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An Epitaph for the O'Neills

 
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 and 1921.

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 left."

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 Night:"

"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 Woman.

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 William Brown.

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.

Symbolical Name

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 audience.

"Come on, you 'Brown'!" he wrote one of his production associates from Bermuda.  "Daddy needs a yacht!"

 

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