BY Arthur Gelb
FROM The New York Times, October 4, 1959
Death of Playwright's Family Reflected
in 'Great God Brown'
In the winter of 1925, when Eugene O'Neill wrote
"The Great God Brown," he was still mourning the abrupt extinction of
his family. His older brother, Jamie, had been dead two years; his
father and mother had died, within seven months of each other, in 1920
The O'Neills had been a painfully close, if
embattled, family, and the death of brother and parents left the last
surviving member with scars that never healed. "The Great God
Brown," which is to be revived at the Coronet on Tuesday, was, in a
sense, their epitaph.
"I have lost my father, mother and only brother
within the past five years," O'Neill mourned to a friend a year before
he began writing the play. "Now I'm the only O'Neill of our branch
The death of his family set him free to begin a
minute and lifelong evaluation of his relationship with them. The
first play in which he began to probe deeply, if unconsciously, into
this relationship was "Desire Under the Elms," written in 1924, in which
he concentrated on the conflict between father and son, a conflict that
was a searing part of the young O'Neill's daily existence. His own
father, the popular actor James O'Neill, was an Irish immigrant who had
struggled to the top of his profession and who had little sympathy for
his sensitive, brooding; nonconforming son.
The second play was "The Great God Brown," which
O'Neill wrote when he was 37 and at the height of his creative power and
prestige. It remained, always, among his special favorites.
As late as 1942, by which time he had completed "Long Day's Journey Into
Night," he selected a scene from "The Great God Brown" to represent him
in an anthology.
"I still consider this play one of the most
interesting and moving I have written," he commented, in a letter
accompanying his selection. "It has its faults, of course, but . .
. for me, at least, it does succeed in conveying a sense of the tragic
mystery drama of Life revealed through the lives in the play. And
this, I think, is the real test of whether any play, however excellent
its structure, characterization, dialogue, plot, social significance or
what not -- is true drama or just another play."
Like his other pet plays, "The Great God Brown"
had a significance for O'Neill that sprang from its being a deeply
personal revelation. In it he characterized himself (in the person
of Dion Anthony) as "a stranger, walking alone . . . dark, spiritual,
poetic, passionately supersensitive, helplessly unprotected, [with a]
childlike, religious faith in life . . ." -- and artist, a creator, set
apart from his fellow-man, unable to communicate with family or friends,
locked in a lonely struggle to find God and the meaning of life's
mystery, and eventually knuckling under to the callousness of an
unheeding and materialistic society.
Dion's parents, like the parents of the frankly
autobiographical Edmund Tyrone, in "Long Day's Journey Into Night,"
understand neither their son nor each other, nor can Dion find the means
to communicate with them. (Both parents die early in the play and
the son mourns them in one of O'Neill's most moving speeches.)
Dion's friend, William Brown, whom he calls brother, represents, like
the older brother, Jamie Tyrone, in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," an
antagonist both loved and hated, a symbol of the potentially fine soul
grown stunted and envious and destructive.
The first speech of Dion's father (a minor
character in "The Great God Brown") is an involuntary echo of the way in
which O'Neill's own father customarily addressed his son -- and the way
the father does, repeatedly, address Edmund in "Long Day's Journey Into
"Colleges turn out lazy loafers to sponge on their
poor old fathers. Let him slave like I had to. That'll teach
him the value of a dollar. Let him make a man out of himself like
I made out of myself."
As for Dion's mother, she, like O'Neill's own
mother and like Mary Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," had
shrunk away from her overpowering husband and from life itself, into a
twilight zone where she could relive her girlhood. O'Neill,
through Dion Anthony, recalls her as "a sweet, strange girl, with
affectionate, bewildered eyes as if God had locked her in a dark closet
without any explanation."
Love and Hate
O'Neill's brother, as represented by Brown, bears
the brunt of a resentment also depicted vividly in "Long Day's Journey
Into Night." Though he loved his brother, O'Neill felt Jamie had
tried to destroy him, in the process of destroying himself. Dion,
confronting Brown in the second act, bitterly and symbolically sums up
O'Neill's grievance against Jamie:
"Listen! One day when I was 4 years old, a
boy sneaked up behind when I was drawing a picture in the sand he
couldn't draw and hit me on the head with a stick and kicked out my
picture and laughed when I cried. It wasn't what he'd done that
made me cry, but him! I loved and trusted him and suddenly the
good God was disproved in his person and the evil and injustice of Man
was born! . . ."
Although neither time nor locale are specified for
the action of "The Great God Brown," both recall the New London of
O'Neill's youth. Like the autobiographical setting of "Long Day's
Journey Into Night" -- New London, 1912 -- "The Great God Brown" has
scenes that can be recognized as deriving from the New London of that
era. One of the most moving scenes of the play, for example, takes
place in the parlor of the prostitute, Cybel. The setting, down to
the details of a gilt sofa, a red plush chair and an "automatic
nickel-in-the-slot player-piano," comes right out of the red-light
district of New London's early Nineteen Hundreds. A number of
O'Neill's contemporaries, who helped him to scandalize the proper
citizens of that town, have testified to the setting's authenticity.
Cybel's parlor was in a district called Bradley
Street, and O'Neill had an intimate knowledge of and deep regard for
some of its inhabitants -- not because of the commodity they sold, but
because they symbolized for him the solacing, mother-earth quality of
In "Long Day's Journey Into Night," James Tyrone
describes a visit to one of the houses on Bradley Street, and Cybel, the
whore with the beautiful soul, the solacer of Man in "The Great God
Brown" was, much later, transmuted by O'Neill into Josie Hogan in "A
Moon for the Misbegotten," another autobiographical play set in New
London and dealing with the last days of Jamie Tyrone. Cybel is
the innocent whore, Josie the sham-whore; both comfort the dying
protagonist who represents O'Neill's brother, with patient, selfless,
motherly love -- Josie giving solace to Jamie Tyrone, and Cybel to
As was the case with nearly all his plays, but
particularly with those into which he had poured much of his private
anguish, O'Neill was dissatisfied with the original production done
thirty-three years ago, even though it was put on under his personal
supervision and with the capable assistance of his two good friends, the
designer, Robert Edmond Jones, and the former Globe critic, Kenneth
Macgowan. His principal dissatisfaction was with the
Greek-inspired use of masks, which he introduced as a major dramatic
device for the first time in "The Great God Brown."
"They were never right," he wrote a friend in
1927, "and we had neither the time nor the money to experiment and get
them right before we opened -- the old story that prevents anything
really fine from ever being done in the American theatre!"
He had wanted the masks, he said, "to get across
the abstract drama of the forces behind the people," and instead, they
suggested "only the bromidic, hypocritical and defensive
double-personality of people in their personal relationships,"
something, he added, which he would never have needed masks to convey.
He had wanted them to convey the mystery of life, and they had turned
out to be merely a confining stage trick.
Few people understood, at the time of the
production, that the name, Dion Anthony, symbolized Dionysus and St.
Anthony -- in O'Neill's words, "the creative pagan acceptance of life,
fighting eternal war with the masochistic, life-denying spirit of
Christianity . . ." Cybel, he added, was an incarnation of the
mythological Cybele, the Earth Mother.
Although O'Neill did not feel the production had
achieved what he set out to do, he followed its success at the box
office cheerfully enough. It ran for nearly eight months, a good
run in those days, having been moved uptown from the Greenwich Village
Theatre about a month after its opening there on Jan. 23, 1926.
O'Neill had recently bought a house in Bermuda,
and he was living better than he ever had before; in one of his lighter
moments during that period he indicated that he was willing to overlook
the fact that his play was not "getting across" with its full, symbolic
value, and to concentrate simply on whether it was drawing a good
"Come on, you 'Brown'!" he wrote one of his
production associates from Bermuda. "Daddy needs a yacht!"