Commentary Magazine


America's Greatest Playwright?

Through most of the 20th century, there was no contest for the title of America’s greatest playwright. Eugene O’Neill’s standing appeared to be secure not merely in theatrical and intellectual circles but also among the middlebrows: he was awarded four Pulitzer Prizes and won the Nobel for good measure. But in recent decades, the assertion of O’Neill’s greatness is largely a matter of entropy. The American theater itself seems to have moved on. Only four of his plays have been seen on Broadway in the past decade, otherwise awash in revivals of American classics, and none of these productions was commercially successful. Nor is his work now performed more than sporadically by America’s regional theaters.

This development would have shocked the critics of an earlier generation, for whom O’Neill was a Moses-like figure, the man who led American theater out of the wilderness of triviality, as well as one of the first playwrights in this country to portray such controversial topics as drug addiction, incest, insanity, and miscegenation on stage. One cannot read about him for very long without encountering the fervent words of George Jean Nathan, the leading theater critic of O’Neill’s heyday. In 1932, Nathan wrote that O’Neill had “single-handedly waded through the dismal swamplands of American drama, bleak, squashy, and oozing sticky goo, and alone and single-handed bore out the water lily that no American had found there before him.” The critic-director Harold Clurman put it less effusively but just as emphatically when he called O’Neill “America’s first serious playwright.”

But the praise of Nathan and Clurman carries a sting in the tail, for it arises in part from the fact that prior to the 20s, when O’Neill’s work first began to be performed and discussed widely, theater in America was still in thrall to the 19th-century tradition of the “well-made” but unserious melodrama. Most American playgoers knew little of the Victorian  innovators Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw when O’Neill’s first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, opened on Broadway in 1920. Hence the gratitude felt by the critics of Nathan’s day, who rightly credited O’Neill with introducing Broadway audiences to a harsher, more true-to-life style of contemporary playwriting, in much the same way that Theodore Dreiser’s novels inspired a generation of American readers to embrace naturalism.

Among historically aware commentators, this sense of gratitude has yet to wear off. Harold Bloom, for instance, has called him “the principal American dramatist to date . . . the most American of our handful of dramatists who matter most.” But in the same breath, Bloom speaks of O’Neill’s “many limitations,” arguing that his plays succeed in spite of their lack of verbal felicity and leaving open the question of whether they are “equal to the best of our imaginative literature.” In this, too, he resembles Dreiser, whose work has always puzzled those who cannot see how so poor a stylist could possibly be a great novelist. And yet, defiantly, Dreiser’s reputation has not diminished over time.

In O’Neill’s case, however, posterity appears to be in the process of rendering a more downbeat verdict. Whatever his critical reputation, a playwright whose work is not performed is by definition minor, and it is not too strong to say that with the exception of a single play, Long Day’s Journey into Night (1941), O’Neill’s oeuvre is vanishing from the active theatrical repertory.

How is it possible that the works of so admired an author should have failed to hold the stage? Has the collective taste of America’s playgoers become degraded beyond redemption—or do they know something the critics don’t?

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In my eight years as a drama critic, I have reviewed 10 productions of seven plays by O’Neill, three of which—Long Day’s Journey, A Moon for the Misbegotten (1941-43), and A Touch of the Poet (1942), I saw two times each, the first time on Broadway and the second time elsewhere. These plays are O’Neill’s “posthumous” works, written in the years immediately preceding his retirement and left unperformed until after his death. In addition, I have seen individual productions of Ah, Wilderness! (1933), O’Neill’s only comedy, and three plays from the 1920s: The Emperor Jones (1920), Anna Christie (1920), and Desire Under the Elms (1925).

Kevin Spacey, Eve Best in 'A Moon for the Misbegotten' (2007)

What is most striking about this list is what it does not include. Since 2003 there have been no major American revivals of The Iceman Cometh (1939), which most critics now rank alongside Long Day’s Journey, or of Beyond the Horizon (1918), Strange Interlude (1928), and Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), the tragedies that once were thought to be, together with Desire Under the Elms, his most significant works.

It would seem that the list of plays by O’Neill that are thought viable by American directors and producers is very short indeed. And while there are practical reasons why this should be so—most of the once-celebrated O’Neill plays require large casts and so are prohibitively expensive to stage—the experience of seeing Anna Christie, Desire Under the Elms, and The Emperor Jones has not inclined me to think that a future revival of interest in O’Neill’s middle-period work is likely. All three are gravely, even fatally, flawed.

However, there is nothing trivial about any of them. Their fundamental seriousness is self-evident—if anything, too much so. For they are “serious” in the wrong way, devoid of anything but the crudest touches of humor and elephantine in their explicitness. A case in point is Anna Christie. Its title character is a whore in search of redemption who hammers home her disgust with the race of men in a way that is embarrassingly bald: “It was all men’s fault. . . . I hate ’em all, every mother’s son of ’em. Don’t you?”

Another troublesome aspect is their near-complete lack of poetry. Unlike Shakespeare, the greatest lyric poet of the English-speaking stage, or Chekhov, whose language is almost unbearably evocative in its simplicity, O’Neill’s characters talk at endless length without ever saying anything memorable. And while this lack of eloquence can be partially explained by his commitment to naturalism, it sits uneasily alongside O’Neill’s palpable longing to be a poet of the stage who takes the language of the common people and charges it with expressive intensity.

In addition, O’Neill’s too frequent use of dialect makes it still more difficult for us to appreciate his work. His characters are forever uttering with straight faces such stock phrases as “Is it giving me orders ye are, me bucko?” and “Py yingo!” Of course O’Neill, who worked for a time as a merchant sailor, knew far more than I do about the way in which his characters would have spoken a century ago, but even if they really did express themselves in stage Irish and Swedish, it is no longer possible for modern audiences to believe in that kind of language, which turns the characters who speak it into stereotypical stick figures, not the recognizable human beings with which all truly great plays are peopled.

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If Anna Christie and The Emperor Jones have held the stage at all, it is in part because they are so concise. Such is not the case with the major plays that followed them, which tend to be enervatingly long (the original production of Mourning Becomes Electra ran for six hours). Moreover, this length is almost always theatrically pointless, for O’Neill was addicted to superfluous exposition. Most of his full-length plays, early or late, are top-heavy, at times appallingly so, as in the case of A Touch of the Poet, whose entire first act could be cut without impeding the audience’s grasp of the narrative.

The main problem with the plays that made his reputation in the 1920s, however, is that O’Neill sought in most of them to forge an American equivalent of Greek tragedy, whose characters are dragged toward the abyss by their irresistible desires. The problem was that by superimposing Greek techniques on his naturalistic vocabulary, he created a disproportion between ends and means that can border on the ludicrous. When I saw Desire Under the Elms, the overwrought story of an aging farmer whose nubile young wife lusts after her angry young stepson, I could not stop myself from laughing out loud at exchanges such as this: “Hain’t I yer lawful wife?” “Ay-eh. Ye be.”

For me, this latter problem was thrown into high relief when I saw the Irish Repertory Theatre’s superb off-Broadway revival of The Emperor Jones, in which a black Pullman porter takes over an impoverished West Indian island with the help of a Cockney crook. While it is one of O’Neill’s most significant works, few companies dare to perform it nowadays, since the title role is written in yassuh-boss period dialect.

Even more to the point, though, O’Neill’s attempt to embody in The Emperor Jones a poetic statement about the thin ice on which Western civilization rests is not quite within his grasp, partly because his plot resembles Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” too closely for comfort and partly because Evelyn Waugh was to cover the same ground far more creatively later in Black Mischief. In The Emperor Jones, by contrast, one is at all times distractingly aware of what the author is trying to say. The symbolism lies too close to the surface for the results to be artful.

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Some of the flaws of the middle-period plays can also be found in Long Day’s Journey, A Touch of the Poet, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. But these plays, unlike their predecessors, are far more satisfying in performance, and one reason for this is their greater concentration. All three plays require only a single set and take place during a single day, and Long Day’s Journey and A Moon for the Misbegotten both have small casts (five characters).

In addition to their tighter narrative control, the three “posthumous” plays are all elevated by the deeply comprehending sympathy toward their irreparably damaged characters that is O’Neill’s greatest gift as a playwright. In these plays as in Dreiser’s novels, this theme is expressed so powerfully that the defects are to a considerable degree overcome by the tough-minded honesty with which O’Neill portrays his antiheroes, who long—sometimes in vain, sometimes not—to find surcease for their pain in love of one kind or another.

Sympathetic in a different way is Ah, Wilderness!, an autobiographical play about a turn-of-the-century Irish-American family whose members include a charismatic patriarch, a sensitive young author-in-the-making, and a drunken uncle, all of whom had parallels in the author’s troubled youth. But this time, O’Neill gave his story a decisively happy ending, portraying the Connecticut childhood he wished he’d had instead of the one that scarred him for life. At the same time, he is unafraid to show us the shadows with which his not-so-imaginary New England town is dappled, and the result is a nostalgic yet emotionally complex comedy that is at once open-hearted and open-eyed.

Seven years after Ah, Wilderness!, O’Neill wrote the still more explicitly autobiographical play that is its tragic inversion. Long Day’s Journey into Night has a well-deserved reputation for being a spectacularly effective vehicle for a cast of first-rate actors. But this four-hour-long play lacks the relative concision of its companion pieces, and it suffers from a problem that is commonly present in O’Neill’s work, which is that it can be hard for modern audiences to share the author’s sympathy for his characters.

The four principal characters in Long Day’s Journey are the members of the horrifically dysfunctional Tyrone family, which stands in for O’Neill’s own parents and older brother. Papa James, a Shakespearean actor who wasted his career touring in a second-rate melodrama, is a garrulous miser, while Mama Mary, a quintessential injustice collector, is a morphine addict. As for their sons, Jamie is a whore-chasing wastrel and Edmund (the author’s fictional counterpart) is a frustrated poet dying of consumption. All but Edmund are doomed, and his chances of survival are bleak.

Clearly, O’Neill means for us to see the collective fate of the Tyrones as tragic—but what kind of tragedy ends with the protagonists lolling helplessly on stage, all drunken or drugged? It doesn’t help that they are a clan of scab-pickers, rubbed raw as flayed corpses from a lifetime of mutual recrimination, who resume clawing at one another mere seconds after the curtain goes up on the first act. Therein lies the main flaw of Long Day’s Journey into Night. One does not become impatient with Hamlet and Antigone as they rush toward their preordained destiny, but after spending four hours listening to the Tyrones snipe and whine, it is dangerously easy to grow tired of them, and to conclude that they are less tragic than willful.

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Every play is at the mercy of its performers, and the converse is true as well. A first-rate production of a problematic play can change in a single viewing your sense of its quality. It happens that in the past two seasons, I saw Long Day’s Journey, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and A Touch of the Poet performed not in the Broadway houses where I had previously seen them but on small-house thrust stages and in tiny black-box theaters. Not only did they profit from this intimacy of scale, but the total effect of Long Day’s Journey was different from that of any other production I had seen. The cast of a large-house staging is inevitably tempted to overact, but the squabbling of the Tyrones proved far easier to take—and to sympathize with—when acted in the unexaggerated style enabled by small-scale production.

Might O’Neill have been a more satisfying playwright had he stuck to the modest scale of the early one-act plays with which he first made his reputation? A similar question occurred to me after seeing Ah, Wilderness! for the first time: might he also have profited from making more frequent use of the ironic detachment from the trials of life that only comedy can supply? Perhaps—but the fact remains that he did neither. In the end, an O’Neill play is what it is, and no production, however intimate or sensitive, can change its essential nature.

The sheer theatricality of O’Neill’s very best work is magnetic, but the extent to which his characters contribute to their own misery makes it impossible to experience their plights as genuinely tragic. In any case, the myriad defects of his craftsmanship make it unlikely that more than a handful of his plays will continue to be performed with any regularity. Yet these latter plays still exude a fitful but real power that compensates for their awkward structures and unmemorable language. All of which suggests that Eugene O’Neill might just be America’s best bad playwright—or its worst great one.

About the Author

Terry Teachout, Commentary’s chief culture critic and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, wrote about Leon Fleisher in the last issue. He is at work on a biography of Duke Ellington.




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