Social Concern of Life in Eugene O'Neill's Drama

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      O’Neill possesses a remarkable social vision and his plays are rich in social criticism. As a social dramatist, O’Neill sees the society as a whole and gives us the real ‘feel’ of it. Being a social critic, he is quite clear-headed about the democratic necessities of the modern drama. Knowing the limitations of the doctrine of art for art’s sake, O’Neill does not operate in vacuum. His frame of reference is the modem society and he studies everything in terms of it. He deals with characters, events and situations which constitute an integral part of it. O’Neill’s plays create in us a new social awareness and thus open our eyes to the limitations of the so-called ‘progressive’ and highly ‘developed’ society of the United States of America. His call is not for straight-away rejecting it, but making us realize our folly and doing something to check its further downfall.


      O’Neill visualizes the modern society critically, without prejudice. He is rarely satisfied with its surface depiction, but moves inward to sound its depth. O’Neill’s knowledge of the American society is both and deep and factual. As a man of firm conviction, he never feels shy of discussing it a very free and objective manner. O’Neill does not see eye to eye with those who indulge in the false glorification of the American society and blindly hail it as flawless. He said in 1946: “I am going on the theory that the United States, instead of being the most successful country in the world, is the greatest failure”.


      O’Neill’s social vision has a remarkable social range. Being all-pervasive, it focuses on almost every aspect of the modern American society in particular and the modern civilization in general. O’Neill’s plays embody the ideas and conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century. They deal with the social and economic chaos of our time. O’Neill’s chief interest lies in materialism, industrialization, human relations and employer-employees conflicts. Ignorance, brutality, Ignorance, brutality, selfishness, greed and hatred are the dominant forces governing the dramatic world of O’Neill. He also deals with the problems of prostitution, adultery and incest in some of his leading plays. Finally, the reality-illusion theme has a special fascination for O’Neill and he rarely feels tired of discussing it in his plays.


      O’Neill relates everything to society in his plays. For him, a man has no life apart from it. It is not man as an individual alone that draws O’Neill’s sympathy, but man in social order that has always attracted his critical attention. The dramatist treats man against a rich background of social forces that influence his life on earth. “It is not man as an individual”, observes S.K. Winther, “alone that concerns O’Neill; it is man in a social order, tortured, starved, disillusioned, thwarted and driven to disaster by the forces of a system which cares nothing for the general welfare of society”. In his plays, man is pitched against a society which is hell-bent upon crushing him. Man seems to have no say and finds himself totally unwanted in it. His personality has become hopelessly fragmented. The modem life of false ideals has crushed the affirmative and creative nature of man. The Hairy Ape shows how Yank has to face sufferings at the hands of materialistic society which refuses to grant him even a human status. Yank’s sufferings are, in fact, the sufferings of the entire toiling masses that are treated like dumb-driven cattle, having no life of their own. They, in the absence of any human identity, have been brought down in the social scale to the level of ‘hairy apes’. The Hairy Ape also shows that the plight of the capitalist class is equally very disturbing. The members of the privileged class also suffer from the feeling of alienation and are no better than “a procession of gaudy marionettes”.


      O’Neill’s social vision is seen at its best in his superb handling of the theme of belonging in the modern world. He feels that a petty worker has no place in this highly industrial set-up and remains an outsider from the beginning to the end of his life. For O’Neill, man remains a searcher with no clear-cut destination. He moves from pillar to post in search of some center of belonging, but finally fails to find any roots anywhere. It is quite ironical to note that man who is responsible for changing the very complexion of the society on earth, has no place dignified in it. Although he works round-the-clock for its betterment, yet he suffers from the feeling of deliberate neglect and indifference. In The Hairy Ape, Yank’s efforts to belong fail to bear any fruit. His experiences of the privileged class have opened his eyes to the psychology of the capitalist class as a whole and he realizes in the end that the workers have no place in the modern industrial society. Although they are ever-ready to do anything for their rich bosses, yet they have no present or future in a society which is being solely governed by them. The play shows the problem of belonging is very intricate and it is bound to create tragic tensions in the modern-day world and Yank is a voice of protest against the material success of the Machine Age.


      O’Neill’s social vision has a sound psychological base. His importance as a social critic lies in his emphasizing the psychological aspects of the modern acquisitive society. It not only exploits worker, but also denies him the opportunity to expand his mind to lead a peaceful and happy life. He has been so much humiliated that he has become an unwilling worker who has lost all interest in life. He works under compulsion to earn his livelihood. A modern worker derives no pleasure from his work and the lack of proper appreciation of it has a telling impact on his mind and body. His work is an extension of his ego. It gives the much needed sense of satisfaction that he is being accepted as an indispensable part of a set-up where he has been working for last many years. In The Hairy Ape, it is the modem industrial society which destroys the modem counter-part of Yank. He is left with the feeling that he is unwanted. Yank’s tragedy is that he has failed to compromise with his situation in an effective manner.


      O’Neill is a vehement critic of materialism and his plays present a powerful criticism of the craze for the material success that followed the gilded prosperity of the twenties. As a social critic, he has always considered the acquisitive man as the root cause of all the modem malaise. He is a voice against the rising craze for material success. O’Neill spares none who has been engaged in this race of minting money, irrespective of the ways adopted by an individual in increasing his bank balance.

      To him, the business middle-class quite complacent and steeped in its money values. He has launched either pointed or derogatory allusions to materialism as a false value and he fully exposes business morality and mentality in his social plays. According to O’Neill, the modern man is more than a philistine and has become a devil’s disciple. The commercial civilization has made man spiritually bankrupt and the concept of wealth as a substitute for spiritual bankruptcy is given its finest expression in Marco Millions and The Great God Brown.

      Marco Millions satirizes the American concept of success and modem man’s quest for material goals. It is a revealing study of the Western business ideal and Marco serves as a symbol for big business. The play is a satirical portrait of the capitalist class. Marco’s values and his political philosophy are a parody of the American businessman’s ideology. He stands for a typical American businessman who represents materialism and is the epitome of corruption and greed This play shows, in fact, the tragedy inherent in the American culture. It exposes those who seek money at the cost of truth and beauty to ‘make’ their lives. Marco is known for his spiritual impotency and is the stereotype of the soulless, commercial artist. The Great God Brown reveals the predicament of the American artist, stifled by a philistine culture. He is a “visionless-god of our new materialistic myth-success - building his life of exterior things, inwardly empty and resource less, an uncreative creature of superficial preordained social grooves, a by-product forced aside into slack waters by the deep main currents of life’s desire”. Billy Brown exemplifies the empty successful life of materialists. He is inwardly empty but exclusively devoted to the exterior things of life only. Dynamo exposes the materialistic philosophy of the modems by dramatizing the failure of machine worship. More Stately Mansion shows how materialism has devalued spiritualism and disintegrated family patterns. Simon’s high idealism has been corrupted by materialism. Isolationism, which is the direct offshoot of materialism, gives him another jolt and thus hastened his end.


      O’Neill’s social vision is best displayed in depicting race-relations in America. He finds them far from satisfactory or harmonious. “Few American playwrights are sufficiently detached”, observes Clark, “to regard inter-marriage between Whites and Blacks in a purely dispassionate mood”. The White man’s superiority stands in the way of forming congenial relationships between the Blacks and the Whites. The members of superior race are so much self-centered and complex-ridden that they call the Negroes low and, therefore, inferior. They deprive them of their just rights and deny them any freedom. The American Negro is technically free, but psychologically is in chains everywhere. He is in economic bondage and lives from hand to mouth. All God’s Chillun God Wings is a sharp and pertinent analysis of the inter-marriage between Jim Harris and Ella Downey. They mixed freely in their childhood and were not conscious of this apparent disparity and their relationships were not influenced by racial prejudices. Ella informed Jim: “I hate it. I wish I was black like you”. They also played freely: “In the sidewalk are eight children, four boys and four girls. Two of each sex is White, two Black. They are playing marbles”. As small kids they paid no attention to adults’ prejudices. It was adulthood which made them conscious about the races to which they naturally belonged and this set them apart. The White man’s indifference was clearly noticed by Jim’s childhood friends. Ella became conscious of her superior race and began to withdraw from Jim whom she had always regarded as her best friend and sympathizer. She told Jim: “You make me sick! go to the devil!”. Finally, the relationship between Jim and Ella reached a point of no return. The play is one of the most serious, compassionate, and profound artistic treatments of the racial problem in America. As Edmund Wilson puts it: “For the rest, All God’s Chillun God Wings is one of the best things yet written about the race problem of Negro and White and one of best of O’Neill’s plays”. The drama presents in a sufficiently detached manner the intermarriage between Whites and Blacks in a purely dispassionate manner.


      O’Neill’s plays present a vivid account of the modern political scene. All the tall claims about American progress have no meaning in the eyes of O’Neill. He exclusively blames the politicians for projecting a distorted image of America at home and abroad. The fact remains that this country has achieved nothing substantial in the field of politics. O’Neill’s approach to society is neither sociological nor political. He has no revolutionary political stance. For him, the entire political set-up simply aims at self-aggrandizement. Modern politicians are not only inhuman but also extremely self-centered. In Lazarus Laughed the craze for usurping political power has been equated with inward hollowness. Caligula was politically powerful but was spiritually dead. It is quite clear from this play that those who seek worldly power suffer from inner weakness and sterility. In The Hairy Ape, it can be discovered how political power can bring untold miseries to the under-privileged toiling classes. The adverse impact of political disillusionment finds its clearest expression in Larry Slade and young Parritt of The Iceman Cometh. O’Neill blames the modern politicians for creating so much mess and confusion in the world. It is they who create an atmosphere of ill-will, instability and war. In Days Without End, he has shown an awareness of the national scene and expressed his contempt rather than compassion for victims of the War. The Civil War provides a firm background for a story of family guilt expiation in Mourning Becomes Electra. In Strange Interlude, the heroine has been in love with an aviator and there is an oblique reference to hospitalized soldiers. O’Neill’s war-plays deal with war and reflect the post-war world in which certainties had given way to uncertainties.


      O’Neill has a powerful moral vision and his observations are known for their moral insights. The dramatist is quite critical of the deliberate neglect of the moral values of life. The craze for the material has almost overshadowed the craze for the spiritual in some of his great social plays. The stress is not on the past or the future, but the present which can Satisfy man’s immediate needs and obligations. The image of man as presented in O’Neill’s plays is not one of life, but typical of his inner weakness and sterility. In Marco Millions, Marco’s desire to possess “millions” has largely contributed to his spiritual impotency. The possessive instinct is so excessive in him that for Marco there is nothing moral or immoral in this world. As Kaan aptly remarks in his final assessment of Marco “He has not even a moral soul, he has only an acquisitive instinct”. Marco does not think about his country or others but only about himself and his self-projection. Billy Brown, in The Great God Browns, is the visionless demi-god of new materialistic myth - a success - building his life of exterior things but inwardly empty and resourceless. Sam Evans in Strange Interlude, is the successful businessman who too suffers from inner weakness. In Lazarus Laughed, Calugula is shown as weak, frightened and spiritually dead.


      O’Neill is opposed to the traditional view of the religion which approaches life from a very narrow perspective. He is vehemently opposed to the Puritanical ideals which deny the legitimate claims of the human body. He has always fought against the rigid Puritanical code of New England Inhabitants. O’Neill exposes the hollow, self-denying Puritanical society in his social plays. His plays contain either an implicit or an explicit castigation of Christianity and he launches his attack on two fronts. He attacks the church as an institution and castigates the damaging impact of Christianity and its morality on the individual. For O’Neill, the church is in favor of maintaining status quo and it perpetuates political conservatism only. Different dramatizes the destructive effects of Puritanism and the way it comes in the expression of love urges. Emma Crosby tries to keep her pure, but gives way in the long run. Her delusions ruin Caleb’s who remains faithful and hopeful for thirty' years. The play is a vigorous and consistent attack upon the Puritanism that eats away so much of the creative happiness of life. Mourning Becomes Electra shows how the Mannons’ Puritanical religion keeps the instinct in close confinement and O’Neill dramatizes the brutal consequences of passion when it wells up from repression.


      O’Neill’s social vision sees no hope for the modern man. All of his statements on the future of mankind show profound pessimism. The only solution O’Neill envisions for mankind is death. He has no faith in man, society and rejects all hope for humanity. In the words of Doris Alexander: ‘‘He has no great hope for mankind in improved methods of production, nor does he see any correlation between a man’s satisfaction in his work and the material rewards he gets from it”. O’Neill tells B. H. Clark that “man has definitely decided to destroy himself, and this seems to be the only truly wise decision, he has ever made”. In The Hairy Ape, O’Neill presents a profoundly pessimistic social philosophy which rejects entirely the status quo but sees no answer for man a better society, and no hope for destroying the existing society. He strongly holds that the cause of this misery “is a social system which is destructive in itself, which thwarts every effort to achieve happiness, which puts a value on misery and pain as a good in itself, and worst of all, encourages and rewards everything that is predatory and destructive, condemning beauty, well-being and happiness as a sin”. In Desire Under the Elms, Ephraim retreats and makes a desperate acknowledgment of his final failure in life.


      The picture of the modern life as depicted in O’Neill’s plays is not altogether dismal or pessimistic, the playwright seems to be satisfied, to borrow O’Neill’s words, even with a “hopeless hope”. He has tremendous faith in the potentiality of man who can make significant contribution to the restructuring the society, which ironically, is incapable of changing the lot of man on earth. O’Neill, like Nietzsche, believes that salvation is a “question for the single man”. He feels that individuals must gain the “courage to possess their own souls before man begins to think of Man of establishing a just society”. For O’Neill, it is not a better state that makes better men, but better men who make a better state. “Whatever hope he sees for man,” informs Doris Alexander, “lies in individuals who may have the courage to possess rarely own souls”. O’Neill’s dramas manifest a unity of high purpose rarely exhibited by the modern playwrights.


      Drama is entirely objective and is known for its impersonal representation of life. Its chief beauty lies in the feet that there is no continual intrusion of the personality of the writer. O’Neill is quite objective in dramatizing modem life in its various moods and manifestations. He was never a political activist, having a new set ideology. He never backed any movement for establishing a new form of State. O’Neill was never enthusiastic about even a mild reform, let alone revolutionary movements. He openly rejected all social programs for the betterment of life on earth. He was engaged throughout his career in a challenging task of finding the meaning and the satisfaction of life itself. He offered answers gropingly and tentatively, never simply committing himself to any one set course. He offered no alternative in its place.


      O’Neill was the most irreconcilable social reformer who was not in favor of any of open revolt to overthrow the established order. There is hardly any sign of open incitement or rebellion to destroy the established government. But there is a definite undercurrent of defiance, revolt, and accusation in his plays. Even from his early childhood, it may be noted that he would not mind breaking rules and flouting the code of the Authority, if the situation so demanded. Unlike social reformers, he had always traveled the “road not taken” and tried to see things more closely and critically. O’Neill had a very determined mind of his own. The impact of Marx and Engel may be seen to have greatly influenced his writings. O’Neill challenged false standards and hypocrisy which had resulted into a false, artificial art.


      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 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 down-trodden. He exposes the very system which is meant for self-aggrandizement only. He also attacks Puritanism for its narrowness and the way it obstructs normal and natural growth of an individual in the society. 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 highly intellectual. He is never in favor of any violence or 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.

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