POLITICS, BUT LITERATURE: THE EXAMPLE OF EUGENE O'NEILL'S APPRENTICESHIP
Since the time of Plato's Republic, there has been a strain in Western thought which has regarded politics and literature as antithetical. In the Republic, and in a similar way in the Puritan state of 17th-century England, the attack on the poets had its foundation in their ability to arouse the passions, an arousal which either wholly or in part was deemed contrary to the good order of the commonwealth. Paradigmatically, it was as though politics and literature were perceived as opponents in a boxing ring, the ,equality of the match being such that literature must not be allowed to enter the ring with politics, lest the latter be knocked out cold. This fear for the fate of politics, of course, rather suggests that the claims of literature may well be the stronger. Without arguing that that is always and absolutely the case, I would like to present an account of the playwriting apprenticeship of Eugene O'Neill as an example which not only suggests the superiority of literature over politics, but provides as well a scenario, in very concrete images, of how, in one instance at least, literature was victorious.
The period I will be discussing is the least well-known phase of O'Neill's career--the very beginning. O'Neill's interest in socialist and anarchist thought during this period has been well documented by his biographers and explicated at some length by the critics, most notably perhaps in Winifred Frazer's monograph, E.G. and E.G.O., where the E.G. stands for Emma Goldman.1 Also of note was the presence of O'Neill's character as one of the more interesting elements in Warren Beatty's film Reds. It was during the time of the events in that film, in fact, that O'Neill summed up the political phase of his life in these words: "Time was when I was an active socialist, and, after that, a philosophical anarchist. But today I can't feel that anything like that really matters."2 Nevertheless, at the very beginning of his playwriting career, in 1913, O'Neill seems to have felt that things "like that" mattered very much indeed. At that time, O'Neill wrote both plays and poems which qualify as "political" in the broad sense of the term. Yet, less than two years later, by early 1915, he would be writing a full-length play in which the most unsympathetic character is a radical activist member of the I.W.W. In order to account for this turnabout, it is necessary to look at the thirteen plays which survive from the period--ten one-acts and three of full length. Analysis of the major thematic interests in these plays and of O'Neill's artistic development reveals the outline of a process whereby a writer consciously committed to radical beliefs may turn himself inside out by writing plays based on that commitment.
The first of these plays is a one-act, A Wife For a Life, whose title identifies the primary quid pro quo of the plot: a guilty husband gives up his wife to the man who saved his life, thereby expiating his personal guilt through provision for his wife's happiness. Politically, the first point to be noted is the relative absence of overt political content. It is manifested only in the recounted marriage of the original husband and wife, a marriage of convenience between an older man and a beautiful young woman. This is the source of the husband's guilt, but its stereotypicality for the period makes one wonder how concerned O'Neill really was with this particular form of social injustice, especially since he seems personally to have been more interested in the theme of Fate, a theme concretized in the scenery of the single setting, and repeatedly verbalized in the dialogue.3 In other words, O'Neill seems much more interested in metaphysics than in politics and social issues. Yet there is good reason to believe that the relatively apolitical nature of Wife was itself a ploy of O'Neill's own family politics. When his father, James O'Neill, read the play, he agreed publicly to perform in it and, further, agreed to allow his invalid son to stay at home, fully recuperate from his bout with tuberculosis, and write plays--without having to go back to work.4
Nevertheless, the apparent conflict between metaphysics and politics manifests itself again in O'Neill's next two plays. He would have to deal with it before he could develop further.
In his second play, another one-act, The Web, he focuses more clearly on a subject of social and political significance--prostitution. Not only was prostitution a major political issue during the period of this play's gestation,5 but the plot and characters of The Web seem to have been drawn directly from the most popular anti-prostitution novel of the day, a novel regarded as the height of socialist fiction on this theme.6 And except for one brief series of stage directions, The Web can be regarded as an almost brilliant reduction of a full-length novel into the one-act play form, one which successfully reinforces the socialist themes found in its source by making clear that the protagonist prostitute, Rose, is society's victim. Unfortunately, the stage directions call attention to the fact that Rose has also been "crushed" by the "ironic life force," which poses a philosophical problem. If Rose is crushed by the life force and her plight is not the responsibility of the "good people"7 of society, then there is not much hope that either social or political action can ameliorate Rose's situation.
In Thirst, O'Neill's third one-act,8 the conflict between metaphysics and socio-political issues, which is rather laughably incongruous in A Wife and a nearly-concealed but fundamental flaw in The Web, is successfully reconciled. O'Neill accomplished this by constructing an allegory in which the metaphysical symbolism is confined to the outdoor, ocean scenery, and the social symbolism of American race relations is contained in the relationship between the characters--a white gentleman, a white female entertainer, and a black sailor--who have been cast aboard the same lifeboat following a Titanic-like shipwreck.9 In this play O'Neill presents the first of his advanced portraits of American blacks (a sequence which includes the well-known expressionist drama, The Emperor Jones); but at the end, O'Neill's parable turns apocalyptic as the white man and the black man kill each other and fall into a shark-infested universe.10
With Thirst, O'Neill achieved a kind of personal equilibrium between the conflicting forces of metaphysics and politics, such that in his next two one-acts, Recklessness and Warnings, he was able to remove or suppress any metaphysical implications almost completely. Both of these one-acts find their primary political justification in the portraits of the wealthy upper class and the poor working class, respectively. In Recklessness, a rich man wins a contest with his chauffeur over his wife. In a Miss Julie-inspired conflict between a master and a servant, O'Neill paints a stark portrait of the man of wealth as a ruthless killer, willing to sacrifice another's life to his own happiness. Here, the rich man tricks his chauffeur into racing down a mountain for medical aid to save the wife, in a car with defective steering. That the chauffeur's death leads to the wife's suicide is of little importance since the rich Arthur Baldwin has won, has preserved his way of life, and has clearly demonstrated why he is a successful capitalist.11
Recklessness has its mirror image in Warnings, in which a lowly wireless operator, diagnosed as a victim of progressive deafness, ships out again, against his will, to satisfy his wife's urgings that he must think about his family, not about himself. The shrewish and benighted wife, of course, does not see that she is really the selfish one, that her husband is concerned over his social duty to all the ship's passengers, who are in his trust.12 Unfortunately, with the crunching echo of the Titanic still in the air as it were, the poor wireless operator and the ship of society are both doomed. At the end, the operator also commits suicide--not, however, out of personal distress, like the rich man's wife in Recklessness, but out of a clear sense of social guilt.
Subsequent to these two philosophically consistent one-acts, O'Neill wrote his sixth one, Fog. The title foreshadows the strongest scenic image in Long Day's Journey Into Night, but in this case it symbolizes not the drug-induced stupor of addiction, but the depths of intellectual confusion. Frequently, but inadvisedly, Fog is paired by the critics with Thirst.13 Both plays employ the trappings of expressionism and identify their characters generically; in this case the Poet and the Businessman--a recurring preoccupation of O'Neill's--make their first appearance. Once more survivors of shipwreck stand in for all of us, and in this instance proceed to debate the value of social action and the existence of social justice. The Poet argues for the lack of the latter and the consequent need for the former, while the Businessman disagrees. The Poet's position, however, is undermined by the fact that he and the Businessman are accompanied in the raft by a poor peasant woman and her dead baby, both of whom, the Poet had previously saved from drowning. Guilt-ridden over the woman's mourning, the Poet affirms his belief in the value of social action, but only as a result of the Businessman's instigation. The Poet's real longing is for death, which by the play's end claims both the woman and her baby while, ironically, the Businessman turns out to be a voice of optimism whose good spirits seem to be confirmed by the arrival of rescuers, and whose values not only triumph but seem to be perfectly in tune with the sunshine of the natural world and its beauty, all of which is made concrete scenically.14
With the outcome of this symbolic drama ambiguous at best, O'Neill turned away from direct confrontation with social issues and turned to his first long play, also his first self-evident exercise in autobiographical playwriting, Bread and Butter. In it, the Poet and the Businessman of Fog metamorphose into the successful hardware merchant, Mr. Brown, and his "misguided" son, John, who more than anything wishes to be an artist--a painter--not a clerk in the family hardware store. Like Eugene O'Neill, John Brown is a talented beginner whose father, we are told, has only his own interests (and pecuniary ones at that) at heart, not his son's elevated instincts. Nevertheless, Mr. Brown is successfully prevailed upon by his prospective daughter-in-law's father to send John to art school because "there's loads of money in art."15 Unfortunately, John's fiancée is no more enlightened than her father, and she eventually drags him home to marriage from Greenwich Village, only to drive him to one more O'Neill suicide.
Politically, Bread and Butter was a dead end. Aside from the radical milieu surrounding John's Greenwich Village apartment, and the general protest which the play makes over one man's (and one woman's) restriction of another person's freedom, there is little of political significance. It is almost as if the writing of the symbolic drama Fog, with all its ambiguities, had served to organize O'Neill philosophically--at least temporarily--as had the writing of Thirst. Both allegories were followed by periods of realistic drama--Thirst, by the two socially-oriented one-acts, Recklessness and Warnings; and Fog, by the first long play and by two more, realistic one-acts.
The turn from expressionism to realism is itself of significance, for realistic drama normally requires (and in this case helped to promote) the creation of realistic characters--that is, characters which are rounder, deeper, more complex. And if one ignores the stylistic and thematic aspects of O'Neill's first seven plays, one can discern a clear path of progress in this direction. As the plots become more crisp, the dialogue more fluent, the scenic means of expression more expertly manipulated, so too do the characterizations become deeper, more insightful, more meaningful. What is particularly important, however, is that this progress seems to go hand-in-hand with a progressive trend toward more and more explicit autobiographical writing, first noticeable in Recklessness in a minor way, and then more obviously in Fog and Bread and Butter.16 This trend, coupled with increased realism and depth of characterization, continues in the next two one-acts, Children of the Sea (later revised as Bound East for Cardiff) and Abortion, a play which clearly deals with an issue of social significance, primarily for the sake of its ability to provide an indictment of the upper classes.
With regard to O'Neill's personal political development, Abortion is a major play. It presents in outline the failure of a rich, upperclass college boy and baseball team captain to do the "right thing" by the town girl whom he has gotten pregnant. The play stresses the class issue--well before Dreiser's American Tragedy--by having the hero, Jack Townsend, clearly observe that his treatment of the town girl is exactly the opposite of his regard for his virginal, upperclass fiancée. The town girl's brother shows up in the midst of graduation festivities to tell the cad that his sister is dead, from the abortion attempt, and to exact his revenge by killing Jack. Ironically, Jack succeeds in talking the brother out of violence and going public with the story of Jack's foul behavior. But unaware of this, and unable to accept the bleak prospect of public humiliation, Jack is forced to commit suicide. What is remarkable in all this, however, is that Jack is very clearly one in the long list of O'Neill self-portraits which unfolds throughout his career.17 O'Neill himself, it seems, gave thought more than once to how he might otherwise have terminated the relationship with his pregnant first wife.18
Exactly how conscious O'Neill was of the autobiographical parallels between himself and Jack Townsend is uncertain. Nevertheless, to the extent that O'Neill's treatment of his alter-ego protagonist functions as a type of psychological scapegoating, it is possible to discern a manner in which the veneer of social conscience, which is obviously present in the play, becomes simply a device for obscuring the deeper psychological motives truly at work. And to the extent that what may "really" be taking place is a neo-Catholic form of self-flagellation, we may be on the verge of glimpsing O'Neill's true perception of politics as a similar if less serious form of religion.
This overlapping of religion and politics is perhaps best adumbrated in O'Neill's first acknowledged masterpiece, Bound East for Cardiff. In this monologous elegy on friendship and the sailor's life, O'Neill touched a dramatic and literary chord which still vibrates in critical estimation. In the strong male friendship of the fighting Irishman, Driscoll, and the injured Yank, O'Neill concretized a metaphor which speaks of the grief and sorrow for a departed best friend. At the end of the play, Yank's death is seen as a victory for personal courage;19 but this climactic moment of apotheosis is nowhere near as striking in the original Children of the Sea. In the first version, O'Neill inserts a soliloquy for Driscoll, the survivor, who confesses to a murder he had committed aboard a "starvation ship," a theme which would seem to have found its tongue on political grounds. Significantly, some months later, a politically chastened O'Neill, as a part-time Harvard student, would cut out the monologue of political activism in order, it seems, to place the dramatic focus more properly on Yank's personal heroism and triumph over his fear of death.20
For reasons which may include a visit to Mexico with John Reed in the Spring of 1914,21 subsequent to Abortion and Children O'Neill made his first real effort at comedy in the little-known political satire, The Movie Man. This one-act is historically remarkable because it may be one of the first plays to portray the soon-to-become-stereotyped Hollywood film director. This time he is in Mexico, filming Pancho Villa's attempted revolution. O'Neill proceeds to make fools of all the principal characters, revolutionary generals and movie makers alike. But contrary to some commentaries,22 this general condemnation need not be taken as a direct slap at all revolutionary and political objectives; rather, it seems clear that the audience is supposed to sympathize with the single Mexican soldier/guard who is on stage throughout the play and has only two lines, each of which serves as an editorial comment on one of the "leaders" of the revolution or of the film crew, "Muy Loco."23
With this political fanfare to the common man behind him, O'Neill next
ventured into the American drawing-room for the first time in his
career, in an attempt to try his hand at Shavian wit and social comment. In his second full-length
play, Servitude, O'Neill took the dangerous step of placing himself on
stage again, for the purpose this time of social satire.24 The
protagonist is a successful playwright who learns during the course of
the drama that he has sold out the very ideals he has most espoused in
his plays. Moreover, we learn that to a great extent his ideals are
simply a smokescreen for palliating his urges to philander, by
covering over the possible
In his first surviving one-act completed at Harvard, The Sniper, O'Neill presents the plight of a poor Belgian peasant who has been destroyed by both sides at the beginning of World War I; both the French and the Germans (the Prussians) help to destroy his life, his farm, his son and his wife. In the end, the peasant dies with a curse on his lips for the "good God" who has made him suffer so. Here, it seems, O'Neill has confronted directly that previously identified "ironic life force" and given it a name--God the Father.25 And having shown the true principle behind the world's suffering, O'Neill proceeded in his final Harvard project--his third full-length play, The Personal Equation--to draw a harsh portrait of a female revolutionary, an activist organizer for the I.W.W. (rendered I.W.E. in the play), and to show her leading her apolitical boyfriend into an act of sabotage which results in his being lobotomized by a bullet from his own father's gun. At play's end the would-be revolutionary feels no guilt for her role in her boyfriend's vegetation as she pledges to provide for both him and the revolution.26
In this last portrait O'Neill presents what for him would always be his line of argument against political activists: they were always in it for personal reasons, the "Personal Equation" of the title. Consequently, their professions of values for change were totally hypocritical; and even if change were necessary, tainted activists were somehow too impure for O'Neill to permit them to bring about the revolution. Ultimately, for O'Neill, the only revolution which counted was the kind that takes place within, the kind that creates a new self.27
For O'Neill, this new self was created to a great degree by the act of autobiographical playwriting. By dissecting his own image and finding the hollow core inside, O'Neill discovered the personal emptiness of any political exercise which is truly intended for nothing more than self-glorification or self-satisfaction. Truly, O'Neill seemed to be saying, only the pure may fight for the revolution; or conversely, the only real revolution is the one fought for by him who is absolutely pure. In either case, following his statement of politics in Equation, O'Neill stopped writing plays for a year. It was the longest silence in his playwriting career.
--Paul D. Voelker
1 Winifred L. Frazer, E.G. and E.G.O.: Emma Goldman and "The Iceman Cometh," University of Florida Humanities Monographs, 43 (Gainesville: The University Presses of Florida, 1974). See also Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Playwright (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, 1968), pp. 102-106 et passim; Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill, enlarged ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 119-121 and 262; and Doris Alexander, The Tempering of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1962), pp. 105 and 165.
2 Oliver M. Sayler, "The Real Eugene O'Neill," Century Magazine, 103, N.S. 81, iii (January 1922), partially rpt. in O'Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, ed. Oscar Cargill et al. (New York University Press, 1961), p. 125.
3 Sheaffer, p. 259.
4 Alexander, p. 182.
5 Henry F. May, The End of Innocence: A Study of the First Years of Our Own Time, 1912-1917 (1959; rpt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 187 and 343.
6 The novel in question is Reginald Wright Kauffman's The House of Bondage (1910; rpt. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: The Gregg Press, 1968); its popularity is attested to by Walter B. Rideout, The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954: Some Interrelations of Literature and Society, American Century Series (New York: Hill and Wang, 1956), p. 68.
7 The Web, in Eugene O'Neill, Ten "Lost" Plays (New York: Random House, 1964), pp. 45 and 53.
8 Egil Törngvist, A Drama of Souls: Studies in O'Neill's Super-naturalistic Technique (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1969), p. 256.
9 It is this play which we see in rehearsal in Beatty's Reds. Louise Bryant played the role of the female dancer.
10 Törnqvist, p. 174; Chester Clayton Long, The Role of Nemesis in the Structure of Selected Plays by Eugene O'Neill (The Hague: Mouton, 1968), p. 52.
11 Cf. the fate of capitalism in O'Neill's playwriting class at Harvard (Gelb, p. 274).
12 Gisela Triesch, Die Motive in Thirst and other one-act plays und ihre Verarbeitung in den spateren Werken O'Neills (Munich: M. Hueber, 1969), p. 67.
13 See, for example, Olivia Coolidge, Eugene O'Neill (New York: Scribner's, 1966), p. 116.
14 Törnqvist, p. 90.
15 Bread and Butter, in Eugene O'Neill, "Children of the Sea" and Three Other Unpublished Plays, ed. Jennifer McCabe Atkinson (Washington, D.C.: NCR Microcard Editions, 1972), p. 23.
16 Timo Tiusanen, O'Neill's Scenic Images (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 60.
17 Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 433ff.
18 John V.A. Weaver, "I Knew Him When," New York World, 21 February 1926; rpt. in Cargill, p. 26; O'Neill's letter to Beatrice Ashe, 9 February 1915, Berg Collection of American Literature, New York Public Library.
19 Doris Falk, Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1958), p. 21.
20 The speech appears in full in "Children of the Sea," pp. 97-98.
21 Gelb, p. 262.
22 For example, Bogard, p. 25n.
23 The Movie Man, in Ten "Lost" Plays, pp. 171 and 184.
24 Sheaffer, p. 287.
25 The Sniper, in Ten "Lost" Plays, p. 193 et passim.
26 The Personal Equation is the only one of O'Neill's plays which seems to have escaped publication. It is found only in a typescript at the Houghton Library of Harvard University.
27 Doris Alexander, "Eugene O'Neill as Social Critic," American Quarterly, Winter 1954; rpt. in Cargill, pp. 400-406.
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