O'NEILL'S GENRES: EARLY PERFORMANCE AND LATE ACHIEVEMENT
Eugene O'Neill was both socially conditioned and psychologically destined to become a dramatist of alienation. This sketch proposes to give a bird's-eye view of the generic consequences of this predicament in his youth and maturity.
O'Neill's generic range included not only tragedy, comedy and tragicomedy; he was also keenly interested in integrating non-dramatic forms in his theatrical oeuvre. Endeavors of this kind already appear in his first period and run right through the entire canon. It is this aspect of his genre experiments that will be glimpsed at below.
I. The Novel in the Play.
Novelistic traits crop up early and multiply quickly in O'Neill's works, as the plight of alienation led him--as it did Hauptmann--to show his characters' external worlds in epic detail. Wrestling with the alternatives of radicalism, and partially shaped by the modes of the well-made play and naturalistic tragedy, The Personal Equation presents the predicament of war and the plight of revolution in an epic environment and an episodic structure. The opposition of the sailing boat and the steamship, of being close to nature and toiling for the Steel Trust, appears as an awareness of changing times and the challenge of anarchism in The Hairy Ape, which couples ironic glow and grotesque expressivity with the dramatization of the generation novel and the chain reaction of scenes, and incorporates novelistic, short story-like and lyric qualities. Representing the pathological aftermath of World War I, advancing towards psychological realism, and elaborated in nine acts, Strange Interlude assumes novelistic proportions and takes on some fictional properties. (One of its chief characters, Charles Marsden, is, in fact, a novelist, and considers the story of the drama an excellent subject for a novel.) Mourning Becomes Electra depicts the civil war of psychology and the Oedipus and Electra complexes of Puritanical morality by blending social criticism and psychological representation and by means of a novelistic broadening of the dramatic trilogy.
The final stage in this line of development is O'Neill's monumental cycle plan, A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed, which was intended to display the spiritual and social history of the American Dream from 1755 to 1932 in eleven plays, through five or six generations of an American family depicted with a modern realistic method. The cycle remained a torso. It was only the fifth play in the series, A Touch of the Poet, which O'Neill considered fully finished. Even if he completed the typescript of the sixth play, More Stately Mansions, and wrote an outline of the seventh, The Calms of Capricorn, he wished to revise and reshape them; and in 1953, the year of his death, he burned an enormous mass of cycle material.
While it is widely believed that it was O'Neill's nervous tremor and Parkinson's disease which prevented him from executing his massive project, such an inference seems faulty. After all, in the very period when he was struggling with the cycle, he wrote a number of significant and long plays (The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, A Moon for the Misbegotten), all outside the cycle, and all interrupting the cycle. What really happened was that, in the process of creating A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossesed, the epic rebelled against the dramatic. The plan called for a series of novels rather than a cycle of plays. In works written before the cycle, O'Neill had succeeded in achieving a synthesis of the epic and the dramatic. In the cycle, though, the novelistic aspect of the project burst the framework of the dramatic sequence. O'Neill's failure in completing the cycle plan was not a personal but an epic fiasco.
II. The Lyric in the Play.
The presentation of the world of alienation moves drama towards fiction; the expression of its opposite takes drama in the direction of the lyric. While in Greek and especially in Renaissance drama the lyric was the poetic spray of the dramatic surge, in Romantic and Symbolist drama it strove for independence. In O'Neill's early one-acter, Fog, the poet and the businessman are contrasted primarily on the thematic level. Bound East for Cardiff and The Moon of the Caribbees project lyricism as a dramatically organic modal milieu, an atmospheric environment. In The Fountain and Marco Millions, the lyric appears as a Romantic plane of values; in The Great God Brown, it functions as a symbolic sphere of worth; in Lazarus Laughed, it reaches the level of rhetoric and ecstasy. And in the last phase of its growing independence, in The Last Conquest--a projected play carrying on the style of Lazarus Laughed with a cosmic prophecy undermined by vacillations and doubts of world historical magnitude--the prosaic exposes the poetic, but the lyric explodes the dramatic. The play, like the cycle, remained an unfinished outline, a fragmented torso.
III. The Short Story in the Play.
It is at this point that the significance of the dramatic use of the short story pattern emerges: the opposition between the real world of alienation and the capillaric activity of human resistance brings about an organic merger of the short story model and the dramatic mode throughout the O'Neill canon, earning him a special position in world literature. Some of the many uses of the short story in O'Neill's plays, and of the many interrelationships of the two genres, deserve special attention.
In a number of cases, especially in the dramatist's early work, a short story and a one-acter are closely related in that the turning point of the short story and the culminating point of the short play converge or coincide. Such a generic affinity appears very clearly in the complex relationship among Conrad's story The End of the Tether, O'Neill's one-acter Warnings, and his short story S.O.S. A number of other one-act plays by O'Neill have a similar narrative origin. Bound East for Cardiff goes back to Conrad's novel The Nigger of the Narcissus, which O'Neill read in 1911.1 Fog shows parallels with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, where, in The Prioress's Tale, the crying of a dead child leads the rescuers to their destination. "That O'Neill had read Chaucer is doubtful," Travis Bogard notes; "nevertheless a source tale may be suspected for his story."2 O'Neill's later-destroyed one-act comedy, The Dear Doctor, was based on a short story, which in turn had been pirated from a vaudeville sketch.3
Examples abound. In the Zone, for instance, is strongly related
to Conan Doyle's short story That Little
Square Box,4 and, probably indirectly, to Poe's The
Oblong Box.5 The Dreamy Kid was begun as a short
story; O'Neill completed about a page in this form, feeling it would
throw into greater relief the psychological split in
the young Negro. Later, however, he showed visible signs of
dramatic concentration. Agnes Boulton remembers having seen his eyes
darken, then become intense; he began "to pace the floor as the
dramatist in him took over.... And as Gene talked,
something else in him began to overcome the psychological
aspect of the story."6
A second form of synthesis is represented by the cascade-connection of short story-oriented dramatic units in such multiple-act plays as Servitude and A Moon for the Misbegotten. The early Servitude strikes the reader as a linked series of one-act plays; the late Moon presents the same technique but represents it at a high level of organic unity.
A third type of inter-genre synthesis is achieved by building up the conflict of a multiple-act play with a short story-like turn at the dramatic zenith, as in A Touch of the Poet. (It is notable that the only play in the novel-oriented cycle which O'Neill completed to his satisfaction integrates the short story pattern in its dramatic structure!)
The fourth type displays total integration in a mosaic structure (e.g. The Iceman Cometh, and its connection with the early short story Tomorrow; and Long Day's Journey Into Night, with its perfect fusion of dramatic tension, epic interest and lyric yearning). It is worth noting that the integration of the short story pattern and the dramatic fabric runs parallel with the synthesis of the lyric and the dramatic. In both cases, alienation is challenged on its own ground.
The fusion of the short story and the drama seems to have been extremely fruitful for O'Neill--in both early experiments and late achievements. It was a procedure which enabled him to represent both the network of alienation and the human potential to survive, withstand and counteract it; a pattern which Miller, Williams and Albee followed and modified; and a creative achievement which made O'Neill America's foremost dramatist of universal significance.9
1 Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Oxford, 1972), pp. 38-39; cf. pp. 34-42.
2 Bogard, p. 27.
3 Bogard, p. 52.
4 William Goldhurst, "A Literary Source for O'Neill's 'In the Zone'," American Literature, 35 (Jan. 1964), 530-534.
5 Esther Timár, "Possible Sources for Two O'Neill One-Acts," The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, 6 (Winter 1982), 21-22. She also points out (pp. 20-21) narrative parallels between the first tale of the fourth day in Boccaccio's Decameron and O'Neill's Recklessness.
6 Agnes Boulton, Part of a Long Story (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958), p. 176.
7 Boulton, p. 192.
8 The Movie Man was first written as a one-act play, and later as a short story. [See Virginia Floyd, ed., Eugene O'Neill at Work: Newly Released Ideas for Plays (New York: Ungar, 1981), p. 389.] The short story version got lost. Martin Lamm once noted that although O'Neill "has written practically nothing but plays, his gift is for narrative. The one-act plays of his youth are evocative short stories, and his mammoth dramas are half-novels." [Modern Drama (New York: Philosophical Library, 1953), p. 325. Cf. Horst Frenz, Eugene O'Neill (New York: Ungar, 1971), pp. 61, 76, 88, 105.] To accept this view is, of course, not to deny the dramatic function of the epic aspect of the plays. The generic proximity of the short story and the one-acter is also striking in other of O'Neill's playlets which are not demonstrably connected with actual short stories--e.g., A Wife for a Life, The Web, Thirst, Recklessness, Abortion, The Sniper, Before Breakfast, The Long Voyage Home, The Moon of the Caribbees, Ile, Shell-Shock, The Rope, and partly The Emperor Jones and Hughie. [For the short-story aspect of Hughie, see Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (New York: Harper& Row, 1962), p. 843.]
9 I have discussed this problem in more detail in essays in the following publications: Eugene O'Neill: A World View, ed. Virginia Floyd (New York: Ungar, 1979), pp. 115-144; Acta Litteraria, 20 (1978), 3-28; Hungarian Studies in English, 13 (1980), 93-115; Acta Litteraria, 22 (1980), 29-71; and the Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, 5 (Winter 1981), 5-10; 6 (Spring 1982), 16-24; and 6 (Summer-Fall 1982) 30-36.
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