WRESTLING WITH GOD: OLD TESTAMENT THEMES IN
The search for God is undoubtedly one of O'Neill's major preoccupations in many of his plays. In a letter to George Jean Nathan on the subject of Lazarus Laughed, O'Neill explained his feelings on religion. After the death of the old God, O'Neill wrote, science and materialism failed to give "any satisfying new one for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with.... It seems to me," he wrote, "that anyone trying to do big work nowadays must have this big subject behind all the little subjects of his plays or novels, or he is simply scribbling around the surface of things and has no more real status than a parlor entertainer."1 O'Neill borrowed his "big subjects" from a variety of sources, predominantly Greek legends and Christian theology and ritual. The interest of this essay, however, lies in those "big subjects" which seem to be indebted to, and inspired by, the Old Testament. The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac is strongly suggested in the plays which dramatize the lives of the 19th century New England Puritans--namely, Where the Cross Is Made, The Rope, and Desire Under the Elms.2 In Beyond the Horizon (1918), O'Neill's first full-length play, which depicts sibling rivalry between Robert and Andrew Mayo, we sense the compelling presence of the story of Jacob and Esau.
At first glance, it may be difficult to recognize the influence of the biblical story. Indeed, Beyond the Horizon contains no references, or direct allusions, to the Old Testament in general, nor to the Jacob and Esau narrative in particular. Furthermore, the plot of the play, particularly in its resolution, differs from the biblical narrative. Yet the influence of the Old Testament can be found in striking thematic correspondences. The story of Jacob and Esau is deeply embedded in the thematic texture of the play and becomes a metaphor, a paradigm for the strife of the Mayo brothers, and perhaps all of O'Neill's brothers. There are also other prominent biblical themes in the play--in fact, seven in all. In addition to the two brothers, there are the relationship between the brothers and their parents; the reversal of roles; the bowl of lentils; the exile; the wrestling with God; and the reconciliation.
I. THE TWO BROTHERS.
Jacob and Esau are sharply contrasted in character and aspirations. Jacob, the younger brother, is delicate and spiritual, "a plain man, dwelling in tents" (Gen., 25, 27). Midrashic literature views him as a reader and a student. Esau, by contrast, is strong and physical, "a cunning hunter, a man of the field" (Gen., 25, 27). He is a man of action and appetites. When he comes hungry from the field one day, he sells his birth-right to Jacob for a bowl of lentils. In Hebrew Jacob's name has two meanings, to follow and to deceive. Prior to his wrestling with God on the Yabbok river, Jacob is indeed a follower. As Elie Wiesel describes him, "Everyone made him do things--and he obeyed.... Incapable of initiative, he could never make up his mind."3 As a young man, Jacob is passive and timid. He obeys his mother when she orders him to steal from Isaac the blessing reserved for Esau. He listens to her when she advises him to escape his brother's wrath and flee to Haran. In Haran, he allows his uncle, Laban, to take advantage of him. We do not have much information on Esau, but from the little we know we can infer that, unlike his brother, he is independent and rebellious. When he marries a Canaanite woman, he openly defies his father (Gen., 26, 34-5).
The two brothers in Beyond the Horizon bear a striking resemblance to the biblical brothers. Their contrasting personalities are also suggestive of O'Neill and his brother Jamie, and of other brothers in O'Neill's plays, particularly Jamie and Edmund Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night. Robert Mayo, the younger brother, has a delicate constitution and refined features. He is a sensitive thinker and an avid reader, with "a touch of the poet about him".4 Like Jacob, Robert is a dreamer. He lives intensely in his visions of "the far off and unknown," and pursues "the secret which is hidden just over there beyond the horizon" (I.i, 13). Like Jacob, who dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder "set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven" (Gen., 28, 12), Robert is in quest of revelation. His older brother, Andrew Mayo, is "husky [and] sun-bronzed," "a son of the soil" (I.i, 2). Like Esau he is "a man of the field," and like Esau, who is described as "cunning," Andrew is "intelligent in a shrewd way" (I.i, 2). Like his biblical prototype, he is rather contemptuous of the world of the imagination and of the spirit. The sea, which attracts Robert (as it did O'Neill), holds no fascination for Andrew: "You can have all the sea you want by walking a mile down to the beach," he says to Robert (I.i, 14). He derives more satisfaction from the earth than ever from "any book" (I.i, 8). Like his father, Andrew is wedded to the soil and is thus naturally destined to inherit the farm. Robert's essence lies in wandering and in the pursuit of beauty and mystery.
II. SONS AND PARENTS.
In the play, as in the biblical story, the mother dotes on the younger son, while the father loves the elder and chooses him as his heir. Isaac loves Esau because "he did eat of his venison" (Gen., 25, 28). James Mayo favors Andrew because, like him, he is a true farmer. Like Esau, Andrew is the bread winner and brings home food from the field. The biblical mother, Rebekah, loves and protects her younger son, Jacob. Kate Mayo, who had once been a school teacher and still "retains a certain refinement of movement and expression foreign to the Mayo part of the family" (I,ii, 29), loves Robert. She constantly worries about his health and is deeply upset by his plans to leave home. Later she protects him from Mrs. Atkins' blatant and malicious accusations. Both Jacob and Robert are mother's sons. Both, indeed, are strongly influenced by women later in their lives. Jacob obeys his wives, Rachel and Leah. Robert sometimes gives in to Ruth's wishes too easily, particularly at the beginning of their relationship.
III. REVERSAL OF ROLES.
When Rebekah conceives, God says to her: "Two nations are in thy womb and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels: and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger" (Gen., 25, 23). The prophecy comes to pass. Jacob buys Esau's birthright with a bowl of lentils and secures the covenantal blessing from his father, Isaac: "Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee" (Gen., 27, 29). Not only is the elder destined to serve the younger, but Jacob is assigned a role which is most alien to his nature. He is timid and submissive, a dreamer. In the blessing he is called upon to be a leader, a man of action and authority. He habitually withdraws from action, but in the future he will have to command and rule. Esau, the proud and independent brother, will bow down to Jacob.
In the play a similar reversal of roles and fates occurs, although the theme of usurpation is absent. Robert gives up his sea voyage for the love of Ruth: "Our love is sweeter than any distant dream," he tells her. "It is the meaning of all life, the whole world. The kingdom of heaven is within--us!" (I.i, 26). He decides to become a farmer and show his father "that I'm as good a Mayo as you are--or Andy, when I want to be" (I.ii, 44). Andrew, who is also in love with Ruth, decides to join his uncle on the ship. Both brothers thus choose a vocation which runs against their natures. Robert inherits the farm while Andrew, the son of the soil, takes off to the sea. The farmer becomes a sailor; the sailor is turned farmer. Like the biblical brothers, Robert and Andrew find themselves in roles which contradict and thwart their identities.
IV. THE BOWL OF LENTILS.
In his anger and pain, Andrew gives up his inheritance--as Esau had done, for a bowl of lentils. The biblical narrator judges Esau harshly and summarily: "And Esau despised his birthright" (Gen., 25, 34). We may say that Andrew, too, despises his birthright, the farm. As James Mayo says to him on the night of his departure: "The farm is your'n as well as mine. You've always worked on it with that understanding; and what you're sayin' you intend doin' is just skulkin' out o' your rightful responsibility" (I.ii, 50-51). In the years of his travels, Andrew's practical side, his shrewd eye for business, overrides his love for the land. At first he is engaged in legitimate wheat trade. Later, however, he drifts to speculating. As he says to Robert: "I'd always been dead set against that form of gambling before" (III.i, 143). Andrew speculates in wheat, in that which he used to grow with his hands. He is turned from a creator to a parasite, as the dying Robert tells him:
The image of the bowl of lentils serves to illuminate, not only Andy's plight, but that of O'Neill's brother Jamie as well. In O'Neill, Arthur and Barbara Gelb compare Jamie to Andy, "an antagonist both loved and hated, a symbol of the potentially fine soul grown stunted and envious and destructive...."5 This destructiveness is the betrayal of the spirit. It is not the gambling money, or the love of Ruth, forgotten in six months, which induces Andy to give up his birthright, but spiteful envy. He sells his soul for no gain. For a mess of pottage.
In the play, as in the Bible, the reversal of roles and heirs results in a long and bitter separation. This is a period of exile, a period of purgatorial experiences. Esau, deprived of his inheritance and betrayed by father and brother, leaves home and defies his father's values. He marries a second Canaanite woman, a deed which flies in the face of Isaac's decree, "Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan" (Gen., 28, 1), and settles in the land of Seir. Andrew, similarly, leaves home and rejects the values he has been brought up on. As a punishment, James Mayo banishes his son from his house: "And you go--tomorrow mornin'--" (I.ii, 55-56). The love between father and son is turned to anger, and in both stories the father dies before a reconciliation can occur.
Jacob is an exile in Haran, away from his mother and his home. His uncle, Laban, tricks him into working fourteen years for his daughter, Rachel. Laban, who was meant to be Jacob's protector and benefactor, becomes his exploiter. Although the details of the plot in the two stories are different, Robert, like Jacob, is deprived of the protective influence of his uncle. He is lonely and isolated on the farm. His confidence in his ability to become a Mayo is quickly shattered when he realizes how deeply he hates the work and how unsuited he is for farming. After his father's death, the farm deteriorates rapidly. The farm hands despise Robert and desert him one by one. His mother-in-law hounds him with accusations. And even his wife, his "Rachel," for whose love he undertook this hardship, is turned into a harsh browbeater.
Both Jacob and Robert are alienated and derided. Yet both continue to struggle. Their struggle is heroic and awe-inspiring. It is a struggle against all odds--a struggle that, by its very nature, cannot end in an unequivocal victory, a struggle with invincible powers.
VI. WRESTLING WITH GOD.
On the night preceding his meeting with Esau, a night of loneliness and untold terrors, Jacob confronts a man whose identity is unknown. The man wrestles with him until the breaking of the day, maims him, but cannot subdue him. Jacob will not let the man go until he blesses him. The man gives Jacob a new name, Israel, "for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed." And Jacob names the place "Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved" (Gen., 32, 24-32). Jacob emerges limping, but triumphant. He survives the awesome confrontation and lives on to become a patriarch and a father of multitudes.
What is the meaning of this strange and magnificent event? Jacob receives a new name, Israel: he is no longer a follower, but a "prince" who dares to confront God. He has undergone a startling transformation. As Wiesel describes it:
After years of inner strife, Jacob finds in himself strength to overcome his fears: his fear of confrontation, his fear of independence, and his overriding fear of Esau. His victory is not over the aggressor but, in Wiesel's succinct phrase, "A victory over himself."7 Jacob could have run away. But he stood his ground, resisted the force, and faced what he had to face--alone. He looked into his own darkness and battled with it. At the break of day he felt that he had seen the face of God.
There is a stubborn determination in Jacob's wrestling and in his demand for a blessing: "I will not let thee go, except thou bless me" (Gen., 32, 26). Jacob had already been blessed by his father. But that blessing was stolen. He did not deserve it. It was not meant for him. He was not there. This time Jacob is determined to prove his worth. He pits his soul against the divine, demanding a new blessing as a sign that he has earned his birthright. This time it has to be him. And he is, indeed, worthy. He exhibits a boldness of spirit which equals the heroic confrontations of his forefathers. He comes to his own, richly deserving his new and honorable name, Israel.
Of all the themes in the play which correspond to the biblical tale, the wrestling with God seems to be the most elusive. God or religion are rarely mentioned. James Mayo is "contemptuous of all religion" (I.i, 21). So is Andrew. The spiteful and self-righteous religion of Mrs. Atkins is satirized. Robert, after the death of his daughter Mary, openly denies God: "I could curse God from the bottom of my soul--if there was a God" (III.i, 129). His bitter rejection seems to validate John Raleigh's judgment that through Robert O'Neill invoked "the non-existent Deity of the twentieth century."8
Upon further consideration, however, this conclusion appears to be hasty. The search for God is disguised, but it is the driving force behind Robert's actions. Throughout the play, he is engaged in a formidable struggle. His conflicts do not occur on the social level. He does not battle his wife, his brother, or his workers, and he even makes allowances for his mother-in-law. Robert's struggles occur on the spiritual plane. He seems to be locked in combat with a mysterious force. He demands an explanation for his suffering and his failures. He looks for truth, meaning, "a finer realization" (III.i, 133). He relentlessly pursues the "secret beyond the horizon." As he tells Ruth: "Life owes us some happiness after what we've been through. (Vehemently.) It must! Otherwise our suffering would be meaningless--and that is unthinkable" (III.i, 132). In the Bible, the confrontation with God is concrete, physical, stunning. In the play, it is indirect, diffused, symbolic. And yet Robert, like Jacob, is a wrestler. He believes that life has meaning and he insists on being vindicated, not by men, but by the unfathomable being beyond him.
Robert's wrestling arena is the farm. It is here that his mettle is ultimately tested. When he chooses to become a farmer, he finds out that he must carry an unbearable burden--he must live with hate. He hates the farm and Ruth hates him. How does one deal with hate? Many of O'Neill's characters escape from their problems to alcohol, drugs, pipe dreams, cruelty, or gambling. Robert is different: he does not run away. He works hard on the farm, honoring his commitment to the land, and to Ruth. He faces up to the farm, and his mistakes, daily. What may not be immediately obvious is that Robert has choices: he could sell the farm; he could lease it; he could desert it. He does not do any of these things. If he did, he would have jeopardized the lives of the three women dependent on him. He works on the farm and brings it to ruin. And yet he prevails. He made a mistake in marrying Ruth, but he tries to save the relationship and improve its quality. As he says to Ruth: "... let's both of us try to do better. We can both improve.... You know the odds I've been up against since Pa died. I'm not a farmer. I've never claimed to be one. But there's nothing else I can do under the circumstances, and I've got to pull things through somehow. With your help I can do it" (II.i, 82-83). Among O'Neill's characters, Robert is unique in accepting overwhelming hardships without giving in to escapism and defeat. This is the essence of his dignity. He had wrongly chosen to be James Mayo's heir, but he does not sell his birthright.
From one angle, Robert dies pathetically. He leaves behind him a wrecked farm, debts, and a wife broken by suffering. The final scene in the play, as Raleigh points out, "takes place in the cold, pitiless light of an October morning which throws its watery glance on the human wreckage that the Mayos have become."9 Unlike Jacob, who survives the confrontation at Peniel and lives on to become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, Robert dies desolate and childless. And yet the "cold pitiless light" in the final scene is mellowed by the "bright color" of the rising sun. Dawn in this play, as in Desire Under the Elms, signifies promise and revelation.
For although he lived in spiritual exile, in death Robert's struggles seem to be re-warded. He dies exultantly. At the hour of his death he finds the "comfort" O'Neill was associating with "the primitive religious instinct." It is as if he had managed at last to wrest the secret from the oblivion of death, as if he had finally grasped the mystery of existence. He attempts to leave behind him not despair, but hope: "Remember, Andy, Ruth has suffered double her share, and you haven't suffered at all..,. Only through contact with suffering, Andy, will you--awaken. Listen. You must marry Ruth--afterwards" (III.i, 153). For Andy, who had lost interest in the farm and in Ruth, this is an unbearably grim commitment. And yet Robert, who is unaware of his brother's limitations, is determined to correct the mistakes of the past, and once more reverse the roles. The farmer will go back to the soil, and the woman will marry the man she had always loved. Robert's legacy signifies his victory over his own jealousy and hate, a victory over him-self. He escapes from his room and climbs to the top of a roadside bank where he can see the sun rise. He frees himself from the forces that chained him and wildly asserts his independence: "I couldn't stand it back there in the room. It seemed as if all my life--I'd been cooped in a room. So I thought I'd try to end as I might have--if I'd had the courage to live my dream. Alone--in a ditch by the open road--watching the sun rise" (III.ii, 162). He feels vindicated and, for once, worthy of respect. He has wrestled with the power beyond and prevailed. His final speech is ecstatic:
What is the essence of Robert's vision? We may borrow the biblical metaphor and say that what Robert sees in the sun is--perhaps--the face of God.
VII. THE RECONCILIATION.
In the Bible and in the play there is a moving reconciliation between the brothers. The expression of love is free and warm. In the Bible, the brothers' past bitterness seems to have vanished. Jacob has overcome his fear of Esau, and Esau has forgotten his anger: "And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept" (Gen., 33, 4). Andrew comes home to his brother to support him in his sickness: "... I love Rob better'n anybody in the world and always did. There isn't a thing on God's green earth I wouldn't have done to keep trouble away from him" (III.i, 158). And yet, in both stories the reconciliation, although moving, appears tentative and incomplete.
The meeting between the biblical brothers is brief. Esau is remarkably generous, but Jacob is wary of him. He does not quite trust his brother; he is restrained and uncertain. He promises Esau to visit him in Seir, but he never does. The brothers remain distant, different, separate.
In the play, Andrew's love for Robert is put to a severe test. Will Andrew obey Robert and marry Ruth? He dislikes her intensely. He talks to her with impatience and aversion as if he were ashamed of ever having loved her. If he marries her, he will have to wrestle with the same unbearable burden of hate that Robert had had to struggle with. Is he capable of doing it? Andrew's final words to Ruth give no answer to these questions: "I--you--we've both made such a mess of things! We must try to help each other--and--in time--we'll come to know what's right to do--(Desperately.) And perhaps we--" (III.ii, 163). The reconciliation is marked by rapid, painful discoveries. In the few hours he spends with Robert, Andrew learns more about himself than he had done in his entire lifetime. He does face the truth: "we've made such a mess of things." But will he become a Robert, or will he dwindle into a Jamie who admits his weaknesses but helplessly gives in to them? Could Esau wrestle with God?
The strange biblical prophecy, "The elder shall serve the younger," shapes the lives of Jacob and Esau and casts its long shadow on their relationship. Andy, like Esau but in a more desperate way, becomes his brother's server. He is doomed by his love for his brother, and by the irreversible twists of fate. If he obeys Robert, he will be trapped by the farm and the woman. If he does not obey him, he will be tormented by his moral debt to his dead brother. Like Esau, who is told by his father that "by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother ..." (Gen., 27, 40), Andrew is condemned to a life of bondage and waste. Esau, however, creates a new life for himself in the land of Seir and is further-more comforted by Isaac's distant promise of freedom from the rule of Jacob: "... and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck" (Gen., 27, 40). Andrew cannot have his own independent future, because Robert's will deprives him of choices, even the choice of his own mode of expiation, and forces him to stay on the farm.
The biblical story sheds light on the quality of love and distance, affinity and contrast between the brothers. It links their struggle to the archetypal rivalry and the archetypal search for identity. It adds richness and depth to the lives of the New England farmers, and it becomes a vehicle for the expression of the search for God. Yet it is in the outcome of this quest that the parallel ultimately splits apart, showing the fundamental difference between the biblical promise of life and continuity, and the tragic vision of O'Neill.
In the biblical story the presence of God is never doubted. The covenantal promise, which God had given Abraham, preserves the lives of the patriarchs and ensures the continuity of the family and the community. It transcends the twists and turns of events and overrides the threatening conflicts between father and son, brother and brother. Isaac survives Abraham's sacrificial sword; Jacob escapes the wrath of Esau; and Esau ultimately frees himself from his brother's yoke. The covenantal vision, transmitted from father to son and shared by the community, is reassuring and inspiriting.
O'Neill's vision, by contrast, is grim and ambivalent. Throughout the play he seeks God, but he constantly doubts Him and questions His presence. The quest, which strengthens Jacob, exhausts Robert and finally kills him. He dies with a comforting vision and seems to have found God. But he cannot pass on to his brother his mysterious and perhaps redeeming legacy. Neither Ruth, who is beyond the "troubling of any hope," nor Andrew, can touch his secret which thus becomes a burden and a curse. Robert's God, like Ephraim Cabot's, is hard and lonesome.
In both the Bible and the play the struggles of the spirit are monumental and mysterious. In the Bible they renew the bonds between man and man, man and God. In the play they raise profoundly disturbing questions. Is Robert's endeavor rewarded? His moral victory is a poignant achievement. But can it ennoble or inspire others? Is Robert's victory a Pyrrhic victory? Is it too costly to pursue or imitate? Yet in spite of the harrowing and threatening nature of these questions, O'Neill continued to wrestle with them throughout his career, and this is the measure of his courage and achievement.
1 Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 601.
2 Shelly Regenbaum, "O'Neill and the Hebraic Theme of Sacrifice," Theatre Annual, 34 (1981).
3 Elie Wiesel, "And Jacob Fought the Angel," Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, transl. Marion Wiesel (New York: Pocket Books, 1977), p. 125.
4 Eugene O'Neill, Beyond the Horizon (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920), I.i, 2. All subsequent citations refer to this edition of the play and are included in the text in parentheses. The numbers refer, in order, to act, scene and page. Readers will discern some discrepancies between this first edition and later printings of the play, but the differences do not affect the arguments advanced in the essay.
5 Gelb, p. 579.
6 Wiesel, p. 136.
7 Wiesel, p. 138.
8 John Henry Raleigh, The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), p. 7.
9 Raleigh, p. 18.
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