Analysis of Eugene O’Neill’s Plays

Eugene O’Neill has often been criticized for his choice of characters, for their aberrant psychologies, and for their emotionalism. Certainly he dealt with emotions, but he did so because he believed that emotions were a better guide than thoughts in the search for truth. The struggles of his characters frequently take place, therefore, within themselves, so that there is little real action performed on the stage. Victories, consequently, are in the mind, not quantifiable. The ephemeral nature of such victories has been, for some critics, insufficient.

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The popularity of O’Neill’s work, however, continues to grow. His plays have been performed throughout the world and transformed into film and opera because they concern truths of human existence. For O’Neill, life is a tragedy—but human beings have the resources with which to confront it. The dramatic presentation of that struggle was O’Neill’s lifework.

Long Day’s Journey into Night

Long Day’s Journey into Night—the greatest American play by the United States’s greatest playwright—is a harrowing work of personal memory universalized into the great American family tragedy. At the end of a remarkable career that produced more than 50 plays and after a seemingly inexhaustible series of theatrical experimentations that established the baseline and boundaries for a vital new American drama, Eugene O’Neill finally returned to simplicity itself: autobiography and a day-in-the-life repossession of his own family history as a summary statement of his long journey toward self-understanding and self-expression. The urgency and utility of O’Neill’s dramatic version of Remembrance of Things Past (Marcel Proust’s seven-volume epic autobiographical novel) is announced significantly and succinctly by Mary Tyrone, who early on in the play states: “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future too.” O’Neill’s entire past is prelude and preparation for the tragic recognition that animates his masterpiece. Again, it is Mary Tyrone who summarizes the tragic sensibility that informs O’Neill’s plays and finds its best expression in Long Day’s Journey: “None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”

Born in 1888 in a hotel room in the heart of New York’s theatrical district, O’Neill was the son of matinee idol and onetime distinguished Shakespearean actor, James O’Neill, who made his reputation and fortune by continually touring in a melodrama based on Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. The commercial theater of the day, in which his father squandered his considerable acting talent, consisted of gratifying public taste with the lowest popular denominator. Eugene O’Neill, his disappointed father, his drug-addicted mother, and his alcoholic elder brother were all in various ways products of the theater of the day. O’Neill’s transient childhood was spent touring the United States with his parents and attending boarding schools. He was suspended from Princeton after a year for a college prank and introduced to the bohemian world by his actor-brother, James. O’Neill’s aimless and dissipated youth is succinctly summarized by critic Jordan Y. Miller:

At twenty, almost on a dare, he had married a girl he hardly knew, fathered a child he never saw until nearly twelve years later, went gold prospecting in Honduras, contracted malaria, and was divorced before he was twenty-two. He failed as a newspaper reporter, became intimate with all the more famous New York and Connecticut bordellos, to which he was guided by his brother James; evidence all of fast becoming a hopeless alcoholic; and, after attempting suicide, contracted a severe lung infection to place him in a Connecticut tuberculosis sanitarium at the age of twenty-four.

During his convalescence from 1912 to 1913, O’Neill read widely and decided to become a playwright. His fi rst dramatic work was done for the Province-town Players, of Cape Cod and in New York City’s Greenwich Village, the most influential company in the “little theater” movement. His first stage production, Bound East for Cardiff, based on his experience as a seaman, was followed by Beyond the Horizon and The Emperor Jones, both in 1920, which established O’Neill as a powerful new force in the American theater. For the next 15 years, O’Neill would display an extraordinary range in his restless search for an expressive form that virtually catalogs the various methods of modern drama. As he stated in a 1923 interview, “I intend to use whatever I can make my own, to write about anything under the sun in any manner that fi ts the subject. And I shall never be influenced by any consideration but one: Is it the truth as I know it—or, better still, feel it?”

To arrive at truth in the face of a breakdown of traditional beliefs and its crippling effect on the psyche, O’Neill experimented with symbolism, masks, interior monologues, choruses, and realistic and expressionistic styles. His early plays were “slice of life” dramas, focusing on the delusions and obsessions of marginalized characters—seamen, laborers, roust-abouts, prostitutes, and derelicts—who had never before been depicted on the American stage. Most are adrift and deeply divided from their identities and the traditional sources of sustaining values. Increasingly, his plays would dramatize a tragic vision in naturalistic plays such as Anna Christie (1921) and Desire Under the Elms (1924), and a series of expressionistic plays, including The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape (1920), and The Great God Brown (1926). In Strange Interlude (1928) O’Neill began dissecting character through interior monologue, never before attempted on stage on such a scale. His work in the 1930s included the monumental Mourning Becomes Electra, in which Aeschylus’s drama of the house of Atreus is transferred to post–Civil War New England. His single comedy, Ah, Wilderness! (1933), is based on his happiest memories summering at his family’s New London, Connecticut, home, the same setting he would use for his darkest tragic drama, Long Day’s Journey. In 1934 the failure of his play Days without Endbegan a 12-year period in which no new O’Neill plays were staged and initiated a final creative explosion prompted by O’Neill’s commitment to write “plays primarily as literature to be read.” In 1936 O’Neill became the second American (and to date the only American dramatist) to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. The first American Nobel laureate, Sinclair Lewis, praised the playwright as follows:

Mr. Eugene O’Neill, who has done nothing much in American drama save to transform it utterly, in ten or twelve years, from a false world of neat and competent trickery to a world of splendor and fear and greatness . . . has seen life as not to be arranged in the study of a scholar but as a terrifying, magnificent, and often horrible thing akin to the tornado, the earthquake, the devastating fire.

The “horrible thing” that Lewis equates with a natural disaster continually threatens the Tyrone family in Long Day’s Journey, just below the surface of their seemingly placid summer holiday routine in August 1912, at their Connecticut seaside home. O’Neill began work on Long Day’s Journey in the summer of 1939 as war in Europe threatened and his own health was in significant decline from a debilitating nerve disorder. Feeling “fed up and stale” after nearly five years’ work on an immense cycle of plays reflecting American history from the perspective of an Irish-American family, O’Neill decided to turn to private subjects, sketching the outline of two plays that “appeal most.” One was based on his time spent in a bar on the Bowery in New York, which became The Iceman Cometh; the other, a laceratingly honest portrait of his past, that he identified as the “N[ew]. L[ondon]. family” play, and later called “a play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood”: Long Day’s Journey into Night. Completing work on Iceman first, O’Neill spent most of 1940 on Long Day’s Journey. His wife, Carlotta, recalled:

When he started Long Day’s Journey it was a most strange experience to watch that man being tortured every day by his own writing. He would come out of his study at the end of the day gaunt and sometimes weeping. His eyes would be all red and he looked ten years older than when he went in in the morning. I think he felt freer when he got it out of his system. It was his way of making peace with his family—and himself.

Completing the second draft by his 52nd birthday, in October 1940, O’Neill made the final cuts to the typescript that Carlotta had prepared by the end of March 1941, recording in his diary: “Like this play better than any I have ever written—does the most with the least—a quiet play!—and a great one, I believe.” Due to its autobiographical content, O’Neill stipulated that his play neither be published nor performed until at least 25 years after his death. However, after he died in 1953, Carlotta, claiming that her husband had orally withdrawn his prohibition shortly before his death, allowed the play to be staged by the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre in February 1956, to coincide with its American publication. The English-language premiere of the play occurred on Broadway in November 1956 to great acclaim. Reviewer John Chapman called it “O’Neill’s most beautiful play . . . and . . . one of the great dramas of any time,” while critic Brooks Atkinson declared that with Long Day’s Journey “American theater acquires stature and size.” The play has gone on to be recognized as O’Neill’s greatest achievement and a triumph both for U.S. and world theater.

Its power derives from its relentless honesty linked to the simplicity of its dramatic form. The action is compressed to the events of a single day that progressively reveal the psychological complexity and tragic mutual dependency of the play’s four major characters—James and Mary Tyrone and their sons Jamie and Edmund—along with the secrets that define and doom their family. It is Edmund’s ill health, which his mother insists is only a summer cold but his doctor diagnoses as tuberculosis, that serves as a catalyst for the play’s pounding series of revelations and recognitions. James, Jamie, and Edmund alternately accept and reject their suspicion that Mary has relapsed in her morphine addiction, while each family member is forced to face their guilt and responsibility for the past that haunts the family. Mary, who had abandoned her vocation to become a nun or a concert pianist to marry the handsome actor James Tyrone, ultimately blames her husband and sons for her addiction: specifically, Jamie for the accidental death of another son, significantly named Eugene; Edmund for his difficult birth that required medical care; and James for his stinginess that led to employing a second-rate doctor who started her on morphine. The others, in turn, confront their own complicity in the family’s self-destruction, while each is given an aria of insight into the truth of their situation.

The patriarch, James Tyrone, reviews his acting career in which he exchanged seemingly unlimited artistic promise for financial security, fueled by his early lower-class Irish impoverishment. He confesses:

That God-damned play I bought for a song, and made such a great success in—a great money success—it ruined me with its promise of an easy fortune. . . . It was a great romantic part I knew I could play better than anyone. But it was a great box office success from the start—and then life had me where it wanted me—at from thirty-five to forty thousand net profit a season! A fortune in those days—or even in these. What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder, that was worth—Well, no matter. It’s a late day for regrets.

Edmund, understanding for the first time the cost of his father’s success and the origins of his miserliness, reciprocates his father’s honesty with his own confession in one of the most moving and lyrical passages O’Neill ever wrote. Recalling his time at sea, Edmund admits to a moment of supreme transcendence:

I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you to put it that way. . . . For a second you see—and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hands let the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!

Edmund’s ecstasy of affirmation gives way to a deeply tragic self- and existential awareness: “It was a great mistake, my being born a man. I would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish. As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death!”

The play concludes with Jamie’s confession of his resentment of his brother and his secret delight in his family’s destruction that grants him the consoling role of damned and powerless victim: “The dead part of me hopes you won’t get well. Maybe he’s even glad the game has got Mama again! He wants company, he doesn’t want to be the only corpse around the house!” Jamie’s warning to his brother that he actually desires Edmund’s and the family’s destruction, that he secretly hates them all and himself, is ironically one of the great testaments of love and loyalty in the play. “Greater love hath no man than this,” Jamie declares, “that he saveth his brother from himself.”

These family revelations reach a crescendo with the appearance of Mary, carrying her wedding gown—in the bitter words of Jamie, “The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!” Completing the family tableau and individual monologues that probe the causes and costs of the family’s dilemmas, Mary has retreated with the assistance of morphine into the fog that has threatened throughout the day. Escaping from reality, she has reverted to an earlier existence, before the consequences of marriage and motherhood, and ends the play heartbreakingly with her memories as a convent schoolgirl and her intention to become a nun:

But Mother Elizabeth told me I must be more sure than that, even, that I must prove it wasn’t simply my imagination. She said, if I was so sure, then I wouldn’t mind putting myself to a test by going home after I graduated, and living as other girls lived, going out to parties and dances and enjoying myself; and then if after a year or two I still felt sure, I could come back to see her and we would talk it over again. . . . That was in the winter of senior year. Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.

Love here is balanced with loss, youthful hopes with crushing disappointment, completing the process by which each of the Tyrones is forced to come to terms with all that is intractable in one’s self, one’s family, one’s existence. The play reaches a terminal point in which there seems no possibility of consolation or regeneration, signaled by O’Neill’s final stage direction: “She stares before her in a sad dream. Tyrone stirs in his chair. Edmund and Jamie remain motionless.”

The play’s final tragic awareness is that we are who we are, condemned by family and history to forever seek transcendence and fail to find it. Yet the play’s title metaphor of a journey toward closure, toward the dark recognition of frustration, disappointment, and mortality also implies a dawn of sorts, if only in the shattering illumination of naked truths.

The Emperor Jones

Although O’Neill was fortunate in having several of his earliest plays produced, his first real success was The Emperor Jones, produced by the Province town Players in 1920. The play was an immense success for the small theater, for O’Neill, and for Charles Gilpin, who performed as America’s first black tragic hero in a role later played by Paul Robeson. Devoted to the final hours in the life of Brutus Jones, a former convict who, in the course of two years, comes to be emperor of an island in the West Indies, O’Neill’s expressionist play won immediate acclaim, both popular and critical.

The form of the play is particularly interesting, for it is composed essentially of one act with eight scenes. The six interior monologue scenes take place in the forest and in Jones’s mind and are peopled by the ghosts and phantoms that plague Jones. These six scenes are enveloped by opening and closing scenes that occur outside the forest and that present real characters. The movement of the play is thus a journey from the civilized world into the primitive world of the forest and of the mind, and a journey for Jones to self-knowledge and to death.

The play’s expository opening scene reveals that Jones, who arrived on the island two years earlier as a stowaway and who has come to rule the island, has exploited the natives and has enriched himself by manipulation, thievery, and cruel taxation. As a consequence, he has become so hated that the natives have withdrawn into the hills to stage a revolution. Jones believes, however, that he is prepared for all possibilities: Should he need to escape suddenly, he has hidden food and has learned the paths of the forest. He has also removed vast amounts of money from the island to a safe place. As he explains, he has learned from white people to steal big, and he proudly asserts that he makes his own good luck by using his brain.

Jones has also created among the islanders a mystique and a mythology for himself; distancing himself completely from the natives, whom he terms “bush niggers” and to whom he feels vastly superior, Jones has propagated the myth that he is magically protected from lead bullets and can be killed only by one of silver. Furthermore, having made for himself a silver bullet that he carries as the sixth in his gun, he has spread the companion tale that he is invulnerable to native assaults because he is the only man big enough to kill himself. Having learned that the natives are rebelling, he congratulates himself on his precautions, boasts about how easy it is to outwit them, and makes his way to the forest through which he must go that night in order to meet the boat that will take him to safety.

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John Douglas Thompson as Brutus Jones in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones

When, in the second scene, Jones reaches the edge of the forest, the audience begins to see some of O’Neill’s experimental techniques. The edge of the forest, O’Neill tells the audience, is a “wall of darkness dividing the world,” a point at which Jones begins to understand the uselessness of his precautions: He cannot find his store of food, and more important, he is not even sure where he is, exactly. When the little Formless Fears appear, amorphous, black, child-size shapes that, with low sounds of laughter, advance writhingly toward him, he is terrified and fires a shot at them.

Jones reveals his thought processes through a continuing monologue, a technique that seems to reflect the influence of August Strindberg on O’Neill. Jones’s monologue, which continues throughout the six forest scenes, reveals at this point his fear at having disclosed his location and his determination to make it through the forest. In addition, he begins to have, within his monologue, a dialogue with himself, a dialogue that symbolically suggests a duality within him, a dissociation between mind and body and between outer bravado and inner fear. The steadily increasing beat of the drum, which had begun with his departure from the palace in the first act, reflects Jones’s heightened emotional state and conveys not only the buildup of tension in him but also that in the distant natives.

This first forest scene and the five that follow present a series of vignettes that derive both from Jones’s own life and mind and from the racial memory, or collective unconscious. Having first encountered the Formless Fears, he comes next on Jeff, the Pullman porter he killed with a razor in a fight over a crap game and for whose death he went to prison. Both furious and terrified, Jones fires his second bullet into the ghost, who disappears as the drumbeat’s tempo once again increases. When, in the fourth scene, Jones reaches a wide road that he does not recognize, his outer appearance is beginning to deteriorate: His glorious uniform is torn and dirty, and he removes his coat and his spurs for comfort. Castigating himself for his belief in ghosts, he reminds himself that he is civilized, not like “dese ign’rent black niggers heah.” He is nearly paralyzed with fright, however, when he sees another apparition, a chain gang with a guard who forces Jones to join the prisoners. When the guard beats Jones with his whip, Jones, reenacting his actual break from prison, fires his third bullet into the guard’s back.

These first three forest scenes, concerned with aspects of Jones’s own life, represent troublesome elements from his individual consciousness. Making him aware of the evil to which he has committed himself, they are important stages in his journey to selfknowledge. Moreover, they indicate, beyond a doubt, the true criminality of his nature. The following scenes, concerned with aspects of his racial memory, present elements that are part of the collective unconscious and thereby reveal some of the cultural forces that have made him what he is.

In the fifth scene, in a clearing in the forest, Jones comes on a dead stump that looks like an auction block. His appearance further deteriorating, his pants torn and ragged, he removes his battered shoes; the outer symbols of his exalted position, and of his difference from the natives, are virtually gone. As he sends an agonized prayer to Jesus, admitting his wrongdoing and acknowledging that as emperor he is getting “mighty low,” he is suddenly surrounded by a group of southern aristocrats of the 1850’s who are waiting for a group of slaves to come in. To Jones’s utter horror, the auctioneer compels Jones to stand on the auction block; when he is bought, Jones, suddenly coming to life and resisting this treatment, angrily pulls out his gun and fires at both the auctioneer and his purchaser, using his last two lead bullets, as the drum quickens and the scene fades.

The sixth scene goes back to a time preceding the fifth; Jones finds himself in a clearing so overhung by trees that it appears as the hold of a ship. By this time, Jones’s clothes have been so torn that he is wearing only a loincloth. Discovering that he is among two rows of blacks who moan desolately as they sway back and forth, Jones finds himself inadvertently joining in their chorus of despair, crying out even more loudly than they. Having used all his lead bullets, he has nothing with which to dispatch them, since he needs his silver bullet for luck, for self-preservation.

Jones is obliged, then, as he was obliged to recommit his crimes, to enter into the racial experience of slavery, to feel the grief and desperation of his ancestors. Unable to disperse this scene, Jones simply walks into the seventh and last of the forest scenes, which takes him to an even earlier time. Coming on an ancient altar by the river, Jones instinctively bows, even as he wonders why he does so. Although he prays for the Christian God’s protection, what appears is a witch doctor whose dance and incantations hypnotize Jones and force his participation in an ancient and mysterious ritual. O’Neill’s stage directions indicate that Jones is expected at this point to sacrifice himself to the forces of evil, to the forces that have governed his life and that are now represented by a huge crocodile emerging from the river. Urged onward by the witch doctor and unable to stop himself from moving toward the crocodile, Jones, in a last act of desperate defiance, shoots the crocodile with his last bullet—the silver bullet.

The last act at the edge of the forest, an act that serves as an epilogue, is almost anticlimactic, describing how the natives enter the forest to kill the dazed Jones, who has wandered back (full circle) to the spot where he entered. The audience knows, however, that Jones has symbolically killed himself, destroying his evil and his identity with his own silver bullet. It is, moreover, particularly appropriate that the natives shoot Jones with silver bullets, bullets they have made out of melted money.

The journey into the forest has been for Jones a journey to death, but it has also been a journey to understanding. He has come not only to understand the evil of his own life but also to destroy it symbolically by destroying the crocodile with the bullet that affirms his identity. In effect, he is obliged to confront his true nature when the structure he has created for himself collapses. He has also come, however, to understand both his membership in his race and his connection with those natives to whom he felt so superior. By being forced to undergo the primitive experiences of his people, he is able to move from individuation into the group, into an awareness of the experiences common to his race. He is able to return, by means of this backward and inward journey, to his essential self, the self he had denied out of greed and egotism.

O’Neill in this way presents Jones as both a criminal and a victim, as a man whose own character and personality help to create his fate but whose racial and cultural experiences have also shaped him. Part of the play’s tragedy, though, is that the knowledge Jones gains is insufficient to save his life. Nevertheless, as the trader, Smithers, concludes at the end of the play, the Emperor Jones “died in the ’eighth o’ style, any’ow.”

With this play, O’Neill established himself as an important and innovative American playwright. The play is also notable for its lack of autobiographical elements. It is an imaginative creation based on a blend of folktale and psychology that permitted O’Neill to enter the racial memory of another.

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Photo from the revival of Eugene O’Neill’s play at the Goodman Theater in Chicago

Desire Under the Elms

A play differing considerably in kind is Desire Under the Elms, first performed by the Provincetown Players in 1924 and perhaps one of O’Neill’s most representative works. It reflects a number of the influences that worked significantly on him, including the Bible and classical mythology. It treats several of his favorite subjects, including the tension-ridden family, antimaterialism, and individuals’ participation in creating their own fate; and although the play was initially received with considerable skepticism and disapproval (it was banned in both Boston and England), its critical reputation and its popular acceptance have steadily increased with time, and it continues to be produced for appreciative contemporary audiences.

The play is set on a New England farm in the mid-nineteenth century, a thematically important setting. Just as the New England land is rocky, unyielding, and difficult to manage, so is old Ephraim Cabot, who owns the farm, and so is the Puritan ethos that governs the lives of this patriarch and those around him. Accompanying this symbolism of hardness and coldness in the land and in Ephraim is the emotional symbolism associated with the farmhouse: O’Neill’s set directions specify that the farmhouse is flanked by “two enormous elms” that “brood oppressively over the house,” that “appear to protect and at the same time subdue,” and that possess “a sinister maternity in their aspect, a crushing, jealous absorption.” Clearly symbolic of Ephraim’s dead second wife, and typifying both her physical and mental exhaustion and her unavenged spirit, the elms are also symbolic of the restrictive nature of New England farm life. In signifying that restriction, they are symbolic also of Ephraim, who exercises a jealous and unrelentingly selfish control over everything and everyone within his reach.

When the play opens, Ephraim is away from the farm on a trip, during which he marries Abbie Putnam, a young widow. By means of the marriage, Ephraim can prove his continuing virility and vigor and, he believes, achieve his paramount desire: to perpetuate his power and his hold over the land. His three grown sons, Simeon and Peter, children of Ephraim’s first wife, and the sensitive Eben, son of Ephraim’s second wife, dislike and distrust their father and recognize that his marriage to Abbie ensures that none of them will satisfy their desire to inherit the farm. One of the French naturalist writers whose work influenced O’Neill was Émile Zola, and this play seems to be particularly evocative of Zola’s La Terre (1887; The Soil, 1888; also as Earth, 1954) in dealing with the human greed for land. This shared desire for land, however, is not the only desire with which the play is concerned. Ephraim, who sees himself as an extension of the Old Testament God, desires to maintain his power forever. Abbie, who marries because of her initial desire for security, comes later to desire love instead, as does Eben, who initially desires revenge on his father for working his mother to death. Although Simeon and Peter also hope for a share in the farm, they are happy to accept Eben’s offer to buy them off, realizing that their expectations, because of their father’s new marriage, will probably go unrealized.

The play establishes in the first act the many violent tensions existing between father and son. Blaming his father for the death of his mother, Eben also believes his father is cheating him out of the farm.Moreover, although Eben insists that he is like his mother and denies any similarity to his father and although Ephraim likewise considers his son weak and spineless, it is one of the play’s ironies that father and son are in fact much alike, as indicated symbolically by the fact that both patronize the same local prostitute. More significant, however, both father and son are governed by strong emotions: Both are quick to anger, stubborn, vengeful, proud, and hard, and both are the victims of seething animal passions that are covered by only a thin veneer of civilization. The psychologically normal conflict between any father and son is thus intensified by their temperamental similarities, and when Abbie, the catalyst, appears as the stepmother who is closer in age to son than to father, the stage is indeed set for a depiction of violent emotions that result in great tragedy.

Because they both desire the farm, Abbie and Eben initially hate and mistrust each other, but their harsh and cruel behavior toward each other is counterpointed by a growing physical desire between them, a reflection, perhaps, of O’Neill’s interest in the classical myths of Oedipus and Phaedra. O’Neill’s use of a divided set permits the audience to watch this desire growing as they see simultaneously into the bedroom of Eben, as he moves half-unconsciously toward the wall beyond which Abbie stands, and into the bedroom of Ephraim and Abbie, where they continue to hope for the son who will fulfill Ephraim’s desire and ensure Abbie’s security. As the obvious but unspoken passion between Abbie and Eben mounts and the house grows correspondingly cold, Ephraim is driven to find solace in the barn, among the animals, where it is warm—an opportunity that Abbie uses to seduce Eben in the parlor, where the restless spirit of Eben’s mother seems to be concentrated.

This lovemaking between stepmother and son, teetering as it does on the brink of incest, was, as one might expect, an aspect of the play to which censors objected. Abbie is, after all, Eben’s stepmother, and she uses her “maternal” relationship to Eben as a means of seduction. At the same time that she vows to kiss him “pure,” as if she were his mother, she passionately blurts out that loving him like a mother “hain’t enuf,” and that “it’s got to be that and more.” As O’Neill explains in his stage directions, there is in her “a horribly frank mixture of lust and mother love.” One further motive for Abbie that O’Neill leaves uncertain is her need to produce a son for Ephraim. It is one of the fine ambiguities of the play that viewers are unable to decide whether Abbie seduces Eben out of greed for the land, out of maternal caring, out of physical lust, or out of genuine love for him. Eben is moved by similarly discordant motives, by both a real desire for Abbie and a desire to avenge his mother by taking his father’s woman. He senses his mother’s spirit leaving the house and returning to her grave, finally at peace. Eben indicates his understanding of and his satisfaction with the retributive nature of this act the next morning when he offers his hand to his father, remarking to the uncomprehending Ephraim that they are now “quits.”

Yet, despite the deliberate calculation with which this love affair begins, Abbie and Eben come in time genuinely to love each other. What was initially, at least in part, a mutually self-serving and opportunistic seduction results in the first warm human relationship the farm has seen. There is, however, no way for the drama to end happily, even though, at the beginning of the third act, all have attained what they at one time desired: Ephraim has a son to prove his virility, Abbie has earned the farm by providing that son, and Eben has avenged his mother. These desires are, to Abbie and Eben, at least, no longer of prime importance, and the party Ephraim gives to celebrate the birth of “his” son serves as an ironic backdrop to the play’s tragic climax.

Ephraim, flushed with liquor and pride at producing a son at seventy-six and oblivious to the knowing sneers of the townspeople, in a brutal physical and emotional confrontation with Eben gloats that Abbie wanted a child only to preempt Eben’s claim to the farm. Believing that Abbie has seduced him only in order to become pregnant and cheat him, Eben turns violently against her, telling her that he hates her and wishes their son dead. The half-crazed Abbie, hysterically wishing to restore the time when Eben loved her and confusedly identifying the child as the cause of Eben’s present hate, smothers the child in its cradle in an appalling inversion of the myth of Medea: Whereas Medea murders her children as an act of revenge against her faithless husband, Abbie murders her child in order to recapture the lost love of Eben. Eben, however, does not respond with love, but with horror and revulsion, and he runs for the sheriff to arrest her. Returning before the sheriff, Eben in a change of heart acknowledges his own guilt and reaffirms his love for Abbie. The play ends with their mutual expression of love as they are taken off by the sheriff, who ironically remarks, with admiration, that “it’s a jim-dandy farm.”

The play seems, then, to be unmitigatedly naturalistic and pessimistic as the lovers go off to be hanged and as Ephraim is left alone with his farm. Yet O’Neill poses the possibility of a spiritual victory in the play: Although the desire to possess has dominated their lives, Abbie and Eben are freed of that desire at the end—even though their victory is to be short-lived. It is also possible to see a victory over the forces of evil embodied in Puritanism and in the New England patriarchal society, because, even though Eben reacts initially to his father’s announcement and to the baby’s murder with all the violent self-righteousness one would expect of his father, he comes to transcend this attitude and to acknowledge both his love for Abbie and his own guilt. Although Abbie and Eben have lost everything in the worldly sense, in finding love and faith in each other they do perhaps escape, however briefly and symbolically, from the brooding, confining New England elms.

In this play, O’Neill seems to return to the naturalism that informed his early plays of the sea. His characters are presented as bewildered, struggling beings, blown about like leaves in the gutter, compelled by the external forces of fate, chance, and environment and by the internal workings of their physical nature. It is indeed difficult for these characters to win, but for O’Neill, the salient point is that, in struggling, his characters can transcend their fate.

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Photo from Robert Falls’s revival of Eugene O’Neill’s revered play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music stars Brian Dennehy, left, and Nathan Lane

The Iceman Cometh

The critics, who had difficulty with Desire Under the Elms because of its objectionable subject matter, were also troubled by The Iceman Cometh, but for different reasons; many considered the latter play unhealthy, pessimistic, and morbid in its depiction of the wasted lives of the habitués of Harry Hope’s New York saloon, modeled after those in which O’Neill spent considerable time in 1911 and in 1914-1919. A key theme in the play, and a recurring theme in O’Neill’s dramas, is the power and the necessity of illusion to give meaning to life. O’Neill develops this theme through expository conversation and monologues because there is very little onstage action during the two-day period that the play’s four acts encompass. Containing both comic and tragic elements, the play, set in 1912, takes place entirely in the back room of Harry Hope’s bar, where the regulars gather.

The play opens on a gathering of regulars to await the arrival of Hickey, a hardware salesperson who is the most successful among them and who comes to the bar for periodic drunks, particularly on the occasion of Harry Hope’s birthday, when he funds a great drunken party for the regulars. Himself unfaithful to his wife, Hickey maintains a running gag that his apparently saintly wife must, in his absence, be having an affair with the iceman. Hickey and all the other characters live in a world of illusion, a world that ignores today: They all look backward to yesterday, to what they once were or to what their rosy rewriting of history now tells them they once were, just as they look forward to an equally rosy and improbable tomorrow. The illusion that they all have a future is part of the pipe dream each has, a pipe dream essential to their lives that helps them “keep up the appearances of life.” Although these people really have, in Robert Frost’s words, “nothing to look backward to with pride” and “nothing to look forward to with hope,” they somehow manage to live, to survive in the bleak, drunken world they inhabit, because they possess the illusion that they have a yesterday about which they can feel pride and a tomorrow about which they can hope. That illusion enables them to ignore the dark reality that is their today. Moreover, because they understand one another’s illusions and accept them, they can be sympathetic to and tolerant of one another’s failings as well as of their own.

Among the characters who frequent the bar are Larry Slade, an elderly anarchist who believes he is uninvolved in life and who claims he wants only to die; Joe Mott, an African American who plans to open a gambling house one day; Piet Wetjoen, a former Boer War commander who believes he can return home; Pat McGloin, who plans to return soon to the police force; Harry Hope, a former Tammany politician who believes he will someday leave his saloon and walk the ward; Willie Oban, previously of Harvard Law School, who plans one day to go to the district attorney and get a law job; Rocky, the night bartender, who, because he works as a bartender, believes that he is not a pimp, even though he “manages” and takes money from two prostitutes; Margie and Pearl, Rocky’s two “girls,” who make the fine distinction that they are tarts but not whores—because they don’t have a pimp; Chuck, the day bartender, who believes he will go on the wagon, marry Cora, and buy a farm in the country; and Cora, who shares Chuck’s dream and who also believes that he will forgive her for making her living as a prostitute. Into the circle of regulars comes the eighteenyear- old Don Parritt, whose mother, part of the anarchist movement, is on trial out West for a bombing.

Although many of these regulars stay up all night in the saloon to await Hickey, his arrival is disappointing and strangely troubling: When he appears, he is not the same as before. For one thing, he fails to make his usual joke about his wife and the iceman, and for another, he no longer drinks; he explains that he no longer needs it after he threw away “the damned lying pipe dream” that had made him feel miserable. Moreover, he wants very much to save his friends by persuading them to be honest, to stop lying about themselves, and to stop kidding themselves about their tomorrows. He believes that by giving up their illusions, they can attain peace and contentment, and he systematically embarks on a campaign to make them admit the truth about their pasts and to do immediately what they have always said they will do in the future—even though Hickey knows that they will fail. Hickey insists that if one faces reality and kills one’s dreams, then those dreams will not be there to nag or to cause guilt, not haunted by yesterday and not fooling oneself about tomorrow. Then, Hickey believes, his friends will have peace, as he does.

As a result of his campaign, however, the friendly and tolerant atmosphere of the bar wears dangerously thin as the friends, stripped of their protective illusions and their defense mechanisms, become not only sober but also nervous, irritable, and belligerent with one another. Harry’s birthday party is a flop, spoiled by fights and bad feeling and finally by Hickey’s announcement that his wife is dead. Moreover, the peace that Hickey predicts will come, as an effect of facing reality, does not, even though the characters, with varying degrees of reluctance, attempt to give up their dreams, to leave the bar—actually as well as symbolically—and to face reality. Instead of providing them with peace, the act of facing reality robs them of tolerance for one another and therefore of companionship, of tolerance for themselves and therefore of self-respect, of hope for the future and therefore of happiness. As a result of Hickey’s efforts to save them from their illusions, as a result of his forcing them to face their tomorrows and to fail, the habitués of Harry Hope’s bar are miserable—quarrelsome, despondent, and hateful toward themselves and one another. Even alcohol loses its kick; it seems to have “no life in it,” and they can no longer even pass out.

Hickey is genuinely puzzled by these results because his expectation was that, once they had “killed tomorrow,” they would have “licked the game of life.” The play’s fourth act, which begins by further demonstrating the unpleasantness that has derived from exposure to reality, centers on Hickey’s revelation of his new philosophy and how he acted out this philosophy in his marriage, finally murdering his wife. He killed her, he says, to give her peace by ending her pipe dream that he would one day be better, that he would stop drinking and whoring. Continually making vows to her that he was unable to keep, he was then obliged to feel guilty because his wife was continually hurt and disappointed. Juxtaposed to Hickey’s story of love and guilt is Parritt’s parallel narrative disclosing his betrayal of his mother. The two stories reach a climax when Parritt confesses that he betrayed the movement because he hated his mother as Hickey confesses that after killing his wife he laughed and called her a “damned bitch.” Unable to live with what he has admitted, Hickey seizes on the explanation that he must have been insane—insane, that is, to laugh at his wife’s death, because everyone surely knows that he has always loved her, and if he laughed at her death, then he must have been insane.

The other characters seize on this explanation as well, because it means they can disregard what he has said before, reestablish their illusions, and thereby once again live with one another and themselves. Don Parritt, however, apparently unable to live with his betrayal of his mother and the reality that his betrayal was motivated by hate, commits suicide by jumping off the fire escape, as, in a sense, does Hickey by calling the police to come for him. He and Parritt, facing the reality about themselves, must destroy themselves because of the pain of that reality. In truth, Hickey hated his wife because she represented his conscience, because although she always forgave him, she also always expected him to try to be better, which he simply did not wish to do. When for one brief moment he admits the truth, that he wanted and was glad to be free of the burden of this conscience, he is unable to live with that truth and he immediately rationalizes that he must have been insane. He thus proves that illusion is, in fact, necessary, in order to accept oneself and in order to live not only with others in the world but also with the reality that death, the iceman, does indeed “cometh.”

The play, then, while pessimistic in delineating human weaknesses, seems to hold out the possibility that those weaknesses can be transcended so long as life exists. O’Neill suggests that, in order for life to exist, there must be hope—and hope, very often, is created from illusion. Although Hickey is termed a “nihilist” at one point in the play, he serves, through the dramatic revelation of his own example, to reinforce the necessity, and the positive power, of illusion.

Principal drama
Bound East for Cardiff, wr. 1913-1914, pr. 1916, pb. 1919; Thirst, and Other One-Act Plays, pb. 1914; Chris Christophersen, wr. 1919, pb. 1982 (revised as Anna Christie); Beyond the Horizon, pr., pb. 1920; The Emperor Jones, pr. 1920, pb. 1921; Anna Christie, pr. 1921, pb. 1923; The Hairy Ape, pr., pb. 1922; All God’s Chillun Got Wings, pr., pb. 1924; Complete Works, pb. 1924 (2 volumes); Desire Under the Elms, pr. 1924, pb. 1925; The Great God Brown, pr., pb. 1926; Lazarus Laughed, pb. 1927, pr. 1928; Strange Interlude, pr., pb. 1928; Mourning Becomes Electra, pr., pb. 1931 (includes Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted ); Nine Plays, pb. 1932; Ah, Wilderness!, pr., pb. 1933; Plays, pb. 1941 (3 volumes), pb. 1955 (revised); The Iceman Cometh, pr., pb. 1946; A Moon for the Misbegotten, pr. 1947, pb. 1952; Long Day’s Journey into Night, pr., pb. 1956; Later Plays, pb. 1967; The Calms of Capricorn, pb. 1981 (with Donald Gallup); The Complete Plays, pb. 1988 (3 volumes); Ten “Lost” Plays, pb. 1995; Early Plays, pb. 2001

Other major works
Poetry: Poems, 1912-1944, 1979 (Donald Gallup, editor).
Nonfiction: “The Theatre We Worked For”: The Letters of Eugene O’Neill to Kenneth MacGowan, 1982 ( Jackson R. Bryer and Ruth M. Alvarez, editors); “Love and Admiration and Respect”: The O’Neill-Commins Correspondence, 1986 (Dorothy Commins, editor); “As Ever, Gene”: The Letters of Eugene O’Neill to George Jean Nathan, 1987 (Nancy L. Roberts and Arthur W. Roberts, editors); Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill, 1988 (Travis Bogard and Bryer, editors); AWind Is Rising: The Correspondence of Agnes Boulton and Eugene O’Neill, 2000 (William Davies King, editor).
Miscellaneous: The Unknown O’Neill: Unpublished or Unfamiliar Writings of Eugene O’Neill, 1988 (Travis Bogard, editor).

Bibliography
Bloom, Harold, ed. Eugene O’Neill. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Brietzke, Zander. The Aesthetics of Failure: Dynamic Structure in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001.
Manheim, Michael, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Moorton, Richard F., Jr., ed. Eugene O’Neill’s Century. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.
Ranald, Margaret Loftus. The Eugene O’Neill Companion.Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.
Robinson, James A. Eugene O’Neill and Oriental Thought: A Divided Vision. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.
Sheaffer, Louis. O’Neill. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968-1973.
Wainscott, Ronald H. Staging O’Neill: The Experimental Years, 1920-1934. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.



Categories: American Literature, Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literature

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