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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

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



In 1937, a year after he received his Nobel Prize, Eugene O'Neill built a new home in California and named it Tao House. It faced eastward, with black Chinese tile on the roof, bright Chinese red paint on all the windows and interior doors, and a Chinese-style brick walk twisting and winding behind, "to ward off devils." This "pseudo-Chinese" house in the American far west reminds us of the American playwright's earlier fascination with China and its culture.

From around 1922 to 1925, O'Neill had made an extensive study of Chinese history, religion, art and poetry in preparation for his composition of Marco Millions, a play whose main action is set in the court of Kublai Kean. Then in 1928, a year after the play's publication, O'Neill set out on a long voyage to China. He described the imminent trip as "the dream of [his] life," and as "infinitely valuable" to his future work (Gelb 678). Quite understandably, he did not find the expected "peace and quiet" in Shanghai, and the trip, he felt, left in his mind "a million impressions" that were hard to digest (Gelb 888). O'Neill's enthusiasm for China, however, continued unabated. As his Work Diary indicates, he persisted, though sporadically, in his thoughtful reading on China till as late as 1934, in a futile attempt to develop the original ideas he had first recorded in his notebook back in 1925 for a play about China's first emperor (Floyd 114). Later, in 1936, at their home "Casa Genotta" on Sea Island, O'Neill and Carlotta talked with Somerset Maugham about the possibility of making another trip to China, and immediately ordered a book about Beijing that had been recommended by the British writer (Gelb 798).

The naming of Tao House, like the naming of his earlier houses and the titling of many of his plays, was not an act of impulse, but of deep deliberation. It was, in a sense, the result of his long, comparative study of the intellectual and spiritual ideas of the East. In a letter to Frederic I. Carpenter, dated June 24, 1932, O'Neill acknowledged that he had done considerable reading in Oriental philosophy and religion in order to have some grasp of the subject as part of his philosophical background, and then he added: "the mysticism of Lao-Tse and Chuang-Tsu probably interested me more than any other Oriental writing" (Griffin 42).

O'Neill had, according to Robinson, two different editions of James Legge's translation of Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu, one of which was sent to him, together with another book entitled Lao Tzu's Tao and Wu Wei, as a gift by a Chinese writer-artist, Mai-mai Sze, with whom the O'Neill's maintained a friendship. Another Chinese writer, Lin Yutang, also sent them, on the same occasion of their moving into the new residence, two of his own works about China and its philosophical ideas, both of which displayed deep respect for Chuang Tsu. Of the various philosophical and religious traditions of the East, Taoism seemed to be the only one for which O'Neill read not only explications and commentary, but a translation of the original texts as well (Robinson 23-24). While it is difficult to ascertain how much and how deeply O'Neill had read these and other books of and about Taoism, it can be argued that he had read enough to find its mysticism extremely illuminating for his own mystical intuitions about reality.

The importance of O'Neill's Orientalism has long been recognized. Frederic Carpenter observed, in his insightful essay "Eugene O'Neill, the Orient, and American Transcendentalism," that Orientalism is "the most important and distinctive aspect of his art" (Griffin 40). But if we trace the development of his Orientalism from the early to the later plays, we find that he was gradually drawn from a general, indefinable fascination with the East towards a solid center of Taoism.

In O'Neill's early plays, the idea of the East is often vague, a romantic utopia--meaningful and alluring, yet remote and intangible. Robert Mayo in Beyond the Horizon dreams of "the beauty of the far off and unknown, the mystery and spell of the East which lures me in the books I've read." And in The Fountain, Ponce de Leon talks of "some far country of the East--Cathay, Cipango, who knows--a spot that Nature has set apart from men and blessed with peace."

In one of O'Neill's mid-career works, Marco Millions, Orientalism has become more definable, as a kind of intellectual and spiritual wisdom which the author uses to comment on the materialism of the West and the viability of Christianity. But there we find a somewhat diffused view of the various systems of philosophy and religion of the East. For instance, in the second scene of Act III, the funeral procession for Princess Kukachin features four priests representing the four major religions of the East: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Moslemism. Each of the priests tries without avail to console the Great Kaan according to his own religion.

In O'Neill's late plays written at Tao House, Taoism becomes, more than any other philosophical or religious system, an integral part of their ideas, style and structure. But before we examine the Taoist influence in these plays, it is necessary to examine briefly the elusive term "Taoism" itself.

* * *

Taoism is a word with various connotations. In the most relevant sense, however, it refers to a school of philosophy which received its highest literary expression in the writings by, and attributed to, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. The former was its first major patriarch, the latter its radical interpreter and foremost popularizer. Taoism as a system of philosophy revolves around the pivotal concept of Tao, which has two meanings.

First, cosmologically, Tao is a "formless and ineffable" reality, which is behind all and beneath all, the womb from which all life (both human and natural) springs, and to which, after a cycle, it again returns. Tao is immanent as well as transcendent. It is everywhere, in all things and at all times. Though often identified as the "mother" of all things, Tao is impersonal and amoral.

Second, ethically, Tao refers to the way man should keep his life in tune with the universe. What is right, is bound up with Nature. The process of Nature is spontaneous, free from artificiality and strife. Therefore, Taoism holds spontaneity and receptiveness as the highest principles of human conduct. It stresses achieving inner peace and purity of mind by quelling perturbing emotions, renouncing desires for political power and excessive wealth, and avoiding social entanglements of any kind.

* * *

To O'Neill, "Tao House" was more than just a name for a home; it meant a way of life and a "mansion" for his soul. The eight years he spent at the isolated Tao House were very much like those of a Taoist hermit striving for full wisdom in secluded meditation. It is obvious that when O'Neill wrote his final plays, the Taoist ideas he embraced were no longer something he just copied, but something he had long pondered and even personally experienced. Consequently, the Taoism embodied in these mature works is remarkably different from the "borrowed" ideas of his previous plays which, as Robert Brustein bluntly puts it, are "all grafted onto plots which are largely unconvincing, irrelevant, or inconsequential" (Brustein 333). Taoism is now softly infused into the ideas, characterization, style and structure of these plays. And it seems even to have influenced O'Neill's choice of subject matter in the final phase of his dramatic career.

It was at Tao House that O'Neill abandoned his five years of hard work on the mammoth 11-play cycle,"A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed," planned as a critical evaluation of about 150 years of American history. He turned, instead, to a group of autobiographical plays dealing with his own and his family's past. This choice, crucial and significant, is generally seen as due to the author's deteriorating health, which compelled him to write plays that he knew he could finish. But it also seems possible that O'Neill's choice was made in accordance with one of the basic tenets of Taoist mysticism; namely, that the Tao flows through a man as through the rest of the world, and the individual is thus a microcosm corresponding fully to the macrocosmic world. To identify the Tao within--i.e., to understand oneself--is the best and surest way to know the Tao of the world. Chapter 47 of Tao Te Ching reads in part: "Without stirring abroad / One can know the whole world; / Without looking out of the window / One can see the way of heaven. / The further one goes / The less one knows" (Lau 108). And a familiar parable in Taoist literature describes a man searching for his divine teacher in all the holy mountains until he finally discovers him in one of the "mansions" inside his own head.

To identify the Tao within, all outward impressions need to be stilled and the senses withdrawn to an interior point of focus. One must also undertake an initiatory return, a psychological journey back to one's origin. In writing the autobiographical quartet--The Iceman Cometh, Hughie, Long Day's Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten--O'Neill relived, in an almost relentless manner, his early years of chaotic formation and went through a cathartic process of emptying his mind of disturbing emotions. Unusually perceptive, these plays stand as the crowning achievement of his long and awesome career. Though intensely personal, they "dig at the roots of the sickness of today" at a level deeper than either his own abandoned cycle plays or most of the socially-oriented plays of his contemporaries.

Like their creator, the tragic protagonists of these late plays shun the society of the outside world and look within. They explore their own past and recapitulate the process of their own making. Hickey, in the last act of Iceman, feeling "balled up" about himself and others, tries to explain himself and his action--"Only I've got to start way back at the beginning" when he was a child. James Tyrone, Sr., in Act IV of Long Day's Journey, makes rapprochement with Edmund, and peace with himself, by going through the ancestral causes of his miserliness and his artistic failure. His wife Mary, too, searches in the memory of her past and experiences the wholeness that existed at the beginning, before she was made to lose her true self forever.

* * *

The element of Taoism implicitly contained in O'Neill's Tao House plays represents, I venture to say, one of the basic qualities that make these works uniquely distinct from the author's earlier work and make them even "existentially" modern today. One salient characteristic of all O'Neill's late plays is the interfusion and identicalness of contraries, which results in rich ambiguity in their style, characterization and themes. These dramas display a curious mixture of past and present, comedy and tragedy. In them, to quote O'Neill, "something funny, even farcical, can suddenly without any apparent reason, break up into something gloomy and tragic," and the element of low comedy persists intermittently thereafter in otherwise highly tragic situations. Most of the characters are also found to be at once funny and tragic. Their motivation refuses to be explained in definite terms.

This quality of interfusion of opposites and the resultant ambiguity in O'Neill's Tao House plays echoes a very unique notion of Taoist teaching, especially that of Chuang Tzu. In our daily life we tend to draw distinctions that make for a dualistic view of the world. There are this and that, comic and tragic, right and wrong, good and evil, and an infinite number of other dualities. The Taoist challenges this view and asks whether any real distinctions exist within these alleged dualities. Chapter II of Chuang Tzu, entitled "The Equality of All Things and Opinions," says:

There is nothing which is not "that"; there is nothing which is not "this".... "That" and "this" can be spoken of as alternately producing one another. When there is life there is death, and when there is death, there is life.... Not to discriminate "that" and "this" as opposites, is the very essence of Tao (Rung 232, slightly modified).

This notion of the relativity of all values and the identity of contraries ties in with the traditional Chinese symbolism of Yin and Yang, often pictured in an endlessly revolving closed circle. It sums up all of life's basic oppositions: shady-sunny, female-male, negative-positive, evil-good, death-life, and so on. Though in tension, they are not wholly opposed: they complement, counterbalance, and even interpenetrate each other. Constantly moving and turning in the circle, the opposites are just like phases of a revolving wheel. No one perspective, therefore, can be regarded as absolute in this world of relativity.

In all of O'Neill's early plays, there is a persistent emphasis on dichotomy and contrast. It is expressed either through sharply drawn and opposing characters such as Robert and Andrew Mayo in Beyond the Horizon and Dion and Brown in The Great God Brown; or through alternation of contrasting scenes such as the indoor-outdoor rhythm in Beyond the Horizon, and the movement from the hot, sweaty stokers' pit to the cool, sunny deck of the leisure class in The Hairy Ape. The idea of dualism finds its expression also in antithetical themes. The degenerative land is set against the refreshing sea in Anna Christie, for instance; and Western materialism confronts Eastern spiritualism in Marco Millions.

Nothing seems absolute, however, in O'Neill's late dramas. One finds, instead, ambiguity and identity of contraries. Take the theme of marital relations, for example. In the early plays, love exists in contrast to hate, and usually there is only hate in marriage--e.g., in Desire Under the Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra. The heroines of these plays are often compelled to seek new and idealized love extramaritally. In the late plays the clean-cut dichotomy between love and hate is eschewed, and a new notion of Chuang Tzu's paradoxicalness takes its place. Hickey in Iceman, for example, always professes happiness in the love of his wife. Yet he had to kill her, as he explains, "to give her peace and free her from the misery of loving [him]." This explanation, however, becomes partial if not false when, in his long speech of self-justification, his unconscious hatred for her is revealed: he laughed when killing her and even swore at her, "you damned bitch." But the moment he blurts this out, he denies it: "Good God, I couldn't have said that! If I did, I'd gone insane! Why, I loved Evelyn better than anything in life!" Hickey is perplexed about his own emotion which interweaves love and hatred, the conscious and the unconscious. Any attempt to define his emotion categorically as hate or love is to miss the point. This revelation of ambivalence in his motivation at the end of the play demands a re-evaluation of the earlier action, making the play rich in ambiguity.

Death is another persistent theme throughout O'Neill's playwriting career, and this theme too shows development toward the Taoist reconciliation of opposites. Several of the one-acters composed at the start of his career, like Bound East for Cardiff, The Sniper and In the Zone, contain brief yet serious contemplations on death. "The fear of death," O'Neill once said, "is the root of all evils, the cause of man's blundering unhappiness" (Quinn 252). In mid-career plays like Dynamo and Days Without End, O'Neill dramatizes the human need for a satisfying new religion "to comfort [one's] fears of death with." And Lazarus Laughed states most explicitly and categorically the theme of denial of death and affirmation of life.

In Taoist perspective, however, life and death are not in opposition but are merely two aspects of the same reality. They are arrested moments of never-ceasing transformations, like day and night or summer and winter. Death is seen as the natural result, and also a new beginning, of life; and to feel bitterness against it is "to violate the principle of Nature and to increase the emotion of man." Thus, Chapter XXII of Chuang Tzu says, "Since life and death are companions, why worry about them?"

In his late plays, O'Neill adopted a similar attitude of serene acceptance. Death is no longer the Big Chill. It is something natural, to be neither feared nor desired. While drinking and dreaming, the denizens at Harry Hope's saloon are in fact waiting without fear for the Iceman--Death--to come. And so is Jim Tyrone in Moon. In Hughie, even the dividing line between life and death blurs and fades away. Not only is Charlie Hughes, the night clerk, a personification of death-in-life; but he and the recently-deceased night clerk whose position he has taken are so depicted as to represent exact doubles, with the same surname, age and background, and performing an identical social role.

A more significant example of the ambiguity and equivalence in the late plays is the common theme of dream and reality. We know that the theme runs through the whole of O'Neill's dramatic career; but in his pre-Tao House plays, dream is necessarily associated with some meaning or beauty far off "beyond the horizon," and is always in contrast to the plainness correlated with reality. As Carpenter indicates in his book Eugene O'Neill, the playwright's career follows a clear pattern of development: from the romantic dream of beauty in plays such as Beyond the Horizon and The Fountain, to disillusionment when the ugliness of reality is contrasted with that dream in plays like Anna Christie, The Hairy Ape, The Great God Brown and Marco Millions; then to tragic resignation by one "who envisions the perfect, struggles vainly to achieve it and finally accepts inevitable defeat," as in Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra.

In the final dramas, the characters still hold on to their dreams, but the dreams have dropped their romantic coloration. No longer is there any secret or beauty to be found. No longer is the dream used to countervail or throw into relief a squalid reality. And the plays do not culminate in tragic resignation after failure in struggle. The time has come for a full acceptance of reality. The dreams of the characters in the late plays do not transcend but are immersed in reality. The "pipe-dreams" of the denizens of Harry Hope's saloon are as simple as having a walk outside in the street, or getting back a lost job, or reopening a gambling house. The great dream of the Tyrones is to hope against hope that Mary has been cured of her drug addiction and Edmund's disease is not consumption but a slight cold.

O'Neill's rejection in his late plays of dualism, especially that of dream and reality, recalls what is probably the most famous parable about dream and wakefulness in the Taoist tradition (Chuang Tzu, Ch. III). Chuang Tzu once dreamed that he was a butterfly. Happy and content, he did not know that he had ever been anything but a butterfly. When he suddenly woke up, he was surprised to find that he was unmistakably Chuang Tzu. He became puzzled as to whether he was really Chuang Tzu who had dreamed of being a butterfly, or whether he was a butterfly now dreaming he was Chuang Tzu.

If we say O'Neill's late plays are plays of transcendence, then the transcendence derives from the author's final belief in there being no antithesis between dream and reality, truth and falsehood, good and evil, hope and despair. He condemned nothing in these plays, nor did he idealize or celebrate anything. The protagonists are neither pitied nor criticized. O'Neill seemed to have reached a state of non-differentiation, knowing that at center all things are one. For all the things he described and all the characters he portrayed in these plays, he now had only understanding and compassion to impart.

After writing the curtain line for Moon, O'Neill needed to write no more. All his family could now "rest forever in forgiveness and peace." The opposites and contraries presented in his early plays were now identified and reconciled. His own violent emotions likewise subsided. In 1944, a year after he completed his last play at Tao House, O'Neill left California and returned to New York, where he had begun. Two years later, he supervised the Broadway production of one of his Tao House plays, The Iceman Cometh. After that, there was silence.

-- Liu Haiping


Blakney, R. B. English translation of Tao Te Ching, entitled Lao Tzu: The Way of Life. New York: New American Library, 1955.

Brustein, Robert. The Theatre of Revolt. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1964.

Floyd, Virginia, ed. Eugene O'Neill at Work. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981.

Fung, Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy, trans. Derk Bodde. Peiping: Henri Vetch, 1937.

Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

Griffin, Ernest G., ed. Eugene O'Neill: A Collection of Criticism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Lau, D.C. English translation of Tao Te Ching, entitled Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching. London: Penguin, 1963.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. A History of the American Drama From the Civil War to the Present Day. New York: Appleton, 1936.

Robinson, James A. Eugene O'Neill and Oriental Thought. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.

Wang, Fu-tzu. Chuang-Tzu-Jie (Chuang Tzu with Explications). Beijing: Zhonghua Book Co., 1964.

Ware, James R. English translation of Chuang Tzu, entitled The Saying of Chuang Chou. New York: New American Library, 1963.

Zhang Song-Ru: Lao-Tzu-Jiao-Du (Lao Tzu with Collation and Explication). Jiling: Jiling People's Press, 1981.



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