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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VII, No. 2
Summer-Fall 1983



3. NORMAND BERLIN, EUGENE O'NEILL. New York: Grove Press (Evergreen paperback), 1983. xiv+178 pp. $9.95. ISBN: 0-394-62318-1.

First published in London by Macmillan in 1982, and now available in the U. S. as part of the Grove Press Modern Dramatists series, Professor Berlin's book is one of the handiest and, more importantly, one of the most thorough short companions to the life, thought, work and theatre of Eugene O'Neill. The last deserves emphasis, since this volume far outdistances many of its predecessors in its treatment of O'Neill's plays as theatrical entities, works designed for performance by an artist whose reading, training and instinct equipped him to use to the full (and sometimes beyond) the devices of his chosen medium of expression.

Professor Berlin acknowledges that Strindberg is O'Neill's only rival as "the most autobiographical of dramatists" (p. 26), and he notes that that fact, plus "the difficulty of discussing O'Neill in ... New Critical terms," explains why his plays "are often approached by way of biography" (p. 26). But he chooses, instead, to stress O'Neill as "a man of the theatre, ... always aware of the stage's possibilities" (p. x), with a shrewd "instinct for what works in a theatre" (p. 15). His goal, in short, is to provide, "if not a theatrical criticism, then a theatrical adaptation of literary criticism" (p. xi).

Accordingly, he precedes his second chapter, a succinct but judicious twelve-page biographical survey, with a 23-page discussion of Long Day's Journey Into Night, in which he treats the play "in as 'pure' a way as I can manage, making no reference to O'Neill's life, making many references to theatrical performance" (p. xi). And the "purity" pays off (as it does throughout the book), freeing him to analyze the play "as both process and artifact" (p. xi)—i.e., as vehicle for performance and as literature. In the first area, he delineates O'Neill's genius as a craftsman, his "close attention to sound and lighting and props and the gestures and movement of the characters" (p. 16); in the second, he highlights the play's "rhythm of accusation-regret, harshness-pity, hate-love" (p. 20), its conformance to the classical unities, the significance of its abundant quotations ("like the masks that O'Neill is fond of using, they allow the speaker to hide behind another persona" p. 17), and the play's universality—"the Tyrones are Everyfamily" (p. 23)—a universality that is less discernible when the Tyrones are too rigorously related to the O'Neills. From its opening paragraph, a word-by-word dissection of the "ripples of significance" in the play's title, to its concluding comparison of the 1956 and 1971 New York productions, the chapter is a model of astute analysis. Not a word is wasted, and few of the play's literary and theatrical "ripples" escape mention.

Five chapters following the biographical sketch trace the evolution of O'Neill's development as a playwright, admirably blending the sweep of a survey with detailed examination of from two to four plays in each of the five periods into which the career is divided: a striking combination of breadth and depth that is uncharacteristic of books this brief. Of the pre-1920 plays, Bound East for Cardiff and Beyond the Horizon receive the lengthiest treatment {4 and 5 pp. respectively); of the early 1920's, The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape (5 pp. each) and Desire Under the Elms (12 pp.); of the late 1920's, The Great God Brown (4 pp.) and Strange Interlude (7 pp.); of the 1930's, Mourning Becomes Electra (10 pp.) and Ah, Wilderness! (4 pp.); and of the later plays, The Iceman Cometh (15 pp.) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (4 pp.), the masterwork having been thoroughly assessed in Chapter One. (I offer these numbers simply to assure potential purchasers who balk at current paperback prices that this is no superficial overview; it merits acquisition!)

The book bristles with information and insights, and each reader will have his favorites. These are mine: the state and "business" of American drama and theatre when O'Neill began (pp. 37-42); the "profound difference" between The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape despite the expressionism they share (p. 64), and between Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day's Journey despite their common setting (pp. 118-121); the parallels and differences between O'Neill's "Greek" tragedies and their sources in Euripides (pp. 71-72) and Aeschylus (pp. 108-111); the effectiveness "in the theatre" of O'Neill's supposedly inadequate language (pp. 82-83 and 156-158); the failure of the mask device in The Great God Brown (it "produces much thought, but little emotion"—pp. 87-88) and of the leitmotif of laughter in Lazarus Laughed ("The laughter that affirms an idea we do not feel seems mere noise"—p. 95); the overarticulated Freudianism in Strange Interlude (pp. 99-102); the similarities between O'Neill's late plays and those of Shakespeare (p. 129); the striking kinship between Iceman and Long Day's Journey (both presenting a "family," in an enclosed "world," whose "past ... produces the dreadful present"; both "pointing the realistic toward the symbolic" pp. 130- 131); and the "common characteristics" that unite and enhance the last four plays {pp. 152-153). In addition, counting the cover illustration (Laurence Olivier as James Tyrone), there are nine well chosen production photos, including close-ups of the three performers (Gilpin, Wolheim and Huston) whom O'Neill felt had served his work best. And the last chapter surveys the "critical reception to O'Neill," citing the five most frequent negative charges (pp. 156-158) and O'Neill's four greatest strengths (pp. 158-165), the last being his brilliance as "a dramatist of the emotions." As for the others, I'll not spoil the suspense. Buy the book!

Professor Berlin shows that brevity, besides being the soul of wit, can also reveal the soul of Eugene O'Neill. And readers familiar with the stylistic grace and incisive analyses in his previous book, The Secret Cause: A Discussion of Tragedy (which was reviewed in the Newsletter's Spring 1982 issue, pp. 38-40, and will soon be available in paperback), already know his gift for what Horace called "delightful teaching." He concludes Eugene O'Neill with praise for the playwright's "astonishing accomplishment." Much the same can be said of this book.

Let me add a note to teachers. If, like me, you periodically seek a background text to assign in an O'Neill course, this is a worthy candidate. It won't steal all your thunder, and it will free you (and your students) from a lecture on the basics, start them thinking about the major plays, and leave you more time for the works that here receive but passing reference. Among paperbacks, only Michael Manheim's Eugene O'Neill's New Language of Kinship and the anthologies of Gassner, Griffin and Miller are major competitors; and the first, with its exhaustive examination of the plays' autobiographical elements, would make a splendid companion volume—if you have the time and your students have the money. Until we get an "O'Neill Handbook" or a "Companion to O'Neill Studies," these would be my choices.

—Frederick C. Wilkins



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