1. CHAMAN AHUJA, TRAGEDY, MODERN TEMPER AND O'NEILL. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1984. 207 pp. ISBN 0-391-02699-2. $20.00, cloth.
This is an important book that merits the attention of all serious students of O'Neill. I say this at the start lest the objections in my third and fourth paragraphs, and later, seem condemnatory. Dr. Ahuja's study has much to recommend it, it survives its own thesis, and its felicities ultimately outweigh its flaws.
It is Ahuja's contention that the gifts displayed in O'Neill's early, "lost" plays--gifts for comedy, irony, and iconoclastic upendings of the traditions of the paternal "show-shop"--were subsequently undermined by his conscious attempts, first to find a contemporary equivalent for classical tragedy, and then to incorporate into his work the "modernistic theatricality" inspired by the returning "exiles" of the early 1920s (52); and that it was only by finally rejecting both that he was able to create the masterworks of his last years. Accordingly, the villains of the piece are the men who encouraged those conscious attempts: Jig Cook, whose messianic classicism was not only antithetic to O'Neill's own nature but was distorted, in the playwright's mind, by the prior influence of Terry Carlin; and Kenneth Macgowan, whose "Theatre of Tomorrow" further thwarted O'Neill's tragic aims (especially when he tried to yoke the goals of Cook and Macgowan) and motivated the wild and seldom fruitful eclecticism of his middle period. Finally, after the years of silence, "when he resumed playwriting with the growing consciousness that he was writing some of his last works, he laid aside the ghosts of Freud, Jung and Nietzsche and tried to tell the truth as he had known it, without any tragic gloss. In this last phase, he came to transcend both tragedy and modern temper" (12). In fact, because the final plays, "instead of pity and fear, ... evoke understanding and compassion," they constitute "a higher form of art than tragedy itself" (169).
One may readily agree with Ahuja's view of O'Neill as a playwright whose "genius" was "essentially ironic" and whose innate comic gifts are apparent to those "prepared to read [his plays] without any tragic pre-conceptions" (4). One may well concur that O'Neill suffered from an "innocence of dramatic theory" (5); that he misunderstood the true spirit of classical tragedy; that his obsessive reading, inspired by others, resulted in "intellectual indigestion" (80) and a "philosophical preoccupation that gradually elbowed out interest in vital life" (9); and that the re-emergence of that interest in the "towers beyond tragedy" of his final years (the phrase is the title of the penultimate chapter) led to his greatest achievements. But the author is so concerned with showing, over and over, how play after play is ironic but not tragic that the book becomes annoyingly repetitive.
A few examples will suffice. Warnings "is by turns comic, sentimental, pathetic and melodramatic, but never tragic" (24). The Long Voyage Home "is pathetic, melodramatic and ironic, but by no means tragic!" (40). The Hairy Ape, "though a theatrical masterpiece, and a great drama, ... is not a tragedy" (64). The Great God Brown "may be a tragic allegory, its philosophy may be tragic, but it is not a tragedy" (91). Strange Interlude "is, on the whole, a cruel joke rather than a tragedy" (97). And A Moon for the Misbegotten, "far from being a tragedy, ... is almost a grotesque comedy" (162). Enough, already! If Ahuja had freed himself from the "tragic pre-conceptions" he decries in "tradition-crazy critics" (185), had acknowledged before his final chapter that O'Neill's attempts were foredoomed both because "tragedy" and "modern temper" are incompatible and because true tragedy is anachronistic in the twentieth century (177), and had focused more directly on O'Neill's career-long genius as a consummate ironist, he would have produced a more affirmative study and saved himself and his reader a lot of time. As it is, he calls O'Neill "a colossus among the men of the twentieth century American theatre" (170), although, in a semantic distinction that is not altogether clear, the colossus is "not a giant in stature" because he combines the "truly great" and the "utterly pedestrian" (170-171). But if only Desire Under the Elms is authentically tragic, is it really necessary to devote a whole book to proving that everything else that O'Neill wrote--except perhaps for Beyond the Horizon, The Straw and Anna Christie--is not? If it is, then the task has been abundantly accomplished.
Why, then, my approbation? Because many valuable insights about specific plays punctuate the aforementioned thesis; and because, in Ahuja's largely chronological survey of O'Neill's entire career, as much attention is paid to the early, fledgling work as to the middle-period monoliths and the late triumphs. And besides, if one rereads the book, overlooking the tragic gloss, one does discern the never-completely-squelched bases of "O'Neill's essentially ironic mind" (31)--especially in the "ironic counterpointing" of a series of ubiquitous "polarities--pragmatism versus spiritualism, primitivism versus civilization, illusion versus reality, activity versus dreaminess, and innocence versus experience" (44).
Seldom are O'Neill's first efforts given the attention that they are here, since scholars most often nibble hurriedly at the hors d'oeuvres in their zeal for the entrées to follow, whereas Ahuja believes (and largely proves) that the highlights of the O'Neill feast are its beginning and end. "The 'lost' plays and the last plays," he notes, represent "the most authentic expression of O'Neill's genius" (172). In the former, we see how, one by one, the tyro tried his hand at the various genres of traditional theatre--sentimental comedy (A Wife for a Life), melodrama (The Web), tragedy (Thirst), "commercial romantic thriller" (Recklessness), etc.--and each was transmogrified by the "core of irony" inherent in its treatment. It is nice to see the "lost" plays given, for once, the full and equal attention they deserve, not least because they reveal how temperamentally attuned the young writer was to the brands of theatre he was at the same time publicly denouncing.
Sometimes the search for symbols approaches the outré, as in Abbie's washing the dishes in Desire Under the Elms--"symbolically, she is washing the dirt and soot of puritanism off the Cabot household" (125); Josie Hogan's name--can it really have been chosen to suggest "a female (chaste) Joseph born in the family of the (sensual) Hogs" (164)?--and the mundane gestures and activities of the speaker in Before Breakfast (28):
And I was frequently left with as many questions as answers. Is it right to say that the Yank in Bound East for Cardiff "dies cheerfully" (37)? (A "face convulsed with agony" suggests something other than glee.) And while it is true that the last words of the other Yank, in The Hairy Ape, are delivered "laughingly" (66), it would be best to define the kind of laughter, especially if one is contending that, in that play, "empathy is thwarted by the comic handling." Is the first-act Josie Hogan really "obsessed with sexual desire" (164)? And is Con Melody's final brogue "another illusion" (111) or "the abandonment of play-acting" (114)? It cannot be both.
But most of the time the analyses are insightful and illuminating. For instance, if Ile and The Emperor Jones, despite each's emphasis on overweening pride, are not tragic, it may well be because, in the former, the hubris and suffering are divided between the Keeneys and not embodied in one, tragic protagonist (43); and because, in the latter, "panic is by no means the substitute for tragic exaltation" (59). (A "bundle of nerves" does not a tragic hero make!) Again, much of the "befuddlement" fomented by The Great God Brown is resolved if we consider Anthony and Brown, not as separate individuals, but as "the two selves of the same human being.... If we view the action as the story of the split personality of Dion Brown, torn between the artistic desire to create and the ambition for worldly success, many things, otherwise inexplicable, become intelligible" (87). And they do! Again, a brilliant endnote on p. 204 reveals the "kaleidoscopic" brilliance of Long Day's Journey. Are the four Tyrones uniformly flops? or uniformly guilty creatures? or uniformly escapists from reality? The only possible answer is, yes, they are "all of the above," depending on the angle from which they are viewed and judged. And the message of the play's "fable" varies, depending on which of the haunted four one treats as the "hub." Seldom have 19 lines revealed so much of this great play's mercurial substance.
And so it goes. There is so much of merit here that Dr. Ahuja can be forgiven his own obsession with tragedy. I doubt that anyone will agree with all of his observations, especially the negative ones. For example, it seems a bit insensitive to belittle Yank, in Bound East for Cardiff, because of his "desire to settle on a farm, with a wife and brats!" (37); and Strange Interlude might have been accorded a kinder label than "intellectual belch" (80)! Generally, however, the conclusions are sound, though I would, ironically, question a number of the assertions about the play that Ahuja praises most highly as tragedy. Ephraim may be "a satyr, not a saint," but is he also "too inhuman and grotesque to be a tragic hero" (121)? And why the prosecution anyhow, if, as the author infers, the tragic hero is Eben? Does Abbie, "when she learns to take the punishment," become "adorable" (122)? (The "Dear Abbie" mantle seems questionable.) And can we say that Eben's ultimate love for his stepmother "sanctifies all that a common man would call adultery or incest" (121)? I was sorry, when Ahuja got to the one "real tragedy," that I could concur with so few of the premises on which that verdict was based.
It is unfortunate that there is no index, and better editing and proofreading would have permitted a smoother read. An editor might have suggested that the late Hughie did not exactly "treat [Erie Smith] as big game" (168), and that the paraphernalia of melodrama in The Web did not include "bank-lifting bandits" (21). And a proofreader should have caught such howlers as "Macro Millions" (77-78) and "Strin-d-berg" (199), even if he were unaware that Winifred Frazer is not a he (202) and that it is Hickey, not Larry Slade, who says "All I want is to see you happy" at the end of the first act of Iceman (151).
These last are mere quibbles about the surface; but my more serious reservations leave me concerned. What began as a qualified panegyric wound up as a demonstration that current composition teachers are right when they speak of "writing as discovery"--and in this instance the discovery torpedoed the original intent! I still believe that Tragedy, Modern Temper and O'Neill is an important book. And I know it is a catalyst for thought: I learned a great deal just by arguing with it! I hope other readers will offer their views in future issues. Copies can be acquired from Humanities Press, Inc., Atlantic Highlands, NJ 07716.
--Frederick C. Wilkins
2. BENCHLEY AT THE THEATRE: DRAMATIC CRITICISM, 1920-1940, BY ROBERT BENCHLEY, selected, edited and introduced by Charles Getchell. Ipswich, MA: The Ipswich Press, 1985. xvi + 220 pp. ISBN 0-938864-05-X. $14.95, cloth.
Not, I suppose, the best epigraph to introduce a collection of reviews by a man who said that "most of the spoken words of the Immortal Bard are like so many drops of rain on a tin roof to this particular member of the intelligentsia," and who praised Julia Marlowe as "the only living actress who has kept me awake throughout an entire performance of Shakespeare" (p. 11). But the quotation seems apt: this is a holiday sort of book, just the tonic for a critic cloyed by the exegetical excrescences that fill the groaning board of contemporary dramatic criticism. Shakespeare, of course, was right: such a tonic is best taken in small doses, lest a reverse discomfort set in.
Charles Getchell, a Boston lawyer who fell in love with Benchley's published works when in high school, and to whom, when he finished the last one, "the world seemed very flat and dull indeed" (p. xvi), has added one more to their number and brightened the world for the three audiences he expects will most enjoy the book: theatre buffs, social historians, and Benchley fans. As a wag once remarked, "one man's Mede is another man's Persian" (the Benchley tone is contagious!), but I expect that all three groups will find much pleasure in Benchley at the Theatre. The collection, arranged chronologically, is about evenly divided between Benchley's years at Life (1920-1929) and at The New Yorker (1929-1940).
Benchley was more a reviewer than a critic, a reporter rather than an analyst, who knew what he liked and also knew that he was seldom going to find it. Getchell notes that he "was not an especially easy man to please" (p. xv), and the collection proves him right--fortunately, because Benchley on the warpath was Benchley at his best. Among his bates noires were folk plays, homegrown college shows, the circus (sometimes), and Abie's Irish Rose--a running feud, given the play's longevity, extending even to a note on La Rose Hibernaise d'Abie in Paris--"a typical product of the French theatre, out of the soil of France, and representative of the spirit which resists debt-refunding to the last sou" (p. 51). Psychoanalytic criticism takes its knocks in the person of William Bolitho, whose analysis of the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers arouses a scorn that is perhaps justified (p. 51):
And typical New York theatre audiences--"the myriad sons and daughters of Cougher Prairie"--receive a full measure of wrath: "It has been estimated that the average powers of discrimination in a matinee audience in New York City would, if stood on end, not quite fill a demitasse" (p. 21). But Benchley is really the merriest of misanthropes: "the theatre would be much better off if everyone, with the exception of me and a few of my friends, stayed at home. And even then I should like to go alone once in a while" (p. 8).
It's hard to resist quoting more, but I don't want to spoil the reader's fun. Benchley was quirky, testy, idiosyncratic, and above all candid in expressing likes and dislikes that were admittedly his own alone: "this page is nothing if not personal" (p. 130). He offers few rewarding explanations for his preferences, is more visceral than cerebral in emphasis, and was sometimes questionable in his judgments. One suspects, for instance, that it was less her failings as a performer than her crashing Broadway on the strength of a screen career that led him to belittle the talents of Katharine Hepburn in The Lake (1934):
At least her subsequent career, on screen and stage, would suggest that, if he was right, Miss Hepburn was a darned good learner.
No, Benchley is not to be read as a sage. But he was, largely, what Getchell says he was: "a discerning critic who was on hand for hundreds of opening nights during two decades that can now be seen as a golden age of the American theatre" (p. x). And because a number of those opening nights were of O'Neill productions, the book earns the notice of this journal.
Six O'Neill plays are included in Getchell's selection, from All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924) to Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). The first is dismissed as "a rather long and wordy play, with a powerful idea behind it" (p. 15). Characteristically, the idea is not discussed, but Benchley effectively pooh-poohs the advance dread of the "champions of Nordic supremacy," and his praise of Paul Robeson, along with his earlier defenses of Charles Gilpin and Claude McKay, reveals the warm humanitarian beneath the curmudgeonly persona. (Gilpin had been denied an invitation to a New York Drama League dinner; and McKay, presenting his orchestra ticket as guest reviewer of a Theatre Guild production, was asked by the manager to sit in the balcony.) Of Desire Under the Elms and They Knew What They Wanted, reviewed in the same issue of Life (November 27, 1924), the nod went to Sidney Howard because "Mr. O'Neill's tragedy has moments of unconscious comedy, a terrible thing for a tragedy" (p. 44):
The empathy for the released cattle is rather touching, but Mr. Benchley, who seems to share their uncertainty of "what it was all about," never really catches "the spirit of the thing."
The review of Strange Interlude (1928) makes clearer what had troubled him in Desire. Aside from his scorn for O'Neill's "pompous resuscitation of the old-fashioned 'aside'" (p. 70)--the characters' thoughts, he says, "for the most part, ... could easily have been guessed by any alert child in the audience"--what he disliked most was the play's utter humorlessness, a flaw that he commented on again, a year later, in his review of Dynamo: "With a sense of humor Mr. O'Neill could have made Strange Interlude a two-and-a-half hour play and a great one" (p. 97). O'Neill, he concedes after seeing Dynamo, is still America's greatest dramatist--"But it does seem too bad that America's greatest dramatist should be a man entirely devoid of humor," since "no one without a sense of humor should ever write seriously" (p. 96). And when humorlessness and unintended comedy are joined with ambiguity, as in The Great God Brown--"nobody could tell what the last part of The Great God Brown was about, not even Mr. O'Neill (p. 96)--the threshold of Mr. Benchley's tolerance has been passed.
What is it that rescues O'Neill from his own inadequacies? It is "the royal blood of the 'Count of Monte Cristo'" (p. 97), "good, old-fashioned, spine-curling melodrama ... his precious inheritance from his trouper-father" (p. 129). And it is the melodrama, not the classicism, that earns Benchley's highest praise for Mourning Becomes Electra (1931): "Greek tragedy, my eye! The idea may have been the Greeks', but the hand is the hand of Monte Cristo" (p. 130).
So it is Mourning Becomes Electra that renews Benchley's oft-wavering faith in Eugene O'Neill as "the First Dramatist of Our Time" (p. 131).
Doubtless O'Neill, if he read these pieces, was as irked by the praise as by the censure: a humorless writer with a puerile mind who triumphed in the very brand of theatre to which he was avowedly opposed! But we don't go to Benchley for the full picture; we go for a taste of the initial responses of a veteran theatregoer in O'Neill's own day, and we get it.
Mr. Getchell may not have done a great service to theatre history or O'Neill scholarship, but that was not his aim. He has increased the Benchley shelf by one valuable volume, and the Ipswich Press has done a dandy job of packaging it (spiffy jacket drawing by Gluyas Williams, from a 1925 issue of Life, showing a theatre audience during the usual post-performance turmoil in the aisles; and witty end-piece decorations by Fred G. Cooper, Life's art editor during the Benchley years). Don't send it to the Nietzscheans on your gift list; but ordinary mortals are in for a treat. And at $14.95, it's a steal.
--Frederick C. Wilkins
3. VIRGINIA FLOYD, THE PLAYS OF EUGENE O'NEILL: A NEW ASSESSMENT. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1985. xxvi + 605 pp. $24.50. ISBN 0-8044-2206-0.
Virginia Floyd has been one of the most privileged O'Neill scholars, having been the first to be granted access to the long-restricted O'Neill papers in Yale's Beinecke Library, and one can only say that she has taken the fullest advantage of her privileges and has produced some outstanding published results. Her Eugene O'Neill at Work (1981) has provided what must be the definitive study of O'Neill's artistic methodology, revealed to us through the amazing collection of notes, diaries, scenarios, and letters which O'Neill left behind. The playwright's notebooks from 1918 to 1938, plus other material written down until his debilitating illness totally prevented his continued writing, have shown a creative mind seething with enough ideas for several lifetimes.
Floyd's latest effort in this "New Assessment" makes excellent use of her knowledge of the notes and diaries in presenting a comprehensive overview of every completed play, whether actually produced or not, from A Wife for a Life (1913), the "short vaudeville sketch" with which he began his playwriting career, to A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943), the last completed play and the last to be produced in his lifetime. Throughout the book are also numerous references to and summaries of plays planned but never produced--from the Dispossessors and Obit cycles, among others--and even later but abandoned plays for his "antitotalitarian trilogy" which was to have included "The Visit of Malatesta," "The Last Conquest," and "Blind Alley Guy," conceived during the early years of World War II.
At first glance, in surveying the contents of this volume, one can raise some questions as to its value. Do we really need yet another collection of detailed plot summaries? Is there a place for further life chronology and biographical outline of the playwright's career from birth to death? How much more do we need to know about O'Neill's guilt complexes, as well as those of his family, and the continual search for a sense of belonging, for love, for the lost Mother and so on and so on? All of the above are integral parts of this study, but the more the volume is considered, and the more aware the reader becomes of its ultimate accomplishments, the more significant it becomes. The questions above become of secondary importance.
The book treats all of the plays in strict chronology, with only minor deviations to fit the major topical divisions. It is divided into four main sections: "The Sea-Mother's Son: Early Plays and Beginnings" (A Wife for a Life through The Straw); "The Mariner's Horizon: Experimental Plays and Maturation" (Gold through Dynamo): "Lost Horizons--Interrupted Journey: 'Self' Plays and the Cycle" (Electra through The Calms of Capricorn); and "Homecoming--The Last Harbor: The Last Great Plays" (Iceman through A Moon for the Misbegotten). Each play within each division is given its own individual treatment under a separate sub-heading. Each of the four sections is followed by a list of ideas for other plays taken from the appropriate notebooks. Each major division is prefaced by extended discussion of aspects of O'Neill's life and his artisitic development pertinent to the exploration of the plays which follow. A series of photographs of O'Neill, his family, and a variety of productions appears before each division, providing a rarely seen glimpse into O'Neill's "private" and "public" life in pictures hitherto unpublished so far as I am aware.
What ultimately makes this book so valuable is the "linkage" which it provides between and among all of the plays in the O'Neill canon. Having been able to study and assimilate what must have seemed a great clutter of notes and ideas in the mass of O'Neill papers, Floyd has been able to do what nobody else up to now has been able to accomplish--to show the development of the theme and idea for each play, and to trace through each of them the threads of family connections which compelled O'Neill over and over again to write the history of his parental and sibling relationship, however disguised or blatant they might be, in play after play. As each play is discussed, Floyd shows in backward glances and in forward "predictions" how O'Neill in character description and development, in dialogue and story incident, followed consistent patterns.
Floyd does, of course, do more than trace the personal/family relationships, for she is aware of O'Neill's social and philosophical outlooks which influenced his plays as well: his constant worry, for instance, about the loss of the "old God" and the inability of his characters to find a "new" one--whether Brutus Jones in his jungle "empire" or Reuben Light with his dynamo. While she may find in several plays more of a socio-political outlook than one might normally assume in O'Neill's plays, evident in the anti-establishment passages of, say, The Hairy Ape, or the Irish-Yankee clashes in the Harford-Harker-Harder sequences of A Touch of the Poet, Long Day's Journey, or Misbegotten, Floyd does seem to remain on fairly solid ground as she is able to account for much of the resentment felt by O'Neill from his youth against the snobbishness of New London society and the encroachments of steel and oil interests.
And underlying so much is the continuing residue from lapsed Catholicism, of failed faith, of the God which, so often as in Jim Harris' statement in All God's Chillun, would seem to find it difficult to "forgive Himself" for what he has done. Floyd has done a tremendously impressive job in bringing all of these elements together and emphasizing their importance in the wide variety of methods which O'Neill employed in plays as divergent as The Fountain, Welded, The Great God Brown, Strange Interlude, and Long Day's Journey.
Fortunately, Floyd sticks to a consistent pattern of presenting each play in order and developing the several points mentioned above while avoiding in the main subjective evaluations. This is not a critical analysis of the plays in any but the most general sense. Once in a while a personal viewpoint does come forth, some of which I personally accept, others with which I sharply disagree. Citing Ile as the best of the early sea plays raises questions, and placing Electra as third in importance behind Journey and Iceman could raise eyebrows as well. But the brief evaluation of Desire Under the Elms as tragedy is excellent. However, these random expressions of subjective judgment do not really intrude, and the book must be evaluated on the basis of what it purports to do in the orderly presentation of the development of O'Neill's artistic career play-by-play in a fashion that no other scholar has been able to do.
All literary artists, to be sure, create out of their own experiences, and perhaps O'Neill followed this procedure even more intensely than others. The trials and traumas of his life clearly form the basis for most of the plays in the canon, and while one might wonder in O'Neill's case if there is too much seeking and finding what the individual wants to find, it is difficult to avoid doing just that. The evidence is so often overwhelming. The great thing about O'Neill's genius is that his own life experiences, terrifying and destructive as they may have been and forming the basis of so much of what he wrote, still emerge in the plays as universal concepts, transcending the personal and becoming truly artistic expressions of mankind's dilemmas and struggles. Long Day's Journey may have been the ultimate exorcism of O'Neill's tormenting ghosts, but it does remain as the playwright's greatest, and probably the greatest American tragedy, in its tremendously moving exploration of human loves, hates, and fears.
Virginia Floyd's New Assessment is new, original, and valuable in its ultimate accomplishment. Its overall picture of the entire canon, and the individualized treatment of each play make it highly useful, with the material readily accessible. Much of the material, as I have noted, parallels a lot of information we already have, but for a single volume, standing alone, it provides a great deal of important information to those of us who have not had the time, energy, or privilege, to do the scholarly work which Virginia Floyd has done so well for us.
--Jordan Y. Miller
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