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The Theater of Trauma

American Modernist Drama and the Psychological Contest for the American Mind, 1900-1930

Michael Cotsell
New York: Peter Lang, 2005
First edition


Chapter 11: The Matriarchal Offense

Chapter 12: Mimetic and Traumatic Doubling in O’Neill


In “The Theater of Trauma” I demonstrate that rather than being dominated by Freud, the American modernist period was psychologically eclectic and contested. As or even more influential on writers was the psychiatry of Pierre Janet ( 1859-1947) and his associates, who included William James, Morton Prince and others, which focused on hysteria, trauma, dissociation, and multiple personality (dedoublement). Literary figures knew Janet directly, or read him through James, or understood him through his American followers, or absorbed him through literary influences such as Strindberg and German Expressionism. As well the War and the recognition of “shell-shock” gave trauma a new urgency.

Appreciation of the drama of O’Neill and his contemporaries benefits from recognition of its exploration of trauma and dissociation. In the case of O’Neill, it seems that no American writer has so much been read as Freudian, and no American writer has been so much criticized for being Freudian! I try to offer an alternative approach to his remarkable and enduring plays.


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