Optimism and Comedy
BARRETT CLARK called O'Neill an optimist, and by that he meant "a militant apostle of life with a capital L." What he meant is that O'Neill finds the spectacle of life fascinating. He glories in its lights and shadows, observes its strange, varicolored drama, analyzes the secret springs of its grim and beautiful passions, and transmutes its conflicts into an art form. Clark implies that O'Neill accepts life with all of its tragic defeat, and out of its chaos creates a beauty that is a good in itself. There is this affirmative value in O'Neill's pessimism, which from one point of view may be called a kind of optimism.
In a letter written March 26, 1925, O'Neill had this to say of his responsibility as a dramatist:
The poetical (in the broadest and deepest sense) vision illuminating even the most sordid and mean blind alleys of life—which I am convinced is, and is to be, my concern and justification as a dramatist . . . (Goldberg, The Theater of Nathan. p. 158.)
And it is and forever must be his justification, that he has accepted the world as it is, and out of its dark shadows he has created light, color, vitality and poetic beauty. That may not be optimism and it is certainly not comedy; nor will it please those who deny the existence of evil, but it is the elixir of life to those who love truth better than falsehood, and who believe that the bridge to life as it ought to be must first be anchored to life as it is. He refuses us the idle fancy of "deluding ourselves with some tawdry substitute."
As for comedy, his plays are not devoid of the comic spirit in its best sense. But it is never the carefree abandoned comedy which gayly and happily shuns the sorrows and tragedies of life. When O'Neill introduces comedy it is for the purpose of heightening the tragic atmosphere. It is that bitter, ironic kind of comedy which is the spiritual child of the grave scene in Hamlet. Laughter at an O'Neill play is tense and nervous. It is the forced laughter that is akin to sorrow, for it comes from the keen perception of the ironic comedy of ail life. Chris and Marthy are laugh-provoking characters. There is not a scene in the play in which the character of Chris is not ridiculous to the point of being laughter-provoking, but neither is there a scene in which Chris does not also inspire tragic sorrow.
With but few exceptions comedy in O'Neill's plays flowers on the verge of the grave, and few are the moments when the sad futility of thwarted lives passing in solemn procession can be forgotten or disregarded long enough to give rise to whole-hearted laughter. There is an earnestness of purpose in all of O'Neill's work which is foreign to the spirit of comedy. Could he write in the vein of Aristophanes or Molière, comedy might serve the deeper needs of his being fully as well as tragedy, but it is clear that the critical spirit of these great masters of comedy contains an element that has so far not appeared in the works of O'Neill. They express in their comedies a note of deep and abiding bitterness that is not characteristic of O'Neill. He has greater hopes for man, a firmer belief in man's latent power to achieve real nobility than either Molière or Aristophanes. O'Neill is the product of the modern world. The whole romantic concept of man from Rousseau to the twentieth century finds its embodiment in modern thought, and it is in this modern milieu that O'Neill works. He believes that man can be saved and also that he is worth saving, but he maintains that as yet the road to the new life is perilously dark. Tragedy is a more suitable medium for the main currents of thought in the modern world. The bitter comedy of Aristophanes which makes man so ridiculous that he is worth no more than an ironic jest does not harmonize with the great drive which in the twentieth century is reshaping the whole structure of Western civilization. It does not harmonize with the creative mind of O'Neill who is a child of his age.
To O'Neill man is noble—a being worthy of pity and sorrow, and that even in his darkest tragic moments he gives promise of a great future. O'Neill deprecates a world in which futile tragedy springs from self-inflicted tortures that grow out of living for death rather than for life. It is the dawn of a new day which inspires him. It is his genuine faith in man's ability to learn that there are better ways to live than those which man has followed in the past, which is the spur to his creative effort. In a letter (quoted ha the preceding chapter) he gives emphasis to this fact when he writes, a work of art is always happy; all else is unhappy. . . . I don't love life because it's pretty. Prettiness is only clothes-deep. I am a truer lover than that. I love it naked. There is beauty to me even in its ugliness. (Clark. op. cit. p. 146ff.)
This letter not only explains why comedy has not been his characteristic medium, but it also states his reason for preferring tragedy. It is naked life that he wants. But the critic might still say that comedy need not abandon realism, and such a reply would be to the point. Hence the emphasis really belongs upon another statement in this letter: "I am a truer lover than that." He is too much a lover of life to be light-hearted or bitterly cynical the quality needed for comedy. He still wants to save the world in spite of itself. This estabfishes his kinship to most of the great art of the world. The creative artist does not create for the sake of beauty alone. The passion which motivates his art lies embedded in a philosophy which embraces certain ideals of man's right to a better life. Such art is, and always must be, philosophical in its import. This is especially true of tragedy, for by its very nature it is a serious study of man's relation to the universe.
Tragedy has been the chief medium for O'Neill, but
the comic spirit has not been absent from his plays. Nor is the
method and technique of comedy outside the range of his ability. The
proof of this is Ah, Wilderness! The action of this play
moves in an atmosphere of gentle satire. The men and women in this
play are not too complex, their life problems not too involved to
permit of a satisfactory and happy solution.
In order to make his plot convincing to himself and his audience he had to set the scene a generation back from the present in a small town untouched by the fierce struggle of modern industrialism. This gives the whole play a genuine realistic touch. There is a gentle reminiscent quality about Ah, Wilderness! that is very charming. Here is revealed an aspect of American life that at present seems almost as dead as the Middle Ages. It is the atmosphere of The Rubaiyat, of Swinburne, of college days when college life was not too serious a business. Arthur Miller, the young man from Yale, has no doubts about his purpose in life. He knows that a Yale man is sure of his place in the sun. Fraternities, games, little affairs with women, from which he learns about life, are his most genuine interests. Not a single spark from the coming struggle for power ever illuminates the complacent depths of his mind.
He is the son of a well-to-do middle-class family in the great.days of peace and prosperity that preceded the world economic and spiritual collapse. Ah, Wilderness! is a true historical comedy, It is a fleeting glimpse into the days that are gone forever. In that lies its very great charm to the men and women who have reached forty. The college student of today does not recognize Arthur, for today the army of the unemployed marches so near the campus that even a student at Yale must know that fraternities and football are relatively unimportant. But in its setting Ah, Wilderness! is perfect.
Arthur's brother, Richard, is far more seriousminded. He is the typical O'Neill character in one respect. He is described as possessing "extreme sensitiveness . . . a restless, apprehensive, defiant, shy, dreamy, self-conscious intelligence." In a different environment these are the qualities in the O'Neill hero that make for tragedy, but in the small-town scene of this play they lead to an amusing, gentle, romantic rebellion which is finally resolved in moonlight and romance.
And so it is with all the characters. They are wellmeaning men and women whose problems are for the moment a trifle disturbing. The passion which flamed in the culture of the nineties puzzles the older generation and is not very well understood by the youngsters, but as a means to an end it serves as excellent dramatic material. Grown-up people can live again for a moment in the days when they also quoted The Rubaiyat and Swinburne, dreamed in the moonlight, made brave promises, and occasionally, at rare intervals, saw the darker side of life in a small hotel at a backroom bar "dimly lighted by two fly-specked globes in a fly-specked gilt chandelier suspended from the middle of the ceiling."
No character in the play quite discovers what it's all about, nor does he quite solve all the problems that he sensed as needing resolution. Nat Miller doesn't quite succeed in telling his son just what every young man should know. His wife doesn't make her point on her objections to the "revolutionary" books that Richard reads, Sid Davis and Lily Miller get no nearer to the conclusion of their long-endured romance; Mr. McComber is forced to recede from his stern position towards his daughter; while Richard and Muriel solve their problem in a manner that does not promise complete harmony for the future. But it does not matter, for there are no great problems in this play to be solved. There are tense moments, but they are too amusing to be taken seriously. It is good comedy from start to finish.
Ah, Wilderness! stands as a strange interlude in the midst of a world of tragedy. It indicates O'Neill's versatility, but it does not add greatly to his interpretation of the modern world which is the theme of this book. The imagined world of Ah, Wilderness! is not without its value as a contrast to the reality of the present. It tends to emphasize the darkness of today by revealing what was thought to be the light of yesterday. To the student of O'Neill the grim shadows of the past play over the easily solved complex of this romantic world of comedy. The future for Arthur and Richard will be fraught with difficulties that neither moonlight nor romance explain away. From the reading of Swinburne and The Rubaiyat Richard will move to Hardy, Dreiser, Thomas Mann, Faulkner, and O'Neill; from the peace of a small Connecticut town in 1906 he will move to the world conflict of 1914; from the economic security of pre-war days to the collapse following the war; from the philosophical idealism of his youth to the realistic materialism of maturity. When that day comes he may have moments of real delight in an occasional glance at his past romances, but he may also realize that as a preparation for what is to come, they give little on which to build for the future struggle.
To O'Neill who loves life for its potentiality as well as for its sequence of experiences, tragedy and not comedy has been the best medium for his art. In tragedy he can vent his bitterness against the self-imposed cruelty of man, and at the same time he can vision the good life as a force battling against the evil. Mourning Becomes Electra is a good case in point. There is in it an element of the comic which reduces man to the ludicrous. But that is mere by-play. It is the Mannon family with its traditional beliefs, beliefs based on the puritanical heritage of American culture, that drive the family to disaster. It is this force in American life that has inspired the art of O'Neill in this play, and it is his love for a nobler and a freer life that formed his tragic theme. Even for the Mannons life was rich in potential beauty—even happiness—but the roads that led to the good life were barred to them by the white walls of the "Meeting House," the symbol of a ghostly past that survives in a culture that has changed all of its outward manifestation while it still mumbles the ritual of the ancient law. General Mannon saw it all on the night when he returned from the four years of civil war. As he sat on the steps of his house in the soft, sensuous atmosphere of night, he told of his desire for a new life, freed from the tortures of false beliefs and Puritan culture. But it was too late, as it must always be too late until society is aroused to a faith in life itself, to a life that does not measure its value in terms of death.
Since to love life means to accept it as essentially tragic is O'Neill's philosophy as an artist, his use of comedy has usually been a means to the development of tragedy. He knows life too well to believe that it does not have its comedy, but since he is concerned with the whole and not the insignificant part, comedy must be subservient to the master spirit, the guiding force, and that is tragedy. Thus he has used comedy to express the irony and tragedy of life. It does not provide a relief from the tragic intensity of a scene: it merely heightens the effect. O'Neill does not fall victim to the academic theory of "tragic relief." He knows that the best use of comedy in tragedy does not contradict the chief theme. The Emperor Jones begins almost as a comedy, but before many lines are spoken the ominous spirit of tragedy creeps into the atmosphere. By quick and subtle transitions the comic gives place to the tragic, and the ludicrous antics of the selfmade emperor become the very substance of his tragic defeat. As he sinks deeper and deeper into the terrors of his past, as he becomes more and more the victim of his own past and the ancient racial pattern asserts itself, that which was comic becomes tragic, laughter changes to sympathy and terror. This use of comedy in this particular play is typical of O'Neill, and harmonizes with his whole conception of the purpose of his art.
In Desire Under the Elms, Gold and
All God's Chillun Got Wings the same use of comedy is apparent.
There are moments in all of these plays that, could they be divorced
from the whole and comprehended apart from the spirit of the play,
might be called comic. But in their place and properly grasped, they
are an integral part of the tragic mood. Like the mad scenes from
King Lear they are too serious to be amusing. Nothing could be
more ridiculously funny than Lear's antics in the mad scenes, were
it not that they are so heartrending, so profoundly and painfully
sad. O'Neill has succeeded
in making the ridiculous behavior of his characters almost lead his
audience to laughter, and then he turns this impulse to laugh into
sympathy and understanding which make laughter impossible and
heighten the tragic note.
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