Eugene O'Neill: The Native Eloquence
By Tony Kushner
[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 did.
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
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.
The 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
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
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 O'Neills.
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 ultimately
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.
Or 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 your life.
Queer things, memories. I ain't never been bothered much by em.
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
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,
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
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 death.
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