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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

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



O'Neill was a realist in the sense that he reported life as he saw it, but he always saw life theatricalized. If I were to relate his plays to European "isms," it would be to the theatricalism of Meyerhold and Vakhtangov, in which, as Oscar Brockett puts it, the means of the theatre are "used self-consciously and to their fullest capabilities" (333). The theatricalist constantly reminded the audience that they were watching not life but theatre. O'Neill knew of the Russians' work, and may have been influenced by it, but O'Neill's theatricalism was more complex and ambivalent than theirs. For him, life was theatre, which enabled him to be both theatricalist and realist. For this reason, instead of speaking of O'Neill's theatricalism, I am using the term metadrama: the subject of this drama is always, in some way, drama itself.

Metadrama, in broad definition, is drama about drama, drama that itself depicts some form of performance. The most obvious kind is the play within the play, so popular with Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Subtler forms include ceremony or ritual within the play, and role playing within the role, when the playwright depicts characters who are themselves in some way performing.

O'Neill never once used the play within the play as such, the most overt form of metadrama. This absence is itself highly significant, however, especially in the context of his other metadramatic devices. The closest he came to using the play within the play is when his characters recite passages from plays, or, more often, from lyric poetry; even Long Day's Journey, a play about O'Neill's theatrical family, gives us no more than this.

Indeed, despite O'Neill's having grown up in the theatre, actors themselves are conspicuous by their absence from most of his plays, even where we might expect to find them. The Lumpenproletariat in Harry Hope's saloon include no professional actors, though they do include a circus performer. Two of O'Neill's plays, Before Breakfast and Hughie, are directly influenced by Strindberg's The Stronger, which has two actresses for its characters; O'Neill changes them into a writer and his wife in the former instance, and a gambler and a night clerk in the latter, despite the fact that Hughie is set in a hotel in New York's theatrical district. (The theatre itself is never mentioned.)

Furthermore, in the few plays where actors do appear as characters, their profession is depicted negatively or, at best, ambivalently. In Welded, the wife's career as an actress interferes with her husband's nobler calling as a writer. In A Moon for the Misbegotten, there is only one direct reference to Jim Tyrone's having been an actor (306), when Josie's brother remarks scornfully that Jim has never done any real work; at another point, Jim accuses himself of having behaved like a ham at his mother's funeral (391). In Long Day's Journey, Tyrone seems to love and respect his profession, but the rest of the family do not; besides, the theatre ultimately seduced and destroyed him with the lure of easy money for repeating a simplistic role in a trashy play. Even theatrical references are rare in O'Neill's plays; An O'Neill Concordance lists only 12 references to the theatre (3:1636), and only 32 to actors--20 of which are negative (1:16).

But if O'Neill was wary of the theatre and actors per se in his plays, he put associated elements there in abundance. In the early play, there are numerous ceremonies and interludes that are not full-fledged plays within the plays, but which are still heightened performances set apart from the surrounding action. At the climax of Where the Cross Is Made, for example, there is an inset dumb show in which ghosts of three sailors glide in bearing a treasure chest; the lighting turns green and their bodies sway rhythmically as if pulled by underwater currents (159-60). In The Emperor Jones, Jones's visions are highly theatrical insets within what had begun as a more or less realistic play. In Lazarus Laughed, there are the choral passages; in The Hairy Ape, the stylized crowd passes from the church like "a procession of gaudy marionettes" (207). All God's Chillun starts as a stridently realistic play about race relations, but its final act shifts in style to a highly theatricalized expressionism. Even in the plays that remain realistic throughout, there are often inset performances, like the dance in Desire Under the Elms, or quasi-rituals, like the swearing on the cross at the end of Anna Christie. Indeed, it would be difficult to find any O'Neill play into which the theatre does not find its way, in some displaced form.

Similarly, although professional actors are extremely rare as characters in O'Neill's drama, role playing is ubiquitous. Rereading The Emperor Jones, I was struck by how prescient O'Neill was, in creating a figure who has since been replicated in any number of third world dictators like Papa Doc Duvalier or Id! Amin. The notable difference about Brutus Jones, however, is that unlike Duvalier or Amin (or Henri Christophe or Haiti's President Sam, who apparently served as models for O'Neill's character), Jones is not a native, but a thoroughly American black from Chicago. Why did O'Neill make this change? Clearly, to enhance the role-playing aspects of the character. In making Jones originally someone as different as possible from what he was to become, O'Neill was expressing a deep set belief in the multiplicity of human nature; for him, as for Shakespeare's Jacques, all men and women are merely players.

Critics have written extensively about questions of identity in O'Neill's drama. This is particularly true with regard to the mask plays, but is not limited to them; Egil Törnqvist, for example, points out that "figuratively speaking, nearly all O'Neill's protagonists wear a mask" (118). These figurative masks may be freely chosen, as with Brutus Jones, or they may be forced upon the characters by circumstance. In Beyond the Horizon, each brother comes to wear the "mask"--that is, take on the role--of the other, which is the very source of the tragedy. Anna Christie has had the role of prostitute forced upon her as a result of her bitter poverty and neglect. Even lesser characters are often described in dualistic, role-playing terms; thus, O'Neill's stage directions tell us of Johnny-the-Priest, owner of the saloon in Anna Christie, that "beneath all his mildness one senses the man behind the mask--cynical, callous, hard as nails" (60).

Törnqvist also notes, however, that there is more to O'Neill's masks, both literal and figurative, than just the traditional notion of hiding one's true self from the world. In many plays, the division is not just psychological but ideological. In The Great God Brown, the masks are exaggerations of the characters' true selves, standing ultimately for differing aspects of the human soul, in particular for Dionysian and Apollonian principles that Nietzsche maintained underlie our lives.

It is interesting to compare O'Neill's use of masks with that of other times and cultures. O'Neill had studied about masks not only in the ancient Greek and Roman theatre, but also in Japanese, Chinese, and African theatre as well (Chothia 35). Yet there is a striking difference in the way he used masks from the way all those other theatres did . In the other cases the masks implied no duality to the human personality; the mask was, simply, the character. As Peter Arnott points out in a perceptive essay, in both the Japanese and the ancient Greek theatres, "the external manifestations are the character and the actor is merely the temporary means that gives these manifestations speech and movement" (5); thus, different actors might even play the same character in the same play. In a passage that many critics have cited, O'Neill once wrote, "What, at bottom, is the new psychological insight into human cause and effect but a study in masks, an exercise in unmasking?" (Chothia 35). But in Greek tragedy there was never any unmasking; it would literally have been unthinkable. Similarly, in the Japanese theatre, it was assumed that the spirit of the mask possessed the actor wearing it; thus, while the actor wore it, the mask did not hide his real self, nor present an aspect or exaggeration of his real self. It was his real self!

O'Neill, then, was fascinated with masks, and with acting and theatre generally, because for him, unlike the Greeks and orientals, they carried strong implications about human identity, not just in the simple sense of hiding one's true identity behind a literal or figurative mask, but in the broader sense of expressing the complexity of human personality, with its multiple facets and wide potential. No doubt his interest was rooted in his problems with his own identity; certainly the first thirty years of his life were one long identity crisis. This would account for the strong love/hate he felt toward the theatre, rarely incorporating it directly into his plays, yet almost always putting it there in disguised form. The theatre is a place where identities are fluid, and would have thus appeared to him both as a threat and as a possible fulfillment. O'Neill repeatedly made derogatory remarks about the theatre, and fled from it more than once, yet always came back to it. Direct references to theatre in his plays, as with Shakespeare, are almost always disparaging. Perhaps the early, "lost" play, The Movie Man, expressed his ambivalent feelings most strongly; in it, two movie makers go to Mexico and bribe a general to stage real battles for their cameras. Here, as usual, the theatre is displaced, in this case to the movies, which are shown as powerfully seductive, yet a vulgar sham--and destructive of lives.

O'Neill would certainly have received this ambivalent attitude toward theatre from his family, where it was rampant. As Jonas Barish has shown in his admirable book, however, the "anti-theatrical prejudice" is widespread in our culture, and in other cultures as well. There are strong psychological reasons for this, which Barish does not explore, but which are illuminating in the case of O'Neill. Psychoanalytic identity theory derives from Freud's 1930 essay, Civilization and Its Discontents, in which he maintained that the infant originally has no sense of identity, no separation of self from other. Identity is something we learn, and it is an inherently painful process. Freud wrote that "the tendency arises to dissociate from the ego everything which can give rise to pain, to cast it out and create a pure pleasure-ego, in contrast to a threatening 'outside,' not self" (5). The mechanism is thus very much the same as that of sexual repression generally, as we learn to limit our desires through contact with what Freud called the reality principle, the harsh fact that reality is a source of pain as well as pleasure, and that pleasure itself must be severely limited in contrast to our drives, which are originally limitless. In developing an identity, we are similarly forced by reality to limit our sense of self, which was also originally without limit: "Originally the ego includes everything, later it detaches itself from the external world. The ego-feeling we are aware of now is thus only a shrunken vestige of a far more extensive feeling--a feeling which embraced the universe" (6).

Thus, human identity has a clear psychosexual component. The ambivalence we feel about identity is the same as that which we feel about sexual matters generally. The "anti-theatrical prejudice" is an expression of this ambivalence. This is the reason that moral philosophers have always been made uneasy by theatre, and also the reason that actors, in addition to being castigated for playing with their identities, are popularly characterized as being libidinous. We unconsciously fear that letting down the boundaries of identity will lead to letting down all constraints for our animal impulses.

O'Neill's strong ambivalence toward theatre, then, was the result of more than just the attitudes in his family toward it. Such conscious attitudes would in fact have merely reinforced unconscious psychosexual feelings about identity generally. O'Neill's haphazard, ineptly handled early upbringing would have left him with a weak sense of self, a narcissistic disorder in which one's identity feels forever precarious. A father is the most important role model for a developing male infant, just as a mother is for a female. In O'Neill's case, his mother's openly hostile feelings toward her husband would have weakened him in Eugene's eyes in any event; but the fact that O'Neill, Sr., was an actor, playing heroic roles in contrast to his mundane, parsimonious everyday self, would have damaged even further young Eugene's attempts to model himself on a solid authority figure. Finally, as Louis Sheaffer has written, "It was a bewildering world the child was born into, one forever changing, dissolving, melting into something else--hotel, railroad station, train, hotel, railroad station, train, backstage of theatre, hotel, railroad station, train, Syracuse and Louisville, Cincinnati and Boston, hotel, railroad station, train, Portland, Pittsburgh and Rochester, Seattle, Atlanta and San Francisco, hotel, backstage, train, hotel, railroad station, train" (24). O'Neill's resultant feelings about the precariousness of his own and others' identities are the driving force behind his playwriting, and are the ultimate subject matter of his plays.

If we see O'Neill's plays as not just employing theatre as a medium, but as being about theatre, an exploration of its meaning and significance to the individual, then a number of things become clear. Many elements that critics have attacked as weaknesses are instead essential aspects. Thus, the melodramatic plot devices are not a lapse from realism; they are instead an exploration of a certain type of theatricality, like his incessant exploration of differing theatrical styles. Similarly, his use of stagy dialects is an examination of role, rather than an inept reporting of how people in real life actually talk. These devices are not simply dramatic, but are metadramatic; like Shakespeare's plays within the plays, they occur within a frame. They are not just presented, but are estranged.

Finally, I would suggest that theatre provides the underlying meaning for O'Neill's favorite dramatic metaphor, the sea; that ultimately "dat ole devil sea" of Chris Christopherson and "that God-damned play" of James Tyrone are one and the same. If that seems far fetched, consider this: Both the theatre and the sea are places that one ran away to, to change one's identity. (Other youths could resolve their identity crises by running away to join the theatre, an option that was closed to O'Neill!) Both were considered low, disreputable employments, yet could be the source of great wealth for a few. Both had the quality of being simultaneously seductive and destructive; we are told this repeatedly about the sea in Anna Christie and elsewhere, and implicitly about the theatre in Long Day's Journey. Both are places in which identities are variable; just as one can be a different person in every play, one can take on a new identity with every voyage. The sea (and water generally) is an archetype in all cultures for death and rebirth, the shedding of an old identity for a new one, as in the baptismal ceremony. Thus, both theatre and the sea are metaphorically places for dissolving one's identity, for returning to that infantile feeling of oneness with the universe that Freud, interestingly enough, called "the oceanic feeling" (2).

O'Neill not only wrote about the sea; he had been to sea as a sailor, and throughout his life he was a compulsive swimmer. In his autobiographical play, Long Day's Journey, he has Edmund say, "It was a great mistake, my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish" (153). Consciously as well as unconsciously, then, the sea was associated in O'Neill's mind with changing identities. The closest O'Neill ever came to becoming a professional actor was when, on a bet, he memorized the entire role of Macbeth for his father. O'Neill, Sr., told him he had a good memory, but warned him never to go on the stage (Sheaffer 96). Eugene had no intention of doing so; instead, he ran away to sea, and spent the rest of his life fascinated by it. He never acted again, but instead wrote autobiographical plays in which he cast himself in the principal roles. Acting itself was too threatening for him, too direct a return to the fluid ego state of his chaotic infancy. The sea, however, was an acceptable substitute, just as the theatre itself would become psychologically acceptable, as long as he was a playwright rather than an actor, shaping and controlling the oceanic tides of the theatre rather than being swallowed by them.

-- Richard Hornby


Arnott, Peter. "Some Costume Conventions in Greek Tragedy." Essays in Theatre, 2. 1 (November 1983): 3-18.

Barish, Jonas. The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Brockett, Oscar. The Theatre: An Introduction. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1989.

Chothia, Jean. Forging a Language: A Study of the Plays of Eugene O'Neill. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. Joan Riviere. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, n.d.

O'Neill, Eugene. Beyond the Horizon. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1947.

-----. The Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, The Hairy Ape. New York: Random House, 1972.

-----. Long Day's Journey Into Night. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956.

-----. The Later Plays of Eugene O'Neill. Ed. Travis Bogard. New York: Random House, 1967. (Includes Hughie and A Moon for the Misbegotten.)

-----. Nine Plays. New York: Random House, 1932. (Includes All God's Chillun Got Wings, Desire Under the Elms, Lazarus Laughed.)

-----. Seven Plays of the Sea. New York: Random House, 1972. (Includes Where the Cross Is Made.)

-----. Ten "Lost" Plays. New York: Random House, 1964. (Includes The Movie Man.)

Reaver, J. Russell (compiler). An O'Neill Concordance. 3 vols. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1969.

Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill, Son and Playwright. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968.

Strindberg, August. The Stronger. In Six Plays of Strandberg. Trans. Elizabeth Sprigge. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1955, pp. 115-22.

Törnqvist, Egil. A Drama of Souls: Studies in O'Neill's Super-naturalistic Technique. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969.



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