Eugene O’Neill as a Dramatist: A General Estimate

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      First of all, O’Neill was the founder of the American drama. Before him no playwright of such importance had emerged. By his influence and example, he practically created native drama in America. No contemporary or follower has approached his stature and his leadership is unquestioned.


Importance of Emotions

      O’Neill asserted that our emotions are of primary importance in a tragedy. For him, the expression of emotions, through the medium of tragic drama, is a life giving process, leading to a deeper spiritual understanding. It follows that our thoughts and even our actions are of secondary significance. Recalling the religious origins of tragedy in Greece, he wished to recapture the emotional values of the art for the modern world. He believed that tragedy should induce a kind of religious experience. And, by his exclusive concern with emotion, he progressively excluded the element of action, upon which tragedy has traditionally depended for its most dramatic effects. He loves to dramatize those unrealistic pipe dreams which are wholly divorced from reason and from action.


      O’Neill has always insisted that action is relatively unimportant, because it is internally located. And O’Neill’s tragedies progressively dramatized conflicts of inner emotion rather than of external action.

      The typical hero of O’Neill tragedy struggles and suffers inevitable defeat, like all tragic heroes. But, unlike the traditional tragic hero, he does no struggle actively against an external enemy, nor does he seek victory over a physical antagonist. Rather he struggles psychologically and seeks victory over the enemy within. He struggles against the tyranny of his own contradictory emotions. By means of tragedy, he transcends his own selfish emotions and achieves illumination. His tragic dramas consciously described man’s struggle to become acquainted with his inner emotions and, ideally, to control them. This inner exploration and this spiritual control were the primary purposes of his tragic writing.


      O’Neill possesses a rare tragic sense and his vision of life is characteristically tragic. O’Neill’s tragedies have been universally praised for their tragic intensity and sublimity. They are subjective in their tone and temper and have a direct bearing on his self-felt tragic experiences of life. O’Neill’s ill-health and tragic family background have immensely contributed to his desolation and morbidity in life. He has emulated the Greek tragedy for imparting new meaning and depth to the modem dramatic presentation. Being an existentialist, O’Neill approached life from a realistic perspective to unearth its real reality. The main sources of tragedy are man’s sense of alienation from himself society, Nature and God. There is also the utter lack of any desired faith to console man’s tormented and crisis-ridden mind. The sense of loneliness plays havoc with man’s desire to communicate with others to survive in this hostile world. The mad pursuit of the philosophy of materialism destabilizes man’s life in the modern times. The conflict between reality and illusion produces tragic tensions in man’s life on earth. The disastrous impact of hereditary and environment disrupts man’s quest for achieving peace and harmony in life. The element of Fate or Chance looms large in O’Neill’s tragic plays. There is a cosmic anguish arising from a perception of inscrutability of Fate. O’Neill’s fatalism is not absolute because the protagonist fights to the finish in his struggle for survival. Psychological conflicts do lead to tragic consequences in his tragedies. O’Neill’s tragic hero is not a man of eminent social position but his struggle is known for its tragic beauty and tragic intensity. As a dramatist, O’Neill has always preferred emotions to reasons in his tragedies. O’Neill’s tragedies are not devoid of melodramatic elements which bring them closer to the realities of life.


      O’Neill’s social vision is rich in its contents and it is focused on every aspect of modem life. It is both penetrating and all-pervasive. O’Neill’s plays are known for their social realism and it goes to the dramatist’s credit that he gives us the real ‘feel’ of the modem age. The characters are thrillingly alive and they have been minutely and objectively studied in their most realistic and authentic situations. The horrible impact of modernization of life is clearly reflected in his social dramas. It is argued that too much mechanization of life has made man surplus and unwanted and he has lost his traditional sense of security and peace of mind. Man does no ‘belong’ and is in a strange dilemma. O’Neill is critical of the moneyed-class which has been consciously sleeping over the just and genuine demands of the toiling masses. The workers think that they are damned from here to eternity. They want to protest against this dull and brutal life, but feel helpless in taking any decisive action in this direction. They are quite doubtful about the possible outcome of any resistance, individual or collective. The characters suffer from a sense of extreme loneliness which is both unending and unbearable. Their whole life is spent in waiting, watching and fearing. O’Neill has also brought into lime-light the inherent defects which ruin love-relations in this understanding in this world. Here the foundation of life is laid not on faith, mutual understanding, but on hatred and revenge. Love is hardly a uniting force in his plays. It is never passionate, but is always cold, lifeless, an brutal. O’Neill has openly criticized the commercial civilization for making man spiritually bankrupt. He does not even spare the government for framing such laws which are opposed to the welfare of the downtrodden. He exposes the very system which is meant for self-aggrandizement only. He also attacks Puritanism for its narrowness and the way it obstructs the normal and natural growth or development. As a social reformer, O’Neill creates a new awareness in us and makes us conscious of the most vulnerable spots in this sick society. O’Neill’s approach to society and its problems is very intellectual. He is never in favor of violence or an open rebellion against the established order. It is also clear from his plays that the picture of life as painted in them is not altogether dark or pessimistic. The unending suffering of the toiling class is a blessing in disguise. It provides them freedom and deliverance from utter despair and hopelessness. Death for O’Neill, is not an illusion but a living reality. O’Neill’s plays, thus, deepen our view of life.


      Expressionism is a powerful dramatic technique which is opposed to the mutual exclusiveness of romanticism and realism for depicting the hidden realities of life. As a potent non-realistic technique, it aims at trans-valuation of modem theatrical values. Expressionism celebrates the supremacy of spirit over matter to explore what lies buried in human psyche. The central focus in the expressionistic drama is ‘inward’ rather than undependable ‘outward’ presentation of human life. Expressionists have made a very effective and intelligent use of asides, soliloquies and chorus for investigating the innermost working of the minds of their characters. Masks are liberally used to reveal the private and the public worlds of the characters caught in the grip of warring psychic forces. There is no logical sequence of events and past and present freely mingle in expressionistic drama. Characters are often devoid of any identity and represented as types in order to minimize any individuality and to emphasize typicality. An attempt is made to dramatize the inner life of man and to reveal what is passing in his soul in the form of external symbols. There is seldom much “form” about an expressionistic play. The keynote of expressionistic drama is chaos and it deals with the mood of violence, disgust and madness. Its favorite thematic interests are brotherhood, economic equality, communism, fascism and democracy. It also deals with class-conflicts with greater earnestness and dogmatism. Expressionism is also colored by a strong religious fervor. It minimizes the value of characterization. Only the dramatic moment is allowed to matter. Expressionism is a must for an objective social criticism also.


      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 autographical 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 painstakingly 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 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 autobiographical self. The autobiographical elements in O’Neill’s dramas contributed toward a deeper knowledge and understanding of both private and social reality conveyed through aspiring after the universal meaning.


      O’Neill is a pure dramatist who has never intended to present any specific philosophy of life in his plays. He was never for or against any ideology or philosophy of life. O’Neill’s approach to life is quite critical and unbiased and is devoid of any subjectivity. He is a consistent critic of the philosophy of capitalism which begins and ends with the ruthless exploitation of the hard-pressed working classes. He has graphically presented the dehumanization of the poor employees at the hands of the merciless privileged moneyed-classes. The central thrust of O’Neill’s quest is to discover the ultimate meaning of man’s life on earth. He deals with the problem of man’s alienation in this hostile world in which he is denied any identity or individuality. The conflict between reality and illusion is all pervasive in O’Neill’s social plays which produce tragic tensions in them. Dreams/illusions are very vital for denying or overlooking the soul-killing realities of life and provide a safe perspective for visualizing things/persons in their true perspective. Illusion and reality together constitute life and sustain man’s interest in it. Illusions are destructive but they are also necessary for making a person oblivious of his limitations. A note of pessimism runs throughout O’Neill’s plays. The picture of life as presented in his plays is quite bleak and pessimistic. But O’Neill’s pessimism is skin-deep only because he is a pessimistic optimist. O’Neill’s philosophy is not an escape but an affirmation of life with all its limitations. This is clearly affirmed in his concept of a “hopeless hope”. O’Neill’s concept of religion/God is quite ambivalent because he fails to find any satisfactory answer to the unwarranted sufferings and deaths that destabilize man’s life on earth. O’Neill’s doctrine of Eternal Recurrence points to the extension of man’s life after death on earth.


Technical Flexibility

      One characteristic is consistently evident throughout O’Neill’s career: an unusual technical flexibility, and a readiness to experiment and take risks, which he never lost even in his later years. His plays explore the full range of dramatic expression, which continued to fascinate him as long as he lived. O’Neill refuses to be constricted by any convention. He never repeats a formula, never ceases to experiment with methods or to explore new aspects of life.


      Few elements in O’Neill’s dramatic style remain constant throughout his work. Early in his career, he revealed his extraordinary gift for lending a dramatic, articulate for to slang, the speech of the inarticulate. Through his creative genius, he was able to combine various elements of style and arrive at his own dramatic method. This desire to synthesize effective methods of contemporary drama is the most important aspect of his art.


      In many of his plays he develops a constancy of tone, a musicality. The tone of hauntedness that pervades Long Day’s Journey into Night characterizes also The Emperor Jones, where it takes on an explicitly musical form, produced by the sound of drums. Most of the plays contain rhythmic repetition called refrain.


      O’Neill often used the device of repetition of a word, a situation, or a motif for dramatic purposes. In The Hairy Ape, the motif of repetition progresses uninterruptedly from scene to scene: the atmosphere becomes tenser as the action hurries on to the end.


      O’Neill has a predilection (fascination) for striking contrasts. It can be between the life of the sea and the life of the land or between the dull narrowness of middleclass existence and unhampered morality.


      Symbolism present in his plays elevates the level of the action above the commonplace and every day and makes us aware of the cosmic scale of life, the tragic mystery of individual human fete.


      The works of O’Neill are very complex, yet they are the greatest phenomena of twentieth century. O’Neill has spoken directly to a world audience. This is his last, and perhaps most important, claim to greatness. One of the major figures of American literature, he is also one of the major dramatists of the modern world.

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