Menu Bar

 

Religion

"I ain't never took much stock in the truck them sky-pilots preach."
                                                              Bound East for Cardiff

1

PURITANISM is a convenient term to use in describing a character trait of Western civilization, especially with reference to American culture. The sense in which it is used in the preceding chapter may have little historical validity, but modern usage has given it a special connotation that justifies the sinister implications of the previous discussion. That O'Neill dramatizes a certain phase of our culture, a phase which is expressed in the terms of a narrow ascetic ideal, seems clearly established. That he looks upon this manifestation in our culture as destructive, even deadly, is also certain. To some extent it must also be dear that Puritanism is one form of the romantic ideal. It is an escape from the reality of life through the doorway of self-denial and flagellation.

The transition is easily made from this subject to religion as still another form of escape from reality. O'Neill's attitude towards the organized form of modern Christianity has always impressed me as of paramount importance in explaining the man and the significance of his work. No writer seriously occupied with an interpretation of modern life can avoid a consideration of this particular aspect of it. The Church has always professed to have a solution to man's apparently inescapable dilemma, and no doubt there have been times in the history of civilization when it did provide a very real answer. Perhaps it is true that in the Middle Ages Christianity was a genuine answer to man's eternal enigma. But as Western civilization came into the true heritage of its purely Western culture, the romantic, other-worldly religion of the East lost its influence in direct proportion to the success of the very culture which it professed to nurture. If survival of our particular civilization is to be used as a standard of worth, then it might very well be said that in our struggle to achieve material triumph over the outward aspects of nature, we are doing the very things which will lead to our ultimate annihilation. The more successful we are in the invention of machinery—machinery in every sense of the word—the more we divorce man from the very things that make for his physical and mental health. Not only that, but we seem to be driven by this machinery to take an active part in selfdestruction, not being willing to wait for physical deterioration and nervous insanity to do its slow but sure work.

On these problems O'Neill has expressed himself in no uncertain terms in such plays as The Hairy Ape and Strange Interlude. But Religion itself as a destructive power is my particular concern in this chapter. The other problems of the economic struggle and war will be discussed later. O'Neill has not over-emphasized the problems of modern Christianity, but his plays give ample evidence that even from the very first he was interested in the effect of Christian doctrine upon the lives of his characters. This is just what one might expect from a dramatist who makes the material of his art man's struggle with the shadowy, indefinable and inevitable forces of life. When I use religion in dealing with this phase of O'Neill's plays, I mean by it just what he does: modern institutionalized Christianity. The careful reader of his plays will find ample evidence that he has no quarrel with Jesus as a social teacher. O'Neill's view of organized Christianity could be expressed in the words from Renan Life of Jesus: "Even in our days, troubled days, in which Jesus has no more authentic followers than those who seem to deny him, the dreams of an ideal organization of society, which have so much analogy with the aspirations of primitive Christian sects, are only in one sense the blossoming of the me idea." The idea referred to is the Kingdom of God, which to O'Neill means social justice and individual freedom. What O'Neill does quarrel with is the idea of a professed religion that on Sunday preaches "One thing thou lackest: go, sell whatsoever thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me;" a Sunday religion which on Monday is translated into the doctrine of rugged individualism, a doctrine which holds that profits made through buying cheap and selling dear is the secure end of salvation. O'Neill sees only the elements of tragedy in a philosophy which is incompatible with the exigencies of a fixed social practice. This theme which is present more by implication than in fact in the early plays grows to real tragic proportions in Mourning Becomes Electra.

2

As the good ship Glencairn moved through the fog, bound east for Cardiff, one of her sailors, Yank, lay dying. He knew that he would never again see that eastern port which now was a port of memories, memories of hates and loves, memories of lights and shadows. His ship was bound east, but he was "going west," and he knew it. All of Driscoll's talk about how Yank would be on deck in a day or two "chippin' rust . . . wid the best av us" did not delude Yank from his firm conviction that all the dirty work of a sailor's life was over for him. In his own way he was making a few of life's last reckonings; he was making his last summary. Yank was evaluating the Christian dogma in simple terms. He puts it in plain language, saying: "I was just thinkin' it ain't as bad as people think—dyin'. I ain't never took much stock in the truck them sky-pilots preach, I ain't never had religion; but I know whatever it is what comes after it can't be no worser'n this" He has stated in these few words a true empirical position, measuring the dogma by what life really is in experience, and this is what O'Neill always does. By this standard the promise of religion is immediately divorced from the reality of the world, a separation that can't be glossed over except by those who are more interested in a promised escape than in the bitter knowledge which is the fruit of truth.
 

I have no intention of pushing the implications of the situation in Bound East for Cardiff beyond the limits of what is justified by the materials of the play itself. If this were the only play in which a reference of this kind occurred, I would admit that nothing of any importance to O'Neill's attitude on Christianity could legitimately be inferred. But it is not the only play which makes definite use of Christianity in the interpretation of man's tragedy. This is the rule of his art, not the exception.

3

In The Rope, a trick play of no great importance, the incongruity between Christian text and human practice is used as the principal characteristic of Abraham Bentley. Bentley is sixty-five, bald, tottering, and the very apotheosis of bitterness and hate. O'Neill has carefully made his language from biblical text. "He will visit thine iniquity—" is the theme of the old man's discourse. All that Christianity has done for him is to give him an adequate vehicle for his hate, bitterness and love of revenge. When Luke, his son, returns, Abraham is overjoyed and shouts:

BENTLEY. Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.

LUKE. Yuh're still spoutin' the rotten old Word o' God same's ever, eh? Say, give us a rest on that stuff, will yuh?

"The rotten old Word o' God" is so in this case not because of anything that is intrinsically corrupt in its nature, but because it is perverted in the mouth of a vicious and depraved old man, who has all his life used the language of Christianity as an end in itself. It has never occurred to him that there need be any connection between what one says and what one does. Apparently Abraham Bentley found the excellent texts of the Bible useful only as convenient language with which to condemn the behavior of others.

The Rope is ironic melodrama, but it reveals a point of view towards the Christian faith that pervades the atmosphere of all of O'Neill's work. Like most of the leading writers of the modern world, O'Neill is not a Christian in the conventional understanding of Christianity. Rather he is an artist who is concerned with the problem of man's relation to his universe. He is seeking an answer to this puzzle. One way he is sure will not solve the riddle, and that is the way of traditional Christianity. He is sure that man's solution to life's enigma will not be answered in the terms of the old faith, but he is also certain that instead of being helpful, this old form of an other-worldly religion is a bar across the road to happiness. As popularly conceived, it is an active force for evil, a force that leads man to make dangerous denials, and finally to the inhibition of those qualities that alone might make the brief span of this life gleam with occasional moments of real beauty, a beauty that would come through an admission that we are human and through a vigorous affirmation of our humanity. This theme which is faintly suggested here grows and develops into one of major importance in later plays, notably Dynamo, and the character of Abraham Bentley is a prophecy of one of O'Neill's major creations, old Ephraim Cabot in Desire Under the Elms.

4

The avaricious mendacity of the Church is a predominant theme in The Fountain, a beautiful romantic historical drama of the days of Columbus. Although this play deals with Ponce de Leon and his search for the spring of eternal youth, there is a sort of minor theme, a theme of hate, revenge, bitterness and noble ideals fallen from high estate into grasping greed for power. This is Christianity, which serves as a chorus of evil to the noble deeds of Ponce de Leon. In almost every scene the beauty of Juan's character and aspiration is thwarted by the ugliness and crime of the Church as exemplified in the actions of her leaders. This note is emphasized in the opening scene when Diego Menendez is introduced. He is "a Franciscan monk, about the same age as Juan and Luis. He has a pale, long face, the thin, cruel mouth, the cold, selfobsessed eyes of the fanatic." This monk is raging with fury against a Moorish poet whose songs suggest some of the strange, appealing beauty of the pagan ideal that Menendez and his kind are so anxious to crush forever. His hatred of the poet goes beyond all bounds when he hears him relate the story of the spring of youth, a spring which destroys the marks of old age and revives the power and passion of youthful love. The monk shouts "Idolatry," and later when the friends of the poet are not on their guard, Menendez kills the poet. Luis calls him "miserable bigot" and would have stabbed him in return had he not been restrained by Juan. Held back by force he breaks into tears as the self-righteous murderer says: "What, a soldier of Christ weep for an infidel!"

This pitiless bigotry, which from a pure dramatic point almost carries off the scene that should have been centered upon the conflict between the "soldier of iron—and dreamer" in Juan Ponce de Leon, is an indica tion of a theme that echoes through the whole play. It may be argued that as good drama the play suffers from the recurrence of this note of bitterness towards the Church which creeps into almost every scene. On the other hand it gives to the play a certain grim vitality, and a critical truth that is a rich intellectual compensation for whatever flaw it may have from the dramatic point of view. It serves to show off the character of Juan, and it helps one to understand O'Neill better. It is quite plain that his sympathies are with Juan, who progresses more and more away from the professed practices of the Church until as Governor of Porto Rico, he finds that he is directly opposed to all that the Church practices, and revolted by cruelty and murder for the sake of bigotry and power. Even his good friend, Luis, has deserted him by becoming a Dominican and preaching: "You must renounce in order to possess." Juan replies: "The world would be stale indeed if that were true! I fight the battles; you monks steal the spoils! I seek to construct; you bind my hands and destroy!"

I find no difficulty here in knowing where O'Neill's sympathies tie, nor in understanding why he has made so much of the greed of the Church enriched by cruelty and power. It is not alone the poor natives of Porto Rico in the sixteenth century that arouse the sympathies of O'Neill as expressed in the philosophy of Juan, but it is helpless natives everywhere crushed by the powerful twins of the modern world: Christianity and Capitalism. In the mind of O'Neill these two forces are evil in that they tend to destroy beauty, love of liberty, and all that affirms the goodness of this life in this world.

His bitterest condemnation he puts in the mouth of a native Indian who tries to explain to his chieftain what the white man believes, basing his interpretation, very naturally, upon the white man's practices:

NANO. Their devils make them strong. But they are not true warriors. They are thieves and rapers of women.

CHIEF. Have they no God?

NANO. Their God is a thing of earth! It is this! (He touches a gold ornament that the CHIEF wears.)

MEDICINE MAN (Mystified) Gold? Gold is sacred to the Sun. It can be no God itself.

NANO (Contemptuously) They see only things, not the spirit behind things. Their hearts are muddy as a pool in which deer have trampled. Listen. Their Medicine Men tell of a God who came to them long ago in the form of a man. He taught them to scorn things. He taught them to look for the spirit behind things. In revenge, they killed him. They tortured him as a sacrifice to the Gold Devil. They crossed two big sticks. They drove little sticks through his hands and feet and pinned him on the others—thus.

This may not be good imitation of native language, but the idea is plain enough, and the direct criticism reveals something of what O'Neill himself thinks of Christianity when it is judged by its practice in contrast with its professed doctrine. Nor should the reader fail to observe that while the criticism of organized Christianity is acrid, the feeling towards Jesus is by implication one of great admiration. O'Neill pays his deepest respect to the one who tried to see the "spirit behind things." It is only because O'Neill respects Jesus for his genuine social philosophy that he can hate so openly those who have perverted the honest, simple teachings of the Galilean to the base uses of exploitation.

This point of view is further borne out by the descriptive terms used in identifying the leading Christians of the play: "They are the type of adventurous cavaliers of the day—cruel, courageous to recklessness, practically uneducated—knights of the true Cross, ignorant of and despising every first principle of real Christianity—yet carrying the whole off with a picturesque air." The Father Superior is described as "a portly monk with a simple round face, gray hair and beard. His large eyes have the opaque calm of a ruminating cow's." And these characters are well fitted for the work they do, which O'Neill is careful to point out is not in harmony with a single "principle of real Christianity." From this it might be inferred that with "real Christianity" O'Neill might be in perfect harmony. No doubt this is true, but that does not change my major premise, that with modern or ancient organized and institutionalized Christian practice, he is at odds, even actively opposed to it. Even though he may admire the earnest, sincere personality of Jesus, he would still be opposed to that aspect of his philosophy which emphasizes other-worldliness and the negation of purely human values.

The scornful attitude O'Neill always assumes in characterizing his religious men and women almost makes them typical of a class that is physically repulsive and spiritually vicious. The terms used above to describe the Father Superior indicate the type. Lily in The First Man says, "What ridiculous things funerals are, anyway! That stupid minister—whining away through his nose! Why does the Lord show such a partiality for men with adenoids, I wonder!" Dion in The Great God Brown expresses his opinion of Christians when, in heaping the bitterest denunciation he can think of upon himself, he says, "Behold your man—the sniveling, cringing, life-denying Christian slave you have so nobly ignored in the father of your sons!"

In Dynamo a minister of the Gospel is a principal character. "He is a man in his early sixties, slightly under medium height, ponderously built. His face is square, ribbed with wrinkles, the forehead low, the nose heavy, the eyes small and gray-blue, the reddish hair grizzled and bushy, the stubborn jaw weakened by a big indecisive mouth. His voice is the bullying one of a sermonizer who is the victim of an inner uncertainty that compensates itself by being boomingly overassertive." A page further on he is described as staring "before him with the resentful air of one brooding over a wrong done him and unsuccessfully plotting revenge."

The actual behavior of Reverend Light does not fail to support the details of this description. He is narrowminded, selfish, cruel and tactless. Like all the people that O'Neill definitely designates as Christians, he is sadistic in his reactions to other people. It is as though O'Neill believed that the inevitable Christian brooding over the terrible tortures of hell-fire could produce no other result than sadism. An uncritical reader might hold that this is a mark of prejudice and narrowness on the part of O'Neill. I rather think not. It simply means that he is bound by the truth of human psychology. Thus when he introduces a character who is a Christian of the type who takes delight in his faith in hell, he is by very definition a sadist. But since all people are sadists to a certain extent it resolves itself into a matter of degree. The professional preachers of hell fire are just more so than those who have neither the time nor the inclination to feed and encourage the inevitable heritage of life's struggle for existence. But it is also quite clear that O'Neill finds nothing to admire in these Christian types which he introduces.

A specific example of Reverend Light's thoughts will illustrate the foulness and the cruel vanity of his mind. He is speaking to himself, brooding over his hatred of the atheist who is his next-door neighbor:

If it weren't for my doth I'd have beaten his face to a bloody pulp! . . . I'd . . . (Suddenly horrified at himself) A murderer's thoughts! . . . Lord God, forgive me! . . .

But, Lord, Thou knowest what a thorn in the flesh that atheist, Fife, has been since the devil brought him next door! . . . How long, O Lord ? . . . does not his foul ranting begin to try Thy patience? . . . is not the time ripe to smite this blasphemer who defies Thee publicly to strike him dead ? . . . Lord God of Hosts, why dost Thou not strike him? . . . If Thou didst, I would proclaim the awful warning of it over all America! . . . I would convert multitudes, as it was once my dream to do! . . .

It should be noted here, that in contrast to the brutal Reverend Light, Mr. Fife, the atheist, is a "practical joker" with "a biting tongue, but at bottom is a goodnatured man except where the religious bigotry of his atheism is concerned." Fife is sure of himself, generous in his dealings with other people, and not worried over the state of his own soul nor that of any other man. Fife has his limitations, but no reader would ever prefer the world made on the pattern of Reverend Light to a world fashioned after the model of Mr. Fife. In the plays of O'Neill the characters who are definitely portrayed as Christians are invariably less admirable than those who are not so designated. If this fact were taken literally, it might indicate an ungenerous or false attitude on the part of O'Neill. Perhaps it does, but more critically, it may mean that true Christianity does not fatten on a system of brutality and exploitation.

5

Dion in The Great God Brown never tires of heaplng his scorn upon a doctrine that is directly opposed to the pursuit of beauty as a good in itself. He hates the cringing, beggarly attitude that is forever asking permission to live, that is forever accepting the tragedies of life with bowed head and an unrebellious spirit. He is not deluded with the hope that the rebellion will change that which is fixed in the past, but he does seem to believe that in the act of rebellion there is a selfrespecting virtue. Like Milton's Satan he would say:

"Immortal hate, And courage never to submit or yield, And what is else not to be overcome."

Dion is openly rebellious. He has asked life for an answer, and the reply has been an insult. He looks to the way that the Church points, reading from the New Testament: "'Come unto me all ye who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.' I will come—but where are you, Savior? (He tosses the Testament aside contemptuously) Blah! Fixation on old Mama Christianity! You infant blubbering in the dark, you!" No answer here for the free spirit to treasure. To Dion it means that if he will give up that which he prizes most he can have that for which he has no desire. He paraphrases with contempt, "Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit graves! Blessed are the poor in spirit for they are blind!" He calls the conforming and successful Brown "One of God's mud pies," and when Brown says to him, "After all, I couldn't keep chasing after you and be snubbed every time. A man has some pride?", Dion replies, "(bitterly mocking) Dead wrong! Never more! None whatever! It's unmoral! Blessed are the poor in spirit, Brother!"

In Strange Interlude when Christianity is put to a crucial test it fails to satisfy the demands of those in sore need. O'Neill's men and women demand more from life than is prescribed for man within the limits of an ascetic dogma. When Nina is put to the terrible test of sacrificing the life she bears within her, she realizes that there is no God that can help her and says: "I don't believe in God the Father !" and Mrs. Evans replies, "And I don't believe in Him, neither, not any more. I used to be a great one for worrying about what's God and what's devil, but I got richly over it living here with poor folks that was being punished for no sins of their own, and me being punished with them for no sin but loving much. Being happy, that's the nearest we can ever come to knowing what's good! Being happy, that's good! The rest is just talk!"

Bitter experience had taught Mrs. Evans that faith in Christianity was no solution to the problems that are fundamentally biological. Genes have no respect for dogmas and doctrines. And knowing that to her sorrow, she warns Nina of the sad truth. In this situation, as in all others of a similar tragic nature in the plays of O'Neill, the solution is always in harmony with the modern world of science. It may be that the solution is not successful, quite often it is not, but at least his characters face the issue squarely. They realize that primitive incantations cannot change biological functions any more than they can produce rain or still the waves of the sea. O'Neill does not use Christianity as a solution to tragedy, because he has no faith in it as a solution to life's complex problem in this modern world. He does not believe in it, because he is a part of this modern world, a world which has abandoned faith in the interests of technology. He might be willhag to admit that this is in itself a tragedy, but he would hold that even if it is, that would not change the fact that it is true. Technology has become our God, and for ages to come we are doomed to be her slave. O'Neill is as skeptical of any ultimate solution to life through science, as he is definitely critical of the religious dogmas of the past. His tragedy goes deeper than that. He rejects Christianity first of all, because it is a passive and a negative religion which emphasizes resignation. His characters are never resigned. They are active and affirmative even in the presence of defeat. They meet destruction and death with high heads, bitter words and an undaunted courage. From Yank to Lavinia they are nobly defiant, never asking forgiveness; like Christopherson who never missed an opportunity to hurl his hatred at the "ole davil, sea," so do they all defy an unfriendly and immutable universe.

6

God, as deity, is a word that is often on the lips of O'Neill's characters, but when they speak of God, it is with neither reverence nor love, but with hatred and bitterness. These men and women of the world of Eugene O'Neill have lost all faith in a beneficent ruler of the universe, or a ruler of any kind. God remains only as a symbol of a faith that is either dead or dying, but since the terminology of any faith always lingers like a ghost to haunt the spirit of man long after the actual belief itself has passed away, so in O'Neill's plays men and women use God as a significant symbol for the unnamed forces of evil. It does not follow that O'Neill therefore believes that there is an active and conscious power of evil in the world that is supernatural and bent upon inflicting pain and suffering upon the helpless spirit of man. To him the universe is unmoral. His universe is not concerned about the hopes and fears, desires and aspirations of man. Whatever hope there may be for man in the dramatic picture of the world that O'Neill has given us arises out of the very fact that the universe is without any particular purpose as far as man is concerned. It leaves man free to create his own ideals, and to bend the forces of nature to his own uses, reversing the order of the primitive past, thereby making man the master and nature his slave.

In the transition period of man's history as a thinking animal, which is the modern period of which O'Neill writes, man is still more rebellious and defiant than actively concerned with a constructive program. He is busy sweeping away the débris of a civilization of erroneous conceptions, false beliefs and fatal superstitions. Only the simple are still living with confidence in the world of a conscious ruling power that watches over the destinies of men. There is a slight ironical touch in the fact that one of the few characters in the multitude that move across the complex stage of O'Neill's world who expresses an earnest faith is not even given a name. She is merely Woman, and she is a prostitute. When Cape and Eleanor had torn their love to shreds in a bitter and terrible quarrel, Cape runs from his home to seek consolation ha the arms of a prostitute. With masochistic fury he wants to insult and injure Eleanor, himself and all that he counts most beautiful in life. He picks a woman from the street and goes with her to her room. There in boasting of his despair, he says, "Hell is my home! I suspect we're fellow-citizens."

WOMAN (Superstitiously) You oughtn't to say them things.

CAPE (With dull surprise) Why?

WOMAN. Somep'n might happen. (A pause) Don't you believe in no God?

This is the exception and not the rule, for usually there is open and vigorous protest or ironical scorn associated with the name of God. Darrell (Strange Interlude) is typical when he says, "Oh, God, so deaf and dumb and blind! . . . teach me to be resigned to be an atom?" This speech of Darrell's is in harmony with Lily (The First Man) when she is revolted by the suffering of Jayson's wife in child-birth. Figuratively speaking she puts the blame on God, saying: "I hereby become a life-member of the birth-control league. Let's let humanity cease-if God can't manage its continuance any better than that!"

In All God's Chillun Got Wings there is a bitter treatment of God from the irony of the title to the final note of the tragedy. All God's children may have wings, but as far as this play is concerned they are the wings of evil. Gentleness, honesty, virtue, generosity and real beauty of character were brittle weapons in Jim's hands as he battled against the white man's racial prejudice. Jim's summary tells all. Ella says to him: "Will God forgive me, Jim," and he replies, "Maybe He can forgive what you,ve done to me; and maybe He can forgive what I've done to you; but I don't see how He's going to forgive—Himself." Nor could anyone see it judging from the basis of this play. To O'Neill it is quite plain that there is no shop in this world at which man can purchase salve of forgiveness; there is no such commodity for sale. Be it for good or ill, man must face the truth.

Another variant of this same concept of God as unfeeling and unsympathetic is revealed in Desire Under the Elms. In this play, as in all the others, the implication is in reality that the world is godless, but since the drama must use the indirect method, O'Neill often makes it appear that there is a malignant force that rules the world. Such primitivism is not a part of his realistic system. On the other hand, it would be futile to attempt an evaluation of Ephraim Cabot in Desire Under the Elms without considering the implications of that Old Man of Iron's conception of God. Ephraim was above all things consistent. He never allowed his religion to interfere with his practice. Those who think that Ephraim was not truly religious and point to his sex life, his cruelty, hatred and hard unsympathetic nature as evidence of their thesis do not take into account who or what his God was. But Ephraim knew. He describes Him in plain words:

Wall—this place was nothin' but fields o' stones. Folks laughed when I tuk it. They couldn't know what I knowed: When ye kin make corn sprout out o' stones, God's livin' in yew! They wa'n't strong enuf fur that! They reckoned God was easy. They laughed. They don't laugh no more. Some died hereabouts. Some went West an' died. They're all under ground—fur follerin' arter an easy God. God hain't easy. An' I growed hard. . . . God's hard, not easy! God's in the stones! Build my church on a rock—out o' stones an' I'll be in them! That's what He meant 't Peter! Stones. I picked 'em up an' piled 'em into walls. Ye kin read the years o' my life in them walls, every day a hefted stone, dimbin' over the hills up and down, fencin' in the fields that was mine, whar I'd made thin's grow out o' nothin'—like the will o' God, like the servant o' His hand. It wa'n't easy. It was hard an' He made me hard fur it.

And the God that rules over the world of Eugene O'Neill's plays is very much like the old man, Ephraim Cabot himself, or like Ephraim's God, which is much the same thing. By inference this means no God at all in the modern world, for by the painless road of least resistance we long ago abandoned in theory the old God of the Puritans, substituting the easy, friendly, good-health-physical-culture God of the modern Y. M. C. A. And for this deity O'Neill has no need. He has made his dramas an interpretation of the modern world, and in the modern world the anthropomorphic rulers are swiftly receding into the limbo of all forgotten things.

But O'Neill will not allow our old gods to pass away silently and without rebuke. Their long, cruel reign has left deep scars and the spirit of man rises in indignant and bitter rebellion. O'Neill the artist interpreting the new courage of a new world carries with him some of the hatred of the old, for as all great and broad-sweeping conceptions of life are born out of the hell of pain, so with O'Neill. This lack of disinterestedness would by a Matthew Arnold be condemned as evidence of a limitation in his work as a dramatist. The artist should hold himself aloof from the struggle; he should reflect life, not evaluate it. He should leave the problem of values to the professor of ethics. So many would hold, and on this very basis much has been written in condemnation of O'Neill. I hold that such a position is absurd in the light of what great art has been in the past. Milton and Dante, Goethe and Byron would have no meaning apart from the milieu that nurtured them. I do not mean to imply that O'Neill is a second Milton nor anybody else than himself, but that he is the living embodiment of this modern world is the theme that I do hold, and that he has given vitality and meaning to this world in his plays. As Nathan writes: "The life that he so produces is often not to the taste of the American audience, for it is not always a sweet and pretty life—the life which that audience cherishes across the footlights—but life it is none the less. It pulses from his stages; it quivers from his adjectives and verbs. And it makes his manuscripts warm, beating and vital things. Many American plays have heart. It has remained for O'Neill, to no little extent, to add the blood." (Preface to The Moon of the Caribbees, Mod. Lib. Ed.)

Since O'Neill is very definitely caught m the mad struggle of modern life, it is only reasonable to expect him to reflect its passion in reason, for since it is an age of critical evaluation, there is passion and even hatred in its highest critical moments. Criticism does not sit serene and holy and self-righteous in its court of justice. It is art age of militant aggressive criticism, not an age of cool self-composed and secure judgments as those that emanated from the critics of the eighteenth century. This is the age of Mencken in criticism. A criticism that waves high its banner at every victory won from the fortification of entrenched traditionalism. It is typical that as the defeated one flees with the torn and scattered pages of Aristotle and Boileau, he trails a smoke screen to protect his retreat.

O'Neill's direct manner in dealing with the tragedy of life is always colored with this critical passion. So it is that the old God who has ruled so long and so ill, to judge from the plays, is severely treated at times. He is even made sport of for the benefit of the groundling. In Marco Millions O'Neill makes Kublai say: "My hideous suspicion is that God is only an infinite, insane energy which creates and destroys without other purpose than to pass eternity in avoiding thought. Then the stupid man becomes the Perfect Incarnation of Omnipotence and the Polos are the true children of God!"

The whole spirit of this play is satirical and not too much importance should be attached to such a statement. But suppose one were, for the sake of argument only, to accept the world of Eugene O'Neill as a real world, and then ask the question, what sort of a God must have created such a world, the answer might approach the truth if it were: "A God of infinite, insane energy which creates and destroys without other purpose than to pass eternity in avoiding thought." This concept is further reinforced by direct statement from many other sources in the plays, as numerous examples already quoted bear witness. It is as though Nina ("Strange Interlude") in her statement to Darrell summarized it when she says: "But life doesn't seem to be pretty, does it? And, after all, you aided and abetted God the Father in making this mess."

The God of O'Neill's plays may be described in the terms Coleridge applied to Iago: "Motiveless malignity." It is thus that Dion (Great God Brown) sees Him when reminiscing about his mother: "I remember a sweet, strange girl, with affectionate, bewildered eyes as if God had locked her in a dark closet without any explanation."

In this modern world of conflicting values, words are made meaningless by the contrasting definitions attached to them by opposing schools of thought. O'Neill levels harsh criticism against Christianity and the organized religion through which it finds conventional expression, but the critical thinker may discern in his point of view the foundations of a better religion than the one he denies. It was said of Tolstoi that the greatest fault he revealed as a Christian was that he thought Jesus meant what he said in the Sermon on the Mount. The same might be held for O'Neill, that he does not deny Jesus as much as he denies what tradition has made out of his teachings.
 

The Pagan Way of Life
 

© Copyright 1999-2009 eOneill.com