[This essay was originally commissioned
by the National Theatre in London for its production of Mourning
Becomes Electra and was excerpted for their program. A fuller
version was published in the Times Literary Supplement
and the complete text appears here for the first time.]
Much that an American playwright needs to
know can be learned by studying Eugene O'Neill's life and work.
He read a lot. He sailed the ocean and he suffered. His income
went up and down and was never reliable. His reputation went up
and down and was also unreliable. He avoided the film industry
entirely. He also avoided rehearsals as much as he could. Productions
of his work caused him to despair but he kept writing. He worked
very, very hard; he gave up heavy drinking early on and was mostly
abstemious, disciplined; he exercised. He wrote his plays in longhand.
He took his time. He followed the news; he was politically brave.
He wrote of the self and also of the world. He wrote for the stage
and also for publication. He was theatrical; he was dialectical.
He cultivated a public image; he kept his figure. He made friends
with a few important critics. He married someone who believed
in his work. Winning big prizes did not protect him from savage
assault. He argued with God. He hid from the world. He knew he
had a soul. He exhorted himself to write better, dig deeper, and
There are several good biographies of O'Neill.
His was the sort of life that lends itself beautifully to biography:
epic, crammed full of astonishing and satisfying narrative incident,
triumphs, calamities, horrible tragedy, spiritual darkness, meanness,
lunacy, courage. His character was huge and contradictory and
well-chronicled. A small crowd of remarkable people intersected
with the largely antisocial playwright: Emma Goldman, John Reed,
Robert Edmond Jones, Paul Robeson, George Jean Nathan, Sean O'Casey,
Hart Crane and, unhappily for O'Neill, Charlie Chaplin, who married
his daughter. And he was a titan, he was Promethean, he wanted
to be Promethean and he was: O'Neill's was one of the important
voices of his age. He articulated its ambiguities and plumbed
its depths, and did so through a medium that was, before he seized
hold of it, almost entirely successful at resisting depth and
ambiguity: the American theater.
It is not excessive to write that O'Neill
created serious American drama. He was the scion of what had come
before: the sensational, historical, narratively novelistic melodrama,
a flashpot-and-sheetmetal theater of noise and exclamation (and
O'Neill retained a vestigial fondness for the exclamation mark
until the end of his writing life; Long Day's Journey into
Night is loaded with them). His father perfectly embodied
the grandeur of that earlier tradition, and its corruption and
dessication as well in the brawl of the American marketplace.
American theater as incarnated by James O'Neill presented the
son with an Oedipal target writ large, practically begging to
be taken down, overturned, slain at the crossroads. Of course
O'Neill's theatrical DNA has 19th century melodrama molecules
in it--whose hasn't? For all of his and our efforts to forge ahead,
less time has passed and less distance has been gained than we
like to think.
If you read all 50 of Eugene O'Neill's
plays, from the early short dramas and comedies he wrote before
and during his enrollment in George Pierce Baker's English 47
playwrights workshop at Harvard, to the sea plays and the first
full-length dramas, on through the protean experiments with form,
the daring investigations of forbidden content, the dogged pursuit
of elusive meaning, you will watch American playwriting crack
its eggshell and struggle free--struggle being the operative
and appropriate word - free of an era in America in which all
that was expected of the theater was that it lie effectively (effectively,
not convincingly). O'Neill's body of work is not shapely. Few
such bodies are. His struggles wore him to a frazzle--killed him,
probably--and marred and marked his writing. In his short story,
"The Old System," Saul Bellow invokes something he calls "the
demon in charge of the special ugliness of America." I think that
demon's principality is the New, and fierce, ungainly struggle
is its heartbeat.
It has been said that O'Neill spent a lifetime
writing failed plays before he got it right. He wrote 49 plays
and only one great play, but great enough to be worth the wait;
49 plays to forge a path through the wilderness for his descendants
to follow, 49 plays that lay the groundwork for serious American
drama, and then one indisputably great play nestled securely in
the pantheon of world literature, dramatic and otherwise. O'Neill
knew that it was his best play (even though he tried to have it
hidden from public view until 25 years after his death, and stated
clearly in his will that it ought never to be performed on stage--imagine!--his
widow's betrayal of his wishes, whatever else it might be, must
be seen by us as an act of the greatest beneficence). He must
have known that it was very great, great in a way nothing else
he'd written was, great in a way little else written for the theater
But it's a grave disservice to O'Neill's
monumental accomplishment to view the rest of his work as mere
prelude, an extended vamp toward Long Day's Journey.
The first plays are messy, even embarrassing, but the authority
and audacity of an important writer are there at the awkward beginning.
Deeply influenced by Hauptmann and Synge and Jesus Christ, the
writer O'Neill settled at once among the poor, the despised and
the outcast. Inheritor of a theater grown sluggish with nostalgia
and fuzzy pseudo-historical romance, he wrote with obstreperous
ugliness and a kind of carnal glee about abortion, prostitution
(like Gladstone, for whom he was named, he was much preoccupied
with prostitutes), class, murder and suicide. A few others had
engaged this way with the downside of American life, some long
before O'Neill began, and he certainly had his contemporaries;
but O'Neill was seeking, almost from the beginning of his career,
to move beyond empathy, compassion and outrage to something else,
seeking some tremendous meaning he discerned, beckoning vaguely
on the other side of emotion and intellect. All such pursuits
risk pretentiousness, clunky poetry, dramaturgical and aesthetic
disaster, of which O'Neill delivered a generous portion. He was
a writer/explorer in the tradition of Herman Melville, one of
the first and the foremost of America's seafaring mythifiers,
for whom, as with O'Neill, the ocean is a vast incubatory of metaphor.
Melville's prayer, from Mardi, might have been O'Neill's
Fiery yearnings their own phantom future
make, and deem it present. So if, after all these fearful, fainting
trances, the verdict be, the golden haven was not gained; --
yet, in bold quest thereof, better to sink in boundless deeps,
than float on vulgar shoals; and give me, ye Gods, an utter
wreck, if wreck I do.
Like Melville, time aboard a ship on the
open seas was for O'Neill a birth trauma, revisited again and
again in his plays, a place for exploring "high interiors." "High
interiors" is O'Neill quoting Melville, in a promised-but-not-delivered
introduction to White Buildings, the first collection
of poems by Hart Crane, another writer in whose life and art the
sea has a fateful significance (O'Neill was an early champion
of Crane's poetry). O'Neill's maturity as a writer is announced
with his one-act sea plays, In The Zone, Ile, The Long Voyage
Home--the title of which was used for John Ford's magnificent
film starring John Wayne, which comprises parts of all the sea
plays--and The Moon of the Caribbees.
tragically landlocked Beyond The Horizon, his first great
full-length play, follows almost immediately, and quickly after
that he wrote a good but sentimental comedy, Chris Christofersen,
and then rewrote it: Anna Christie. This is a hinge of
sorts in his writing life. Anna seems to have convinced
him to make a decisive break with conventional dramaturgy and
the lightness exacted as the price for theatrical success; he
never attempted such lightness again. With his next play, The
Emperor Jones, O'Neill asked his audience to look at race
and the legacy of slavery in American history. When he repeated
the request, four years later with All God's Chillun Got Wings,
a play about a mixed-race couple, New York City explored legal
means to stop the production, affrighted by the spectacle of a
white actress kissing the hand of Paul Robeson. The city settled
on the ploy of refusing to allow children to act in the production;
but the scenes in which the children appear were read aloud by
a cast member, and the play went on.
These are not, by the way, political plays
from a social progressive, not the product of a rational, skeptical,
liberal consciousness, though they are deeply political, as is
all of O'Neill's work. Political insight and progressive impulse
must contend with an internal, atavistic hell of terrified, enraged
reaction and superstition bordering on animism - and the hoped-for
consequence of this battle is not, perhaps, social transformation
as much as transformation of the individual soul. Like many great
writers, O'Neill mistrusted the political, he viewed it as a shallow
bog in which one risks getting stuck on the way to full, tragic
understanding. But his mistrust, his pessimistic genius, and his
aesthetic ambitions did not lead him to become a reactionary (see
Saul Bellow, above). O'Neill was a left-leaning liberal manqué
with a deep respect for the successes of American democracy, and
paradoxically an equally deep affinity for anarchism; as for activism,
he chose to remain a tormented agnostic, a guilt-wracked observer.
His creed and conundrum is articulated by Larry, the fallen Wobbly
in The Iceman Cometh:
I was forced to admit, at the end of
thirty years' devotion to the Cause, that I was never made for
it. I was born condemned to be one of those who has to see all
sides of a question. When you're damned like that, the questions
multiply for you until in the end it's all questions and no
answer. As history proves, to be a worldly success at anything,
especially revolution, you have to wear blinders like a horse
and see only straight in front of you. You have to see, too,
that this is all black, and that is all white.
And later, because O'Neill never missed
an opportunity to re-iterate:
Be God, there's no hope! I'll never be
a success in the grandstand--or anywhere else! Life is too much
for me! I'll be a weak fool looking with pity at the two sides
of everything till the day I die! May that day come soon!
After All God's Chillun came Desire
Under the Elms (he had the best titles!). He began a new
exploration of Nietzsche, read Freud and commenced psychoanalysis.
He delved ijnto expressionism with The Hairy Ape and
Dynamo (in which Freud and Nietzsche are recklessly commingled).
He wrote plays bizarre, like Lazarus Laughed and Marco
Millions; and a play both bizarre and beautiful, Strange
Interlude. This is perhaps the crest of what can now be understood
as a period of intense grappling, a great artist of the theater
battering violently at the strict limitations of the theatrical
form, its punishing economy of time and cash and audience attention.
From this battering came a surrender to that economy and also
a new and deeper mastery of it; perhaps, as well, though I can
produce no proof of this, there is in his work a new self-awareness
of the significance of his project, the creation of a national
dramatic identity. What emerged immediately at the conclusion
of this flux was Mourning Becomes Electra.
Mourning is an act of tremendous
moxie, a naked attempt to connect the origins of America and the
origins of Western civilization and dramatic art. O'Neill set
the play in the region of the country closest to anything this
child of a touring, itinerant actor could call native ground:
New England, but his personal version of New England, flinty and
exhausted. The site of the first European settlements in America,
and the setting for Beyond The Horizon and Desire
Under the Elms, New England according to O'Neill had become
a bloodstained patriarchy, a sterile land of lost grace and Puritan
sin--sin revivified and empurpled in the plays by O'Neill's vigorous
apostasy of his parents' Catholic faith. It was as likely a place
as any in America--perhaps the only place--to turn when contemplating
the meaning of Origin.
Around the time of the writing of Mourning,
O'Neill conceived and began to develop a nine- and then eleven-
play cycle tracking the fortunes of a New England family over
the course of three centuries, The Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed.
These plays would range from the pre-Revolutionary War period
to the present, from the sea to the shore to both coasts, from
the colonial to the imperial, from the pastoral to the urban to
the despoliation of nature and the collapse of industry. One strand
of the family, the Melodys, would be late-18th century arrivals
from Ireland, an Irish family like that of O'Neill's maternal
lineage, the Quinlans, Irish people with a pedigree, with relatively
extensive roots in America, not mid to late 19th century Great
Hunger peasant refugees like the far less fortunate and prosperous
While the playwright was mapping out a
course for the cycle, making detailed notes and rough drafts before
fully plunging into this overwhelming enterprise, he wrote two
non-cycle plays. Days Without End, the Broadway failure
of which caused O'Neill to retreat from the contemporary stage,
is a final formal experiment, and an attempt to write directly
about Catholicism. Ah Wilderness!, a brooding, haunting
comedy, but a genuine comedy nonetheless, was as we now know,
a cautious dry run for the autobiographical play O'Neill would
Of the cycle, only one completed play remains,
the post-Revolutionary War installment, A Touch Of The Poet;
and what would have been next installment, the unfinished, utterly
mad and awe-inspiring More Stately Mansions--at 277 pages
in its Library of America edition, much longer even than Strange
Interlude (189 pages). Other cycle plays may have been finished
in rough draft, but these were destroyed near the end of O'Neill's
life, in a manuscript-burning episode before a hotel room fireplace
that seems to have been part of a late, slightly disturbing reconciliation
with his slightly disturbed third wife, Carlotta Monterey. More
Stately Mansions might have frightened O'Neill away from
further work on the cycle, or the immensity of the project may
have frightened him. Mansions reveals the cycle's true
nature; it's one of those illimitable, encyclopedic works, one
of those monstrous inventions--The Divine Comedy, Faust Part
Two, The Human Comedy, In Search of Lost Time, The Man Without
Qualities--that can only be abandoned by its creator, never
completed, an omnivorous fiction that devours its author's life.
perhaps it was simply that the undiagnosed ataxia that afflicted
him since early adulthood with shaky hands and spasming limbs,
possibly Parkinson's disease, was worsening. O'Neill had worn
himself out, writing practically without cessation day and night
for years, suffering each play intensely, feeling he was not writing
if he wasn't suffering; resting only when his body collapsed--weakened
as it had been by malaria, tuberculosis, heavy drinking, gastritis,
his body collapsed on a regular basis. Death surrounded him; his
father, his mother and his brother had died, close friends had
died, and World War Two had begun. Perhaps, in such mortal, fatal
times, his increasing ill health, his increasing difficulty controlling
a pen with his trembling hand, seemed to him a warning that his
time was severely limited. It might be that mortality, an invalid's
inward turning, redirected O'Neill, away from his mighty national
epic toward another, internal horizon and a resurrectional encounter
with the dead.
Or it might be that health had little to
do with it, and he simply saw a fork in the road and abandoned
the path he was walking for one more promising. In Mansions,
a ferocious tension can be discerned, between O'Neill's historical,
political ambitions and an irresistible longing to roam as far
as he could into the labyrinth of the Unconscious, exploring ambivalence
and its consequences, which had emerged as one of his great themes.
This is in fact the central dilemma facing Simon Harford, the
play's protagonist, and Mansions destroys itself in the
most spectacular and oddly satisfying manner, trying to come to
some resolution of this antinomy. The resolution may have been
the abandonment of the cycle, its possessor self-dispossessing.
He wrote The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's
Journey into Night, Hughie and A Moon for the Misbegotten.
He is the only American playwright, indeed one of the only major
American writers, indeed one of the only writers ever to have
concluded his writing life with his greatest work. He dramatized
the life of the derelict bar in which he had, at 23, attempted
suicide, and whence he emerged to become a writer. He dramatized
the inevitability of ambivalence, and its cost, in a play set
again in New England, no longer a drama of origin and possession,
but rather of immigrants, of not having, of not belonging; he
wrote a great tragedy, in which something majestic and irreplaceable
is destroyed, from the annihilation of which something new is
created. And, as many have pointed out, he buried his brother,
for whom he composed a requiem mass. His brother, having revealed
an unbearable truth to O'Neill, may have been the hardest to lose
and the hardest to forgive.
After Moon, he was done. He couldn't
hold a pen. He lived through his own kind of Calvary--and it's
impossible to write about O'Neill without talking about Christ,
the playwright more or less insists on it. A writer usually ends
up caught in his own fictional version of the world, and O'Neill
practically wrote himself into the role of Jesus (his father,
decades earlier, had possibly suggested this by actually playing
Jesus, and doing it well). "Most modern plays are interested in
the relationship between man and man, but that does not interest
me at all. I am only interested in the relationship between man
and God," he wrote.
One of his sons died of drink. The other,
the one he loved most, his namesake, was a suicide. He treated
his daughter horribly, disinheriting her and refusing to speak
to her after she married Chaplin. Maybe, unable to bear waiting
for her actual death, he needed to find a way to kill poor Oona;
she was, after all, almost the only relative who didn't predecease
him. As Stephen A. Black points out in O'Neill: Beyond Mourning
and Tragedy, the playwright was in a state of mourning nearly
all his adult life, beset by an outrageous, unrelenting string
of serious losses.
His reputation fell to its nadir. Seduced
back into production by financial anxiety, with Iceman
and Moon he lived long enough to see himself treated
with incomprehension and condescension, his work--not just Iceman
but his life's work--dismissed. He fell silent, he isolated himself,
he withered and died.
And rose again, almost immediately! All
it took was dying, and Jose Quintero's revival production of Iceman
with Jason Robards Jr., and Carlotta breaking the terms of her
husband's will, and Long Day's Journey appearing, first
in Sweden, and then everywhere, all the time, indelibly.
"To audiences accustomed to the oily virtuosity
of George Kaufman, George Abbott, Lillian Hellman, Odets, Saroyan,"
wrote Mary McCarthy of O'Neill on the opening of Iceman
on Broadway, in 1946, "the return of a playwright who--to be frank--cannot
write is a solemn and sentimental occasion." Cannot write! In
her review of Moon, McCarthy identifies "[t]he tone of
barbershop harmony in all of O'Neill's work," and alas, one knows
what she's talking about. Mean as she was, McCarthy wrote perhaps
the ultimate devil's advocate's brief in the case against O'Neill:
O'Neill belongs to that group of American
authors, which includes Farrell and Dreiser, whose choice of
vocation was a kind of triumphant catastrophe; none of these
men possessed the slightest ear for the word, the sentence,
the speech, the paragraph; all of them, however, have, so to
speak, enforced the career they decreed for themselves by a
relentless policing of their beat. What they produce is hard
to praise or to condemn; how is one to judge the great, logical
symphony of a tone-deaf musician? Pulpy in detail, their work
has nevertheless a fine solidity of structure; they drive an
idea or a theme step by step to its brutal conclusion with the
same terrible force they have brought to bear on their profession.
They are among the few contemporary American writers who know
how to exhaust a subject; that is, alas, their trouble. Their
logical, graceless works can find no reason for stopping, but
go on and on, like elephants pacing in a zoo. In their last
acts and chapters, they arrive not at despair but at a strange,
blank nihilism. Their heroes are all searchers; like so many
non-verbal, inarticulate people, they are looking for the final
Word that will explain everything. These writers are, naturally,
masters of suspense.
One hopes O'Neill never read this. McCarthy's
judgement is lethal because it cannot be denied. What she wrote
is absolutely true. For every great writer a great critic must
emerge, born to fill the negative space delineated by that writer's
profile; it must be one mark of being great that a writer goads
a critic to such heights of nettled perception. And every great
achievement rings more splendidly the more it risked, which is
to say the closer it came to debacle; some great achievements
incorporate their debacles. In a sense all art is a triumphant
catastrophe, or nearly all art; and perhaps God knows the ways
in which even Shakespeare failed--he certainly knew the ways God
failed. If the shared ambition of all art is salvation and resurrection,
all art fails; the dead stay dead; Hermione is only almost convincing,
and if Hickey fails, well, so did Orpheus.
Although McCarthy indicted the plays perfectly,
she completely failed to understand them. What she mistakes as
quaint in O'Neill's dialogue is, in my opinion, a stage poetry
that jangles and snaps and jitters and abrades. Here's a sampling
from the earliest play to the last:
She don't wear cheap truck like that.
See what that crimpin son of a crimp will have.
If you could see your ugly face, with the big red nose of ya
all screwed up in a knot, you'd never shed a tear the rest of
Queer things, memories. I ain't never been bothered much by
It was all-wool-and-a-yard-wide-Hell.
He went west with a bullet through his heart.
Close your trap, old prunejuice, or I'll hand yuh a punch in
the puss that'll knock yuh dead, get me?
Absinthe? It's doped. You'll go off your chump, froggy.
And that's where she gives me a pain, the stuck-up thing! She
thinks she's the whole cheese.
There is advice to actors: "Stop acting.
I hate ham fats."
And my personal favorite: "You may be lucky,
but you get nicked in the end. I picked up a nail from a tart
in Altoona." (A "nail" is syphilis.)
Even the stage directions, unrelenting,
annoying to actors and directors, by-product both of O'Neill's
distrust of actors and directors and also of the extent to which
he wanted his plays to be read, are frequently brilliant: "His
face must have been brutal and greedy, but time and whiskey have
melted it down into a good-humored, parasite's characterlessness."
There is self-mockery, the playwright's
sending up his inherited addiction to spouting poetry, in which
mockery can be read as an affectionate and consternated pondering
of America's vexed relationship to the English language. This,
from Ah WIlderness!:
Your girlfriend doesn't appreciate poetry.
She's a lowbrow. But I'm the kid that eats it up. My middle
name is Kelly and Sheets! Give us some more of the same! Do
you know "The Lobster and the Wise Guy"? No kidding, that's
a peacherino. I heard a guy recite it at Poli's. Maybe this
nut knows it. Do you, kid?
And there is lyrical poetry, too, especially
when the playwright has a character recollect time spent on the
sea. This is from The Hairy Ape, the speaker is Paddy,
as you might have gathered an Irishman, once a sailor, now a stoker
in the inferno in the belly of a luxury steamship:
Oh to be scudding south again wid the
power of the Trade Winds driving her on steady through the nights
and the days! Full sail on her, nights and days! Nights when
the flame of the wake would be flaming wid fire, when the sky'd
be blazing and winking wid stars. Or the full of the moon maybe.
Then you'd see her driving through the grey night, her sails
stretching aloft all silver and white, not a sound on the deck,
the lot of us dreaming dreams, till you'd believe it was no
real ship at all you was on but a ghost ship like the Flying
Dutchman they say does be roamin the seas forever more widout
touching a port. And there was the days, too. A warm sun on
clean decks. Sun warming the blood of you, and wind over the
miles of shiny green ocean like strong drink to your lungs.
Work--aye, hard work--but who'd mind that at all? Sure, you
worked under the sky and twas work with skill and daring to
it. And wid the day done, in the dog watch, smokin me pipe at
ease, the lookout would be raising land maybe, and we'd see
the mountains of South America wid the red fire of the setting
sun painting their white tops and the clouds floating by them!
Yerra, what's the use of talking? Tis a dead man's whisper.
If you aren't Mary McCarthy, who sacrificed
generosity and sensual delight in the interest of a sharply honed
prosecution, if you read this passage aloud, or listen to it read
aloud, you will hear its raw and rhythmic power. I can make no
claim for O'Neill as one of the great writers, only as one of
the greatest playwrights; for these two things, writing and playwriting,
are not the same, and O'Neill's work makes that clearer than any
other's. As writing, his plays are an embarrassment of the coarse,
the corny, and the outlandishly repetitious, meandering as they
unapologetically search for truth. (Brecht in his journals wrote,
"America's plays are written for people on the move by people
who are lost.") O'Neill's great forebear is not Shakespeare, for
all that he revered Shakespeare, for all that he wrote poetry
when young, but Aeschylus. O'Neill reaches in past the skin and
the viscera and operates directly with the bones. He doesn't garden
and landscape and cultivate and harvest; he shifts tectonic plates.
O'Neill wrote his own defense, and outlined
the nature of his work, better than anyone else, in one of the
best-known passages from Long Day's Journey. The play
is about actors, about the theater, it is a theatrical manifesto
as much as it is a gravestone or a resurrection or the definitive
family drama or an indictment of the marketplace or a definitive
drama of American immigrant life or anything else.
Edmund, who is Eugene O'Neill--"Edmund"
is a Lear reference and also the name of O'Neill's dead
infant brother - is speaking to his father, who keeps asking the
all-important question, as they take turns distractedly playing
their hands in a card game: "Whose play is it?"
EDMUND: ... (He grins wryly.)
It was a great mistake my being born a man, I would have been
much more successful as a seagull 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!
TYRONE -- (Stares at him - impressed) Yes there's the
makings of a poet in you alright. (Then protesting uneasily)
But that's morbid craziness about not being wanted and loving
EDMUND -- (sardonically) The makings of a poet.
No, I'm afraid I'm like the guy who is always panhandling for
a smoke. He hasn't even got the makings. He's got only the habit.
I couldn't touch what I tried to tell you just now. I just stammered.
That's the best I'll ever do. I mean, if I live. Well, it will
be faithful realism, at least. Stammering is the native eloquence
of us fog people.
Much earlier, in a play called Fog,
O'Neill wrote a stage direction which could be used now to describe
O'Neill's centrality in American drama, his inescapable presence
in our national theatrical imagination, earned by virtue of his
identification of our "native eloquence": "the genius of the
fog... broods over everything."