Three Plays: Desire Under the Elms / Strange Interlude / Mourning Becomes Electra by Eugene O’Neill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Fintan O’Toole’s review of a recent biography of Eugene O’Neill is headlined “Our Worst Greatest Playwright.” The critic enumerates the entwined flaws in O’Neill’s art and life: a dramatist in flight from his imperious actor father’s success as a star of melodrama, he abused his family in turn and marred his attempts at serious theater with ludicrous artistic excesses of his own. Yet O’Neill’s place in literary history is not exactly insecure. As America’s first great playwright and second Nobel laureate, and as a dramatist whose plays are still in the theatrical repertoire, not to mention that his works are all in print, his stature seems secure, or as secure as anything else in these revolutionary times; yet he tends not to be mentioned in the same breath as his contemporaries in fiction and poetry—Faulkner, for example, or T. S. Eliot—as if he were not quite their peer. Why this mixed status, at once “worst” and “greatest”?
First, his early works like The Emperor Jones (1920) and The Hairy Ape (1922) were so successful at altering the themes and techniques of the American stage that the lay reader has to take the scholar’s word for it about the polite drawing-room drama or sensational melodrama these plays supplanted, since no one reads or watches this earlier material anymore. O’Neill redirected theater’s focus to the lower classes: The Emperor Jones is about an African-American prison escapee who commandeers a Caribbean island before its natives overthrow him, while The Hairy Ape concerns an engine stoker who comes to consciousness of his exploited and excluded status as proletarian. He animates these social themes with Expressionistic stylings and an emphasis on symbolism over strict mimesis, as when Jones’s nighttime flight through the island forest carries him through a visionary history of black America. And while these early plays are ideologically unreadable by today’s standards, especially given their patronizing “dialect” dialogue, they were socially avant-garde in their own time. Jones was the first major American role written for a black actor and was acclaimed in its time by African-American critics as a serious treatment of racial themes, for example. They don’t lack insight in the present either, as in the scene where O’Neill’s titular laboring “ape” discovers that socialism is just another scheme to manage and organize the worker (O’Neill identified politically as an anarchist). Even the somewhat plodding realism of Anna Christie (1920) displays O’Neill’s sympathetic interest in the plight of women, notwithstanding how he treated his wives. O’Neill had read Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, and more, not to mention Ibsen and Strindberg, and brought vanguard ideas and aesthetics from Europe to the American stage.
The later plays that cemented his reputation and earned him the Nobel Prize are not as overtly experimental as his earlier works, and for that reason, ironically, are harder to appreciate in the present. The Emperor Jones is an inventive enough visual spectacle, even as a reading experience, to mute O’Neill’s clunky dialogue and schematic psychology. A more naturalistic play like Desire Under the Elms (1924) gives us less to look at and more to listen to, to the drama’s detriment. It also shows O’Neill’s turn from Expressionism to another characteristically modernist device, the mythic method: Desire relocates Euripides’s Hippolytus to a stony, hardscrabble New England farm. As the transition from social problem play to mythic tragedy suggests, O’Neill became more interested in the invariables of the human condition than whatever is historically contingent in our experience. In this drama of an old man who brings a young wife back to his farm, where she falls in love with his son, O’Neill stages a confrontation of rough, solid manhood with the fluid force of vegetal female desire that threatens to undo it. His verbose and elaborate stage directions tell us almost in so many words:
Two enormous elms are on each side of the house. They bend their trailing branches down over the roof. They appear to protect and at the same time subdue. There is a sinister maternity in their aspect, a crushing, jealous absorption. They have developed from their intimate contact with the life of man in the house an appalling humaneness. They brood oppressively over the house. They are like exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair on its roof, and when it rains their tears trickle down monotonously and rot on the shingles.
By contrast to these soft smothering tendrils, Ephraim Cabot, the farm’s owner and patriarch, exclaims, “God’s hard, not easy!” His unfaithful wife Abbie hammers home the symbolism in her seductive speeches to his son, Eben, when he tries to resist her seductive wiles:
Ye don’t mean that, Eben. Ye may think ye mean it, mebbe, but ye don’t. Ye can’t. It’s agin nature, Eben. Ye been fightin’ yer nature ever since the day I come—tryin’ t’ tell yerself I hain’t purty t’ ye. (She laughs a low humid laugh without taking her eyes from his. A pause—her body squirms desirously—she murmurs languorously) Hain’t the sun strong an’ hot? Ye kin feel it burnin’ into the earth—Nature—makin’ thin’s grow—bigger ‘n’ bigger—burnin’ inside ye—makin’ ye want t’ grow—into somethin’ else—till ye’re jined with it—an’ it’s your’n—but it owns ye, too—an’ makes ye grow bigger—like a tree—like them elums—(She laughs again softly, holding his eyes. He takes a step toward her, compelled against his will.) Nature’ll beat ye, Eben. Ye might’s well own up t’ it fust’s last.
The overblown obviousness of it all, especially when its somberness is contrasted with the exaggerated Yankee dialect, is ludicrous; yet it’s powerful in its very tastelessness and reminds us that “taste” is a social category, not an artistic virtue, as if Euripides himself mightn’t stand accused of a sheer tacky luridness. In bringing pagan tragedy into New England, whose ancestral Puritan culture recognizes only sin and virtue, not the aesthetic sublimity of a noble collapse, O’Neill reprises the dark Romanticism of 19th-century authors like Poe and Hawthorne with their Gothic challenge to American Christianity and its meliorist liberal Transcendental counterculture. In place of the Greeks’ metaphysical fate, he places the post-Darwinian, post-Nietzschean, post-Freudian destiny of a sexual desire and unconscious will that cannot be overcome by reason or morality. For all that, the characters, going through their automatic paces, lack both the depth and weight of classical dramatic roles, and when the play culminates in infanticide, it comes off as mere sensationalism.
O’Neill’s next major experiment, the two-part, nine-act, five-hour, Pulitzer-winning Strange Interlude (1928), also stages men’s undoing by a femme fatale. This time, thankfully, the characters belong to the educated classes, so we’re not subjected to O’Neill’s labored attempts to represent working-class or ethnic or regional speech. Wishing to bring the innovations of the modernist novel to the stage, O’Neill here represents his characters’ words and thoughts onstage with extended stream-of-consciousness asides. I assume these monologues create an appropriately strange effect when performed, since the other actors have to sit still every time a character unspools his or her thoughts to the audience. As a literally novel dramatic technique, though, it was probably worth trying at least once. O’Neill even openly challenges the novel as a form, since one of the play’s major characters is a genteel novelist; the popular stage can reach depths mainstream fiction can’t, O’Neill seems to imply, as in this scene, where the novelist, Marsden, meets his romantic rival, a physician named Darrell, and they size each other up in their minds:
DARRELL This Marsden doesn’t like me … that’s evident … but he interests me … read his books … wanted to know his bearing on Nina’s case … his novels just well-written surface … no depth, no digging underneath … why? … has the talent but doesn’t dare … afraid he’ll meet himself somewhere … one of those poor devils who spend their lives trying not to discover which sex they belong to! …
MARSDEN Giving me the fishy, diagnosing eye they practice at medical school … like freshmen from Ioway cultivating broad A’s at Harvard! … what is his specialty? … neurologist, I think … I hope not psychoanalyst … a lot to account for, Herr Freud! … punishment to fit his crimes, be forced to listen eternally during breakfast while innumerable plain ones tell him dreams about snakes … pah, what an easy cure-all! … sex the philosopher’s stone … “O Oedipus, O my king! The world is adopting you!” …
O’Neill here both parodies and owns up to all his inspirations: the novel form, Greek myth, and psychoanalytic science. This very, very long play is not itself so insightful, however, and would be unremarkable as a novel, especially if compared to, say, The Sound and the Fury or Ulysses. Strange Interlude (the title refers to life itself, though also metatheatrically to the stream-of-consciousness technique) dramatizes over several decades three men’s disastrous orbiting around an intense, manipulative woman named Nina Leeds. This fatal woman’s credo is metaphysical matriarchy, and though O’Neill lets her have her say in perhaps the play’s most memorable speech, her erotic power spells doom for the men she comes openly to call hers and suggests overall O’Neill’s skepticism about female authority:
The mistake began when God was created in a male image. Of course, women would see Him that way, but men should have been gentlemen enough, remembering their mothers, to make God a woman! But the God of Gods—the Boss—has always been a man. That makes life so perverted, and death so unnatural. We should have imagined life as created in the birth-pain of God the Mother. Then we would understand why we, Her children, have inherited pain, for we would know that our life’s rhythm beats from Her great heart, torn with the agony of love and birth. And we would feel that death meant reunion with Her, a passing back into Her substance, blood of Her blood again, peace of Her peace!
Finally, the beautifully titled trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) brings O’Neill’s version of the mythic method to a climax: here he adapts the Oresteia into the more modern tragedy of a powerful New England family that meets its doom after the Civil War. O’Neill’s Agamemnon is Ezra Mannon, a general and heir to the stern Mannon line of puritanical businessmen; he returns from the War to his wife, Christine, who has come to loathe him and who’s been having an affair in his absence with a sailor named Brant. While Christine is a romantic and a sensualist, her daughter Lavinia is a severe Mannon through and through, utterly loyal to her father and contemptuous of her mother; she has discovered that Brant is the son of her father’s uncle, who was cast out of the family for having an affair with a French Canadian nurse. Completing the family quadrangle is Lavinia’s brother, Orin, the Orestes of the piece, who is as devoted to his mother as Lavinia is to her father, and was goaded to join the war effort, despite his pacific nature, only by Ezra and Lavinia’s taunts and insistence. Readers of Aeschylus can fill in most of the plot for themselves from this premise; O’Neill’s dialogue, unsubtle as ever, spells out the Freudian subtext of the renovated myth when Christine exclaims to Lavinia:
I’ve watched you ever since you were little, trying to do exactly what you’re doing now! You’ve tried to become the wife of your father and the mother of Orin! You’ve always schemed to steal my place!
Without the Greek tragedy’s theme of family vengeance versus public justice, we’re left with a somewhat squalid tale of Freudian determinism, especially since O’Neill doesn’t even take advantage of the Civil War backdrop to compare familial to national curses, as in Faulkner’s version of American Gothic. O’Neill’s portrait of Orin, his mind shattered by the violence, is one of the play’s strongest elements, though, reflecting the generational experience of the Great War despite its lack of thematic weight:
It was like murdering the same man twice. I had a queer feeling that war meant murdering the same man over and over, and that in the end I would discover the man was myself! Their faces keep coming back in dreams–and they change to Father’s face–or to mine— […] The next morning I was in the trenches. This was at Petersburg. I hadn’t slept. My head was queer. I thought what a joke it would be on the stupid Generals like Father if everyone on both sides suddenly saw the joke war was on them and laughed and shook hands!
When Lavinia takes over from Christine as this play’s seductive fatal woman—because she is doomed to become the mother she hated, as Orin likewise turns into Ezra—she attains an almost campy grandeur (“I hope there is a hell for the good somewhere!” she hilariously cries at one point) that makes her the most perfectly realized of O’Neill’s villainesses.
To return to the opening question, then, how do we balance O’Neill’s greatness with his badness? He’s been likened to a similarly compromised canonical figure, the novelist Theodore Dreiser, who also wrote both greatly and badly. The comparison is illuminating because I think they are opposite cases. Dreiser wrote clumsy prose in received forms, but he created rich characters and issued cutting and still-relevant social commentary; his content was good, his form bad. With O’Neill it is the reverse. His dramatic structure and stage style are relentlessly inventive, as are his play’s governing concepts; even the titles are unforgettable. It’s only the dialogue and, therefore, the characterization that fall short. In other words, poor content, great form. I strongly suspect his plays have to be seen for their greatness to be believed, but we can more than glimpse it in the inner theater conjured on the page.