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EUGENE O'NEILL: FROM CARDIFF TO XANADU

by: Benjamin De Casseres

THE difference between genius and talent in play-writing is that genius spins a play out of its own innards, lifting both innards and web up into the light of eternal cosmic and human laws, while talent builds a play out of external events with hammer, hatchet and shears. The latter may be clever mechanics, but it depicts the ephemeral, the amusing. Genius is a spider, a bee. Talent is a beaver.

Every great writer is a subjective writer, an exploiter of himself. The plays of Shakespeare, Strindberg, Ibsen and Pirandello are all phases of the Psyches of themselves. They dramatize their unique and individual reactions to life. They spin their great masterpieces out of their agonies, joys, revolts, blasphemies, erotic hells and aesthetic heavens; out of their nerves, emotions, perversities; out of their starving bellies, full-bulging brains and venomous ironic juices. The play's the man. Unless it is that, it is merely a "show."

Eugene O'Neill was the first true dramatic genius that America produced. He spun all of his plays out of his own bowels, lifting them up into the light of eternal cosmic and human laws. From Bound East for Cardiff to that superb fantasy of ironic humor and ironic wisdom, Marco Millions, one may trace the evolution of the soul of O'Neill, if one has the clairvoyant and imaginative eye.

Marco Millions is the roots of O'Neill become a gorgeous flower. The black in O'Neill's soul has become gold. Social venom is transmuted into ironic laughter of the mournful gods. Impotent melancholy bursts into the flame of philosophic wisdom, "Caliban" has become "Hamlet"; "Yank, the Hairy Ape," has become "Kublai Khan," epicurean pessimist.

I glance at the roots of O'Neill and his powerful, vital, pessimistic dramas. He was baptized in the same physical and spiritual hells as Gorky, Dostoyevsky, Strindberg and Poe. Beachcomber, adventurer, water-front bum, a "down-and-outer" with sailors and stevedores, a man fired from a hundred jobs, a nervous smash-up that landed him in a sanitarium; a man of melancholic, tragic temperament, having been at Gethsemane and having walked the fiery, alcoholic hells (a more tremendous feat than water-walking), Eugene O'Neill came out of the sanitarium like Lazarus newly risen.

Curious trick of Life! It bludgeons us so that we shall get up and spit back at it. The Eternal Thug pounds us to a pulp and then says whimsically, "Well, I see you're not dead. Get up! You win!" O'Neill got up, spat back at it--and won! When he came out of the sanitarium, he says:

"My mind got a chance to reestablish itself, to digest and evaluate the impressions of many past years, in which one experience had crowded on another with never a second's reflection. I really thought about my life for the first time, about past and future."

This was in 1913, when he was twenty-five. Before this he had not thought, he had not reflected; but the matrix of his plays was moulded. The bed had been made for the birth. He read Ibsen and Strindberg, masters of the Bitter Laugh. But, to me, Ibsen and Strindberg are negligible quantities in his work. O'Neill is too original, too thoroughly individualistic, too singular and too personal in his experiences and reactions to take his hat off to any "master."

What are the characteristics, the mental, moral and social ingredients of O'Neillism as I find them in his plays?

Man versus the Universe: All the characters in the O'Neill plays might be sculpted as the Laocoön. They struggle with the serpents of heredity and environment and are doomed. The universe conspires every moment against the individual. He is born to be toyed with, degraded, slaughtered.

There is no "redemption" anywhere, except perhaps in smug conformity and gold. For those who think, feel and revolt there is awaiting them a Caucasus or a Calvary. Prometheus, Christ and Laocoön are the everlasting symbols of Man.

Irony: Irony is the belly-guffaw of Rabelais frozen in the brain. Or maybe it is only a hard-boiled tear, for it is doubtful whether he is capable of a guffaw.

His is the irony of Strindberg, Ibsen, Octave Mirabeau and Ambrose Bierce. It is an irony implicit in the very nature of his characters--whether it is Yank, the Emperor Jones, Anna Christie or Marco Polo. Each one carries within himself the germ of his own buffoonery.

"Man is the only animal," says Cabell, "that plays the ape to his ideal." In O'Neill's plays we are all apes, trying to imitate ourselves, seen in the mirror of our brain-dreams. But the irony of O'Neill is not bitterly anti-human, as it is in Swift and sometimes in Bierce. At its heart is pity--or at least a vast sympathy--which is always superior to pity.

The Social Conventions: In O'Neill's dramas the conventions, customs and laws of society are everywhere the enemy of the human being. Only the strong, unscrupulous, darling Dionysiac being stands a chance of carrying away the gates of Gaza.

In the first seven years of his life O'Neill "bummed" it with his father, James O'Neill, from town to town, while the latter barnstormed in Monte Cristo. He thus began life outside of the conventions. He was the born wastrel, the dissenter, the outsider. But he has no illusions about the fate of the "enemies of society." You are either stoned to death or dragged back to conformity by the undertow in the blood.

Amoralism: It is in vain that one looks through O'Neill's plays for a "message," an "ethic." He is always, even in some of his earlier unimportant plays, beyond good and evil. He is as inexorable as Sophocles, Thomas Hardy, Turgenev and Strindberg. His characters are chemical and psychological experiments, just as all of us are in the hands of the unseen Master of the Laboratory.

"I am not here to teach--I am here to reveal," might be the motto of the author of Desire Under the Elms, as it has been of every artist worthy of the name from Aeschylus to Robinson Jeffers, another great American master of Tragic Beauty.


This article was written originally published Theatre Magazine, Vol. No. 46, No. 2. Benjamin De Casseres. New York: Theatre Magazine Company, 1927.

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