The Anathema of Puritanism
"I'm not asking God or anybody for
O'NEILL'S scope is greater and his penetration more profound than is indicated by his rebellion against the romantic dogma. The main currents of modern thought flow clearly and swiftly across the plains over which his creative spirit broods. He welcomes with a fierce enthusiasm as well the object of his hatred as the material of love. Beauty and ugliness stir his imagination-it is the stuff on which his dreams are made. There is the enthusiasm of the reformer in his spirit, and the power of the artist to give that spirit scope.
The rebellion of the modern world against the romantic ideal has found a dramatic interpretation in O'Neill. The range of his voice is not limited to this one note, but soars to include the whole trend of modern man's attempt to liberate himself from the shackles of dead traditions. In order to do this, much of modern thought has been first a protest and secondly an affirmation. A glance in memory at the literature and art of modern times emphasizes the prominence of this theme of rebellion. From Butler, Hardy, Gorky, Ibsen, Hauptmann, and Anatole France to Anderson and Dreiser in America the voice of modern literature has been a voice of splendid and vitriolic defiance of conventional standards and dogmas. O'Neill belongs in this tradition. He is firm and sure in his denial. His rebellion is pointed and bitter, but it is no more important to an interpretation of his significance than is his affirmation of life's values. The positive value grows out of his negative criticism which is varied and profound.
Another phase of this spirit of protest finds its vent in an outspoken condemnation of the Puritan ideal. The Puritan ideal like that of the romantic dreamer represents to O'Neill a barrier on the road to the good life. Puritanism, as it emphasizes the value of selfabnegation, is distasteful to him. Puritanism, in so far as it stands for a doctrine of suppression, he condemns as a distinct force for evil. He abjures a "thou shalt not" philosophy, because it is a positive evil that endangers the only good that is possible in life, and that is happiness. Puritanism inhibits, forbids, denies, and inhibition and denial lead to fear, prejudice and narrow hatred, thwarted personality, and a beggar's attitude at the door of life. Life will not be had in its fullest sense by the hands of the beggar. Its richest gifts are only for those who demand a right to love, beauty, joy and happiness. Puritanism destroys all these goods.
And Puritanism has infected the modern world, fastening itself like a deadly parasite upon the skin of civilization. It has made man afraid of himself. It has made him believe that there is virtue in denying himself the real pleasure and beauty that might be possible in rare moments during his struggle with an unfriendly universe. He resorts to suppression, believing that what is not seen is therefore properly destroyed. But as John Dewey says, "Suppression is not annihilation. 'Psychic' energy is no more capable of being abolished than the forms we recognize as physical. If it is neither exploded nor converted, it is turned inwards, to lead a surreptitious, subterranean life." (Human Nature and Conduct, p. 156.) This in the end leads to pathological symptoms that manifest themselves in strange ways which to the unwary or the self-deceived appear to have no connection with the original suppression.
The character of Dion (The Great God Brown) is understandable in the terms of an enforced Puritanism which made him deny the best part of himself in order to conform to the demands of a Puritan society which professed values that were essentially destructive. He summarizes these in a few words: "Wake up! Time to get up! Time to exist! Time for school! Time to learn! Learn to pretend! Cover your nakedness! Learn to lie! Learn to keep step! Join the procession! Great Pan is dead! Be ashamed!" This is the essence of the Puritan philosophy. Because it goes contrary to life's urge to express itself in active creative forms, Puritanism must forever wear a mask to conceal itself from the truth of life, or life in the character of Dion must wear a mask to conceal itself from the death-inPuritanism in the character of Margaret. Puritanism is the avowed enemy of Pan. It cannot afford to be naked and carefree. It must assume the virtues it does not possess, or call its vices virtues. It must "be ashamed."
Death, not life, becomes the companion of these "ashamed" ones, and like Caligula (Lazarus Laughed) they cling to death as the symbol of their power. With him they would say, if they were as realistic and articulate as he: "You have murdered my only friend, Lazarus! Death would have been my slave when I am Caesar. He would have been my jester and made me laugh at fear!" The words of Lazarus explain the witch-burning Puritans:
CALIGULA. Then if there is no death, O Teacher, tell me why I love to kill?
LAZARUS. Because you fear to die!
The Puritan with his eyes focused on death fosters
all that is deadly and destructive. He cannot grasp the doctrine of
Lazarus who says: "Love is man's hope-love for his life on earth, a
noble love above suspicion and distrust!"
In Lazarus Laughed there is an Aged Jew who expresses the Puritan doctrine as he shakes his fist at the followers of Lazarus:
"They come to him and work for nothing! For nothing! And they are glad, these undutiful ones! While they sow, they dance! They sing to the earth when they are plowing! They tend his flocks and laugh toward the sun!"
Laughter, happiness, joy in beauty are things to be feared and hated by the Puritans. The Puritans closed the theaters and threw out the music from the churches, and white-washed the paintings, but that was only the external symbol of their real crime. They stifled the spirit of life at its source, and it is against this grosser crime that O'Neill directs his scorn. I do not mean to imply that O'Neill takes a thesis and writes a play to illustrate his meaning in the manner of Ibsen or Galsworthy. His primary interest lies in the tragedy of life, not in the teaching of some social doctrine, but in the development of his tragic theme he analyzes the social structure. In this he follows the sure practice of all great artists, for it is only in presenting man against the background of his biological and environmental heritage that drama gains a great or a universal significance. O'Neill does not moralize, but his plays have a great moral significance.
There are times when O'Neill does allow his thesis to become more important than the drama itself. In Dynamo it is quite apparent that he forgot that the play is the thing. He had a good subject, a subject that would lend itself to an excellent essay for a journal in sociology, but as a play it did not "come off." He wanted to show how the destruction of one religious ideal demands the creation of a new one to take its place. The theme is a good one, for if man is forever doomed to be the slave of some personified force outside himself, then the end of one tragedy is but the beginning of another. And so it was in the case of Reuben Light. In his life, as in the case of all life, religion and love were strangely mixed. It was love that aroused Reuben to the realization that the Puritan doctrine of his father was a narrow, mean and ugly religion. Reuben liberated himself with apparent ease from the thraldom of a fixed dogma, but he could not escape the deeper and the more deadly implications of his father's religion. He did not realize that when he had denied the existence of the Christian God, he had achieved only a verbal release. The really mordant power of the old belief had been so deeply impressed upon him that he did not even know that it existed. He rebelled against the old Puritan God, and boldly declared himself free. In reality he was as much a slave as ever, only now he was dangerous to himself and to society, for his freedom was merely verbal. In his heart he still carried the real doctrine of the Puritan. He was still a slave to a doctrine that life is essentially evil, and that sex is the source of all that is vile and degenerate in man. As an avowed Christian there was a certain kind of effective unity to his life; as a rebel he thought himself free, while in his behavior he was a slave.
The happiness that should have come from his new life was destroyed at every turn by the teachings of the past, and by the longing for a guiding principle that his ignorance of philosophy made it impossible for him to develop. Freedom without knowledge is dangerous and destructive.
Reuben's struggle is blind and hopeless. His conception of love turns to a sexual debauchery, a fact that he dimly understands and finally tries to solve by inventing the new God of mechanical power. But the influence of the past had not yet finished its sport with him. A love for his mother which likewise he did not understand made him turn in his despair to the mother of the girl he should have loved, and whom he would have loved had it not been for the depravity of his puritanical father. Obedient to the teachings of his father even when he thinks that he has abandoned them, he savagely reduces his love for Ada to an ugly debauchery, and in despair turns to her mother.
He renounced a God that he hated, but he had been so completely enslaved and broken by the old belief that freedom was impossible for him. His new God of science was a device for escaping the judgment of a sin-sick soul. It was also a means of escape from another deadly result of his puritanical training, the love for his mother.
O'Neill evidently began the theme of Mourning Becomes Electra in Dynamo. This love helps to complicate the life of Reuben, but it also confuses the original theme, and is one of the principal causes of its failure as a play. He gave the action of the drama more than the traffic would bear. This makes the play interesting from the point of view of studying O'Neill's conception of Puritanism, but it also makes the play futile as real drama.
Puritanism becomes the embodiment of all that is evil and degenerate in the life of man. Under the guise of its pretended ideals, man is being led to destruction. To O'Neill, Puritanism in its emphasis upon the life hereafter has destroyed life here; it is to him not a religion of salvation but a religion of death. BrigadierGeneral Mannon expresses what he had learned about the religion of Puritanism, and in the light of the treatment this theme gets in other plays, it may be taken as a fair statement of O'Neill's conception of Puritanism and its destructive power:
MANNON. It was seeing death all the time in this war got me to thinking these things. Death was so common, it didn't mean anything. That freed me to think of life. Queer, isn't it? Death made me think of life. Before that life had only made me think of death!
CHRISTINE. Why are you talking of death?
MANNON. That's always been the Mannons' way of thinking. They went to the white meeting-house on Sabbaths and meditated on death. Life was a dying. Being born was starting to die. Death was being born. How in hell people ever got such notions! That white meeting-house. It stuck in my mind—clean-scrubbed and whitewashed—a temple of death! But in this war I've seen too many white walls splattered with blood that counted no more than dirty water. I've seen dead men scattered about, no more important than rubbish to be got rid of. That made the white meeting-house seem meaningless—making so much solemn fuss over death!
General Mannon had to live to old age and go through two wars before he realized that he had been the victim of a tragic ideal. Love as an end in itself had gradually found a home in his heart. But too late. Even as he talks of the new happiness that he thinks is in store for him now that he has triumphed over the tyranny of death, the reality of it hangs over him ready to receive him into its black shroud before the red-streaked dawn shall welcome the new day.
As the tragedy in the House of Mannon grew out of a puritanic philosophy, so likewise did the tragedy in the House of Leeds. (Strange Interlude.) Professor Leeds lived his life in 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." But he was not secure, for the nemesis of a false ideal pursued him, and, unknown to him, betrayed his own desire for happiness by leading him to interfere with the life of his daughter, Nina. This interference in the interests of the Puritan ideal destroyed her happiness and laid the sure foundation for the inevitable tragedy which was to follow.
And all this has a very close relationship to Nietzsche, whose teaching has always been a guiding spirit to O'Neill. It is significant that the proud, defiant O'Neill should have walked on the heights with Zarathustra, one who also hated the Puritans and their negative philosophy. How like the words of Mannon quoted above are these from Zarathustra:
"There are the terrible ones who carry about in themselves the beast of prey, and have no choice except lusts or self-laceration. . . .
There are the spiritually consumptive ones: hardly are they born when they begin to die, and long for doctrines of lassitude and renunciation.
They would fain be dead, and we should approve of their wish! Let us beware of awakening those dead ones, and of damaging those living coffins!" (Zarathustra, Mod. Lib. ed. p. 60.)
This gospel of death spreads its sinister atmosphere over the lives of so many of O'Neill's characters that it might almost be called the greatest evil in the imaginative world of his dramas. It makes his world into a little city of dreadful nights where monsters of death and clay-footed idols move with incredible swiftness to dash out sunlight, beauty and happiness.
This world of O'Neill is bowed down under the heavy
load of wrong ideals. Like Bunyan's Pilgrim, it toils under the
burden of an almost unbearable load of sins, sins that have made the
"happy isles" into shadows of the valley of death. But as is always
the case with O'Neill the sins which he condemns, which he
dramatizes so well, are the virtues of the past grown old, haggard,
lean and skull-faced, virtues that may have served a need in older
civilizations, but in the modern
world have become parasitic tumors, swelling the body to ugly
proportions, or appearing in the form of infected scabs that turn
man into a disease and life into a dismal swamp. Opposed to this
deadly menace in the world of O'Neill is the vital force of a new
paganism, an old philosophy made new, a philosophy which will no
longer make love "a shameless ragged ghost of a word—begging at all
doors for life at any price!"
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