Realism in Eugene O'Neill's Drama

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      Realism in drama is an attempt to depict life per se. To the realist, the artist’s chief aim of is to describe, as accurately and honestly as possible, what he observes through his senses. Realism has been a revolt against classicism - an artistic movement which aims at the idealization of life. Classicists show life as being more rational and orderly than it really is. Romantics show life as being more emotionally exciting and satisfying than it normally is.


      O’Neill is a great realist in the field of American drama. All along his life, he has been committed to the dramatization of the living, pulsating human drama. The dramatist depicts life in such a forceful manner that it is promptly accepted as a factual truth. O’Neill gives us the “feel” of his times in an authentic manner. The constant search for the nature of reality is considered as one of his major concerns in his plays. O’Neill’s world is not a make-belief world in any way.


      O’Neill’s early sea-plays are a blend of realism and romanticism. Most of them deal with the sea-life and are known for their honest realism. O’Neill has created a mood of fascinating authenticity in them. The characters are known for their ordinariness, their resigned alienation. It is a dramatization of romance and tragedy of men who have opted for the sea-life for their livelihood. The characters are much more effective than the standard characters of the traditional drama.


      O’Neill has also made use of melodramatic elements in his early dramatic efforts and there is a free play of realism and melodrama in them. Sometimes the characters are no more than puppets with no life of their own. Often the characters are exaggerated beyond limits and they appear monotonous and colorless. Even the dialogues lack the dramatic intensity and fervor. Recklessness shows how a jealous maid poisons the ears of a husband against his wife who had loved her chauffeur in his absence from home. The play ends in double tragedy. The husband rides to his death and the wife is forced to commit suicide. The Web is a melodramatic piece about a prostitute and her protector. The play shows how the sudden arrival of a bully saves the life of a woman who is going to be killed by her cruel husband. The killing of the bully by Steve and the planting of the revolver in order to implicate the woman when police arrives is another melodramatic incident in the action of the play. Thirst is a crude melodrama. The way the Dancer becomes ready to sell her for a few droops of water sounds extremely unconvincing and melodramatic. Although O’Neill is sometimes melodramatic, yet he is always interesting and sincere. He is, however, by no means content with either poetic or tragic melodrama.


      The most vital element in O’Neill’s realistic drama is the realism of themes. Unlike the earlier American playwrights, O’Neill’s plays have a powerful social bias and reflect the forces social, economic, religious affecting his themes. He is chiefly concerned with the fate of man in this universe. O’Neill’s major themes are “Dream, Drunkenness, and Death”. He has also dealt with Puritanism, gentility, industrialization, agrarianism, class struggle, individual freedom, social justice, etc. Bound East for Cardiff dramatizes Yank’s anxiety in the grip of fear and death and the feeling of frustration at never having realized his dream. The play presents with simple realism his death from injuries incurred in the line of duty. Yank’s life has been banal and insignificant and he dies an unknown death. The Moon of the Caribbees shows how Smity manages to avoid the cruel realities of life by taking recourse to drinks. He drinks to forget-but not overcome his despair and frustrations. Olson, a Swedish sailor, fails to realize his aim of leaving the sea and settling on land in The Long Voyage Home. But every time he gets his pay, he squanders it. He is tricked by a clever couple into taking a soft-drink, which is drugged. They robbed him and put him aboard a ship bound on a two years’ voyage round the Horn. Rope is a tragedy of greed, hatred and madness which shows the destructive possibilities of the romantic ideal. Anna Christie is all about prostitution and poverty.


      O’Neill has employed realistic settings in his realistic plays. They are concrete, vivid, and have a definite geographical locale. The physical background of the sea is presented in rich and concrete details. O’Neill’s world is neither a superficial nor a make-belief one. It has a reality and life of its own. In the sea-plays, especially, he has dramatized a mood of fascinating authenticity. “His earlier plays”, says Tiusanen, “take place on the sea or shore, mostly in sordid surrounding”. There is a detailed account of the decor and background of the various scenes. The dramatist has displayed deep insight into the sea and the terror that attend the tragedy of ship-wrecks. In Moon of the Caribbees, the physical background of the sea is presented in rich and concrete details. The action takes place on the main deck of Glencairn. In Bound East for Cardiff, the action is proceeding against the backdrop of the farm and the play opens with a view of rolling hills and freshly plowed fields. The farm is more than an ordinary type of setting. It acts and interacts into human drama. It is a prosperous, flourishing farm that suggests plenty and bliss. The Straw is a naturalistic portrayal of sanatorium life. In All Gods Chillun Got Wings, O’Neill has dramatized an actual setting of the New York slum. Long Day's Journey Into Night is known for its grim and fearful background suggestive of the tragedy of Tyrones. It is a shabby cottage housing a family, insulated by the fog.


      Characters in O’Neill’s plays are not puppets but are extremely lively and engaging. Mostly they are drawn from life and act with a convincing reality. They are palpable characters and have the capacity to take independent decisions. They speak with the breath of life and can be identified from their tone, behavior and gestures. The characters, in O’Neill’s realistic plays, confront situations in their own way, not the way of a theatrical tradition. They are conceived as a part of their environments. The characters are the farmers, the stokers, the Negroes, the prostitutes, and the gangsters. In Bound East for Cardiff, the characters are simple and memorable and full of life. The characters in The Moon of the Caribbees are highly true to life. They are clearly drawn from life and have their prototypes in the society. They are the people whom O’Neill had actually met at “Jimmy-the Priest’s” and “The Hell Hole” during his early sea voyages. Many have been identified with actual sea-men with whom O’Neill sailed the sea, or with whom he drank. In Beyond the Horizon, the characters are not only real but also very engaging.


      The main force of O’Neill’s language is its realism. The dialogues in his plays are known for their frank realism, raciness and honesty. O’Neill’s speech is never over controlled or over dramatic. His vocabulary is rich with the richness of life. His is a realistic prose with a poetic flair for imagery, and scenic imagination. Sometimes the dialogues are brutal in their power. O’Neill’s rough characters speak in the authentic idiom of their situations. In Bound East for Cardiff, O’Neill Is using a kind of naturalistic speech unknown in American drama of his time and the emotions are expressed in the plebian language. Beyond the Horizon is noted for its realistic conversation and style. In Different, the language of everyday life is made powerful and pregnant with drama. The talk of the rotter is extremely real and convincing.


      O’Neill’s use of psychological realism is a significant advance in his quest for vision of reality. An attempt is made to reject the ‘banality of surfaces’ and to replace photographic realism by psychological intensification. The chief power of his plays lies in revealing the unreal reality, the hidden truth. O’Neill has made a consistent and impassioned attempt to dramatize the unconscious mind. To present more of a man’s inner consciousness than a man’s inner consciousness than a man would ordinarily reveal, has been a central concern with O’Neill. He explores the hidden and most unpredictable emotions which are the products of the subconscious mind. There is a deeper and deeper probing into the subconscious, the inner springs of action, to reveal the inner truth. The dramatist has always been interested only on the motives behind the action. O’Neill explores the complexities of the human spirit, the psychology of human motives and obsessions. The inner struggle is evident in his repeated efforts to dramatize the subconscious mind.


      O’Neill’s psychological explorations have something in common with Freud. Like Freud, O’Neill’s chief concern has been in the dramatization of the subconscious mind. O’Neill’s conception of character has been shaped by Freud; His deep probing into the motivation of dynamic character, his power in evoking psychic conflicts have a direct bearing on Freud’s exploration of human character. O’Neill has made an extensive use of the Freudian revelation of the irrational self. In Gold and Welded an attempt is made to probe into the secret places of the mind. In Welded, O’Neill has shown how two naked souls are at war with each other. The Strange Interlude dramatizes the unconscious and makes it accessible to us. It reveals the inward, hidden, and unspoken thoughts.


      O’Neill is fascinated more by Jung than by Freud. He tells us: “And as far as I can remember, of the books written by Freud, Jung, etc, I have read only four, and Jung is the only one of the lot who interests me. Some of his suggestions I find extraordinarily illuminating in the light of my own experience with the hidden human motives”. O’Neill’s pre-occupation with the inevitable tension between the unconscious and conscious forces underlies the entire corpus of his work. He was concerned with tensions and conflicts between individual’s conscious personality that he presents to society, and the unconscious forces lurking behind the superficial facade or persona. In The Emperor Jones, O’Neill peels away the outer layers of the psyche and penetrates into the dark hinterland of the collective unconscious and its archetypal contents. It is an attempt at the externalization of the fears and terrors gripping Brutus’s mind. The Hairy Ape is a fine example of O’Neill’s intensive probing of the inner depths of the psyche. In Days Without End, the protagonist is able to achieve a psychic balance in the conscious and the unconscious processes complement each other, forming a whole or an integrated personality. All God’s Chillun Got Wings is case history of abnormal psychology.


      ‘Mother-love’ forms an important aspect of O’Neill’s psychological realism. There is a profound love of a man for the mother and it is a symbol of lost happiness. In The Great God Brown, Dion Anthony cries to be buried with his mother, and in Desire Under the Elms, Eben fails to forget his dead mother who has been haunting his subconscious mind since the day of her death. In Strange Interlude and Dynamo, the love for the mother is actually sublimated into cosmogony. The image of copper-gold hair is the dominant characteristic of the mother-image that all men in Mourning Becomes Electra see to recover. Cybel in The Great God Brown, Beatrix in The Fountain, and Josie in A Moon for the Misbegotten are the symbolic manifestations of the externally protective and comforting mother. In Strange Interlude and The Iceman Cometh, O’Neill is preoccupied with the dual aspect of the mother archetypal - that of both the giver and the destroyer of life.


      O’Neill has made use of soliloquies, monologues and asides to reveal and dramatize the subconscious mind. He finds it very convenient to bring the normally unexpressed, or merely hinted-feeling, to the point of direct utterance. In Welded, O’Neill introduces the ‘spoken-thought’. The characters talk out their problems in speech that both can hear and yet neither listened to. In Dynamo, O’Neill employs it to announce facts as well as expose mental processes and the characters have been speaking to each other and the audience. In Strange Interlude, the characters utter not only the conventional speech of conversations, but also what is in the back of their minds, to speak not merely words but thoughts. It was O’Neill’s aim to expose imaginatively a chain of events in which a few people exhibit their thoughts and emotions over a long period of years. O’Neill uses the aside as a device for making thought processes on the stage audible to the audience alone. In More Stately Mansion, in addition to thought asides, there are soliloquies proper and a lot of modified monologues. In the sixth scene, the characters speak their thoughts to the audience, with Simon sitting in the middle and the two women on each side. This scene is regarded as a masterpiece of stylized theatre. In Days Without End, the struggle in John Loving’s subconscious mind is successfully presented on the stage by employing two separate characters, John and Loving. The two figures appear almost always together. In Hughie, the audible thoughts, combine with the stage directions and off-stage noises to motivate the action and to enhance its significance.


      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 modem 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 remarked: “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 refuges were unemployed seamen, prostitutes, and other outcasts 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 the 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 Hornes 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 of 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.


      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 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.

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