Menu Bar


This Sickness of Today

"One's outer life passes in a solitude haunted by the masks of others; one's inner life passes in a solitude hounded by the masks of oneself." (O'Neill, the American Spectator, Vol. I, No. 1, p. 3.)

"Thinks I at this juncture, well, he's run away as far as he can get in that direction. Where will he hide himself next?" Days Without End


Days Without End comes as a sad surprise to all those who already knew O'Neill's final position as thinker and dramatist. The chorus of critical comment has intoned with monotonous regularity a disparaging attitude toward what they considered the dominant idea of the play. It has been called "dull, pedestrian, unpoetic, unconvincing." It has been labeled "a wraithlike wrangling of thought rather than a flowering of the soul." In general this tone of disapproval has been tinged with a touch of bitterness, a bitterness all the more keen because to most of those who reviewed the play it seemed that O'Neill failed to live up to their high expectation. They write in the vein of disappointed lovers, men who believe that their high hopes and just expectations have been destroyed. Thus in all the critical comment there is a note of sadness that permeates the general tone of disparagement.*

In all cases it is quite clear that the critical comment is not made on the basis of Days Without End in itself. Nor is it due to such technical imperfections as the play may reveal when it is seen on the stage. The honest critic may find in any single play by any author elements that displease him. He may see technical limitations, but he does not therefore necessarily condemn the structure in its entirety. It follows that there is something outside and beyond Days Without End as a play in itself that gives rise to this general voice of disfavor.

The search for an explanation of the critical attitude that prevailed when Days Without End appeared on the stage and in print must lead back to O'Neill's earlier works and into the whole critical structure of his interpretation of life in our modern mechanized world. The first point, but not the most important, which bears upon this discussion is the manner in which the play ends. Here it must be noted that the objection is not to the dramatic appropriateness of the conclusion that gives rise to dissatisfaction, but it is that the final scene appears to imply that profound psychical and ethical conflicts may be solved in a position of humble prostration before the cross of the crucified Jesus. If this were O'Neill's real meaning, and if he intended to imply that the conflicts of the modern world were all to be resolved by turning back to the church,. there might be grounds for a profound difference of opinion. Even then it would have to be admitted that for dramatic purposes and as the expression of individual opinion it can not be wholly disregarded, for the fact remains that there are people who still believe, or think that they believe, that all evil is smothered in the dust before the Cross.

It is not the conversion of John, the principal character, in this last scene that gives rise to protest, for that in itself may be relatively unimportant. But John's conversion, if it is to express a fundamental change in the whole critical attitude of O'Neill, is of vital importance. It is this latter idea which has fastened itself upon the minds of all those who have dealt with the play and its meaning. Thus Mr. Krutch in The Nation writes: "Hence if the play does not mean that he is at least contemplating surrender to an old faith rather than a new one, it is difficult to see how it can mean anything." (The Nation. Vol. 138, No. 3577, P. 111.) And why not? Because Mr. Krutch sees the play not as a work by itself, but in relation to the whole body of O'Neill's dramatic creations. And so have all the others who are dissatisfied. Like Mr. Krutch they try to see this play in relation to those that have preceded it, and it does not seem to "belong." In the same article, quoted above, Mr. Krutch writes: "The fable seems hardly relevant to any discussion of that 'sickness of today' which has always before concerned him."

It is, then, not the ending alone, nor is it the theme in itself, that gives rise to adverse critical comment. It is that in analyzing the play everyone considers it in the light of the past work of O'Neill, and on this basis, finds its values either false or futile or at best ill conceived. I hasten to add that I have no disagreement with the method of approach, nor do I hold that this play should not be treated in relation to the whole body of O'Neill's work. In that then I accept the method of Mr. Krutch and all the others who have commented on the play. The questions then arise, is it true that a thorough examination of Days Without End reveals a distinct break with the older plays, and is it true that it is not "relevant to any discussion of that 'sickness of today'?"


The answer to these questions must come from a close study of the text in relation to the whole body of O'Neill's work, and in relation to the preceding chapters of this book. The first question then is what relationships that are really significant to the whole body of O'Neill's work and expressive of his attitude to life as revealed in it may be traced in Days Without End? It must be noted that the eternal conflict in personality which has been a dominant factor in O'Neill's work is also the theme of this play. John and Loving are at war with each other. The device of having the two personalities represented by two separate characters is a new device with O'Neill, but the idea is common to almost every play that he has written. Here as always he sees life's battle fought on two fronts. There is the obvious struggle with the outward aspects of our world, but there is also the more sinister battle that is inward in its nature, a conflict that is intangible, subtle, fierce and not infrequently culminates in a disaster far more terrible than any consequence that may follow from the struggle with the outward forces. The greatest disaster that may result from the battle with the forces of nature is lack of food, clothing and shelter. This, it is true, may lead to death. But a rational man must admit that death is not the greatest evil that can befall a man. Death brings peace. As Loving expresses it, "Death is final release, the warm dark peace of annihilation."

More terrible than death is the living despair of a psychologically thwarted life. Few would be such irrational lovers of life as to claim that the incurably insane are better off in their padded cells than they would be in the quiet of the grave. But that is the extreme case. Examine O'Neill's characters to see how he has conceived the problem in Days Without End and in the earlier plays. From Captain Bartlett to Lavinia the terrible torture of an inward life that is in conflict with itself has made the dramas of O'Neill powerful tragedies of the modern world. John and Loving belong in this tradition. They are at war, as have been all their brothers and sisters in this "mad brewage" of a world.

The play opens with this conflict and once more the old familiar struggle is before us. It is clear that O'Neill has definitely related it to his past. It is also clear that John and Loving are revealing a living conflict and that all the help John gets from Father Baird is not enough to dampen the spirit of Loving whose contradictions are quick and pointed to everything that John tried to do. Thus when Eliot says, "You actually tried to prove that no such figure as Christ ever existed," Loving replies, "I still feel the same on that subject." But John, even though this doubt is in his mind feels that "He must go on! He must find a faith—somewhere!" To this Loving answers, "Is it your old secret weakness—the cowardly yearning to go back—?" This is a familiar touch. The old yearning for an answer to the unanswerable. The theme of Lazarus Laughed is here, but in this case it is as though the author had at least faced the issue squarely. He will not accept an excuse or an evasion. He is open and direct in his selfcriticism, even brutal to himself. He shows that he understands his own deep yearnings for perfection, and that he recognizes their futility in relation to any sort of an absolute.

Thus he plunges into a review of the ideas and ideals that have dominated his life. This he puts in the mouth of Father Baird who in his smug certainty of the final truth may be trusted to put them in the worst possible light. In this review Father Baird assumes the superior attitude of the one who has answered all questions by solving none, and while he seems to make John ridiculous, he really reveals the true character of John's mind as inquiring, skeptical, inquisitive and, above all, experimental. The evidence as Father Baird presents it is that John has been at various times in his young life an atheist, a socialist, an anarchist, a Nietzschean, a bolshevist, a Marxian, a devotee of "the defeatist mysticism of the East," a follower of Lao Tze and of Buddha, a Pythagorean and an Anti-Christ. In spite of the fact that Father Baird seems to regard these various adventures in the realm of thought and faith as the expressions of a wandering mind and a lost soul, the reader cannot avoid the feeling that the mind of John must be infinitely more fascinating than that of the priest who holds it ridiculous.

Not only is this a review of John's past, it is also a review of O'Neill's own past—a past that gives the lie to the superficiality that Father Baird seems to imply. The mind of O'Neill has created play upon play out of this turmoil of experience which stands as evidence that his intellectual adventures bore a rich and a varied fruitage in the realm of art. It further shows that in Days Without End O'Neill is offering a dramatic review of his past struggles. It is in this sense one of the most profoundly self-analytical plays he has ever written, one in which he has not spared himself. In it he has said of himself the things that his critics did not dare to say. In the midst of his life, at the very peak of his success, he asks himself what in the nature of a positive answer has so far been achieved. Nor does he limit it to the realm of the mind, but associated with the analysis of his intellectual attitudes is the whole problem of enduring emotional values in love. When Lucy asks John, "And who are you revenging yourself on, John," he answers "Who knows? Perhaps on love. Perhaps in my soul, I hate love!"

When he comes to reviewing the plot of his proposed novel, John goes even further into the subject of selfcriticism and self-analysis:

JOHN. There always remained something in him that felt itself damned by life, damned with distrust, cursed with the inability ever to reach a lasting belief in any faith, damned by a fear of the lie hiding behind the mask of truth.

O'Neill does not allow this to pass without comment. While it brings a very satisfying "Ah!" from the priest, from Loving it provokes: "So romantic, you see—to think of himself as possessed by a damned soul!"

John continues the analysis of his hopes and fears for himself and for life. He gives an account of his horror of death and the strange fascination it held for him as though there were "something that hated life." These feelings that John describes are not new to those who have followed O'Neill's plays. These intellectual problems and emotional conflicts that John describes have permeated the whole of O'Neill's work; they must be identified as his own problems. In this particular play they get a more direct expression than they have ever before had, and they likewise get the most ruthless treatment. The mind of Loving must not be forgotten, for it is to Loving, the critic, that we must look for the final answer. Loving like Milton's Satan is the real answer to the problems posed by the poet's mind. And in this case Loving's answer is very sharp:

LOVING. A credulous, religious-minded fool, as I have pointed out! And he carried his credulity into the next period of his life, where he believed in one social or philosophical Ism after another, always on the trail of Truth! He was never courageous enough to face what he really knew was true, that there is no truth for men, that human life is unimportant and meaningless. No. He was always grasping at some absurd new faith to find an excuse for going on!

This is severe criticism of O'Neill's own past, and it is also unique as a type of self-analysis of a successful author. That it contains an element of truth must be admitted, but it must also be apparent that out of this tempestuous crusade through many years and into many strange dwelling places of the human mind has come a rich and beautiful reward. That O'Neill should express a profound dissatisfaction is evidence that the quality of his mind is genuine, something that cannot be satisfied by either popular praise or large gate receipts. Just when the world has come to his gate to pay him a measure of homage unsurpassed by any American dramatist before him, he turns a deaf ear to their applause. He looks inward and finds his old yearning for truth and perfection still unanswered. He has been the prospector in search of a mine of fabulous worth. Each strike has led to a pocket rich in itself, but not the deep inexhaustible vein his insatiable passion for eternal things demands.

There have been times when a bold outcropping of gold has led him with fever heat to deep excavations, Dynamo, only to prove a blind lead, a something to be either abandoned or surpassed. There have been great and intricate developments, Lazarus Laughed, Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra, which yielded wealth in the terms of life-meanings far beyond anything else that American drama has produced. Still he is unsatisfied, even scornful. The quest is still on. Days Without End is a review of this interesting and complicated past. If it is a failure as an acting play,** or if its concluding scene is unconvincing, the critical implications of the whole argument reveal a mind alive to the limitations and the values of the past, a mind high-strung and intense, keyed to new ventures and further explorations.


In studying this play in relation to the "sickness of today" O'Neill's subtitle must not be forgotten. He calls it A Modern Miracle Play. Just as Mourning Becomes Electra was meant to be a modern psychological treatment of a Greek theme, so Days Without End is a modern psychological interpretation of the medieval Catholic, a Faustian theme of a man with a damned soul, which he has given to the devil as he cursed and denied his God. Thus too great an emphasis upon this play as some new confession of faith on the part of the author tends to obfuscate his meaning.

The modern world has changed its terminology and its outward forms of living, but the Faust theme as expressive of an inner conflict is still true to human experience. O'Neill believes that the modern drama, if it is to have a real significance, must deal with these inner emotional conflicts. In The Great God Brown he used masks for the first time to dramatize this theme. He has stated his attitude in the following passage.

I hold more and more surely to the conviction that the use of masks will be discovered eventually to be the freest solution of the modern dramatist's problem as to how—with the greatest possible dramatic clarity and economy of means—he can express those 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. (The American Spectator, Vol. I, No. I, p. 3.)

His technique for dealing with modern psychological problems has entailed the use of the mask—or some symbolical form of mask. Days Without End makes use of a symbolic device in dealing with an ancient theme in a modern setting. It is thus not primarily conceived as a piece of personal history, but rather as an old problem that is universal in its appeal. It is O'Neill's version of the Faust legend. In The American Spectator article, quoted above, he states the germ of the idea that finds full development in Days Without End:

Consider Goethe Faust, which, psychologically speaking, should be the closest to us of all the Classics. In producing this play, I would have Mephistopheles wear the Mephistophelean mask of the face of Faust. For is not the whole of Goethe's truth for our time just that Mephistopheles and Faust are one and the same—are Faust?

In O'Neill's play John and Loving are one. The conflict that is dramatized in the play is a struggle between John Loving's faith in God and his faith in himself. In this modern version God is Love, and John has denied himself love. He has given himself over to hatred of love, which has led to a fear of life, a longing for death. In this state, severed from love, which is the only thing that can give his life meaning, he pursues endless theories of man's relation to the universe. Each explanation in turn proves to be a baseless chimera, an empty vessel to a pilgrim thirsting for truth in the desert of unbelief.

Finally his wanderings lead him back to love, represented in the play by John Loving's wife. So far all has been easy for the Tempter, Loving. Just as Faust signed his soul away to Mephistopheles, so John had given his to Loving, to the pursuit of temporal, transitory values. Loving leads John to commit adultery, the sin against love. Having accomplished this the demon tries to implant the belief in John's mind that he desires the death of his wife, for now it is of crucial importance that he destroy his faith in love. If John can be made to believe that he desires the death of his wife, then it will become clear to him that he has lost his last opportunity to find a meaning in life. He will then realize that the desire to murder his wife is really his own death-longing. When that is established he will be at the end of all experiments and lost in the clutches of the demon. From this dilemma he is rescued by a revived faith which slays the demonic power that had held him enslaved. Love becomes once more his true guide. He cries out in rapture, "Life laughs with God's love again! Life laughs with love!"


Like the former plays, Days Without End is rich in social criticism. The very title comes out of O'Neill's interest in some solution to the social and economic chaos of our modern world. He wants to "Begin to create new goals for ourselves, ends for our days!" Here as in Anna Christie, The Hairy Ape and many of his earlier plays, he is again burning with a passion for some meaning in our economic world that will have significance for the good life.

The theme of the novel which forms the basis of the plot in Days Without End is that of a man lost in a meaningless world, a world which has grown psychopathic in its pursuit of wealth. O'Neill has attempted to deal with that "sickness of today" in the terms of its effect upon personality. He is analyzing it from its psychological implications, which is the true function of the artist. Some of the modern economic critics have found grave fault with his analysis because he has failed to show man finding a clear answer in the midst of the chaos. They imply that if he would only think as they do he would see that there is a definite solution to this modern madness in a new economic order. A quotation here from V. F. Calverton The Liberation of American Literature will illustrate this attitude and place the issue clearly. He writes,

"Overwhelmed by the age that is upon him, and driven within himself for a solution of the contradictions which the age represents, O'Neill has fumbled and floundered in every direction in an attempt to find truth and free it from its fetters. Mentally bandaged as he is by a world which has provided no faith for him to live by or accept, his excursions into the psychic frontiers of personality have resulted only in a kind of magnificent confusion. In play after play he has endeavored to escape that confusion—but confusion only mounts and multiplies. Brilliant with insights into individual personalities as his plays always are, nowhere do they catch up with those personalities in terms of those deeper values, which reveal the relationship between personality and civilization."

The essence of Mr. Calverton's objection is that O'Neill has found no sure solution to the problems of our modern world. Mr. Calverton would be satisfied if O'Neill could only have all of his characters triumph over their deep-seated ills by becoming earnest workers in a collectivist political party. Perhaps I can illustrate the difference between Calverton and O'Neill by a brief story of a passage at arms between Dr. Rebec, my former professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon, and a visiting clergyman. The clergyman preached a baccalaureate sermon in which he condemned the philosophers as people who are imprisoned in a dark room, searching for a black cat that isn't there. At a banquet following the address Dr. Rebec rose to make a speech, and in it he replied to the clergyman's condemnation of philosophers. He said: "It is true that the philosopher searches in a dark room for a black cat that isn't there. The difference between the philosopher and the clergyman is that the clergyman finds the cat."

Now it is quite clear that if Mr. Calverton hasn't already caught the cat he knows where it can be found, and he is not very well satisfied with the artist who spends all his time searching, but is unable to make the proper discovery. It might be said that in Days Without End O'Neill has found a cat, but if he has we can be pretty sure that it is not the kind of a cat that Calverton would want him to find.

O'Neill does not find a conclusive answer to this "sickness of today" because he cannot convince himself that there is any final answer. The latest panacea is Communism in one form or another. That Communism may easily offer us a better economic system than the anarchy of capitalism might be admitted, but what does it offer the creative artist? It may offer security at the price of slavery. As John puts it, "Slavery means security—of a kind, the only kind they have the courage for. It means they need not think. They have only to obey orders from owners who are, in turn, their slaves!" O'Neill, it is true, is disturbed, but he is also critical. He sees no sure answer, but he sees the need for analysis of ideals, discussions of values, even if need be a re-definition of old values, in the hope that the experiment may bring something to light that will help to cure the sickness which is driving Western culture into a deadly decline.

Days Without End deals with this problem. It presents it in every scene in one form or another. It is studied from various angles and finally forced to a conclusion that may not be convincing, but serves the need for a dramatic ending. John and Loving who are nearly always in conflict come very close together on this subject of social sickness. The speech of the one follows almost without distinction the argument of the other. Both are clear that society is drifting in a world without ends, without objectives that are worth seeking. John's speech is to the point:

JOHN. I listen to people talking about this universal breakdown we are in and I marvel at their stupid cowardice. It is so obvious that they deliberately cheat themselves because their fear of change won't let them face the truth. They don't want to understand what has happened to them. All they want is to start the merry-go-round of blind greed all over again. They no longer know what they want this country to be, what they want it to become, where they want it to go. It has lost all meaning for them except as a pig-wallow. And so their lives as citizens have no beginnings, no ends.

To this Loving adds a satirical touch by condemning the romantic idea of freedom, and pointing out that in our modern world of science "we are all the slaves of meaningless chance—electricity or something, which whirls us—on to Hercules!" And with this John expresses perfect agreement, asserting the same positive attitude toward life that has always characterized O'Neill's thought:

JOHN. Very well! On to Hercules! Let us face that! Once we have accepted it without evasion, we can begin to create new goals for ourselves, ends for our days! A new discipline for life will spring into being, a new will and power to live, a new ideal to measure the value of our lives by!

No matter what opinions may eventually predominate as to the final dramatic value of this play, it is certain that O'Neill is keenly alive to the issues social, economic and philosophical that confront the modern world. Communism, Fascism, Socialism, youth movements, all the chaos of thought cries out for a meaning that will give direction. No more stirring drama ever was enacted by civilized man than is now being performed before our eyes in all parts of the world. Now it is no longer the individual king who may lose his throne, it is Western civilization. O'Neill has felt this and given it expression in Days Without End. That his dramatization of our endless days may not be all that we could wish such a play to be is not the question. He has grappled with the monster that stalks our spirit and we roam in the sinister shadows of our own creation. With John, modern man may well cry:

JOHN. We need a new leader who will teach us that ideal, who by his life will exemplify it and make it a living truth for us—a man who will prove that man's fleeting life in time and space can be noble. We need, above all, to learn again to believe in the possibility of nobility of spirit in ourselves! A new savior must be born who will reveal to us how we can be saved from ourselves, so that we can be free of the past and inherit the future and not perish by it.

The modern world needs leadership, that is admitted, and Loving's comment, that we "have passed beyond gods" points to the truth that if we would be saved we must save ourselves. O'Neill knows this well, but he also remembers that man's past history gives but slight promise of wisdom in matters that pertain to the social ideal. He is not blind to the naive character of John's plea for leadership. Loving knows that "the pseudo-Nietzschean savior I just evoked out of my past is an equally futile ghost. Even if he came we'd only send him to an insane asylum for teaching that we should have a nobler aim for our lives than getting all four feet in a trough of swill! How could we consider such an unpatriotic idea as anything but insane?"

Is there a final answer? O'Neill does not offer anything that is satisfactory or that is in harmony with the critical character of his analysis. For dramatic purposes John is forced to a decision that is a negation of all that Loving defends intellectually.

This is not accomplished without ample indication that the decision cannot be final. John describes his novel-hero's conversion, but Loving adds, "This cowardly giving in to his weakness is not the end," for "there is a mocking rational something in him that laughs with scorn—and at the last moment his will and pride revive in him again! He sees clearly by the light of reason the degradation of his pitiful surrender to old ghostly comforts—and he rejects them!" A little later John affirms this statement, saying, "He realizes that he can never believe in his lost faith again." He admits the hopelessness of a final solution, but holds that "It is man's duty to life to go on!"

Now, as far as the drama is concerned it must carry on to an ending. The conflict between John and Loving must be resolved. So far the honors have been equal; in many cases where the issue touched on vital problems the two personalities were so dangerously near to harmony as to be almost devoid of conflict. Then comes the serious illness of John's wife, which adds force to the needs of his passional nature. The gap between John and Loving is widened, and finally we are led to believe that the battle will be fought to a standstill, forced to a victory that will be complete and final.

In that conclusion many may disagree and they may justly hold that it is a departure from the usual procedure of the author. The ending may not be convincing, for there are those who will doubt that the victory is complete when John turns from the church, leaving the dead body of Loving on the floor. There is something tenacious about Loving. He is also subtle, clever and at times even wily. Not only that, he may be immortal. Thus when John leaves the church at peace with himself, and confident that the old questioning, doubting spirit of Loving is dead, he may really be deceived. Perhaps when he is sitting in his study late the following night he will find that Loving was scotched but not slain. For there he stands at John's elbow once more. Once more his strong, sardonic laughter rings out through the room. The old argument begins once more. Loving again asks questions, suggests doubts, loses battles, but in the end wins the real victory, for his is the inquiring, the skeptical mind, his is the mind of Eugene O'Neill.

* For the sake of accuracy it should be noted that not all comment has been adverse, nor has the play failed as an acting piece on the stage. H. T. Parker criticism in the Boston Transcript, written without Catholic bias, is worthy of high praise as a fine critical evaluation that is not unfavorable to the play. Days Without End has been successfully produced at The Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and it will be performed both in Holland and Sweden in 1934.

** This may truly be considered relative, for it ran seven weeks on the New York stage, and was successfully produced in Boston, not to mention its European record.

O'Neill and Modern Tragedy

© Copyright 1999-2009