EUGENE O'NEILL'S INNOVATIVE
Although Eugene O'Neill's ultimate achievement admittedly resides in the late plays of epic proportions such as The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten, the playwright already proved an innovator, an inventor of new forms in his early one-act plays of the sea. Few critics, with the notable exception of Travis Bogard and Paul Voelker, have properly assessed the merits of these seemingly naive works.1 A careful examination of Bound East for Cardiff, The Long Voyage Home, The Moon of the Caribbees and In the Zone suggests, however, important reasons for a critical re-evaluation of these embryonic dramatic experiments.2 Representing in many ways the first outgrowth of O'Neill's novelistic imagination, they are predicated on a highly complex and original notion of dramatic structure, one characterized by a subtle use of the interior monologue or "stream-of-consciousness." Such technique has correspondences to that displayed by Henry James in The Portrait of a Lady, where, in Chapter 42, entitled "Night Vigil," preceding divisions converge through the focal point of the heroine's inner monologue.3 Similarly, O'Neill, having shaped his sea plays as a series of fragmented short scenes, allows his sailors to experience moments of illumination, taking the form of a soliloquy and conferring added coherence upon otherwise loosely-knit dramas.
Naturally, O'Neill's interior monologue, as Peter Egri has correctly observed in his examination of The Hairy Ape, occurs in a modified context.4 As I shall attempt to show here, the soliloquies detectable in that early cycle are either interrupted by lines addressed to a second character or by purely factual plot incidents. While this feature often blurs the very existence of O'Neill's asides, merged as they are within the overall pattern of physical action, a thorough investigation of these short dramas nonetheless permits one to isolate passages written in the "stream-of-consciousness" mode. Such speeches share with conventional inner monologues a tendency to locate the center of gravity in the ego of the character and to lay emphasis on the free-associational, indeed oscillating emotions of the protagonist. It is to the study of O'Neill's initial endeavors to translate in the drama the novelistic "stream-of-consciousness," a feature of his style even more fully developed in Strange Interlude and The Iceman Cometh, that I want to devote these pages.
In Bound East for Cardiff, O'Neill focuses on a poor, dying sailor named Yank, who filters reality through the prism of his imagination. Although physical plot incidents still exist in that playlet, the central character's memory performs a predominant role in the structural framework. In other words, the dramatist constantly invites the spectator to sympathize with Yank's subjective vision of the universe, and consequently, the play owes the quality of its action to the protagonist's haunting presence.
In the first scene, which contains exposition material, a sailor named Cocky tells boastful stories to his unbelieving shipmates. Driscoll, in announcing that Yank has been injured, suddenly brings to an end the preceding quiet episode. Davis, yet another sailor, informs his friends of the circumstances which caused the accident:
After listening to Davis, the crew members, realizing that Yank will die before reaching port, gradually succumb to despondency.
O'Neill subsequently heightens the atmosphere of anguish emanating from Yank's tragic plight in the second short scene of the play. In a confrontation between Yank and Driscoll, his deathbed companion, the latter painstakingly seeks to persuade the former that he will survive:
The third division of Bound East for Cardiff powerfully dramatized Yank's helplessness in front of mortality. The character emerges as a victim of fate when the Captain and the second mate, who have just entered the forecastle, prove unable to bring him relief from his sufferings:
Clearly, then, in order to prepare his audience for the inevitable ending, O'Neill establishes a sense of progression within his one-act play. After witnessing the scene between Yank, the Captain and the second mate, the spectator understands that the sailor cannot avoid death any more than he can escape the narrow confines of the forecastle.
In the fourth scene, which constitutes a moving moment of illumination, Yank is eventually reconciled to the thought of his approaching demise. O'Neill remarkably structures this dramatic tableau like an "interior monologue" as Yank's mind deals successively with recollections of his past life, oncoming annihilation, remorse, and future divine retribution:
In the end, Yank's hallucination takes the shape of a theatrical image summarizing the significance of the entire one-act: the "pretty lady dressed in black" can be interpreted as a symbol of the death that has threatened the hero from the beginning of the action.
The fifth part, functioning as a coda, aptly translates the final mood of dejection through a poignant visual image, that of Driscoll bending over his friend's body: "DRISCOLL (with a great sob): Yank! (he sinks down on his knees beside the bunk, his head on his hands. His lips move in some half-remembered prayer)" (p. 50). The melancholy tone of this final scene comes to an abrupt end, however, as Cocky enthusiastically announces the lifting of the fog, a symbol of the termination of Yank's spiritual journey.
If Bound East for Cardiff represents O'Neill's first attempts at transposing into the drama the novelistic technique of the "interior monologue," it is even more important to recognize the playwright's ability to infuse that "stream-of-consciousness" with a scenic quality. Not only is O'Neill's inner monologue verbal, as in Yank's evocation of his part adventures; It also results from a projection onto the stage of the hero's state of mind through purely theatrical means of expression. Indeed, one could argue that the "pretty lady dressed in black," Yank's last vision, would achieve added dramatic impact upon the spectator if it were given a tangible scenic reality through appropriate lighting devices, an option that O'Neill's text seems to permit. This double-sided "interior monologue," then, serves as a converging point for the successive short scenes that the drama contains. Viewed in that perspective, Bound East for Cardiff qualifies as a cornerstone in the development of the American theatre, which prior to 1914 had offered merely conventional and melodramatic plot lines.
In The Long Voyage Home, O'Neill develops a structural pattern comparable to that which he had created in Bound East for Cardiff. A series of short divisions, replete with physical action, again find coherence through the unifying role of Olson's central confession, taking the form of a modified "interior monologue."
The opening scene of The Long Voyage Home fulfills the purpose of exposition. Joe, the proprietor of a bar, and a mysterious man named Nick seek to attract sailors in order to shanghai them, In the second part of the one-act, one witnesses the entrance of crew members from the S.S. Glencairn--Driscoll, Cocky, Ivan and Olson. The last spontaneously tells his shipmates that he would like to return to his native country and see his mother one last time before she dies. After the entrance of girls in the third scene, all the sailors but Olson leave for a dance. In the fourth tableau, O'Neill confronts Olson with Freda, a whore, while Joe, remaining hidden in the back of the room, functions as a figure of bad-omen for the Swedish sailor. Besides telling Freda of his childhood and of a troubled love-affair, Olson also explains his vision of the sailor's predicament at large. Through the image of Olson's inability to escape his desperate situation, expressed in a moving inner monologue, O'Neill hints at the sense of fate crushing mankind:
This emotionally intense passage, which could be regarded as the central moment of illumination in the drama, synthesizes the tragic aspect of Olson's plight, i.e., the conflict between expectations and reality. In the following short divisions, Olson, unable to resist the temptation always to drink, diminishes his chances of escape. When in Scene V, two rough-looking strangers mention the "Amindra," another ship at anchor in the harbor, the spectator understands that the drama draws to a close. Indeed, in the sixth part, the hero is taken to that foreign vessel. The ending of the play derives its pathos from the indifference of Driscoll, who in Scene VII apparently fails to respond to Olson's tragedy. While he imagines that the latter merely enjoys himself with girls, we, as spectators, know that the Swedish sailor's pursuit of happiness can never be fulfilled.
Like Bound East for Cardiff, then, The Long Voyage Home acquires internal unity through the filtering process of Olson's consciousness. Characteristically, Olson's "interior monologue," like that of Yank, is modified through the presence of a second speaker, in this case Freda, to whom the hero's speech is apparently addressed. Olson's confession, however, clearly retains the emotional intensity, the personal nature, and the oscillating structure generally associated with a novelistic "inner monologue." In contrast to Bound East for Cardiff, the interior monologue of this second drama achieves its best expression in O'Neill's purely verbal rendering of his hero's rambling thoughts--a dramatic moment that continues to haunt the spectator's imagination until the play is over.
Although O'Neill's transposition of the novelistic "interior monologue" in the two one-acts analyzed thus far reveals a certain degree of complexity, it possesses a perhaps more embryonic nature in The Moon of the Caribbees and especially In the Zone. In many ways, one could argue that The Moon of the Caribbees reflects the dream of its brooding hero, Smitty. Indeed, that protagonist remains present on stage from beginning to end, observing the carousing sailors, while rarely taking part himself in the action. In that fashion, O'Neill succeeds in offering us a distant view of the plot incidents of the play, a vision corresponding to that of Smitty's imagination. It is precisely in that aspect of his craftsmanship that O'Neill manages to introduce in his drama analogies with Jamesian interior monologue.
In the first part of The Moon of the Caribbees, short dramatic moments supersede one another rapidly. In the exposition scene, O'Neill introduces us to sailors in need of "booze" and women. While the second division depicts the arrival of girls aboard the S.S. Glencairn and their subsequent retreat into the forecastle, the third tableau consists of an encounter between Smitty and the Donkeyman. In that passage, Smitty opens his soul to the audience in speeches which, centering on the character's ego, bear affinities with Henry James's inner monologue. As in Bound East for Cardiff, O'Neill modifies the novelistic "stream-of-consciousness," inasmuch as the Donkeyman elicits and responds to Smitty's confession:
Clearly, this confrontation, revolving around Smitty's free-associational mode of thought, lends coherence to the drama, which had previously offered unrelated and melodramatic scenes. The fourth part, however, bespeaks a vivid sense of contrast through its representation of the sailors' fight. A member of the crew is stabbed before the mate puts an end to the argument in Scene V. But as the play ends, the action reverts to Smitty's state of mind, the rhythms slow down again, and O'Neill invites us to recognize that Smitty is profoundly distressed by the events he has witnessed on board. As his character leaves the stage, the dramatist stresses the role of the moon as an agent of fate:
Such a final note, based on a theatrical mode of expression, recalls in emotional intensity Smitty's earlier inner monologues, with which it shares a concern for the hero's state of consciousness.
The Moon of the Caribbees, however, differs from Bound East for Cardiff in its more embryonic rendering of the "linguistic" aspect of the "stream-of-consciousness," evident in the shortness of Smitty's soliloquy. Here, O'Neill's modified inner monologue, which normally bridges the gap between aside and dialogue, verges towards dialogue, as the Donkeyman's and Smitty's lines interact to a greater extent than those of the characters in Bound East for Cardiff. From that viewpoint The Moon of the Caribbees marks a transition to In the Zone, although it still resembles Bound East for Cardiff in its skillful translation of the novelistic aside by means of scenic language. O'Neill's "brooding music" represents a theatrical equivalent of Smitty's psychological turmoil, which had found an outlet in more conventional inner monologues a few moments prior to the coda.
Like its companion pieces of the "S.S. Glencairn" cycle, In the Zone relies on a fragmented type of structure. Nonetheless, it never fails to fascinate reader and spectator alike through its compelling presentation of suspense.
The first scene conveys most of the expository material as the sailors discuss the danger they are facing: their British tramp steamer has reached the so-called war zone and is thus threatened, loaded as as it is with ammunition, by enemy submarines. O'Neill convincingly dramatizes the sailors' fears and their concomitant suspicions concerning Smitty, a character isolated from the group. The latter progressively becomes an object of hate for his shipmates. Indeed, in the second scene, Davis tells his friends that he has seen Smitty "lookin' around sneakin'-like at Ivan and Swanson..." (p. 89). In the third part, the men remove, from under Smitty's bunk, a box which supposedly contains a bomb. Having then persuaded his colleagues that Smitty is a dangerous spy, Davis invents stories to substantiate his claim:
When Smitty enters the forecastle in Scene IV, to check if his box is safe, the sailors' doubts are confirmed. Suddenly, in the fifth division, a heavy thud against the ship heightens the tension: the men "start to their feet in wild-eyed terror and turn as if they were going to rush for the deck" (p. 95). Unnerved by such a false alarm, the sailors resume plotting against Smitty, tie him down in Scene VI, and reach for his keys in order to open the mysterious box. Ostensibly, they tend to over-react to the war crisis, seeking as they do to find a victim allowing them to objectify their fright. While the seventh division, which could be termed "anti-climatic," expresses the sailors' disappointment at having found mere love letters in Smitty's box, Davis attempts to regain control of the situation in the eighth:
Although in the ninth tableau, Driscoll agrees with Davis to read further, Scene X clearly conveys that nothing could definitely be learned from these love messages. Because the spectator comes to know more about Smitty's past, however, this particular scene constitutes a moment of illumination, one in which O'Neill reveals part of the mystery hovering around his protagonist:
In part XI, the coda of In the Zone, Smitty sobs over his shattered love-affair while Driscoll discovers a dried-up rose in the hero's letters. The tension thus resolves itself through the sentimental symbol of the rose, which synthesizes the character's psychic ordeal.
The action of In the Zone, as revealed through a progression of some eleven short divisions, corresponds to an ironical process of discovery. Eventually the sailors, unable to find out truth, are obliged to recognize their utter ignorance. Here, as in the other playlets of the "S.S. Glencairn" cycle, O'Neill organizes the fragmented parts of his drama within a somewhat unusual framework, that of the central hero's consciousness, which then functions as a unifying agent. Although in this one-act the playwright does not use the "stream-of-consciousness" technique in a consistent fashion, he still manages to render the crisis from the main character's viewpoint. If we come to know about Smitty's past life through Driscoll's reading of the protagonists's letters, we can perceive Smitty's perspective in Scene XI, where he sobs in isolation. One could argue that this dramatic moment, to which all the threads of the play converge, records, like Henry James's novelistic "interior monologue," the tensions manifest in the working of the individual psyche. Moreover, Smitty's emotions permeate the entire structure of the work, so that In the Zone, in spite of its heavy reliance on physical action, still retains some of the characteristics of O'Neill's "stream-of-consciousness," albeit in a more embryonic form than in the other dramas of the "S.S. Glencairn" cycle. If The Moon of the Caribbees could be called Smitty's dream, then In the Zone could be regarded as the same character's nightmare.
In the one-acts of the "S.S. Glencairn" cycle, O'Neill experiments with various modes of transposing to the drama the novelistic interior monologue. While in Bound East for Cardiff he resorts, as I have shown, to modified monologues with both linguistic and scenic variants, in The Long Voyage Home he adheres merely to the linguistic version of the "stream-of-consciousness." In The Moon of the Caribbees, the double-sided inner monologue detectable in Bound East for Cardiff re-emerges, with perhaps a greater emphasis on its scenic counterpart. Finally, In the Zone presents only embryonic passages, written in the "interior monologue" method. O'Neill's struggle to devise dramatic equivalents for the novelistic monologue was to take even more important dimensions in Strange Interlude, where soliloquies are separated from the main text through typographical devices. Eventually, The Iceman Cometh reflects the artist's ability to fuse harmoniously the linguistic and scenic elements of his interior monologues.
Critics have often compared O'Neill's asides with those used by modernists like James Joyce, especially in Ulysses.6 I submit, however, that O'Neill's early inner monologues can be better understood by comparison with those of Henry James. In The Portrait of a Lady, James seems to lay the first foundations of the "stream-of-consciousness" method, which writers such as Woolf and Joyce would subsequently develop along more complex, indeed modernistic lines. It is undoubtedly against the pioneering, realistic efforts of James that O'Neill's naturalistic soliloquies can best be measured. Through his innovative craftsmanship, then, O'Neill managed to confer unity upon the fragmented divisions of his sea one-acts. Without a skillful rendering of the characters' interior monologues, the dramatist's playlets would not have escaped the trappings of melodrama and would have centered on superficial plot incidents. Studying the plays of the "S.S. Glencairn" cycle from the viewpoint of the "stream-of-consciousness" sheds new light on the nature of the continuity linking these four one-acts. Depending on the device of the interior monologue to a lesser extent than its companion pieces, In the Zone appear, therefore less integrated within the overall pattern typifying O'Neill's cycle.7 Demonstrating in the "S.S. Glencairn" dramas deep affinities with experimental novelistic concepts, O'Neill emerges as a playwright who, at the dawn of the twentieth-century, was evolving the modes of expression recurring in various guises throughout subsequent American drama.
1See Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 3-130; and Paul Duane Voelker, "The Early Plays of Eugene O'Neill (1913-1915)," diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1974.
2The chronology of the composition of these four playlets, commonly referred to as the "S.S. Glencairn" cycle, can be found in Egil Törnqvist, A Drama of Souls: Studies in O'Neill's Super-Naturalistic Technique (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), pp. 256ff. In my discussion of the structure of these dramas, I shall adopt a somewhat unusual sequence. In this fashion, however, structural resemblances between the four playlets will emerge more clearly.
3I have discussed more fully the analogies between Strange Interlude and The Portrait of a Lady in an article entitled "Communication as Translation of the Self: Jamesian Inner Monologue in O'Neill's Strange Interlude (1927)," in Gilbert Debusscher and Jean-Pierre van Noppen, eds. Communicating and Translating,: Essays in Honour of Jean Dierickx (Bruxelles: Editions de l'Université de Bruxelles, 1985), pp. 319-328.
4Peter Egri's definition of O'Neill's modified interior monologue can be found in his article entitled "'Belonging' Lost: Alienation and Dramatic Form in Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape," in James J. Martine, ed. Critical Essays on Eugene O'Neill (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984), pp. 77-111. See especially pp. 96-97.
5Subsequent page references from the playlets of the "S.S. Glencairn" cycle refer to the following edition: Eugene O'Neill, Seven Plays of the Sea (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), pp. 1-107.
6See for instance Normand Berlin in Eugene O'Neill (New York: Grove Press, 1982), pp. 97-98.
7In an article entitled The Unity of O'Neill's 'S.S. Glencairn,'" American Literature, 37 (Nov. 1965), pp. 280-290, Dilworth R. Rust envisions the unity of the dramas I am dealing with from the perspective of setting (the sea as a negative force), of character (Driscoll as a unifying figure), and of thematic substance. In this respect, he detects three essential themes running through the cycle: first, the escape through irresponsibility; second, the isolation in atypical social circumstances; and, third, the defeat by a paradoxical confinement in a life of freedom. The main contribution of my paper, then, is the examination of the structural coherence of the cycle.
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