Expressionism in Eugene O'Neill's Drama

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      The movement of expressionism seems to have arisen as a kind of revolt against the mutual exclusiveness of romanticism and realism. It is a revolt, on the one hand, against the tendency of realism of naturalism to satisfy itself with a scrupulous representation of the surfaces of life, the speech, milieu, manners, emotions and ideas of one or another class in the society. It was the one experiment in non-realistic theatre and drama that promised effective trans-valuation of modem theatrical values. The expressionists cry for a “real” reality, but to them reality is not the outer world; it is the inner world of thought and vision. They try to communicate the palpable essence of things, their qualities, sharply defined, not their appearance in reality.


      Expressionists are profoundly interested in psychology and they celebrate the supremacy of spirit over matter. They deal with the subjective, with “inner” realities of the human mind. Man becomes a key figure in their works. He is no longer a product of his environment, driven by forces beyond his control, but he is himself the driving agent, capable of transforming the world according to his vision. It is not the world that fashions man: it is man who fashions the world. The expressionists undertake the study of human passion instead of the history of persons and their achievements. An effort is made to investigate the human psyche and to present on the stage the aberrations in human character. In the words of N.S. Wilson: “It attempts, in a word to dramatize the inner life of man, to represent what is passing in his soul”. Expressionism deals with those hidden and inscrutable emotions which are the products of the sub-conscious mind.


      Expressionists have revived asides and soliloquies but with the difference that they are usually incoherent thought. They make use of the dramatic technique of chorus and asides to reveal the innermost working of the mind of their characters. Masks are used liberally to reveal the private and public worlds of the characters caught in the grip of warring psychic forces.


      Time is not used in a traditional sense in the expressionistic drama. There is no logical sequence of events. Past and present time mingle freely in the expressionistic plays. Memory intrudes itself into a present situation and not only dominates but alters it. Flashback technique is also frequently employed to dramatize the past experiences and events of the characters involved in the drama.


      Characters in expressionistic drama are often not allowed any individuality or identity. They become types, representing groups and masses.: “To emphasize the general significance of the themes developed”, observed Prof. M. V. Millet, “characters are likely to be represented as types in order to minimize individuality and to emphasize typicality”. They wear such general names as “Man’,’ Woman’, ‘Millionaire’, ‘Doctor” - classified as worker, slave, or master and identified with abstractions like revolt, submission justice and energy. In the words of August Strindberg:” The characters split, double, multiply; they evaporate, crystallize, scatter, and converge. “They may be anything from allegorical symbols or comic strip caricatures to massed crowds speaking and moving as an operative unit. Characters change their identity within the same play or acquire abnormal attributes towards society. Expressionist playwrights also sometimes revert to the technique of the moralities for personifying abstractions in order to express their own revolutionary attitudes. These personifications are not clear-cut presentations of moral or political concepts but are labeled vaguely.


      Expressionism seeks to represent the inner life of the human beings by various symbols and special conventions. An attempt is made to dramatize the inner life of man, to represent what is passing in the soul in the form of external symbols. The expressionists dramatize and make a liberal use of symbols, metaphors, fables, or allegories in order to provide an illuminating commentary on the different aspects of life. “The method was again”, informed Joseph Krutch, “the method of that expressionism which abandons all pretense of liberal representation in favor of symbolism sometimes borrowed from the dream world, sometimes, it would appear, nearly at random from the whole mixed tradition of allegorical representation including the political cartoon and the comic strip”. They produce figures moving obscurely on a darkened stage to personify good and bad motives and sometimes, give words to unseen vices to express the secret thoughts of a man’s mind. They make use of flickering light, eerie noises and reiteration of the same few words in louder and louder tones. Symbols are also used in a startling fashion to indicate mental states. This distortion and deformation of visual and auditory images are resorted to in order to show reality as seen through a distorted mind. The expressionistic plays are also noted for their fine synthesis of the abstract with the concrete, the subconscious with the conscious matter with the spirit.


      Expressionism is predominantly subjective. Expressionists are profoundly interested in psychology. The significant element in O’Neill’s expressionism is also psychological. He is profoundly interested in psychology in order to reveal the hidden and most unpredictable emotions which are the products of the unconscious mind. He deals with the subjective i.e. inner realities. O’Neill tries to show on the stage man’s thoughts that emphasize the instinctive urges which motivate them and their flowing incoherence. He dramatizes the ideas and conflicts within the minds of his characters with much penetration. The inner struggle is evident in his repeated efforts to dramatize the subconscious. O’Neill’s preoccupation with the inevitable tensions between unconscious and conscious forces underlies the entire corpus of his works. In many of O’Neill’s early plays as well as his most profound later plays protagonist cannot reconcile with the violent tension that grips his psyche. However, in The Fountain, Strange Interlude, Welde, Days Without End protagonists are able to achieve psychic balance in which the conscious and unconscious processes complement each other, forming a whole or an integrated personality.


      The substitution of symbolic types for the individual human beings has caused a change in the dialogue form. The expressionist dramatist does not attempt realistic conversation for its own sake. He makes use of associative rather than directly communicative language. Life is sometimes dramatized in language full of significant puns and associations. Characters often burst into song or speak verse. They break into a chanting repetition of a single phrase so as to convey the idea of the monotony or dreariness of life. It is a form of expression suited to its intensely emotional emphasis. Every expressionist coins his personal idiom. In this process grammar and syntax are ruthlessly overthrown, articles eliminated, sentences clipped, new words created. In some extreme cases, the dialogue is reduced to bare exclamation. Dialogues bear no resemblance to human speech and they are subjected to varied weird abbreviations and distortions, so that they become violent, telegraphic and enigmatic.


      The keynote of express ionic plays is chaos. The plays are marked by a mood of violence, disgust, and madness. “The pessimism, anarchy and madness”, observes A.R. Thompson, “so common in the moment are at first striking characters, but they are not inherent in it as a dramatic technique”. The central figure of expressionism is a lost soul, for in many ways this is a literature of despair. It sees man, heading towards a terrible destruction which he can avoid only by his acute awareness of its imminence. Almost from the outset, an apocalyptic feeling, a premonition of impending catastrophe, took possession of the expressionists. It frequently culminated in the vision of a universal war which would engulf the present world, and from which a new world, governed by love would arise


      Expressionists are primarily preoccupied with contemporary social and economic issues in their plays. ‘‘Not concerned with the views and virtues of the medieval religionist”, remarks Louis Broussard, “the expressionists substitute for them the dynamic concepts of contemporary civilization; brotherhood, economic equality, communism, fascism, democracy”. They dramatize modern man’s alienation from his times, family, society and even God. The expressionist’s hero is born under unfavorable stars and forces life and death struggle in his life. The hero remains Everyman, ever engaged in a contest for survival, the terms of which are the fundamental issues of present age.


      Expressionism is colored by religious fervor. Expressionists are often seekers of God. Though they face hardships and misfortune yet they never give up their faith in Him. Messianic allusions abound in the expressionistic plays. Such works inspire us and sustain our faith in life. They bring the inspiring message of ‘rise up and be human’ to the unresponsive multitude. Expressionism was essentially a spiritual movement aiming at the moral regeneration of man, unrelated to any specific social program. It is mainly connected with the timeless and unchanging essence of life of man, not his incidental attributes of a period and place.


      Expressionism forms a major element in O’Neill’s plays. It has freed him from the rather hampering limitations of pure romanticism or pure realism. O’Neill rejects the conventions of the fourth-wall realistic drama. He has also revolted against the tyranny of romantic dogmatism. He does not believe in the necessity of conforming to the popular taste to which his father had catered all his life with old-fashioned romantic theatricality. His plays mark a break with the popular romantic theatre into which he had been born. O’Neill informs us:

      “The old ‘naturalism’ - or ‘realism’ if you prefer (would to God some genius were gigantic enough to define clearly the separateness of these terms once and for all! - o longer applies. It represents our Father’s daring aspirations toward self-recognition by holding the family Kodak upto ill-nature. But to us their old audacity is blague; we have taken too much snap-shots of each other in every graceful position; we have endured too much from the banality of surfaces”.


      O’Neill makes no effort to keep up pretences of realism, for he believes that such realism is very superficial. Like Strindberg, he believes that drama has suffered too much from the banality of surfaces, and the cure lay in adopting the non-realistic techniques of expressionism. O’Neill feels that a recording of the externals of existence only prevents man from seeing the real reality which lay embedded in the human soul. In 1932, O’Neill pleaded for the rebirth of an imaginative theatre - “a theatre returned to its highest and sole significant function as a Temple where the religion of a poetical interpretation and symbolic celebration of life is communicated to human beings, starved in spirit by their soul stifling daily struggle to exist as masks among the masks of the living”.


      The nature of expressionism is continually experimental, for it depends closely upon the novelty of effect and constant search for unusual devices of strong impact. O’Neill is always a restless experimenter and his experiments are important for the broadening of dramatic method in the twenties and thirties in America. His search for expressive forms leads him to undertake numerous experiments with symbolic figures, masks, interior monologues, split-personalities, choruses, scenic effects, rhythms, and schematizations.


      Expressionists make frequent use of soliloquies, asides, and interior monologues to reveal the innermost working of the Character’s mind for the purpose of giving outward expression to thought and emotions which are normally unexpressed. They are also used by O’Neill to create depth and complexity of his dramatic techniques. O’Neill makes use of soliloquy in order to get behind the surface of things. In the words of Kenneth Macgowan: “To drag these things of their souls and put them freely and clearly on the stage has been the obsessing problem of O’Neill’s life as an artist”. It is a means of presenting the thoughts processes of his characters directly to the audience. It is used for the expression not only of the character's rational mental processes but also of his apparently irrational subconscious mental processes. It is this new dramatic contrast that sets off O’Neill’s method form the free soliloquy of the romantic stage. By means of soliloquy, the hidden motives and conflicts of the inner self of the characters are revealed, in contrast to the outward persons shown to others in the dialogue. O’Neill invariably employs soliloquy to reveal the self-communing of the characters in their most critical moments. He is thus able to show, in a degree beyond the possibilities of the regular drama, the slow development in character which often takes place in actuality. The spoken thoughts of Strange Interlude and Dynamo take the audience behind the surface of realism. Since realism is not found an adequate medium, O’Neill has used spoken language to draw the inner thought out of human soul and put the man the stage. In Strange Interlude the man and his woman set down upon chairs, placed side by side facing the audience, and talk out their problems without hearing each other.


      In O’Neill’s plays, the technique of thought-asides is a decisive break with realism. The asides are often said to represent the characters’ sub-conscious minds. This is indeed a simplification of their function. They represent both the characters’ more or less conscious thoughts and their less unconscious urges. The traditional asides serve to reveal inner processes. They also serve the purpose of a commentator to reveal the innermost thoughts of the character’s mind. The style is rather removed from dramatic realism i.e. real-life speech qualified by dramatic conditions. This too helps to set the speeches off from the ordinary dialogue, to define them as a thinking allowed. They retain the outward appearance of being a dialogue, and O’Neill has brought them to a complete development. The thought asides are a living and existing dialogue of a new kind and they perform the function of a consistent and elusive illumination of realism by the light of the inner mind. In Dynamo, O’Neill uses asides to give a symbolic interpretation of man’s age-long struggle to find “a meaning to lite ....a meaning to the meaningless”. They are used extensively in Strange Interlude, where the inter-relation of the characters is simultaneously exposed on two levels, an external and internal. Thus while the characters talk conventionally to each other, they also reveal to us their secrets opinions about each other. In Most Stately Mansion, the thinking of the characters serves to illustrate how each of them spies on the others and tries to keep a powerful middle position. In Ah! Wilderness the audible thinking appears more coherent and more conscious.


      The use of expressionism may also be seen in O’Neill’s employment of interior monologue, Frequently, an O’Neill’s character will begin his speech as a straight dialogue, then drift into a dreamy talking to himself, obtrusively revealing the change. On the surface the speech remains a piece of dialogue. In these cases the speaker is not wholly unaware of his listeners, but he is too preoccupied with his own inner problems to pay more than casual attention to them. Subtle psychological affects are gained by O’Neill from this procedure of transference, as a character slips into monologues. We may assume that he is talking about matters of the utmost concern to himself O’Neill had experimentally used interior monologues first in Before Breakfast then he continued its use in The Emperor Jones, The Hany Ape, All God Chillun Got Wings, Strange Interlude, Dynamo and Days Without End.


      Masks are frequently used by O’Neill in his expressionistic plays. They are charged with an inner meaning. Their chief value is psychological. Realistic details are submerged in the greater task of capturing the abstract life forces surrounding his characters. When literal content is submerged, a much greater potential is suggested. The elimination of extraneous matter itself makes a statement and enables idea to emerge. O’Neill attempts to portray, by means of masks the complicated inner tensions of a personality and the development these tensions produce. He is concerned with tensions and conflicts between the individual’s conscious personality that he presents to society, and the unconscious forces lurking behind his facade or persona. Masks are the only right medium of portraying the impressions of the soul as shown to the expression of face. The visualization of abstract relationships is the proper concern of O’Neill as a theatre artist. At best, these marks are more subtly, imaginatively, suggestively dramatic than any actor’s face can ever be. They are not used in mere imitation of the Greeks, but freshly, imaginatively, as a real means to attain an artistic end. They create a more evocative theatre. O’Neill repeatedly used masks not only to present the divided man but also to bring out some relationship between the individual and the society or between the individual and the realm of the supernatural, and thus to give the characters a significance beyond themselves. Masks are also exempt from time and space. They enable us to visit a world beyond our normal comprehension. It is the artist who has grappled with the infinite, focusing it to a vision. O’Neill used masks in The Hairy Ape and All God's Chillun Got Wings and extensively in The Great God Brown, Lazarus Laughed and Days Without End. His use of the satanic mask of Mephistopheles in The Great God Brown and the self-protective mask in Lazarus Laughed indicates that he had discovered a new method of probing the inner conflicts of his characters.


      Expressionism denies the value of characterization. Only the dramatic moment is allowed to matter. The expressionist, giving free reins to his own fancy and intensifying his characters’ subjective slates, feels free to distort all manifestations of character and environment and shuttle back and forth in time and space. For his purposes, imagination is entirely free to violate the rules of logic and art. The I figures or personages in the expressionistic dramas are usually devoid of any: individuality. They have no background or personal character. We know nothing of them as human beings. They are anonymous the father, the son, the mother, the dreamer, the woman and so on. O’Neill follows this practice in only two of his earlier plays, the Thirst and Fog, but remnants of this method are found later in Welded (A Woman) and Marco Millions (A Prostitute). O’Neill’s plays differ from those of the expressionists in the nature of characterization. In O’Neill’s plays some of the characters may be types, but they are real and whole. They are people and not abstractions. O’Neill makes a very powerful difference of his method:-

      “I personally do not believe that an idea can be readily put over to an audience except through characters. When it sees ‘A Man’ and ‘A Woman’ just abstractions it loses the human contact by which it identifies itself with the protagonist of the play. An example of this sort of expressionism is in Morn Till Midnight with character abstractions like ‘A Bank Cashier’. This is the point at which I disagree with the theory. I do not believe that the character gets between the author’s and the audience”.


      As O’Neill aims at revealing the inner life of man with its bewildering complexity and seeks to create the characters that are living human beings. In The Hairy Ape, Yank remains a man and everyone can recognize him as such. To O’Neill, every name is a symbol as expressive of the character’s inner nature as his outward appearance. The names add to our understanding of them and indirectly of the world in which they draw their breath and hence their being. Every protagonist in the work of O’Neill remains a man, and in the human attributes of his characters can be found the essential difference between the allegorical plays of O’Neill and those of the other expressionists. For that reason, perhaps, O’Neill considered himself a contemporary and not a disciple of the expressionists.


      Few expressionists pay attention to form and their plays are marked by looseness of construction and stylistic grotesqueness. They are also chaotic, hysterical and apparently meaningless. Most of the expressionists failed both emotionally and intellectually to impart unity to their plays. Lack of form caused pure expressionism to lose ground to the same degree as extreme naturalism against which it was a reaction. There is also a marked tendency to confine the outer form with an inner intrinsic one. But O’Neill has yielded to neither the formlessness nor the incoherent incoherence of the more extreme expressionists. Each of his plays is well-knit and sharp in outline, solidly constructed from beginning to end. In his non-realistic as well as his realistic plays, O’Neill demonstrates an acute sense of organic form which makes him a leader of American expressionism. The structure of the play, the pattern of the action, even the shaping of the dialogue always follow a strict design, usually devised for that particular play. The structural power in intensified by oft-used device of the repetition of the word, a situation, or a motif. In The Hairy Ape, the motif of repetition progresses uninterruptedly from scene to scene and the effect becomes more and more tense as the action hurries on towards the end.


      The expressionistic drama is cut short in size and the number of scenes is further cut down to the minimum. Both The Hairy Ape and The Emperor Jones take eight scenes to complete the play. The story part of the drama is not very important. Here the digressions are avoided and the efforts to create the character through various scenes renounced. The long preparation which usually went towards the creating of climatic situations in the conventional play is abbreviated. Event follows event in quick succession. The transition from one scene to another is abrupt, and this disjointedness is deliberate, meant to suggest the disorganization of our lives today. Scenes from a series in which incidents are singly displayed. It is just like a staccato effect and this sometimes produces monotonous and deadening impact.


      Expressionism is indispensable to social criticism. O’Neill’s plays are specifically a criticism of American life. They deal with the craze for material success that followed the gilded prosperity of the twenties. O’Neill gauged the sense of anguish in men’s minds and tried to give it an artistic expression. In Dynamo, he deprecated the materialistic philosophy of the twenties by dramatizing the failure of the Machine Age. The Great God Brown is a trenchant indictment of the blind race for material success and its over-glorification. O’Neill is all for the ideal perfection and for him only the non-material satisfaction of work matters in life.


      Man is always the center of attraction in expressionism. He is seen as capable of nobility and striving for self-improvement. It is really very shocking to note that man becomes a victim of an industrial society and has been subordinated to ideals of mass production and conformity to behavior. He looks forward to social reforms which would come from the desire generated within man. It seems that any change in society would need to stem from a prior change in man’s conception of himself and the possibilities of human spirit.


      O’Neill has a predilection (preference) for the potency of pure sound on the stage. He shows a fondness for aural and visual effects and he has always used sounds as a structural part of the plays. Some of them have the beauty of a musical composition. In Beyond the Horizon, the most obvious aural effect is an off-stage mechanical sound. The blowing of the ‘whistle’ shows that the ship is surrounded by fog and its future is very uncertain. It is continued throughout the play. In The Emperor Jones, the ‘tom-tom’ is used as an objective correlative of the beating of Jones’ heart. The high frequency of musical effects in O’Neill’s plays is, in part, due the unusual power of music to speak directly to our emotion. As Egil Tomqvist rightly puts it: “Far from being an alienating effect, music used by O’Neill is an integral, mood-sustaining part of the plays”.


      O’Neill displays a characteristic fusion of realistic and stylized language in his dramatic works. The characters may burst into a song or speak verse. They may break into a chanting repetition of a single phrase so as to convey the idea of the monotony or dreariness of life. In The Hairy Ape and The Emperor Jones, the language is subjected to weird abbreviations and distortions. Prose dialogue in O’Neill’s drama aims at maintaining stylization on a high or formal plane. It heightens its effect by utilizing some of the devices that we normally associate with verse dialogue—marked rhythm, vivid sensory diction and striking similes or metaphors. In addition, O’Neill has made use of frequent word repetition to lend the speech its musicality.


      O’Neill realized that modern drama need not be bound by the realistic set and he made his stage a servant to his art, refusing to accept the limitations imposed by tradition. He was always satisfied with the briefest of descriptions. Setting serves to add to the emotional content of his plays. The function of the setting is to augment imaginatively the total effoct of the action. It is both suggestive and plausible. In Bound East for Cardiff, the setting at once enhances and objectifies Yank’s feelings of anguish and isolation. In Beyond the Horizon, settings of the cramped space alternate with spacious sets, imparting a distinct visual rhythm to the play. In The Hairy Ape, the cage image pervades the entire play and it is poignantly expressive of Yank’s struggle with his own fate.


      Expressionistic plays are marked by a mood of disgust, violence and pessimism and present a hopeless view of life. The pessimistic tone tends to make them wearisome as well as dreary. But O’Neill’s plays are not entirely colored by a mood of disgust or pessimism. There is the Nietzschean will to power, the glorification of life. O’Neill’s dramas are positive, noble expressions of man understanding of the human dilemma.


      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 modern 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 are represented as types in order to minimize any individuality and to emphasize typicality. An attempt is macle 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.

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