The Pagan Way of Life
EUGENE O'NEILL belongs in the liberal tradition of the last fifty years. Like Shaw, Ibsen, Strindberg, Gorky, Hauptmann (in his youth) and Andreyev, O'Neill is a rebel against the Puritan way of life, but also like the best dramatists and thinkers of modern times his rebellion is made vital and powerful by the conception of a new life—vigorous, healthy and nobly self-sufficient. Unlike many of the old dramatists, he does not regret the death of old faiths and old dogmas. He has shed the last vestiges of the tragic sorrow which followed the realization that man had lost faith in an eternal life. O'Neill's modernity lies in the fact that he has accepted the scientific view of man and the world, and found in that view a real philosophy of happiness. This happiness is not the old acquiescent kind based on some faroff eternal peace, nor is it a happiness of foolish gayety expressed by innocuous and unthinking laughter. It is a joy that comes from accepting life on its own terms, fearlessly and without compromise. It is an affirmative philosophy which does not weep over the death of false gods, but rather sings with the joy of a captive, freed at last, from the tyranny of an ancient prison.
With O'Neill this has not led to the writing of comedy. Just the reverse, for there is little true comedy in any of his plays. That is exactly what we might expect, for man newly escaped from the dungeon of false hopes and narcotic dreams is still a victim of the slavery of the past. O'Neill sees this as the very essence of modern drama. He sees the potentiality of a new world in which men wilt recognize their human limitations, abandon all yearning for supernatural attributes, and embrace the brief span of life on this earth as good in itself. With one gesture they will throw away the curse of self-inflicted pain, and affirm the new world of joy in all things human.
In the meantime, the contrast between the old ideals and the new gives rise to a conflict that has created a milieu for tragedy such as has not existed since the days of the Greeks. The Greek tragedy grew out of the conflict between what man knew was the good life for him, and what tradition held to be the gods' opinion of the good life. The modern age is much the same as the great age of Greek criticism in this respect, and out of that conflict O'Neill has conceived his tragedies.
This has led him to embody the forces for evil in the puritanic ideal, and the forces for good in the modern affirmation of life. Life is destroyed, brought to a bitter end in most of O'Neill's plays, but it never accepts the death verdict without protest, without affirming the conviction that there is a way of life, could we but agree to accept it, that would lead to happiness. O'Neill, like Nietzsche, gives to life "a yea-saying free of reserve, an affirmation of suffering itself, of guilt, of all that is questionable and strange in existence." There is in him, as in Nietzsche, an almost savage will to power, a will to live life to ks fullest with all its tragedy and sorrow, a will to face it with insult and scorn, scorn and insult flung with vengeance and hate against the brutal tyranny of the past. This is an affirmation of life even in the face of death. Character after character in his plays shows this noble defiance which is the essence of an affirmative philosophy. From Robert in Beyond the Horizon to Lavinia in Mourning Becomes Electra they are all rebels against the cruel tyranny of false ideals. The fierce will to live which was thwarted by the Puritanism of her past life could not break Lavinia's spirit. When the gods, in the Aeschylean sense, had finished their sport with her, she entered her house and accepted her doom. She did not submit in meekness and humility, but with courage and fortitude she remained defiant to the end. With a hatred that will last a lifetime, she says: "I'll never go out or see anyone! I'll have the shutters nailed closed so no sunlight can ever get in. I'll live alone with the dead, and keep their secrets, and let them hound me, until the curse is paid out and the last Mannon is let die! I know they will see to it I live for a long time! It takes the Mannons to punish themselves for being born." And her last words are: "Throw out all the flowers?"
Ernest Renan was one of the most liberal thinkers
of the nineteenth century in the field of religious thought, yet
even so he often repeated the statement that "the most important act
of our lives is death." As long as death was the final goal of life,
this was true, and it was true for Renan even after he had liberated
himself and his age from certain supernatural aspects of the old
faith. Many of the greatest literary men of the early twentieth
century were still the slaves of this doctrine. The gloom that casts
such oppressive shadows over the works of Dreiser is due to the fact
that he cannot avoid grief over the limited possibilities of this
transitory life. Since it has no celestial scope, it follows, in his
mind, that life is a lost cause, something to make tragedy out of,
something to weep over, but life to Dreiser is not an end in itself
to be justified by its very limitations. To him life must forever
seek some illusion to shield it from the grim tragedy of reality. He
considers this escape a futile gesture, perhaps even evil in itself,
but none the less necessary to man. In The Genius he writes:
"If I were personally to define religion I would say that it is a
bandage that man has invented to protect a soul made bloody by
circumstance, an envelope to pocket him from the unescapable and
unstable illimitable." Like Hardy he thinks that "happiness was but
the occasional episode in a general drama of pain." Neither Dreiser
nor Hardy accepts this view with resignation. They rebel, but their
rebellion is the tragedy that to them seems the inevitable lot of
man. The evil lies in life itself and not in the social system, or
religious system, or anything else that is subject to change. I do
not mean to imply that Dreiser does not condemn the social system as
a contributing factor, but he seems to think that if it was not this
system it would be some other equally unfavorable to happiness for
man. Pope's "whatever is is right" has become for Dreiser: whatever
is is wrong, and it always will be wrong, for life is a fatal
disease from which man cannot escape.
This particular view of life is also a part of O'Neill's world, but there is another element added which gives to it a new vitality. In the dramas of O'Neill there is a vigorous affirmation, an almost pagan defense of life itself.
Sometimes this takes the form of a dream of the past before modern industrialism destroyed the beauty and joy of a wholesome and carefree life. Paddy (The Hairy Ape) could remember the times when the life of a sailor was worth living. In contrast to the grimy slave's life in the stokehole, he pictures the bold, free life of the old-fashioned sailing ship:
Oh, the clean skins of them, and the clear eyes, the straight backs and full chests of them! Brave men they was, and bold men surely! We'd be sailing out, bound down round the Horn maybe. We'd be making sail in the dawn, with a fair breeze, singing a chanty song wid no care to it. And astern the land would be sinking low and dying out, but we'd give it no heed but a laugh, and never a look behind. For the day that was, was enough, for we was free men—and I'm thinking 'tis only slaves do be giving heed to the day that's gone or the day to come—until they're old like me. Oh, to be scudding south again wid the power of the Trade Wind driving her on steady through the nights and the days! Full sail on her! Nights and days! Nights when the foam of the wake would be flaming wid fire, when the sky'd be blazing and winking wid stars. Or the full of the moon maybe. Then you'd see her driving through the gray night, her sails stretching aloft all silver and white, not a sound on the deck, the lot of us dreaming dreams, till you'd believe 'twas no real ship at all you was on but a ghost ship like the Flying Dutchman they say does be roaming the seas forevermore widout touching a port. And there was the days, too. A warm sun on the clean decks.
And so it goes on, a prose poem in praise of a life that possessed real values, a life that was at peace with itself and the world in which it lived. This reminiscent world of Paddy's is gone, and in its place is the world of the coal hole and the blazing furnaces of the ocean liner. Yank calls Paddy's dream world "crazy tripe" and "a dope dream" and "hittin' de pipe of de past, dat's what he's doin'." But the day is to come for Yank when he will realize that the modern world is not for him, and that in spite of all his boasting he does not "belong." He does not "belong" because the gospel of profits has won its final triumph over the gospel of life. Life has lost its value, because the old religion of death has found a powerful ally in the modern industrialism. It does not therefore follow that in life itself there is no potentiality for perfect adaptation to the world. The day was and it may be again when man will cease to weep for the day that is spent, cease to worry over the day that is to come. He will live in the beauty of the present, and glory in each moment, ceasing the futile task of carrying ashes into the mountain, and instead he will carry fire into the valleys. And in the valley he, like Zarathustra, will "create new values" and "freedom for new creating."
The Great God Brown seethes with criticism of the world of Puritan ideals. William A. Brown, architect, is the embodiment of all that makes for the prosperous successful business man. Profits have become his ideal, and for profits he will sell his little, shriveled life soul; he will sell the lives of men; he will imprison free spirits; he will do all that is mean, niggardly and vicious; worst of all, he will do it in the name of virtue, prosperity, religion, politics, or any other term that may be used interchangeably to describe his befuddled conception of human values. To the casual eye with vision darkened by the smoked glasses of temporary aims and material prosperity, Mr. William A. Brown is not a bad man. He may be described in the satirical words which Russell uses in defining the "good" man:
He has a wholesome horror of wrongdoing, and realizes that it is our painful duty to castigate Sin. He has a still greater horror of wrong thinking, and considers it the business of the authorities to safeguard the young against those who question the wisdom of the views generally accepted by middle-aged successful citizens. Apart from his professional duties, at which he is assiduous, he spends much time in good works: he may encourage patriotism and military training; he may promote industry, sobriety, and virtue among wage-earners and their children by seeing m it that failures in these respects receive due punishment; he may be a trustee of a university and prevent an ill-judged respect for learning from allowing the employment of professors with subversive ideas. Above all, of course, his "morals," in the narrow sense, must be irreproachable. (Bertrand Russell, Skeptical Essays, p. 113.)
And such are the "good" of the world for whom the free and independent must slave for the right to live. To them the followers of liberty must bend the knee, and, in a supplicant spirit, ask for permission to live. These practical ones have the virtue of being sincere in the development of their limited plans, and on the basis of their sincerity they rule with self-given virtue over those who would live a free life unhampered by the successes of the day-footed idols of the market place.
Opposed to the success of Brown is the fiery spirit of Dion. He seems to be one who has turned away from life, but in reality he has only turned away from the rabble, because "he hated to share with them fountain, flame and fruit."
"And many a one who hath gone into the wilderness and suffered thirst with beasts of prey, disliked only to sit at the cistern with filthy camel-drivers." (Zarathustra p. 109.) Dion is one of those rare spirits who believe that the virtue of life lies in the living of it, and therefore he is subject to the indignity of the slave morality of those who know not what life is.
But his thirst doth not
persuade him to become like
Hungry, fierce, lonesome,
God-forsaken: so doth the
Free from the happiness of
slaves, redeemed from Deities
And such is the spirit of Dion who would "spit on this city of shopmen," the city which is the world of William A. Brown. Between his wife and his friend, Brown, he is beaten and thwarted. He cries out for life and is given a job, as though the beginning and end of all good things was to work for Mr. Brown. Dion's criticism is pointed when he says to Cybel, "Is that the only answer—to pin my soul into every vacant diaper?"
Cybel, the prostitute, is nearer to the real truth of life than Brown, for she at least has a vision of what life could be, as is shown by her expression of it to Dion: "Life's all right, if you let it alone."
The gospel of resignation and obedience was hateful to Dion, was bitter poison to his love of happiness and beauty. Brown did not even know what he had done, for he did not know nor understand that the spirit of a poet may be imprisoned, starved and tortured, but it cannot be broken. It does not submit, nor does it ever cease to curse its foolish jailer. When Brown rebuked Dion by calling him "positively evil," Dion replied:
DION. When Pan was forbidden the light and warmth of the sun he grew sensitive and self-conscious and proud and revengeful—and became Prince of Darkness.
BROWN. You don't fit the rôle of Pan, Dion. It sounds to me like Bacchus, alias the Demon Rum, doing the talking. Go home. Be a good scour. It's all well enough celebrating design being accepted but—
And Dion's answer expresses his pent-up hatred of all that Mr. Brown stands for as a man and childish thinker. In the following speech of Dion is found the full condemnation of the Brown ideal and by implication the true value of life is expressed, the value which comes from accepting the limitations of the human animal and creating happiness and beauty out of them alone.
DION. I've been the brains! I've been the design! I've designed even his success—drunk and laughing at him—laughing at his career! Not proud! Sick! Sick of myself and him! Designing and getting drunk! Saving my woman and children! Ha! And this cathedral is my masterpiece! It will make Brown the most eminent architect in this state of God's Country. I put a lot into it—what was left of my life! It's one vivid blasphemy from sidewalk to the tips of its spires!—but so concealed that the fools will never know. They'll kneel and worship the ironic Silenus who tells them the best good is never to be born! Well, blasphemy is faith, isn't it? In self-preservation the devil must believe! But Mr. Brown, the Great Brown, has no faith! He couldn't design a cathedral without it looking like the First Supernatural Bank! He only believes in the immortality of the moral belly!
The limitations of Mr. Brown, in so far as they are the limitations of man, and an expression of the narrow, unsocial and crudely life-denying Puritanism, must be surpassed. Dion in his struggle against the forces of real evil represented in the practical good of Mr. Brown becomes one of the great despisers.
From the first scene, in which Dion is compelled to wear a mask in order that Margaret may recognize him, to the end of his life, he is at war with a conventional false world in which the true and real values of life are buried under a deep coating of false ideals of speech, conduct and truth. Dion's way of life, like that of O'Neill, seems to involve a contradiction. On the one hand he strives for a noble, free and beautiful existence, and on the other he scorns all that the world describes as its true ideal. Dion spits with contempt upon the golden rule: love thy neighbor as thyself. Is it not impossible to conceive of Dion as an ideal character, when he denies what all other men seem to call the good? He says, "Fear thy neighbor as thyself!" He is repelled by all that passes for the good in the world of conventional thought. It needs but a little scrutiny to realize that his rebellion is not against the ideals themselves, but against the swinish disregard for them that permits a lip worship so hypocritical that it does not even know that it is false. He rebels against the practice that makes it possible for man to say on Sunday, with seeming reverence: "Sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shall have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the Cross, and follow me," and then on Monday by his actions he really says: buy cheap and sell dear, cut wages, work the help long hours, fire the old who have outlasted their usefulness, be a good capitalist, be successful, make money, and above all win the praise and adulation of fools who will worship at the shrine of Gold, or the shrine of the Great God Brown. Thus it comes to pass that those who live what they preach are not the enemies of Dion, but it is those who do not even know that there is a meaning to the ideal, or that there is a life apart from that which is measured by the profits, and the windy honors that profits bring in their wake like a pestilent cloud of vapors. From this hateful life, Dion turns to life that is free from contamination, a life that is purified by its biological limitations. Thus Dion loves Margaret, but he does not know who his wife is. He listens with rapture to Cybel, the prostitute:
CYBEL. Oh, God, sometimes the truth hits me such a sock between the eyes I can see the stars!—and then I'm so damn sorry for the lot of you, every damn mother's son-of-a-gun of you, that I'd like to run out naked into the street and love the whole mob to death like I was bringing you ail a new brand of dope that'd make you forget everything that ever was for good! But they wouldn't see me, any more than they see each other. And they keep right on moving along and dying without my help anyway.
DION. You've given me strength to die.
CYBEL. You may be important but your life's not. There's millions of it born every second. Life can cost too much even for a sucker to afford it—like everything else. And it's not sacred—only the you inside is. The rest is earth.
Cybel represents the affirmative life, the life that is of the earth, and apart from man's imposed and erroneous ideas of moral values, is the real good of life. She has accepted life as a value in itself. She has said that the value of life lies in the act of living and not in the act of denying that which gives meaning to existence. In O'Neill's own words she "is an incarnation of Cybele, the Earth Mother doomed to segregation as a pariah in a world of unnatural laws, but patronized by her segregators, who are thus themselves the first victims of their laws." (Clark, Modern Amer. Writers, p. 160.) Man with his "unnatural laws" has renounced life, and out of the froth of his renunciation, he has mixed a witch's potion for himself. Having once drunk the fatal brew, he is no longer true to the mother who bore him, but instead he has become a monster with a divided allegiance. He has become something that must be surpassed, if he is ever to be happy again. He must listen to the strong, fresh voice of Zarathustra: "Remain true to the earth, my brethren, with the power of your virtue! Let your bestowing love and your knowledge be devoted to the meaning of the earth." O'Neill, like Nietzsche, finds the true life in the scrap that the moralist has thrown away. He counsels against the pale shadows of asceticism, and holds that man must go back to life for meaning, back to the earth, giving to the earth a meaning, a human meaning.
The Great God Brown is a dramatization of the struggle that has grown out of the false values that the moralist has taken for reality. It is a dramatization of one of the most ancient themes of tragedy: Hebraism and Hellenism, duty and pleasure, negation and affirmation, or, as in this play, St. Anthony and Dionysus. A quotation from O'Neill will help to make it clear and also keep one reminded that back of his dramatic action lies an interpretation of life. He writes:
I had hoped the names chosen for my people would give a strong hint of this . . . Dion Anthony—Dionysus and St. Anthony—the creative pagan acceptance of life, fighting eternal war with the masochistic, life-denying spirit of Christianity as represented by St. Anthony—the whole struggle resulting in this modern day in mutual exhaustion—creative joy in life for life's sake frustrated, rendered abortive, distorted by morality from Pan into Satan, into a Mephistopheles mocking himself in order to feel alive; Christianity, once heroic in martyrs for its intense faith, now pleading weakly for intense belief in anything, even Godhead itself. (In the play it is Cybele, the pagan Earth Mother, who makes the assertion with authority: 'Our Father, Who Art!' to the dying Brown, as it is she who tries to inspire Dion Anthony with her certainty in life for its own sake. (Clark, Mod. Amer. Writers, p. 160.)
Dion is man in the grip of a force he cannot control. Dion is the true man, "the supersensitive painter-poet"—all that man might have been or could be—but he is also man tangled in a witch's web. Standing guard over him is William A. Brown who believes only in the gods that make a great noise. O'Neill says of him:
Brown is the visionless demigod of our new materialistic myth—a Success—building his life of exterior things, inwardly empty and resourceless, an uncreative creature of superficial preordained social grooves, a by-product forced aside into slack waters by the deep main current of life-desire. (Clark, op. cit., p. 161.)
This one, with filth at the bottom of his soul, tried to wring Dion's secret from him, as he always tries to destroy that which is beautiful, for even though he cannot recognize beauty, still he senses something that is an enemy to his clay-footed idols. Brown cannot gain his wish, but he can torture Dion until despair forces him to pass his mask on to him. In the dumb depth of his fatuous soul, he was fool enough to will his own destruction. Even as a child he had tried to steal Dion's genius, and failing in that to destroy Dion. Now his power has given him what he wanted, but as life's abject slave he did not know that he was willing his final annihilation. A pompous wind bag of success, he succumbed to the reality of life, as our whole civilization must, if it does not learn that the way of the painterpoet Dion is a surer guide to life than the bankerbusiness man Brown.
Dion once knew a way to the good life, but the fixed ideals of a misguided conception of life's purpose made it impossible to Eve as he would have lived in a world that recognized beauty and happiness as the highest goal towards which life can aim. In order to live his life to himself, he was forced to wear a mask and to play a double rôle of business man and artist; self-tortured conformer and lover of freedom. In Dion, O'Neill has given us the ancient tragedy of the conflict between what man desires and what he gets from life. And the reason man gets a stone when he asks for bread is, as Nietzsche puts it: "A necessary result of the view that mankind does not follow the right road of its own accord, that it is by no means divinely ruled, but rather, that it is precisely under the cover of its most sacred values that the tendency to negation, corruption and decadence has exerted such seductive power." (Ecce Homo Mod. Lit. Ed. p. 90.)
The Great God Brown is an introduction to Lazarus Laughed. In Lazarus the great contradiction of desiring one thing and living another is resolved into one all-possessing affirmative attitude. Lazarus is a Nietzschean Yea-sayer. In him all opposites are resolved into a new unity. As is said of Zarathustra, so it may be said of Lazarus: "In him all oppositions are resolved into a new unity. The loftiest and the basest powers of human nature, the sweetest, the lightest, and the most terrible, stream from one source with an eternal certainty. Before him, no one knew what was height, or depth; still less did they know what was truth." Like Zarathustra, Lazarus is a dancer who put on "This crown of the laugher, this rose-garland crown: to you my brethren do I cast this crown! Laughing have I consecrated; ye higher men, learn, I pray you—to laugh!" (Zarathustra, p. 295.) Lazarus teaches man to unlearn "the sorrow-sighing, and all the populace-sadness! Oh, how sad the buffoons of the populace seem to me today." (Ibid p. 294.) Lazarus is man become spiritually of age. He has been through the abysm of terrible thoughts, and has embraced all into his system of values. He has learned to give "the everlasting Yea to all things, 'the tremendous and unlimited saying of Yea and Amen . . . Into every abyss do I hear the benediction of my yea to Life'."
To the greedy questions of the soulless ones, Lazarus answered:
There is only life! Death is dead! Fear is no morel There is only life! There is only laughter! And Lazarus begins to laugh, softly at first—a laugh so full of a complete acceptance of life, a profound assertion of joy in living, so devoid of all self-consciousness or fear, that it is like a great bird song triumphant in depths of sky, proud and powerful, infectious with love, casting on the listener an enthralling spell.
Lazarus has achieved that which was not possible to Dion. He has separated himself from the horrible slavery of St. Anthony, and has become the pure Dionysian, the affirmer of life. Fear, death, punishment, torture, tyranny, all these vile companions of St. Anthony, the officers in the army that has held man a slave to false ideals and perverted his happiness into a selfish sadistic creed, all these are left behind. Lazarus faces forward into a new world that rests upon the will to live, which means the will to happiness—freed from the tyranny of the past, thc fear of death.
The meaning of "there is no death" is not a mere mystical phrase. It is a generalization of the meaning of life, for life is in itself a contradiction of death, and to him who lives for the sake of living, death can hold no terrors. The chorus in Lazarus Laughed chants:
Men call life death, and
LAZARUS. And here the song of Lazarus' life grew pitiful. 'Men must learn to live,' it mourned. 'Before their fear invented death they knew, but now they have forgotten. They must be taught to laugh again!" and Lazarus answered 'Yes!'
Again the famous speech of General Mannon comes to mind to clarify Lazarus' meaning: "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."
Lazarus has taken the affirmative way of life. Death to the lover of life is dead. And fear is dead. And all the haunting shadows of the slaves of terror and death are dead. And Lazarus' laugh is a "blood-stirring call to that ultimate attainment in which all prepossession with self is lost in an ecstatic affirmation of Life."
In this play there is no hesitation or compromise. Lazarus has found out the truth; he knows the true way of life, and he speaks out, urging all to follow him. Here is O'Neill as no mere destructive critic, not that he ever is merely anything except to those who have no understanding. He affirms the life of freedom in every sense of the word. He condemns the modern mechanized, industrialized civilization, because it stifles all that springs from freedom, and in doing that it destroys all that is fundamental to the good life. Lazarus speaks:
Out with you! Out into the woods! Upon the hills! Cities are prisons wherein man locks himself from life. Out with you under the sky! Are the stars too pure for your sick passions? Is the warm earth smelling of night too desirous of love for your pale retrospective lusts? Out! Let laughter be your new clean lust and sanity! So far man has only learned to snicker meanly at his neighbor! Let a laughing away of self be your new right to live forever!
Here is the will to be expressed directly, the will to be free and happy. All the temporary and practical ideals of Brown, and all that Brown stands for are swept aside in one fine poetic gesture. All that makes life an unnecessary tragedy of hate, jealousy, selfishness, fear, puritanical bigotry and sexual depravity are swept aside. All these hindrances to the good life which are the earmarks of what we call civilization are condemned. The arraignment of our civilization for ks weakness, cowardice and tragic failure is a theme in this play as it is in almost every play that O'Neill has written, and therein lies most of his strength, for a civilization that offers as the final culmination of its ideals such a spectacle as the recent World War is rotten to the core. To the nostrils of the poet and all sensitive men it stinks with the filth of the charnel house. It is a civilization of lies which were it not for the traditional belief that human beings are rational would appear like the civilization of an over-grown madhouse. Not only do the people torture themselves to the point of destruction during the periods of their wars, but during peace times—those rare intervals, those strange interludes—they systematically deny themselves the pleasure and freedom that might be possible for them. Like the Orthodox Priest in Lazarus Laughed, they cry out against joy and laughter, saying with him: "It is a foul sin in the sight of Jehovah." He lives upon the torture and the conviction of sin, and knows only too well that, if you take from man the fear of sin, you take from him the fear of death. Neither the Priest nor Caligula can rule after a philosophy of life has supplanted a philosophy of death. When the open sky, the stars, the sunshine and the song of the birds are man's shrine, and not the white sepulcher, then he will no longer be a slave to the religion of death. He will then be free from morality as Nietzsche defines it: "Morality is the idiosyncrasy of decadents, actuated by a desire to avenge themselves successfully upon life." The morality of self-renunciation which is essentially the morality of degeneration will exist for them no more, and they will laugh with the freedom of Dionysiac laughter.
Lazarus Laughed is the expression of O'Neill's philosophy of the "good life." By use of masks, dancing, chorus and unique stage grouping, together with the purely fantastic idea of Lazarus back from the grave, he sets forth his theory of human values. He sweeps away the values that have grown out of traditional belief, and like Nietzsche he begins by rejecting the gospel of renunciation. This gospel, he holds, has done more to pervert man and deprive him of happiness than any other doctrine. This gospel has developed the bad conscience, and with Nietzsche he would say, "Believe me, my friends: the sting of conscience teacheth one to sting."
Lazarus is plain and outspoken to his followers on this point. He berates them for their low ideals and their inability to live up to the high ideal of freedom and happiness. Too long have they lived as the slaves of a philosophy of death to be able to realize that there is a life worth living here and now on this earth. He says to them:
You Laugh, but your laughter is guilty! It laughs a hyena laughter, spotted, howling its hungry fear of life! That day I returned did I not tell you your fear was no more, that there is no death? You believed then—for a moment! You laughed—discordantly, hoarsely, but with a groping toward joy. What! Have you so soon forgotten, that now your laughter curses life again as of old? That is your tragedy! You forget! You forget the God in you! You wish to forget! Remembrance would imply the high duty to live as a son of God—generously!—with love!—with pride!—with laughter! This is too glorious a victory for you, too terrible a loneliness! Easier to forget, to become only a man, the son of woman, to hide from life against her breast, to whimper your fear to her resigned heart and be comforted by her resignation! To live by denying life!
Here is an expression of the good life that should not seem strange to Americans who have long listened to the brave language of Walt Whitman. Like Whitman, O'Neill rebels against the narrow limitations of a religion of denial. Whitman and O'Neill are alike in that they are both impressed with the good things of theearth that lie wasted because man, as the slave of a false system, has labeled the beautiful as ugly and the good as bad. Having once called the very forces by which they became men by the name of evil, they go sadly on "Nailing man's soul to the cross of their fear," and then worshiping blindly at the cross that they themselves have made. Man's "loneliness is but the fear of life." It is a terror that has grown out of his desire to make himself into a god, by the road of suffering, when all the time he was a god by the way of happiness, but he could not believe in himself.
Lazarus is not a mere mystical dreamer. There is as a basis for his system a hard logic of reality. It asks the simple question: Is man here to live or to die ? That he will eventually die is certain, but is that the important thing, or is it important that he live? If he chooses as Lazarus does to hold that life is an end in itself, then death is indeed no more. From moment to moment, from day to day life is in itself the only good. Make life itself the goal, and the power that all tyrants in all ages have used to enslave man is destroyed at a single blow. Caligula was charmed by the beauty of Lazarus' philosophy, but he could not accept it, for it took away from him the only instrument of power in his possession, man's fear of death. He knew that if his people did not fear death, if they did not deny themselves the right to happiness, he would have no power over them. The power of the tyrant, no matter where he is or what the form of his tyranny may be, dissolves like a wrack in the wind when the fear of death and the renunciatory philosophy embodied in that fear is swept away. And to the practical question, "What must man do to be saved?" Lazarus has an answer. This answer is strong and clear, and none the less plain, because it is couched in the form of poetry, and limited to the exigencies of a particular dramatic form. Let an age hungry for an answer to the meaning of life ponder well these words of the poet:
LAZARUS. Eye to eye with the Fear of Death, did they not laugh with scorn? "Death to old Death," they laughed! "Once as squirming specks we crept from the tides of the sea. Now we return to the sea! Once as quivering flecks of rhythm we beat down from the sun. Now we reënter the sun! Cast aside is our pitiable pretense, our immortal egohood, the holy lantern behind which cringed our Fear of the Dark! Flung off is that impudent insult to life's nobility which gibbers: 'I, this Jew, this Roman, this noble or this slave, must survive in my pettiness forever!' Away with such cowardice of spirit! We will to die! We will to change! Laughing we lived With our gift, now with laughter give we back that gift to become again the Essence of the Giver! Dying we laugh with the Infinite. We are the Giver and the Gift! Laughing, we will our own annihilation! Laughing, we give our lives for Life's sake?'" This must Man will as his end and his new beginning! He must conceive and desire his own passing as a mood of eternal laughter and cry with pride, "Take back, O God, and accept in turn a gift from me, my grateful blessing for Your gift—and see, O God, now I am laughing with You! I am Your laughter—and You are mine?"
This is the affirmative way of life, which accepts life on its own terms—the only way in which it is possible, or ever has been possible, to create beauty and happiness in the world. It is the Pagan way of life, but more too, for O'Neill is a modern, and as a modern his philosophy is the result of a new scientific interpretation of man. By a process of evolution man has risen to the point where he can know his past and understand some of the complex forces that have made him what he is. But if he does not learn to use that knowledge for the creation of happiness, if he persists in using it as a means to enslave the spirit, then he is as surely doomed to annihilation as if he had never risen above his ancient arboreal ancestors. He must look to a new life in which he will seek the fulfillment of his hope by making the simple assumption that there is validity in the hopes themselves. He must abandon his old way of regarding his hopes and desires as essentially evil, for in following such reasoning he devotes his whole energy to depriving himself of the happiness that might be possible to him.
As Lazarus puts it, men are too preoccupied with death and eternal life to face the reality of this life. He says to Tiberius, who wants hope for himself:
What is—you? But there is hope for Man! Love is Man's hope—love for his life on earth, a noble love above suspicion and distrust! Hitherto Man has always suspected his life, and in revenge and self-torture his love has been faithless! He has even betrayed Eternity, his mother, with his slave he calls Immortal Soul! Hope for you, Tiberius Caesar? Then dare to love Eternity without your fear desiring to possess her! Be brave enough to be possessed!
Here is the essence of a positive philosophy to set over against the negation of life's values. O'Neill writes with the passion of an inspired poet, as he urges man to abandon the narrow selfishness of his personal ambition which leads to fear, distrust and greed, and in their place to substitute a noble love of life, a love above suspicion, self-torture and revenge. Accept life for what it is, and make it noble within its limitations. This is no mere fantastic dream of an impractical poet, nor is it a fairy tale told by Lazarus. This is the burning truth of a new philosophy that is struggling for recognition in a civilization that totters on the very brink of ks grave. It is a new concept of life that carries the fragrance of a spring breeze to chase away the decaying odors of a long winter. It is no light doctrine with which modern civilization can dally at will and discard at its leisure. Western civilization is sick to the heart. It must listen to its new prophets or it will die, and in the play of Lazarus Laughed and in many of his other works, O'Neill has dramatized the inner urge for happiness and the good life by setting it in conflict with the old. In doing this he has given expression to the profound sense of impending doom that hangs over all of us. With Russia in the lead and the rest of the Western world fighting to escape collapse, it is apparent that the old conception of man's life as a stage of durance vile in the eternal panorama is rapidly passing away. What will be the new order if it comes? And if it does not come we are doomed like Tiberius to "a long insomnia of memories and regrets and the ghosts of dreams one has poisoned to death passing with white bodies spotted by the leprous fingers of one's lusts." There will be "Death dancing round me in the darkness, prancing to the drum beat of my heart!"
I do not mean to imply that O'Neill looks to Communistic Russia or to any other political reform as the final answer, although he might very well hold that in so far as Russia has recognized that man's first problem and his only problem is to make this life happy, she has made the first and most important step. But O'Neill's business is not that of political scientist. His task is to give dramatic reality to the deeper, inner, universal struggle of man to free himself from the invisible forces that bind him like Ixion to the wheel of his discontent. This O'Neill has done over and over again, but nowhere more vividly than in the particular play under discussion. Tiberius says: "I do not understand." The answer is clear and pointed:
LAZARUS. Men are too cowardly to understand! And so the worms of their little fears eat them and grow fat and terrible and become their jealous gods they must appease with lies!
Tiberius remains unconvinced, and replies that Lazarus' words are meaningless and that "Life is a sickness." To this Lazarus answers:
LAZARUS. So say the race of men, whose lives are long dyings! They evade their fear of death by becoming so sick of life that by the time death comes they are too lifeless to fear it! Their disease triumphs over death—a noble victory of resignation! 'We are sick,' they say, 'therefore there is no God in us, therefore there is no God!' Oh, if men would but interpret that first cry of man fresh from the womb as the laughter of one who even then says to his heart, 'It is my pride as God to become Man. Then let it be my pride as Man to recreate the God in me!'
And here is O'Neill's answer to those who, like Tiberius, "find nothing in life that merits pride." They find nothing because by means of a systematic philosophy of resignation they have perverted the impulses that lead to life and happiness into impulses that lead to pain and death. O'Neill, like Nietzsche, inveighs with fiery scorn against the institutions that have deprived man of discovering the transcendent glory of what it means to be human. Death, sanctified by religion, has created the fear of life and deprived man of the really human aspect of living, and thereby made him into a creature that slinks from imaginary shadows and blinks with unseeing eyes at the sunshine. Cringing before the inevitable, there are yet times when a false courage moves them, and then in rage they grasp their swords and "slash at ghosts in the dark. Men, those haunted heroes!"
What they have not learned, and what they must learn, is to recognize that their whole glory lies in their humanity, and not in their imagined supernatural qualities. In their eternal struggle to make themselves into little gods, they have lost their real power to be the gods that they are. They must learn. Listen to Lazarus:
LAZARUS. But as dust, you are eternal change, and everlasting growth, and a high note of laughter soaring through chaos from the deep heart of God! Be proud, O Dust! Then you may love the stars as equals! And then perhaps you may be brave enough to love even your fellow men without fear of their vengeance!
Here is the language of a new teacher come to preach the gospel of a new way of life, a way out of the chaos and despair of this disillusioned, modern world. O'Neill has a way of life, and he knows where he is going, all adverse comment to the contrary. The fact that he puts it in the imaginative language of poetic or prose drama makes it none the less clear to those who have learned the art of imaginative symbols that must always remain the poetry of expressive language. Lazarus is conceived by O'Neill as a teacher, and many times he speaks of himself as one who is sent to teach. Even in the grave his instruction came to him in the form of a voice which told him,
Men must learn to live. . . . Before their fear invented death they knew, but now they have forgotten. They must be taught to laugh again!
And by being taught to laugh, O'Neill means they must be taught to regain the pure joy in living as an end in itself. He means that there was a time in man's development when he did not live for the benefit of buying cheap and selling dear, there was a time when he did not set up ideals that were unnatural and superhuman, and then crucify himself upon the cross of his own invention. Lazarus urges man to come down from the cross, to abandon his self-made torture rack, and in the sunshine of his brief existence make the most of such transitory beauty as life itself affords. He must recognize the fundamental cowardice of his position, and in courage face each day as his last, but not as the last of pain but as the last of joy and happiness. That it is the last is not the important point, the thing that counts is that this day, this moment, is life. This is what we have, and what we have not is but a figment of the imagination, is only food for terror-stricken minds, is the consolation which does not console. Those who have been taught that the world is a torture chamber and man a helpless victim must learn a new prayer, one which does not say, "Thy will be done," but one which says, "MY will be to laughter in life."
The vigorous expression of a positive conception of the "good life" is not limited to Lazarus Laughed, although it does get the most direct expression in this play. This fact arises out of the conception of Lazarus as a teacher, a leader, a prophet of the good life. He is one who has lived life and learned its secret. Thus his dramatic purpose in the play demands that he reveal the new conception of life. The audience is at one with the actors in the play as they ask, "What did you find beyond there, Lazarus?" And all alike hang with listening ears upon the answer, "O Curious Greedy Ones, is not one world in which you know not how to live enough for you?" And with these words, he establishes himself as their teacher, a position he holds throughout the play.
The reader who is thoroughly familiar with the work of O'Neill will realize that it is common for O'Neill's characters to partake of this rôle of teacher or leader. In no other play is it quite so direct, but character after character leaps over the boundary of speech necessary to the action of the play and passes judgment on life's values. This tendency has often led critics to condemn the looseness of his dramatic construction, and at the same time it has made O'Neill America's greatest dramatist. While the critic carps at the digressions, the audience listens with intense emotion for an answer to life's meaning. Character after character in his plays struggles against an unfriendly world, not for economic security, nor for wealth, nor power, but for peace, happiness, and, above all, understanding. Robert in Beyond the Horizon was a helpless victim of the poverty that gradually overcame him on his poorly managed farm, but it was not the poverty that made his life seem tragic to him, nor to the audience that watches him. His tragedy was that he never learned what lay beyond the horizon. To him life was a quest for beauty and truth, a quest that he was never able to pursue. As death comes he says: "I can hear the old voices calling me." The voices that speak of a better life, of a new world in which man may be happy because he will be free.
In All God's Chillun Got Wings, The Hairy Ape, Anna Christie, Strange Interlude, as in nearly all his plays, O'Neill's characters are struggling against the chains that bind them to a perverted social system. It is against the injustice of this system that they rebel so fiercely, and it is by this system that they are destroyed. To all of them there is a good life to which they aspire, but the shackles of the past are too strong for them, and in the end they are defeated, but they are never resigned to their defeat. Resignation is the philosophy of those who find life too strong for them, or those who have no vision of a better life on earth than that which the past has sanctified in misery and blood. O'Neill's characters are not of this class. They look forward to a new world freed from the unnecessary cruelty of a vicious social system and a negative conception of life. Like Cape in Welded, they say,
WOMAN. It's funny, aint it?
CAPE. You mean—life ?
WOMAN. Sure. You got to laugh, aint you? You got to loin to like it!
CAPE. Yes! That's exactly it! That goes deeper than wisdom. To learn to love life—to accept it and be exalted—that's the one faith left to us!
Marco Millions is an excellent example of the same theme. Marco was in search of wealth, the temporary ideal of Western civilization. In O'Neill's treatment of this fatuous ass, Marco, there arises a clear conception of what he values in life. Marco is contrasted with Kublai and all of Marco's struggles to make profits and promote order end in creating pain, suffering and misery. He gains wealth, but he does not learn the meaning of love. The more he labors the greater becomes his outward display. Decorations, honors, wealth manifest themselves in brilliant display, but with each added worldly honor, with each acquisition of new power he grows correspondingly empty of real feeling, thought and understanding. In the end he achieves his great ambition and returns to his home town wealthy, and honored by the mob, but as empty of real love and knowledge as a bass drum.
This play, like so many of O'Neill's, is a condemnation of the ideals of our Western civilization. In contrast to Marco there is the wisdom of the East represented in the person of Kublai. It might be held that Kublai, as compared with Lazarus, is an exponent of resignation, which has always been the philosophy of the East. But O'Neill has given Kublai a quality which is not of the East; he has made him affirm life as a good in itself, and thus, in so far as he does so, he is a brother to Lazarus and an exponent of the theme that life's value lies in the art of complete living. "Be proud of life" is the essence of his teaching, a statement that would not be foreign to the ears of Lazarus.
It does not follow that because O'Neill has a very definite conception of what would constitute the good life that he is therefore an optimist. Quite the reverse. The more deeply man believes in the possibility of an ideal life, the more deeply must he feel the tragedy of life as it is. Like Hamlet, O'Neill is impressed with the "unweeded garden," and like him he knows that "the world is out of joint."
In this chapter I have stressed the fact that O'Neill does envision a new world where the "good life" would be the ideal, but this does not imply that he believes man will ever attain it. The obstacles to human happiness may be divided into two classes: first, those that grow out of the traditional social structure, and second, those that are inherent in the nature of man himself. Both of these hindrances to happiness are present in the plays of O'Neill, and in the last analysis it may be that the latter is more powerful than the former. A moment's contemplation will make it apparent that the fundamental difference between the two classes is that the first seems amenable to change and correction, while the second is constant and immutable.
The easy philosophy of the Communist holds that the latter class of circumstances which lead to unhappiness grows out of the former. The Communist says change the social environment and you change man. If that were true then there would be reason to hope for some ultimate far-off event of peace and joy on earth. O'Neill is too soundly pessimistic to be beguiled by so facile a solution. To him there is something fundamentally tragic in life itself.
But this belongs to another chapter and I mention it here only in justice to O'Neill and as a warning to the reader that in spite of O'Neill's conception of a positive value in life, a value that arises out of doing rather than not doing certain things, still he is no optimist.
He is rather a man in sympathy with Kublai, and if he ever found occasion to pray, he would not refuse to obey Kublai who asked himself the question:
KUBLAI. Sovereign of the World? Then I command the world to pray! In
silence! Prayer is beyond words! Contemplate the eternal life of
Life! Pray thus! In silence—for one concentrated moment—be proud of
life! Know in your heart that the living of life can be noble! Know
that the dying of death can be noble! Be exalted by life! Be
inspired by death! Be humbly proud! Be proudly grateful! Be immortal
because life is immortal. Contain the harmony of womb and grave
within you! Possess life as a lover—then sleep requited in the arms
of death! If you awake, love again! If you sleep on, rest in peace!
Who knows which? What does it matter? It is nobler not to know!
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