added). And the assertion, on the same page, that James's "commercialisation as an actor made him thoroughly materialistic and self-centered," leads one into the labyrinth of chicken-egg puzzlement: might not the causal relationship even more likely have been the reverse? And the pronoun reference in the following (p. 18) about O'Neill's parents—
arouses the whimsical inference that Ella O'Neill was addicted to rheumatism! Or take this description of Con Melody's past (p. 137): "subsequently, he is discharged from the army for killing a fellow officer in a duel whose wife's modesty he had tried to outrage." One gets the picture of Major Melody assaulting the honor of a Mrs. Duel!
These problems, along with frequent misspellings (Widekind, Hauftmann, and a list of Hell Hole frequenters that includes Djuna Burns, Saxe Commino and Harry Kemp!), do not damage the fine ideas beneath them, but they deflect one's attention too regularly to be ignored. As do such locutions as "Oedipus the Rex" (p. 3).
And Sinha also becomes the victim of his own research. That research was exhaustive, and is reflected in the book's 400 endnotes and its extensive (and useful) bibliography of 257 secondary sources (from 1913 to 1975, and from Lionel Abel to Stark Young). But the abundance of quotations on every page—especially when attributions are provided only in the notes, and when Sinha makes an assertion and then quotes the same assertion by someone else—makes for a very choppy and sometimes redundant ride.
I don't wish to deride the book. Its emphasis on the upbeat element in O'Neill's tragic vision is a valuable corrective to the charges that his work reeks of undiluted pessimism. But an overhaul would make the reader's "haul" much easier, and I recommend one if a second edition is planned. (I should mention that the reviewer in Choice—June 1982, #201-praised the book as "impressive" and its author as "masterful." And I agree that, even in its present state, it would be of great value to anyone lacking access to the previous studies of O'Neill to which Dr. Sinha refers so regularly in his study.)
VII. Eugene O'Neill, Chris Christophersen: A Play in Three Acts (Six Scenes). Foreword by Leslie Eric Comens. New York: Random House, 1982. xi+148 pp. $15.00. ISBN: 0-394-52531-0.
Chris Christophersen was the only produced O'Neill play never to have been printed. What a delight it is to have it in a book at last! (And what a value too, since one can now compare the thing-itself with the many commentaries and assessments one has read.) And to have it so beautifully packaged by Random House, sporting an impressive photo portrait of the playwright on its dust jacket (I wish its date had been indicated), and skillfully introduced by Leslie Eric Comens, literary executor of O'Neill's estate, makes the delight even greater. If there are "musts" among recent O'Neill publications, this is surely one.
The story of the play's genesis and fate is generally well known already: planned in 1918 and written in 1919, it opened in Atlantic City on March 8, 1920 (an attempt by producer George C. Tyler to capitalize on the Broadway success, a month earlier, of Beyond the Horizon). The production won some critical praise but little public enthusiasm and closed in Philadelphia two weeks later, never to be performed again, O'Neill advising Tyler to "Throw [it] in the ash barrel." He later reworked the script, turning it from comedy to melodrama, shifting the focal center from Chris to his daughter, retitling it Anna Christie, and garnering his second Pulitzer Prize for it in 1921. (Mr. Comens is particularly helpful in describing the details of the metamorphosis.)
Fortunately, even if Tyler had obeyed the author's derogatory injunction, the play would not have been lost, for O'Neill had sent a typescript to the Copyright Office, where it was registered on June 5, 1919. And it is that typescript that is here published, permitting access to it by many who have heretofore known of it only indirectly.
And that access offered, to me at least, a revelation. I must say I found it an engrossing play, extremely well constructed, with lively and generally believable dialogue, and not deserving the six decades of neglect it has suffered. Of course, if one comes to it from Anna Christie its sheen is a little dimmed. Anna (here a proper, British-bred typist) and her suitor (Paul Andersen, an American officer whose sluggish complacency erodes under the spell of love) are hardly up to the Anna and Mat Burke of the later play. But Chris is the same, even if (as Travis Bogard has noted) his actions in the third act—plotting to murder Andersen, and accepting a post as bo'sun—seem implausible for a character determined to escape the sea and previously portrayed as "incapable of action." And yet, his murder plan, motivated by the needling of a malicious steward, and contemplated to save his daughter from the fate of her mother, is surely in keeping with the "invincible stubbornness" that O'Neill notes in his scene-one description of Chris. What are less plausible are his ultimate agreement to the marriage of Anna and Paul; his acceptance of the bo'sunship after vowing, at the time of his wife's death, that he would never go to sea again; and the remarkable transformation of all three characters in the final scene. It's hard to credit all that to the "dirty tricks" of "dat ole davil, sea" (or to the Londonderry air), and one must confess that the last scene is poorer than the five that precede it. Still, the sea's effect on Anna, her effect on Paul, and the lovers' effect on Chris make for a bang-up ending—even if a certain "suspension of disbelief" is necessary to buy it.
The publication of Chris Christophersen is cause for rejoicing. We should all be grateful to Random House and Mr. Comins for providing it.
VIII. Eugene O'Neill, The Calms of Capricorn. Developed from O'Neill's Scenario by Donald Gallup. With a Transcription of the Scenario. New Haven and New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1982. xvi+190pp. $12.95. ISBN: 0-89919-093-6.
Gratitude is also doubtless due to Donald Gallup, former curator of the Collection of American Literature at Yale University, for "developing" a fleshed-out version, in play form, of O'Neill's unwritten Cycle play, The Calms of Capricorn, and especially for appending both the full scenario, exactly as O'Neill wrote it between April 27 and June 13, 1935, and the playwright's sketches for the interior sets he envisioned.
Any work by O'Neill is worth having, and this one is particularly important. Following More Stately Mansions in O'Neill's multi-play design (the events occur sixteen years later), it tells us of Sara Harford and her four sons after the death (between scenes one and two) of her husband Simon, and adds to our knowledge of O'Neill's overall plan for "A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed," which was "to trace the fortunes of an American family, the Harfords, and the effect upon them of the corrupting power of material things" (p. vii). And the scenario offers a treasure trove of insights into his creative methods: beginning with a skeletal design, adding fragments of speech, returning to earlier sections with "second thoughts," sometimes penning whole speeches, etc. So we should be glad that what had been completed of Calms escaped the Marblehead demolition derby of 1951 and made it to sanctuary at Yale.
But what had been completed was very little: the bare bones, and very convoluted ones at that, of Sara and her sons' trip around the horn from New York to San Francisco on the clipper ship "Dream of the West." Also on board are the aging Captain's young wife Nancy; the ship's owner and his frigid, Mildred Douglas daughter Elizabeth; a loose-frocked minister; a conscience-striken banker who has absconded with his bank's holdings and tries desperately (and successfully) to lose all his money at cards; and the banker's aggressive, amoral "companion," Leda, who admits to being "an absolutely impure woman" (p. 37) and spawns as many mishaps as her classical namesake by slicing through the masks of her fellow passengers and inciting them to reveal and act upon their true feelings while sleeping with at least three other men herself.
Ethan Harford, Sara's firstborn, is the plot's central character. Second Mate at the start of the voyage, Ethan is restlessly ambitious, eager to gain a higher position and to make it to the Golden Gate in record time. This is because of the "fierce pride" (p. 9) that he has inherited from his father and grandfather. Like them, he is (in Sara's words, p. 17) "touched with the curse of the poet" that drives him (in his own words, p. 13) "to pursue a mysterious great need behind all wants, of which the wants are delusive shadows":
Ethan's obsession blinds him initially to love—"I have no interest in women" (p. 11)—but he slowly warms to Nancy, who loves him and wishes her husband were dead. And Leda "helps" them both—goading Ethan to hit (and unintentionally kill) the First Mate; and later nudging Ethan and Nancy into murdering the Captain, in a plot strand that Michael Hinden, reviewing Calms in Comparative Drama, brilliantly relates to the basic action in Desire Under the Elms:
But the various, nefarious doings on the ship twice cause (or seem to cause) unnatural calms; and so, though Ethan becomes First Mate and then Captain, and weds the Captain's widow almost immediately after her husband's demise ("the funeral bak'd meats," one might say with Hamlet, "Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables"!), he loses his race to Frisco and joins his bride in a suicidal descent into the silent, victorious sea—partly out of remorse, though that is not prepared for; partly because he'd said he would, if beaten, on page 15; and also to prove to Nancy that his love for her was genuine and not acquisitive. "We'll swim out together," he says to her (before they "disappear off rear in the fog"). "And then the sea will be alight with beauty forevermore—because you are you" (p. 123).
Bad writing at best. And Gallup has compounded the problem by repeatedly turning O'Neill's narrative jottings into straight dialogue that seldom rings true. He admits in his excellent introduction that "O'Neill would not have permitted its publication and would have protested violently against the idea of its development into a play" (p. xi). Why, then, do it? Gallup explains that the purpose for the "development" was "merely to increase its readability" (p. xiii). Agreed. It does make it more readable; but it doesn't make it any better, and I can't imagine Calms becoming a staple in contemporary playhouses. Still, it offers much of interest—especially the character of Leda, sort of an uncomforting Cybel turned activist, and O'Neill's adventurous use of as many as six simultaneous acting areas—and any student of O'Neill will want to have it. The author, as the spine indicates, is O'Neill/Gallup; and the events on board the Dream of the West would strain even the credulity of devotees of Soap Opera Digest. But the scenario is there, and the "development," for all its faults, provides many enticements for the mind.
If all of the above—in this issue and the last—are not enough, two other recent publications can be added to the O'Neill "shelf." Last August 18, Yale University Press reissued Hughie in a new paperback edition (38 pp., $3.95), on whose cover is an appropriately fuzzy but unattributed photograph of a night clerk leaning on his small-lobby desk. While it's convenient for performers or for collectors who prefer one play per volume, the price is a bit steep for a one-act, and a teacher of an O'Neill course would probably opt for the comparative economy, and excellent introduction, of Travis Bogard's Later Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Modern Library College Edition), which also includes, for $3.25, Ah, Wilderness!, A Touch of the Poet and Moon for the Misbegotten. And the young O'Neill and his family appear in The Bohemians, Allan Cheuse's novel about John Reed (Apple-wood Books, $12.95), all gussied up in their Long Day's Journeyalls.
But it is the appearance of two other books—John Orlandello's O'Neill on Film and Normand Berlin's Eugene O'Neill—that propel this review-article into yet a third installment come spring. (The impatient can find publication information in the "recent publications" listings herein.)
—Frederick C. Wilkins
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