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The Destructive Power of the Romantic Ideal

"Romantic imagination! It has ruined more lives than all the diseases! Other diseases, I should say! It's a form of insanity." Strange Interlude


CRITICAL thought in this modern world has been a relentless enemy of the romantic ideal, and no modern writer has attacked it more consistently or more bitterly than Eugene O'Neill. The exaggerated romanticism which enveloped the American theater a generation ago nurtured the mind of his youth and provoked the rebellion of his maturity. Against that tradition his dramas are a direct challenge. He hates the false dreams and false ideals and false endings that have dominated the American stage and are still the inspiration of the Movies.

To O'Neill these ideals are not harmless entertainment, but a virulent disease that has eaten into the core of life, rotting and destroying the only hope for salvation that is possible for man. O'Neill believes that man's hope lies in his being willing to face life as it is, accepting its limitations and, on the foundations of these very shortcomings, erecting a new world free from the tyranny of romantic dogmatism.

The creative imagination will not always obey the logic of cold reason, and nothing is more characteristic of O'Neill than the conflict between his criticism of the romantic ideal and the manner in which he succumbs, at times, to its seductive appeal. I doubt if there is a character in the whole range of his work who could be described as truly realistic in the sense that Bazarov, Pelle, or Sister Carrie might be called realists. Perhaps the greatness of O'Neill's characters lies in this very fact: that they are too complex, too involved with the cross currents of life to be purely one thing or the other. Their conflicts give them a quality which inspires confidence in their humanity and enlists the reader's sympathy and understanding in a way that more consistent and unified personalities never could.

A study of the men and women that move through the world of O'Neill's dramas reveals some noteworthy characteristics that many of them have in common. One is impressed by the courage and fortitude with which they face the unfavorable circumstances of the world in which they live. They are determined to give life meaning and value in defiance of a world that is impersonal and unconcerned about the ambitions of human beings. It is not this characteristic that I wish to emphasize at this point but something that is purely physical and, at the same time, suggests a hidden romantic passion in the nature of O'Neill. Buried deep in his inner being is a love for some quality that the materialistic interpretation of life does not seem to bring out in its proper perspective.

In order to discover just what this is, it will be necessary to note, in some detail, his descriptions of the leading characters in many different plays to observe what physical characteristics they have in common. In the pursuit of this study a curious fact comes to light. No matter who the character may be or what his occupation or position in the social order is, the favorite character of an O'Neill play has dreamy eyes. His characters live in two worlds: one the outward world of physical reality, the other, a world of unfulfilled and passionate desire. This latter world is the one which the dreamer wishes for with all the pent-up powers of his being. To this world he will sacrifice all that life has given him, for there is nothing in life that for a moment is comparable to the genuine reality of his dream. Captain Bartlett commits murder because his longed for dream of pirate treasure seems to have come true, and in another play, another sea captain sacrifices the sanity of his wife in order that his desire for a full load of whale oil may become a reality.


Before analyzing further the manner in which the romantic dream is both the victory and the despair of the O'Neill hero, it will be important to note from direct example to what extent the characteristic of the dreamy eyes appears consistently throughout the plays. In Lazarus Laughed, Miriam's mask is described in these words: "The eyes of the mask are almost closed. Their gaze turns within, oblivious to the life outside, as they dream down on the child forever in memory at her breast." And in The Great God Brown Margaret is described in these words: "She is almost seventeen, pretty and vivacious, blonde, with big romantic eyes, her figure lithe and strong, her facial expression intelligent but youthfully dreamy, especially now in the moonlight." While Dion's face is not described by the word "dreamy," a synonym serves to convey the same idea. "His face is masked. The mask is a fixed forcing of his own face—dark, spiritual, poetic, passionately supersensitive, helplessly unprotected in its childlike, religious faith in life."

In Diff'rent, Emma Crosby appears as "a slender girl of twenty. . . . Her face, in spite of its plain features, gives an impression of prettiness, due to her large, soft blue eyes which have an incongruous quality of absentminded romantic dreaminess about them!" And in Welded, Michael Cape is likewise a member of the race of dreamers, tortured dreamers, for it is a part of the dreamer's character that he lives in a world of conflict and divided ends. Cape is "tall and dark. His unusual face is a harrowed battlefield of supersensitiveness, the features at war with one another—the forehead of a thinker, the eyes of a dreamer, the nose and mouth of a sensualist. . . . There is something tortured about him—a passionate tension, a self-protecting, arrogant defiance of life and his own weakness, a deep need for love as a faith in which to relax."

Robert, in Beyond the Horizon, "is a tall slender young man of twenty-three. There is a touch of the poet about him expressed in his high forehead and wide, dark eyes." A more complex character, but no less of a thwarted romanticist than Robert, is Stephen Murray in The Straw. He is a "tall, slender, rather unusual-looking fellow with a pale face, sunken under high cheek bones, lined about the eyes and mouth, jaded and worn for one still so young. His intelligent, large hazel eyes have a tired, dispirited expression in repose, but can quicken instantly with a concealment mechanism of mocking, careless humor whenever his inner privacy is threatened. . . . He is staring into the fire, dreaming, an open book lying unheeded on the arm of his chair."

Juan Ponce de Leon, in The Fountain, is described in the following manner: "His countenance is haughty, full of a romantic adventurousness and courage; yet he gives the impression of disciplined ability, of a confident self-mastery—a romantic dreamer governed by the ambitious thinker in him." And twenty years later "His hair and beard are gray. His expression and attitude are full of great weariness. His eyes stare straight before him blankly in a disillusioned dream."

And so it is from beginning to end in this world of Eugene O'Neill. His chief characters are poetic dreamers, ill-fitted to cope with a world that is inimical to poetry. These men and women drift down the stream of life, fighting desperately to maintain their position and, in spite of the current, to reach the happy shore of their dreams. They present one of the strange anomalies of life, in that their dream embodies all that is beautiful and good, and just because of that they are destroyed. As is true of the great heroes of all tragedies, and especially Shakespeare's, they are destroyed by their virtues. Marsden in Strange Interlude is another member of the hapless company of idealists who are incapable of accepting the reality of the world and are destroyed by their own dreams of beauty. He is described: "His face is too long for its width, his nose is high and narrow, his forehead broad, his mild blue eyes those of a dreamy self-analyst, his thin lips ironical and a bit sad. There is an indefinable feminine quality about him, but it is nothing apparent in either appearance or act." He is a man fascinated by his own idealism and at the same time conscious of the limitations of his ideal. Speaking of Nina he says, "But sometimes the scent of her hair and skin . . . like a dreamy drug . . . dreamy! . . . there's the rub! . . . all dreams with me! my sex life among the phantoms!"

Even the unimaginative Mrs. Fife in Dynamo is not wholly of this world of reality, for beneath her calm exterior there lies the shadow of something unrealized. "Her eyes are round and dark blue. Their expression is blank and dreamy."

The great Marco who could see nothing in the eyes of the beautiful princess, though it was his duty to study them every day, was in his youth of a poetic nature. His father said of him: "But still heedless. A dreamer!" Even old Ephraim Cabot in Desire Under the Elms is described in these words: "His eyes have taken on a strange, incongruous dreamy quality."

This poetic, dreamy-eyed hero of the O'Neill play possesses a strange quality of unreality that a careless reader might call a false idealization, but a closer examination brings to light the fact that in their very romance there is something of the eternal idealist that is as much a true quality of human nature as are the more clearly perceived realistic attributes. Don Quixote is a foolish idealist tilting at windmills, but he is also the embodiment of man's undying hopes, dreams, aspirations. And there is something of the Don Quixote in Eugene O'Neill, something that transcends the confident security of the casual critic who sees only bloodshed, terror and defeat in the plays of this modern dramatist. The tendency in much of the criticism of O'Neill's work has been to overlook the delicate beauty of his chief characters and it has concentrated instead upon his use of profanity. The manner in which the critic overlooks the poetic quality of O'Neill's characters and stresses instead the less important suggests the story of the director who strove for originality in his production of Hamlet by giving the lead to Guildenstern. The following quotation illustrates the point:

" O'Neill has undoubtedly a considerable gift for language; he loves the flavor of words, and uses with fine effect speech that smacks of the soil or has the tang of the sea in it. His tendency to interlard his pages with profanity has given offense in some quarters, and even his admirers have not always found it easy to justify its use. Clayton Hamilton's explanation has more than a modicum of truth in it: 'It is, I think, his sense of literary style that accounts for his fondness for obscene phrases and profane ejaculations, more than any wish to shock the ladies in the audience or to assert his unconventionality. Most of the swearing is done from an obscure desire to revel in the sound of words.' Yet, while it seems clear that O'Neill is using coarse, profane language as an artist to re-create the actual speech of his rough characters, one feels that such language could be properly indicated with a less generous supply of profanity." (C. H. Whitman, Appendix to Seven Contemporary Plays, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1931. p. 556.)

Note the reference to "rough characters," as though that were an accepted truth. It is a common misunderstanding which is based on an uncritical analysis. That they speak their native tongue cannot be denied, nor can it be a fault; but to reason from that to roughness must seem strange when one reviews the deep, generous, intensely sympathetic nature that one finds in almost every play that O'Neill has written.

This failure to recognize the beauty and sympathy in O'Neill has often led to strange generalizations. There is already a critical tradition established with reference to his language as illustrated above. Another tradition, equally unjustified in its emphasis, refers to the grimness of his tragedies, and like the attitude towards his language misconstrues his characters. Again Whitman may be used for a typical illustration:

"The plays of O'Neill are for the most part unpleasant plays, wrought out of the agony and pain of life. His most successful characters are people of rather primitive instincts, misfits, suffering from disease, economic inhibitions, frustrations, from soul-destroying powers which they cannot understand. These poor souls are usually beaten in the battle of life by a force either within or outside themselves that makes for their confusion and ruin. In fact, few plays of our day have such a plethora of murders, violent deaths, suicides and insanity." (Ibid. p. 555.)

This I take to be a true description of a certain important phase of O'Neill's work, but that it should be cited as an example of his limitations in itself seems strange. If the nature of O'Neill's characters is evidence of their unfitness for artistic purposes, then they go to an honored death in company with some of the most tortured souls that have ever inspired the love and sympathy of mankind: Macbeth, Hamlet, Antony and a thousand others in drama, poetry and novel. It is the very fact that they are tortured by "soul-destroying powers which they cannot understand" that makes them the embodiment of man's tragic struggle against an unfriendly universe, that gives them universality, that arouses tragic pity, and makes us understand more clearly than we ever understood before just what it means to be human.


O'Neill's plays are a direct protest against the romantic ideal with its exaggerated hopes and its false values and its tendency to deny that man is first and fundamentally the product of his animal heritage. But since O'Neill is an artist and not a mere essayist developing a thesis, his sympathies are with the very dreamer out of whom his tragedy grows. O'Neill, the rebel against the romantic ideal, is himself an idealist at heart. What he says of Juan Ponce de Leon might be said of him: "Soldier of iron—and dreamer." The two are ever at war with each other and in that strife lies the reason for O'Neill's greatness. He is complex, intricate, a divided personality, a man at war with himself, and just because of that, an artist who can portray man's tragic struggle with the forces of life.

Throughout the whole of O'Neill's work, men and women characters are brought to a tragic end because they ask more from life than life can offer them. They are incapable of reconciling themselves to the limitations of the world in which they live. The narrow confines of their environment irk them, and they dream beyond the horizon into an imaginative world where all is beautiful and good. Living in this divided world, the one of reality, the other of imagination, they are continually tortured by the passionate longing of their dreams and the grim reality of their immediate surroundings.

It always seems as though O'Neill began by conceiving a theme in which he would completely condemn the romantic ideal. He gives the impression that he would try to show how his characters are brought to a sad end because they were incapable of reconciling themselves to the reality of the world in which they actually lived. But, in the end, his drama leaves the impression that the disaster which grew out of the dream was somehow a justification in itself, or if not wholly a justification, nevertheless an inevitable outcome of a particular type of human being.

Juan Ponce de Leon is a typical example. In the beginning of the play Juan is the soldier of iron sufficient unto himself. He has no need for love and is perfectly reconciled to leaving Spain and Maria de Cordova. She understood his weakness when she told him: "You are noble, the soul of courage, a man of men. You will go far, soldier of iron—and dreamer. God pity you if these two selves should ever clash!" He was young, brave, full of enthusiasm and self-confidence. He had not yet reached the age nor suffered the experience which makes it necessary to hope beyond the possibility of achievement in order to make life endurable at all. He is even convinced of his own realism and contemptuous of the dreamer, saying of Columbus: "He was riding his flea-bitten mule as if he were a Caesar in triumph. His eyes were full of golden cities." And Juan laughs at such a man, one who will not accept the reality of sense experience. He claims for himself a philosophy of sterner stuff, a conviction that "We do what we must—and sand covers our bodies and our deeds." He scorns beauty as he renounced love, assuming a conscious pose that almost verges on bravado, little realizing that the day is coming when love, beauty, youth, the age-old phantoms which he condemns shall become his reality and his cross. His poetic friend Luis knows this, and his tender heart yearns for Juan when he says: " Juan, why do you always sneer at beauty—while your heart calls you liar."

Twenty years later as Governor of Porto Rico, the character of the poetic dreamer is gradually getting possession of the realist, but not without conflict and protest. Nano, an Indian, tells him of Cathay, pointing to the west. But now it is not only Cathay that intrigues his imagination, for in the same direction as the fabled cities Nano also tells of the spring of eternal youth. Juan is skeptical, saying: "The old trick of poets—evasion of facts!" Nevertheless he is impressed, saying: "Where there is so much smoke, there must be a spark of fire." In one breath he condemns the dreamer, scorning all that is not "fact," in the next he yearns for "the King's patent to discover new lands! I would sail tomorrow for Cathay—or for the moon!" And as he reminisces about the past, his anger rises against Columbus who has been free to follow the life of the discoverer while Juan has been condemned to remain behind. He calls Columbus a dreamer and of himself says: "I would succeed! I am no visionary chasing rainbows. I tell you I loathe this place! I loathe my petty authority! By God, I could sink all Porto Rico under the sea for one glimpse of Cathay!" And then, as if the visionary had gained complete power, assuming the reality of a Cathay somewhere, he says: "I begin to dread—another failure. I am too old to find Cathay."

As his hope of finding Cathay grows dim, a newer and still more romantic dream takes its place. Nano's words about the spring of eternal youth bear fruit in the mind of Juan, when the daughter of his old sweetheart arrives at Porto Rico. Beatrice is the image of her mother, and at last Juan realizes that love is everything for him. Cathay with its wealth and honor is as nothing compared with his desire for youth. And all the time he is incapable of seeing any other dream but his own. He scorns Luis' dream of Heaven saying:

JUAN. Have you talked with men who saw Him in the manger, or on the cross?

LUIS. Juan, this is blasphemy!

JUAN. Then let it be! I have prayed to Him in vain.

LUIS. Juan!

JUAN. Let me be damned forever if Nature will only grant me youth upon this earth again!

LUIS. Juan! You defy your God!

JUAN. There is no God but Love—no heaven but youth!

He goes on a futile quest for the spring, secretly fearing failure. At the spring where he has been led by the treacherous Nano, he drinks. Before daring to look at his reflection, he must urge himself on by saying, "Coward! How often have you looked death in the face? Are you afraid of life?" And later when the grim truth is forced upon him his answer to himself is, "Fool! Why did I look? I might have died in my dream."

In the end he must witness the cycle complete. His young nephew, as the lover of Beatrice, speaks to him of honor and the glory of serving Spain and, as Juan in his youth might have said, the nephew now speaks:

NEPHEW. I do not care for riches; and as for Golden Cities, I only wish to plant Spain's banner on their citadels!

JUAN. Brave dreams! Echoes blown down the wind of years.

Juan's romantic dream made his life a tragedy, but at the same time his dream gave to his life the greatest and most genuine value it possessed. On the one hand, O'Neill has written a play which deals with the emptiness of the romantic ideal, but at the same time he has made a hero out of his dreamer. He has made life into a fool's dream and a philosopher's tragedy. As a thinker Juan is a child; as a poetic dreamer he is noble, brave and inspiring. It is as though O'Neill had failed to do the thing he set out to accomplish and in his failure achieved his real success, Just as Juan failed to find the secret of eternal youth, but found instead that "One must accept, absorb, give back, become oneself a symbol! Juan Ponce de Leon is past! He is resolved into the thousand moods of beauty that make up happiness—color of the sunset, of tomorrow's dawn, breath of the great Trade wind—sunlight on the grass, an insect's song, the rustle of leaves, an ant's ambitions." So in the end O'Neill the poet of reality is in a very true sense also the dreamer-poet. Like one of his great masters, Conrad, he is both realist and romanticist. He is aware of this conflict and has consciously striven to reveal it in his plays, for he holds that man's passional will to believe is as much a factor in the interpretation of life as is that of critical reason.


No single idea has made so deep and abiding an impression on the mind of O'Neill as that of the destructive power of the romantic ideal, or the power of illusion to lead man to deny the reality which lies about him at every hand, and in the strength of his denial to create a world of fantastic dreams as a substitute for that reality. If O'Neill has an affirmative philosophy, it is to accept reality and to deny the illusion. But, as I have indicated before, he cannot escape from the love of the illusion. The people who interest him are the very ones who "follow the gleam" to a tragic end. In that aspect of his philosophy lies his genuine strength as a dramatist, for the essence of life is its psychological inconsistency and not its exemplification of logic.

Barrett Clark in stating the general theme of illusion in O'Neill writes: "Once again, as in Beyond the Horizon, the playwright shows his characters basing their lives upon illusion. Sometimes this takes the form of a dream of beauty, sometimes it is love, sometimes physical passion. In the later plays we shall find Ponce de Leon in quest of the illusion of love and fame, Marco Polo after the illusion of power, Lazarus after a solution of the problem of life everlasting, and Reuben Light in Dynamo after a religion that he can believe in; but always it is the quest that counts—the pursuit that never ends, the search for happiness, the hope for an ultimate meaning and justification of life." (Clark, p. 101.) And Beyond the Horizon provides an excellent opportunity for studying O'Neill's use of illusion. His chief character, Robert Mayo, "is a tall, slender young man of twenty-three. There is a touch of the poet about him expressed in his high forehead and wide, dark eyes?" He is a dreamer who is not reconciled to the life of the farm, who is forever striving for a life that is more than a life, but not realizing that such a life is no life at all. Andrew, his brother, says to him, "You do take the prize for day-dreaming?" And Robert's explanation is that "There's something calling me—(He points to the horizon) Oh, l can't just explain it to you, Andy."

Robert's dreams are nebulous, living only as vague longings in the mind of one who is unable to accept the reality of the world that lies about him. Reality teaches him nothing about the world in general. The immediate experience is to him as it is to the mystic, a matter of little consequence when contrasted to the creations of his imagination. To his brother he says:

"Supposing I was to tell you that it's just Beauty that's calling me, the beauty of the far off and unknown, the mystery and spell of the East which lures me in the books I've read, the need of the freedom of great wide spaces, the joy of wandering on and on—in quest of the secret which is hidden over there, beyond the horizon?"

He abandons his chance to test his dream of what lies "Beyond" in order to follow another dream equally evanescent and futile, that of a love that will answer all the needs of life. The bitter tragedy of his love follows as a natural consequence of his false idealism and his everlasting inability to accept life as a reality. He grows to hate his home and all that it demands of him. His dreaming makes him ineffectual. The hills that surround his farm are "Like the walls of a narrow prison yard shutting me in from all the freedom and wonder of life!" He never realizes that life itself is a prison, and that there is no escape beyond the horizon, except the escape that comes with death, an escape that brings peace, but without the realization of what it has brought—obliteration of both pain and the hope of happiness.

As one dream fades, another comes to take its place. Sick unto death he sees an escape by hoping for a new life in the city with Ruth. He tells her that "Life owes us some happiness after what we've been through. It must! Otherwise our suffering would be meaningless—and that is unthinkable." Futile as his hope is for a new life in the city, it is not so far divorced from reality as is his illusion about the nature of the universe and his own suffering. It is always the final gesture of the romantic idealist to assume that his suffering bears some compensating virtue and that the universe is built upon an ethical plan. Of all the bitter disillusionment that the Roberts of this world must go through, this is the hardest for them: to come to the realization that there is no connection between what man desires from life and what he gets; that the universe as such is impersonal and takes no account of man's hopes and fears, joys and despairs.

But this illusion of a new life in the city meets With the same defeat as did all the other forms of escape from reality with which Robert had deluded himself. At last he realizes that his life is over and that death is to be his reward; death is to be the unthinkable meaning to life, after all. Once more, and for the last time, he avoids the issue, and this time it can do him no harm, for it is the end. Consumption has brought him to the end of his struggle. With his last strength he has dragged himself out of the house and into the open where he can see his beloved hills and sky. His last words are: "Don't you see . . . I'm freed from the farm—free to wander on and on—eternally! . . . Isn't it beautiful beyond the hills? I can hear the old voices calling me to come—and this time I'm going! It isn't the end . . . ! I've won my trip—the right of release-beyond the horizon!"

In his introduction to Contemporary American Drama, Quinn says of this conclusion:

The great motive of the play "is Robert Mayo's aspiration, his vision of the great adventure 'beyond the horizon'—which he had dreamed as a boy at the window at sunset, and which he had given up at the call of Ruth's passion for him." (Quinn, Intro. p. XIX.) Thus Quinn's sympathetic interpretation makes Robert's death a victory at last. This seems hardly consistent with the spirit of the play which emphasizes from the first the futility of the romantic illusion. Instead of being a victory, this is the most tragic touch of all; the bitter irony that summarizes the whole play. The false idealism that ruined his life and condemned him to the narrow futility of the New England farm was with him even in death.

In another place Quinn comes back to the same theme, writing: " O'Neill knows that the most precious gifts to humanity are the illusions that keep us alive, and he fulfills the most severe test of tragedy, which has come down to us from the Greeks, that it purifies us through our sympathy with suffering." (Ibid. Vol. II. p. 172.) It is true that O'Neill knows how prone man is to live in an atmosphere of illusion, and it may be true that O'Neill has his own fondness, secretly buried, for these same illusions, but in this play, as in the main body of his work, he reveals the tragic futility of these illusions. If Beyond the Horizon means anything as an interpretation of life, it is just the opposite of what Mr. Quinn suggests. O'Neill has no more vindicated Robert than Shakespeare vindicated Hamlet, who wanted to punish his mother and avenge his father's death by killing the King, but in the end really killed the King to avenge the death of his mother. Beyond the Horizon is an exemplification of the destructive power of the romantic ideal, and its final ironic touch is Robert's triumphant cry, "It isn't the end." At last he has an illusion that no one can dispute, a safe illusion, an illusion that has no meaning for the living.


Welded is a direct attack upon the romantic ideal and its destructive power. In this case it is the romantic ideal that destroys married love and turns what might have been happiness into madness and fury. The two leading characters, Michael and Eleanor, found in their love the inspiration to great creative work, but they also found in their passion that which turned their victory into dust and ashes. They could not accept love as a limited good in itself, but must, because of their exaggerated idealism, exalt it into a symbol that was beyond the possibility of achievement.

John, the old manager and devoted but unrequited lover of Eleanor, expresses the bitter truth that his two friends cannot accept. He says that it is necessary to "face the truth in yourself." This they cannot do, for his statement requests them to take a realistic attitude towards their love, even demands that they try to understand themselves as normal human beings. And these two will never understand themselves. Life has made them into dreamers who substitute for reality the glittering ideals of their imagination, and then when these ideals clash with actual experience they are hurt, wounded and utterly despondent without being able to understand why it is so.

O'Neill in his description of Michael Cape gives the reader a clear understanding of his meaning. The same conflict that is so apparent in all of his principal characters is emphasized in the following description of Michael: "the forehead of a thinker, the eyes of a dreamer, the nose and mouth of a sensualist. One feels a powerful imagination tinged with somber sadness-a driving force which can be sympathetic and cruel at the same time. There is something tortured about him —a passionate tension, a self-protecting, arrogant defiance of life and his own weakness, a deep need for love as a faith in which to relax." Michael is a poorly integrated personality, full of unresolved conflicts, incapable of achieving a harmony between his emotional reactions and his intellectual convictions. From the very moment of his appearance until the end of the play he is restless, indecisive, ineffectual. He is at war with himself and, in the bitterness of his contempt for himself, he brews the vile poison which destroys the beauty of his love for Eleanor.

Their conflict with each other begins when, instead of dealing with their present interests, they turn like defeated idealists to reminiscing about the past—their own past. But in exploring the past they are led by their memories to a reality that is fixed and cannot be subjected to the illusion of future hopes. For the idealist to look backward is fatal. The past does not accommodate itself to the ideal. Michael is not aware of this difference, and as a consequence he is shocked and disturbed when he finds that in exploring bygone days with his wife he runs into conflicts with his dreams. He says to her: "I wanted to dream with you in our past—to find there—a new faith—" The "new faith" proves a mockery. Its pursuit involves the inexorable logic which is the destruction of faith. Eleanor calls him a "relentless idealist" and such he is, one who blindly, emotionally pursues the unattainable. He is a man who has too much intelligence to live by faith, and too little intelligence to live by reason. He must indulge in the dangerous business of making idols which his reason constantly convinces him are really clay. In speaking of the marriage, he says: "We'd tend our flame on an altar, not in a kitchen range!" But even as he says it, he recognizes its futility and gives to his words a "half-mocking" accent. The words spring from the heart, but they are checked and colored by the reason. "He forces a grin—then abruptly changes again, with a sudden fierce pleading, 'It has been what we dreamed, hasn't it Nelly?'" Eleanor's reply seems to indicate that she understands their trouble better than he does when she says: "Sometimes I think we've demanded too much." To him the fault lies in the very nature of life, and like the true idealist he must personify it, saying: "It seems at times as if some jealous demon of the commonplace were mocking us." Eleanor tells him that he is "too severe. Your ideal is too inhuman." He knows this rationally, but it does not prevent his feeling "How intolerably insulting life can be."

His actions throughout the play bear out this interpretation of his character. When he quarrels with Eleanor, he decides to destroy this romantic ideal which is tearing and twisting his life into a tragedy, and the only conceivable way for him is to defile his ideal by contact with a prostitute. In this case his ideal or romantic conception of the prostitute is as far from the truth of reality as are his other ideals of life. When he meets the prostitute he is revolted by the same conflicts that make his life with his wife intolerable. The prostitute is simple and straight-forward. She analyzes him in the terms of experiences which she understands and says: "I'm wise to what's wrong with you. You been lappin' up some bum hooch." Which is just another and more realistic way of saying that his romantic ideal has distorted his conception of reality. Before her he is as ineffectual as with Eleanor. He leaves without getting what he came for, and returns once more to his wife.

Eleanor's life story is almost the same as that of her husband. Defeated and disappointed in life until she met Michael, she made out of him an ideal in which she hoped to hide her past failures. She says: "I began living in you. I wanted to die and become you!" Through the development of this ideal she soon reached the point where it was as impossible for her as it was for Michael to deal with the problems of reality, and then began that series of experiences by which each successfully crucifies the other on the cross of false ideals.


From the early one-act plays to Mourning Becomes Electra, O'Neill deals with romantic illusions that destroy the possibility of happiness. It is as though he would say: "Man is incapable of accepting the reality of the world as it is, and in that fact lies the germ of his inevitable tragedy." From Yank who cursed the life of the sea and dreamed of how nice it would be to "have a farm with a house of your own with cows and pigs and chickens, 'way in the middle of the land where yuh'd never smell the sea or see a ship" to General Marmon, O'Neill's men and women follow the gleam of unreal ideals to their destruction. This is not literally true of Yank, but it is true of his brother seaman Chris Christopherson. He lived in a fool's paradise believing that because his daughter was on one of those marvelous farms that Yank speaks of she would be safe and happy. He says to Marthy: "Ay bet you she's fine, good, strong gel, pooty like hell! Living on farm made her like dat. And Ay bet you some day she marry good, steady land feller here in East, have home all her own, have kits—and den Ay'm ole grandfader, py golly! And Ay go visit dem every time Ay gat in port near!" How his illusion compared with reality everyone knows. All of Chris' years of fine illusions could not make up for the terrible agony of the revelation that followed from Anna's love for Burke.

In the little play Ile, Mrs. Keeney is brought to disaster by her faith in a false dream. The loneliness of the life on her husband's whaler drives her to insanity. If we ask, "How does it happen that a woman ever persuaded herself and her husband that she would enjoy a trip to the whaling seas?" the answer is given in her own words: "I used to dream of sailing on the great, wide, glorious ocean. I wanted to be by your side in the danger and vigorous life of it all. I wanted to,see you the hero they make you out to be in Homeport. And instead—all I find is ice and cold—and brutality. . . . Oh, I know it isn't your fault, David. You see, I didn't believe you. I guess I was dreaming about the old Vikings in the story-books and I thought you were one of them."

A little later in one brief speech she fully explains herself to the reader, without doing so to herself, "I used to think Homeport was a stupid, monotonous place. Then I used to go down on the beach, especially when it was windy and the breakers were rolling in, and I'd dream of the fine free life you must be leading. I used to love the sea then. But now—I don't ever want to see the sea again."

Even as she analyzes her own false ideals she unconsciously clings to those of the story-books, believing in Vikings that lead free, romantic and beautiful lives. Reality has made her believe that her husband is a brute, when in truth he is just a good, able and tenacious captain of a whaling ship. In spite of her invidious reference to him in contrast with the Vikings, I believe that it is quite clear from the story that any Viking expedition would not have hesitated in accepting the services of Captain Keeney.

Robert, Juan, Chris and Mrs. Keeney are members of the same family of romantic dreamers. Their tragedy grows out of their false romanticizing. It does not follow that, if they had been uncompromising realists, life would then have been one long and beautiful bed of roses, but it appears plain that in all cases their lives would have been happier, and in all cases free from the terrible consequences of their romantic actions.

But the end of this subject has not yet been reached. Captain Bartlett in Gold was guilty of murder and ruined his family, finally losing his mind in the pursuit of a romantic illusion. Like the others he was a dreamer who worked in one world and lived in another. His real business was trading in oil, but as he puts it—meditating aloud over a cache of gilded junk which he believes is gold: "I've been dreamin' o' this for years. I never give a damn 'bout the oil—that's just trade—but i always hoped on some voyage I'd pick up ambergris—a whole lot of it—and that's worth gold!" For years he had nourished this dream of pirates' gold until it had become an obsession with him. When two of his crew told him that his find was only brass and junk, he was ready to commit murder. They were the voices of reality speaking the truth, the one thing that the romantic dreamer hates above all things. Later when he is practically insane the doctor who has been studying the case analyzes him clearly, saying to the Captain's son: "No, your father won't let himself look the facts in the face. If he did, probably the shock would kill him. That darn dream of his has become his life."

Captain Bartlett knew in his heart that his dream was false but through so many years he had nursed his illusion of finding gold or ambergris that he grasped frantically at the opportunity of self-vindication. Having once consented to the murder of two of his crew in defense of his illusion, he was all the more determined to make his dream come true. In the end he admitted that he was "afeered to show" the anklet that he had brought home with him from the treasure chest, because he knew it was not gold.

In his case, then, as in the others, his life was a tragedy, because he could not bring himself to accept the ordinary limitations of this world. He had to create a dream world, a world of illusion, and in this dream he destroyed himself and brought unhappiness and death to others.

It is a far cry from the brutal, uneducated and uncultured Captain Bartlett to the learned and refined anthropologist, Curtis Jayson, in The First Man. They are quite as different as two people could be in manners, training, habits, social and cultural background, but they have one fatal flaw in common. Both of them are romanticists, dreamers, followers of an illusion that serves as a shield to protect them from reality. In The First Man, O'Neill accounts for Curtis' behavior by giving us some insight into his past. After the first fifteen lines of exposition comes the following dialogue:

MARTHA. Do tell me what he was like at Cornell.

BIGELOW. A romanticist—and he still is!

MARTHA. What! That sedate man! Never!

CURTIS. Don't mind him, Martha. He always was crazy.

BIGELOW. Why did you elect to take up mining engineering at Cornell instead of a classical degree at the Yale of your fathers and brothers? Because you had been reading Bret Harte in prep. school and mistaken him for a modern realist. You devoted four years to grooming yourself for another outcast of Poker Flat.

CURTIS. What next?

BIGELOW. Next? You get a job as engineer in that Goldfield mine—but you are soon disillusioned by a laborious life where six-shooters are as rare as nuggets. You try prospecting. You find nothing but different varieties of pebbles' But it is necessary to your nature to project romance into these stones, so you go in strong for geology. As a geologist, you become a slave to the Romance of the Rocks. It is but a step from that to anthropology—the last romance of all, There you find yourself—because there is no further to go.

And then as the play goes on a little further, Martha brings out one more evidence of the extent to which her husband has abandoned himself to a romantic ideal, and at the same time, she unconsciously reveals that she belongs to the same school of dreamers as her husband. She tells how they had two children, who at the ages of two and three respectively died of pneumonia. Then she says: "We swore we'd never have children again—to steal away their memory. It wasn't what you thought—romanticism—that set Curt wandering—and me with him. It was a longing to lose ourselves—to forget." And what could be better evidence of life's illusion than her own attempt at denial?

Martha has decided to compromise with the memories of the past and is expecting another baby. When Jayson learns of this he cries: "You have blown my world to bits." Tragedy follows rapidly, helped on by the false standards and conventional illusions of Curtis' family.

This play seems quite defective from the point of view of real tragedy, due to the fact that it is overworking the theme of false illusions. In the end, Curtis leaves on his great anthropological expedition, a true dreamer to the end.

The Straw emphasizes the same note. Bill Carmody says of his little daughter, "You're a Cullen like your mother's people. They always was dreamin' their lives out." And so are all the principal characters in the play. Dreaming of health, love, truth, beauty and other impossible ideals for them to achieve. Murray, the hero of the play, is described in these words: "He is staring into the fire, dreaming, an open book lying unheeded on the arm of his chair." For a brief space it seems as though Eileen and Murray will escape together from the disaster that tuberculosis threatens, and they might have escaped if Murray had been enough of a realist to understand himself and accept his normal human limitations. He is not. Eileen suffers a relapse. Too late Murray discovers that he is really in love with her. In spite of the doctor's statement that Eileen will die, Murray says: "I'll make Eileen get well, I tell you! Happiness will cure! Love is stronger than—(He suddenly breaks down before the pitying negation she cannot keep from her eyes. . . .) Oh, why did you give me a hopeless hope?" And Miss Gilpin answers, "Isn't all life just that—when you think of it?" The play ends with Murray nursing the illusion that Eileen may live, and Eileen with the illusion that Murray is suffering from a relapse into the condition that characterized him when she first knew him, and that now she must take care of him to help him back to health. The whole thing a "hopeless hope."


The play which gives the most complete expression to the destructive power of the romantic ideal is Strange Interlude. Nina's tragic life was not of her own making. She was brought up in a home that reflected the atmosphere of a romantic detachment from reality. Her father, a university professor, was a master in the art of unreality. His room which provides the opening scene of the play is described in these words: "The atmosphere of the room is that of a cosy, cultured retreat, sedulously built as a sanctuary where, secure with the culture of the past at his back, a fugitive from reality can view the present safely from a distance, as a superior with condescending disdain, pity and even amusement." This room is but a symbol of the theory of life that molded the character of Nina, laid the foundation of her philosophy of life—her ethics and her knowledge of other men and women. For all outward purposes the professor's ideal seemed perfect. He was kind, generous and considerate to all people, and inculcated these virtues in his daughter, along with the ideal of good conduct and the virtue of obedience. The professor saw no flaw in his theory of life. He may have realized that it made no close contact with reality, but since he desired to live a life apart from the crass, uncultured world, it seemed a real advantage to be free from the voice of the world that lay beyond the seclusion of his study.

The day was to come when his ideal proved hut a weak fortification against the assertions of reality. Nina, obedient to her father's ideals, did not marry the young aviator who was assigned to war duty in France. Gordon restrained his love and passion for Nina, because the old professor brought forth the impressive machinery of his fixed romantic ideal in battle array against Gordon's impetuous desire. The professor appealed to Gordon's honor and all the romantic illusions which honor implied.

Thus the professor won a victory. His ideal had worked perfectly, and when Gordon was killed in France he was glad that his daughter was not made a widow with a child to care for, which might very easily have been the case had the professor not interfered, or better still had not the whole tradition of his life stood out against the passionate cry of youthful love.

Time passed. Suddenly, without warning, the whole romantic edifice of the professor's philosophy came toppling about his head. Nina in a passion of fury denounced his whole system. All the pent-up anguish that had accumulated, after she realized the falsity of her father's romantic ideal, burst forth with bitterness and hatred, poured out in one of the cruelest speeches in all of O'Neill's plays—a speech that gives Nina relief as it condemns to death all that her old father had held dear, all that he had gained from life. His work had not given him wealth, nor power, but in place of these goods it had given him a knowledge of human nature—or so he thought—and now in his old age, his daughter, his one great victory in life, takes all this from him in a single moment and leaves him stripped as naked as a pauper on the brink of his grave, a grave that in a few months will receive his dead body, and his dead works, and his dead ideals. Professor Leeds had been trying to convince Nina that she owed nothing to Gordon and that her idea of nursing wounded soldiers as a compensation for what she did not give Gordon was absurd. He kept up the argument until Nina was goaded into saying the things that she had really wished to spare her father:

PROFESSOR LEEDS. It seems to me when you gave him your love, he got more than he could ever have hoped—

NINA. I gave him? What did I give him? It's what I didn't give! That last night before he sailed—in his arms until my body ached—kisses until my lips were numb—knowing all that night—something in me knowing he would die, that he would never kiss me again—knowing this so surely yet with my cowardly brain lying, no, he'll come back and marry you, you'll be happy ever after and feel his children at your breasts looking up with eyes so much like his, possessing eyes so happy in possessing you! But Gordon never possessed me! I'm still Gordon's silly virgin! And Gordon is muddy ashes! And I've lost my happiness forever! All that last night I knew he wanted me. I knew it was only the honorable code-bound Gordon, who kept commanding from his brain, no, you mustn't, you must respect her, you must wait till you have a marriage license!

Gordon wanted reel I wanted Gordon! I should have made him take me! I knew he would die and I would have no children, that there would be no big Gordon or little Gordon left to me, that happiness was calling me, never to call again if I refused! And yet I did refuse! I didn't make him take me! I lost him forever! And now I am lonely and not pregnant with anything at all, but—but loathing! Why did I refuse? What was that cowardly something in me that cried, no, you mustn't, what would your father say?

In fleeing from the tragic consequences of one illusion, Nina rushes into the fatal grip of another even more fantastic because it is more uncommon. The passion for vicarious atonement takes a peculiar form, but not strange to those who understand the elements of abnormal psychology. She says: "I must learn to give myself, do you hear—give and give until I can make that gift of myself for a man's happiness without scruple, without fear, without joy except in his joy!"

Her father's ideal has become so vile to her that it pained every nerve in her body, an agony that only the most exaggerated indulgence could alleviate. Shortly after Nina's departure the old professor dies. The illusion which had sheltered him for so many years, which had won for him many battles with the harsh world, had failed him at the crucial moment-it could not win for him the one big battle which should have been the crowning victory of his life.

And Nina fares no better. Her first adventure proves to be incomplete. To satisfy her longing she finally marries a man, who, for the moment, seems to be a solution to her restless disillusion with the past. Of him she says: "I only married him because he needed me—and I needed children!" This might have been a real solution for Nina had not Sam brought her in contact with another family that, like her father's, only in a far graver sense, had based its life upon a falsification of reality.

Mrs. Evans, Sam's mother, had been tricked into marrying a man who came from a long line of insane ancestors. His excuse for marrying Mrs. Evans without telling her the truth was, as she puts it: "He said he loved me so much he'd have gone mad without me, said I was his only hope of salvation." This romantic ideal proved a failure. Mr. Evans became insane, and to perpetuate the false ideal of life, Sam was sent away from home, never to discover the skeleton in his family closet.

The false ideal of Nina's own family life was now combined with that of her husband's. Her only solution was to fall back on science, get rid of the life within her and begin anew.

From beginning to end, the play is an attack upon the falsity of the romantic ideal. Nina, her father, Mrs. Evans, Marsden, and even Dr. Darrell have their lives twisted, warped, and in a sense destroyed by an attempt to escape from reality. Dr. Darrell sees the full implication of this ideal for all of them when he says, "Romantic imagination! It has ruined more lives than all the diseases! Other diseases, I should say! It's a form of insanity."

The ending of the play is in keeping with the spirit of the piece as a whole. The romantic imagination goes on in the lives of the younger generation. Dr. Darrell asks for one thing only from life: "Oh, God, so deaf and dumb and blind! . . . teach me to be resigned to be an atom!" And for Marsden it is the same. His summary is the final culmination of his life of romantic illusions. He says to Nina: "So let's you and me forget the whole distressing episode, regard it as an interlude, of trial and preparation, say, in which our souls have been scraped clean of impure flesh and made worthy to bleach in peace." And Nina replies: "Strange interlude! Yes, our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father!"


Dynamo, which follows Strange Interlude, is no exception to the rule. The characters in this play are even more violently and passionately the children of illusion than any of the other characters that O'Neill has created. The illusion is so exaggerated that the characters fail to be convincing as human beings. Each in his own way is destroyed by the passion of his desire for a life that is no life at all, a life of romantic dreams. Religion, love, sex are all distorted and fantastic ideals to these characters With great passion for the ideal but with neither knowledge or understanding of reality they squirm and writhe in their futile struggle with a reality that they can neither comprehend nor master.

The confused world in which these characters move has made the play introspective to the point where it failed as an actual stage play—a rare thing in O'Neill's dramas—but this does not mean that as far as a study of O'Neill is concerned it is not valuable. It may mean just the reverse. The time may come when the student of O'Neill will find in this one play a key to much that is of real importance in explaining O'Neill. As a play it marks the end of one period in the development of his technique and the beginning of another. To some it has been the reductio ad absurdum of the "aside" technique. But such a position is in itself of no value, for any method of artistic representation if pushed far enough resolves either in chaos or childish simplicity, depending upon its adaptability to deal with human psychology. In this particular play it is the conflict between the real and the ideal that results in confusion.


From Dynamo to Mourning Becomes Electra is an easy transition. The incest theme began in Dynamo, and in a sense wrecked the play, only to find its proper expression in the story of General Mannon's family. The tragedy that ends with Lavinia's resolve to "Live alone with the dead, and keep their secrets" began in the home of her grandfather long before she was born. Ezra Mannon as a child had been in love with Marie Brantôme, but it was his uncle, David, who was the successful lover. So deep was Abe Mannon's resentment against this brother who had stolen the affection of the young woman that he himself had loved—loved in the thwarted Mannon sense of love, which dares not face the truth—that he drove him and his sweetheart from his home, and eventually destroyed the house in order that all memory of the cursed experience might be obliterated forever from his life.

In that episode begins the false romantic ideal which finds its culmination years later in the grandson as accomplice in the murder of his uncle and the long series of crimes that follow. From the beginning the misfortunes of the Mannons grow out of an inability to face the reality of life. They live by false Puritan standards of behavior. They did not know and could not learn that man as a psychological phenomenon is doomed to disaster if compelled to live within the confines of a limited creed. One by one "Death came tacitly and took them" from the sunlight of a world they had never seen except through the colored glass of the "Meeting House" windows. They didn't know what it was all about until too late to learn a new way of life.

The world tour of Orin and Lavinia is one of the great tragic conceptions of O'Neill, for these two children are doubly doomed because they do not know that their tragedy lies within, and that were they able to flee from the planet itself they would still bear it with them. As they travel they make one faint gesture in the direction of freedom, but the scars of the past had left a tissue which inhibited forever a turn into a new world. I refer to the Islands of the South Seas that had been so dear to the memory of Captain Brant, and dear also to the imagination of O'Neill as they were to Melville, one of the very few authors that are mentioned by name in O'Neill's plays. No single passage in the play touches the heart more than Orin's sad speech in which he tells of these Islands with a bitterness born of his disillusionment. For, as he says "They turned out to be Vinnie's islands, not mine. They only made me sick—and the naked women disgusted me. I guess I'm too much of a Marmon, after all, to turn into a pagan." To Lavinia they were teal, they were an escape, so she thought, from all that had cursed her family for generations. They were to her all that her young lover had promised her, but she could not accept that which she wanted. The cruel hand of tradition led her back to her doom, where she told Peter the story of the Islands in these words:

LAVINIA (Dreamily) I loved those Islands. They finished setting me free. There was something there mysterious and beautiful—a good spirit—of love—coming out of the land and sea. It made me forget death. There was no hereafter. There was only this world-the warm earth in the moonlight—the trade wind in the coco palms—the surf on the reef—the fires at night and the drum throbbing in my heart—the natives dancing naked and innocent—without knowledge of sin. (She checks herself abruptly and frightenedly.)

It is a characteristic of the Mannons that they knew or realized in a dim sort of way what was wrong with them, but always the realization came too late to set straight their crooked path of life. General Mannon discovered a new philosophy on the night that he was murdered, a discovery that, made twenty years earlier, would have saved him and his family. And what may be said of him in this respect may be said of many of O'Neill's characters with reference to the romantic ideal. An uncritical analysis might lead a reader to believe that O'Neill had stacked the fates against them. The opposite is really true, for it is typical of the romantic dreamer that he does not, nor can he, comprehend the falsity of his position until it is put to the crucial test, and then it is too late to turn back. It is O'Neill's clear development of this point that gives tragic reality to his work, and it is the failure to grasp this truth which has led many people to condemn him. But he is too much of an artist not to realize truly a fact of life that is the very essence of his own nature. He is the romantic dreamer who knows the deadly power of the dream's appeal. In his life, as in his work, he has striven against it, and out of the struggle he has created the bitter tragic beauty of his art. He never forgets that life will exact a double toll from those who believe that dreaming of what life ought to be will make it other than it is.

The Anathema of Puritanism

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