FROM NOBODY TO THE NOBEL:
The reactions of the first night New York critics to the plays of Eugene O'Neill between 1915 and 1938 were anything but uniform except in their one consistency: variation from ecstatic praise to utter condemnation, irrespective of the play under consideration. And, as O'Neill continued to confound his audiences with a bewildering pattern of experimentation, there was expressed a fairly uniform underlying hope that the playwright would someday get his act together and stop distressing his public with wild gyrations between exciting, innovative theatrical adventures on the one hand, and inept, embarrassing blather on the other. This consistent inconsistency in both O'Neill's work and the critical reaction to it is what makes a study of O'Neill criticism so fascinating. From the time he emerged from literal nothingness to the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize, O'Neill was hailed as the genius who was pulling the American drama kicking and screaming into the modern world; or denounced as a blundering, though admittedly very large, figure who didn't really know what the hell he was doing.
The first critical evaluation of O'Neill appeared in Clayton Hamilton's brief comment in The Bookman of April 1915, upon the publication of Thirst. With echoes of things to come, Hamilton found O'Neill's favorite mood to be horror, dealing with grim and ghastly situations. "He shows a keen sense of the reactions of character under stress of violent emotions; and his dialogue is almost brutal in its power."
Uptown critics paid little professional attention to early productions of the Provincetown Players, but Stephen Rathbun of the Sun did take note and, on November 13, 1916, published the earliest review of an O'Neill play to appear in a New York paper. He found Bound East for Cardiff real, subtly tense, and avoiding pitfalls that would have made it, as he says, "the regular thing." Heywood Broun in the Tribune of January 30, 1917, wrote that "here is a play which owes more to the creation of mood and atmosphere than to any fundamentally interesting idea or sudden twist of plot." Then, with the production by the Washington Square Players of In the Zone on October 13, 1917. a dozen papers printed reviews, many of them, even at this early date, citing one of O'Neill's recurring problems: too much talk. Burns Mantle, obviously unaware of what had been going on, called it "[t]his boy's first play" (the "boy" was 29 years old), but he liked it. Others approved of the tenseness, thrills, realism, and ingenious dramatic effects.
With the Greenwich Village Players' staging of Ile on April 18, 1918, the varied opinions began to mount. Broun in the Tribune disapproved of the lack of inventiveness in having the wife go mad, and the Post found it too obvious a shocker. Favorable comments noted that "this son of James O'Neill" did arouse interest with his gifts of realism and characterization. Said Louis Sherwin of the Globe: "I wonder what this promising young O'Neill can do with a three-act."
That discovery was not long in coming. Beyond the Horizon opened for its trial matinee performances on February 2, 1920, and with its Pulitzer Prize and subsequent total run of 111 performances, O'Neill became an established Broadway playwright. Critical reaction was fairly uniformly positive, greeting it as a masterpiece, a tragedy of great power and so on. Heywood Broun was attracted by the play, but his praise was tempered:
Alexander Woollcott in the Times, while hedging slightly, was more positive, calling the play
November 1, 1920, marked the sledge-hammer entry of O'Neill as sensational experimenter with The Emperor Jones. It was literally the talk of the town and ran for 204 performances, but the critics weren't all that sure about it; the arguments continued to mount. Burns Mantle: "A weird tragedy," cheerless, lacking the promising distinction of O'Neill's earlier plays. The Brooklyn Eagle: "Admirable piece of dramatic craftsmanship." Stephen Rathbun: One of the noteworthy events of the season, both in depth and power. Woollcott: O'Neill is "as yet unbridled." J. Ranken Towse: he took the chance of being "a trifle ridiculous" in this one. Maida Castellun in the Call, November 10, 1920, saw it this way:
The split opinions were clear-cut with Diff'rent (Dec. 27, 1920), varying from "front rank O'Neill" and "gripping tragedy," to Variety's curt dismissal of the play as one that "should never have been written; until O'Neill gets restraint he should not be permitted to write again."
Regardless of what one had thought of O'Neill previously, with the November 3, 1921, opening of Anna Christie it was clear that his power was significant and his talents had to be seriously considered. But the split continued. The Journal of Commerce: Falls short of a great play; dialogue far out of proportion to the action. The Herald: Not worthy of O'Neill's ability; J. Ranken Towse in the Post and Maida Castellun in the Call found the "happy" ending "disastrous" and a crime. Alan Dale in the American was plain enough: nothing comes through the oleaginous, permeating fog, and there's nothing worth coming through anyway. Better to have presented the fog without either O'Neill or Anna Christie.
Then why the Pulitzer Prize, O'Neill's second? Who liked it? The Telegram did, finding it a hit which promised to repeat former O'Neill successes. So did Louis Defoe of the World, who found keen imagination and ability in this as yet immature artist. Burns Mantle in the Mail regarded it as the finest yet of O'Neill's works; and Leo Marsh, in the Telegraph, concluded that O'Neill's fame could rest on this alone. Kelley Allen, Women's Wear Daily, ranked it with the best of several seasons; and the Drama Calendar saw it as a fine play, as fine as the American theatre had yet produced.
But the next sensation, which the outraged defenders of public morality in the New York DA's office so desperately tried to close, once more threw the critics into disarray. The Hairy Ape of March 9, 1922, followed the usual pattern: tremendous new drama form; O'Neill's most powerful thing yet; a juvenile appeal to ignorance and passion; ominous foreboding of O'Neill's future; a worthless play. The extreme variance of opinions between thoughtful professional reviewing and irresponsible nonsense is well demonstrated by the following.
Alexander Woollcott in the Times, March 10, 1922:
Walter Prichard Eaton, The Freeman, April 26, 1922:
Patterson James, Billboard, April 15, 1922:
If space permitted, we would consider All God's Chillun Got Wings, Desire Under the Elms, and The Great God Brown--none of which brought the critics any closer together. For some of the best examples of the continuing critical dichotomy, however, we must turn to the two "big ones," Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra, and the award of the Nobel Prize.
The 426 performances of the nine-act marathon of Strange Interlude brought O'Neill his greatest lifetime success and, with the published version a best-seller, made him permanently well off. Opening on January 30, 1928, the play provided material for flat-out critical condemnation and near-hysterical praise. Robert Coleman, in the Mirror, saw it as a great day for faddists: "A long-winded bark at the moon in nine fat acts; tiresome, jerky, heavy-footed." Alan Dale, American: "A sordid mess, ... pecksniffian outbursts, ... hysterical analysis of a psychopathic woman, ... a six-hour bore." Burns Mantle, News: Frankly biological, slow-paced, repetitious, forbidding.
And on the other hand: Brooks Atkinson, Times: "The very stuff of drama." Gilbert Gabriel, Sun: A magnificent venture; "cleaves the skyline of tomorrow," a hewer of ways. Leonard Hall, Telegram: "One of the most astonishing adventures a stage ever held" by an "authentic genius." Robert Littell, Post: The greatest contribution to our stage, beside which all future plays in conventional style will seems flat and two dimensional. Dudley Nichols, World: Perhaps the "most important event in the present era of the American theatre." Thomas Van Dycke, Telegraph: The most significant play O'Neill has written, the finest play yet by an American, perhaps the most remarkable play of our generation, a monument in the history of American dramaturgy.
We all know that no permanent skylines were cleaved and that drama in "conventional" style survived. While this giant of a play may now seem so elephantine and crudely overblown, it did inspire some serious comment.
John Anderson, Evening Journal, January 31, 1928:
Joseph Wood Krutch, Herald-Tribune, March 11, 1928:
In contrast, Mourning Becomes Electra, which opened on October 26, 1931, received almost uniformly high praise. There were isolated detractors, but in the main the comments ran from "magnificent tragedy of classic proportions" to "enduring greatness, superb strength and cause of great rejoining" and "a grand stupendous thriller." The differences did remain, however, as the following two excerpts reveal.
Eugene Burr, Billboard, November 7, 1931:
John Mason Brown, Post, October 27, 1931:
With the failure of Days Without End in 1934, O'Neill's "early years" came to an end. Within two years he received the Nobel Prize for literature, and it might be assumed that past sins could reasonably be forgiven and that this kind of international recognition would be widely welcomed. The welcome was, indeed, widespread, but it did not silence all detractors. The split was as wide as ever.
Bernard De Voto in The Saturday Review of November 21, 1936, under the title "Minority Report," expressed his outrage in a long and detailed attack:
Lionel Trilling, writing in The New Republic on September 23, 1926, while not referring directly to the Nobel Prize, approached O'Neill's position in sharp contrast to De Voto's questioning conclusion. His is an appropriate note on which to conclude:
-- Jordan Y. Miller
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