The Relativity of Good and Evil
DION. We communicate in code—when
neither has the other's key.
The Web is the title of O'Neill's first play. It is a brief one-act drama in which a prostitute tries to shield her criminal lover from the clutches of the law. She fails, and the ending is tragic. The significant point to consider is that in his very first dramatic effort, O'Neill concerned himself with the problem of morality—or in a broader sense, with the concept of human values. Good and evil in conflict, good and evil in relation to society, and hence, considered from a relative point of view, it provides the theme for his first play. This theme was to grow and expand into large proportions in O'Neill's later work culminating, at last, in Strange Interlude.
With a skill unsurpassed in modern drama, O'Neill has succeeded in generalizing his theme to such an extent that no matter how fantastic his particular subject may appear at first glance, closer study of the subject always reveals that the particular develops into the universal, and the figures that move in somber tragedy on the stage are playing out their parts against the background of the whole social order of our modern world.
O'Neill does not leave us in doubt on this point. There are even critics who have gone so far as to hold that he has been too anxious to emphasize the social complex in relation to the individual problem of the particular dramatic situation of a particular play. This criticism does not appear sound to me, since it is only through the effective generalization that the particular achieves universal significance and becomes meaningful art. But if O'Neill makes the transition from the particular to the general in a forced and unskillful manner so that the machinery of his technique squeaks, making one conscious of the method rather than the theme, that would be a real cause for objection. This objection might very well be made against some of the early oneact plays. But how pointless it would be to impugn a man's work on the basis of the technique in his first attempts at shaping his ideas into an art form. If the discussion of his technique in The Web were pertinent, its remarkable effectiveness in revealing a relative concept of good and evil would be far more to the point.
The leading character in The Web is Rose Thomas, a prostitute. She is the prototype of several prostitutes that appear in the plays of O'Neill, and like all of her sisterhood portrayed by O'Neill, she is more sinned against than sinning. In choosing Rose Thomas for his first heroine, O'Neill made his first confession of faith, in that he definitely threw overboard conventional morality and conventional stage tradition. It must not be forgotten that in 1914 the American public was much nearer to the pure, noble, simple-minded woman tradition of Hern and his imitators than they were to Shaw, Ibsen or Galsworthy. These Europeans were not yet the leaders of dramatic excellence in America.
O'Neill wrote for himself, not for any audience that he could hope to attract. With the courage of defiance that is the charm of youth, he proceeded to make his drama an expression of human values that were directly contradictory to herd morality, and sharply opposed to the conventions of the drama, which was his particular artistic medium. This courage, which was no doubt inspired by a spirit of youthful rebellion as much as by a desire to face the gods of Mrs. Grundy, was later to stand him in good stead. He never has abandoned, and he never will, his conception of what is good subject matter for art in order to please the appetite of low tastes, or the persuasive mendacity of those who carry bags of gold. If O'Neill had accomplished nothing else for the American drama, we, as Americans might still be proud beyond words that at last we had produced an artist who was free, fearless, independent, and militantly defiant of that greedy immorality of the market place where the buyers and sellers think that all the world will bow in submission. O'Neill has not nor will he ever make concessions to such false idols.
Thus it is important to notice The Web. In the first place, the title itself is symbolic. Man is involved in a web of circumstance, a web that is not of his own weaving. Yet when the meshes of the web entangle him and bring him to disaster, society which unconsciously set this trap, holds him responsible. In the play Tim Morgan, a yeggman, is trapped as a victim of love, hate, jealousy and commercial crime. But unlike the romantic criminal hero, O'Neill has provided no escape for him. He is not to be released on the ground that he was essentially a sweet young man who robbed to save a dying mother, or to bring food to a starving baby. He is a real criminal, but it is made perfectly plain by the author that this criminal is a product of the pure and the self-righteous who deal bravely and crassly in the market place, smugly ignorant or unregardful of the evils their very success engenders. Bad as Tim Morgan is, the social system in its giantlike strength and power is still more to be condemned.
The case of Rose Thomas is still more to the point. She is a prostitute, abhorred and condemned. Like Tim she did not choose her lot of her own free will. The forces that made Tim a criminal made her a prostitute, supported in her trade by those who condemn her. This is not news and O'Neill, even in youth, knew that it was not, but it must not be forgotten that it was news to the American stage. It was the breath of fresh life, the spirit of truth, sympathy and understanding come to create a moral tone of high quality in the decadent sentimentalism of smug and vicious purity that stalked in false pride beyond the footlights. It was not merely an example from which the knowing might, by the grace of God, infer that the author had faint doubts about conventional concepts of good and evil. It was direct, vigorous and outspoken. When Rose is given an opportunity, she tells how the "good" people treated her. She lets her audience know that she understands well enough why she is a prostitute dying of consumption. It is not due to her wickedness, but due to a corrupt social system that cares not a farthing for those whom it destroys in making the false grandeur of which it boasts. She condemns in plain words those who made her what she is, saying:
ROSE. They—all the good people-they got me where I am and they are goin' to keep me there. Reform? Take it from me it can't be done. They won't let yuh do it, and that's Gawd's truth.
This play is important because k foreshadows
O'Neill's interest in the problem of good and evil rather than
because of its intrinsic value. The same may be said of the other
early one-act plays. Warnings also deals with an ethical problem.
James Knapp, a ship's wireless operator, is informed by his home
doctor, while he is in port, that he is rapidly losing his hearing.
He knows that he should tell his commanding officer and resign, but
goaded by his wife, the financial needs of his large family, and the
social complex as a whole, he commits the crime of going out with
his ship. The ship is wrecked because he loses his hearing, and when
his condition is discovered he shoots himself.
As in The Web, this play emphasizes that man's right or wrong actions are dependent upon the demands of the social system. It dramatizes the tragic illogicality of a social order that creates an evil and then with unseeing virtue condemns the product of its own creation. With O'Neill it is not a problem of the individual good or evil of James Knapp, but it is the evil of a society built upon false ideals. It is the conflict between what society prides itself upon being and what it really is.
The symbolic title Fog suggests a deeper implication than that which appears on the surface of the situation presented in this one-act play. The fog that envelops a life-boat in which there is a man of business, a poet, a Polish peasant woman, and a dead child is symbolic of the helplessness of man adrift on the sea of life. This O'Neill makes even more emphatic by revealing in the dialogue between the man of business and the poet, that the man of business, who is a power in ruling the world, has a mental outlook enveloped in a deeper fog than that which surrounds the drifting life-boat. This man of business is the prototype of many characters in later plays, just as the poet is the type of the O'Neill hero. Ethical and social ideals are more important in this play than the characters themselves or the action of the play, which is almost negligible in quantity.
The fifth play Recklessness raises a moral problem that concerns love, sex and marriage. A prosperous "good" man discovers that his wife and his chauffeur are in love with each other. He quickly and effectively works a little trick that leads to the chauffeur's death.When his wife learns of her lover's death, and knows that her husband was responsible, she commits suicide. Jealousy, hate, false pride, a prudish morality, and, most of all, no respect for individual liberty are the causes of the state of affairs presented in this play.
These five plays have been mentioned in some detail not because of their intrinsic merit as dramas, although considered in their relation to the author's youth they have some dramatic excellence, but because they are important to this study in a different way. They show quite plainly that from the very beginning O'Neill sought to combine two things: dramatic value with socially significant human action. It seems clear that he sought a medium in drama for the interpretation of serious problems of the modern world. This is a dangerous statement, for it might seem to imply that O'Neill was primarily a professor of ethics or a social reformer who happened to use the stage as a convenient medium. Such a thesis would be nonsense. He was, first of all, a dramatist, but he was and is a dramatist who wills to make his dramas deal with problems that are of eternal interest to man, problems that move the audience deeply because they reveal life tangled in the web of tragic dilemma. The early one-act plays are an indication of the attitude of the artist—not a measure of his mature skill.*
In O'Neill's plays the "good" is never a fixed quantity to which an action may be referred, measured and evaluated. The "good" is never the same. It changes with changing actions, is relative to each new situation. This accounts for the fact that many people have been unable to see any good at all in such plays as Anna Christie, Desire Under the Elms and Strange Interlude. Some of O'Neill's plays have been successfully suppressed in one locality and highly praised in another. In Los Angeles one part of the population was so outraged by Desire Under the Elms that suppression of the play was effected for a brief period, but after a court trial the ban was lifted and the play went on again, to the great joy of those who found it a highly moral and entertaining play.
This conflict of opinion arises out of the fact that O'Neill is modern in his approach to ethical problems, and since he is a dramatist who deals with human situations that involve prejudices and passions that are bedded deep in the experiences of the race, it is to be expected that there would be protest. The protest arises because of an essential conflict in the conception of the good. O'Neill stands at the gate of a new world revealing the doctrines of a new ethics. His dramas deal with men and women in actions that are common enough, and everyone who is not totally blinded by prejudice knows that they are common, but that is not the ground upon which the objection to the dramatist arises. The protest comes from those who, while they admit the reality of the world represented, condemn the author. They feel that he has reversed his values, giving reward to the wicked and punishment to the good. Or worse still, they say that his plays are without moral judgment; that he does not punish at all, or that he punishes indiscriminately.
This state of affairs arises out of a misunderstanding of the modern world. O'Neill's plays are developed from the point of view of a naturalistic ethics. Those who find fault with his moral attitude judge him from the vantage ground of a traditional ethics that is standardized and absolute. This is so simple that it should be self-evident, yet it is anything but that. In spire of the fact that from the days of Sister Carrie to the present our best modern literature in America has been emphasizing a relative, naturalistic morality, the majority of the people in many communities, like Boston for instance, still stand firm in the sinister shadows of the absolute. The absolute point of view holds that life is lived for some good end, some ulterior purpose. Consequently no act can be judged on its face value, but must be referred to a preconceived standard. If it violates this standard, then it is evil and as such must be condemned. When an author fails to make a clear judgment against such an act, he is looked upon as evil. Even among liberals there has been protest against the morality of many situations in O'Neill's plays because it is one thing to be liberal in speech, but quite a different thing to be liberal in practice.
O'Neill has achieved a naturalistic ideal of liberty and applied it with consistency and courage in his drama. His ethics are not of the Kantian order which refer actions to a preconceived ideal of an absolute good. Nor are his ethics to be classed with the bookkeeping school of the utilitarians. His ethics are naturalistic. He holds that good and evil are ever changing qualities. The good is new every morning. It changes with every situation and changes with every individual. It arises not out of a fixed law sanctified by tradition and religion. He holds that the conception of the good may be and is a guide to choice, but it is not a final goal or standard by which all actions may be judged. But he goes even further in that he condemns a fixed standard as destructive of life, holding that in the last analysis it will lead to false pride, arrogant and cruel behavior, hypocrisy and a destructive fanaticism. O'Neill not only sets up a modern ethical concept, but he condemns the old as vicious and evil.
Until the reader is willing and able to grasp this conflict in ethical theory, he is not in a position to judge of the ethical problems in O'Neill's plays. That he should not be aware of the issue and yet ready and willing to pass judgment is not strange, for most people know as little about ethical theory as they know about the function of the endocrine glands, but in the latter case they have been encouraged to withhold judgment until the evidence is discovered, while in the former they have been taught a rule and encouraged to apply it even to the point of inflicting pain and death upon the helpless victims who have disobeyed.
Before entering upon a definite discussion of O'Neill's ethics as revealed in his plays, the reader should be reminded that the above discussion does not imply that O'Neill has made the final discovery of truth, and that now we can all fall down before him as a god. All that it does mean is that O'Neill belongs in theory as well as in fact to the new world that was born ha the days of the industrial revolution, and this new world has through the development of experimental methods in the natural and the social sciences arrived at new concepts of what is good and what is evil just as surely as it has arrived at a new conception of the heritage of man and the age and structure of the world in which he lives. O'Neill does not stand alone. He belongs in a critical tradition that began with Ibsen and Strindberg. But he has carried the naturalistic view beyond his predecessors and has in many ways made the problems of right and wrong conduct more dramatic than they did. If this statement is true, and it might be questioned if taken too absolutely, then O'Neill's superiority lies in the fact that he does not see the relative standard as a sure solution to man's search for happiness, tn contrast to Ibsen who often gives the impression that there is a right way of settling life's problems, O'Neill is inclined to a wise skepticism. He is more clearly a product of the modern complex and as such he sees the essence of life as a continual change, growth, development. In that sense he is an evolutionist in theory as he is also in his practice as an artist. The traditional view has perverted the doctrine of evolution into being evolution towards some fixed goal, but O'Neill looks upon evolution as change, change which will bring new social orders and new ethical problems. In his world there is no final accounting, no last settlement possible. There is only struggle and conflict and temporary solutions. But as was emphasized in a foregoing chapter, the value of life lies in this struggle itself. Nothing is settled, sealed and carefully put away. All is change; all action leads to new complications and presumably to new solutions. The world of O'Neill is not static, and hence it is not easy to grasp for the one who will bring to his task only the worn-out traditions of a dead past.
Anna Christie presents a group of characters who by the mysterious working of uncontrolled circumstances were forced into a situation where the old ethical standards failed to solve their problem. Under the stress of an emotional crisis they finally arrived at the beginning of a new concept of right and wrong, but not until they had almost destroyed themselves in the attempt. Before the events which open the play on the stage the lives of the two men, Burke and Chris, had moved in the secure orbit of fixed creeds. They were the products of a past age of fixed ethical values. In the shelter of their creed they knew what was good and what was bad, and as their creed was fixed by tradition so likewise was their conduct, for they held that one mode of behavior may be good for a man and bad for a woman.
In this practice they would have had the respect of all "good" people and do have it, had O'Neill not put their belief to the crucial test. "Good" people everywhere in the world sympathize with Burke and Chris. They may refuse to admit this verbally, but the verbalization of beliefs means very little as compared to practice. The real test of what a man believes is what he does, not what he says. If what people say were the test of belief, Western civilization would be Christian, but since the real belief is practice, our civilization is founded upon a brutal and systematized robbery which glorifies exploitation, wealth and power.
It is clear that the product of such a civilization, reinforced by an ethics that makes some far-off goal the object of living, will be narrow, greedy, selfish and, above all, ready to condemn those who violate the creed. Chris, the father, and Burke, the lover, are typically Christian in their avowed faith. This does not mean that they were good Christians, for if they had been, they would have imitated the behavior of Christ in passing judgment on their fellow sufferers in this world of sorrow. But they were practicing Christians and in the whole Western world they would pass for such without protest by the great majority of their fellows in the faith.
Before the implication of this problem is definitely applied to O'Neill's play, it would be well to examine a little further into the past lives of Chris and Burke. Chris had been bred to the seas. His family had all been sailors and as sailors they had suffered the penalties of their occupation. The evil of the sailor's life had impressed itself deeply upon Chris, and true to the style of the man who has no other knowledge of ethics than that of a fixed creed he condemns it as evil, without considering the necessity of varying his practice. In this he has a million brothers in behavior, but also typical is his attitude to his family. Since he cannot rule himself according to the demands of his standard of goodness, he resolves to rule the lives that biology and tradition have given into his power.
He localizes evil in the trade of the sailor, and in order to protect his daughter, he decides to leave her on a farm in Minnesota. As he puts it: "Ay tank it's better Anna live on farm, den she don't know dat ole davil, sea, she don't know fader like me." Here he makes the fatal generalization on the basis of a preconceived idea of the good as something that is fixed and absolute.
When the play opens we know that his theory has been a failure, that Anna has been the victim of bitter experiences which for a time forced her into the trade of the prostitute. Then begins a new series of events: ironical and tragic. The audience is "in on the secret," and observes with tense sympathy and divided allegiance the old man and his "noble" faith in his daughter, the daughter, skeptical and bitter, gradually waking to a new life and new ideals, gradually re-defining life and its values. She has accepted by the force of circumstances a relative ethics; she knows by her experience that the good is new for each new day and the evil of her past life and its false hopes are destroyed. Health, fresh air, sunshine and moonlight, the sea and quiet develop new values and new hopes. She tolerates the fanatical falseness of her father's creed, hoping that he may remain ignorant of her past, a past which her present has now in a measure superseded. New experiences have created for her new values and fulfilled ambitions for herself that were stifled and suppressed by the stern exigencies of her past. She has, without clearly understanding the problem, arrived at a relative conception of ethics. She has reached the place in her practice of living where she discovers that life is nor ruled by a code nor limited in its expression to the confines of a fixed creed. She knows it is a mixture of good and evil, a struggle in which values that make for the good life must arise out of experience and may not be imposed by the authority of a creed from the outside. The resentment she had first felt for her past has largely left her, and instead she now faces the future and the possibility of happiness.
At this point Mat Burke appears, a sailor like her father, whose physical equipment is of the highest order, but who, also like her father, has a preconceived idea of what is right and what is wrong in behavior. It is important at this point to note that Mat Burke considers the violation of chastity for men and women alike a sin. But this is only the verbal truth. In reality for men it is a sin that may be committed, for women it is a sin that must be eternally condemned. Why should this be? Two reasons are clear. In the first place, nothing eases the conscience of a crime like condemning the same crime in others, or finding that in others it is so far more vicious and heinous that in you it seems almost no crime at all. There is nothing like finding a deep sin in a neighbor which may be used as a means to the rationalization of your own. This is a practice followed by Mat and common to all human behavior which is not aware of a rationalistic ethics and possessed of a willingness to practice it at any cost, even putting it to the crucial test. The second reason also has a definite ethical import. Mat spoke of marriage to Anna and won from her the statement: "I ain't never loved a man in my life before, you can always believe that—no matter what happens." And Mat replies, giving clear evidence of how he evaluates life: "Sure I do be believing ivery word you iver said or iver will say. And 'tis you and me will be having a grand, beautiful life together to the end of our days!" In the last remark he reveals that his conception of the good life with Anna is the result of a preconceived idea, a fixed concept that was originally foisted upon him by a dead theory of ethics, and was later reaffirmed and encrusted into an idol by the necessity of rationalizing his own behavior. The startling fact that comes out here is that he is not accepting Anna as a human being with past experiences, with a power to live and suffer. He is accepting her as an institution, as an ideal that was created and fixed by an immutable law of life. Anna is looked upon as an end, a goal, a something beyond the reality of life, which is a struggle, pain, change and potential of every shade of variation from ugliness to beauty, from pain to happiness.
Anna knows this and is driven to defiance. She behaves as a human being with rights of her own, to the consternation of both her lover and her father. When Anna says, "Only don't forget what you said a minute ago about it not mattering to you what other reason I got so long as I wasn't married to no one else.", Mat replies, "That's my word, and I'll stick to it!" Mat meant what he said, because he had not seen Anna as a woman. He had thought of her only as an institution, perfect as his creed was perfect, and as an instrument which should make up to him for all that he had failed to be himself. Armored in the ethical theory of Kant, and trained in Christian swordsmanship he faced the battle of love in a realistic world with the courage that only the ignorant can have. His armor proved to be of the same material as Don Quixote's helmet, and his sword was brittle glass.
Anna knew this even before she told of her past experience, and took the opportunity to tell her two men, fighting to possess her each in his own way, just what she thought of them. She laughs at Mat's statement, knowing how ignorant he is of her, as well as of himself, and then she says:
First thing is, I want to tell you two guys something. You was going on 's if one of you had got to own me. But nobody owns me, see?—'cepting myself. I'll do what I please and no man, I don't give a hoot who he is, can tell me what to do! I ain't asking either of you for a living. I can make it myself—one way or other.
She tells of her past life with a courage born of despair, knowing beforehand just what Mat will think, realizing with that keen insight which is born of experience and reason that he will condemn because he has never in his life accepted an ethical theory based upon reality. Not that she herself has a reasoned and philosophical ethics, but by experience she has learned that good and evil are not fixed quantities. She told them that "Being on the sea had changed me and made me feel different about things, 's if all I'd been through wasn't me and didn't count and was yust like it never happened." It made her think about life in a new way, creating for her new values: relative, realistic, capable of new potentialities for happiness.
The shadow of a faint hope which led her to face the truth of her past rather than live a life of lies and deception did not flicker long. Mat rises in his selfrighteous rage to condemn her. His first reaction is to call her "a slut" and move to kill her. Her answer is simple, "Go ahead! I'll be thankful to you, honest. I'm sick of the whole game." Then follows Mat's statement which needs to be quoted in full, since it sets forth the ethics of the dead past which is at war with the living good of the present as revealed in Anna. Mat, who had been but a moment before speaking of love and family to Anna, now shouts:
Though I do be thinking I'd have a good right to smash your skull like a rotten egg. Was there iver a woman in the world had the rottenness in her that you have, and was there iver a man the like of me was made the fool of the world, and me thinking thoughts about you, and having great love for you, and dreaming dreams of the fine life we'd have when we'd be wedded! Yerra, God help me! I'm destroyed entirely and my heart is broken in bits! I'm asking God Himself, was it for this He'd have me roaming the earth since I was a lad only, to come to black shame in the end, where I'd be giving a power of love to a woman is the same as others you'd meet in any hooker-shanty in port, with red gowns on them and paint on their grinning mugs, would be sleeping with any man for a dollar or two.
He prolongs his cursing to extreme ends, and finally when he reaches the excess of self-pity he concludes by saying to Anna:
You've destroyed me this day and may you lie awake in the long nights, tormented with thoughts of Mat Burke and the great wrong you've done him!
The truth, which Mat did not realize, was not that Anna had destroyed him, but that he was destroyed by a traditional ethical belief which allowed for no readjustment to the problems of reality. Anna was his salvation, only he did not know it, nor would he know it until he traveled the hard road back, unlearning and throwing away the false doctrine of values upon which he had built his shabby morality, a morality that almost made him into a murderer the first time it was put to the crucial test.
When Anna says, "You been doing the same thing all your life, picking up a new girl in every port. How're you any better than I was?", Mat avoids the question, by saying, "Is it no shame you have at all?" This reply indicates that he did not understand her position and subsequent development reveals that he may never understand.
Which leads to the conclusion. Mat does not work to a new and better understanding of the problem involved in his relations with Anna. He forgives her and they patch up a truce. But in his forgiveness he invokes the law of his essentially corrupt morality. He brings to bear upon his problem a bit of old magic as ludicrous and outworn as the snake's skull and swamp water of the Negro magician. He makes Anna swear to the truth of her statement on a cross given him by his mother. He stands before Anna conscious of having met with the first real tragedy of his life and brags about the power of this cross, saying: "I'm telling you there's great power in it, and 'tis great bad luck it's saved me from." He is not capable of accepting Anna as a human being. He must forever try to make her something she is not, something he thinks she should be. He does not realize that one human being does not have the right to forgive another; that forgiveness is part of a slave morality which has no real value when put to the test of behavior.
Chris unconsciously sums up the whole confused, irrational, tragic behavior of all the characters involved when he says: "Fog, fog, fog, all bloody time. You can't see vhere you vas going, no."
This is the theme of the play. None of them knows where he is going. The worst thing in their lives is not their experiences with the physical structure of their world, tragic as that has been for Anna and all of them; the worst thing is that they do not know how to use that experience as a means to a new and a better life. They are ruined by an outworn ethical theory which uses absolute standards to measure the most variable quantity that exists in the world—human experience.
O'Neill has given an effective dramatic interpretation of a situation that has sweeping implications for our modern world. He has made it possible to see clearly that more fatal than the misfortunes of experience is the tragedy of being incapable of reconciling these misfortunes to a sensible and a realistic theory of ethics.
The reader who is familiar with all of O'Neill's plays will realize that the question of conflict between theory and practice of the good life as so far discussed is present in all of his plays in one form or another. The theme of happiness destroyed by wrong ideas is woven into the network of O'Neill's philosophy. That is one reason why the tragedy of life impresses him so much more than any other aspect of living.
The way in which an evil morality, a perverse set of ideas, complicates unavoidable sorrow is revealed in The First Man. Curtis Jayson's wife died in giving birth to a child, which was a double tragedy to her husband, for his happiness and his work were centered in his friendship with his wife. But the worst thing of all was that his family and friends wrongfully accused her of immorality, poisoned the relationship between Curtis and his best friend, and embittered Curtis' life.
The situation does not make for an especially strong play, but the problem of life depraved by narrow, puritanical and vicious morality is clear enough. The "good" people whose goodness consisted in outward obedience to a fixed creed do evil rather than good. This is the theme of the play. The audience which lives for the moment under the sway of the dramatist condemns such pious and hypocritical virtue as is represented by the family of Curtis, but it cannot forget that there is a social order just off the stage which is motivated to action by the same vicious thought as is represented by the ones who condemned Curtis Jayson's wife. To them the family is good and Jayson and his wife are evil. They have no real evidence, but it is the nature of the great majority to repudiate evidence, or not even to recognize what constitutes evidence. Evidence would deprive them of the pleasure which they derive from castigating sin. To the great majority Jayson's family are good people. Jayson they regard as viciously negligent, and his wife as a sinner. Thus in their obedience to a fixed ethical theory they have exactly reversed the good and the evil. This is all the more apparent in this play, for neither Jayson nor his wife had violated conventional morality. His wife had been suspected, and to be under suspicion is tantamount to guilt with the majority. When Curtis leaves his family abject because he seems to be departing without a word of farewell, his reply is direct: "Yes, I'm going without a word—because I can't find the fitting one. Be thankful I can't."
The same theme is expressed in Welded. Eleanor and Cape were desperately in love with each other, but the happiness and beauty which should have been the fruit of this love was turned to bitterness and gall. When one begins to inquire into the reasons for a situation that would seem strange and monstrous were it not that experience has made the horror of such tragedies commonplace, one realizes that their selfinflicted torture resulted from a wrong theory of ethics. On the face of it this appears to be too easy as a solution. "Can life," it is asked, "be reduced to theories of ethics?" The answer can be as simple as the question; human behavior does not spring full grown and uncaused into the world any more than an automobile does. That its causes are far more difficult of analysis than the causes which produce the automobile, does not imply that they are absent. Hence to say that Cape and Eleanor destroyed their happiness because of a vicious ethics is essentially true, but just what all the factors were that made up their lives and created their ethics would be as hard to explain as to explain life itself.
Cape cannot accept his wife for what she is. Like Burke he is hampered by a set of ideas which makes him condemn that which the free expression of himself as a human being wants to love. He knows that in her past she has not been a chaste woman. Tradition, which he has overcome rationally, still lingers in his behavior, leading him to torture himself and her with vile suspicions and petty jealousy. Jealousy, suspicion and hatred are all the children of an ethical theory that fixes an absolute as a standard of behavior. If Cape could have accepted a naturalistic ethics which above all things recognizes the right of the individual to his own life as long as it does not endanger to an unbearable degree the freedom and happiness of others, he would not have driven both himself and his wife to despair.
Eleanor is much wiser than her husband and tries to make him see her and her life in the light of a more rational theory. She speaks words very similar to those of Anna when Anna was accused because of her past. In defense of herself she is compelled to admit that had she lied, she might have avoided all this futile struggle. Thus she puts the "moral" Cape into the position of inspiring falsehood in his pursuit of truth. Eleanor calls him a "mean hypocrite." He replies:
CAPE (stung—bitingly) Don't act moral indignation! What else could I have thought? When we first fell in love, you confessed frankly you had had lovers-not John but others—
ELEANOR (brokenly—with mingled grief and rage) I was an idiot! I should have lied to you! But I thought you'd understand—that rd been searching for something—that I needed love—something I found in you! I tried to make you see—the truth—that those experiences had only made me appreciate you all the more when I found you! I told you how little these men had meant to me, that in the state of mind I had been in they had no significance either one way or the other, and that such an attitude is possible for a woman without her being low. I thought you understood. But you didn't, you're not big enough for that!
Barrett Clark calls this, "the most deliberately and exclusively intellectual of all the plays. It is a work of hard surfaces; the study of a man and woman hopelessly linked together by bonds of passion." (p. 136 .) And further on in his discussion he adds: " O'Neill makes his play less a spectacle of life than a philosophic disquisition. . . . I seek men and women and find only a pair of animated abstractions." (p. 140 .) "Bonds of passion" instead of freedom and happiness resulted from a false understanding of human rights, and the prejudices of a life ruled by a traditional ethics.
Strange Interlude is a fine example of a play which involves the condemnation of an old ethical theory and the definite implication of a new one to take its place. The criticism of an absolute ethics, based upon a fixed standard and accepted as universal, is in this play direct and severe. There is left no room for quibbling on that score. As a consequence it is no wonder at all that many people should have felt that the play was immoral and subversive of ethical standards. And in so far as they expressed this feeling they were stating the truth. The only thing to remember in this connection is that there is more than one standard of ethics, and from the naturalistic point of view standards in so far as they reflect something that is fixed and universal no longer exist. What does exist is variable human behavior that is good or bad in relation to the individual and his group.
A quick review of Strange Interlude brings out the fact that many of the great commandments incorporated in Christian ethics are violated. If these commandments are used as a standard of judgment, Strange Interlude is subversive of the good life, for it cannot be said that violation of these standards leads to unhappiness and punishment for such wrongdoing. The reverse is true. Such happiness and successful living as Nina achieves come through the violation of fixed standards. Obedience to these standards did not bring happiness, nor peace, nor anything that makes for the good life.
The best way in which to approach this question is to analyze in turn several commandments and observe what happens to them in the play. The warning that the name of God should not be taken in vain is violated throughout the play. This passes almost without notice, since it is common among men to use the name of God indiscriminately and without reverence.
The second law questioned is "Honor thy father and mother." The very opening of the play is a direct violation of this commandment. And it should be noted that to all outward appearances Nina's father was a fine, gentle, kindly old man, a scholar who lived in "a cosy cultured retreat, sedulously built as a sanctuary where, secure with the culture of the past at his back," he could view the present "safely from a distance, as a superior with condescending disdain, pity, and even amusement." In this secluded retreat the old professor of Greek with a New England background of ethics and an intellectual training in the literature and thought of ancient Athens felt secure and comfortable. There were no new books in his library. There was nothing about him to suggest that he understood the problems of the modern world, nor that he had made any effort to realize that the life of his daughter might involve the consideration of ethical standards different from those that he believed—no matter how falsely—had served his New England forebears so well He was "most liberal—even radical—in his tolerant understanding of the manners and morals of Greece and Imperial Rome!" Yet with all his understanding he did not know his own daughter, and when a problem arose involving her happiness and future, he referred to his New England past not to his intellectual training and forced a decision for her which led to the tragic consequences which are revealed in the play.
The situation is plain. Professor Leeds apparently was a man who had obeyed The Commandments, yet in so doing he had neglected the reality of his daughter's life and in obeying the law he brought misery upon himself and in a sense ruined her whole life.
When she discovers just what he had done in persuading her lover against marriage before his departure for the war where he was killed, she turns against her father, despising him for the very principles that motivated his behavior. She does not honor her father. She loathes him and all that he stands for, since it is through him and his commandments that she has lost Gordon, love, and the chance to have become a mother to a child of Gordon's. In so far as she had honored her father in the past, she now pays the penalty in sorrow and despair. This commandment is violated, but more than that it is condemned as a universal principle.
It should be remembered that it is not only Nina who does not honor her father, but that Marsden who does honor his mother has by obedience to this principle made himself a slave to her selfish love and instead of being good and free and happy his life is that of a weakling who shuns reality. In honoring his mother he has become "an old maid who seduces himself in his novels."
Sam Evans has a profound respect for his mother and the memory of his father, but that is only because he has been kept in the dark about them. He does not know that his father came from a family of lunatics, and that he married his mother without telling her the truth about his family.
Thou shalt not commit adultery. But in Strange Interlude adultery becomes not a sin but a necessity. In the very beginning of the events that lead to the tragic circumstances of this story Nina might have been saved had she violated the moral law of chastity. Nina's opinion on the subject is direct and clear. She believes that instead of being good because she obeyed tradition she is in reality evil. She feels that her greatest sin is that she reverenced a tradition to such an extent that she violated the urge to life, love and happiness. Deluding herself by saying that her lover would come back and marry her, she remained chaste and lost her one chance to have a child by him. Her resentment flares up against her father and the ideals he had so uncritically followed all his days, and her tongue blossoms into speech:
NINA. I'm still Gordon's silly virgin! And Gordon is muddy ashes! And I've lost my happiness forever! All that last night I knew he wanted me. I knew it was only the honorable code-bound Gordon, who kept commanding from his brain, no, you mustn't, you must respect her, you must wait till you have a marriage license!
If this outburst against chastity and sexual purity as an absolute guide stood alone in the play, alone and unsupported by further evidence, it would scarcely be justifiable to emphasize its importance in discussing the ethics of Eugene O'Neill. But it does not stand alone. It expresses a point of view that runs like a theme throughout the play. The whole play is an expression of rebellion against a world that lives by absolute standards. These standards are clothed in the vesture of nobility, but when critically examined prove to be the source of pain and suffering. They lure the weary into their proffered shelter, and as the unwary recline in their arms they are destroyed. They lead to death not life.
O'Neill makes this very plain in the character of Sam's mother. She married Mr. Evans without knowing of the insanity in his family. When she learned of it she agreed with her husband that they should never have children, but their resolve was not enough, and one day Mrs. Evans knew that she was to become a mother. She knew that her husband's fear of what might happen to their child would destroy the peace of mind so essential to his health. Under the stress of this fear she faced the reality of what absolute standards mean. She told Nina:
MRS. EVANS. I remember when I was carrying Sam, sometimes I'd forget I was a wife, I'd only remember the child in me. And then I used to wish I'd gone out deliberate in our first year, without my husband knowing, and picked a man, a healthy male to breed by, same's we do with stock, to give the man I loved a healthy child. And if I didn't love the other man nor him me where would be the harm? Then God would whisper: 'It'd be a sin, adultery, the worst sin!' But after He'd gone I'd argue back again to myself, then we'd have a healthy child, I needn't be afraid! And maybe my husband would feel without ever knowing how he felt it, that I wasn't afraid and that child wasn't cursed and so he needn't fear and I could save him. But I was too afraid of God then to have ever done it!
This is a bald statement of the ethics involved, but taken in the context of the play it does not seem too direct. As is always the case with O'Neill, his dramatic setting is so intense that it will carry the heaviest load of philosophic discourse without losing for a moment the dramatic intensity. Mrs. Evans has learned by bitter experience that if "there is peace in the green fields of Eden . . . you got to die to find out!" Her standard had changed from one of obedience to a fixed moral principle to one of relative values in which life to its fullest is the only point of reference. "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." She learned from her experience that obedience to the moral law led to death, that violation of it might have brought peace and well-being. Her sin of obedience led to her own unhappiness and now it confronts the happiness of Nina. So determined is Mrs. Evans on this point that she urges Nina to have an abortion, and then deliberately choose a healthy father for her child without letting her husband know anything about it. Her whole theme is: "Whatever you can do to make him happy is good—is good, Nina! I don't care what! You got to have a healthy baby—sometime—so's you can both be happy! It's your rightful duty!"
Here is a complete reversal of standards. Violation of two of the fixed Commandments, on the grounds that man is born to live for life's sake—not to die for it. Mrs. Evans obeyed the ancient law and her reward was a life of terrible suffering, a life never free for a single day from the haunting specter of fear. Nina took the new path, and in spite of all the unhappiness she suffered, the impartial judge must admit that her life was a dream world of happiness compared with that of Mrs. Evans.
It would be possible to continue the analysis of Strange Interlude in the relation to the Ten Commandments and to find that in a greater or less degree all of them have been violated in this play. Since more emotion than intelligence is attached to this particular form of traditional ethics it must be remembered that O'Neill did not set out to develop a thesis in which he tried to prove that the way to happiness is systematically to violate the Ten Commandments. That would reduce him to the last extremity of the absurd. But Strange Interlude is a play which deals with ethical values. To deny this would be to deny its central theme, that of a group of characters struggling for a successful orientation of their lives in a world of social and moral chaos not of their own making.
In the process of making this needed adjustment they violate tradition and in the process of this change O'Neill takes tradition to task and by simplification sets forth a new conception of behavior. The ethics which he defends has grown out of the modern world of scientific discovery. It is an ethics that is not related to the impassioned mysteries of the past, but is a product of modern science, including chemistry, biology, astronomy—the whole scientific interpretation of the world in which we live today. O'Neill assumes that man lives for this life here on earth and not for a life hereafter. This leads him to examine behavior in the light of experience, and the consequences attendant upon human acts in relation to each other. In the final analysis this point of view produces a naturalistic ethics.
An examination of such an attitude in the light of modern ethical theory will bear out the conclusion that O'Neill is dealing with a criticism of life which, while it is at variance with traditional thought, is in harmony with the best of present-day critical ethics. All that O'Neill is insisting upon is that behavior in obedience to a fixed creed denies the first principle of a rational conception of conduct, and instead of leading to the good life may just as often lead to evil. He holds that good and evil are not to be defined in the abstract, but must be analyzed in relation to specific acts of human beings in a definite social complex. Like John Dewey in Human Nature and Conduct he holds that "Since morals is concerned with conduct, it grows out of specific empirical facts." Like Dewey he believes that most ethical theories have neglected or "refused to admit this idea. For Christendom as a whole, morality has been connected with supernatural commands, rewards and penalties." O'Neill has emphasized the fallacy of such a point of view, by treating it realistically, by testing it in relation to actual human behavior.
The following paragraph from Dewey may help to explain the real basis upon which O'Neill's ethics are founded. In harmony with Dewey, he holds that:
It is the first business of mind to be 'realistic,' to see things 'as they are.' If, for example, biology can give us knowledge of the causes of competency and incompetency, strength and weakness, that knowledge is all to the good. A non-sentimental morals will seek for all the instruction natural science can give concerning the biological conditions and consequences of inferiority and superiority. But knowledge of facts does not entail confortuity and acquiescence. The contrary is the case. Perception of things as they are is but a stage in the process of making them different. They have already begun to be different in being known, for by that fact they enter into a different context, a context of foresight and judgment of better and worse. A false psychology of a separate realm of consciousness is the only reason this fact is not generally acknowledged. Morality resides not in perception of fact, but in the use made of its perception. It is a monstrous assumption that its sole use is to utter benedictions upon fact and its offspring. It is the part of intelligence to tell when to use the fact to conform and perpetuate, and when to use it to vary conditions and consequences. (Human Nature and Conduct, p. 298ff.)The implications of a naturalistic ethics do not lead to absolute standards nor do they convey the necessity of final solutions. In Strange Interlude as in nearly all O'Neill plays there is no final solution. He refuses his audience the comfortable satisfaction that arises out of finality. He sees life as an ever-changing struggle, and in his plays there is always a world of complex and unresolved behavior that carries on beyond the ending. He makes very few definite solutions, because in his world all values are relative and life is an unceasing stream of experience.
* The five plays of the Thirst
volume are now definitely repudiated, and will never be reprinted
with the author's permission. (Clark, Eugene O'Neill, p. 66.)
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