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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VII, No. 2
Summer-Fall 1983



Eugene O'Neill once wrote that he considered In the Zone "a conventional construction of the theater as it is," and The Moon of the Caribbees an attempt to achieve a higher plane of bigger, finer values."1 The essence of O'Neill's notion of realism emerges from his contrast of the two plays:

Smitty in the stuffy, grease-paint atmosphere of In the Zone is magnified into a hero who attracts our sentimental sympathy. In The Moon, posed against a background of that beauty, sad because it is eternal, which is one of the revealing moods of the sea's truth, his silhouetted gestures of self-pity are reduced to their proper insignificance, his thin whine of weakness is lost in the silence which it was mean enough to disturb, we get the perspective to judge him—and the others—and we find his sentimental posing much more out of harmony with truth, much less in tune with beauty, than the honest vulgarity of his mates. To me The Moon works with truth ... while In the Zone substitutes theatrical sentimentalism.2

This statement is a good summary of realism's aesthetic ideals in revolt against the conventional notion of drama that prevailed in the American theatre of the teens. While the traditional forms of tragedy, comedy and melodrama tend to emphasize, to exaggerate, to inflate the piece of human experience being represented, the impulse of realism is to deflate it by emphasizing the context of the larger rhythms of human life within which it occurs. This notion of realistic form was to become a preoccupation of O'Neill's, as he consistently tried to find more effective ways of setting the action of his plays into the larger rhythms of life. A second preoccupation, the dramatization of character, is also evident in this early statement, for Smitty's character is O'Neill's central consideration in both plays. From the realistic point of view, his whole career was a development of these two early impulses—the search for a dramatic form that would give true shape to his realistic dramatic action, and the search for theatrical ways to depict the deepest reality of his characters within the dramatic forms he discovered. He was to find the fulfillment of these two impulses in the fully developed realism of his last four plays, The Iceman Cometh (1939), Long Day's Journey Into Night (1940), A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943) and A Touch of the Poet (1946).

In calling O'Neill's later method "dynamic realism,"3 Timo Tiusanen refers to the dynamics of the psyche, the unmasking of which had been the focus of O'Neill's experiments in expressionism and masked drama, and that his later realism manages to externalize. But there is a "dynamic realism" in the form and structure of the plays as well, and it is the form and structure that provide the underpinning for the characters. Because of spatial constraints, I will discuss only the first of the fully developed realistic plays, The Iceman Cometh.

Iceman is the most suitable example of O'Neill's structural realism, I think, because it gives the clearest idea of his structural principles and because its structure has been the subject of a good deal of comment, objection, and manipulation since its opening night in 1946. The first-night reviewers generally called the play "long-winded" and "unstructured." Closer critical study yielded the suggestion that its structure could be compared variously to a wave, a pendulum, or concentric circles.4 A more useful, though not fully developed, suggestion is that followed by José Quintero in his famous production of the play at the Circle in the Square in 1956: "My approach in directing The Iceman Cometh was different from that used in any play I had ever done. It had to be for this was not built as an orthodox play. It resembles a complex musical form, with themes repeating themselves with slight variation, as melodies do in a symphony."5 Quintero's notion is echoed by Tiusanen in his critical study: "The Iceman Cometh is, in its orchestral organization of the material, O'Neill's The Three Sisters."6

The most developed, and most influential, view, however, has been Eric Bentley's idea that Iceman is an example of Ibsenesque "analytic exposition": "The crucial events having taken place before the curtain rises, he lets them leak out so slowly that we are still discovering them in the last act."7 The problem with Bentley's approach is that he is so taken with the Ibsenesque method of O'Neill's exposition that he assumes the entire form and structure of the play must be Ibsenesque as well. Thus he sees it as two intertwined plots: the story of Hickey's murder of Evelyn and subsequent confession, and the story of Parritt's betrayal of his mother and subsequent suicide. By his own description, Bentley's production of the play was an attempt to fit it into his notion of its structure by cutting away vast amounts of material that didn't fit the mold of the typical Ibsenesque one-issue discussion play. Thus, he decided, "one can cut a good many of Larry's speeches since he is forever rephrasing a pessimism which is by no means hard to understand the first time."8 Bentley finally condemned O'Neill for not meeting Ibsen's standards for form in realistic drama: "His sense of theatrical form is frustrated by an eloquence that decays into mere repetitious garrulousness.... Within the tyranically, mechanically rigid scenes, there is an excessive amount of freedom. The order of speeches can be juggled without loss, and almost any speech can be cut in half."9 His attitude is the logical conclusion for one who sees only half of O'Neill's technique in the play.

O'Neill's later plays are supremely important documents in the development of dramatic realism, not because, as the cliché goes, they mark his "return to realism," but because they demonstrate his final achievement of a realistic form and structure in which to represent his dynamic realism of character while maintaining the illusion of reality in all elements of the representation. O'Neill's later plays advance the technique of realism in two major areas: characterization, and form and structure.

Character is the more obvious of the two developments, for it is the central interest in his later plays as well as the focus of his more daring experiments. From masks, asides, and alter-egos, he had finally arrived at the simple device of alcohol to allow his characters to reveal the truths of their psychological depths while maintaining the mimetic illusion in the representation. All of the last four realistic plays use the device to similar effect. As one astute critic has remarked, "if it weren't that thin tea looks like Bourbon, not one of the plays could proceed beyond the second act."10

The formal innovation is more complicated, but develops from the state of the characters. The form is O'Neill's familiar cycle, suggesting his notion of the recurrent rhythms of life. Iceman begins and ends with the drunks in Harry Hope's saloon trying to forget their pain through their sustaining illusions and the oblivion of drink. O'Neill uses the form to stress the play's realistic world-view by not ending it, as Ibsen would have done, with emphasis on the death of Parritt and the defeat of Hickey, but easing the dramatic tension off into Harry's invention of the pathetic new illusion that Hickey was crazy, and the drunks' celebration of their liberation from his truth-telling. With its mixture of pathos and humor, the harmony of the group's celebration and the cacophony of its singing, O'Neill is careful to avoid any easy formal conclusion that the play is tragic, comic, or melodramatic.

This cyclical realistic form with its slow deflation of dramatic tension is not new, of course. It's as old for O'Neill as The Moon of the Caribbees. What is new in Iceman is the evolution of a tightly controlled structure within the form, creating and dispelling dramatic tension without violating the illusion that the play's events are those of objective reality. Each of the four acts of the play is a series of conflicts between characters, building, with ever greater duration and intensity, toward a peak of tension that ends in one of Hickey's four disturbing announcements: that he is on the wagon, that Evelyn is dead, that Evelyn was murdered, and that it was he who killed her.

In Act I, before Hickey arrives, the building tension is pleasurable—proceeding from the anticipation of Hickey's coming—and the conflicts are mostly mock conflicts, the ritual battles that are part of the characters' pipe dreams: Harry's complaints about the bartenders, the taunting of Hugo about The Movement, Harry's complaints about Willie's singing, Lewis and Wetjoen's re-fighting of the Boer War, Chuck and Cora's argument about where to buy a farm. Underlying the mock conflicts, however, is the building tension that arises from the "mistakes" that the characters make by trespassing on each other's pipe dreams, such as Lewis's comment on Joe's blackness and Pearl's calling Rocky a pimp.

In Act II, Harry's birthday party, the tension becomes unpleasant, and begins its slow build-up toward the simultaneous shattering of illusions and destruction of the sense of community in the saloon. It begins with the short quarrels between minor characters Chuck's with Cora over the flowers, and Rocky's with Pearl and Margie over the cake. The tension slowly escalates as the characters move in closer and closer on each other's dreams. Margie and Pearl make fun of Cora's notion of her wedding; Cora calls them whores; they call Rocky a pimp; Rocky slaps them. While each of these flare-ups ends in apology and reconciliation, each also leaves a residual tension which gradually increases after the short relief when Hugo and Larry restore harmony to the scene. Joe raises the race issue with a defiance bred of Hickey's reminders; Hickey prods Larry about his "grandstand" attitude. After Willie provides a short interruption in the tension, Parritt makes his hypocritical confession to Larry; Lewis and Wetjoen, and Mosher and McGloin, have short quarrels touching on each other's pipe dreams, and then become reconciled. Into this atmosphere of tension bred of conflict, Harry makes his entrance, and proceeds to increase the tension with his verbal abuse of everyone in the room. Hickey's toast provides a temporary respite, until Harry's speech, from which he cannot keep his bitterness, sets it mounting again. And again, in a series of quick reversals, his apology deflates it; Hickey's speech inflates it; the iceman joke, in which everyone joins, deflates it; and finally Hickey's announcement that Evelyn is dead sends it to a climax as the act closes.

A nearly identical pattern occurs in Act III, when the drunks are setting out on their Hickey-inspired attempts to face tomorrow today; only this time the tension increases in line with what's at stake, as does the physical action. Rocky and Chuck fight physically over Chuck's impending marriage. Joe pulls a knife when they call him a nigger, and Rocky counters with a gun. Lewis and Wetjoen openly fight, as do Mosher and McGloin. Punctuating the building tension are Parritt's sporadic attempts to confess the truth to Larry and the rebuffs of Willie as he attempts to be a lawyer. The tension builds to Hickey's confrontations with Harry and Larry, his own revelation that Evelyn was murdered, and the ominous observation that Harry is not recovering from his disillusionment as Hickey had expected him to.

In Act IV the tension is internalized in Hickey, as the other characters sit more or less paralyzed by their disillusionment while he enacts his psychodrama through his famous fifteen-minute modified monologue. The tension here begins within Hickey, then centers between Hickey and the others—who try to avoid this further confession of disillusionment—and finally erupts between Parritt and Larry. Hickey's confession of the murder reaches a peak, followed almost immediately by Parritt's confession that he hated his mother, and then Hickey's inadvertent confession that he hated Evelyn. Larry's advice to Parritt precipitates Parritt's suicide, a counterturn to the general deflation of tension in the saloon which proceeds from Harry's announcement that Hickey was crazy and that their reality was merely his illusion.

O'Neill's balance and manipulation of tension here is as neat as that in a Pinero problem play, a Moliére comedy, or a Greek tragedy, and understanding his realistic structure is crucial to understanding his realistic form, or indeed his notion of art in realistic drama. The Iceman Cometh depends upon subtle manipulation of the internal and external psychic conflict in a series of confrontations to build the tension and to provide the necessary exposition in a way that provides greatest support for the modified monologues in which the characters reveal themselves. O'Neill's realistic form and structure in his last plays was developed to serve his great interest—the portrayal of character. His realistic drama is primarily a drama of characters revealed through conflict, with each other and within themselves.

—Brenda Murphy

1 Quoted in Barrett H. Clark, Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays (New York: Dover, 1947), p. 59.

2 Clark, p. 59.

3 O'Neill's Scenic Images (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 278-79.

4 See Eugene M. Waith, "An Exercise in Unmasking," Educational Theatre Journal, 13 (October 1961), 189; Tiusanen, p. 272; Tom F. Driver, "On the Last Plays of Eugene O'Neill," Tulane Drama Review, 3 (1958), 13-14.

5 "Postscript to a Journey," Theatre Arts, 41 (1956), 88.

6 Tiusanen, p. 270.

7 "The Return of Eugene O'Neill," The Atlantic Monthly, 178 (November 1946), 65.

8 "Trying to Like O'Neill," The Kenyon Review, 14 (July 1952), 479.

9 "Trying to Like O'Neill," p. 483.

10 Robert F. Whitman, "O'Neill's Search for a 'Language of the Theatre'," O'Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. John Gassner (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1964), p. 160.



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