EUGENE O'NEILL: FROM
CARDIFF TO XANADU
by: Benjamin De
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,
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.
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
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,
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
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
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.
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
This article was written
originally published Theatre Magazine, Vol. No. 46, No. 2.
Benjamin De Casseres. New York: Theatre Magazine Company, 1927.