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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XII, No. 2
Summer-Fall, 1988


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FROM NOBODY TO THE NOBEL:
TWO DECADES OF FIRST NIGHT O'NEILL CRITICISM

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:

Eugene O'Neill's "Beyond the Horizon" ... is a significant and interesting play by a young author who does not as yet know all the tricks. Fortunately, he therefore avoids many of the conventional shoddy stratagems, but at the same time there is an occasional clumsiness which mars his fine intent and achievement. Nevertheless, the play deserves a place among the noteworthy achievements of native authors. It is frankly and uncompromisingly a tragedy.

Of course, the fundamental tragedy of the play lies in the fate of the incompetent dreamer forced to battle with the land for a living against every inclination and ability. His disease and death are entirely fortuitous and indeed they lessen the poignancy of his fate.... The hero is much too deliberate in dying.

Alexander Woollcott in the Times, while hedging slightly, was more positive, calling the play

an absorbing, significant, and memorable tragedy, so full of meat that it makes most of the remaining [New York theatrical] fare seem like the merest meringue.... Certainly, despite a certain clumsiness and confusion involved in its too luxurious multiplicity of scenes, the play has greatness in it and marks O'Neill as one of our foremost playwrights....

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 Provincetown Players have done it again.... They are giving hundreds the most thrilling evening of their theatrical lives ... while the tragedy of fear of a Negro porter and ex-convict, turned primitive man again, unfolds itself before the fascinated imagination.... By his vivid imagination and relentless power the author casts his spell over the most pedestrian listener. Jones' hallucinations and reversions to the primitive savage are depicted with the simplicity and directness of a master.

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:

"The Hairy Ape" is a bitter, brutal, wildly fantastic play of nightmare hue and nightmare distortion. It is a monstrously uneven piece, now flamingly eloquent, now choked and thwarted and inarticulate. Like most of [O'Neill's] writing for the theatre, it is the worse here and there for the lack of a fierce unintimidated blue pencil. But it has a little greatness in it, and it seems rather absurd to fret overmuch about the undisciplined imagination of a young playwright towering so conspicuously above the milling, mumbling crowd of playwrights who have no imagination at all.

Walter Prichard Eaton, The Freeman, April 26, 1922:

Mr. O'Neill's language smites as swiftly as the red glare from the boiler-doors. Yet it is somehow tonic in its stark sincerity, and though it may quite truly play no small part in the startling quality of the play, the quality which brings you up in your seat like a slap in the face, it also is curiously devoid of mean suggestion, rousing, instead, a profound pity in all spectators who have imagination enough to grasp the significance of the drama.... In Eugene O'Neill the new art of the theatre in America has found the new playwright at last.

Patterson James, Billboard, April 15, 1922:

The stark "realism" of "The Hairy Ape" justifies the elevation of Eugene O'Neill to the official position of Archpriest of the Unwashed Drama and pet divinity of its Unsoaped Patrons.... The Provincetown Playhouse idea of naturalism in the drama is to make all the characters criminals or mental defectives, the scenes of the play the interior of a loaded garbage scow, and the language that of a waterfront bawdy house.... "The Hairy Ape" smells like the monkey house in the Zoo, where the last act takes place and where the play should have been produced.... A play by Mr. O'Neill with the mise-en-scène in the entrails cleaning department of a stockyard slaughter house would not surprise me in the least.

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:

Admit that it is an ordeal by watered dialogue; admit that its sprawling size does, at times, convict O'Neill of reckless waste and artistic laziness--call it even vain of its own huge bulk, and yet, ... it does manage to be profoundly engrossing.... Here is, truly, a play of heft and thought enough to set aside the usual boundaries of the stage.... [I]n spite of its serious defects, remains the most provocative and interesting event of the season, and probably the most significant contribution to the American drama.

Joseph Wood Krutch, Herald-Tribune, March 11, 1928:

"Strange Interlude" is great chiefly because of the passion with which it is recounted and the largeness which its personages are made to assume; because its characters, though drawn from modern life and treated in a rigorously critical fashion, attain, nevertheless, to heroic proportions ... and because, in a word, O'Neill has the power, common in many ages but extremely rare in this, of making human emotions seem cosmically important.... Yet the importance of the play considered as an isolated work does, nevertheless, consist essentially in the fact that it approaches, as perhaps no other modern play approaches, true tragedy without imitating Greek or Elizabethan forms and without adopting any archaic point of view ... in short, it treats modern life in a fashion convincingly heroic.

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:

O'Neill, digging and searching thru the muck and scum of the human soul, emerges with his muddy monstrosities, proudly exhibiting them to a breathless world as something real and fundamentally profound. They are actually none of those things.... They utterly fail to plumb the depths of emotion and experience; they are merely very special cases of abnormal psychology placed upon a stage and given pretentious platitudes to mouth, platitudes that reach profundity in the popular mind merely because they have been written by O'Neill.

John Mason Brown, Post, October 27, 1931:

...exciting proof that the theatre is still very much alive, that it still has grandeur and ecstasy to offer its patrons.... It is a play which towers above the scrubby output of our present-day theatre as the Empire State Building soars above the skyline of Manhattan. Most of its fourteen acts, and particularly its earlier and middle sections, are possessed of a strength and majesty which are equal to its scale. It boasts, too, the kind of radiant austerity which was part of the glory that was Greece.

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:

the Nobel Prize ... is supposed to recognize only the highest distinction in literature, and Mr. O'Neill falls short of that. He falls short of it both absolutely and relatively. Whatever his international importance, he can hardly be called an artist of the first rank; he is hardly even one of the first-rate figures of his own generation in America.

A great dramatist, I take it, is one who has somehow managed to transcend the limitations of the theater and ... to add ... some profundity of human experience, human understanding, or human enlightenment that brings the art of the theater into the same area as the highest art of fiction or poetry. Those who have transcended them have done so by reason of great intelligence, great imagination, and great understanding. The whole truth about Mr. O'Neill is that his gigantic effort to transcend them has been of an altogether different kind. He is a fine playwright who is not sufficiently endowed with those qualities to be a great dramatist but who has tried to substitute for them a set of merely mechanical devices.... [H]e has never yet given us an experience of finality, of genius working on the material proper to genius, of something profound and moving said about life. Just why, then, the Nobel Prize?

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:

Whatever is unclear about Eugene O'Neill, one thing is certainly clear--his genius... When we stress the actionable conclusions of an artist's work, we are too likely to forget the power of genius itself, quite apart from its conclusions.... We do not read Sophocles or Aeschylus for the right answer; we read them for the force with which they represent life and attack its moral complexity. In O'Neill, despite the many failures of his art and thought, this force is inescapable.

Not only has O'Neill tried to encompass more of life than most American writers of his time, but almost alone among them, he has persistently tried to solve it. When we understand this we understand that his stage devices are no fortuitous technique; his masks and abstractions, his double personalities, his drum beats and engine rhythms are the integral and necessary expression of his temper of mind and the task it set itself.... He is always moving toward the finality which philosophy sometimes, and religion always, promises. Life and death, good and evil, spirit and flesh, male and female, the all and the one, St. Anthony and Dionysus--O'Neill's is a world of these antithetical absolutes such as religion rather than philosophy conceives, a world of pluses and minuses; and his literary effort is an algebraic attempt to solve the equations.

-- Jordan Y. Miller

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