IN THE "ideal" theater the audience arrives fully prepared for a profound aesthetic experience. Men and women alike abandon all light-hearted chatter as soon as they enter the auditorium. They file to their seats without a murmur, and settle themselves into their chairs with a tense expectant look upon their faces. All seats are taken and everyone is in his proper stall. There has been no talking, disturbance or quarreling with the ushers about the correct location designated on the ticket. The last person arrives and then after two minutes of intense silence, the lights go out and the curtains slowly part revealing the actors on the scene. The first speech sounds with peculiar clarity upon the ears of the expectant audience.
If this were true, the serious problem of how to interest an audience and at the same time acquaint it with the subject of the play would be more than half solved. Since the real situation is just the reverse of that described, it requires great skill to manipulate the characters and the action in the opening scene. This is a truth so obvious that it may be superfluous to mention it, but at the same time it is a quality that is rare even in great dramatists. No one has ever written plays in which the problem of the beginning is managed more skillfully than in the plays of O'Neill. In the first place he was trained to the theater from childhood. He knows the stage intimately, and no problem in dramatic technique is too elementary to miss his notice. He never overestimates the interest and nature of an audience. He knows that it is important at the parting of the curtains to unify a heterogeneous group of people, restless, talking, disorganized, concentrating on as many different subjects as there are people. This psychological problem is further complicated by the movement and commotion of the latecomers, who are still pushing past people already seated in order to find a place for themselves. This situation so characteristic of the opening of any play is managed with skillful technique by O'Neill.
Every play appeals primarily to the sense of hearing, but aided and intensified by visual imagery. No commotion can quite obscure the setting which is revealed as the curtains are drawn and quiet begins to settle over the audience. But it is not enough to reveal the scene, for action is expected and must follow immediately. If the characters begin to talk as soon as the curtain rises, then their conversation must be so unimportant that it does not matter if several of the first speeches are missed, for it is certain that they will not be heard by many people in the audience. This was managed in much of the traditional drama by the servant and his innocuous remarks. O'Neill does not use this method. To him the first scene is important from the very beginning. Thus instead of opening with conversation it always begins with some form of pantomime that is vital to the story, symbolic of the theme, and impressive in itself.
From the one-act plays to the latest work this technique of the beginning is practical. It combines action and interpretation, at the same time unifying and interesting the audience while it wastes no time in starting the serious business of revealing the theme of the play. The Emperor Jones provides as good a case as any for specific analysis. When the stage is revealed the pantomime is immediately tense and very dramatic. "A native Negro woman sneaks in cautiously from the entrance on the right." This action in itself is full of evil foreboding, and if it is not enough to focus the attention of the audience there is more to follow. "She hesitates beside the doorway, peering back as if in extreme dread of being discovered. Then she begins to glide noiselessly, a step at a time, toward the doorway in the rear. At this moment Smithers appears beneath the portico. . . . He sees the woman and stops to watch her suspiciously." Finally Smithers "springs forward and grabs her firmly by the shoulder. She struggles to get away, fiercely but silently." This graphic pantomime takes several minutes and is so dramatic in its character that by the time it is all carried through the audience is waiting for the words that will give meaning to the action.
This silent action serves a double purpose. It not only unifies the audience, but it arouses a questioning curiosity. This places the burden of the induction squarely on the shoulders of the audience and makes the perfect transition from the parting of the curtain to the forward-moving action of the play. When Smithers asks "What's the gaime, any'ow," he is voicing the thought of everyone in the audience. The captive one, in answering the question, tells the audience what it needs to know. This information is elaborated by the gratuitous comments of Smithers, whose speeches are explanatory but also justified by reason of his personal grudge against the Negro, Emperor Jones. Even his appearance on the stage is carefully accounted for, and is used as a means of letting the audience know that there is trouble brewing. He was not surprised at what he saw, when he entered, for, as he puts it: "There's somethin' funny goin' on. I smelled it in the air first thing I got up this mornin'."
Thus by a technique that is never forced, that is crowded with drama from the moment the set is revealed, and that gives a symbolic suggestion of the struggle that is to follow, the action begins before the opening is over, and the play is on its way. Typical of O'Neill's opening technique is the use of song and music to accompany the pantomime. This is used effectively in such plays as The Moon of the Caribbees, All God's Chillun Got Wings and Mourning Becomes Electra. In the last two, particularly, it serves a double purpose of drawing the attention of the audience and at the same time of lending atmosphere that is appropriate to the play. In the Negro play it is "Only a bird in a Gilded Cage" and in the Electra it is "Shenandoah." Of this O'Neill writes in his notes: "The chanty 'Shenandoah'—use this more—as a sort of theme song—its simple sad rhythm of hopeless sea longing peculiarly significant—even the stupid words have striking meaning when considered in relation to tragic events in play." (Mourning Becomes Electra Note #16.)
The next problem in the opening of a play is the
presentation of the induction. In order to notice how crudely a
great dramatist may sometimes manage this matter of introducing the
characters to the audience, giving enough of the past to arouse a
personal interest in them, and stating the particular problem of the
immediate situation, read the opening of Shakespeare Richard III.
Modern technique and modern stage tradition demand greater subtlety,
and O'Neill has met the demand in an adequate manner. Desire
Under the Elms provides an excellent example. Referring back to
the method discussed above, in this play the audience is summoned to
attention by the appearance of one of the characters on the porch of
the house, which provides the set, and ringing a large bell. "This
he swings mechanically, awakening a deafening clangor." He looks at
the sky and says: "God! Purty!" He then "spits on the ground with
intense disgust, turns and goes back into the house."
Next appear the men who were summoned by the ringing of the bell. Like the one before them they also look at the sky. This creates a warrant for the reminiscent remark that reveals something of the nature of the man: "Eighteen years ago." The other who has been following his own thoughts answers "What?" And the reply is: " Jenn. My woman. She died."
The sky now becomes the inspiration for the next speech which is a reference to gold, and leads to the prospect of finding gold in California. This helps to date the play, and leads to the reasonableness of the following statement of facts that are obvious to the two men and yet must be conveyed to the audience. This is always the crucial moment of the induction, for it would be quite ludicrous if the brothers were to tell each other that they were brothers, that they had a father, and that it was a brother of theirs who rang the bell. Yet all these facts must be conveyed to the audience. The following speech, inspired by the reference to California gold makes a good beginning:
Here—it's stones atop o' the ground—stones atop o' stones—makin' stone walls—year atop o' year—him 'n' yew 'n' me 'n' Eben—makin' stone walls fur him to fence us in!
This speech fairly motivated, and without a single gratuitous element, gives the name of the first character, and suggests that all three are brothers and that the "him" must be their father. In addition the stones are symbolic of their lives.
The next problem is to tell who "him" is. This is done by referring to the investment that each has in the farm, and that leads to the very natural speculation about his two-months' absence, and the possibility, that since he is old, he may be dead. Then follows the most direct bit of evidence:
Left us in the fields an evenin' like this. Hitched up an' druv off into the West. That's plum onnateral. He hain't never been off this farm 'ceptin' t' the village in thirty year or more, not since he married Eben's maw.
Again this information, which is not new to the speakers, and is given here for the benefit of the audience, is justified by its nature, and by the new-sprung desire on the part of the brothers to go to California. It must have been a subject of comment among them often that their father had suddenly left the farm without explanation two months ago. This being all the more strange, since he had not taken a trip for thirty years. It further suggests that Eben is only a half brother, and that the father has already had two wives. That they are the children of the same father is revealed when Eben remarks sarcastically from the window "Honor thy father." After a few more casual remarks including a further reference to the sky and California the scene ends on the same note as the beginning. This scene allowing time for the pantomime could be played in five minutes, yet in that brief time it has revealed a good deal about the relationship of the three men. It has characterized the father. It has given a description of the setting, and revealed the dumb but determined rebellion of the two oldest brothers, the fiercer spirit of the younger, and the hatred as well as the fear that all three of them feel towards their father.
An important aspect of O'Neill's technique is his conscious and studied use of symbolism. This does not imply that the audience is aware of this technique in an unpleasant manner. It is done with care and designed to extend the scope and meaning of the play beyond the limited boundary of straightforward realism. It is apparent in the early plays through his use of setting that will suggest the theme. In Beyond the Horizon he alternates the scenes—one inside and one outside scene for each act—by this device suggesting the conflict between the fixed prison and the yearning for freedom. Bearing directly on this point is his own comment on the critics:
They have all accused me of bungling through ignorance—whereas, if I had wanted to, I could have laid the whole play in the farm interior, and made it tight as a drum à la Pinero. Then, too, I should imagine the symbolism I intended to convey by the alternating scenes would be apparent even from a glance at the program. (Clark. p. 96ff.)
This use of a symbolic setting gives him greater flexibility and increases the imaginative quality of his drama. It is a method that has been characteristic of O'Neill from the very beginning of his work. In the early one-act plays Fog is a typical example. The use of the fog as symbolic of a state of mind is rather trite, but serves to indicate that impatient and passionate quality of O'Neill's imagination which has made it possible for him to push his play out beyond the limitation of the boards on which it is acted. It has thus been possible for him to liberate the drama from the narrow limitations of a temporary stage tradition and give to his plays almost as much freedom and scope as was practiced by Shakespeare. This technique which is so easily acceptable to the audience, and has grown familiar with his development, is a tribute to his inventive genius and his skill, for unlike Shakespeare, who could hang up a sign and call the scene a battlefield or the Forest of Arden, O'Neill must satisfy the audience by a suggestion of reality in combination with his symbolism.
This he does by using certain aspects of nature as a theme ha such a play as Anna Christie where "dat ole davil, sea" in combination, at times, with the fog lends a symbolic meaning to the play. Another example is All God's Chillun Got Wings. Here he definitely violates strict realism in order to give immediate symbolic meaning to his play. When the curtains part the scene revealed is of three narrow streets that converge, suggesting the struggle of race conflicts that were centered in this little corner of the world. This idea is intensified by the grouping of the actors. "In the street leading left, the faces are all white; in the street leading right, all black." Next it becomes apparent that the conflict is to be limited and involves the conflict of the sexes: "On the sidewalk are eight children, four boys and four girls. Two of each sex are white, two black." By thus formalizing his set and the position of the characters, he has told the audience the theme of his story before a word is spoken. He has also generalized the particular, giving scope and significance to his drama beyond that which attaches to the individuals directly involved in the play. The movement of the people, the different quality of the laughter, and the spectacle as a whole with its attendant pantomime, typical of his method referred to in the preceding section, all contribute to the meaning and the understanding of the play.
The first act of Marco Millions is pure symbolism. In the prologue three great religions are represented, each being an outward symbol without inward meaning, except as a justification for such prejudices as serve the practical ends of each who professes it. This is further emphasized by the procession of the dead Queen. For the moment she represents power and the others end their conflict by becoming slaves in her train—the train of a dead Queen.
The six scenes of the first act symbolize the progress of Marco Polo from the West to the East, from the world of limited, practical values to the world of eternal values, from the world of naive faith in human values to the world of skeptical philosophy and relative standards. But it marks also another progress which could not be accomplished except by the use of symbolism. As Marco goes to the East he grows up to the West. Thus there is a reverse action which gives this particular act a charming complexity, and makes it an interesting study in the conflicting ideals of East and West, of youthful dreams and mature realities. It is further complicated by an ironic theme, for as Marco goes to the East to meet the great Khan he loses gradually, under the careful tutelage of his father and his uncle, the conception of life which would make him understand the meaning of life as reflected in the philosophy of Kublai. By means of a series of symbolic scenes Marco makes the transition from a sweet and earnest youth, proud of his dreams and his hopes, and genuine in his faith, to a shrewd business man, whose values are profits, and whose ideals are mercenary. He forgets his youthful love, and by this is symbolized the loss of all that was pure and genuine in his philosophy. The locket bearing his sweetheart's picture is stained by a prostitute's kiss, and his poem, written to his sweetheart, is ground in the dust by a prostitute's heel, but not until he has denied its authorship, which is a denial of his former ideals. He ends by being a boaster, a braggart, a man who sees clearly the mote in his neighbor's eye. He has become brave and self-confident, and he has lost the power to sympathize with others; he has lost the power to be generous; he has lost the power to love; he has become a blind automaton whose life is condemned to the vicious slavery of not even knowing that he doesn't know. This complex situation is made clear, and gives dramatic emphasis, by means of symbolism, a symbolism that develops keen and penetrating satire on Western Meals with special reference to the United States in the gambling 'twenties.
This use of symbolism has lent a poetic quality to O'Neill's prose; it has universalized his theme; and it has added an emotional quality to his realism. This method has made it possible for him at any moment in his writing to depart from the orderly, logical language of prose into the psychological sequence of imaginative language. He has been able to remain true to the realism of his characters, and at the same time suggest those strange warnings, intuitions, fantastic ideas that play on the periphery of consciousness, or lie buried in the subconscious, but at times assert themselves with painful vividness. Examples of this may be found ha every play. Old Cabot in Desire Under the Elms mixed a hard cruel sense of reality with an almost superstitious feeling for atmosphere. It seems perfectly natural to hear him say:
It's cold in this house.
and later he comes back to the same idea:
Even the music can't drive it out—somethin'. Ye kin feel it droppin' off the elums, climbin' up the roof, sneakin' down the chimney, pokin' in the corners! They's no peace in houses, they's no rest livin' with folks. Somethin's always livin' with ye.
In this particular case there is added to the symbolism a quality that is almost mystical. This speech is a soliloquy and seems to be an echo to the action that is going on in the upstairs rooms of the house, where Eben and Abbie are meeting over the cradle of the baby that the old man believes is his own. Further discussion of this mystical use of coincidence follows in the next section. At this time I wish only to emphasize the use of symbolism to intensify and give scope to the theme.
As O'Neill grew and developed as a dramatist he followed faithfully his original technique. His plays grew in scope and theme and with this growth his symbolism grew more complicated. The changes that came with maturity were changes in degree not in kind.
The rich experimental nature of O'Neill's work, which has given new life and fresh impetus to an American drama that was hopelessly enthralled by a fixed tradition, may be traced, in its major part, to his bold and imaginative use of symbolism. His first great success was The Emperor Jones, and it was his use of symbolism in setting, in action and in plot construction that stirred his audience to wonder and admiration. O'Neill had realized that modern drama need not necessarily be bound by the realistic set. Like the Elizabethans he rose above the limitation of his stage. He made his stage a servant to his art, refusing to accept the limitation imposed by tradition. Of him it was often said, and still is, as it was said of the Elizabethans, that it is ridiculous to believe that the stage can one minute be a battlefield and next a room in the king's palace. It is true that it cannot for many critics who are quite often bound so firmly by the tradition of what has been that anything new or experimental often disturbs them much more than it does the audience. This has been particularly true of the history of O'Neill criticism.
In The Great God Brown O'Neill's symbolism took the form of masks, a technique that was pushed to its utmost limits in Lazarus Laughed. In this play the masks are made to bear a heavy load, for each individual mask represents both age and quality. Seven periods of life are characterized by the masks and "Each of these periods is represented by seven different masks of general types of character as follows: The Simple, Ignorant; the Happy, Eager; the Self-Tortured, Introspective; the Proud, Self-Reliant; the Servile, Hypocritical; the Revengeful, Cruel; the Sorrowful, Resigned."
Not only does this symbolism become complex in itself, but as the play develops it is apparent that the combination of these various types and others that follow creates intricate group symbols that offer an interpretation of life-forces at war in the history of our whole Western culture. The play becomes a symbolic interpretation of life in words, in action, in pictorial effect and in pantomime. This marks the extreme of O'Neill's symbolism, and perhaps it indicates the use of symbols beyond their effectiveness for drama. If the audience is to be considered, it seems clear that some explanation beyond that of the play itself would be necessary.
For O'Neill this experiment may have been imperative to his own development. It taught him the value of the mask as well as its limitation. It should be remembered, however, that time and familiarity may still make Lazarus Laughed a successful stage play. For the author, it was a step in the direction of a new type of symbolism—that of the aside in Strange Interlude. In this play it is again the author's attempt to push back the boundaries of the stage world that gives rise to this type of symbolism. The audience is tacitly required to forget that thoughts are not spoken aloud in the presence of others, in order that it may enter more fully into the psychological analysis of the characters on the stage. His technique thus becomes a means by which he reveals the strange conflict between what man is in reality and what he is in relation to the social pattern of his life.
In this case the technique is perfect as far as the exposition of the idea is concerned, but there may be grave doubts as to its suitability for the stage. Time alone will tell the story of its success or failure. One thing is certain, that if the audience becomes familiar with this type it will establish its own laws and traditions, as has happened to every type that has survived from the past. The stage asks a compromise from the audience. It teaches the audience what it is to accept, and then on the basis of that agreement the play moves on unhampered. It is only the new that is condemned, and as historical perspective teaches us, its newness is its only sin. There can be no doubt about the value of O'Neill's technique in the particular instance of Strange Interlude. It was suited to the theme; it emphasized life as a strange interlude between the unknown sinister past and the unexplored and unknown future. It served as a means to the end of a greater understanding of the characters in the play, and at the same time universalized the theme to include the spectators in the tragedy of life.
Following Strange Interlude came Dynamo. Again he used the "aside" technique to give a symbolic interpretation of man's age-long struggle to find a meaning to life—a meaning to the meaningless. His own account of what he meant the play to be is evidence to the point of this section. He wrote of Dynamo that the play is a:
Symbolical and factual biography of what is happening in a large section of the American (and not only American) soul right now. It is really the first play of a trilogy that will dig at the roots of the sickness of to-day as I feel it—the death of an old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new one for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with. (Quoted from Clark p. 188 ff.)
His use of "symbolical and factual" indicates the combination that fits every play. Always there is this symbolism and always the symbolism is used to universalize the theme, to make it important for the race—even mankind—as well as specifically pointed for the characters in the action of the play. This may be subtly and almost abstractly represented, as by Dion's mask, or crudely and too obviously done as in the case of the money thrown into the sea in The Rope.
It is the symbol that matters in an O'Neill play, because he has something more to say than can be said in plain unshaded words. Directly following the passage quoted above are these words:
It seems to me that anyone trying to do big work nowadays must have this big subject behind all the little subjects of his plays or novels, or he is simply scribbling around on the surface of things and has no more real status than a parlor entertainer. (Ibid. p. 189 .)
The "big subject" of man's relation to the apparently meaningless world that modern science has revealed has always been O'Neill's problem. He realizes that "Long fed on boundless hopes, O race of man, how angrily thou spurn'st all simpler fare," and his work has made a powerful gesture in the direction of a solution. There are those who hold that this is O'Neill's great fault as a dramatist, that he is worrying too much about the destiny of man and not enough about entertainment in the theater. Then there are critics who will not even grant him his place as a thinker among the dramatists. A notable example is St. John Ervine review of Mourning Becomes Electra. No one can say where the truth lies, but it may be held with some degree of certainty, that if O'Neill is to have a life beyond that of entertaining his audience of today, it will be partially due to the fact that he was at least as much concerned about the universal problem of man and his universe as he was about the dramatization of a particular situation. He has had something to say that was worth saying, worth preserving.
The notes to Mourning Becomes Electra indicate how the mind of O'Neill is first of all attracted to the problem of giving a broad and universal significance to his theme, a problem he always solves by means of symbolic representation. Thus in Note #1 is this statement:
Modern psychological drama using one of the old legend plots of Greek tragedy for its basic theme—the Electra story?—the Medea? Is it possible to get modern psychological approximation of Greek sense of fate into such a play, which an intelligent audience of to-day, possessed by no belief in gods or supernatural retribution, could accept and be moved by?
Note #2, written two years later, places the emphasis again upon broadening the implications of the original Electra theme making it include "—most comprehensive intense basic human interrelationships—can easily be widened in scope to include still others." And this is followed in Note #5 by a specific reference to the characters: "Work out this symbol of family resemblances and identification."
When it came to the actual writing of the play his theory and practice of symbolic representation become even more clear. Thus he writes:
"Mourning Becomes Electra"—Technique—for first draft use comparatively straight realism—this first draft only for purpose of getting plot material into definite form—then lay aside for period and later decide how to go on to final version—what departures necessary-whether to use masks, soliloquies, asides, etc. (Note #9)
Here it is clear that the straight realistic technique is for O'Neill nothing more than a convenient way of organizing the plot; it is but a means to an end and that end is symbolic representation.
The next step involves the selection of the type of symbolism to be used for this particular play. It is the crucial problem for O'Neill in any play. In this case his own words give objective evidence. He ponders various types that hark back to earlier practices, even going so far as actually to perform the labor of working them into the play and later discarding them as unsuited for the Electra theme.
His first draft, following the straight realistic technique, gives him some satisfaction but on the whole he calls it "lousy—not enough meat." His meaning is brought out in his next comment, "not enough sense of fate hovering over characters, fate of family—living in a house built by Atreus' hatred (Abe Mannon)—a psychological fate—." What it lacks is the symbolic implication, the one element needed to express O'Neill's meaning. He feels this so deeply that a few lines further in the same note he adds:
Use every means to gain added depth and scope—can always cut what is unnecessary afterwards—will write second draft using half masks and an "Interlude" technique (combination "Lazarus" and "Interlude") and see what can be gotten out of that—think these will aid me to get just the right effect—must get more distance and perspective—more sense of fate—more sense of the unreal behind what we call reality which is the real reality!—the unrealistic truth wearing the mask of lying reality, that is the right feeling for this trilogy, if I can only catch it!
Pattern of exterior and interior scenes, beginning and ending with exterior in each play—with the one ship scene at the center of the second play (this, center of whole work) emphasizing sea background of family and symbolic motive of sea as means of escape and release—
Develop South Sea Island motive—its appeal for them all (in various aspects)—release, peace, security, beauty, freedom of conscience, sinlessness, etc.—longing for the primitive—and mother symbol—yearning for pre-natal non-competitive freedom from fear—make this Island theme recurrent motive—
Then follows emphasis on the resemblances in appearance, which is intensified by the use of masks. (In the final version abandoned for the "life-like mask impression" of the Mannon features.) This is followed by:
'Shenandoah'—use this more—as a sort of theme song—its simple sad rhythm of hopeless sea longing peculiarly significant—even the stupid words have striking meaning when considered in relation to tragic events in play—
It must not be inferred from this discussion of O'Neill's use of symbolism that he deprecates the drama which aims at and achieves success in straight realism. He lays down no inflexible dogma, but for himself he needs the wider field and the deeper, often dimly felt meanings that some form of symbolism will give. He has written: "Not masks for all plays, naturally. Obviously not for plays conceived in purely realistic terms." (The American Spectator. Nov. 1932) in the same article his criticism of modern drama points towards the further and more universal use of masks for rendering:
The profound hidden conflicts of the mind which the probings of psychology continue to disclose to us. He must find some method to present this inner drama in his work, or confess himself incapable of portraying one of the most characteristic preoccupations and uniquely significant, spiritual impulses of his time.
Which is but further evidence of what the drama as an art form means to O'Neill. The drama to him is a powerful medium through which the dark surging of man's inner life sheds for a moment its unreal mask. His plays reveal the unreal reality, the concealed truth; they give form and substance to the dream; they lend to that airy nothing which is in reality everything, "a local habitation and a name."
A technique which makes use of symbolism and at the same time remains true to the best traditions of modern realism must eschew the deadly temptations of mysticism. O'Neill likes to believe that there is a strong mystical urge in his nature, but he knows better than to give it a free rein.
There have been times when his strong sense for realistic technique has been tempted beyond the border line. Examples are rare but may still be found in many of his plays from his earliest to his most recent. Fog offers a typical example. A poet, a business man, a woman and a child are adrift in a life-boat. They are survivors from a shipwreck. The ending is climaxed by the arrival of a rescue ship whose officer claims that he was guided through the fog to their boat by the cries of a child. The child has really been dead for twentyfour hours. This type of Maeterlinck technique does not ring true in O'Neill. To the realist it is a violation of truth.
In Desire Under the Elms there is a situation that comes within the realm of the possible, but by implication it leads the audience to accept more than a rational mind will countenance. The scene reveals Abbie and Eben in their respective rooms in the upstairs of the house. Only a wall divides them. Then comes this in the stage directions:
Eben and Abbie stare at each other through the wall. Eben sighs heavily and Abbie echoes it. Both become terribly nervous, uneasy. Finally Abbie gets up and listens, her ear to the wall He acts as if he saw every move she was making; he becomes resolutely still. She seems driven into a decision—goes out the door in rear determinedly. His eyes follow her.
These instructions imply the transference of thought without words or visible actions. If telepathy had any basis in fact, it could be a very powerful medium in drama, but it hasn't and any temptation to use it must result in a weakened structure. O'Neill knows this and only at rare intervals does he use scenes such as that quoted above, and in this case it might even be argued that coincidence and not telepathy is implied. In either case it would be weak, for coincidence that functions in a series of actions to a second of time is too rare to have any value in the realms of probability.
Strange Interlude and Dynamo have scenes which suggest comparison, although in both these plays the "aside" technique gives more probability to the situations presented. In Mourning Becomes Electra there is one situation which bears a close resemblance to those already mentioned. When General Mannon discovers that Christine has given him poison, he cries out: "Help! Vinnie!" As if in answer to his call, Vinnie appears in the doorway explaining her presence by saying: "I had a horrible dream—I thought I heard Father calling me—it woke me up—"
This attempt to explain her appearance seems a trifle far-fetched. The implication that is unavoidable is that there was a mystical transference of thought. It must be admitted that from a psychological point of view it is perfectly reasonable to believe that Vinnie should have dreamed of her father's danger and imagined that he called her, but it is the perfect coördination in time that casts doubt on its probability. It is all the more significant in this case, because all the future action of the play hangs upon the discovery that Vinnie makes by her appearance on the scene at this critical moment.*
Too much emphasis must not be placed upon this type of symbolism in O'Neill. It may be a weakness, or it may be evidence of his desire to push symbolic representation to its limits. If so, these are examples in which the limits have been exceeded. They serve as an interesting study in the impatience and rebellion of the creative mind. It demands more than earth will give, and as it flutters on the very borderline of human adventure in the chaos and mystery of life, it is not strange that at times it should go beyond the limits which are rationally possible. Interesting parallels to O'Neill's practice in this particular might be found in Dreiser's account of his earlier literary experiences, and also in the character of Eugene Witla in The Genius. Convenient as the method is in solving difficult problems, it is of doubtful value. Even the satirical note of Marco Millions scarcely excuses The Great Khan's use of crystal gazing to discover what happened in Venice after Marco's return.
Every title O'Neill has chosen for his plays is strongly symbolic, and in addition to the symbolism there is irony. This combination of symbolism and irony in the titles reveals the serious analytic nature of O'Neill's mind, for his irony is not scornful of man's tragedy, but sympathetic and bitter. His bitterness springs from his sympathy with man's suffering, and the bitterness accompanies his realization that man submits to poverty in the midst of plenty. Poverty and plenty must be understood to apply to things of the mind as well as of the body. In an O'Neill play there is a wealth of potential happiness barred to those that suffer in his imagined world, and the barrier could be torn away if man had the power and the wisdom to know that his slavery is self-imposed.
The early one-act plays show by their titles that O'Neill has always regarded his art as serious and symbolic. The Web which comes first in the order of composition is symbolic of the web of life from which man escapes only by escaping from life itself. In this play it is Rose Thomas, a prostitute whose destiny is controlled by the meshes of life's ironic web, just as nearly twenty years later it was to be Lavinia Marmon whose life was to be portrayed as hopelessly entangled in a net of circumstances which her struggles to unravel led only to a deeper and firmer imprisonment. Thirst and Recklessness are less important in this early group, but Fog and Warnings are decidedly and clearly symbolic. Fog and Web are typical symbols in O'Neill's plays. To him they have a definite place in the analysis of modern life. Not only is man caught in a web, but his life is confused by a fog in which he sees nothing clearly. In at least one other play, Anna Christie, is the fog used as a symbol. Chris Christopherson may be able to guide his old coal barge through Atlantic fogs, but the fog that surrounds his mental life is too dense for his powers as a navigator. He avoids the dangers of the sea, but he wrecks his life and that of others in the dense fog of ignorance.
In the next series of one-act plays the combination of the symbolic and the ironic is definitely revealed. Thus Bound East for Cardiff becomes another way of saying that Yank is "going west." The Moon of the Caribbees suggests the romantic glamor of a tropical night, but instead the moon looks down on struggle, disappointment and sorrow. The Long Voyage Home lays final stress on the long voyage, for home is never reached.
Then comes Beyond the Horizon a title which suggests that longed-for haven which man forever pursues, but is by the laws of logic eternally forbidden to reach. There is a combination of pity and irony in this title that is carried out consistently in the subject matter of the drama. The same ironic touch is intensified in the next title The Emperor Jones. There is something that approaches the ludicrous in the association of nobility with the name of Jones. As the play develops and the phantom forms of Jones' past appear before him, each one demanding a remnant of his selfacquired noble rank, the ludicrous changes to sympathy, and pity and terror attend the disintegration of the Emperor into the fear-stricken figure of a poor Negro fleeing imaginary evils into the arms of death.
His use of symbolism in his titles is well illustrated by Gold, a play in which Captain Bartlett's passion for buried treasure leads him to being an accomplice in murder, and later, in the ruination of himself. The irony is bitter and tragic, for Captain Bartlett wanted gold in order that he might give his wife and children happiness and social security. Instead he destroys their happiness and brings them misery and sorrow. In an earlier one-act version, this play was entitled Where the Cross is Made, a title which shows the idea he meant to convey by the title Gold. Captain Bartlett crucified himself on the cross of his passion for gold.
There is no need to prolong this particular analysis to include every play. The point is evident and its relation to the other phases of his technique clear. The ironic symbolism of All God's Chillun Got Wings should not be overlooked. Nor should one forget Desire Under the Elms which recalls vividly one of O'Neill's constant themes, that of the deadly effect of the Puritan ideal. In this play the elms signify and suggest the New England Puritan. Thus the title implies the theme, that of suppressed desire, bitterness and tragedy. The ironic note in this play is only exceeded by the startling title Lazarus Laughed.
His own discussion of the title for Mourning Becomes Electra has a direct bearing on the subject of this selection. From his own notes on the play is taken the following comment:
Title—"Mourning Becomes Electra"—that is, in old sense of word—it befits—it becomes Electra to mourn-it is her fate,—also in the usual sense (made ironical here), mourning (black) is becoming to her—it is the only color that becomes her destiny— (Note #7)
"Made ironical here" could be said of almost all the titles. It is not by accident that O'Neill wrote a play dealing with the life of Ponce de Leon and chose for his title The Fountain.
The final test of his technique is exemplified in the imaginary world which lies beyond the endings of his plays. If one allows his imagination to journey into the world beyond the ending of Dickens' David Copperfield, he will soon realize that Dickens violated the reality of the world he had created. He forces his ending to fit a desire for justice which exceeds the limitations of the world he has described in his novel. Pleasant as that may be, it is false art. It needs no voice come from the grave to tell us that Mr. Micawber will be as desperately involved in I.O.U.s in Australia as he was in England. Uriah Heep will soon be out of jail and pursuing the same deception that led to the evil recounted in the novel. The same would be true of all the characters. Dickens deceived his readers into believing that all the problems that caused confusion have been solved, but a moment's thought shows that his method was deceptive.
In O'Neill the reverse is true. With skill and artistic iustice he makes his ending consistent with the world he has revealed in his plays. Only once have the critics denied his faithfulness to his subject matter in this respect, and that was with reference to the ending of Anna Christie. O'Neill's own answer was that they misunderstood his meaning. Only a romantic judgment would see a happy ending to Anna Christie. The storm is over for the time being and there is a period of calm, but that Mat and old Chris will be permanently reconciled to each other, and to Anna, does not seem very certain. The ending is not solved by having Anna die, but it must be recognized that it is not always desirable to purchase life at any price. Anna's honesty may save the day, but "the scar of that encounter, like a sword," will lie forever between her and her troubled lord.The world beyond the ending of O'Neill's plays is as grim, true and fascinating as is the world his poetic imagination has created. It is a world of strife, victory, defeat, noble courage and brave spirits. There is no possibility of imagining final solutions in his plays. He is too close an observer, and too honest with his materials, to force his endings into a promise that evidence from his work would prove false and untrustworthy. It may be said with safety that O'Neill has not permitted his ideal of the good life to falsify his art.
Also Father Baird's premonition of John Loving's spiritual distress
and his arrival on the scene at exactly the right moment. (Days
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