Eugene O'Neill: The Journey Out of Night

Who is the greatest American playwright of all time?

The name that most people come out with upon hearing that question is Tennessee Williams. Several people have even argued with me about it when I told them I had to disagree and say that Eugene O'Neill was the greatest. Tennessee Williams has an advantage over O'Neill in that he is better known nowadays, having had his work come into being in the latter half of the twentieth century, while O'Neill's graced the former half; in addition, more of Williams' scripts were adapted for the silver screen than were O'Neill's, and Williams generally had the more popular and better-known actors and actresses taking on the starring roles, such as Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, and Vivian Leigh. (Note: I'm aware that Katherine Hepburn and Jason Robards appeared in the old screen version of Long Day's Journey Into Night, but I don't believe these two had quite the "star quality" popularity of the performers listed above; also, notwithstanding Hepburn's great talent, I thought she was poor choice for the role of Mary Tyrone.)

I want to point out that I am not in the least disparaging Tennessee Williams, whom I feel was a fine artist and a great playwright. I would like to add, however, that 1) I do not feel he had the prolific energy and artistic consistency of O'Neill, and 2) he not only learned many of his artistic elements and playwriting tricks of the trade from O'Neill; these elements would not even exist were it not for O'Neill. Let's focus on that for a second: think about Orson Welles' masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Do you recall Welles' use of light and shadow during a number of key scenes in that film? What about the manipulation of sound to create echoes and further influence the mood of the scene, or the angles of the sets to lend an element of intimidation to certain characters? Revolutionary filmmaking, but Eugene O'Neill came up with it first. How many times have you watched a movie or television show and "heard" character's thoughts while the other onscreen characters were unaware of them? Believe it or not, O'Neill thought it up and used it on stage, a much more limited medium. Many of the script techniques that we take for granted today in various vehicles are a result of what might almost be thought of as the playwright's obsession with pushing the limits of stage productions as far as he could.

Born in New York City in 1888 to Irish American parents (and yes, this may have a little bit to do with my partiality, but not much), Eugene Gladstone O'Neill had two strong advantages that all but guaranteed he would become a great playwright - he was literally "born" to it (his father was an actor), and he had a miserable childhood and unsettled youth (as Tim once pointed out oh-so-wisely, it's far easier to affect profundity when one is miserable). James O'Neill was a handsome matinee idol in his time who kept his family on the road during the many years he played his signature role, "The Count of Monte Cristo." He was not a happy man, and blamed himself for squandering, rather than developing, his acting talent by allowing himself to be lured by the siren songs of wealth and popularity in this one role (this puts me in mind of William Shatner). Throw in a morphine addict for a mother and a ne'er-do-well older brother, and you have the makings of intense family drama (Long Day's Journey Into Night).

Eugene O'Neill himself was a drifter throughout his early youth. Intelligent enough to be accepted into Princeton in 1906 but not disciplined enough to remain and take a degree, the dissatisfied but romantic young man, both idealistic and melancholy, began a life of travel and adventure. Throughout his late teens and early twenties, O'Neill worked as a prospector and a seaman, spent time as a derelict and survived at least one suicide attempt. His time working aboard a tramp steamer created in him a deep love for the sea and a draw to its mystical attractiveness that stayed with him all his life, and this along with the multitude of people and places he encountered provided many of the settings and characters that appeared in his plays.

After his return to New York, O'Neill began working as a journalist, and published some poems on the side. He appeared to be settling down at last; then, in 1913, O'Neill was stricken with tuberculosis, and everything changed. It was during his year in a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients that the author's thoughts first turned to playwriting, and he vowed to himself that, should he survive, he would become a playwright.

Such is the background of America's pioneer of expressionistic and naturalistic drama. Four years after his fateful diagnoses, O'Neill received the Pulitzer Prize for Beyond the Horizon. What followed was a profuse (47 plays) and highly successful dramatic career that earned him three additional Pulitzer Prizes (Anna Christie, 1922; Strange Interlude, 1928; Long Day's Journey Into Night, 1956) and the 1936 Nobel Prize for literature (Beyond the Horizon).

What makes O'Neill's work stand out? For one thing, he did not allow it to be limited by time constraints. The passage of time for the characters in most plays takes place over a few hours or, at most, a few days. O'Neill frequently had time gaps between acts that have been known to take his characters ahead ten or more years - this was almost unheard-of in his day and required feats of makeup not usually called for at the time. For example, Strange Interlude, a two-part play in nine acts, allows approximately a year to pass between all but two acts, while the remaining two each take the characters ahead more than ten years. The Mourning Becomes Electra trilogy (a powerful grouping of the plays Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted which parallel the structure of Aeschylus' Oresteia) naturally has significant times gaps between the three dramas, but also between the acts within the plays themselves. Even the well-known Desire Under the Elms has at least one one-year gap between two of the acts to allow for the birth of a child.

As Tennessee Williams wrote of the South, Eugene O'Neill kept to New York and New England. I imagine he must have been a dreadful person to cast for; his scripts are so richly detailed they almost read like novels. He gives meticulous descriptions not only of the sets (which go so far as to include what titles appear on the bookshelves in an onstage "room"), but of the characters themselves, describing not only height, build, and demeanor, but eye color and hair color, as well as mannerisms. An example from Act One of Long Day's Journey Into Night:

SCENE: …In the left wall, a similar series of windows looks out on the grounds in back of the house. Beneath them is a wicker couch with cushions, its head toward rear. Farther back is a large, glassed-in bookcase with sets of Dumas, Victor Hugo, Charles Lever, three sets of Shakespeare, The World's Best Literature in fifty large volumes, Hume's History of England, Thiers' History of the Consulate and Empire, Smollett's History of England…The astonishing thing about these sets is that all the volumes have the look of having been read and reread. …At center is a round table with a green shaded reading lamp, the cord plugged in one of the four sockets in the chandelier above…It is around 8:30. Sunshine comes through the windows at right.

This small, condensed (by me) segment contains an astonishing amount of specifications for a play, and does not include the author's descriptions of his characters, which were equally precise and going so far as to describe in minute detail not only what each character was wearing, but also the state of the clothing in condition and age. The descriptions of the physical characteristics of the two sons point out which qualities from which parent each son possesses. Now, one could argue that, due to its autobiographical nature, Long Day's Journey Into Night (which was produced posthumously at the author's request, by the way) is unique in that O'Neill had a definite vision of how things should look based on his own memories. In answer, I'll point out that I've read most of O'Neill's plays and every one of them contains this degree of detail. I've also seen a number of them produced onstage or in films, and never once have I noticed that the stagehands came close to accurately reproducing even half of the script's specifications. Nor do I blame them for not doing so. I have wondered whether, in his writing, O'Neill took into account sizes and styles of the different theaters and stages.

I once read a review in which one smug critic described Eugene O'Neill as a "glorified soap opera writer". This, no doubt, is due to the fact that the majority of his plays were tragic in nature (Ah, Wilderness! was his only comedy) and packed with conflict and raw emotion. O'Neill writes his characters as being driven by forces beyond their control and even their comprehension. Recurring themes of his include search for identity, loss of faith in oneself, and conflicting relationships between the sexes. Tragedy, O'Neill insists, lies in a human being's awareness and in his consciousness of the futility of struggling against a blind fate. Bitter stuff.

And, of course, there was O'Neill's desire to constantly evolve the medium. He played with lighting and scenery. He came up with a technique for allowing the audience to "hear" a character's thoughts and feelings, a technique that was incredibly challenging both for the stage and for the actor attempting to perform it. At times, he even made his characters wear masks. Above all he held that one, all-important quality which alone is responsible for maintaining an artist's longevity in many an artistic arena: adaptability. It wasn't enough for the writer to push the limits of the stage and attempt to evolve drama as he knew it, nor was it enough for him to repeat his earlier successes. He evolved himself as well.

Eugene O'Neill contended with family tragedy and ill-health all his life, and died in his early sixties. But I tend to look up to him as a personal hero of mine even so. This is not only because he enjoyed two things writers rarely get to enjoy - critical acclaim along with popularity in his lifetime - but because he overcame his earlier difficulties as well as his inner struggles with identity to remain true to his art. One of the most telling examples of this, I think, is the dedication he wrote to his wife in Long Day's Journey Into Night, when he presented her with the manuscript one anniversary. I would like to close with this dedication, as I feel the unadulterated love, joy and acceptance without bitterness that it contains demonstrates the author's insight in a way even his most profound tragedies do not.

For Carlotta, on our 12th Wedding Anniversary

Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play - write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones.

These twelve years, Beloved One, have been a Journey into Light - into love. You know my gratitude. And my love!


Tao House

July 22, 1941

Jenn Eagen
January 2000

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