Eugene O'Neill: as an American Dramatist

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      Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) is the first American dramatist of international significance. The son of an actor; he spent his early years in a great variety of occupations. Journalism, gold-prospecting, acting, office work, and experience as a merchant seaman were among the many jobs which gave him that experience of real life which has proved so valuable in his plays. He studied drama at Princeton University, and was for a time at Harvard. He wrote his first play in 1913, and his earliest work was produced by the Provincetown Players. Recognition came quickly; however, and in 1920 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

O'Neill began in the realist tradition, but abandoned it after Annu Christie (1922), a strongly realistic work dealing with the redemption of a prostitute. Since then he has experimented unceasingly wit new techniques of presentation, new dramatic forms, and origina dialogue.
Eugene O'Neill

      Eugene O’Neill is the great figure of the contemporary American theater. Like Shakespeare, he was an actor turned into a dramatist. His numerous plays combine enormous technical originality with freshness of vision and emotional depth. O’Neill’s earliest dramas concern mainly with the working class and poor. Later works explore subjective realms, such as obsessions and sex, and underscore his reading in Freud and his anguished attempt to terms with his dead mother, father, and brother. His play, Desire Under the Elms (1924) recreates the passions hidden within one family. The Great God Brown (1926) uncovers the unconsciousness of a wealthy businessman. Strange Interlude (1928), a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, traces the tangled loves of one woman. These powerful plays reveal different personalities reverting to primitive emotions or confusion under intense stress. He continued to explore the Freudian pressures of love and dominance within families in a trilogy of plays collectively entitled Mourning Becomes Eiectra (1931).

      Mourning Becomes Electra is based on the classical Oedipus trilogy by Sophocles. It was first produced in New York in 1931. The 13-Act trilogy is set in a small New England coastal town at the close of the Civil War. During General Mannon’s absence in the war, his wife, Christine takes Captain Adam Brant as her lover. The grim Mannon house, built in the style of a Greek temple, becomes the setting for the first death, that of General Mennon, poisoned by Christine. Their daughter Lavinia hates her mother fervently as she loved her father, and finding the remains of the poison, she urges her brother Orin to take revenge. Orin kills Brant and Christine commits suicide. Driven towards madness by the consciousness of his crime, Orin is taken on a voyage by the unrepentant Lavinia. On her return to the Mennon house, he is still ill but she is transformed into a beauty exactly like her mother (the play was originally intended for performance with masks) Orin’s passionate attachment with his mother is now incestuously transferred to Lavinia, and remorse leads him to suicide. Lavinia accepts punishment of shutting herself away in the decaying mansion of the doomed Mannons.

      His later plays include the acknowledged masterpieces The Iceman Cometh (1946), a stark work on the theme of death, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1956) a powerful, extended autobiography in dramatic form focusing on his own family and their physical and psychological deterioration, as witnessed in the course of one night. This work was part of a cycle of plays O’Neill was working on at the time of his death. O’Neill redefined American the theater by abandoning traditional divisions into acts and scenes (Strange Interlude has nine acts, and Mourning Becomes Electra takes nine hours to perform) and using masks such as those found in Asian and ancient Greek theater, introducing Shakespearean monologues and Greek choruses, and producing special effects through lighting and sound. Generally, he is acknowledged to have been America’s foremost modern dramatist. In 1936, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature - the first American playwright to be so honored.

      O'Neill began in the realist tradition, but abandoned it after Annu Christie (1922), a strongly realistic work dealing with the redemption of a prostitute. Since then he has experimented unceasingly wit new techniques of presentation, new dramatic forms, and origina dialogue. He is, indeed, a versatile dramatist of great originally Strange Interlude (1931) illustrates his use of aside and soliloquy by means ot which the action of the play is carried on at: two levels. Other experiments are his revival of the chorus, his use of a highly his stylized speech and of rather confusing masks. On occasion his originality leads to obscurity, and his audience cannot always be certain of his meaning, but he is a dramatist of immense force and powerful imagination, and his best plays show a real sense of theatre.

      He is a serious dramatist, concerning himself with major issues of his time - religion, philosophy, psycho-analysis, and scientific thought are the basis of many of his works, such as Dynamo (1929), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), and Days Without End (1934). Not infrequently he runs to great length-Days Without End is at ast twice the length of the normal play, while his latest play, The Iceman Cometh (1946), contains ten acts.

      O'Neill is by far the greatest exponent in English of the 'expres sionist' drama, of whose aims and techniques more is to be said (see p. 557). Among his plays are The Emperor Jones (1920), Beyond the Horizon (1920), The Hairy Ape (1922), Desire under the Elms (1924), All God's Chillun got Wings (1924), The Great God Brown (1926), Lazarus Laughed (1927), Ah! Wilderness (1933), and a Long Day's Journey into Night (1956).

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