The importance of Eugene O’Neill to the history of drama in the United States is without question. The 1992 Cambridge Guide to Theatre describes O’Neill as both, “the first U.S. Playwright of major talent” and “Universally regarded as America’s finest”. Laurence Olivier, former actor and director of England’s the old Vic and National Theatre companies, calls O’Neill “the father figure of modern American drama [whose] shadow touches all the modern American playwrights” and “a colossus of twentieth century drama”. Critic Robert Brustein suggests, “It is doubtful if, without him [O’Neill], there would have been an American drama at all”. These comments and countless others written during and following O’Neill’s life. Four Pulitzer Prizes and one Nobel Prize, numerous full length critical analyses, biographies as well as countless journal articles, dissertations and theses all attest to the importance of Eugene O’Neill to the history of American theatre.
In O’Neill’s world, people cannot live without their illusions, their pipe dreams of love, connection and success. His first three Pulitzers were for `Beyond the Horizon`, `Anna Christie`, Strange Interlude` and `Long Day`s Journey` won his final Pulitzer, in 1957.
IN THE analysis of O’Neill’s plays must be judged in the terms of tragedy. That is exactly what he wanted; for he held that whatever greatness a man may have his ultimate stature is measured in the terms of his ability to experience tragedy in his own life and in the life of man.
Any analysis of the concept of tragedy as it finds expression in modern drama, and in O’Neill in particular, must recognize that Aristotle’s famous definition cannot apply, at least not as it has been traditionally interpreted. The full implication of the traditional interpretation as applied to drama from Sophocles to Shakespeare will not serve for O’Neill. But no discussion of tragedy can avoid Aristotle, nor can O’Neil be discussed as a writer of tragedy without reference to Aristotle’s definition. That he does belong in the great tradition of tragedy is certain. No matter how far removed he may be from the poetic form of the past, any evaluation of his tragedies invites comparison with the great pays in this genre, because all lesser ones sink into a minor place where contrast and not comparison is implied. The form of his tragedy is different, in subject matter and theme it is the same.
There are two points in Aristotle on whom modern drama departs from the classic definition, or at least from the traditional interpretation of that definition. Pertinent to the study of an O’Neill tragedy are character and hamartia, the fall from high station due to some “flaw”, human error, or failure in sound judgment. Aristotle’s conception of the tragic character holds that he is a man of high station, a king or a leader of his people in some great cause. General Mannaon (Mourning Becomes Electra) is the only one in O’Neill’s world who in any sense at all measures up to the specific requirements of Aristotle, if he is to be taken in a literal sense. Hamaritia is a different problem, but even here Aristotle could not conceive of the fall from greatness as being tragic unless the leading character was victim of some slight flaw, because to have a perfectly good man fall from prosperity into adversity would be “impious” or “merely shocking”; it would in fact, question the goodness of the Gods. This, in its traditional interpretation by critics found expression in the assumption that at the end of a tragedy there was katharsis, which in turn was interoperated to mean that man was “Brought face to face with universal law” and “The divine plan of the world”.
Neither the traditional Aristotelian character, nor the pious belief in a divine order of things has validity in the best of modern tragedy from Ibsen and Strindberg to O’Neill, and of these, it applies least of all to O’Neill. His tragedy, if it has universal appeal, must deal with the fall of man from prosperity into adversity in a manner that is “shocking” and through causes that lie within man himself in relation to the outward forces of his world. He is brought to disaster by forces that are stronger than he is. This attitude toward man has been apparent in O’Neill’s plays from the first to the last. The men and women of his world are victims of a cosmic trap, cold and impersonal as steel. Mary, (Long Day’s Journey into Night) who has struggled for years with her inescapable despair, says to Edmund, “It’s wrong to blame your brother. He can’t help being what the past has made him. Any more than your father can. Or you, Or I”. And again later when she knows that there is no escape, she thinks of her happiness as a student in the Convent, “You were much happier”, she says to herself “When you praye4d to the Blessed Virgin. If I could only find the faith I lost, so I could pray again”. But impossible. There is no will that can conquer the forces of life that have imprisoned her. Tyrone asks her to “Forget the past”. Her answer is, “How can I? The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie about that, but life won’t let us.”
Each character has his flaw, his failure. He is a combination of the inner self, which is the life force, trying to deal with the circumstances of a world he did not make and could not control. The appeal of the play lies not in “order re-established”, but in the realization of ma’s powerlessness to deal with life in any way that would indicate a universal good. He stumbles in the fog, that in this play is the dominant atmosphere, seeking for a pathway that is not there.
Aristotle’s man of high estate, who was to him a figure of national importance, is not present in modern tragedy. But the character that alls must still be significant. His importance in an O’Neill play lies then not at all in his station in life, but in his capacity to feel and understand the forces that have brought him from a place of great promise to one where the value of life has lost its charm, all its high promise, where it has no more value that a rag pinned to a clothes line fluttering in the wind.
But still the Mannons had something of the outward stature of ancient dramatic heroes. In order to realize most fully the modern tragedy as O’Neill saw it, it is best to turn to the Iceman Cometh. In time this play may very well come to be recognized as O’Neill’s greatest tragedy.
This is Eugene O’Neil’s final word to the brother he had loved just this side of idolatry. This whole play must be interpreted as an elegy. The dramatist forces himself to see all the faults of the one he immortalizes, and then beneath a thousand failures, recognizes the great worth of the man betrayed and driven to disaster by the fates, relentless in their determination that he be destroyed. All the outward appearances of callous disregard for others were but forms to conceal the specters that haunted his spirit. This was O’Neill’s farewell to his brother, just as A Long Day’s Jouney into Night had been his In Memoriam to his father and mother. The dedication to A Long Day’s journey Into Night applies to A Moon for the Misbegotten as well. To Carlotta he wrote that he had been able “To face my dead at last and write this play – write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrone’s.”
1. Eugene O’Neill a critical study by Sophus Keith Winther
New York: Random House, 1934 Enlarged Edition, 1961
New York: Random House, 1934 Enlarged Edition, 1961
2. American Drama/Critics Writings and Readings By Bert Cardullo Cambridge first published 2007 by Cambridge Scholars Publishing 15 Angerton Gardens, Newcastle, NE 52 JA, UK British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A Catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library © 2007 by Bert Cardullo p. 1-12.
3. William Dean Howells, ‘Some New American Plays’, Harper’s Weekly, 48, January 16, 1904, pp. 88,90.
4. Mary McCarthy, ‘The American Realist Playwrights’, Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles: 1937-1962 (New York: Farrar Straus, 1963) pp. 209-229.
Dept. of English