Female Characters in Eugene O’Neill’s Plays

Like many other male writers, Eugene O’Neill created a world populated primarily by men. From the sea plays at the beginning of his career to such late works as The Iceman Cometh and Hughie, men dominate his theatrical space. A simple number count confirms that only about one-third of the onstage characters in O’Neill’s dramas are female. It is also true that the playwright’s conception of women is rooted in a traditional equation of “feminine” with “maternal” that limits his ability to cast women in subject positions rather than as objects of masculine desire. Still, O’Neill’s female characters cannot all be easily pigeonholed into neat categories, and even his myriad Madonnas and whores frequently transcend the cultural and theatrical cliches he inherited.

The female characters in what might be called O’Neill‘s apprentice plays, those written in the years leading up to his Broadway debut in 1920 with  Beyond the Horizon, are a curious mix, suggesting the influence of two and perhaps even three of the major modern dramatists who preceded him. Among the early works are a handful of problem plays like those favoured by Henrik Ibsen. Servitude (1914), for example, is an extraordinarily talky drama about David Roylston, a writer whose preachings on “self-fulfillment” make him a guru to legions of female readers, including the beautiful Ethel Frazer. But Mrs. Frazer is disgusted to learn of Roylston’s disdain for his wife, Alice, who supported his career by working as a stenographer, typing his manuscripts, and keeping house. In what Joel Pfister aptly calls a “weird blend of feminist and antifeminist sentiments,'” Roylston comes to appreciate Alice’s declaration that “Love means servi tude, “although it’s unclear how he will act on that knowledge. The Personal Equation, written while O’Neill was studying playwriting at Harvard in 1915, includes what might be his most promising feminist. Olga Tarnoff is a radical who scorns marriage as an institution that sanctions male ownership of women and asks her live-in lover: “Aren’t we equals when we fight for liberty – regardless of sex?” (CP I, 313) Pregnancy and impending motherhood temper Olga’s radicalism, but she retains a measure of her revolutionary fervor at the play’s ironic conclusion.

Female crusaders are rare in the O’Neill canon, however, and O’Neill’s greater debt is to August Strindberg and what critics often call the Strindbergian female “destroyer.” Maud Steele in Bread and Butter (1914) nags John Brown into marriage, ruins his dreams of a painting career, and finally provokes him into a murderous rage and suicide. The “breakfast” Mrs. Rowland prepares for her spouse in Before Breakfast (1916) – equal helpings of mockery, recrimination, and self-pity – proves lethal. Only marginally more sympathetic is Ruth Atkins in Beyond the Horizon. In aborting Robert Mayo’s dreams of sailing to faraway lands, she destroys Robert and helps turn his brother Andrew into a greedy speculator. The formula for these plays seems to be the venerable myth that domesticity, even when freely chosen, kills the male of the specie^;^ woman is a trope for the bourgeois life, the insensitivity and materialism that annihilate the artistic soul. These early denizens of O’Neill’s world look forward to more fully developed female destroyers like Ella Harris in All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1923)~w ho celebrates her husband Jim’s failure to pass the bar examination; Margaret Anthony in The Great God Brown (1925), who is so terrified of Dion’s artistic temperament that she cannot even look at him unless he’s masked; and the unseen Evelyn Hickman in The Iceman Cometh (1940), whose insistence on conventional morality drives her husband to murder her.

Between 1915 and 1922, several of O’Neill‘s colleagues at the Province town Players were creating dramas centering around women’s ambitions. But while Susan Glaspell’s Claire Archer conducts botanical experiments in The Verge and Neith Boyce’s widowed Rachel Westcott plans a career as a dressmaker in Winter’s Night, O’Neill’s female characters are rarely artists, adventurers or dreamers – unless the “dream” is of love. Throughout O’Neill’s canon, as Doris Nelson notes, his heroines define themselves primarily or wholly in terms of “their relationships to the men in their lives”4 or less commonly their offspring; jobs are at best secondary compensations. Lily Miller in Ah, Wilderness! (1933) sees teaching primarily as a way to nurture the children she herself hasn’t borne. Even Eleanor Cape in Welded (1923) only performs roles written by her husband, who scoffs: “Good God, how dare you criticize creative work, you actress!” (CP 11, 249). (Given O’Neill’s often harsh comments about the acting profession, it’s hard not to detect his own feelings in Michael Cape’s distinction between the writer’s creativity and the thespian’s rote mimicry.) Hattie Harris, a proud career woman, is both a minor character in All God’s Chillun Got Wings and an anomaly in O’Neill’s universe. To signal her lack of gender conformity, the stage direction indicates that she is dressed “mannishly” (CP 11, 297).

wild1330x590If O’Neill’s female characters earn their own living, they are likely to do so on their backs. While O’Neill was no George Bernard Shaw, exposing how capitalism made prostitution one of the few job opportunities for women, he was aware that women are a commodity exchanged among men. For the sailors in The Moon of the Caribbees (1918), the price of a pint of rum is three shillings while sex with the island women costs four shillings. Freda in The Long Voyage Home (1917) participates in the shanghai-ing of Olson, a sailor who yearns to return to his Swedish homeland. Freda gains little more for her efforts, however, than a vicious slap from the proprietor of the dive where she works. In the melodramatic one-acter The Web (1913), Rose Thomas is the consumptive mother of an infant. She tries several times to leave prostitution, only to be scorned by the self-righteous “good people” and ultimately framed for murder by her pimp. The “web” in which Rose is caught is clearly patriarchal: she earns her living pleasing men, gives her money to a man, and ultimately is replaced by a policeman, who informs the crying baby, “I’m your Mama now” (CP I, 28). At its worst, prostitution prevents women from fulfilling their primary role: motherhood.

O’Neill‘s most fully realized prostitute is the protagonist of Anna Christie (1920). In the play’s first version, entitled Chris Christophersen, the plot focuses on Anna’s father. The Anna of Chris is a wholly incongruous figure in O’Neill’s universe, a prim British-bred typist who inexplicably falls in love with the sea and a young sailor. As the work evolved into Anna Christie, Anna developed into a cynical prostitute. Raped by her cousin at sixteen, Anna left the farm where she was raised and escaped to the city. After two years of unsatisfying hard work and unrelenting sexual harassment, she entered a brothel. Anna claims to detest all men and becomes furious when her father and lover fight over her as if she were their property. She insists “I can make it myself – one way or other. I’m my own boss” (CP I, I O O ~ ) ,a strong statement even though it fails to acknowledge that Anna has been “making it” by selling herself to the lowest bidders.

From one perspective Anna Christie is a variation on the oldest stage cliche: the prostitute redeemed by love of a good man, stoker Mat Burke. Yet O’Neill probes deeper, for the feisty Anna challenges the “goodness” of men like Mat who patronize (in all senses) women like her. Margaret Ranald reveals that in an intermediary script between Chris Christophersen and Anna Christie, the version of the drama entitled The Ole Davil, Anna is “more aggressive, more damaged by her past experiences, and  more turned against men than her later counterpart”5 Apparently the Anna of The Ole Davil was just a little too independent for O’Neill, but the Anna of the final version remains sharper and more articulate than most of her stage predecessors.

On the other hand, O’Neill was equally capable of sentimentalizing prostitution, often in disturbing ways. The amiable “tarts” in The Iceman Cometh humor their pimp as if he were a cherished brother. The prostitute in Welded, simply named Woman, grins when she acknowledges that her pimp may beat her up “just for the fun of it” (CP 11, 266). Welded‘s protagonist, Michael Cape, is so impressed with her willingness to accept her brutal life that he announces he’s joined her “church” (CP 11, 267). The Great God Brown‘s Cybel wears the mask of a prostitute, but she is virtually a caricature of O’Neill’s favorite version of the whore-with-a-heart- of-gold, the “Earth Mother . “The full-breasted Cybel chews gum “like a sacred cow,” offers a refuge for the tormented Dion Anthony, and eases the suffering Billy Brown into death.

As his playwriting talents developed, O’Neill began to envision more complex female characters. Neither cynical prostitute nor Earth Mother, Nina Leeds stands at the center of Strange Interlude (1927), which traces her life from age twenty to a very early dotage at forty-five. O’Neill referred to this nine-act epic as “my woman play,” yet three of the drama’s four main characters are male, and Strange Interlude is the story of a woman who defines herself wholly in terms of the men in her life. Nina goes into nursing not because of some dedication to healing but because she believes she won’t have “found” herself until she gives herself to men. When Dr. Ned Darrell prescribes motherhood for Nina because she needs to “find normal outlets for her craving for sacrifice” (CP 11, 665), he recapitulates a popular Freudian view of female masochism.

In some ways Nina proves Ned’s prescription wrong: motherhood is not quite enough for her and she demands a lover as well as a son. But there is little suggestion of the constructedness of Nina’s dilemma, the extent to which a patriarchal society has excluded any other definitions of selfhood for women. Bette Mandl observes that Nina is largely the “currency” the men use to relate to one a n ~ t h e ry, e~t this does not seem to bother the character. Strange Interlude‘s extended “thought-asides” would seem to give the audience access to Nina’s deepest reflections, and these thoughts rarely go beyond the males in her life. In her famous “My three men” soliloquy about her husband, lover, and old friend, Nina muses that “I feel their desires converge in me! . . . to form one complete beautiful male desire which I absorb . . . and am whole . . . they dissolve in me, their life is my life” (CP 11, 756). It is their desire, not hers, that she experiences. Doris Nelson also makes the astute observation that “The stages in [Nina’s] life correspond to physical rather than intellectual change.”8 Although she has grown from a young virgin to a middle-aged widow, Nina finds herself at the end of the play virtually where she was at the beginning; the only difference is that the devoted Charlie Marsden has replaced her late father. Nina lives in a wholly male world, but neither the character nor the playwright sees this as a major cause of her unhappiness: she does not lament her lack of female friends or – like Darrell and Marsden – a fulfilling career she might have had. Instead, the blame lies with fate, God, and the biological accident of inherited mental illness.

Four years after Strange Interlude, O’Neill completed Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), which could more accurately be called his “woman play.” Although appearing relatively late in O’Neill’s career, Electra is his first work – and indeed one of very few in his canon – to explore relationships between women in any depth. A discussion of important mother-daughter bonds in the O’Neill canon would begin and end with Mourning Becomes Electra and A Touch of the Poet (1942).9 If we are looking for relationships between sisters we are out of luck entirely, and even significant female friendships are few and far between, emerging mainly in the unfinished plays of the “Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed” Cycle.10

In his depiction of Christine Mannon and her daughter, Lavinia, O’Neill again seems to have taken his cue from Freud. Freud postulated that a girl’s “turning away from the mother is accompanied by hostility; the attachment to the mother ends in hate. A hate of that kind may become very striking and last all through life.”” Lavinia eventually comes to empathize and identify with her mother, but only after her mother’s death – a suicide for which Lavinia herself is largely responsible. While Christine is alive there is no sense of love or mutual understanding between the two, and the cause of their conflict, not surprisingly, is jealousy over the men in their lives. Lavinia Mannon is obsessed with her father Ezra, and Christine admits she wouldn’t have taken a lover if her son Orin hadn’t gone off to war. The spiral of incestuous desire finally concludes with Lavinia, the most courageous of the family, who locks herself in with her memories instead of choosing the suicide into which her mother and brother escaped.

Susan Harris Smith makes the important observation that “Lavinia attains classically tragic stature only when she sacrifices the ‘natural’ and ‘female’ aspects of herself to the Mannon furies, the bastions of the political and patriarchal norm.”12 Smith here points to what might be called a female force or principle that figures in several of O’Neill‘s major works. Eben Cabot’s dead mother, who haunts much of Desire Under the Elms  (1924), is part of a feminine spirit symbolized by the trees that embrace the farmhouse. These elms, resembling “exhausted women,” (CP 11, 318), stand in diametric opposition to the stone walls built by the farm’s rigid patriarch, Ephraim. Nina Leeds thinks yearningly of a beneficent “mother God”: “The mistake began when God was created in a male image . . . That makes life so perverted, and death so unnatural. We should have imagined life as created in the birth-pain of God the Mother” (CP 11,670). Smith sees the same pattern in Mourning, where “The dominant if decadent force is male; the ‘Other,’ doomed to estranged and displaced subservience, is female.”13 Following traditional tropes, O’Neill associates this fertile feminine principle with nature – the nature of childbirth, trees, water, and the “Blessed Islands” sought by so many of the Mannons.

Still, O’Neill‘s feminine principle is not as benevolent as this suggests. The elms that shade the Cabot house in Desire are ominous growths that “appear to protect and at the same time subdue. There is a sinister maternity in their aspect, a crushing jealous absorption” (CP 11, g 18). This female force can destroy, devour, as well as comfort. Further, the “Blessed Islands” of which Orin Mannon dreams have a revealing sexual component. He tells his mother: “The breaking of the waves was your voice. The sky was the same color as your eyes. The warm sand was like your skin. The whole island was you” (CP, 11, 972). Orin’s literalized “Mother Nature” is an Oedipal vision grounded in male desire. The female god, the Blessed Islands, the recuperative powers of the feminized natural world, are all based on O’Neill’s equation of womanhood and motherhood.

Virtually every O’Neill scholar has acknowledged the deeply personal nature of his work, and the primary grist for the autobiography mill is his relationship to his mother, Ella Quinlan O’Neill. Biographers like Louis Sheaffer and critics including Michael Manheim, Doris Alexander, and Laurin Porter14 identify aspects of Ella in many if not most of the playwright’s female characters. Less commonly, scholars like Gloria Cahill invoke the influence of Sarah Sandy, the nursemaid who helped raise the young O’Neill.15 Without denying his deep ambivalence toward the mother who became a drug-addict at his birth, and her temporary surrogate, it is important to see that O’Neill’s fascination with the maternal female was as much a part of the cultural and religious air he breathed as it was of the troubled family into which he was born. The Virgin Mary, the image of sexless motherhood, remained a part of O’Neill’s iconography long after he ceased being a practicing Catholic. According to Freud, the secular priest of early twentieth-century America, “a marriage is not made secure until the wife has succeeded in making her husband her child as well and in acting as a mother to him.”16 Cahill quotes an equally telling observation from Car1 Jung, whom O’Neill admired: “Man leaves his mother.. . and is driven by the eternal thirst to find her again, and to drink renewal from her; thus he completes his cycle, and returns again into the mother’s womb.”17 Whether the playwright was influenced by the ideas of these thinkers, or whether his preoccupation with maternal figures confirms their reading of the male psyche (surely the connections go both ways), O’Neill’s vision of the feminine has deep roots.

O’Neill’s apotheosizing of the maternal female character is a dominant motif throughout his canon,18 although motherliness has little to do with biology or sexuality. His maternal women are as likely to be prostitutes, virgins, or childless wives as they are to be biological parents, while those they mother are usually adult men.19 A “maternal” character may be defined, for O’Neill, in traditional terms: one who nurtures, cares for, and protects others; one who is willing to subordinate her own dreams and concerns to her loved one’s desires; and one who forgives all transgressions. O’Neill readily exposes the limitations of the male heroes he creates; to assume that he simply speaks through them is to underestimate the complexity of his artistic vision. Still, the extent to which O’Neill’s women display these cherished maternal virtues determines not only male characters’ attitudes toward them but the playwright’s perspective as well.

The large number of O’Neill’s female characters who regard their husbands or lovers with maternal solicitude includes such diverse figures as Cybel in The Great God Brown and Madeline Arnold in Strange Interlude, the latter a woman who, at the advanced age of nineteen, has “a distinct maternal older feeling in her attitude toward” her fiancir Gordon (CP 11, 803). “My son,” “my boy,” “my poor little boy,” “poor little child,” or “my child” are terms uttered, at various times, by Olga Tarnoff in The Personal Equation, Hazel Niles in Mourning Becomes Electra, Abbie Putnam in Desire Under the Elms, Miriam in Lazarus Laughed, Nina Leeds in Strange Interlude, and Eleanor Cape in Welded. In none of these cases are they referring to children. Margaret in Brown considers her husband the eldest of her sons, an attitude she shares with Sara Harford in More Stately Mansions. One of the most astonishing love scenes in American drama shows Abbie wooing her step-son Eben with “a horribly frank mixture of lust and mother love” (CP 11, 354). Freudian psychology and Christian miracle join forces in Lazarus Laughed, where Lazarus grows younger as his wife Miriam ages. After Miriam’s death her husband looks “like a young son who keeps watch by the body of his mother” (CP 11,609).

The “good mother’s” maternal ministrations extend to husband and progeny alike. The idealized Essie Miller in Ah, Wilderness! feeds and nurses her husband and children, and appears to have no ambitions beyond her family’s physical and emotional health.20 Pathetic rather than comic, Nora Melody in A Touch of the Poet (1942) declares that she has “no pride at all” (CP, III, 280) except in her self-sacrificing love for her husband, Con. She subordinates her own desires to Con’s wishes and, while her primary allegiance is to the husband she treats “as if he were a sick child” (CP 111, 271), she still finds time to counsel her daughter, Sara.

Conversely, the numerous “bad mothers” in O’Neill’s universe fail their offspring and their spouses. The still-born infant in Before Breakfast, one of a large group of dead children in O’Neill’s plays, symbolizes Mrs. Rowland’s refusal to nurture either husband or child. While Ruth Mayo in Beyond the Horizon is victim as well as victimizer, her inability to appreciate her husband’s aspirations is mirrored in her impatience with their daughter, who is far more attached to her “daddy.” In short order, Robert follows the little girl to the grave. The unseen Rosa Parritt in The Iceman Cometh, faithful to neither lover nor son, attempts to impose her ideals of revolutionary conduct on them. The lover escapes into alcoholic skepticism and the son retaliates with betrayal, creating a burden of guilt that he can assuage only by suicide.

If O’Neill seems daring in his often sympathetic portraits of prostitutes, this is largely because to him the distinction between virgin and whore is less important than the division between those women who “mother” men and those women who do not. His male characters rarely seek out prostitutes for the sexual delights they offer; Dion Anthony, Michael Cape, Richard Miller, and Jamie Tyrone would rather talk with prostitutes than sleep with them. The compassionate whore Cybel, pursued by both Dion Anthony and Billy Brown in Brown, is a far more appealing figure than the virginal Emma Crosby of Diff’rent (1920). Emma’s unwillingness to marry Caleb because of his alleged dalliance with a “native” woman, her selfish desire to hold him to her Puritanical sexual ideal, destroys them both. Lily Miller in Ah, Wilderness! also lacks the important quality of forgiveness, but O’Neill grants her the virtues of protectiveness and nurturance. Although she too refuses to wed her errant suitor, she soothes the remorseful Sid “as if he were a little boy” (CP 111, 71) and fusses “over him like a hen that’s hatched a duck” (CP 111, 101). Lily is not romanticized as Cybel is but, unlike Emma, she is not “punished” with madness and death.

It is within this matrix of maternity that we can examine O’Neill’s late great plays, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1944). The most remarkable fact about the major female characters in Iceman (and the one-act Hughie, written shortly afterward) is their absence.21 Unseen women – alive or dead – are important throughout the O’Neill canon, beginning with A Wife for a Life (1913)~ in which two miners discuss a young woman whom both covet. The spirit of Eben’s late mother hovers over Desire Under the Elms, as the memory of Jim Tyrone’s mother dominates O’Neill’s last completed play, Moon. Ann C. Hall argues that by having the women stereotypically present while absent in Iceman, O’Neill illustrates the Lacanian thesis that women are both absent and present in a patriarchal economy.22 While such an argument has merit, it obscures the more important point: the vast number of O’Neill women who remain both faceless and voiceless. The missing wife in A Wife for a Life, like Smitty’s former girlfriend in In the Zone (1917), “speaks” only through a letter read aloud by the men, while the dead young woman in Abortion (1914) is represented on-stage by her brother. We do not see the perspectives of that “damned bitch” Evelyn Hickman, “that nagging bitch” Bessie Hope, or that “damned old bitch” Rosa Parritt, except through the eyes of their spouses, lovers and sons in Iceman. It is for the men in Harry Hope’s bar – however sodden they may be – that O’Neill seeks our understanding and empathy.

Even Mary Tyrone is kept off-stage during most of the last act of Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1941), while the men exchange stories of past disappointments and future plans. Mary is O’Neill’s most fully realized female character, a figure whose suffering exposes the limitations and paradoxes imposed on women in a world shaped around male desires. Yet the playwright himself is not exempt from those desires, and in this most autobiographical of his dramas he simultaneously understands Mary’s maternal failures and blames her for them. The Tyrone men, rather than Mary, dominate the stage as the full narrative of the family unfolds.

In part, Mary Tyrone’s dilemma is that she has found herself in an O’Neill play. Like most of O’Neill’s male characters, her husband and sons demand of her that triumvirate of virtues which Essie Miller and Nora Melody possess: nurturance, forgiveness, and renunciation of her dreams for theirs. But nurturing this family is too much for Mary, who cannot live with the anguish and guilt of a dead baby, a seriously ill son and his alcoholic older brother. It may well be that Mary’s refusal to eat, although partly a result of the drugs and perhaps a touch of vanity, symbolizes her refusal to be the mother her men seek. O’Neill’s most maternal characters – Mrs. Fife in Dynamo (1928), Cybel, Essie Miller, Nora Melody, Sara Harford, Josie Hogan – have the ample female figure, including the large comforting breasts, that Mary is anxious to avoid. Despite her protests to the contrary, Mary is also unable to pardon the men for their transgressions against her and themselves. Her repeated recitations of Tyrone’s domestic crimes, dating back to a drunken honeymoon night some thirty five years earlier, are evidence that to forgive yet never forget is not to forgive at all.

Nor can Mary entirely erase the aspirations she once had that conflicted with her desire to be a wife and mother. Tyrone attributes her reveries about a musical career to the “flattering” of naive nuns, and the playwright himself gives us no evidence of Mary’s talent: when she plays the piano, all we hear is the “stiff-fingered groping” (CP 111, 823) of an aging arthritic. But O’Neill gives some credence to Mary’s “more beautiful” dream of becoming a nun, for the opening stage directions tell us that “her most appealing quality is the simple, unaffected charm of a shy convent-girl youthfulness she has never lost – an innate unworldly innocence” (CP III, 718). Had Mary remained virginal, she would have faced few of the troubles she laments throughout Long Day’s Journey. On the other hand, of course, there would also have been no family – a family that despite everything loves her just as she, despite everything, loves them. Mary Tyrone is finally neither mother nor virgin, and in this lies much of the tragedy of the Tyrone family. The men demand that she be a mother in all senses of the word, but she cannot and will not fulfil1 that role. Yet even in her drugged stupor she cannot regain the virginal innocence for which she so desperately yearns.

Just as Mary Tyrone is neither mother nor virgin, so Josie Hogan is both, and O’Neill portrays her as the most positive female character in his stage universe. Unlike Mary, Josie is willing to be silent so that others (male) might speak. Disturbed by his drugged mother’s recriminations, Edmund begs her to “Stop talking” (CP 111, 753), and Jim Tyrone repeatedly asks Josie not to talk that “raw stuff.” One wonders whether they are troubled only by what the women are saying, or by the fact that they are speaking at all. The Tyrone men want a confessor who will sympathize with their fantasies and commiserate with them for their failures. Josie relinquishes her own story, abstains from the liquor that might (like Mary’s morphine) free her tongue, and accepts the role of listener to Jim’s tale of woe – a double role because she stands for his deceased mother as well. The identification between the two is an ominous metaphor for Josie’s renunciation of self: she symbolically merges not only with another woman, but with a woman who is dead. Indeed, in some ways Josie’s self-silencing parallels O’Neill’s silencing of numerous female “characters” by the simple expediency of leaving them offstage.

Mary is so desperate for the female companionship she knew at the convent that she bribes the servant Cathleen to spend a few minutes with her. Josie Hogan’s world is even more relentlessly masculine than Mary’s but, like Margaret Anthony, Abbie Putnam, and Nina Leeds before her, she is content to define herself in terms of men or to let them define her. Even Josie’s fantasies of being promiscuous, unacceptable as they are to Jim Tyrone’s conventional double-standard, are ultimately forgivable because they revolve around her desire to “give” herself to men, much as Nina Leeds “gave” herself to the wounded soldiers in Strange Interlude. Throughout his plays O’Neill created patriarchal worlds into which women could fit only by assuming the narrow roles in which the male characters sought to cast them. All too rarely, however, did O’Neill critique such worlds through a female character like Mary.

Josie Hogan sacrifices her own hope of marriage (itself a “safe” female dream) to Jim’s desire that she be his chaste confessor. Josie suffers for her renunciation, yet her consolation, like Nora Melody’s, is that she has comforted the man she loves: “I want you to remember my love for you gave you peace for awhile” (CP III, 944) she tells him. For O’Neill’s perfect mother, the act of giving solace is its own reward. Michael Manheim may be right that the theme of Moon is that “kinship between man and woman is finally the most powerful of any,”23 but the terms of that bond are dictated by the man. The long Pieta pose that opens Act 4 clearly links Josie with the Virgin Mary and echoes a series of tableaux in his earlier plays: Abbie holding Eben in the last scene of Desire Under the Elms, Cybel comforting a dying Billy in The Great God Brown, Sara cradling Simon Harford in the Epilogue to More Stately Mansions. Ann C. Hall argues that “Josie is not a passive reflector of male desire . . . but an active participant in the masquerade of gender”24 because she “consciously chooses the Madonna role.”25 Yet the fact remains that O’Neill asks us to believe both that Josie gets great satisfaction from that “masquerade” and that the only roles she can even imagine – wife, prostitute, mother – are those that most reflect male desire.

Resized-450-Erin-Beirnard-and-Kelly-King-in-ONeill-Unexpected-Svetlanda-DidorenkoMartha Gilman Bower identifies what she calls a “gender role reversal” in O’Neill’s Cycle plays, on which he was working during his last creative years. She argues that the tenacious, often ruthless female characters in this series may be partly based on O’Neill’s third wife, Carlotta Monterey.26 Although O’Neill’s notes for unwritten Cycle dramas do suggest that the playwright envisioned new female representations, the women in A Touch of The Poet and More Stately Mansions – the submissive Nora, the earthy Sara, and Simon’s disturbed mother, Deborah, who alternately smothers and rejects her son – are familiar figures. Elements of Carlotta, whom O’Neill dubbed his “mother, and wife and mistress and friendYv2′ are apparent in nearly every play he wrote after their relationship began in 1926. Finally, the strength of characters like Nora and Sara is nothing new in O’Neill’s canon; as Manheim observes, the O’Neillian Earth Mother is  “a total provider, a bringer of comfort, a figure in all respects, physical and emotional, more powerful than himself.”28 O’Neill often depicts his women as strong, but their presence – epitomized in the “oversize” Josie Hogan – signifies the comforting omnipotence a child sees in its parent.

Suzanne Burr believes that O’Neill has “remarkable empathy with women,”29 while Hall contends that O’Neill’s late plays “expose the process by which patriarchy attempts to oppress women.”30 To a certain extent, this praise is justified. In his portrait of Mary Tyrone, a woman who chafes at the overwhelming demands placed upon her, who imagines a world in which she would have a story separate from that written for her by her male kin, O’Neill creates his most complex and theatrically powerful stage woman. Even as early as the 1917 drama Ile, Mrs. Keeney (a forerunner of Mary) embodies a critique of a masculine world driven by greed and ego, in that case the world of whaling. But as Anne Fleche observes, the critic of O’Neill’s plays, particularly the feminist critic, “finds herself staring at an Everest of possibilities .”31 For all the “incipient feminism”32 of a work like Anna Christie or the unfinished Cycle play The Calms of Capricorn, O’Neill’s women characters are most commonly perceived from outside, from a masculine perspective that wistfully endows mothers, virgins, and whores with powerful maternal desires or condemns them for lacking such feelings. Even in her private reveries Nina Leeds calculates her value in terms of the men in her life, and the idealized heroine of O’Neill’s last completed play is the motherly virgin Josie Hogan, selfless supplier of comfort and peace. While O’Neill exposed many of the flaws in the patriarchal universe both within and outside his plays he was, not surprisingly, also deeply invested in that universe. His female characters, including some of the modern stage’s most memorable women, grow out of that ambivalence.


Source: The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’neill Edited by Michael Manheim, Cambridge University Press 1998


I Joel Pfister, Staging Depth: Eugene O’Neill and the Politics of Psychological Discourse (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), p. 194.

2 Eugene O’Neill, Complete Plays 1913-1920 (New York: The Library of America, 1988), p. 268. All future references to O’Neill’s plays will be to this three-volume Library of America edition (CP) and will be given in the body of the text. Although the books are not numbered, I will designate the first (Complete Plays 1913-1920) volume “I”, the second (Complete Plays 1920- 1931) volume “11,” and the third (Complete Plays 1932-1943) volume “111.”

3 Comparing the works of O’Neill with those of his Provincetown Players colleague Susan Glaspell, Linda Ben-Zvi discovers that O’Neill’s “heroes – male – yearn for the very things Glaspell’s women spurn: love, closeness, home, family, and belonging.” This “yearning,” however, often proves fatal. See Ben-Zvi, “Susan Glaspell and Eugene O’Neill: The Imagery of Gender,” The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter 10, I (Spring 1986): 24; Ben-Zvi, “Freedom and Fixity in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill,” Modern Drama 31, I (March 1988): 16-27; and Judith E. Barlow, “No He-Men Need Apply: A Look at O’Neill’s Heroes,” The Eugene O’Neill Review, 19, I and 2 (springlfall 1995): 111-21.

4 Doris Nelson, “O’Neill’s Women,” The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter 6, 2 (summer-fall 1982): 3.

5 Margaret Loftus Ranald, The Eugene O’Neill Companion (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984), p. 527.

6 For discussions of O’Neill’s “Earth Mother”, see Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill, rev. edn. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), and Michael Manheim, Eugene O’NeillS New Language of Kinship (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1982).

7 Bette Mandl, “Gender as Design in Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude,” The Eugene O’Neill Review, 19, I and 2 (springlfall 1995): 126. Mandl borrows Claude LCvi-Strauss’s use of the term “currency.”

8 Nelson, “O’Neill’s Women,” 7.

9 The hostile relationship between Ruth Mayo and her mother in Beyond the Horizon is a relatively minor thread in that work. There are other motherdaughter pairings in plays like Gold, The Rope, and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, but none that is significantly developed or explored.

10 For a discussion of women in the Cycle plays, see Martha Gilman Bower, Eugene O’Neill’s Unfinished Threnody and Process of Invention in Four Cycle Plays (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992).

11 Sigmund Freud, “Femininity,” New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis and Other Works in James Strachey, trans. and ed., The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth Press, 1964), p. 121. Although this lecture was composed in 1933, fairly late in Freud’s career, it recapitulates ideas he propounded much earlier.

12 Susan Harris Smith, “Inscribing the Body: Lavinia Mannon as the Site of Struggle,” The Eugene O’Neill Review, 19, I and 2 (springlfall 1995): 45.

I 3 Smith, “Inscribing the Body,” 4 5.

14 See Louis Sheaffer, O’Neill: Son and Playwright (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968) and O’Neill: Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973); Manheim, Eugene O’NeillS New Language of Kinship; Doris Alexander, Eugene O’Neill’s Creative Struggle: The Decisive Decade, 1924-1933 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992); and Laurin Porter, The Banished Prince: Time, Memory, and Ritual in the Late Plays of Eugene O’Neill (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988).

I 5 Gloria Cahill, “Mothers and Whores: The Process of Integration in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill,” The Eugene O’Neill Review, 16, I (spring 1992): 5-23.

I 6 Freud, “Femininity,” I 3 3-34.

17 Jung, quoted in Cahill, “Mothers and Whores,” 3.

I 8 Travis Bogard discusses “the dual wife-mother character” in the introduction to The Later Plays of Eugene O’Neill (New York: Random House, 1967), pp. XVxvi, and “The search for the surrogate mother” in Contour in Time, pp. 441-45. See also Doris V. Falk, Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1958), p. 76.

19 The discussion that follows is partly based on my essay “O’Neill’s Many Mothers: Mary Tyrone, Josie Hogan, and their Antecedents,” in Shyamal Bagchee, ed., Perspectives on O’Neill: New Essays (ELS Monograph, University of Victoria 1988), pp. 7-16. Reprinted in John Houchin, ed. The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill (New York: Greenwood, 1993), pp. 283-90.

20 Trudy Decker dubs Essie Miller “a Ladiesy-Home-Journal wife-and-mother.” See “Sexuality as Destiny: The Shadow Lives of O’Neill’s Women,” The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter 6, z (summer-fall 1982): 9.

21 See Bette Mandl, “Absence as Presence: The Second Sex in The Iceman Cometh,” The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter 6, 2 (summer-fall 1982): 10–15.

22 Ann C. Hall, “A Kind of Alaska”: Women in the Plays of O’Neill, Pinter, and Shepard (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993), pp. 26-3 5.

23 Manheim, New Language of Kinship, p. 159.

24 Hall, “A Kind of Alaska,” p. 50.

25 Hall, “A Kind of Alaska,” p. 53.

26 Bower, Eugene O’Neill’s Unfinished Threnody, pp. 1-8, passim.

27 Part of O’Neill’s 23 April 1931 dedication of Mourning Becomes Electra to Carlotta. Reprinted in Inscriptions: Eugene O’Neill to Carlotta Monterey O’Neill, ed. Donald Gallup (New Haven: privately printed, 1960).

28 Manheim, New Language of Kinship, p. 122.

29 Suzanne Burr, “O’Neill’s Ghostly Women,” in Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama, ed. June Schlueter (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989), p. 3 8.

30 Hall, “A Kind of Alaska,” p. 2.

3 I Anne Fkche, “‘A Monster of Perfection’: O’Neill’s ‘Stella,'” in Schlueter, p. 25.

32 Fkche, “A Monster of Perfection,” 44.


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