Autobiographical Elements in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill

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      O’Neill’s dramas are not only realistic and psychological, but also autobiographical. O’Neill considers art and autobiography as one. He is known as the most autobiographical among modern playwrights. O’Neill’s own life has the raw material for his final plays. It is only towards the end of his life that he resorted to direct autobiographical statement. His later plays are based on his own personal experiences or reminiscences. Intensely autobiographical, O’Neill poured all his longings and despairs, his agonies and ecstasies, into his plays.


      Many of his characters are near projections of his own-self John Gassner rightly observes: “It is impossible to forget that O’Neill is speaking through them”. From the beginning to the end of dramatic career, O’Neill has attempted to transmute his autobiographical experiences into art. Many of his characters reveal his own thoughts and experiences and give expression to his views and ideas. The Poet in Fog, Robert Mayo in Beyond the Horizon, Stephen Murray in The Straw, Michael Cape in Welded, Dion Anthony in The Great God Brown, Richard Miller in Ah! Wilderness, John in Days Without End, Edmund in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, etc., represent the writer as a hero. Stephen Murray, in The Straw, is the surrogate of O’Neill. The character description of Stephen is as valid as a self-portrait of O’Neill as a young artist. In Days Without End, John Loving is a persona for the playwright. In Ah! Wilderness, O’Neill deals with the memories of his high school days and happy love. In Marco Millions, he reveals a part of his own nature. Dynamo is too much of his own private thinking aloud. In Welded, the marital problems of Michael and Eleanor Cape resemble those of O’Neill and his wife. They represent separation and final reunion. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, O’Neill is able to utilize successfully the subjective experiences of his early years.


      O’Neill has made an extensive use of his life and delves directly into his own mental and spiritual past. He plays the role of the tormented agonist in the tragic drama of his own life. He has succeeded in expressing the secrets he had been carefully hiding for many years. As he grows older, he turns back even more firmly into the past and lays bare his personal experiences. Increasingly he has used his own past for dramatic material. O’Neill’s early plays dramatized his own longings for adventure that took him to remote places. He was a member of the Norwegian sailing vessel “Charles Racine” in Boston. He had himself sailed from San Francisco to Honduras. He found sea-faring very exciting. His sea-voyages deepened his knowledge of the world of derelicts, loafers and exiles and he frequently mixed with down-to-outs. He lived in a saloon on the New York waterfront known as Jimmy the Priest’s. This refuge for unemployed seamen, prostitutes and other outcasts of society appears in many of his plays. His early life was devoted to drinking, girls and anarchists. A Wife for a Life narrates O’Neill’s experiences in “Honduras”. In Moon of the Caribbees, he drew on his memory of a moon-lit night off Trinidad on the same British tramp steamer bound for New York. Abortion points to many references to his year at Princeton. It is a typical Princetonian celebration of a sport’s victory. It is a celebration of Yale’s defeat in a baseball game. The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night belonged to the year 1912, when he had almost lost himself in the aimless and dissolute ways into which he had slipped. He was disgusted by his father’s easy and enervating career in the commercial theatre. The refuge were unemployed seamen, prostitutes, and other outcastes of society. The Straw deals with O’Neill’s experiences in the sanatorium and vivid recollections of his own life. Hughie re-enacts the story of the writer’s creative life and Erie re-enacts his author’s frustration. Here O’Neill identifies himself with Erie Smith.


      O’Neill’s family is fundamental to the understanding of all his plays. “I fact”, remarked Coolidge, “he wrote of his family all his life”. His dramas are full of strange echoes of his own past familial experiences. In Desire Under the Elms, Ephraim Cabot is Eugene’s image of his father. They have many things in common. Like Ephraim Cabot, Eugene’s father, James O’Neill, is also a godlike patriarch. Both the fathers are very harsh, intolerant and critical of their sons. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, James Tyrone’s nature is like that of O’Neill s father, James O’Neill. Both the families are highly self-centered and have little time for their families and there is emptiness in their lives. They are godlike patriarchs. Both are irrationally anxious about money or the possession of land. Like O’Neill s father, James Tyrone is also a popular actor of romantic melodrama. O’Neill has given full representation to his mother in his plays. She was dreamy, self-dispossessed, convent-bred angel. She was a victim of her proud, romantic temperament and fixations. Love and peace are associated with mother’s love. She is commonly presented as Earth-Mother. The Great God Brown, Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra show how her death-hungry ‘sons’ seek a lost innocence and sheltering womb. The Straw, Welded and Different emphasizes the images of mutual salvation, and recreation of mother-child relationship. In Desire Under the Elms, the mother of Eben Cabot has recently died - as had the actual mother of Eugene O’Neill and the son accuses the father of treating her badly. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the son accuses the father for ill-treating his mother. He has given her nothing, not even a home. Moon for the Misbegotten deals with the tragic life of O’Neill’s sister, Jamie, and it tells the literal truths about James O’Neill, Jr.


      In his personal life and herein might be found the greatness of the plays of this period. He had achieved a dynamic synthesis between the autobiographical and objective reality. He achieved objectivity toward his O’Neill’s vision of reality is not stereotyped or fixed in any way. It has a steady growth and it moves from realism to psychological realism and finally to autobiographical realism. In his early sea-plays, he catches the reality of common people living on sea or land. The playwright is clearly using material he has gathered from his own experiences at sea. The plays show the painstaking m detailed realism of European naturalistic drama. His realism, though it may occasionally appear stale, began as a fresh attitude to the possibilities of drama. Here the autobiographical element is valid rather than explicit. Realism was a dead end to O’Neill in 1921. “He had completed his first phase”, observed Tiusanen, “in the surrounding which he knew by experience and which were thus easily turned into realistic milieus on the stage”. The Middle Phase deals with psychological realism. The plays like The Great God Brown and the Strange Interlude take him inward and downward to himself. The range is narrowed but is extremely revealing. The subject becomes what lies within himself. In 1940, O’Neill had said: “There are moments in it that suddenly strip the secret soul of a man stark naked”. As always, that naked soul was O’Neill’s: In his later plays, he resorted to direct autobiographical statements which emerged directly from the depths of his being. The dramatist was frank in the depiction of his experiences. He had impregnated drama with life, and drama and life become one. He used episodes and characters which he had known autobiographical self. The autobiographical elements in O’Neill’s dramas contributed toward a deeper knowledge and understanding of both.

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