THE TRAGIC COSMOLOGY OF O'NEILL'S DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS
A notion which recurs continually in modern attempts to define tragedy is that of "mystery." According to Richard Sewell, tragedy "sees man as a questioner, naked, unaccommodated, alone, facing mysterious, demonic forces in his own nature and outside" (4-5). George Steiner locates the uniqueness of the form in the "inexplicable" (128) nature of the forces that destroy the protagonist, forces "which can neither be fully understood nor overcome by rational prudence" (8); while Richmond Y. Hathorn defines tragedy as "a work of literature which has as its chief emphasis the revelation of a mystery" (223).
The admission of an irreducible core of mystery at the center of the human experience runs counter to the prevailing intellectual current of the past two centuries--the rationalism of the Enlightenment followed by the reductive positivism of its successors. And just as Nietzsche traced the decline of Attic tragedy to the advent of Socratic rationalism, so George Steiner attributes the eclipse of the form after the French classical period to modern faith in reason and science to reveal all truth and resolve every human dilemma (8). Joseph Mandel is wide of the mark in asserting that nineteeth-century naturalistic determinism is "tragic" (51O4-A): fate ceases to be tragic the moment it can be reduced to knowable forces amenable to scientific analysis and control. As Steiner explains, the antithesis of tragedy lies not necessarily in comedy but in didacticism, naturalism and the literature of social criticism, a literature which reduces man's nature and experience to knowable quantities and hence views all his ills, individual and social, as remediable (8).
In his deliberate and sustained effort to revive Tragedy on the modern stage, Eugene O'Neill, while paying lip service to the modern science of psychology, repeatedly insisted on mystery as the essence of his vision of human destiny. In 1919 he wrote to Barrett Clark, "Perhaps I can explain the nature of my feeling for the impelling, inscrutable forces behind life which it is my ambition to at least faintly shadow at their work in my plays" (qtd. in Cargill 100). Elsewhere he asserted that his interest lay in the relationship between man and God, rather than between man and man (qtd. in Krutch, Nine Plays xvii). In interpreting the latter remark, Tornqvist explains that O'Neill thought of himself as a religious playwright, not "in the strict sense that such a designation can be bestowed on Eliot or Claudel ... but in the wide sense, that what chiefly concerns him are ultimate, transcendental phenomena" (11).
There are a number of oft-quoted remarks of O'Neill's which might seem, in isolation, to indicate a conventional positivist scepticism toward the transcendental or supernatural, a rejection of mystery in favor of the science of psychology. In the manuscript version of his foreword to The Great God Brown, the playwright affirms that "if we have no Gods, [sic] or heroes to portray we have the subconscious, the mother of all gods and heroes."1 Repeatedly, in his working diary notes for Mourning Becomes Electra, he speaks of the necessity for finding a "modern psychological approximation of the Greek conception of fate from without, from the supernatural" (qtd. in Clark 534); and he explicitly denies the existence of any supernatural element in Electra (Clark 536).
But thoughtful critics have always discerned an element of intransigent mysticism beneath this surface allegiance to positivism. Asselineau cautions that, the playwright's disclaimers notwithstanding, the psychological view of fate at work in Electra does not "entirely supersede the traditional belief in an external fate" ("MBE as Tragedy" 147). Törnqvist explains that while O'Neill shares the naturalist's preoccupation with heredity and environment as determinants of human destiny, "positivism was foreign to O'Neill's antirationalistic, mystical mind" (29). And he points to the curious mingling of scientific and metaphysical language in such expressions as the following: "I'm always acutely conscious of the Force behind--(Fate, God, our biological past creating our present, whatever one calls it--Mystery certainly)" (qtd. in Gelb 4 and Törnqvist 17). Chabrowe sees in Desire, Strange Interlude, Electra, and Long Day's Journey Into Night "attempts to reveal man's struggle against the mysterious force that shapes his existence and limits him" (xvi). And Krutch contends that "at a time when naturalism was the literary norm, he wrote plays that were symbolic in method and mystical in intention" ("O'Neill Revolutionary" 29).
Desire Under the Elms, "the first of O'Neill's works in which the influence of Greek tragedy is clearly manifest" (Gelb 539), is charged with an uncompromisingly mystical view of the forces at work in and through human beings, forces which may manifest themselves in forms recognizable by the science of psychoanalysis--e.g. Eben's Oedipus complex--but which ultimately transcend scientific or rational explanation. And whether or not O'Neill's emphasis shifts in the course of his career from an "external" to an "internal" concept of fate, as Chabrowe suggests (1O2), in this play the two coincide and fuse much as they do in O'Neill's ancient models. In Greek tragedy, action appears to proceed naturally from a given quantity called "character," a complex of distinguishable human traits usually seen in part as having been shaped by past experience and perhaps even by heredity (e.g. Antigone, Hippolytus) in ways that reflect universal "laws" of the human experience. At the same time, the action appears as the product of supernatural forces, a reaction against some breach of the cosmic order. As Kitto explains, "the gods are not directing events as if from outside; they work in the events" (128, Kitto's emphasis); "the action is seen on two planes at once, human and divine" (133). Similarly, in Desire, we are made cognizant simultaneously of the dark, only partly knowable forces of the individual subconscious and of a superhuman cosmic principle working itself out through the action of the tragedy.
In Desire the leitmotif "thin'" functions to reveal at every turn of the action the transcendent, inscrutable force working through the multiplicity of identifiable human motives in the play.2 The motif is established in scene two where it recurs several times in quick succession. When Eben bitterly accuses Ephraim of having killed his mother, Simeon replies, "No one never kills nobody. It's allus some thin'. That's the murderer." When Eben inquires "What's somethin'?" his brother replies "dunno." In this exchange, the basic significance of the motif is already revealed. Simeon contends not merely that people are the pawns of a force beyond their control, but that this force can only be identified as a "thin'." This recourse to the indefinite pronoun establishes from the outset the essential inscrutability of the fate at work in the play. Of course we are tempted to supply an explanation--Ephraim's grimly irrational Puritan work ethic, perhaps a function of sexual guilt or repression. But it is not his inarticulateness that makes Simeon hesitate to oversimplify the old man's motivation by naming it. And this cryptic generalization echoes throughout the play in characters' attempts to account for their own or each other's actions and to articulate the mysterious influences they sense at work around them.
Still in the second scene Simeon, in asking Eben to explain his long-standing grudge against the elder brothers, remarks that "Year after year it's skulked in yer eye--somethin'." Later in the play Ephraim, recounting to Abbie how he once left his stony New England farm for a rich and easy life in Ohio, only to abandon his crop and return home, explains, "I could 'o been a rich man--but somethin' in me fit me and fit me--the voice of God sayin': 'This hain't wuth nothin' t'Me. Get ye back t'hum!'" (2.2). The tone of wonder in which he exclaims "I actooly give up what was rightful mine!" (2.2) underscores the profoundly incalculable nature of a force that could drive the intensely covetous Ephraim to such an uncongenial act.
The old man, throughout the play, is conscious of a hostile presence in the house: "They's thin's pokin" about in the dark, in the corners" (2.2). "Even the music can't drive it out," he exclaims during the festivities in honor of the baby, "somethin'" (3.1). And finally, after he learns the truth about Eben and Abbie's relationship and the child's paternity: "That was it--what I felt--pokin' around the corners--while ye lied--holdin' yerself from me--sayin' ye'd already conceived.... I felt they was somethin' onnateral--somewhars--the house got so lonesome--an' cold--drivin' me down to the barn--t'the beasts o' the field" (3.4).
The mysterious influence at work on Eben and his father can be identified, at one level, with the avenging spirit of Eben's mother. Having driven Ephraim out of the house, the same "onnateral" force seems to impel Eben toward Abbie in spite of the young man's fierce resistance and to preside over their union in the parlor that is sacred to the dead woman's memory:
Yet to equate the supernatural element of the play absolutely with the mother's ghost, as Racey does (44), oversimplifies O'Neill's tragic cosmology. Eben himself, baffled at first that his mother's ghost should seem to favor a union between him and Abbie, her rival for the land, at last thinks he discerns the spirit's purpose: "I see it! I see why. It's her vengeance on him--so's she can rest quiet in her grave!" (2.3). But we know that in fact this love, while punishing Ephraim, will also destroy the dead woman's beloved son as well as his child. The tragic catastrophe clearly transcends what could conceivably be the will of Eben's mother's ghost. I believe Abbie's frantic rejoinder here, "Vengeance o' God on the hull o' us!" (2.3), provides a clue to the underlying cosmology of the play. As often seems the case in Greek and Elizabethan tragedy,3 there appear to be at least two levels of superhuman forces at work here. First there are the immediate and circumscribed influences impinging directly on the characters--Cabot's Old Testament god, the ghost, the darkly irrational "Desire" of the title. But apparently these fragmentary forces partake of a larger, more remote, more inhuman and inscrutable will. This is what Abbie intimates in emending Eben's explanation of their passion as retribution on Cabot for his cruelty to the dead woman. The deity she evokes here is something much vaster than the petty tyrant Ephraim serves: it is Moira, the ultimate will of the universe itself.
When Eben learns that Abbie has murdered their child, he cries "Maw, where was ye, why didn't ye stop her?" (3.3). Again, it is Abbie who senses the truth: "She went back t'her grave that night we first done it, remember? I hain't felt her about since" (3.3). This observation not only reveals the limited scope of the ghost's influence within the larger cosmic design; it adumbrates something of the relationship between this cosmic design and human justice or morality. Kitto has explained, in analyzing Greek tragedy, that while the logos of the tragic universe includes principles we recognize as "just"--the wicked seldom if ever go unpunished--there are uncharted realms of the cosmic law which transcend human justice (148). In Desire Under the Elms, as in most tragedies, the innocent suffer with the guilty.
In the Iliad, the
anthropomorphic gods, even the mightiest of them, are usually seen
to be clearly subordinate to Moira. Zeus himself bows to this
inexorable force at least twice in relinquishing his determination
first to save the life of his son Sarpendon and later the life of
Hector. Steiner maintains that the Greek Pantheon, representing the
partly intelligible elements of man's destiny, serves as a
"reassuring mask" between us and Fate (5-6).
O'Neill's tragedy reveals a similar cosmology. The principal
Asselineau, Roger. "Desire Under the Elms: A Phase of Eugene O'Neill's Philosophy." Feltschrift Rudolph Stamm zu seinem sechzigsten Geburtstag. Ed. Eduard Kolb and Jörg Hasler. Bern: Franke, 1969.
---. "Mourning Becomes Electra as Tragedy." Modern Drama I (1958): 143-50.
Cargill, Oscar, N. Bryllion Fagin, and William J. Fisher, eds. O'Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism. New York: New York UP, 1961.
Chabrowe, Leonard. Ritual and Pathos--the Theatre of O'Neill. Lewisburg: Bucknel UP, 1976.
Clark, Barrett H. European Theories of the Drama with a Supplement on the American Drama. New York: Crown, 1945.
Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill. New York: Harper, 1960.
Hathorn, Richmond Y. Tragedy, Myth, and Mystery. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1962.
Kitto, H. D. F. Greek Tragedy. 1939. London: Methuen, 1971
Krutch, Joseph Wood. "Eugene O'Neill, the Lonely Revolutionary." Theatre Arts. Apr. 1952: 29-30, 78.
---. Introduction. Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill. New York: Random House, 1932.
Mandel, Josef Lorenz. Gerhart Hauptmann and Eugene O'Neill: A Parallel Study of Their Dramatic Technique in Selected Naturalistic Plays. DAI 37 (1977): 5104-A. U. of North Carolina.
Racey, Edgar F., Jr. "Myth as Tragic Structure in Desire Under the Elms." Modern Drama 5 (1962): 42-46.
Sewell, Richard B. The Vision of Tragedy. New Haven: Yale UP, 1959.
Steiner, George. The Death of Tragedy. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961.
Törnqvist, Egil. A Drama of Souls: Studies in O'Neill's Super-naturalistic Technique. New Haven: Yale UP, 1969.
1 Qtd. in Falk 26 from a manuscript in the Yale University Library.
2 Both Racey (44) and Asselineau ("A Phase of O'Neill's Philosophy" 278-80) discuss the significance of this word in the play.
Especially in Hamlet, where the function of the ghost
seems remarkably similar to that of Eben's mother: its own limited
purpose, vengeance on Claudius, appears as part of a larger
design--one which, in encompassing the prince's own death, runs
counter to what the ghost itself could possibly desire.
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