Determinism, Fatalism and Free Will
A RELATIVE standard in ethics implies a kinship with determinism. The cosmic searchings of the nineteenth century into the structure of the universe and, particularly, into the grim history of man's origin and development emphasized the importance of a causal chain. This, in time, led to a deterministic philosophy of which modern relativity in ethics is the inevitable logical consequence. O'Neill in following this trend in modern thought is part of the main current of contemporary life. His virtue lies in the perfect manner in which he gives artistic expression to the new world in which we live. An important aspect of this new world is philosophic determinism. To understand O'Neill's relation to this point of view is of primary importance since much of what he has to say hinges upon this concept. The whole tragic import of his plays is often missed unless the reader is aware of O'Neill's tradition, a tradition which is as genuine and as vital to our world today as was the religious and philosophic tradition of ancient Athens to the dramas of Aeschylus and Euripides.
Since the deterministic view of life is a direct contradiction of free will, a word of explanation may lead to a clear exposition of O'Neill's position as a determinist. As far as contemporary literature is concerned, free will may be disposed of with a gesture. Determinism plays the role of Hamlet in the drama of modern life, while free will has fallen from its high estate to the point where it barely stumbles through the part assigned to Osric, a character from the noblest of all plays that only the constant reader of Hamlet ever remembers. It is not strange that free will should have so insignificant a place in contemporary literature, for the whole tendency of modern science is to seek the causes that will explain the phenomena of life. The inevitable result of modern thought, or evolution, beginning with Darwin, would tend to question freedom of choice. Darwin explained man on the basis of the struggle for existence and natural selection. In his doctrine there was only one loophole where free will might enter in and that was in his account of accidental variation, but even if accidental variation were to be accounted for on the grounds of a free choice, it would mean little or nothing as far as man's hope for himself is concerned. The only grounds for hope would be that the evidence would tend to prove that variation in species was systematic, advantageous, and always promoted finer adjustment of the individual to his environment. But such is not the case. Variation seems to be truly unpurposeful, since it is a detriment to the variant as often as it is advantageous. In fact there are probably thousands of variations that are detrimental or of negligible value to one which makes for improvement.
Contemporary literature in its attempt to deal with man in his modern physical and intellectual environment finds no room for a free will, nor any grounds for assuming an action as undetermined by the whole complex of that environment. This has led to a new theory of tragedy which is perhaps more implicitly than consciously a part in the philosophy of most modern dramatists. O'Neill, however, knows what he is doing and understands the theory upon which he bases his work, as will be clear later in the analysis of his notes to Mourning Becomes Electra.
In O'Neill's plays free will is a negligible quantity, for his tragedies are not the result of an uncaused free choice. Nor is the element of fatalism in its historic sense a factor in his drama. This may best be explained by a brief consideration of what tragedy is from a fatalistic point of view. Like the determinist the fatalist holds that man is the victim of circumstances over which he has no control. No matter what happens to the fatalist he assumes that it was prearranged for him by a power outside the world (God or spirits), and, furthermore, he believes that power to be a conscious force which acts arbitrarily and has a prevision of the end which it achieves. The fatalist is also in one sense of the word a free-willist. He believes that in most cases he is at liberty to behave as he desires, but in the major experience of life he thinks that an outside power has intervened to pass judgment or grant reward. This is a type of accident at variance with modern thought, for it places the cause in the hands of an arbitrary supernatural force which has no direct connection with the laws of physics, biology, economics or social behavior patterns. These are the real forces in modern tragedy, and they make the fundamental distinction between classical and modern, between fatalism and determinism.
In analyzing the fatalistic point of view in
contrast to determination as it is revealed in the works of O'Neill,
no better example of a fatalistic play could be chosen than the
Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles. The play opens with Oedipus as
king happily married to Jocasta. There is only one thing that causes
him sorrow, and that is the evil which has fallen upon his people. A
messenger, who has been sent to the oracle, returns to tell the king
that this evil is due to the fact that the murderer of the former
king, Laius, lives in the city unpunished for his crime. It is then
revealed that Oedipus had fled from his native city in order to
escape a prophecy that he would one day be guilty of murdering his
own father and marrying his own mother. But his wife Jocasta, who
was the widow of the dead Laius, tells him not to worry, for mortals
give false prophecies. She relates how it had once been told to King
Laius that his own son should kill him, but it did not come to pass
"for he fell, by strangers, murdered, for so fame reports, by
robbers, in the place where three ways meet." The next development
in the story comes when the queen reveals to the king that by her
former marriage she had given birth to a child with deformed feet.
The only reasonable course open to her was to dispose of this child
by the conventional method of exposure to the elements. Consequently
she gave her baby to an old shepherd and asked him to see that her
wishes were carried out.
From this point the story moves rapidly to a climax. A shepherd appears who tells Oedipus the people from whom he had fled in order to avoid the decree of the Fates were not his parents, but that he, the shepherd, had received Oedipus from another shepherd. This man is now sent for and it is revealed that Oedipus is the son of Jocasta, for the old shepherd confesses that he did not expose the child given him by the queen. Thus the cycle is complete. Oedipus unwittingly killed his father, and equally without his knowledge married his own mother. His mother kills herself while the king plucks his own eyes out in order that he may no longer look upon the hateful world which has made sport of his hopes and his virtues. As the king appears with his bleeding eyes, the chorus is moved to cry:
What power malignant
And again the chorus speaks to point the meaning of the play:
Let mortals hence be
taught to look beyond
From this account of the story it is plain that nothing that Oedipus could have done for himself would have averted his doom. This fact would not in itself distinguish Oedipus from a character such as Lavinia in Mourning Becomes Electra. The difference lies not in the ill which befalls the character but in the means by which it is brought about. In the case of Oedipus the tragedy was superimposed from the outside. It cut across the current of his life instead of growing out of it. There was nothing in the nature of the life of Oedipus to warrant the judgment that was executed upon him. It did not grow out of his experience, nor was it the result of hereditary faults, nor did it come from the immediate circumstances of his environment. It comes out of a clear sky because some capricious God willed it so. Oedipus himself says, "This must be the work of some malignant power." No other explanation seemed possible to him, for all his life he had sought goodness, honor and beauty. He had lived a virtuous life, happiest when he served his state and his people. There was nothing in his life to account for the injustice which befell him, except that it was the expression of "some malignant power."
The view of the world represented by fatalism is purposive, even teleological in that there is a plan which involves a prevision of a goal. This preconceived end may be one of misfortune for the individual as it was in the case of Oedipus, but it likewise holds a potentiality for the opposite. In all cases it works through experience, but it does not arise in experience or events that are primarily of this world. It thus follows that it involves the concept of anthropomorphic beings who rule arbitrarily over the destinies of men. It is primitive faith as opposed to modern science. Its value must be purely aesthetic to the modern thinker, and it can no longer serve as a guide to the contemporary artist.
O'Neill has not failed to realize this, but he has also realized that the ancients were essentially true to the nature of the world in emphasizing the helplessness of man in his struggle with the forces of life. From this realization has grown his deep appreciation of the Greek point of view both in ethics and in technique, but his solution has been in the direction of determinism as opposed to fatalism.
The determinist also holds that man is the victim of circumstance, but in this case there are no outside powers. To the determinist there is no conscious purpose in the universe, and there is no prevision of an end either good or bad. According to this view man is what he is because of his heredity and environment, and every action has its definite cause which, in its turn, was caused until the whole of man's life is an endless chain of causes and effects. From the determinist's point of view freedom is a myth, because everything has its sufficient reason for being; a man is free to do that which he has to do, which simply means, that he is free to be the product of the forces that made him what he is.
This view of man has characterized the most significant and the best of modern literature since the days of Ibsen in Norway and Hardy in England. Since it is of primary importance to realize the application of this theory to modern drama, and especially to O'Neill, it will be worth while to draw examples to illustrate the point before coming to the analysis of O'Neill's own plays.
Ibsen Ghosts is a case in point. The principal character is Oswald. Oswald has this in common with Oedipus that he was a victim of powers over which he had no control, but in his case the forces that molded his life lay in the complex of experience; they flowed in his blood stream, and they were not, as in the case of Oedipus, imposed from the outside as the expression of the will of capricious and untrustworthy gods. The story is simple. Oswald's mother was compelled by her parents to marry Chamberlain Alving, because of the wealth and social position such a marriage might make possible. Her youth and her training left her no recourse but to obey her parents' wishes. After the marriage she was horrified by her husband's grossness, vulgarity and sensuality. By training she knew of only one thing to do when in trouble and that was to go to her pastor for advice. She visited Pastor Manders for whom she had a feeling almost of love, but Pastor Manders was the victim of a code. He had repeated the commandments of his Bible so often that, even though he may have doubted them, any question relative to morals brought from him a conditioned response. He was not a bad man. That is, he meant well—but as far as assistance to Mrs. Alving was concerned the church might as well have provided an automatic slot machine into which a person in distress could drop a nickel expecting it to grind out advice and consolation. The answer for Mrs. Alving was that she should return to her lord and master, and in all things be obedient to him. This she did, with the result that a son was born who became the victim of circumstances before which he was impotent. He had the taint of hereditary syphilis, and at the end of the play he is kept insanely babbling, "Mother, give me the sun. The sun. The sun."
From birth to insanity Oswald was bound as it were in a net of steel from which neither natural nor supernatural power could free him. With Oedipus he has this in common: that his doom was sealed before he was born. The difference lies in this: that in the case of the king, a supernatural being decided what the end should be without any known reference to the past. In the case of Oswald there was a chain of experience, or a definite sequence of cause and effect which moved inexorably to a fixed end. The point of view of the fatalist is primitive in that it is based upon a world of magic, a world in which miracles can occur because there is no hard and fast relationship of cause and effect between man's experiences and the rest of the world. Determinism is modern in that it is a philosophy of life that grows out of an understanding of life as an integral part of the universe, and not as something that is specially created and thus capable of miraculous behavior. From this scientific point of view the behavior of man is no more mysterious than the behavior of the atmosphere that encircles our globe. In each case there may be many aspects of behavior that are unknown, but the assumption of science is that should they ever be fully explained there will be nothing that does not fit into the scheme of what we already know. In other words, from the modern point of view, the world of miraculous accidents exists no more.
The question of why this tragedy befall Oswald is answered by referring it to the endless chain of experiences that composed the physical and social environment of his life—and of any life. This answer is an evasion if one seeks absolute truth, but as has already been established, absolutes in ethics are as dead as those who first established them as theories applicable to the explanations of human behavior.
O'Neill's strength as a dramatist is emphasized by his deterministic philosophy. It makes his tragedies logically sound, and emotionally convincing. But it also tends to limit his appeal to those who have some realization of what has happened to Western civilization in the last century. To those who still cling to a dualistic philosophy and insist upon a free will, O'Neill must seem to force his characters to an end that is not inevitable. From the free-will point of view it is always possible to say: Why did this character not do something else? From a deterministic point of view the answer is simple: He could do nothing else. Hardy expresses it when he describes the forces which controlled the life of Jude:
A compelling arm of extraordinary muscular power seized hold of him—something which had nothing in common with the spirits and influences that had moved him hitherto. This seemed to care little for his reason and his will, nothing for his so-called elevated intentions, and moved him along, as a violent schoolmaster a schoolboy he has seized by the collar, in a direction which tended towards the embrace of a woman for whom he had no respect, and whose life had nothing in common with his own except locality. (Jude the Obscure.)
Somerset Maugham expresses the same idea over and over again in his novel Of Human Bondage. His leading character is "as though he were a leaf in the wind." He says:
I act as though I were a free agent. But when action is performed it is clear that all the forces of the universe from all eternity conspired to cause it, and nothing I could do could have prevented it. It was inevitable.
In another passage the character is described in these words:
He acted as though he were a machine driven by two forces of his environment and his personality; his reason was someone looking on, observing the facts but powerless to interfere.
Galsworthy in the Forsyth Saga uses almost identical terminology in describing the importance of Old Jolyon:
There he sat in the gloomy comfort of the room, a puppet in the power of great forces that cared nothing for family or class or creed, but moved machine-like, with dread processes to inscrutable ends.
Which all harmonizes very well with Anatole France's characteristic generalization, "Men seemed to him more like beans in the trough of a coffee-mill."
If one turns from these statements of the deterministic position to the analysis of characters and plots in the contemporary novel or drama of Europe and America, he finds that in the larger aspects as well as the minor details the same thing holds true. Galsworthy's dramas provide endless examples. Consider the case of Falder in Justice or that of Matt Denant in Escape. In America, Dreiser's great studies of human tragedy have consistently emphasized the deterministic point of view. From Sister Carrie to An American Tragedy, he has developed his characters and his plots within the web of a deterministic philosophy. Dreiser states his theme when he says of Clyde Griffiths' father that he was "the product of an environment and a religious theory."
But even before Dreiser, Mark Twain had written this doctrine into The Mysterious Stranger. Satan gives a fantastic, but none the less real, account of determinism in his explanation to the boys who are his listeners:
Among you boys you have a game: you push a brick, it knocks its neighbor over, the neighbor knocks over the next brick—and so on till all the row is prostrate. That is human life. A child's first act knocks over the initial brick, and the rest will follow inexorably. If you could see into the future, as I can, you would see everything that was going to happen to that creature, for nothing can change the order of its life after the first event has determined it. That is, nothing will change it, because each act unfailingly begets an act, that act begets another, and so on to the end, and the seer can look forward down the line and see just when each act is to have birth, from cradle to grave.
Does God order the career? Foreordain it? No. The man's circumstances and environment order it. His first act determines the second and all that follow after.
Yes. Now, then, no man ever does drop a link—the thing has never happened! Even when he is trying to make up his mind as to whether he will do a thing or not, that itself is a link, an act, and has its proper place in his chain; and when he finally decides an act, that also was the thing which he was absolutely certain to do. You see, now, that a man will never drop a link in his chain. He cannot. If he made up his mind to try, that project would itself be an unavoidable link—a thought bound to occur to him at that precise moment, and made certain by the first act of his babyhood.
This interpretation of man's life is the inevitable outcome of nineteenth-century empirical philosophy. It has changed the whole concept of our world. Mrs. Whitefield in Man and Superman sums it up very well when she says:
It's a very queer world. It used to be so straightforward and simple; and now nobody seems to think and feel as they ought. Nothing has been right since that speech that Professor Tyndall made at Belfast.
O'Neill belongs in this tradition. He has never treated his characters as free agents. Even in his very earliest plays, he developed his men and women against a background of social and biological forces, thus giving a deep and a universal significance to his themes. When Rose (The Web) went to a doctor about her health:
ROSE. He told me I had the 'con' and had it bad. He said the only hope fur me was to git out in the country, sleep in the open air, and eat a lot of good food. He might as well 'uv told me to go to Heaven and I told him so.
And in the end she is described as crushed by the ironic life force. The point I wish to make is not that this is a great play, but that when O'Neill began interpreting life through the medium of the drama, he emphasized heredity and environment as the great tragic forces which held man in their grasp. Man might will, desire, have good intentions and noble aspirations, but if these forces that controlled his destiny were adverse, all of his dreams would come to nothing.
In Gold Captain Bartlett is developed as a man obsessed with a single idea which holds him in its power as effectively as if he were bound in a cage of steel. He didn't want to be a bad man; he didn't want to commit murder. What he really wanted was to be a good father to his children and a kind husband to his wife. But circumstance in the form of poverty, the sea and stories of buried treasure had developed in him the fatal hope for gold—easy gold. Because of this romantic passion for gold, he becomes a murderer and following that a haunted, fear-stricken spirit, the victim of two conflicting desires: one, the wish to set right, in as far as is possible, his great crime, and the other, a will to believe in the reality of his buried treasure. When his wife suspects his crime she urges him to confess, to free his conscience and be again the man he would like to be. He listens to her and for a moment he is almost able to yield to the impulse set up in him by her plea. Then the old obsession reasserts itself. The thought of his gold comes back and he answers:
CAPTAIN BARTLETT. Confess and let someone steal the gold! Ye'd make an old woman o' me, would ye, Sarah?—an old; Sunday go-to-meetin' woman snivelin' and prayin' to God for pardon?
The obsession dominates him to the end. It is this obsession that gives unity to the structure, emphasis to the theme, and to the story the plausibility that makes it convincing. A further analysis of Captain Bartlett is clearly sketched into the plot, which accounts for his original passion for gold, making his character seem fully rounded and understandable in the light of ordinary experience. He is a logical product of his environment and his heredity. There were no supernatural forces that guided his life to its sad end. The powers that worked through his life were those that all may understand, who realize that once born into this world certain definite causes operate to determine a course of action.
This may be more clearly illustrated in the case of Anna Christie, for in that play the author has definitely created characters whose desires were in direct variance to their actions. In this play O'Neill has revealed the real conflict between what man desires in this life and what he gets. Anna was a normal child with normal physical characteristics and aspirations. Her first great disadvantage was that she did not have the protection and care that parents usually give their children. This handicap was made worse by a physical beauty that under different conditions might have been to her a real advantage.
Her father in his ignorance had sent her to live with her cousins, and it was one of them who first led her astray, not with her consent. She reviews her past from a deterministic point of view when she says:
ANNA. It wasn't none of my fault. I hated him worse'n hell and he knew it. But he was big and strong.
That was why I run away from the farm. That was what made me get a yob as a nurse girl in St. Paul. And you think that was a nice yob for a girl, too, don't you? (Sarcastically) With all them nice inland fellers yust looking for a chance to marry me, I s'pose. Marry me? What a chance! They wasn't looking for marrying. I'm owning up to everything fair and square. I was caged in, I tell you—yust like in yail-taking care of other people's kids—listening to 'em bawling and crying day and night—when I wanted to be out—and I was lonesome—lonesome as hell! (With a sudden weariness in her voice) So I give up finally. What was the use?
This is her past history from her own life, a history that belies a free will, and emphasizes the forces of experience, environment that broke her spirit for the time being, and made a girl who wished for a happy life into a prostitute. Praise or blame are alike futile. As O'Neill tells the story it becomes as ludicrous to blame Anna for what she did as it would be to blame a child for getting itself born. The moralist who still lives in the world of ethical absolutes might say that she should have resisted. But again that is futile. She did resist, but her strength was not equal to the forces that opposed her. To the moralist it would be fair to answer by asking him: If you saw a man throw a child to its death from a high building would you blame the child because it did not have sufficient strength to resist its enemy? The reply here would be self-evident, because the antagonist is easily defined. In the case of Anna the antagonist is an intangible force, but no less sinister or powerful. Anna describes it when she says: "I was caged in—yust like being in yail."
The only reason Anna's past does not carry complete conviction to every reader arises because there are still people who are unfamiliar with the trend of modern thought, and also because we all tend to rely upon belief sanctioned by tradition, for that requires no individual intellectual effort. Determinism lacks this sanction, and a character developed without this tradition must for a time seem strange, even unreal, to those who have not grasped the author's full implication. Our intellectual tradition has emphasized freedom, a freedom that has in modern times become understandable only as a rationalization of desire. We no longer blame a person who develops a case of spotted fever although we cannot isolate the cause. Social sickness is no more uncaused than physical sickness, but is often more difficult to diagnose.
O'Neill has taken the modern deterministic point of view, and against the background of intangible forces reveals the tragedy of Anna's struggle for life. The story gives no opportunity for praise or blame. There is nothing to forgive; there is everything to be endured. Anna sums it all up for her father:
ANNA. There ain't nothing to forgive, anyway. It ain't your fault, and it ain't mine, and it ain't his neither. We're all poor nuts, and things happen, and we yust get mixed in wrong, that's all.
The Long Voyage Home combines the two aspects of determinism with great clarity. In its simplicity and directness it is a perfect one-act play. Olson is a stocky middle-aged Swede whose life as a sailor has kept him from visiting his home for more than ten years. He has often been urged by his mother to come back home, and at the end of every voyage his intentions have been to do so. Companionship with his sailor friends, the traditional celebrations of the sailors after reaching port at the end of a voyage, the temptation to get drunk—all these things have been stronger than his will to overcome them and go home. After every voyage these powers have dominated his behavior leading to the necessity to ship out again.
Time has passed, and Olson realizes that if he is ever to see his mother again he must do it now. Thus he refuses to drink with his comrades, knowing that if he becomes intoxicated, it will be the same old story over again. This is the assertion of his will in triumph over the desires that formerly held sway. The new power to resist the usual shore temptation is clearly determined by the age of his mother, his brother's offer of a place on the farm, and his temporary nausea for the sailor's life. A new combination of forces leads him to achieve that which at other times seemed impossible. His own review of his past and the new plan states the case:
OLSON. I write back always I come soon; and I mean all time to go back home at end of voyage. But I come ashore, I take one drink, I take many drinks, I get drunk, I spend all money, I have to ship away for other voyage. So dis time t say to myself: Don't drink one drink, Ollie, or, sure, you don't get home. And I want go home dis time. I feel homesick for farm and to see my people again. Yust like little boy, I feel homesick. Dat's why I don't drink noting tonight but dis—belly-wash! You know, Miss Freda, my mother get very old, and I want see her. She might die and I would never—
His ability to turn away from his past becomes as much a matter of pure determinism as was his former inability to do so. He is a victim of forces over which he has no control. At this point when it seems as though he will be free to follow the new set of desires, he falls a victim to forces that lie not in his character, but in the world outside himself. The saloon-keeper gives him knockout drops in his soft-drink, robs him of his money, and has him carried aboard a particularly illfavored boat that is sailing for a voyage around Cape Horn. He is shanghaied. His will which seemed for once to have harmonized perfectly with his desire is thwarted by physical force. His destiny once more became something other than he wished. The determinism of this experience is easily perceived, but O'Neill has made it clear that when compared with the past and judged by the results, he was as much a victim of himself at the end of all the previous voyages as he was the victim of the saloon-keeper and a drug in this particular episode. Each time he went back to the sea. Each time he failed to go home. His whole life was made up of willingness to follow one course of action and being compelled to pursue its opposite.
In Ile, another play of the sea, the same ironic fate pursues the characters of the Captain and his wife. His wife was losing her mind because of the loneliness, the terrible strain of waiting month after month for the ice to break, and the whales to come so that her husband could get his cargo of whale oil. She pleads with him to take her home, to give up the stupid waiting. Captain Keeney realizes her condition, and for a time his love for her almost overcomes his tradition as the Captain of a whaling ship. He loves her more than his cargo of oil, but the laws of his past experience are stronger than his will to give in to his wife's desires. It is as though he were held in the grasp of invisible hands. He cries out: "I got to git it in spite of all Hell, and by God, I ain't agoin' home till I do git it!"
He had always brought home a full load. He had won a reputation that became a causal chain in his life, and now when he would gladly have sacrificed for his wife, he finds his imagination picturing the sneers and jokes of other captains in his home port, laughing at him for failing at last to get his load of oil. This his wife calls, "a stupid, stubborn reason," but it is powerful enough to keep Captain Keeney at his task and to drive his wife to insanity.
The effectiveness of O'Neill's tragedies arises out of this consistent application of the deterministic principle. It gives clearness and almost classic tone to his dramas. O'Neill has given an objective, artistic interpretation to the deterministic principles of modern science, or at least to the science that has dominated the thought of our modern world up to the days of Eddington and Jeans.
It is a deterministic philosophy that makes The Emperor Jones convincing. With relentless imagination O'Neill has followed through the life history of his strange Emperor. As long as Jones held sway from his throne, no power could touch him. His past, for all that appearances might reveal, could have been that of genuine nobility. He acts the part, and the social environment is in perfect harmony. Gradually a sinister note of rebellion trembles faintly through his realm. His work is over, and with his gain secured he plans to leave.
It is only when he enters the dark forest that his past, the irrevocable past which he has so long concealed, begins to assert itself. No iron law enforced by physical power could have been more relentless than was Emperor Jones' past. His social heritage of slave tradition, the debasing work of the Negro as the white man's servant, his crimes, his childhood superstitions, including his biological heritage—all these forces which he thought were forgotten reasserted their power over him. They were transmuted into the beatings of his heart by the native tom tom as it echoed in the depth of the forest. With perfect regularity, these forces of heredity and environment crowd in upon the consciousness of the Emperor until he loses his regal nature and tears away the trappings of his assumed grandeur. One by one they disappear, and as he becomes more and more naked, he becomes more and more a Negro criminal tortured by primitive fears of the dark. In the end he loses the battle, conquered, but not by the physical strength of the natives, for they did not even change their position. All they did while Jones circled wildly through the forest was to beat their drums. He was destroyed by the forces of his past. It was not the natives that barred his way to freedom; it was the "strong medicine" of his Negro heritage.
Strange Interlude illustrates the same principles of determinism. Each character considered in the light of his desires proves to be driven by forces that are stronger than those desires to an end that is the opposite of his hopes and his ambition. Professor Leeds wanted his daughter to be happy, but he was held in the vise-like grip of New England tradition which made it impossible for him to give Nina the freedom of action necessary to her well-being. The cultural pattern of his life made him strangely unfitted for an adviser to a young woman at the most crucial moment of her life. He referred her appeal for love in its fullest sense to the narrow principles of his Puritan faith—not because he believed implicitly in this doctrine, but because tradition made him helpless and unable to act in any other way.
Not only was he bound by the cultural pattern of his place and time, but he was also the victim of a selfish love for his daughter which blocked every effort that he might have made to give her the freedom which his reason convinced him was her right. This theme, which gets its fullest expression in Mourning Becomes Electra, is present here. Professor Leeds was in love with his daughter, and no matter how much he might try to make himself believe that she should live her own life, he could never admit her right to any lover other than himself. This was the power that ruled his action, and its effectiveness was all the more complete because he would not recognize its presence. It was not Gordon that he hated; it was Nina's lover come to take his place, to force him into the position of father, which made him use every device he could invent to keep her to himself.
Under the stress of emotion he suddenly loses control of himself and when Nina says, "It's too late for lies," he replies:
PROFESSOR LEEDS. Let us say that I persuaded myself it was for your sake. That may be true. You are young. You think one can live with truth. Very well. It is also true I was jealous of Gordon. I was alone and I wanted to keep your love. I hated him as one hates a thief one may not accuse nor punish. I did my best to prevent your marriage. I was glad when he died. There. Is that what you wish me to say?
Professor Leeds followed the only course that was possible for him even though it led to an end that meant the defeat of the thing he wished to achieve. As an aid to his desire to delude himself and conceal from himself his real motives, he used Marsden as a foil. He was willing to believe that he could tolerate Marsden, for subconsciously he knew that Marsden was in love with his own mother. His situation is the same as that of the professor, the only difference being mother-son instead of father-daughter love. Marsden had always believed himself in love with Nina, but this was only a disguise for his real love for his mother. His work as a novelist, his friendships, his travels, every major act of his life was referred back to his mother for justification and approval. She was the dominating influence in his life, governing all of his important decisions. Marsden was free to do the things he had to do, the things that were determined by his complex relationship with his mother. In neither his case nor that of Professor Leeds is there any suggestion of overt relationship, for tradition would not permit that, but the chains that bound their actions were none the less unbreakable. The prison in which they lived was securely barred. The only unique thing about it was that for the most part they refused to admit its existence. They lived in the belief that they were free, while every major act of their Eves emphasized the fact that they were imprisoned.
The life of Nina follows the same deterministic pattern. She was bound by a convention that she hated and despised when she permitted Gordon to leave for the war without becoming her lover in the fullest sense. The dire consequences of this one act determines the tragedy which follows. It becomes convincing only when one realizes that Nina was the victim of circumstances that transcended her control. The death of her lover led to a violent nervous disturbance which manifested itself in a will to sexual expression. There is no freedom in this except the freedom that an undammed stream has to flow down hill. Nina behaved as the forces that dominated her life compelled her to act.
From her days as a nurse to the end of the play she is dominated by her tragic love for Gordon. When happiness seems for a moment possible to her, it is blighted by the sad history of her husband's past as revealed to her by Mrs. Evans. The deterministic principle is easily apparent in this episode, though no more real than in any other situation in the play. It is of no avail to appeal to justice, foresight, intelligence or virtue, for no matter what may be said for or against Nina the simple and terrible truth remains that when she visited her mother-in-law, she discovered that she was pregnant with a child whose ancestors had been insane. Her will to love a baby, her desire to make her husband happy, and every other aspiration for a good life were thwarted in a single moment when she became aware of certain biological factors that were not within the scope of her control.
At this particular point it may be said that she exerted her will by defeating the purposes of nature. She destroyed the life within her in order that she might not bring forth a baby doomed to insanity. A moment's consideration is sufficient to sum up the evidence that led to this act. O'Neill has given it in the powerful scene between Nina and Mrs. Evans. The revelation in the upstairs room precipitated the action just as clearly as if some individual with the power had taken Nina prisoner, forced her to take an anesthetic and then performed the operation.
O'Neill has made his characters the victims of circumstances over which they have no control. They move in a world of dark and sinister forces, which govern the destinies of men and women helpless and impotent before the workings of these unpredictable powers. This does not mean that his characters are weaklings whose lives are pathetic but not tragic. Just the reverse is true. It is the great character whose life becomes significant when it struggles against the inevitable. Darrell, Nina and Marsden are all rebels against the despotism of facts as these facts move slowly and inexorably to enmesh and destroy their hopes and their happiness. It is their defiant struggle against these facts that lends dignity to their lives, and it is at this point that their universality becomes apparent. Thus strife with adversity is a parallel to the life of all those who do not gracefully or supinely accept the inevitable. The development of character in O'Neill's dramas is always typical and in a sense universal in that it is the common lot of man to feel the heavy power of those circumstances over which he has no control and against which his spirit rebels in bitterness and pain.
With age comes reconciliation, but not peace. The fire of protest burns low; exhaustion leads man to submit without protest, for he has learned that his rebellion is a cry in the night to which the only answer is the faint echo of his protest. So in Strange Interlude the intensity of the flame dies slowly to a mere glowing ember. Marsden summarizes:
MARSDEN. So let's you and me forget the whole distressing episode, regard it as an interlude, of trial and preparation, say, in which our souls have been scraped clean of impure flesh and made worthy to bleach in peace.
NINA. Strange Interlude! Yes, our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father!
One of the first questions O'Neill asked himself when he began searching for a modern manner of treating the ancient Electra story is published in his notes:
Is it possible to get modern psychological approximation of Greek sense of fate into such a play, which an intelligent audience of today, possessed by no belief in gods or supernatural retribution, could accept and be moved by?—(Notes to Mourning Becomes Electra #1.)
His answer, as it may be inferred from the play, is that determinism is the modern substitute for the Greek sense of fate. In spite of the protest that has been made against O'Neill's assumption that the modern intelligent audience is essentially skeptical of supernatural retribution, it remains a plain fact that as far as its attitude towards art is concerned O'Neill's assumption is a fact. No intelligent audience today will be satisfied by supernatural retribution. The Greek gods are dead as far as the theater is concerned, and O'Neill in recognizing this fact at the outset faced his problem squarely. He saw that the Electra theme which could be handled with such convincing argument by the Greeks, because the Fates could bear the heavy burden of responsibility, must be treated by a far subtler psychological method if it were to appear valid to a modern audience.
The next step in his argument was to arrive at an interpretation of his characters in the light of modern science which would give living reality to the poetic, but primitive, Greek Fates. That man is the victim of powers he cannot control is clearly stated in the Greek drama, but the modern explanation of what these powers are and how they work is far more complex than the solution offered by the Greeks.
O'Neill's answer was to treat his characters from the point of view of philosophic determinism. In working out the behavior of Orin, he cannot rely upon Fates, Furies or Gods; he must find the cause elsewhere. For these supernatural powers he substitutes "Puritan conviction of man born to sin and punishment—Orestes' furies within him, his conscience—" (Notes to Mourning Becomes Electra #5) This is followed up in the development of Abe Mannon by using "sexual frustration by his Puritan sense of guilt turning love to lust." For the awful sense of fate in the Greek drama, he substitutes "a psychological fate" (Note #16). This conception of the problem is followed in a later note by a clear statement of the deterministic principle.
The unavoidable entire melodramatic action must be felt as working out of psychic fate from past—thereby attain tragic significance—or else!—a hell of a problem, a modern tragic interpretation of classic fate without benefit of gods—for it must, before everything, remain modern psychological play—fate springing out of the family—" (Note #16.)
Every detail of the play is built up on this deterministic principle. As Lavinia says to Seth: "There's no rest in this house which Grandfather built as a temple of Hate and Death." This is a fact that Seth understood, for he had already said, "There's been evil in that house since it was first built in hate—and it's kept growin' there ever since, as what's happened there has proved." But in this play it is not a supernatural power acting arbitrarily with a vision of the end desired that causes evil to flourish in the House of Mannon. Abe Mannon destroyed his house and built a new one because his brother ran away with Marie Brantôme, a servant girl in the house. Love, jealousy, hate and a puritanic conscience were the moving factors that laid the foundations for the tragic end of the Mannon family. The motivating forces are inward, psychological, complex, but not supernatural.
Marie Brantôme became the type loved by the Mannons. David won her away from his brother Abe, who then forced David into poverty which ended in suicide. Abe and David were not the only ones in the family who had been attracted to Marie. Abe's son Ezra had also loved her.
SETH. He was only a boy then, but he was crazy about her, too, like a youngster would be. His mother was stern with him, while Marie, she made a fuss over him and petted him.
LAVINIA. Father, too!
SETH. Ayeh—but he hated her worse than anyone when it got found out she was his uncle David's fancy woman.
Ezra hated Marie Brantôme, but when he married, the influence of his early love determined the type of woman that he chose for his wife. Marie had made "a fuss over him and petted him," and determined for him what his future destiny should be. Without his will and all unconscious of the powers at work, the child's mind and tastes were formed in the direction of a destiny he could not foresee and that he would have fled from in terror could he have known its tragic implications. Brant, the son of Marie, gives the clue to the deterministic chain. In speaking to Lavinia he says:
BRANT. You're so like your mother in some ways. Your face is the dead image of hers. And look at your hair. You won't meet hair like yours and hers again in a month of Sundays. I only know of one other woman who had it. You'll think it strange when I tell you. It was my mother.
Yes, she had beautiful hair like your mother's, that hung down to her knees, and big, deep, sad eyes that were blue as the Caribbean Sea! In an earlier passage Christine is described as having "deep-set eyes, of a dark violet hue."
O'Neill makes it clear that it was Christine's likeness to Marie that determined Ezra's falling in love, and it was the peculiar movement and vital grace of her body that inspired his passion. Seth emphasizes this quality in his description of Marie:
SETH. Marie? She was always laughin' and singin'-frisky and full of life—with something free and wild about her like an animile. Purty she was, too! . . . Hair just the color of your Maw's and yourn she had.
Compare this with the author's description of Christine and the fatal similarity is complete. "She has a fine, voluptuous figure and she moves with a flowing ani- mal grace."
When old Abe Mannon brought Marie Brantôme into his house as a servant he started a chain of events that moved with dread certainty to the destruction of the Mannon family. O'Neill has not rested all of his argument upon so slight a chain of evidence, but has given his family history validity and power by revealing the social complex of New England Puritan heritage as the fit medium for nurturing this particular series of events.
The house which Lavinia recognized as a "temple of hate and death" was to Christine equally horrible in form and spirit.
CHRISTINE. Each time I come back after being away it appears more like a sepulchre! The "whited" one of the Bible—pagan temple front stuck like a mask on Puritan gray ugliness! It's just like old Abe Mannon to build such a monstrosity—as a temple for his hatred.
The house becomes a symbol of the conflict between love and the moral code. This particular moral code determines how the Mannons shall act in relation to each other, to the community, and to the state. It fixes the mask which passes for virtue to the casual observer. But underneath the exterior calm there surges a deep, fiery, passionate life which may for a time be suppressed but is never subdued.
It is these two forces in conflict that feed the flame of fury which springs from the fatal likeness of the Marmon women to Marie Brantôme. It makes possible the love and the hatred that spread their deadly virus throughout their lives and determined their tragic destruction.
O'Neill emphasizes the similarity among the men as welt. Orin looks like his father and Brant also bears the family resemblance inherited from his father, the grand uncle of Orin. This makes the circle complete. Brant is attracted to Christine, because she resembles his mother, and he hates Ezra just as Orin hates his father, for he also is in love with his mother. The same thing holds for Lavinia and accounts for her love for Brant which turns to hatred when her affections are spurned. Orin recognized this, as is revealed by his comment on Lavinia's brief love affair in San Francisco.
ORIN. Wilkins reminded you of Brant—
ORIN. And that's why you suddenly discarded mourning in Frisco and bought new clothes—in Mother's colors!
It is by a close adherence to determinism that O'Neill achieves a tragic parallel to the Greek Electra theme. He cannot pass the responsibility for the behavior of his characters into the custody of capricious gods. He must make his audience realize that there is a sufficient and a human reason for their behavior. This he has done by accounting for the family's past history, following along the deterministic practice of Ibsen, where there is a fine parallel in Rosmersholm. O'Neill did not model after this play, but the technique of accounting for the behavior of the characters is similar—because Ibsen like O'Neill was a determinist. This method has given the needed modern interpretation to make the Electra story convincing to a contemporary audience. When the play is over, all the characters are accounted for, in that every action is explained in relation to social, physical and psychological forces that dominated their lives.
Dudley Nichols' fine introductory essay to the Modern Library edition of The Emperor Jones recognized this deterministic aspect of O'Neill long ago. He wrote:
While his imaginative world and spiritual potency bear many points of resemblance to those of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, it is his likeness with the latter one would linger on. In O'Neill as in Euripides fate, the prime motive of ancient tragedy, is no longer felt as a capricious external power but as the inevitable outcome of character and the unavoidable condition of life. Tragic pathos is refined to a sense of universal human fellowship in frailty and suffering. And the dramatic interest of Euripides the rebel lay in the thought and experience of the ordinary individual. He completely shifted the tragic situation from a conflict between man and the divine laws of the Universe to man's inner soul.
The world of O'Neill as revealed in the sum total
of his works is a world in which free will has been reduced to
necessity. The behavior of the men and women who live in this world
is not free behavior, that is, it is not unaccounted for and
unrelated to the forces which determine it. This gives tragic beauty
to O'Neill's interpretation of life, but it also implies ethical
consequences. In a deterministic world free from the traditional
hopes of an Arabian Nights psychology, it may be possible to analyze
the causes of human conduct. The moral dogma of praise and blame
will perish and in their place may come understanding and a new
moral order. It is this implied hope that lends a warm vitality to
the plays; it gives the reader a sense of
power, or at least it offers an interpretation of life that is a
challenge, something more than a supine hope. It is only when life
is recognized as deterministic that it will be possible to act and
plan to make it better, or even to conceive what may be meant by
better. O'Neill has revealed the forces that work through the lives
of his characters, and by this method he has achieved a fair modicum
of artistic reality which helps to make his plays intellectual as
well as aesthetic in their appeal.
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