THE JUNGLE BOOKS AND O'NEILL*
O'Neill's biographers have often pointed out his early interest in Kipling.1 He said to have called one of his classmates "Mowgli" after the hero of the Jungle Books.2 and there are references to Kipling's works in some of the plays themselves.3 Further. O'Neill once confessed that his early poems were imitative of Kipling's.4 But he said nothing about the influence of Kipling's stories on his plays; and since critics have perpetuated the playwright's silence, the influence has never been explored. A good starting point for such an exploration would be the Jungle Books,5 which O'Neill read with great zest in his teens.
The Jungle Books tell the story of Mowgli, an Indian boy, who grows up in the jungle sheltered by Father Wolf and Mother Wolf. The O'Neill play with perhaps the most in common with the Kipling story is The Hairy Ape. The protagonists of both works confront a comparable identity crisis. Each has a false sense of belonging which is shaken at a critical moment. Mowgli believes that he is as much a part of the jungle as any other animal; but he loses this sense of harmony when the wolf brothers disown him in the presence of the man-eating tiger Shere Khan. O'Neill's Yank is under a similar initial delusion that he is steel, and part of the ship's mechanism. He is sure that he "belongs" until Mildred Douglas appears in the stokehole and. watching his savage gestures, calls him a "filthy beast" with swooning aversion.
Both Mowgli and Yank make desperate attempts to regain their lost sense of belonging. Mowgli lives for a brief spell in a village as an adopted child. But the village also rejects him, for he is often found conversing with animals. When some men chase and attempt to kill him, he is compelled to return to the jungle. His search for his true home is thus an unending odyssey, and he finds the conflict between his natural human impulses and his acquired animal traits too hard to resolve. In O'Neill's play, Yank is impatient to prove to himself that he is not just a "filthy beast" but someone with a social identity and strength. But he is rejected or put to shame by all the groups with which he tries to establish rapport. His shipmates make fun of his haggard appearance; fellow prisoners ignore him as "one off his nut" (Plays III, 241); and the members of the I.W.W. suspect him of being "a spy, [a] rotten agent provocator" (Plays III, 249). Disowned and disgraced by human society, Yank tries to go back to the state of Paleolithic man, who lived in harmony with animals in forests. He extends his hand to the gorilla in the zoo in a gesture of friendship. But the gorilla, too, fails him: it crushes him to death.
Mowgli and Yank retaliate against those who insult or ill-treat them. When his wolf-brothers desert him and become intimate with the tiger Shere Khan, Mowgli brings fire in a pot ("the red flower," as the panther Bagheera calls it) and, blowing air into it, frightens them. Later, he lures Shere Khan into a gully and has him trampled to death. When the villagers prepare to kill the couple who had adopted him, Mowgli lets all his animal companions into the village. Whereas Mowgli thus succeeds in his revenge, O'Neill's Yank doesn't. His plans fall through, no one comes to his aid, and with a vengeance he lets himself be crushed by the gorilla.6
There are some nearly identical scenes in the Jungle Books and The Hairy Ape. Towards the end of The Second Jungle Book, a girl confronts Mowgli and the Gray Brothers as they stray very close to the village (JB.II, 183):
Mildred in The Hairy Ape is also dressed in white when she descends into the ship's stokehole. Her fainting at the sight of Yank dyed in coal is like the village girl's scream as she confronts Mowgli and the Gray Brother.
In the first Jungle Book, some gray apes befriend Mowgli and take him to a desolate, ruined city. They relax in circles in the hall of the King's Council Chamber and comment on the follies of other animals. Their slogan is, "we are great; we are free; we are wonderful" (JB.I, 48). Though this scene has no specific parallel in The Hairy Ape, it nevertheless foreshadows the general temper of the play. Most of the scenes in The Hairy Ape present social groups, like the ship's crew, the inmates of the Blackwells Island prison, and the members of the I.W.W. collective; and almost every group indulges in a kind of loose talk and criticism like the monkeys in the Kipling story. Whereas Kipling's gray apes claim to be superior to other animals, O'Neill's men have descended to the level of apes.
There is an abundance of animal imagery in The Hairy Ape, which underscores the idea that machine-fettered man has made an ape of himself; and a good deal of the imagery is foreshadowed in the Jungle Books. The play's title obviously recalls "the gray apes," the class name by which the monkeys are known in the jungle. In Scene II, when Mildred's aunt advises her to be as artificial as a sophisticated New York-bred girl of her background usually is, Mildred agrees with her aunt and says:
Mildred's analogy has something of the song of the bear Baloo in it:
One is further reminded here of another Kipling story, "How the Leopard Got His Spots."7
Commenting on his play, O'Neill once said that "it was a symbol of man, who has lost his old harmony with nature, the harmony which he used to have as an animal...."8 Kipling's jungle, perhaps not coincidentally, is just such a place of felt harmony. There are laws in the jungle which Mowgli learns from Baloo: such laws of nature as "Strike first and then give tongue" (JB.I, 22), and "Oppress not the cubs of the stranger" (JB.I, 31). Mowgli also enjoys this harmony with nature for a short period. But man has lost his right to live with the birds and beasts of the jungle. He has betrayed the jungle and created his own laws. Mowgli is therefore treated with a difference as he grows up, and he feels alienated from his own wolf brothers. Such is Yank's tragedy too: the gorilla cannot accept him.
O'Neill's ship is like a zoo inhabited by hairy apes. Conversely, Kipling's jungle is like a disciplined society, a place of law and order. It is this ironic reversal of the two works' respective backgrounds that lends some identical qualities to Mowgli and Yank, who are otherwise very different from each other.
The Jungle Books-Hairy Ape parallelism cannot be stretched beyond a point: Kipling's is a simple but thought-provoking fable, while O'Neill's is an innovative play that employs a number of sophisticated techniques of presentation. Further, Kipling's story does not end on a dismal note: Mowgli realizes that in village as well as jungle there are some who love him deeply, and his eventual problem is only that of making a choice. The Hairy Ape, on the other hand, is a play of terrible despair, of futile struggle: Yank's quest for identity ends in a virtual suicide. And the Jungle Books have apparently nothing to do with the age of technology, whereas the O'Neill play is essentially about the predicament of man in the machine age. Kipling, too, however, wrote a great deal about steamships, machines and the like; and some of his poems anticipate Yank's glorification of steel and the ship's engine:
Another O'Neill play that bears a fractional resemblance to the Jungle Books is The Emperor Jones. Apart from the shared jungle background, there is one situation in the Kipling story that is paralleled in the play. The villagers, including the priest, fear that Mowgli's presence in their midst is dangerous; and some of them, headed by the experienced hunter Buldeo, chase him. Buldeo shoots at Mowgli, but his usually unerring pistol misfires and the deflected bullet kills Buldeo's own buffalo. Mowgli is thereby suspected of being a sorcerer who can divert the paths of bullets. In the play, Brutus Jones recalls to Smithers how he became the Emperor of the island by his intelligence. During the "revolution" a sharpshooter hired by the leader, Lem, had aimed a shot at Jones when standing just ten feet away from him. The pistol misfired, Jones shot back and killed the hired gunman, and made the surprised islanders believe that he was impervious to all but silver bullets---a "big lie" that brought him to the throne itself.
O'Neill once recalled that the idea of the silver bullet came to him from an old circus man's story about President Sam of Haiti. When a revolution had broken out, Sam had boasted that it would take a silver bullet to kill him.12 One need not challenge O'Neill's account of his source to suggest that the Kipling story may also have been in his mind when he wrote The Emperor Jones: two sources can be complementary to each other.
These instances of parallelism between the Jungle Books and O'Neill's plays, together with the evidence of the playwright's early acquaintance with the older story, do not fully confirm Kipling's influence on O'Neill. Even if the influence can be suspected, its nature cannot be inferred from a few identical situations and images. Influence is a subtle process. A creative writer is simultaneously exposed to a number of works, whose scenes and details often get intermingled, fused or transformed in his mind. And this is what appears to have happened in O'Neill's case. It is therefore rather pointless to consider Kipling's influence in isolation.
O'Neill read Jack London, Conrad
and Kipling around the same period--roughly from 1897 to 1908.13
These three writers have a lot in common: the sea and the jungle
loom large as backgrounds in a number of their stories, and
civilized man's regression to a primitive mode of living under
compelling circumstances is a recurrent and shared theme. Jack
London's Call of the Wild, Conrad's Heart of Darkness
and Amy Foster, and Kipling's Jungle Books have to be
considered together in tracing the influences on The Emperor
Jones and The Hairy Ape. Critics have mentioned all of
these works except the Jungle Books in relation to O'Neill's
It is strange, however, that a dramatist should be influenced by short stories rather than plays. Here it is worth remembering that one of the requirements in George Pierce Baker's playwriting course at Harvard, which O'Neill took for one year, was the adaptation for the stage of a chosen short story.17 O'Neill seems to have become fond of this method, for he wrote down the themes of some of his plays--including The Hairy Ape--first as short stories.18 Though he did not think very highly of Baker's course, it did act as a link between fiction and drama, between the genre O'Neill enjoyed reading in his youth and the genre on which he was to devote his own creative energies.
*A paper delivered at the conference on "Eugene O'Neill--the Early Years" at Suffolk University in Boston on March 22, 1984.
1Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), pp. 79-80: Barrett H. Clark, Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays (New York: Dover, 1947). p. 14: Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Playwright (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968), p. 69.
2Gelbs, p. 67.
3Kipling is mentioned in Ah, Wilderness! [The Plays of Eugene O'Neill. 3 Vols. (New York: Random House, 1954-55), II, 198.] This is the edition used in the present study and will hereafter be parenthetically cited as Plays. Jamie in Long Day's Journey Into Night (1956; rpt. London: Jonathan Cape. 1970) quotes a poem by Kipling (p. 136).
4Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Artist (Boston: Little. Brown, 1973), p. 578.
5There are two books which are together called The Jungle Books. The present study is based on the following editions. Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book (1894; rpt. London: Macmillan, 1964), and The Second Jungle Book (1895; rpt. London: Macmillan. 1971). Hereafter these will be cited parenthetically as JB.I and JB.II respectively.
6In the first conception of the play O'Neill had planned a different ending. Yank returns to his ship without his original faith but unable to find a place where he belongs better. (See Gelbs, p. 489.) This is closer to the ending of the Jungle Books.
7Rudyard Kipling, Just So Stories (1902; rpt. London: Macmillan, 1958), pp. 41-56.
8Clark, p. 84.
9Rudyard Kipling's Verse: Definitive Edition (1940; rpt. London: Hodder and-Stoughton, 1969), p. 728.
10Ibid., p. 729.
11Ibid., p. 508.
12Gelbs, pp. 438-439.
13Clark, p. 14; Gelbs, pp. 79-80.
14E.g., Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972), p. 135. See also William R. Brashear, "'Tomorrow' and 'Tomorrow': Conrad and O'Neill," Renascence, 20:1 (Autumn 1967), 18-21 and 55.
15Clark, p. 83. See also Bogard, p. 244.
16Sheaffer, Son and Artist, p. 76. See also Bogard, p. 244.
17Gelbs, p. 270.
18Gelbs, p. 488.
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