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Eugene O’ Neill experiments with a variety of dramatic forms and modes. He is not satisfied with one form or one style; he continues to experiment with one or another. When he uses the symbolic setting, he turns to a greater flexibility and thus enhances the imaginative quality of his plays. He represents almost everything which is fundamentally modern about the American theatre.
Psychology, symbolism, expressionism, asides, soliloquies, masks, modern American drama
Eugene O’Neill is one of the greatest American figures in the 20th century theatre with qualities of greatness. He transformed the American theatre, and his influence spread throughout Europe. His dominance in the early days of the insurgent movement remains unquestioned and his historical place is secure. He received the international recognition in 1936 when he got the Nobel Prize in literature.
His technical experiments reveal his endeavour to get over not only the limitations of prose but also the limitations of his outlook. His plays are, therefore, sometimes more earnest than profound. They become more complicated than subtle. Over all, his plays demonstrate a continuous attempt to suggest deeper meanings that underlie “the discordant, broken, faithless rhythm of our time.”
In characterization, he likes to follow a pattern. His characters strike the readers with their astounding variety. His characters include men, who are misguided and frustrated. These are the men who stand for certain human values. They are sensitive persons who wish to follow some ideals in lives. They belong to different stations and positions of life. They exist on various levels. They are ineffectual egotists and moving for opportunities. Each character is an instrument for revealing some theme.
His workmanship works when he makes a skilful use of his knowledge of psychology in delineating the character. He brought a breadth of vision to the American stage. He demonstrated the means through which the theatre could reveal life with its infinite possibilities, at once real and fantastic for its audience.
He executes a beautiful fusion of art and ideas in his plays. He made ceaseless experiments in dramatic art. These experiments lead him to discover an idiom through which he gives expression to the human tragedy. His various experiments brought him name and fame. A synthesis of realism and romanticism can be seen in his earlier works. But, in the later plays he uses symbolism. In some plays he uses interior monologue while in some he makes a good use of the mask.
His knack lies in his art of making combination of realism and expressionism. He is one of those great dramatic figures who have achieved a balanced combination of realism and expressionism. It cannot be denied that he is the first great dramatist of modern America. What makes him eminent among modern dramatists is not merely that he shares the modern interest in psychological exploration, but he also makes use of current issues which are central to the set up of society. The question of racial discrimination and its effect in determining character figures significantly in his plays. In All God’s Chillun Got Wings, The Dream Kid, and Emperor Jones, he has presented a wide range of Negro life. His plays are gripping because they depict that segment of life which the dramatist knows and with which he sympathizes.
No doubt he has interest in psychology but this interest affects his techniques. As he continues his preoccupation with the process of the mind, he makes a good use of masks and soliloquies. He does so to give satisfactory way of dramatic expression. He continues to experiment after experiment in the dramatic art and develops the innovative techniques. He succeeds in form or style and even then he does not feel satisfied and begins to experiments further. This habit of experimentation remained with him upto the very end of his career. He began his career when he wrote plays in the realistic tradition. In his early plays he gave life and speech genuinely. His plays are strictly patterned. The structure of the play, the pattern of action and even the shape of the dialogue follow a strict design.
He is a realist with a different approach. He has not a merely prosaic external realism but a purer and higher psychological realism. He uses poetic non-realistic techniques like symbolism, expressionism, asides, soliloquies, masks etc. He uses these techniques in order to give expression to the inner life of his characters, their frustrations and obsessions. It is generally seen that every opening scene of his plays appeals. It appeals mainly to the sense of hearing. Further this hearing is intensified by the visual imagery. The pantomime makes the stage very dramatic.
Symbolism is an important link in O’ Neill’s dramatic art. It connects to the tehnique of communication. The use of symbolic setting gives him greater flexibility and increases the imaginative quality of his plays. He has made extensive use of symbolism in Desire Under the Elms. He sets the stage for this play with the description of the two elms as having ‘a sinister maternity in their aspect’ His use of psycho analytical symbolism becomes apparent in this description. He compares the elms to the exhausted women who are resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair on its roof. Elms symbolize the feminine or the maternal principle, while old Cabot stands for the hardness of the Hebrew and Puritanical God. The farm and the farm house symbolize the emotional and material security.
The Mother image, the blessed Isles, the sea chanty and the Mannon house are the symbols which are quite dominant in Mourning becomes Electra. In this play symbolism is not symbolism simply but has become, to use phrase, “Freudian Psychological Symbol.” This play is purely psychological in nature. O’Neill has given justice by revealing the inner patterns through the innovative symbolical technique.
Strange Interlude is one of the significant plays of O’Neill’s later period. It reveals his genius as a playwright and illustrates many of his peculiar methods of plot-construction, characterization and other techniques.
He uses the technique of aside and soliloquy. He uses the expressionistic technique in The Emperor Jones to convey the psychological terrors and obsessions. In scene VII we may see the use of his technique and workmanship in the description of fear and horror in the heart of Jones.
The expression of his face is fixed and hard his eyes have an obsessed glare, he moves with a strange deliberation like a sleep-walker or one in a trance. He looks around at the tree, the moonlit surface of the river beyond and passes his hand over his head as if he were puzzled and bewildered. (Nine Plays 30)
Then he murmurs incoherently:
What-what am I doing ? What is dis place ? Seems like – Seems like I know that tree – and those stones – and de rever. I remember – seems like I have been here before ! (Trembling) Oh, Gorry, I am afraid of this place. I am afraid. Oh, Lawd ! Protect this sinner.
“Mercy, Oh Lawd ! Mercy ! Mercy on his poor sinner. (Nine Plays 31-32)
This is a powerful scene, very effective on the stage. The regression of Jones to his primitive self, is complete. Jones is a symbol of man’s vain boast of power. Symbol and psychology merge well in his character.
In The Great God Brown, the characters at times wear masks which are intended to symbolize the duality of their natures. The play depends on a series of contrasts. There is the opposition of the mask and the face. He also uses another device for the same purpose in The Strange Interlude. In Days Without End, he dramatizes the split between the two selves within one man, by making the actors to play the two parts of the same man.
His techniques and experiments exhibit a unity of high purpose rarely exhibited by modern playwrights. He belongs to no particular school; he has tried to combine the best elements of the schools of drama. His plays mark a new approach. His search for a new language led him into many varied manners of speech, realism, expressionism, naturalism, symbolism, fantasy and poetry. He used them alone and also in various combinations. He avoided mechanical methods of plot construction and tried in each case to adapt the technique to the peculiar demands of the theme.
While the tremendous nature of O’Neill’s genius and his inexhaustible dramatic inventiveness are generally acknowledged there is the feeling that he lacked “language” equal to the reach of his non-verbal powers. His efforts to raise the language of some of the crucial moments of his play to rhapsodic pseudo-poetic prose have not been very successful. But as long as O’Neill wrote about common life of sailors and farmers and social outcast – he managed his language well. He could handle the realistic style securely and suitably and does not stand in the way of his achieving the desired effect. In his plays there is reality and there is joy. There is the reality of life and the joy of life. His vocabulary is rich with the richness of life and work. His people have that wildness which civilization accentuates.
The plays of O’Neill represent almost everything American. Modernity becomes the life breathe of his plays. His modernity lies both in the ideas that he dealt with and in the techniques through which he used his ideas. He is a born rebel and the rebel in him is responsible for bringing about a revolt against middle class complacency and common-place realism on the American stage. The wide range of his experiments and his dissatisfaction with forms place him to a very high position among the among avantgrade writers. He not only modernize the form of American drama but its content also. His avid cultivation of new ideas, his assertive individualism and his intense unease are expression of the lost generation.
His Mourning Becomes Electra and Strange Interlude are studies in psychoanalytical theories of Freud and Jung, and in Iceman Cometh he once more fuses expressionism and realism, to portray effectively ‘The Tragedy of Modern Life.’ The basic theme of The Iceman Cometh is that of reality versus illusion and commitment versus non commitment. In the play Iceman Cometh, Larry may be said to be the spokesman of O’Neill. He describes the Bar and the life of the people living there.
“Larry. (with a sardonic grin) What is it ?
It’s the No Chance Saloon. It’s Bedrock Bar, The End of Line Cafe …….. No one here has to worry about where they’re going next, because there is no farther they to go. It’s a great comfort to them. (The Plays Vol. 587)
The one important point to keep in mind about O’Neill’s experiments in dramatic art is that these experiments were inspired by a serious purpose – to find an idiom in which to express the human tragedy. His impressiveness as a dramatist is ultimately, in fact, the result of his determined effort to trace a thread of meaning in the universe virtually emptied of meaning by a century of scientific and sociological thought. Eric Bentley remarks:
O’Neill has always had the grown up writer’s concern for that continuity and development which must take place quietly and from within. In a theatre which chiefly attracts idiots and crooks he was a model of good sense and honor. (331)
O’Neill finds the existing mechanical devices highly unsatisfactory. He has devised his own radical methods. The sickness of today and the tragic intensity cannot be depicted in the manner. He evolves his methods which are characteristic of his genius. His achievement is outstanding. He introduces a sense of modernism into his plays.
In his tragedies O’Neill is mostly concerned with the basic fundamental emotions and passions of man. Though he was a very severe critic of society, he did not give much importance to political and social movements, which touch the real problems of mankind only superficially.
In all his tragedies, O’Neill gives us the impression that though modern man’s life is tragic, the heroic struggles, which his characters put up, inspire us with a feeling of exaltation. In spite of the great ordeals that a man has to undergo, life is worth living.
More than any other writer in the American theatre, O’Neill endeavoured to give range and significance to the drama. In his search for spiritual values he had in view the magnitude of theme and treatment in the great ages of theatre. He sought that magnitude not as an imitator but as a creative dramatist working in the American idiom.
As a dramatist, he has some limitations. He has the inadequacy and intermittent appearance of his sense of humour. He has, indeed a rather grim irony. His portraits are in wood block, not in fine lines. He lacks the power of happy memorable phrase. There are few or no lines in his plays that will become familiar quotations. He lacks control, and does not distinguish between force and violence. He has the ex-invalids love of strong words and violent deeds. Sometimes his symbolism gets out of control. Sometimes, his control over emotion also becomes uncertain. But, in spite of these drawbacks, he remains a great dramatist and one of the greatest figures in the 20th century theatre. He never compromised with box office demands. He succeeded without tempering with his artistic conscience. It is he who showed a splendid artistic courage and dared new things of modern theatre. It is he who widened the range of dignity to modern American drama.
Bently, Eric. “Trying to Like O’ Neill.” The Plays of Eugene O’ Neill. Ed. Oscar Cargill et al. New York: University Press, 1961)
O’ Neill, Eugene. Nine Plays. New York: Modern Library, 1941.
---. The Plays of Eugene O’ Neill Vol. I. New Delhi: East West Press.
About the contributor:
Ruchi Shinghal teaches English at S.R.S. Girls P.G. College, Bareilly, affiliated to M.J.P. Rohilkhand University, Bareilly. She completed her Ph. D on the plays of O’ Neill successfully. Her research papers on Whitman, Robert Frost, Naipaul, Webster and others have been published in various reputed journals. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.