WHITE DREAMS, BLACK NIGHTMARES:
Eugene O'Neill's place in the mainstream of this country's literature remains largely unexamined, while his affinities with foreign writers are discussed again and again. Yet he influenced numerous American authors. He had, for example, a decisive impact on Souther novelists. Thomas Wolfe singled him out as "the beacon light in our own drama today"1 and remembered the tortured, romantic figures of Robert Mayo and Dion Anthony when he created Eugene Gant. Carson McCullers remarked in an interview, "When someone asks me who has influenced my work, I point to O'Neill, the Russians, Faulkner, Flaubert."2 Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood is surely indebted to The Hairy Ape, particularly the scene in which Enoch, who wants so desperately to belong, embraces a giant gorilla, in reality an antisocial actor in an animal suit. Finally, consider William Faulkner, who lavishly praised O'Neill in an essay written in the early twenties Declaring O'Neill to be "the one man who is accomplishing anything in American drama,"3 Faulkner commented favorably on the Glencairn plays, Gold, Diff'rent, The Straw and Anna Christie, and singled out The Emperor Jones for the force of its language.
In previous articles I have discussed the "O'Neill-Faulkner connection," documenting the Influence the playwright had on the novelist.4 It is not my intention here to cover ground mapped out previously, but rather to study in detail two works about blacks, All God's Chillun Got Wings and Light in August. Play and novel tell nearly identical stories, and the parallels between them are numerous, in technique as well as characterization. Such similarities indicate that All God's Chillun made a considerable impact on Faulkner.
The black is a stock character in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American drama, usually a shuffling figure of burlesque and embarrassment. In such plays as Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon (1859) and Edward Sheldon's The Nigger (1909), for example, we find lamentably stereotyped characterizations of the black man--happy-go-lucky, lazy, and stupid--just as we do in the vast majority of novels written during this period. Two notable exceptions, however, are All God's Chillun Got Wings (published and produced in 1924) and Light in August (1932). Jim Harris and Joe Christmas are unusual characters because, though black, they are portrayed as human beings, sensitive and baffled men who struggle to understand the prejudiced world in which they live. O'Neill and Faulkner are concerned, however, with more than bigotry; the writers explore Jim's and Joe's lack of racial as well as individual identity, shown in the protagonists' repeated rejection of black culture and values in favor of those in the white world.
All God's Chillun Got Wings represents an advance not only in O'Neill's ability to create credible blacks but in the importance he gave them. The dramatist first cast a black man in Thirst (1914), an unfortunate play that included a silent, rather stupid, cannibalistic savage; we feel only relief when he tumbles into the shark-infested sea. In The Moon of the Caribbees (1918) black women bring sex and liquor to a ship of white, "civilized" sailors, and we watch the men revert to beasts. Though the natives are the catalysts for the men's behavior, none of the women is developed fully; as in Thirst, the black embodies only negative qualities and remains on the periphery of the action, still "unsuitable" for the role of protagonist. In The Dreamy Kid (1919), however, O'Neill focuses on a black, a young man who leaves the place of his birth and childhood and moves himself and his family to New York City. When his underworld dealings force him to kill a white man, Dreamy wants to run away but cannot leave his grandmother for fear that disobeying her dying wishes will bring him bad luck for the rest of his life. O'Neill unfortunately suggests that Dream's superstitious nature, which causes him to stay when he could flee and escape certain death, is a direct result of his skin color. At the bedside of his dying grandmother, the symbol of the black heritage he has discarded, Dreamy sees his white dreams culminate in failure.
Such is the fate of Brutus Jones, the swaggering black of The Emperor Jones (1920), who forsakes his race in order to attain his white dream of wealth and comfort. Full of pride, Jones brags that the model for his quest came from the white world. "For de little stealin'," he tells Smithers, "dey Bits you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin' dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o' Fame when you croaks. (Reminiscently) If dey's one thing I learns in ten years on de Pullman ca's listenin' to de white quality talk, it's dat same fact" (Vol. 1, I, I, p. 178).5 In the course of eight scenes, however, O'Neill literally and figuratively strips Jones of his whiteness.
In All God's Chillun Got Wings O'Neill leaves behind the exotic jungle setting of The Emperor Jones, returns to the cityscape of The Dreamy Kid, and expands his subject from a one-act to a full-length play. This time his main character is a black man who thinks white is beautiful, who wants to be white, who aspires to white ambitions, and who loves a white woman. He is a black man for whom "[a]ll love is white." Shunned by whites, Jim Harris is scorned equally by blacks; like Yank Smith, he might well ask, "Christ, where do I get off at? Where do I fit in?" That O'Neill considered Harris not only a protagonist worthy of pity but a suitable figure for tragedy was indeed an iconoclastic stance in 1924. The real furor began, however, when it became known that a black man--rather than a white actor in black face--would star in the role. When the American public learned a white actress was to kiss a black man's hand, there was pandemonium: hate mail, death threats to O'Neill from the Ku Klux Klan, and an injunction from the mayor of New York City forbidding children to act in the play. The uproar occasioned by this production was of international proportions, reaching as far as the Soviet Union where Russian director Alexander Tairov championed the play and interpreted it as an "exposť" of the "class problem; in America as well as a warning to his own country about the consequences of prejudice.6
William Faulkner, a Southerner who saw racial hatred on a day-to-day basis and grew up in a region that was the setting for several lynchings,7 reveals in his fiction a preoccupation with the black as early as Soldiers' Pay (1926) and as late as The Reivers (1962). In the South at the time Faulkner was growing up, the black was considered inferior to the white in every respect, and in some of his writing Faulkner shares this traditional view. Consider, for example, the eye-rolling, moon-faced porter in Soldier's Pay, or Miss Jenny's comic, bumbling, slow-moving driver in Sartoris (1929). On the other hand, as though to compensate for such blatantly deficient characters, Faulkner displays a tendency to idealize blacks, making them paragons of patience, goodness, and faith. Such a figure is Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury (1929), the sole embodiment of love in a loveless family. She is, however, no more a flesh-and-blood black than his earlier, less flattering sketches. Years later, in the curious play/novel Requiem for a Nun (1951), Faulkner casts a black prostitute and dope addict as the savior of white society and, once again, fashions an abstract, allegorical figure rather than a real-life woman. Creating blacks who were also human beings was obviously difficult for Faulkner.
Inspired perhaps by the boldness of All God's Chillun Got Wings, Faulkner directly confronts the racial problem in Light in August and creates a character who is literally a contradiction in terms: a white black, a man who looks white but is convinced "black blood" flows in his veins. The fact that we are never sure if he actually has black blood underlines, of course, the irony of the entire question of race. Aspiring to live like whites, Joe Christmas fails; willing himself to become a part of the black world, he also fails. Like Jim Harris, Christmas fits in nowhere; both men are, in a sense, schizophrenics, divided between white dreams and black nightmares. Black and white are at war in both works, but more within the protagonists themselves than among the characters.
As children Jim Harris and Joe Christmas are insecure and out of place. When very young, Harris is called "Jim Crow" by whites and blacks alike, mocked because he is devoted to Ella. Gazing longingly at Ella's pink-and-white complexion, Jim confides, "I been drinkin' lots o' chalk 'n' water tree times a day. Dat Tom, de barber, he tole me dat make me white, if I drink enough" (Vol. 2, I, i, p. 304). Metaphorically, Jim will continue to drink chalk water all his life, though he confesses, "Dat chalk only makes me feel kinder sick inside" (I, i, p. 304). In spite of his difficulty in graduating from high school, he is obsessed with the white--and ultimately unattainable--goal of becoming a lawyer. "I swear I know more'n any member of my class," Jim claims. "I ought to, I study harder. I work like the devil. It's all in my head--all fine and correct to a T. Then when I'm called on--I stand up--all the white faces looking at me--and I can feel their eyes--I hear my own voice sounding funny, trembling--and all of a sudden it's all gone in my head--there's nothing remembered--and I hear myself stuttering--and give up--sit down--" (I, iii, p. 316). Like Faulkner's Joe, O'Neill's Jim struggles with the nonbeing of blackness, a lack of identity perceived by whites and reflected back to the black man himself.
Jim is as much an outsider In his own family as he is in the classroom. His mother is a conservative who believes "[d]e white and de black shouldn't mix too close. Dere's one road where de white goes on alone; dere's anudder road where de black goes on alone--" (II, i, p. 323). Mrs. Harris asks only to be left alone; she expects whites to be prejudiced and does not dwell on what to her is a normal state of affairs. Neither does Jim agree with Hattie, his militant, separatist sister who declares, "We don't deserve happiness till we've fought the fight of our race and won it!" (II, I, p. 324). Though Jim's father is dead, his photograph provides a succinct summary of character: "[A]n elderly negro with an able, shrewd face but dressed in an outlandish lodge regalia, a get-up adorned with medals, sashes, a docked hat with frills--the whole effect as absurd to contemplate as one of Napoleon's Marshals in full uniform" (II, i, p. 322). Having made money in a profession "suitable" to his color, Mr. Harris, too, had been apart from his son. Already acutely different from parents and sister, Joe's precarious familial ties are dissolved even further when he marries white Ella Downey.
Faulkner's Joe Christmas is also bereft of a place in his family. Illegitimate and disowned because his grandfather suspects black blood, Joe is sent to an orphanage where, at the age of five, he undergoes the experience that irrevocably and irredeemably shapes his future. We see in All God's Chillun that Jim Harris is attracted to everything that is the opposite of his darkness, especially Ella's pink complexion. "[I]t's--it's purty," the envious Jim declares. "It's outa sight!" Quite similarly, Joe Christmas is drawn irresistibly to the dietician and to her tube of pink toothpaste, surely one of the more imaginative phallic symbols a writer has invented: "He was watching the pink worm coil smooth and cool and slow onto his parchmentcolored finger when he heard footsteps.... The dietician was ... young, a little fullbodied, smooth, pink-and-white, making his mind think of the diningroom, making his mouth think of something sweet and sticky to eat, and also pinkcolored and surreptitious."8 Joe crouches helplessly in the "fecundsmelling" clothes closet, trapped, listening to but not understanding the sounds of sexual intercourse. Like a ravenous animal, he stuffs the pink toothpaste into his mouth, fear making him oblivious to the amount he eats: "At once the paste which he had already swallowed lifted inside him, trying to get back out, into the air where it was cool. It was no longer sweet. In the rife, pinkwomansmelling obscurity behind the curtain he squatted, pinkfoamed, listening to his insides, waiting with astonished fatalism for what was about to happen to him" (p. 107). Joe's illness announces his presence, and he is dragged violently out of his vomit to confront "a face no longer smooth pink-and-white, surrounded now by wild and dishevelled hair whose smooth bands once made him think of candy. 'You little rat!' the thin, furious voice hissed; 'you little rat! Spying on me! You little nigger bastard!'" (p. 107).
Joe's future experiences with women are foreshadowed in the dietician's "pinkfoamed" closet, Just as Jim Harris's are determined by his ardent envy of Ella's pink-and-white complexion, that quintessential expression of not-blackness. Christmas will remember the pink toothpaste years later when he and some white boys line up outside a barn for sex with a black girl and he finds himself kicking her, not knowing why and unable to stop. As Joe grows older, the "facts of life" make him literally sick to his stomach, and he is nauseated when he learns about menstruation ("periodical filth"). In a relationship with a woman named Bobbie, he makes one significant effort to forget about the episode with the pink toothpaste, but the interlude with her only confirms what he had learned at age five: sex is furtive, sex is disgusting, sex is punishment. All these sexual elements characterize his relationship with Joanna Burden.
We find numerous similarities between Ella Downey and Joanna Burden, the most obvious that they are white women who have relationships with black men. The reason they do so is identical, their motivation determined by a sense of superiority. At least to some extent, Ella marries Jim to bolster her own ego, shattered because she was abandoned by her white lover. To be with Jim makes her conscious of a sole virtue: her whiteness. She grasps, for example, at any way she can to make herself feel superior to Jim and his relatives; she insults Hattie and glories in her husband's difficulties in school, telling him he is not allowed to study for the bar examinations any more. Though Ella seems at times to have genuine love for Jim, she can never forget his color, a color she has been brought up to despise.
Ella views Jim as the "whitest of the whites" whom she loves, while at the same time he is the ebony Congo mask she loathes. In thus dividing Jim in two, Ella splits herself as well, into the loving Ella and the hating Ella. Frequent murderous rages alternate with declarations of love:
Typically, however, Ella reverts abruptly to her abusive tone as she studies the photograph of Jim's father: "It's his Old Man--all dolled up like a circus horse! Well, they can't help it. It's in the blood, I suppose. They're ignorant, that's all there is to it" (II, i, p. 330). Her shifts from loving to hating establish a rhythm that is exhausting; just as in Long Day's Journey Into Night we alternate unceasingly between attacks and apologies, accusations and confessions, in All God's Chillun we go back and forth between Ella's conscious love for Jim and her deeply rooted hatred of his color. Ella feels she is a prisoner, trapped by Jim's blackness and cut off from society. The Congo mask dominates their apartment at the same time that the rooms shrink in size and threaten to smother her. This mask serves much the same function as Joe Christmas's one-time lover, "a woman who resembled an ebony carving." Both symbolize the heritage of blackness. Ella, however, can no more accept the mask than Joe can make himself feel black by acquiring an ebony lover.
Like Ella, Joanna Burden is isolated; she is a "foreigner," a "Yankee" and a "nigger lover" who lives in a land where northerners were once considered foreign and blacks were not recognized as human beings. Called a "spinster" at forty, Joanna continues her affair with Joe Christmas after she learns of his black blood because she believes she can assert her superiority and rescue an inferior from oppression. Although she works on behalf of black colleges and employs only black lawyers, she is as much a victim of her past and environment as Ella. Joanna craves blackness to enhance her own whiteness; just as Ella requires Jim to fail his bar examinations, so Joanna needs Joe to pray with her, declare himself a black, and "better himself" by entering a black college. Joanna, too; has a "dual personality" (p. 205)--on one level wanting to help blacks, on another scorning and detesting their color. Faulkner describes Joanna as a man by day, working quietly on her various activities on behalf of blacks, but at night as a female in heat who uses Joe's color to excite her.
Joanna shares Ella's viciousness, although Faulkner's emphasis is on her insatiable sexual appetite, whereas O'Neill avoids sex in All God's Chillun, delicately noting that Ella and Jim lived as "brother and sister" for a long while after they married. Joe is profoundly shocked by his lover's exaggerated passion. "It was as if she had invented the whole thing deliberately, for the purpose of playing it out like a play" (p. 226), Faulkner remarks, making us think of Ella and her similar penchant for game-playing. Joanna insists on intrigue, hiding notes for Joe in obscure, remote places. Often Joe must climb into her house through a window, as it to convince her their sex is forbidden:
When Joe and Joanna make love, they struggle as though in a "black thick pool" of "black waters" or a "black abyss" (p. 228). In Joanna's mind, intercourse with a black man transforms sex into bestiality. Faulkner and O'Neill make it very clear that the women are incapable of controlling their feelings about Joe and Jim; centuries of prejudice have erected insurmountable barriers to communication and genuine feeling.
All God's Chillun Got Wings and Light in August share more than thematic resemblances and similarities among, the characters, for both utilize expressionist techniques. Considering O'Neill's play in an expressionist framework is common, but viewing Faulkner's novel in this light is unique.9 We find in Light in August many aspects of expressionism: grotesque characters, distorted and fragmented settings painted starkly and exclusively in black and white, swiftly changing scenes (Stationen), a sense of suspended animation, and a pervasive dream-like atmosphere. Faulkner utilizes exaggerated, mannequin-like figures that are characteristic of expressionist drama in general and O'Neill's plays in particular; their movements are absurd, abrupt, and studied. The dietician, for example, is deliberately made unreal by Faulkner's emphasis on her as a marionette, a "puppet in some burlesque of rapine and despair" (p. 114). As O'Neill does, Faulkner makes frequent use of the mask, and Christmas's face is repeatedly described as "masklike" and unreal.
All God's Chillun is binary, echoing the stark black/white dichotomy about which the drama is organized, and it is deliberately "off balance," asymmetrically composed of two acts of four and three scenes. Faulkner's novel, which tells three rather disjointed narratives, gives a similar impression of disunity. Such a structure repeats the theme of the inability of blacks and whites to live harmoniously together, equal in all things.
While watching Act One of All God's Chillun, the audience feels detached from the action, like on-lookers in a dream; in the more realistic Act Two, there is more emotional involvement with the on-stage action. It is in the first act that we find many similarities with Light in August. As we move through these four brief scenes, we watch a late afternoon sky darken into evening and then to night. The scenes are "snapshots" that consist of small moments, minimal dramatic action, chance meetings, short utterances, street dialect. At the end of the act it is finally morning. If the span of time that occurs during the act matched the progression of darkness and light, such a stage setting would be simply literal. What appears to be the fading of one day, however, is actually the passage of fourteen years. Consequently, while varying intervals of time--ranging from several years to a few weeks--interspace the scenes, our senses register the passage of only one day. This gives the impression of suspended animation; it is as if O'Neill had transformed fourteen years in the lives of Jim Harris and Ella Downey into a long, slow dream. O'Neill's sets, though suggesting the passage of a single day, not only telescope Jim and Ella's growing up but gauge, as the years pass, the failure of blacks and whites to treat each other equally.
Faulkner's novel is quite similar in the sensation of dream and suspended animation. Consider, for example, the description of Joe's riding out of town after he fights with his foster father; as in a nightmare, Joe moves but does not move, and we watch him as we might the reels of a fantastic movie:
After the horse falls, exhausted, Joe suddenly "turned, whirled, already in full stride. He did not look back. Diminishing, his white shirt pulsing and fading in the moonehadow, he ran as completely out of the life of the horse as if it had never existed." Joe runs for fifteen years--"the thousand streets ran as one street"--and discovers he remains the same no matter where he goes, although he "thought it was loneliness which he was trying to escape and not himself." O'Neill's characters also try to escape, and Act One of All God's Chillun is dominated by the street setting, a visual reminder that Jim and Ella will carry their racial heritage with them wherever they go. The street is as apt a metaphor for Jim and Ella as it is for Joe and Joanna: they try to run away from something that is within and utterly inescapable.
As O'Neill does, Faulkner favors repetition, repeating an image, motif, or phrase over and over; and the colors black and white--used so effectively in the stage set of All God's Chillun--occur again and again in Light in August10 Christmas, too, sees the white world as completely different from the one blacks inhabit. Joe walks from a black shantytown--cabins "shaped blackly out of darkness" in a "black hollow"--hearing the "fecundmellow voices of negro women." Suddenly Joe senses the air of white people: the glow of the streetlights is white, there are white houses, white porches, and in "a lighted veranda four people [sit] about a card table, the white faces intent and sharp in the low light, the bare arms of the women glaring smooth and white above the trivial cards" (p. 100). Christmas even believes that the air white people breathe is "cold [and] hard," while blacks inhale air "lightless [and] black." Wherever he looks and wherever he goes, he sees these two colors and nothing else. If we were to make a move of Christmas's life, we would have to shoot it in black and white rather than technicolor in order to be true to his perception. Yet he can never possess this white world, for his invisible blackness follows him everywhere. Faulkner insistently refers to him as a shadow, appropriate for a white black whose clothes- -white shirt, black trousers--symbolize his split identity.
Joe Christmas and Jim Harris end their nightmares through self-sacrifice. It is no accident that Harris's two most important speeches combine the idea of sacrifice with his perception of himself as black. When he declares his love for Ella, he phrases his adoration in the only language available to his color:
I don't ask you to love me--I don't dare to hope nothing like that! I don't want. nothing--only to wait--to know you like me--to be near you--to keep harm away--to make up for the past--to never let you suffer any more--to serve you--to lie at your feet like a dog that loves you--to kneel by your bed like a nurse that watches over you sleeping--to preserve and protect and shield you from evil and sorrow--to give my life and my blood and all the strength that's in me to give you peace and joy--to become your slave!--yes, be your slave--your black slave that adores you as sacred! (He has sunk to his knees. In a frenzy of self-abnegation, as he says the last words he beats his head on the flagstones.) (I, iii, p. 318)
At the play's conclusion, Jim
confesses, "Somewhere yonder maybe--our luck'll change.
Just as Jim sees everything in terms of his skin color, so Joe's sense of his blackness forces him to sacrifice his life. He kills Joanna and then runs, automatically assuming the course his life had taken prior to the murder. He suddenly stops, however. and allows himself to be captured, castrated, and killed. On the last day of his life a "black tide creep[s] up his legs, moving from his feet upward as death moves" (p. 297). Just before he is killed, there are over a dozen references to the conflict between his white and black blood (p. 393); and as he is castrated, "pent black blood," a "black blast," gushes our of his body (p. 407). Like O'Neill, Faulkner leaves no doubt as to the final cause of his sacrifice. He is black.
Though they look very different, Jim Harris and Joe Christmas are brothers. Jim, while a "full-blooded" black in a physical sense, wishes so desperately to be white that he denies his race, his heritage, his very being. He can see himself only through white eyes that detest his color, and his self-loathing defines his limits. Faulkner shows us that blackness is more than a skin color, for his black man is white, yet he, too, is unable to belong to the white world; his detested blackness is invisible but none the less real for that. Blackness is a way of thinking; and failure, in All God's Chillun Got Wings and Light in August, is assured.
-- Susan Tuck
1The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, ed. Elizabeth Nowell (New York: Scribner's, 1956), p.26.
2Carson McCullers, "The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing," in The Mortgaged Heart, ed. Margarita G. Smith (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), p. 278.
3William Faulkner, "American Drama: Eugene O'Neill," The Mississippian, Feb. 3, 1922; rpt. Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry, ed. Carvel Collins (Boston: Little, Brown, 1962), p. 87.
4Susan Tuck, "Faulkner and O'Neill: Their Kindred Imaginations," The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, 4 (Winter 1980), 19-20; "The O'Neill-Faulkner Connection," in Critical Essays on Eugene O'Neill, ed. James Martine (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984), pp. 196-206. See also by the same author. "House of Compson, House of Tyrone: Faulkner's Influence on O'Neill," The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, 5 (Winter 1981), 10-16.
5References to O'Neill's plays are given parenthetically within the text and refer to the three-volume, 1982 edition published by Random House (Modern Library).
6See Alexander Tairov, "Negr: Director's Notes," in Eugene O'Neill's Critics: Voices from Abroad, ed. Horst Frenz and Susan Tuck (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), pp. 34-41.
7Joseph Blotner recounts an incident that occurred in 1917, when Faulkner was twenty. In its horrific detail, it summarizes one aspect of the South in which the young novelist lived. The headless body of a young white girl was found near Memphis and, shortly thereafter, her black killer was apprehended. The "outraged community" decided to take the law into its own hands. The black victim was "chained to a log, [and] the mother of the victim implored the crowd to make him suffer ten times as much as he had made his victim suffer. The crowd roared its willingness." Quoting from newspaper accounts at the time, Blotner describes the lynching: "The pyre was doused with gasoline and then 'some 5,000 men, women, and children cheered gloatingly as the match was applied and a moment later the flames and smoke rose high in the air.... The frenzied men cheered as their victim writhed in agony and then was stilled in death.'" Not content merely to kill, however, the mob then mutilated: "'When the body had burned sufficiently to satisfy the lust of the executioners, one man in the crowd cut out the Negro's heart, two others cut off his ears, while another hacked off his head'" (Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner: A Biography, 2 vols. [New York: Random House, 1974], pp. 189-90). To talk about the history of the South is to talk about blacks and such incidents as this.
8William Faulkner, Light in August (1932; rpt. New York: Random House [Modern Library], 1959), p. 105.
9See, however, Wright Morris, "The Violent Land: Some Observations on the Faulkner Country," Magazine of Art, 45 (1952), 99-103. According to Morris, Faulkner's novels share with expressionist paintings a sense of rage and violence. Morris does not suggest that Faulkner adopted expressionist techniques.
10White occurs 140 times in the novel; black, 72. There are, in addition, innumerable variants of both words. See Light in August: A Concordance to the Novel, ed. Jack L. Capps (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1979).
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