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O’Neill’s African and Irish Americans:
Stereotypes or Faithful Realism”?


BY Edward L. Shaughnessy
FROM The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill, Cambridge University Press, 1998

Eugene O'Neill came early to recognize the fakery of the commercial theatre.  It was in that "hateful" institution, after all, that his own father had gained fortune and celebrity.  Yet, no matter how much he ridiculed the cardboard world of popular melodrama, young O'Neill grew in knowledge as he moved about freely in his father's house.  ". . . I was practically brought up in the theatre—in the wings—and I know all the technique of acting.  I know everything that everyone is doing from the electrician to the stage hands" (Cargill et al, 112).  In the same way he became acquainted with the sensational effects obtained by producer-illusionist David Belasco, who specialized in snapshot realism.  But O'Neill, who criticized Belasco, was himself innovator enough to use any device he thought might advance his dramatic intention.

Did O'Neill trade in stereotypes?  On the level of surface realism, he probably did.  If so, however, he merely followed well established practice.  For, in the end, all characters in drama, even the most complex or eccentric, are chiseled from standing blocks identified as types A, B, C, and so forth.  Indeed, it is their surface realism that makes even the greatest characters memorable.  Take Lady Macbeth, the very type of ruthless and ambitious wife, who invokes all strategies fair and foul to gain her end.  In truth she becomes believable only by virtue of her complexity, that web of drives and motives which gives her madness its riveting power.  Great storytellers achieve verisimilitude by rendering the idiosyncratic plausible.  O'Neill also came to understand the range of types and the secret of transcending their limitations.  Brutus Jones, his "features . . . typically negroid" (Complete Plays, II, 1033) may seem a too obvious neo-primitive, the manchild driven by simple urges and superstitions.  Still, as O'Neill explores the logic of the unconscious mind, he moves beyond mere linear realism in The Emperor Jones.  In The Iceman Cometh Larry Slade's "gaunt Irish face" gives him the look of a "weary old priest" (Complete Plays, III, 566), yet Slade is surely one of O'Neill's most complicated characters.

Say what we will, however, an image takes shape as we bring the type to mind:  the back-slapping salesman, the red-neck sheriff, the ingenue, the Boston Brahmin.  The question is what the artist does with the generalized picture.1  Shakespeare enlightens; the charlatan distorts.  O'Neill's genius was to take from the book of types but to breathe into this clay souls whose terrifying psycho-spiritual histories have become forever fixed in our memories.

In the nineteenth century a particularly virulent form of stereotype was exploited by the American press: the racial and political cartoon.  In his depictions of loutish simian Paddies and idiot Sambos, Thomas Nast was no doubt best known of those whose acid portraits sacrificed realism for exaggeration.  Nast found nearly all that he hated in the Irish Catholic democrat, whom he mocked again and again as incorrigible brawler and drunkard (in short, the hooligan).  O'Neill knew, of course, from background and experience, that both black and Irish Americans had been hated and alienated, even if he saw differences in the nature of their estrangements.

Black Themes and Characters

O'Neill did not live to witness the civil rights movement of the 1960's.   His reflections on African-American life had been recorded once and for all by 1939.  No scene in any of his plays shows blacks in a setting later than the American 1920's.  Emancipated de jure but never de facto, his African-American characters exist in conditions of effective subjugation.  They are often forced to behave in ways that confirm the very stereotypes others hold of them.  Condemned to live out his prophecy of doom, O'Neill's black exists in a state of resentment and fear, conditions which make him simultaneously suspect and pitiable.

Joel Pfister has examined O'Neill's black portraits very closely.  In the end he feels that the playwright did little to enhance the image of African Americans.  In fact, Pfister questions whether O'Neill created sympathy for abused blacks or whether he merely extended the "stereotypes . . . that inhabited the cultural swamp of (his) literary imagination" (132).   On the other hand, Michael Manheim has taken a view that in O'Neill's Joe Mott, "a descendant of Brutus Jones," we discover

the American black as the American white establishment has forced him to be, though his name suggests that he may also stand for other racial and religious minorities.  Desperately isolated, full of indignation, he capitulates not so much because of his personal ghosts, though they exist, as out of a necessity bred by the inescapable vulnerability America has forced upon its racial minorities.  (149)

One must concede that a degree of determinism obtains:  the effects of applied prejudice are as certain as death.  Of course, the victim has little opportunity to view his plight philosophically.  But O'Neill saw the immediate damage done, and much more.  By representing these effects with fidelity to nuance, the playwright was able to reveal his characters' deeper nature.  He  thereby accorded his blacks absolute equality in tragic stature.

O'Neill treated human character on three levels:  the cultural, which shapes the surface personality; the psychological, which examines the mask behavior that derives from the first; and the spiritual, which depends least on the racial-ethnic.  Of course, environmental (i.e., cultural) forces, while they are vastly formative, are essentially accidental.  Environment produces the "form," or outward self, that is recognized by others: one's language, codes of dress and deportment, often even one's loyalties, values, and prejudices.  On the second level, O'Neill studies the individual's struggle to preserve integrity, his unified self.  If he cannot accept the culture's attempt to shape him (to own him), he may seek to preserve his personhood behind an acceptable counterfeit (the mask or persona).

But on the third level O'Neill's characters meet on an existential common ground.  Here the playwright achieves whatever universality his art may claim.  Accepting Nietzsche's "death-of-God" proclamation, the playwright nevertheless sought to invest his characters with a dignity denied by the narrow assumptions of the prevailing literary naturalism.  (Indeed, he once proposed to call his work "supernaturalism.")  All persons, without regard to the accidents of birth (place, endowment, and race), suffer the ineluctable condition of humanity:  the tragedy of time.  In this sense O'Neill  is more concerned with "fate" than with determinism.    Therefore, his major black plays finally deal less with racial matters than with the more fundamental question of what it means to be human.

O'Neill created four important black characters, each of whom searches for his identity by testing the opportunities open to him.  The first is an angry and violence-prone teen, now a fugitive, who has found his image in the criminal model.  This is Abe, "The Dreamy Kid" (1918).  "Dreamy" rejects the advice of those, like Mammy Saunders and Ceely Ann, who caution him to conform.  Mortally ill, Mammy asks her grandson to stay by her bedside.  Dreamy is torn.  Having killed a white man, he is on the run from the police.   He whispers to his girlfriend, who insists he leave:  "She's croakin', I tells yo'—an' I gotter stay wid her fo' a while—an' I ain't got no time ter be pesterin' wid you" (Complete Plays, I, 686).   In the brevity of this play, Dreamy's case can be examined in only two stages of human response, the cultural and psychological.  His façade of toughness crumbles.  (All masks eventually shred in O'Neill).  Fear pierces him, and his behavior becomes perfectly illogical.  In panic, he says:  "Dey don't git de Dreamy.  Not while he's 'live.  Lawd Jesus, no suh!" (691).

The Emperor Jones  (1920) presents O'Neill's best known African American.  The surface realism of this tour de force  is strong, yet by play's end Brutus Jones's blackness has become strangely irrelevant.  In a remarkable economy of eight scenes, the play tells of the final day and horrifying death of an erstwhile Pullman porter.  Now a prison escapee, Jones has fled to a West Indies island, probably Haiti, where he has exploited the "low-flung bush niggers" and established his "empire."  Finally catching on, his "subjects" seek to topple him.  In a panicked flight through the Great Forest, as the natives' tom-tom beats ever more rapidly, Jones spirals downward through dream levels and is carried to the place of his personal origin. " . . . (S)eems like I been heah befo" (I, 1057).  As he moves backward through layers of racial history, Jones at last "beholds" a witch doctor who is making preparations for a sacrifice.

But where had Brutus Jones learned the Darwinian ethic of conquest and gained the skill to deceive the natives?   In truth, he had found his models among the successful white salesmen who expound the American business "ethic" in the smoking cars of the Pullmans.  The protagonist has merely imitated those who play the power game successfully.  Thus, his remark to a crooked Cockney trader is freighted with irony:  "For de little stealin' dey gits you in jail soon or late.  For de big stealin' dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o' Fame when you croaks. . . . If dey's one thing I learns in ten years on de Pullman ca's listening to de white quality talk, it's dat same fact" (1035).  Questions of racial superiority have, then, been made to seem superfluous.

The Emperor Jones will probably be disqualified today as politically incorrect. This is unfortunate, for at bottom O'Neill offers a brilliant study of a soul's unravelling.  In this disengagement from reality, we witness the undoing of a man's carefully constructed persona in the moment of surrender to death.  In this play of less than an hour's duration the protagonist's destiny suggests something universal.  At the end of the action we discover, not the stereotype of the opening scene, but the universal man.2

In All God's Chillun Got Wings (1923), Jim Harris, a "studious-looking Negro with an intelligent yet queerly-baffled face" (II, 292), seeks to make himself worthy of his idealized love, Ella Downey.  Ella had been his childhood playmate who lived on the Irish side of the street, across from the blacks.  This neighborhood might be called Division Street, where groups live in physical proximity but are separated by a gulf of mistrust and cultural differences.  Ella comes to feel a profound ambivalence for Jim, who treats her "white" but whom she has been conditioned to look down upon.  As a law student Jim has gained a certain verbal dexterity, yet as a black American he has been programmed to fail in self-esteem:   ". .  . (W)hen I'm called on—I stand up—all the white faces looking at me—and I can feel their eyes—I hear my own voice sounding funny, trembling—and all of a sudden it's all gone in my head . . ." (292).

Ella, first used and then cast off by an Irish prize fighter (Mickey),  marries Jim, whom she loves and who wishes to serve her.  But so deep has been her training in hatred for her "inferiors" that she belittles him in frenzied attempts to assert her own higher status:  "You dirty Nigger" (311).  Pfister argues that both "the black Jim Harris and the white Ella Downey have internalized racist ideologies and stereotypes that sabotage their 'psychology'" (135).  Moreover, says Pfister, "O'Neill's emphasis on psychological determinism in both The Emperor Jones and All God's Chillun  often stands in contradiction to his insights into the internalization of racist language and images" (136).  I see the issue in somewhat different terms.  Because they breathe and interact in a culture of sickness, both Jim and Ella, even as children, have been infected by America's most lethal virus:  racism.  To that extent determinism is a factor.  Their pathology is therefore a kind of synecdoche for the illness that degrades the social organism.  Thus O'Neill paints Jim and Ella with fidelity to the logic of an internalized psychology.  More important, however, is that they have already been trapped by their human fate of cosmic orphanhood.  "The racial factor is incidental," the playwright remarked.  "The play is a character study of two human beings" (Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Artist, 135).

There are three major but no minor male characters in The Iceman Cometh (1939).  In this sense Joe Mott, a "one-time proprietor of a Negro gambling house,"  is on an equal footing with the other characters.  Although he is tolerated by the Irish, Italian, British white African and other "inmates" of Harry Hope's hotel-bar, Joe represents all black Americans who never fully belong.  He can sit at the table with the Boer War veterans Piet Wetjoen and Cecil Lewis, but he is taunted by the bartender-pimps, Chuck Morello and Rocky Pioggi.  When they call him a "black bastard" and a "doity nigger," he rages like all members of bullied minorities:  "You white sons of bitches!  I'll rip your guts out" (III, 658).  Even Wetjoen calls him Kaffir ("nigger").  The Iceman was written near the end of O'Neill's career.  By then he had come to believe that all men have reason to create comforting self-deceits.  Joe is hardly an exception.  He "grins good naturedly" but cautions Wetjoen and Lewis:

. . . I don't stand for "nigger" from nobody.  Never did.  In de old days, people calls me "nigger" wakes up in de hospital.  I was de leader of de Dirty Half-Dozen Gang.  All six of us colored boys, we was tough and I was de toughest.  (589)

Joe Mott's real equality rests in his reinforcing this great theme:  "(Dreamily)  I'll make my stake and get my new gamblin' house open before you boys leave" (594).  If it is argued that men and women live by pipe dreams, support for this view may be built on the facts of African-American history, at least as that history resonates in Eugene O'Neill's plays.  Perhaps Professor Pfister has some reason to complain about "O'Neill's emphasis on psychological determinism."  But, if the playwright's black characters (like all his others) derive support from illusions, that dependency in no way robs them of complexity.

Irish Americans in O'Neill's Plays

The stereotype is a natural, or at least predictable, creation of melodrama and formula fiction:  the good guy, the villain, and the like.  But the universal character (Everyman, Mother Courage), in addition to type, has been given a kind of protean humanity which, whatever the specifics of his trials or her situation, remains recognizable to men and women of every rank in any period or place.  We meet these characters in all of literature, of course, but we encounter them most often in tragedy and the classic novel.  No dramatist has been successful in avoiding the stereotype in every instance: not even Shakespeare, and certainly not Eugene O'Neill.  The latter, in his early depictions of Irish Americans, worked too often from a paint-by-the-numbers kit.  As he gained confidence, however, he created more convincing characters; eventually, his men and women became fully three dimensional.

O'Neill, who took pride in his Celtic roots, developed a sophisticated understanding of Irish history.  Ironically, however, by practicing fidelity to truth, he sometimes rendered portraits even less flattering than the sketches done by Irish-baiters.  For O'Neill refused to sentimentalize Irish America.  Indeed, his portrayals often earned him resentment among latter-day Hibernians.  As William V. Shannon once observed, "Those who thought him anti-Irish did not comprehend that for an artist telling the truth is the highest act of love" (264).  A rejection of stereotype, then, does not imply a denial of ethnic or racial endowment.  O'Neill admired the Celtic gifts of wit and lyricism; he knew first-hand the dark and brooding melancholy and the Irishman's debilitating habit of self-medication via alcohol; and he responded to the mysteries of fatalism and mysticism that stalk the Irish soul.  Although he never made a journey to the "sod," O'Neill spoke with considerable authority in dealing with all things Irish.3

Although the immigrant Irish had long lived in a kind of servitude, they carried fewer handicaps than did blacks in the struggle for American assimilation.  As life was lived in the United States, their most obvious advantage was the protective covering of color.  But fluency in English also gave the Irish far greater access to the world of "haves" than was available to blacks.  With effort one could defeat the brogue.  The case of the playwright's father illustrates the point:  James O'Neill became an acclaimed Shakespearean actor.  Not only did the Irish come to America speaking English, however; they had long since gained familiarity with English law, customs, and values.

Essentially O'Neill presents two sorts of Irish Americans.  The first group, who accept the logic of the American dream, can be easily lampooned and stereotyped.  Like other nineteenth-century immigrants, the Irish wished for success as defined in the brave new world.  But O'Neill saw clearly that this surrender to mammon was certain to produce a sense of self-loathing.  Long before Arthur Miller, he had isolated the cause of the national sickness: one must sell oneself.  Hoping to acquire fortune and high station, the Irish also admired the types who succeed:  Marco "Millions" Polo (O'Neill's Babbitt); William A. Brown, architect to the philistines; or the patrician Harfords, who live in stately mansions.  In A Touch of the Poet, the Irish-American Cornelius and Sara Melody (father and daughter) seek to gain social rank and wealth among well established New Englanders.  In the career of his own father, mirrored in James Tyrone's of Long Day's Journey,  Eugene O'Neill saw evidence of why the Irish immigrants have historically been susceptible to the spiritually enfeebling virus Americanus.

The second and smaller group of Irish Americans are O'Neill's "fog people," a company of existential misfits who can never belong.  By nature and inclination, they seem less likely to evoke stereotypes.  Perhaps they will be thought of as the "black Irish" or mystics, those who long for some zone of peace and comfort "beyond the horizon."  They look to a past, real or imagined, that cannot be recovered.  If, politically, they espouse an ideal of social and material justice, they also recognize their dreams as little more than supportive illusions that help keep the void at a distance.  As Larry Slade says in The Iceman Cometh, "It's a great game, the pursuit of happiness" (III, 572).  Such men and women do  not await the millenium.  In these Irish O'Neill was reminded of what he had experienced himself:  a conflict between faith and doubt; the idea of woman as both virgin and whore; the yearning for the Celtic Tir na n'Og (the land of eternal youth).  Such men, often lost in the modern world, are foredoomed to see life itself as tragic.

O'Neill's first three Irish creations are sailors who surely call to mind stock Irish types.  Each speaks with a pronounced brogue, is given to heavy drinking, and conducts his affairs with little regard for the virtue of prudence.  Driscoll, "a powerfully built Irishman," ships aboard the S. S. Glencairn, the microcosmic stage for O'Neill's one-act sea plays.  Nearly all the crew are men of strong prejudices, superstitions, and elements so mixed as to render disaster all but inevitable.  Yet the plays' poetic naturalism suggests a deeper, intrinsic menace in the world itself.  Driscoll, who carries the scar tissue of the knock-about brawler, somehow responds with pity to the vulnerability of his mates.  In "The Moon of the Caribees" and "Bound East for Cardiff" of the Glencairn  quartet, the sea's crushing power is always implied, of course.  But some other terror haunts the sailors:  each man is crippled by a sense of his own isolation and of life's basic injustice.  John Synge's heroic Maurya describes the same dilemma with simple eloquence in Riders to the Sea:  "No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied" (97).  Aboard ship one contends not merely with the cruelty of officers but with something else:  the burden of human destiny itself.  As Driscoll says,  "The divil's own life ut is to be out on the lonely sea wid nothin' betune you and a grave in the ocean but a spindle-shanked, gray-whiskered auld fool the loike av (the captain)" (I, 189).

In The Hairy Ape  the ancient Paddy, an Irish dreamer who is always a little drunk, recalls a time before sailors were plunged into an inferno of smoke and steel.  He pines for the days of clipper ships, when one felt connected to nature and when the very enterprise of sailing exhilarated the spirit:  "'Twas them days a ship was part of the sea and a man was part of a ship, and the sea joined all together and made it one"   (II, 127).

Perhaps Mat Burke comes closest to the Irish stereotype.  To his bragging and boozing are added equal parts pugilist and virgin-idolater.  Like Driscoll, he is powerful and proud.  But in a four-act play (Anna Christie ), a central character ought to be a finished piece of work.  Yet we discover in Burke a variation on the stage Irishman:  the cork-screw rationalizing to justify his own loutish behavior; a maudlin loyalty to the "faith" and to his mother's memory; and the rascally irresponsibility of the typical boyo.  Mat falls in love with Anna, daughter of a coal barge skipper, Chris Christopherson.  Under his rough exterior but true to type, Mat believes in all the pieties about marriage to "a rale, dacent woman."  So he goes on an epic binge when he learns of Anna's prostitute past.  But the flinty Swedish girl is stronger than the two men and creates a far greater impact than either of them.  She comforts the father who had abandoned her in her childhood:  "There ain't nothing to forgive. . . .  It ain't your fault, and it ain't mine, and it ain't his neither.  We're all poor nuts, and things happen, and we yust get mixed in wrong, that's all" (I, 1015).  Burke, "that damn Irish fallar" (994), cannot match the wisdom and charity of this woman who delivers an early O'Neillian statement on fate.

Along the way, O'Neill introduced characters whose Irishness contributes little to the plays' signficance, e.g., Eileen Carmody in The Straw (1919) and Ella Downey in All God's Chillun Got Wings (1923).   But only in his late plays did he create truly complex studies of Irish Americans.  From his father and from experience, O'Neill learned that the greatest Irish sin was betrayal, especially self-betrayal.  In the story of James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night we may be reminded of the parable of a man who buried his talent and thereby suffered its loss (Matt. 25: 14-30).  At about twenty Tyrone learned that he was brilliantly gifted.  Others quickly saw his promise as Shakespearean actor.  But the memory of his immigrant mother's and siblings' abasement by poverty  made James into a kind of spiritual pauper.  Thus, he took the role of cardboard hero and performed it for decades in a soulless melodrama.  That decision exacted a fearful price:  the loss of native talent, the loss of self-respect, and finally loss of the memory itself:  "What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder, that was worth—Well, no matter.  It's a late day for regrets" (III, 810).  Perhaps parables carry general meanings, but they surely transcend the limitations of stereotype.

The tragedy of Mary Tyrone, who stands for O'Neill's mother, can also be traced to childhood experience, but an experience of a kind quite the opposite of that which entrapped James.  Overly protected by her indulgent Irish father, Mary was much praised in convent school for her unworldliness.  Ironically, this very innocence contributes to her undoing.  In marriage to the matinée idol, she too loses her life's trajectory.  Perhaps the Tyrones' story seems especially convincing because, by the time he wrote it, Eugene O'Neill had mastered the dynamics of character:  motivation, reflex, and inner consistency.  By then he had given up all dependence on the stereotype and had come to see the Irish (indeed, to see all humans) as driven by powers both within and without themselves.  These later portraits were painted in the style of "faithful realism," to use Edmund Tyrone's words.

While eight of the ten characters in A Touch of the Poet  are Irish, only the leading characters transcend their stereotype.  Cornelius Melody, once a major in His Majesty's Seventh Dragoons, now operates (1828) a tavern on the post road near Boston.  By imposing scullery and serving chores on his peasant-wife, Nora, and their feisty daughter, Sara, he establishes himself as gentleman of leisure.  Both women see the nonsense, of course, but Nora responds with charity, Sara with acerbity.  The barkeep Maloy, cousin Cregan, and motley hangers-on (Roche, O'Dowd, and Riley) hardly challenge Melody's pose.

Con Melody seems at first the stereotypical "Mick on the make."  A pretender to aristocracy, he is in fact the son of a lowly Galway shebeen keeper who "got rich by moneylendin' and squeezin' tenants and every manner of trick . . . and bought an estate with a pack of hounds" (III, 185).  War hero or not, Con had offended Anglo-Irish sensibilities by seducing a Spanish noble's wife.  He took Nora and Sara to New England where he has been again rebuffed, this time by "the damned Yankee gentry."  Tyrone had also sought Yankee approval but retained pride in his heritage.  Melody, however, is more than a stereotype.  He despises his background and "considers the few Irish around here to be scum beneath his notice" (186).  He fails to persuade the ascendant Brahmins to acknowledge his "rightful" place.  How galling, then, that his headstrong daughter should trick and then fall in love with Simon Harford, a proper Boston scion. 

If Con Melody inveigles and his toadies grovel, Nora is shown to be the very paragon of Irish virtue, faithful and generous in all things familial but more than a stereotype.  She is a finely sewn character, not a patch cut from the common cloth.  In the opening scene of More Stately Mansions (sequel to A Touch of the Poet), Nora's spiritual beauty comes fully to light.Melody, finally defeated, is being waked.  Nora accepts what is and prepares for what remains:  first to mourn and then to take up a new life, perhaps as a nun.  " . . . (T)here is a spirit in her that shines through her grief and exhaustion, some will behind the body's wreckage that is not broken, . . . an essential humble fineness of character . . ." (III, 290-91).

O'Neill had long worried about the traits of greed and possessiveness in the national psyche (e.g., Desire Under the Elms, Marco Millions, The Great God Brown).  As he grew older, this concern became a near obsession.  Indeed, he intended A Touch of the Poet and its sequel to be major entries in a projected cycle on the theme of American materialism, A Tale of Possessors, Self-DispossessedMore Stately Mansions  carries the epic forward, its main action tracing the union and fortunes of Sara and Simon Harford, Irish acquisitiveness wedded to Yankee power and wealth.

More important, perhaps, than theme or characterization, where Irishness is concerned, is language.  His limitations as wordsmith galled O'Neill.  Even so, he  occasionally acquitted himself in the manner of Irish wits, orators, and poets.  Even the Irish tragedian must offer a convincing show that he can manage the elements of humor, both mordant and merry.  O'Neill passes muster in both A Moon for the Misbegotten and Long Day's Journey into Night.  In the former the lowly tenant Hogan twits the brilliant Jim Tyrone in a spirited exchange worthy of Boucicault: "It's the landlord again, and my shotgun not handy.  Is it Mass you're saying, Jim?  That was Latin.  I know it by ear.  What the hell—insult does it mean?" (III, 875).  In like manner the "wily Shanty Mick," Shaughnessy of Long Day's Journey blisters his millionaire neighbor:  "(Shaughnessy) began by shouting that he was no slave Standard Oil could trample on.  He was a king of Ireland, if he had his rights, and scum was scum to him, no matter how much money it had stolen from the poor" (III, 726).

Of course, the far greater challenge to the writer than this pepper rhetoric is the evocation of the ineffable.  Irish poets are said to be successful at this; at least they seem willing to try.  Early and often O'Neill had tried and failed in this test.  He both recognized this deficiency and surmounted it in the late plays.  Edmund Tyrone's attempt to share with his father the mystical moment at sea  ("I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself!") seems to vindicate O'Neill.  At any rate, he allows himself the comfort of his father's praise in the words of old Tyrone:  "Yes, there's the makings of a poet in you all right" (III, 812).  Here was the recognition of a fellow artist. 

O'Neill understood why a Jim Harris or James Tyrone should have felt the bitterness of unfulfillment.  But their histories only accentuated the stabbing fear that everyone feels in his own isolation.  It was this understanding, no doubt, that turned O'Neill from topical to universal issues.  How fitting it is that three Irish-American characters, each with a deep knowledge of tragedy, deliver his darkest lines.5  In The Iceman Cometh Larry Slade, defeated by life, whispers:  "Be God, there's no hope" (III, 710).  Jamie Tyrone flings his corrosive wit into the teeth of the absurd, as he beholds his deranged mother:  "The Mad Scene.  Enter Ophelia" (824).   Edmund speaks for all impotent and disaffected poets:  "Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people" (812-13).

A Note on Performers

A word ought to be said about certain performances by black and Irish Americans in O'Neill's plays.  We know, of course, that the playwright generally held little confidence in actors' artistic judgment. (Perhaps he could never forget his father's "hateful theatre" in which the performers were encouraged to play to the gallery.)  Most men and women who take the boards, O'Neill believed, vastly over-estimate their own importance to a given production.  Thus, he demanded strict fidelity to the text (including stage directions).

In casting black and Irish roles, O'Neill tried hard to avoid the easy slide into stereotypes.  In A Moon for the Misbegotten, for example, he created a character (Josie Hogan) with "the map of Ireland  . . . on her face" but searched for an actress who could locate "the inner state of Josie."  When Irish-born Mary Welch read for the part in 1946, O'Neill quizzed her:  "Are you Irish?  What per cent?"  Yet such things, he knew, merely enhance the surface realism.  Later, when Miss Welch had won his confidence, he acknowledged her maturity by relating to her his sorrow and anger for the injustice done to America's blacks.  In her essay, "Softer Tones for Mr. O'Neill's Portrait," Welch says:

O'Neill brought up his earlier plays, particularly the ones he had written about the Negro people.  He had felt deeply about them, and his face grew bitter and forceful as he recalled how some of the New York professional theatre crowd had accepted these works.  His words were, "They didn't really understand what I was writing.  They merely said to themselves, 'Oh look, the ape can talk!'"     (In Cargill, et al, 89)

In the end no actor received a higher accolade from Eugene O'Neill than did Charles Gilpin, the first Brutus Jones.  Although Gilpin sometimes created problems by coming to work drunk and by improvising on stage, O'Neill named him one of three actors (with Louis Wolheim in The Hairy Ape and Walter Huston in Desire Under the Elms) who realized his intentions most fully.  In 1946 he went further:  "As I look back now on all my work, I can honestly say there was only one actor who carried out every notion of a character I had in mind.  That actor was Charles Gilpin" (Woolf, 62).  Even so, he was more than once infuriated by Gilpin's adlibbing:  "If I ever catch you rewriting my lines again, you black bastard, I'm going to beat you up" (Gelbs, 449).  The brilliant Paul Robeson, who took over the role of Brutus Jones when the play opened in London in 1924, also performed in the 1933 film version of The Emperor Jones.  As Jim Harris in the controversial New York premiere of All God's Chillun God Wings, Robeson established another theatrical milestone.  O'Neill greatly admired the actor's range of  talents and his political courage.  But the tribute to Gilpin stood and, therefore, remains all the more impressive.

Irish actors who vied for parts in O'Neill have been models for their American cousins.  Productions of his late masterpieces at Dublin's Abbey Theatre6 occurred after O'Neill's death, of course, but he would surely have blessed the acclaimed performances by Ria Mooney (1959 and 1962) and Siobhan McKenna (1985) as Mary Tyrone.  Vincent Dowling became a dedicated O'Neillian in Ireland and the United States: as Richard in Ah, Wilderness! (1962), as Edmund Tyrone (1959, 1962, 1967), and as Theodore Hickman in The Iceman Cometh (1972).  Dudley Digges, trained by Frank Fay in the Abbey's early years, came to the United States and performed as Henry Smithers to Robeson's emperor in the film, as Ramsay Fife in Dynamo, Chu-Yin in Marco Millions, and Harry Hope in the Broadway premiere of The Iceman.

It may be, however, that the most popular actor ever to appear in an O'Neill play was the Irish-American George M. Cohan in Ah, Wilderness!  (1933).  But, after early warm relations (their fathers had worked together to found the Catholic Actors' Guild), O'Neill did not take well to his fellow Celt. Cohan made a hit as Nat Miller, father to young Richard, but he began to puff up the part (more adlibbing!) and to stretch his time on stage.  Many years later, and off the record, O'Neill referred to Cohan as "a vaudevillian" (Sheaffer, Son and Artist, 422).

Unfortunately, the playwright never saw Dublin-born Geraldine Fitzgerald in a play of his.  She has played Essie Miller in Ah,Wilderness! (1969 and 1974) and Nora Melody in A Touch of the Poet (1978), but her Mary Tyrone opposite Robert Ryan in 1971 fairly stunned critics and audiences alike.  Virginia Floyd points out that, in his notes, O'Neill had described a Mary very like the one Miss Fitzgerald created with director Arvin Brown.  In researching the effects of morphine, they learned that some addicts experience a "cat reaction" and respond to the drug, not passively, but aggressively.  Interpreted in this light, Mary becomes "the victimizer and not the victim" (Fitzgerald, “Another Neurotic Electra,” 291).

In affairs of the theatre O'Neill's integrity was unassailable.  His Black and Irish Americans must be seen as a "faithful realism."  Never a propagandist, he was willing to incur doubts about his racial sympathies in his searing depictions of Brutus Jones and Jim Harris.  Nor did he offer an apologia for his sometimes unflorid portraits of Irish Americans.  But in the end his Celtic credentials and loyalties were never truly in doubt.  Indeed, O'Neill fairly glowed when he was praised by Irish writers.  Yeats's esteem pleased him, of course.  It was Sean O'Casey's tribute, however, that touched him most profoundly:  "You write like an Irishman, not like an American" (Gelbs, 788).

All this given, it seems likely that O'Neill would have approved a 1983 television adaptation of Long Day's Journey Into Night.  In that production the brilliant Ruby Dee headed an all African-American cast in a brave and moving version of the tragedy.  So much for stereotypes.


1.  In his classic essay on "Stereotypes," Walter Lippmann acknowledges the over-simplifications and dangers that stereotypes can produce, but he also suggests their values:  efficiency in categorizing experience.

2.  The distinguished black historian, Nathan Irvin Huggins, makes an exceptionally useful observation in this connection in Harlem Renaissance (1971):  " . . . here was no stereotype of Negro character.  Emperor Jones's ultimate fall, although superstition is involved, occurs because the artifices that have propped him up have been removed.  So, exposed and defenseless Jones—like any other man—falls victim to his fear and his essential, primitive nature."  (296-97)

3.  O'Neill once advised James T. Farrell to read Sean O'Faolain's biography, The Great O'Neill.  "I learned   from it a lot of the Irish past I had mislearned before.  You know what most Irish histories are like—benign Catholic benediction-and-blather tracts, or blind jingo glorifications of peerless fighting heroes, in the old bardic fashion.  Hugh O'Neill, as O'Faolain portrays him in the light of historical fact, is no pure and pious archangel of Erin but a fascinatingly complicated character. . . .  In short, Shakespeare (his contemporary) might have written a play about him" (Selected Letters, 545).

4.  It is interesting that in his journal (18 December 1941) O'Neill mentions his "notes on main themes of Cycle":  there he observes, "5th Play—Nora as exemplar on simple religious plane—nunnery ideal . . ." (Work Diary, 425).

5.  There are many other O'Neill characters without Irish surnames who might well express the same sentiments:  Dion Anthony in The  Great God Brown, Nina Leeds in Strange Interlude, Lavinia Mannon in Mourning Become Electra, John Loving of Days Without End, the entire cast of The Iceman Cometh, Erie Smith in "Hughie," et al.  As noted earlier, Eugene O'Neill should never be looked upon as parochial.

6.  For a history of  O'Neill productions (in both the Republic and the North) from 1922-1987, see Edward L. Shaughnessy’s  Eugene O'Neill in Ireland: The Critical Reception. Greenwood Press (1988).

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, Geraldine,  "Another Neurotic Electra: A New Look at Mary Tyrone," in Eugene O'Neill:  A World View,  ed. Virginia Floyd (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979).

Gelb, Arthur and Barbara, O'Neill.  Rev. ed.  (New York: Harper, 1973).

Huggins, Nathan Irvin, Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

Manheim, Michael, Eugene O'Neill's New Language of Kinship ( Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1982).

O'Neill, Eugene,  Complete Plays (Vols. I, II, and III), ed. Travis Bogard  (New York: Library of America, 1988).

O'Neill, Eugene, Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill, eds Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer (New Haven: 1988).

O'Neill, Eugene, "O'Neill Talks about His Plays," in O'Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, eds.   Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin, and William J. Fisher  (New York: New York University Press, 1961)  pp. 110-12.

Pfister, Joel, Staging Depth: Eugene O'Neill and the Politics of Psychological Discourse (Chapel Hill and London:  University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

Shannon, William V, The American Irish: A Political and Social Portrait  (New York: Macmillan, 1963).

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

Sheaffer, Louis, O'Neill:  Son and Artist  (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973).

Synge, John M, The Complete Works of John M. Synge  (New York, Random House, 1937).

Welch, Mary, "Softer Tones for Mr. O'Neill's Portrait," in Cargill, et a, pp. 85-91.

Woolf, S. J., "Eugene O'Neill Returns After Twelve Years”  (New York Times,  15 September,  1946).


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