by Eugene O’Neill.
Edited by Travis Bogard. Library of America. Volume I: 1913-1920. 1,104 pp. $35.00. Volume II: 1920-1931. 1,092 pp. $35.00. Volume III: 1932-1943. 1,007 pp. $35.00.
by Eugene O’Neill.
Random House (Modern Library). 829 pp. $20.00.
Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), America’s one great playwright by world acclaim, has not always enjoyed popularity. At the moment, though, he is in the ascendant. The Modern Library has reissued its 1932 “Giant” edition of nine of his plays; a British firm has published the complete plays in a massive tome, with an introduction by John Lahr; and the Library of America, in what is surely destined to be the definitive text, has put out a handsome three-volume set sorting the plays chronologically. Meanwhile, a recent revival of Anna Christie enjoyed a much-discussed run on Broadway.
O’Neill, whom George Bernard Shaw once called “a banshee Shakespeare,” is a playwright who needs to be argued for, often against a critic’s better instincts. Thus, Joseph Wood Krutch, who also wrote the introduction to the earlier Modern Library edition, led the way in an essay called, strenuously, “Eugene O’Neill’s Claim to Greatness.” The drama critic Eric Bentley wrote a famous essay with the revealing title, “Trying to Like O’Neill.” And then there was Mary McCarthy, who in her days as a theater critic, openly scorned O’Neill as a writer even as she paid tribute to the concentrated effect of particular works.
What was that effect? Lionel Trilling, another critic who praised O’Neill while trying not to bury him, put it this way:
We do not read Sophocles or Aeschylus for the right answer; we read them for the force with which they represent life and attack its moral complexity. In O’Neill, despite the many failures of his art and thought, this force is inescapable.
The force of which Trilling spoke was rooted in an irreducibly adolescent, even sophomoric, solemnity over which O’Neill triumphed by dint of what Mary McCarthy termed “the element of transcendence jutting up woodenly . . . like a great homemade Trojan horse.” The plays that remain hauntingly powerful—Anna Christie, The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, Desire Under the Elms, Ah, Wilderness!, and the classically plain Long Day’s Journey into Night—were the work of a lumbering craftsman who drove himself to take risks, and who, in the end, seemed to know, by instinct if not by intellect, what he was about.
What emerges in a concentrated perusal of O’Neill’s texts is their essentially American character, as much a matter of tone and voice as of subject. Although he wrote little specifically about either world war, the Depression, or the civil-rights movement—all major events of his lifetime—he was sensitive to them the way one is to climate and locale, in his blood and bones. He did write a trilogy in the classical mode about the Civil War, and several plays were set in early-19th-century New England. O’Neill also made a prodigious effort to record phonetically, if sometimes ludicrously, a range of American dialects. And in Ah, Wilderness!, an honest, sentimental, funny, and dignified play, he composed a joyous celebration of the Fourth of July and the American family.
In the dark American tradition of Melville, Poe, and Faulkner, O’Neill also infused into his work the pathologies that dominated his own life. His youth was shadowed by his mother’s addiction to alcohol and his father’s materialistic ambitions, recorded with fidelity and affection in Long Day’s Journey. His older son, Eugene, Jr., a classical scholar at Yale, committed suicide; his younger, Shane, was a lifelong drug addict. Although he was charmed by his daughter Oona’s beauty and intelligence during her teen years, he rebuffed her contemptuously when she sought a Hollywood career, and rejected her fiercely and permanently when she married Charlie Chaplin. What enabled him to control his own alcoholism and to continue productive work through long periods of debilitating illness and a turbulent domestic life were an iron will and vast ambition.
The moral forcefulness that Trilling alluded to distinguishes O’Neill’s work from that of his contemporaries in the theater. Thornton Wilder touched up and sentimentalized the family in Our Town; in O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, by contrast, the family achieves representativeness through the precision of its defining details. The saloon in William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life is a place we visit like curious, uninvolved tourists; in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh we are forced to live in the saloon, virtually overcome by the alcoholic stench and the futile solemnity of its trapped denizens. For all his rhetorical flights, O’Neill confronted reality without filters.
The most striking contrast, possibly, emerges from placing Long Day’s Journey alongside Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, both plays about dysfunctional families with two unfocused sons and a father driven by compulsions to be successful and “well-liked.” In the O’Neill play, we know the minutiae of James Tyrone’s profession, the kind of liquor he stocks and car he owns, his impoverished childhood, his failed real-estate deals, his wife’s Catholicism; we never know comparable facts about Miller’s Willy Loman, not even (as Robert Warshow emphasized in an essay about the play) what it is he carries in his salesman’s bags. Where Miller effects an uneasy empathy with a finally mythical “low” man, O’Neill makes us party to a shattering day in the life of a searingly real one. An enormously skilled dramaturgy makes Salesman work; Long Day’s Journey, adhering to the barest essentials of the classical unities, works through the particularity, the exactitude, and the clinical candor of its observations.
These new editions are beautiful books. (As reading declines, the art of bookmaking seems to improve.) In the Library of America’s three volumes, the first includes fascinating one-act plays like Fog, which have not been available for years, while the third contains a chronology of the major occurrences in O’Neill’s life. The notes to all three volumes, which appear unobtrusively at the end of each, give writing, production, and publication histories, and fully and crisply annotate the text in exemplary academic fashion.
O’Neill himself selected the contents of the Modern Library edition, whose editorial matter consists only of a brief anonymous biography. The plays it contains—The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, Desire Under the Elms, Marco Millions, The Great God Brown, Lazarus Laughed, Strange Interlude, and Mourning Becomes Electra—preceded his winning of the Nobel Prize in 1936 (as did Ah, Wilderness! and Days Without End). They reveal, in addition to O’Neill’s greatness, the limitations of his art and critical instincts.
For one thing, O’Neill kept confusing ambition with achievement. Sheer size impressed him. Lazarus Laughed calls for a chorus of 159, “doubling in approximately 420 roles.” Mourning Becomes Electra is a three-play rendering of classical Greek material in the context of the American Civil War. Both are tedious to read and a challenge to produce other than in rodeo-like surfeit—as the Theater Guild, which for a long time represented high Broadway art, did in its spectacular presentations.
For all his alertness to European models, O’Neill had little of Chekhov’s understated subtleties and obliquities, Ibsen’s stolid single-mindedness, Shaw’s clarity, Pirandello’s philosophical complexity. But he did keep pure his unmodulated American (and Strind-bergian?) intensity, as well as his commitment to the mission of making himself a great playwright. Unlike Miller, Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams, or Lillian Hellman, he cannot be said to have “sold out” in any way to anyone.
What may confuse us about O’Neill’s stature is not that his admirers claimed too much for him, but that they sometimes claimed the wrong things. O’Neill often did not quite know what he wanted to say and said much of it crudely, coarsely, awkwardly, excessively, melodramatically—but, for better and worse, with an extravagance that compelled attention. In company with his contemporaries William Faulkner and Theodore Dreiser, if O’Neill had not written so much so badly, he might not have written so much so effectively.