BY Edward L. Shaughnessy
Even his inveterate apologists might prefer not to defend one or another of O'Neill's plays. Welded comes quickly enough to mind. Many an O'Neillian called upon to argue the case for Days Without End would probably experience a similar disinclination. For this "play about Catholic boyhood" carries high disclaimer potential. Its sometimes bathetic earnestness and overheated dialogue can unnerve otherwise friendly critics. To be fair, one must acknowledge O'Neill's occasional heavy-handedness in serving the cause of "high seriousness." Aficionados are well acquainted, of course, with the endless (and often unfair) complaints against the playwright's "tone of barbershop harmony" that have made it difficult for the literati "to like O'Neill." Hence the hesitation of fairminded but uncertain students to discuss the "Modern Miracle Play" that became an egregious Broadway flop. The problem has been compounded, moreover, because O'Neill himself, in letters to friends and critics, insisted on its importance with searing intensity. His letter to Kenneth Macgowan (14 February 1934) is typical:
He would not allow them merely to log it as an edifying failure and then dismiss it.
At any rate, the play's disappointing run of 57 performances began in Boston's Plymouth Theatre on 27 December 1933 and closed at the Henry Miller in New York on 24 February 1934. Some of the Boston critics had been less negative (Edward Harold Crosby in the Post, and Burns Mantle in the Herald; Elinor Hughes, also of the Herald, and H.T. Parker of the Transcript were generally pleased). New York writers by and large treated Days Without End very harshly (Percy Hammond of the Herald Tribune and Brooks Atkinson of the Times among them). More damaging in the long run, however, have been the evaluations of Days made by O'Neill's greatest admirers in the decades of his posthumous revival. John Henry Raleigh called it "Dickensian in its wildly improbable happy ending ... with the impossible Father Baird purring in the background" (137); Travis Bogard has noted that it was "written without real craftsmanship or imagination (and was) thematically arbitrary, if not confused" (329); Louis Sheaffer wondered if any major playwright had "ever written a play so awkwardly contrived" (Son and Artist 412); and Margaret Ranald called Days "dramatically ... clumsy, with entrances and exits very obviously contrived, the exposition heavy-handed, and the epiphanic reintegration of John Loving ill-prepared and even trite" (163). Even Virginia Floyd, clearly sympathetic to the author's religious turmoil, calls it "the weakest and least successful play of O'Neill's mature period" (415) and terms the ending "hopelessly contrived and outrageously dramatic.... As he did in Welded, O'Neill takes a simple domestic drama and attempts to make a profound philosophical commentary on spiritualized love, the sanctity of marriage, and, in Days Without End, the duality of man" (418).
The sheer impact of such universal rejection cannot be ignored. The play is flawed, and I do not wish to make a meaningless case. I do intend, however, to argue for what I believe requires still to be said, even when I must occasionally enlist the reader's momentary suspension of disbelief. Whatever the value of Days as drama, its position in the canon is critical to our understanding of O'Neill's own spiritual-psychological development. No more than any other can I say what might have happened to the "apostate" had the play been acclaimed a success in its New York premiere (an outcome he knew to be unlikely). But we must surely wonder what possibilities for reassessing his religious situation could have been opened to him had things gone differently. As it turned out, of course, the experience proved devastating: he was humiliated and embittered; and he was unable thereafter to broach publicly the subject of his own possible return to Catholicism (although he was sometimes asked about it). By the time of his next Broadway production, in 1946, O'Neill's position had become unequivocal: "The Iceman is a denial of any other experience of faith in my plays" (Bowen 316). The writing and production of Days required an act of courage on O'Neill's part. He knew that even his most sympathetic critics would find it a strain to endure (including George Jean Nathan). To Kenneth Macgowan, he wrote before the play had even gone into rehearsal: "whatever the fate, of Days Without End, I'm damned glad I did it, for I feel immensely freer inside myself and better able to digest all the demands that future work may entail" ("The Theatre" 204).
Days Without End has much to commend it, including noble intention and muscular concept. Unfortunately, the authorial earnestness created a static that interfered with the play's message. It is important, I think, to assert that the work suffers not from it autobiographical grounding; rather, it falters either because O'Neill was not clear in his own vision or because he lacked the courage to make an unqualified act of faith via his established public medium. Professor Floyd apparently sees some plausibility in the latter alternative (420). It seems undeniable, however, that the impact of his own spiritual-psychological uncertainty accounts in large part for the play's weaknesses.
O'Neill often made his failures appear somewhat ridiculous by his insistence on their "big subject" status. But whatever Days Without End said (or did not say) about Eugene O'Neill's personal spiritual odyssey and travails, I suggest that the play is solider than many have acknowledged. It continued an examination of the bifurcated soul begun in Beyond the Horizon (1920). By this time, having followed the trail through The Great God Brown (1925), Lazarus Laughed (1927), and Dynamo (1928), he had rather completely examined the "roots of the sickness of Today" in the agonies of his heroes. These are characters divided by their mocking self-contempt, on the one hand, and their unending search for integrity, on the other. The chief sign of their sickness was the loss of faith, often represented by the disfiguration of a mask. The mask once meant power, especially the power of ritual. But how does the device function in the modern world where faith has been reformed into boosterism? Now it may more frequently signify the individual's failure to preserve his identity. I cite my own words in the Irish University Review some years back:
Days Without End, the last of his mask plays, was very important to O'Neill, so its commercial failure and the stinging critical rejection rankled him deeply. As I have said, we cannot know what effect a positive reception of Days might have had on his subsequent career; nor can one say that its failure explains why he mounted no more productions until 1946. But the unfavorable New York treatment, just a year after the smashing success of Ah, Wilderness! (starring song-and-dance man George M. Cohan), can hardly have lessened his contempt for the commercial theatre.
It is no part of the task at hand to defend or attack the doctrines of Roman Catholicism, of course. But whether the writing of Days Without End should be taken as evidence of O'Neill's desire to return to Catholicism is very much the question. He was, it seems fair to say, understandably mistrustful of his own inclinations. This ambivalence carried over into the mixed signals given in his comments about the play's content, matters certain to baffle interpreters of this work. Even Saxe Commins, O'Neill's close friend since the early Provincetown days, misread his intent. Commins, who often typed O'Neill's draft manuscripts, saw evidence of the author's movement "backward," an inference that infuriated Carlotta (and, she said, her husband). She wrote to him, more than seven months prior to the Boston opening, to relay her and O'Neill's distress and to disabuse him of his erroneous view:
Many in the Catholic press, however (and audiences in Dublin), also fell quite as easily into "misreading" the play's meaning. But if Commins shared nothing of faith with Eugene O'Neill, the Catholic critics did. Gerard B. Donnelly, S.J., discounted the reviews of many (Boston) critics "who obviously failed to understand the play and who, I think, faintly resented it." Donnelly suffered no such bafflement or resentment.
(Would not James O'Neill have thrown out his chest in pride and clapped his son on the back in approval of all this—whether or not his pride were justified!) "Indeed," Donnelly continued, "the author has given his work an Ignatian title.... Without belief in God our life is without purpose, our days are without an end" (346). O'Neill, if he read this review, must have experienced mixed feelings. It's always pleasant to be approved and placed in august company (Ignatius of Loyola). But he was also put on the spot if he acknowledged any validity in his renunciation of "paganism." As we have seen, he had insisted to Macgowan that "it was only Jesuits and Catholic theologians who saw" his purpose. Well?
A more authoritative voice in the community of Catholic intellectuals at the time was that of Richard Dana Skinner, drama critic for Commonweal. And he used that organ to broadcast what he believed was truly significant about O'Neill's new work: "Days Without End is the culmination in religious spirit, at least, of nearly every play he has written before, as inseparable from Beyond the Horizon, The Great God Brown, and Mourning Becomes Electra as Dante's ascent of the mount of Purgatory is inseparable from his passage through the Inferno" (327). More interesting, perhaps, are Skinner's private remarks on the issue, comments shared with another Boston priest, Michael Earls, S.J. Several of the following passages from Skinner's correspondence with Fr. Earls were first brought to light by Croswell Bowen in The Curse of the Misbegotten; others have not been cited before their appearance here.
In 1935 Skinner published a study of the playwright, Eugene O'Neill: A Poet's Quest. He said he had maintained independence of critical judgment but benefited by cooperation from the "poet." His purpose was to study the plays "from the viewpoint of their inner continuity." O'Neill apparently appreciated the seriousness of Skinner's intentions but understandably did not approve carte blanche whatever might be suggested in a manuscript he was not to see before publication. One wonders where the author obtained certain information he passed along to Fr. Earls: "It may interest you to know that his wife is working very hard to bring about his definite return to the Catholic Church as she feels that that is his one salvation" (11 Jan. 1934). This does not sound much like the Carlotta most O'Neillians have come to know nor her feelings those she had expressed to Commins only a few months earlier. Skinner seems to have taken a sentimental view of O'Neill's "problem." Again to his Jesuit correspondent: "his present wife is doing all in her power to get him to return to his Faith" (22 January).
It does not seem that the critic was pretending an intimate knowledge of the O'Neills. The playwright had placed some importance on the younger man's opinion. In 1926 he wondered to Macgowan, "Has Skinner read L(azarus Laughed)?" (SL 208). As late as 1939 they continued to write to one another, exchanging information on matters familial as well as dramatic. The only point is to suggest that Skinner clearly felt that he wrote to Fr. Earls with authority about O'Neill's religious dilemma: "let me beg you to storm heaven for the intentions of both of them. They still have a long and difficult road ahead" (22 January). A week later he responded to the priest about Philip Barry, who "has written the kind of Catholic play that is really good." (The play in question was The Joyous Season, which starred Lillian Gish as a nun and opened at the Belasco on 29 January 1934.) The New York critics would praise it, said Skinner,
O'Neill, no doubt, felt deep ambivalence if he read these words. He would most surely have been embarrassed by such language as "the surrender to Christ crucified" and by being honored for his strong stand against adultery. On the other hand, he was quite emphatic in a number of ways about the lethal urbanity of the critics, as he wrote to Sophus Winther: "Days Without End challenged and insulted their superiority complexes ... and they reacted like bigoted, priest-burning, Puritan atheists! Also my play treats adultery seriously—as a sin against love—and how could the first-night intelligentsia of New York countenance that!" (SL 432). Denials to the contrary notwithstanding, how far from Skinner's ground did O'Neill actually stand?
Whatever his deepest feelings in this connection, O'Neill took considerable pains, in writing and revising Days, not to seem too Catholic. He had written the Father Baird part at first as that of a Protestant clergyman. Later, realizing that he could speak with greater authority and honesty by creating a Catholic background, he let the chips fall. He wrote to Nathan, "I have been working like hell on it (D.W.E.) .. and have finished the change back to Catholicism and the priest¬uncle. It certainly gives it its proper quality. I was a damned fool ever to change it to a vague Christianity" ("As Ever, Gene" 155). (In this connection also see Floyd 419.)
At any rate the critic broadcast from his Commonweal platform his "conviction that in this play Mr. O'Neill has achieved a degree of spiritual as well as dramatic triumph which sets Days Without End above and apart from any (other) play he has written" (358). But Skinner was also acutely aware that the O'Neills would probably be made uncomfortable if Days were praised by prelate and pastor for defending (or seeming to defend) Catholic morality. Thus he cautioned Father Earls to be discreet in any message he might send to the playwright: "I would not refer directly, of course, to any of the matters I have told you about their personal religious feelings, but I do think it would be well `in order' to say that you are constantly remembering his intentions and praying that he may find the peace and comfort he is seeking" (14 February).
The one constant in O'Neill criticism, friendly and unfriendly, is that his plays are manifestly autobiographical. He would not have been believed if he had tried to deny this presence and did not expend great energy on the question. Would a student of his work draw a fair inference if he saw in Days Without End evidence of the author's longing to return to the faith? The play did not imply, O'Neill insisted, "that I have gone back to Catholicism. I haven't. But I would be a liar if I didn't admit that, for the sake of my soul's peace, I have often wished I could" (SL 433).
O'Neill was, no doubt, among the most complex personalities of all twentieth-century artists—psychologically and intellectually. Thus, because his plays are typically about his own tragic and spiritually esoteric experiences, they are difficult to unravel. Certainly they defy facile compartmentalization by the sitting audience. Here was a divided soul, a man at war with his allegiances to family and friends, lovers and children, church and theatre. In several plays he complicated things almost beyond the spectator's power to fathom or endure. This condition obtains especially in the mask plays, brilliant as they may be. Days Without End is such a play, although only one character is so fitted. "LOVING'S face is a mask whose features reproduce exactly the features of JOHN'S face—the death mask of a JOHN who has died with a sneer of scornful mockery on his lips. And this mocking scorn is repeated in the expression of the eyes which stare bleakly front behind the mask" (16). This strategy contributes to a dramatic portrait of a man's inner division: love and hate, compassion and coldness, humility and arrogance. (One sometimes has the impression that for O'Neill the mask represented a curious variation on the catechetical definition of the sacramental effect: "an outward sign of an inward condition.")
I remarked earlier that the concept of Days was meritorious, a further examination of bifurcation begun in Beyond the Horizon. I do not argue, however, that the execution was equally valid. Staging and making that concept accessible to theatregoers is something else. The main plot line of the miracle play is the division of loyalties within one man (John Loving), one side selfish and contemptuous of "weakness" (faith), the other side generous of spirit and struggling to recover belief. This character, an extension of the Dionysus-St. Anthony division dramatized in The Great God Brown, is oriented strictly to intellect in its detached coldness—that is, without the humanizing presence of compassion and humility. In its dynamics, we are reminded of certain character types created by Hawthorne—men who see love as a form of self-created vulnerability. Thus, John's betrayal of his wife Elsa in a brief liaison with her friend Lucy both complicates the plot and simultaneously threatens to over-tax audience attention. The complex John Loving is contrasted with the nearly cardboard characterizations of Elsa, Lucy Hillman, and Father Matthew Baird, the hero's uncle. In all of this may be discovered a fundamental problem in O'Neill's play, a matter that deserves brief review.
Elsa, age 35 and a survivor of an earlier ill-fated marriage, believes that she has now entered a "perfect" marriage, the "true sacrament" that she and John bestow upon each other. (Such saccharine language, reminiscent of the marital descriptions in Welded, signals early trouble for audience-playwright rapport in Days Without End.) She remains innocent of the knowledge of John's adulterous fling with Lucy until she begins to reflect on the plot for his novel that he reads to her and Fr. Baird (in Act III). On the one hand, she is supposed to be a mature woman well aware of the world's deceits. On the other, she holds expectations of marital bliss that place her grasp of reality in doubt. It is this very innocence, however, which her close friend and husband's brief lover seeks, in envy, to puncture.
Fr. Baird, a man of cheerful and generous nature, is the very model of the forgiving and forever tolerant priest. His wisdom is revealed, not in the power of rhetoric or logic, but in the simplicity of his faith. A man who has lived his virtue, he has come to "Jack" because of what happened "one night while I was praying for you in my church, as I have every day since I left you. (Baird had years earlier been appointed the younger man's guardian when John's parents died.) A strange feeling of fear took possession of me—a feeling you were unhappy, in some great spiritual danger.... (A)s I prayed, suddenly as if by some will outside me, my eyes were drawn to the Cross, to the face of Our Blessed Lord. And it was like a miracle.... That's the real reason I decided to take my vacation in the East, Jack" (42). John takes his uncle home and presents him to Elsa, whose convalescence from the flu makes her seem the more delicate and childlike. That evening, John accedes to their encouragement to sketch out a novel he has been writing (in fact, a barely disguised account of his affair with Lucy). He seems to have a dual objective in creating this autobiographical story: it permits him to recapitulate his own actions and thus to examine more deeply his own motives; and it will provide a device for testing Elsa's capacity to forgive him.
Loving here, "in a jeering tone," insists that the appropriate denouement would call for the death of the wife "to make my romantic hero come finally to a rational conclusion about his life!" (105). We must remember that Loving, though his "life principle" is precisely the opposite of John's, is limited to the same information. He cannot invent facts; one side of this divided personality can know only what the other knows. In that sense, then, John can fight him on equal terms. It is only the nature of motivation that distinguishes one aspect of character from the other.
Understandably (perhaps) Elsa retires for the evening and the men repair to the study. Fr. Baird wonders what happens to the hero after the wife's death. John says that the hero returns to the church of his boyhood, where he kneels at the foot of the Cross and "feels he is forgiven" (114). Loving curses God, and the three discuss John's need for forgiveness until Elsa enters—disheveled, wet, and feverish. In near hysteria she reveals that, from Lucy's tale of infidelity and John's "novel" of adultery, she has made the appropriate inferences. Can she accept his sin? "No! I can't forgive!" (123).
Then the play, in two quick scenes, is brought to an end. A week has passed. Elsa is in her bed in a sort of semi-coma; weakly she utters a heart-breaking cry in her sleep: "John! How could you? Our dream!" (132). John is near collapse. Among the four men (Stillwell, a physi¬cian, is present) a kind of combat takes place for the soul of John. The good priest, believing less in polemics than in submissiveness to higher powers, prays: "Dear Jesus, grant me the grace to bring Jack back to Thee. Make him see that Thou, alone, hast the words of Eternal Life" (140).
Some power moves John Loving into the old church, where he falls prostrate before the crucifix. In this final scene Loving, his arrogance diminishing, is defeated by John's faith and willing surrender: "Thou art the Way—the Truth—the Resurrection and the Life, and he that believeth in Thy Love, his love shall never die!" (156). Fr. Baird, entering hurriedly, tells him of the miracle: "Elsa will live." Tableau. Fade out.
Even the most generous observers of O'Neill's work must concede that Days Without End is seriously impaired by the sheer improbability of its dialogue and the unreality of much character motivation. This condition obtains in both major ribbons of plot: the wife-husband coming to terms with the latter's adultery; and the Fr. Baird—John Loving discussions on the question of religious truth. But why is the talk on these issues so often embarrassing? After all, the problems are intrinsically serious and compelling. O'Neill, moreover, knew from the depths of his experience whereof he spoke. And they are problems that beset an ever greater number of men and women in our time. One hesitates before addressing questions both fundamental yet defiant of facile explanation. Perhaps part of the answer is to be found in the playwright's intimate involvement with the themes and conflicts of his plays. If all fiction is autobiographical, as Thomas Wolfe observed, O'Neill's plays are the very story of his own life in a manner almost unprecedented in the history of drama. This personalism, if we may use that term, did not permit his taking the usual aesthetic distance from his characters and their problems. In Days Without End, for example, it is not so much that John's and Loving's feelings are the artist's; it is rather that his are theirs. This condition seems to be more permissible in poetry (Eliot would have disagreed), but it does not work so well in drama. If one argues that it worked well enough in Long Day's Journey Into Night and other late masterpieces, we can only respond in the affirmative. By that time, however, O'Neill had come to terms with his demons and wrestled them at least to a draw. In the miracle play of 1934, however, the stage itself became the playing field whereon the battle was being fought out. It is as though he were standing on the very ground he was attempting to uncover.
These conditions also tend to explain the presence of the swollen language. It is stupid to say, as one type of critic has always insisted, that O'Neill had no ear for the spoken word. One need only think of his upbringing, his education, and the men and women he dealt with in the theatre. Simply stupid. But in certain plays the dialogue is stilted and unconvincing precisely because the "agonies" are so patently self-dramatizing. In the plays O'Neill wrote a decade or so later, that "self" takes its rightful place in the wings: as the compassionate observer of brother (A Moon for the Misbegotten) and friends (The Iceman Cometh). The personal issues no longer demanded to be resolved. All the tallies were in. The craftsman could simply take his materials from the workshop of memory and therewith construct great edifices of modern tragedy. This sort of thing could no longer happen:
No student of O'Neill requires an interpretation of these lines.
Days Without End may have taught O'Neill a valuable lesson: the artist must never think only about himself. His correspondence relating to the play shows first that he was thinking mainly about himself and second that he felt precious little confidence in either critic or spectator to respond to his meaning. "I never in my wildest dreams," he wrote to Sophus Winther two months after its closing, "hoped it would be understood by the general public. And I foresaw all the time I was writing it the critical outburst against it in New York, altho' I didn't think they would be so cheaply wise-guy as they were. I thought it would run about six weeks. It lasted seven. So I was one to the good!" (SL 432) He was lucky (and he knew it).
Whatever faults cripple its dramatic effectiveness, however, Days Without End is a play about faith. In it O'Neill shows, if not traditional Christian (Catholic) belief, at any rate a fascinating faith in faith. It is not Elsa's love that saves John, in spite of what Carlotta said in her letter to Saxe Commins and O'Neill elsewhere protested. Rather, John is rescued by his revitalized capacity to overcome the paralysis of doubt and cynicism. This at any rate is what the logic of the play reveals.
Although none can now determine with certitude O'Neill's deepest intentions, Professor Floyd has observed that the playwright several times recorded in his plans for the hero, "once a Catholic always a Catholic" (420). That reference seems clear enough; but what in fact does it mean? What is a "Modern Miracle Play," as he described it to Macgowan ("The Theatre" 208)? What did O'Neill hope persons of keen insight would take from his play? One thing is certain above all others: he was deadly serious about this work which taxed him, he said, more than anything else he had done up to that time.
The miracle seems to be that love still saves men and women. But there is no reason to think that the audience has witnessed an especially heroic example of conjugal love; the play does not justify that conclusion. O'Neill, who had by now (1933-1934) made many public denials of personal faith, knew that writing Days would prove a risky venture; producing it was, then, a courageous act. If it met with a hostile critical reception, as he predicted it would, he could complain about the "jackasses" who have no religious tradition to give them a background for understanding the hero's dilemma: "New York critics dwell in a too pseudo-sophisticated, self-consciously modern, wise-crack atmosphere to be able to judge objectively a play which treats religious faith as a psychological problem of today" (SL 432). If, on the other hand, sympathetic critics (mainly Catholic) approved it, he could accept this compliment graciously and plead that he no longer had the gift of simple faith but wished he might recover it. No doubt all this was honest; but it also provided him a no-lose situation.
The foreground would be Catholic, but all Christian (and other) believers would easily get the point. Once again to Winter: "Please don't take it for granted on the evidence of the New York criticisms you have read that the play does not act well. Take it from me, it does. Did you read H. T. Parker's criticism in the Boston Transcript? He was the best of all our newspaper critics and surely could not be charged with any Catholic bias. (He was, I believe, a complete agnostic.) His article would give you a true impression of the reaction in Boston (a New England non-Catholic Theatre Guild subscriber audience). Days Without End went over finely there" (SL 433). It would be all the better, of course, if the approval came from a theatre professional of more impressive credentials than the New York critics. Superb, indeed, if the paragon were himself a great poet, playwright, and Nobel Prize winner. And a Protestant: "William Butler Yeats—no Catholic—cabled me and the Abbey Theatre people want to produce it immediately. If a poet like Yeats sees what is in it, all my hard work on it is more than justified" (SL 430). And he wrote to another that "Yeats is Yeats. Also, he isn't a Catholic. Whatever bias he might have in that line would, I think, be contra rather than pro" (Sheaffer, Son and Artist 432). To be entirely fair, however, it should be noted (whether O'Neill knew it or not) that the Abbey had fallen out of favor with the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland. "Suggestions had surfaced that the National Theatre had taken on an anti-religious bias, a serious charge against any government-sponsored enterprise in Ireland. William Butler Yeats then received a timely suggestion from Patrick McCartan, a Dublin-born physician who was living in the United States. McCartan had just seen O'Neill's `Miracle play' and recommended that the Abbey produce it and thereby thwart its detractors.... Thus, both theatre and playwright were well served. The Abbey (gave) the European premiere (of Days) and gained forgiveness for its offenses against piety; O'Neill, rescued from his drubbing at the hands of the Broadway critics, had been invited by Yeats himself to come to Ireland" (Shaughnessy 64-65).
O'Neill's very uncertainty about the meaning of Days Without End accounts for the dual reception—favorable responses from Christian sympathizers, confusion and vitriol from the "pseudo-sophisticates." However, even if such disparate responses served his immediate needs, they do not illuminate the question of O'Neill and faith. Consider: If the play is not intended to show that the "miracle" is in some way related to the divine and to suggest that it is an answer to John's prayers, what are we to make of his behavior at the end? As he looks upon "the face of the Crucified," he speaks in trembling voice, "Ah! Thou hast heard me at last! ... I can forgive myself—through Thee! I can believe!" (155). Since John has "at last surrender(ed)" ("Thou hast conquered, Lord. Thou art—the End"), what are we to make of Fr. Baird's rushing in at the curtain with the news that "Elsa will live"? Does O'Neill, in spite of what he (and Carlotta) said, expect the audience to believe that Elsa willed the happy ending? that his characters are drivelling fools and victims of their self-created illusions? Is the hero deceived in his own understanding? What then is the audience to infer? And how can the playwright speak of his protagonist as the "hero" if that character does not understand what has happened to him, if he is the victim of a religious opiate?
That Days Without End reestablished Eugene O'Neill for a moment in his childhood Catholicism only the fool would presume to suggest. But it is important to underscore (1) what the play means in terms of its own logic and (2) what it seems to have revealed about O'Neill's own state of mind. Carlotta had corrected Commins: neither Christianity nor prayer had brought Elsa back; only her love for her husband had. To Winther O'Neill had said that his aim was "to keep my theme mystically true as an old miracle play and psychologically true as a modern miracle play" (SL 433). It is not easy to know what the man finally meant by "mystical." But he had also written to Bennett Cerf, who wished to exploit the Catholic implications in publicity for Days Without End:
Bravo! Vintage O'Neill. Here is the fighter who asks for and gives no quarter; the modern aliene who, like Santayana, had remained something of a "Catholic atheist"; the Irish mystic "who can never belong." Even so, the text of the "play about a Catholic" tells us that O'Neill contradicted himself both in his remarks about his own spiritual dilemma and in what he said his play means when it stands bereft of his gloss.
Days Without End has never served O'Neill well. Its New York failure ended his plan to complete the trilogy to be called "Myth Plays for the God-forsaken." In the main it has been dismissed as poorly conceived in concept, stilted in language, and weak in character motivation. (Can anyone recall when and where it was last performed?) Because it is generally felt that the play represents a low moment in the playwright's development, moreover, it seldom receives extended attention, except as it is logged in assessments of the O'Neill canon.
But O'Neill himself never seemed to accept the failure as just, in the way that he came to terms with other of his plays accorded low critical esteem. Anna Christie (another "happy-ending" play which he attempted once to defend in the pages of the New York Times) he wished for a time to suppress from his collected works. The poor reception of other dramas (The First Man and Welded) disturbed him deeply because his control of his craft was extensively questioned. Of course, in the same period he had known major successes: Beyond the Horizon, The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape. By the early 1930s, the great critical acclaim and box office success of several plays Desire Under the Elms, Strange Interlude, and Mourning Becomes Electra—had made him a very confident man. The astonishing popularity of Ah, Wilderness!, produced only a year earlier, confirmed his mastery of the comedic as well as the tragic form. Herewith his reputation as the brooding black Irishman was somewhat softened. Thus he could no longer be plunged into insecurity by hostile criticism. It is true that O'Neill had in earlier plays dealt with the question of faith. And, as always, the heroes had in some measure stood for himself (Dion Anthony, Lazarus, Reuben Light). However, each of these is in the end little more than a brilliant but stalking abstraction. In them, the issue of faith had been over-intellectualized. The artist had somehow abandoned the "poet's quest."
Yet Days Without End marked a heroic step toward opening up the question of his own faith, once a great consolation to him. For Eugene O'Neill was a Catholic; I mean that this religious background had formed his identity ("once a Catholic always a Catholic"). What else can that mean, if not identity? He had often proudly proclaimed his Irishness. And what had it meant to insist that only Irish blood flowed in his veins? Of course, it was very important to him that Yeats ("no Catholic") approve his theme. But it was Catholic Dublin that gave O'Neill his successful European premiere of the miracle play; indeed, the Abbey depended on its Catholic patronage.
Well, John Loving is no bold Thady Quill or Roddy McCorley. In fact, this hero's ethnicity can hardly be identified. It seems irrelevant. But his Catholicism isn't. Faith was the deepest issue of O'Neill's life, the only question that really mattered. Days Without End says that faith can be recovered, whatever Eugene O'Neill may have intended. He knew, he said, who would understand his play and its language: "Jesuits and Catholic theologians." He also knew who would not understand it: "the critical lads ... (who created) such an idiotic storm of prejudice" ("The Theatre" 207).
The O'Neills, each and all, had problems keeping the faith. We know about the other family members, though, mainly because of Eugene. If he had not written his plays, their individual dilemmas would by now have been lost to memory. The triumph of his work has caused his own life and the lives of his parents and brother to become a source of endless fascination for men and women everywhere. Like his parents, Eugene's greatest tragedy was apparently the living of his own life. If he never regained the faith that might have made his life's pain more tolerable, the very fact that he could not give up the question may mean that he kept faith in the best way he could. As he wrote to William Brooks, who admired Days Without End,
I do believe absolutely that Faith must come to us if we are ever again to have an End for our days and know that our lives have meaning. All of my past plays, even when most materialistic, are—at any rate, for me—in their spiritual implications a search and a cry in the Wilderness protesting against the fate of their own faithlessness. (SL 431)
The Crucifix: A Background Note
O'Neill always sought verisimilitude. Thus, out of regard for Catholic sensibilities, he went a long way to assure authenticity of tone and detail. For one thing, he placed in correct (that is, orthodox) register the Catholic position on adultery. In 1934 church regulations concerning divorce and adultery were strictly enforced. Even though he had himself been twice divorced, the playwright seems to echo something of that severity: "my play treats adultery seriously—as a sin against love" (SL 432).
Perhaps more interesting than his fidelity to doctrinal questions was O'Neill's scrupulosity with regard to authenticity in the stage properties. He took extreme care, for example, in obtaining the beautiful crucifix used in the final scene, the icon before with John prostrates himself and Loving slumps defeated. At all costs, sensitive to the possibilities for a maudlin interpretation of the work, he tried to avoid vulgarity in this very delicate stage business. Therefore, he sought out the advice of the Liturgical Arts Society, a group of Catholic laymen who were "concerned .. with making the church building a more appropriate setting for Christian worship." Its members were mainly professional men—architects, sculptors, musicians and others who seem to have maintained a low profile but were at the same time distinguished and influential. The Society recommended the services of a New York sculptor. O'Neill was immensely pleased with the results. He wrote to the editor of Liturgical Arts:
The courtly response to the Society's generosity, however, did not preclude yet further controversy. Susan White has described the background of an intra-Society conflict.
Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time. The Plays of Eugene O'Neill. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Brwen, Croswell. The Curse of the Misbegotten: A Tale of the House of O'Neill. New York: McGraw, 1959.
Boulton, Agnes. Part of a Long Story. New York: Doubleday, 1958.
Donnelly, Gerard B., S.J. "O'Neill's New Catholic Play." Rev. of Days Without End. America 13 Jan. 1934: 346-47.
Floyd, Virginia. The Plays of Eugene O'Neill: A New Assessment. New York: Ungar, 1985.
O'Neill, Eugene. Days Without End. New York: Random, 1934.
O'Neill, Eugene. Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill. Eds. Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988. (Citations are given as SL, followed by page number.)
O'Neill, Eugene. "Love and Admiration and Respect": The O'Neill-Commins Correspondence. Ed. Dorothy Commins. Durham, Duke UP, 1986.
O'Neill, Eugene. "As Ever, Gene": The Letters of Eugene O'Neill to George Jean Nathan. Eds. Nancy L. Roberts and Arthur W. Roberts. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1987.
O'Neill, Eugene. "The Theatre We Worked For": The Letters of Eugene O'Neill to Kenneth Macgowan. Eds. Jackson R. Bryer and Ruth M. Alvarez. New Haven: Yale UP, 1982.
O'Neill, Eugene. Letter to Maurice Lavanoux, Editor of Liturgical Arts. 10 Jan. 1934. Papers of the Liturgical Arts Society. Archives, Hesburgh Memorial Library, Notre Dame, IN.
O'Neill, Eugene. Letter to Drama Editor. New York Times 18 Dec. 1921, sec. 6:1.
Raleigh, John Henry. The Plays of Eugene O'Neill. 1965. New York: Arcturus Books, 1972.
Ranald, Margaret Loftus. The Eugene O'Neill Companion. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1984.
Shaughnessy, Edward L. Eugene O'Neill in Ireland: The Critical Reception. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Shaughnessy, Edward L. "Masks in the Dramaturgy of Yeats and O'Neill." Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies 14 (1984): 205-20.
Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill, Son and Artist. New York: Little, Brown, 1973.
Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill, Son and Playwright. New York: Little, Brown, 1968.
Skinner, Richard Dana. Eugene O'Neill.
A Poet's Quest. 1935. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964.
Skinner, Richard Dana. Rev. of Days Without End. Commonweal 26 Jan. 1934: 357-58.
Skinner, Richard Dana. Letters to Rev. Michael Earls, S.J. 11 Jan., 19 Jan., 22 Jan., 28 Jan., 29 Jan., and 14 February, 1934. Michael Earls, S.J., Collection. Dinand Library, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA.
White, Susan J. "The Liturgical Arts Society (1927-1972): Art and Architecture in the Agenda of the American Roman Catholic Liturgical Renewal." Diss. Notre Dame U 1987.
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com