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Staging Depth

Eugene O'Neill and the Politics of Psychological Discourse

Joel Pfister
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995
First edition


Because our understanding of Eugene O'Neill's plays has been so profoundly shaped by the notion of the psychological self, we have tended to overlook how our sense of the psychological self has been shaped in turn by the plays of Eugene O'Neill. In his new book, Staging Depth: Eugene O'Neill and the Politics of Psychological Discourse, Joel Pfister looks at how O'Neill staged a model of psychological "depth" which negotiated the changing shape of identity for middle-class audiences in the early to mid-20th century United States. He argues that this model of the psychological self not only situated O'Neill as a serious literary artist but functioned to transform his audience's class anxieties into individual neuroses.

Pfister begins his study by contextualizing the biographical tradition of O'Neill scholarship within the intertwining histories of the bourgeois family and the psychological self. Those who know Pfister's first book, The Production of Personal Life: Class, Gender, and the Psychological in Hawthorne's Fiction, will recognize a common concern here, namely the way the notion of the psychological self was created for a burgeoning professional-managerial class anxious about its producer-status under capitalism. Following through on his thesis that Hawthorne began the work of producing a psychological identity for an emergent middle class, Pfister (End Page 113) shows in his new book how O'Neill helped to secure that identity (and his reputation) by staging the psychological self according to a model of "depth." Based upon popular interpretations of Freud, O'Neill constructed his version of the psychological self as a web of neuroses and desires which encoded the fractured history of the individual and his/her relationship to the family. Pfister discusses how O'Neill's plays not only bracket this tortured and agonizing self apart from its cultural and material context, but aestheticize the pathologized self as emotionally-fraught, intellectual, and/or "deep."

Pfister suggests that this construction of the self performed for the professional-managerial class attending O'Neill's plays, offered an explanation for the contradictions they experienced under capitalism. The psychological self that O'Neill popularized functioned to internalize social conflicts and class anxieties, making them appear as individual neuroses which could be mystified as both "natural" and "universal." Pfister cites as evidence reviews and criticism of O'Neill's contemporaries on the Left who accused him of using psychology to avoid addressing problems of the social real. By doing so, he recovers an important body of criticism which has been all too often omitted from critical overviews of O'Neill's career. Pfister reminds us, for instance, that Lionel Trilling had noted that the middle class "wanted certain of its taboos broken and O'Neill broke them" (quoted on 96). But, as Pfister points out, the energy used to break these taboos derived from the radical social movements in and around Greenwich Village in the 1910s. He shows how O'Neill's interest in the feminist-anarchism of Emma Goldman, linking sexual ownership to property relations, developed into an interest in the Individualist anarchism espoused by Benjamin Tucker which rooted lusts and desires within a purely psychological framework. Thus, Pfister gives us a bridge for understanding how O'Neill's interest in psychological conflict developed out of an initial interest in social conflict.

If the book only provided this important context for understanding how the psychological self became naturalized within O'Neill's plays, it would be well worth reading. But Staging Depth goes on to show how O'Neill also demonstrates an awareness of the way the self may be consciously shaped and staged for others. Conjecturing that a constructed model of the self might have been made available to O'Neill by fellow Provincetown playwright Susan Glaspell, Pfister proposes a wonderful reconsideration of her plays. Offering brief readings of Trifles, Woman's Honor, and The Verge, as well as Suppressed Desires (co-written with her husband and Provincetown founder George "Jig" Cram Cook), Pfister suggests that Glaspell's plays provide a counter to the model of the psychological self popularized by O'Neill. Rather than exemplify and even naturalize psychological "depth," Glaspell's characters demonstrate an awareness of the way their gendered selves are situated within the dominant social and ideological structure. Pfister suggests that O'Neill noted the significance of Glaspell's counter-model (even if the critics and scholars who created the canon of modern American drama did not) and drew upon it in later plays such as A Touch Of The Poet and Long Day's Journey Into Night. Although Pfister sees this awareness most explicitly at work in the later plays, he argues that evidence of both naturalized and constructed models of the self appear in almost all of O'Neill's plays, functioning dialectically throughout his career.

If this book has any shortcoming at all it is that, in opening up O'Neill's work to a full-scale ideological critique, it can only point to issues which beg to be addressed at greater length. For instance, while Pfister makes a compelling reading of the Emperor Jones in relation to cultural discourses dealing with the New Negro and black primitivism current among both black and white intellectuals in the 1920s, his brief account invites further investigation. And while he reminds us that the psychological self is not only a construct but one that is produced within a specific historical moment, he does not explore the way this psychological self was embodied by actors in performance or deployed by other theatrical means (e.g., the use of symbolic staging). But, I see this as the mark of a provocative new study which contributes potentially more to its field than the claims it makes and the evidence that it sets forth; it raises issues and poses questions that other scholars will be certain to want to take up.

For this reason and many others, Staging Depth is a significant contribution to O'Neill criticism, the study of American drama, and American cultural studies more generally. By offering an ideological critique of O'Neill, his plays, and the psychological discourse that he helped popularize, it signals an important shift in O'Neill studies toward a more comprehensively historicist understanding of the man and his plays. And while it draws upon newer models of cultural theory and literary criticism, the book is eminently readable and should be welcomed by interested non-academics as well as serious scholars. In short, it offers a much-needed reevaluation of O'Neill--one that does not diminish his importance within American cultural history (End Page 114) but, rather, seeks to examine how and why he rose to such a level of cultural prominence in the first place.Julia A. Walker , William and Mary


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