Symbolism in Eugene O'Neill's Drama

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      Symbolism is a literary term which has no specific meaning. In a wider sense, it is the fundamental activity of the human mind i.e. the power of actualizing inarticulate experiences in some apprehensive sensory form. It is the central, typical, universal human faculty, at work impartially in myth, religion, language, art and science, creating the human reality of giving it symbolic form. It suggests an idea or ideas not normally conveyed by the surface story. A symbol is more than an artificial or arbitrary sign. It is nothing more than the imaginative experience and it must correspond to the emotion evoked. An image, if it persistently recurs, both as presentation and representation, becomes a symbol. It is used on an extended scale to represent a complex meaning. It serves as the vehicle for the imaginative thought, the aesthetic experience, which the writer attempts to communicate.


      Symbolism is an integral part of O’Neill’s dramatic vision. O’Neill’s symbolic vision is known for its richness and originality. His love for the abstract and mysterious prompts him to make use of symbolic mood and strategy in his plays. O’Neill uses symbolism to heighten the intellectual and emotional appeal and impact of his dramas. He has made a conscious and studied use of it in his expressionistic plays. The dramatist has deliberately employed an evocative language of indirect discourse to convey hitherto unexplained emotions and ideas.


      O’Neill deals with life from a very close and critical angle. Symbolism helps him in communicating those hidden meanings which cannot be expressed by using ordinary words or language. He makes use of symbols to interpret life and not merely to describe it. His use of symbols imparts a touch of universality to his plays. O’Neill has used symbols to dramatize inner emotions and the conflicts of the subconscious mind. O’Neill wants to “explore hidden conflicts of the mind which the probing of psychology continues to disclose to us. He must find some method to represent this inner drama of his work, or confess himself incapable of portraying one of the most characteristic preoccupations and uniquely significant spiritual impulses of his time”.


      The essential of symbolism is the abandonment of the appearance of life in favour of its spirit, symbolically represented. The straightforward technique is but a means to an end and that end is symbolic representation. It is a well-known fact that art is essentially formative and it does not reproduce pre-existing reality. There is no reality for man until he has created it in symbolic form. Art is one of the systems of symbolic form. O’Neill does not follow realism for its own sake and he has always kept his plays beyond the narrow orbit of literal realism. He is the type of mind which moves from the concrete to the abstract and he conceives his plays in the form of abstract prepositions. O’Neill has always advocated the rebirth of “a theatre turned to its highest and sole significant function as a temple where the religion of a poetical interpretation and symbolical celebration of life is communicated to human beings, starved in spirit by their soul stifling struggle as masks among the masks of the living”. O’Neill’s search for some universal large reality has found expression in dramatic symbolism. He combines realism with poetic evocation in order to capture a more sensuous and imaginative picture of reality. But O’Neill is not completely opposed to realism in his plays. In fact, he has always combined realism with symbolism for having the most authentic picture of life. His use of symbolism and factual indicates the combination that fits his every play.


      Symbolism aims at selection of suitable material and has always stressed economy and concentration. O’Neill has always preferred interpretation to mere portrayal of life. There is no repetition or sense of waste in his plays and he has done away with all the non-essential matter from them. In All God’s Chillun Got Wings, the whole dramatic experience has undergone the strict process of selection and the writer has retained what is absolutely essential for realizing economy and concentration in it. Hughie makes use of minimal set to delineate the exact human conditions. Only two characters appear in the stage: one speaks, the other daydreams.


      O’Neill’s settings are very suggestive and symbolic. His approach is quite anti-traditional and he believes that modern drama need not be bound by realistic sets. O’Neill has risen above the limitations of his stage and made it a servant to his art, refusing to accept the limitations imposed by tradition. “The use of a setting”, remarks S.K. Winther, “gives him greater flexibility and increases the imaginative quality of is drama”. The scenes and settings are so devised as to suggest the character’s hidden thoughts and feelings. It is a method that had been characteristic of O’Neill from his early one-act sea-plays. Fog shows O’Neill’s initial attempts to transcend literal realism and the play is symbolic of the mystery of life and existence. Bound East for Cardiff is not merely confined to the description of sleeping bunks, wooden benches, sea-boats, etc., but the setting suggests Yank’s anguished feeling of loneliness and confinement in life. In Beyond the Horizon, the setting is undoubtedly symbolic, for it suggests the conflict between the real and the imaginary, reality and illusion. In this drama he has tried to get rhythm, the alternation of longing and loss. The setting of the sanitarium in The Straw is suggestive of hopelessness and decay. In All God’s Chillun Got Wings, the three streets that converge point to the struggle of race conflicts that are central in this little corner of the world: “In the street leading left, the faces are all white, in the street leading right, all black”. In the Dynamo the settings bring out the religious conflict in the play. The Light’s House reflects the Puritanical mind of its owner. It is an old, white England cottage. Inside, too, it is old fashioned, “spotlessly clean and in order”. The Light House expresses the modern, atheistic mind of its owner. It is “an earth-colored bungalow type, recently built”. Inside, it is of a glaring naiveness”.


      O’Neill’s plays bear symbolic titles and they have direct bearing on their themes. The dramatist has always regarded his art as extremely serious and symbolic. The combination of symbolism and irony in the titles reveals the serious, analytical nature of O’Neill’s mind. The very title of The Web is full of symbolic implications. It represents life as “a web” and points to the modern man’s exact dilemma in this world. It is ironical to note that only death can make a person get rid of life. Both irony and cynicism are suggested by its very title. Beyond the Horizon is a very suggestive title for a romantic journey in search of beauty of the far off places, which ironically, ends nowhere. Marco Millions shows modem man’s search for millions and the destructive effect of participating in this futile rat race for minting money. Desire Under the Elms is an in-depth study of the New England Puritan with all his suppressed desires, bitterness and tragedy.


      O’Neill has made frequent use of symbolic characters to add to the imaginative content of his plays. His characters are symbols but are never lifeless abstractions: they are full life and capable of surprising us. They may be facing inevitable defeat, yet they do not give up fighting. The beauty and the tragic dignity of O’Neill’s characters may be seen in their struggle against oppression and injustice. His plays are hardly conceived as a realistic transcript from life. Thirst dramatizes the fate of three nameless type characters, namely, the Gentleman, the Dancer and the Negro sailor on a streamer’s life-boats, drifting on a glassy tropical sea. In Fog, the businessman represents material values, the Poet, creative art, and the peasant Woman with her dead child, the blind faith. The Poet is a symbolic embodiment of idealism, and the business man, an abstract figure suggesting materialism. Marco, in Marco Millions, is the true embodiment of modern man’s desire to possess millions and to be always ahead of others in the matter of money. In The Hairy Ape, Yank is not an individual but a typical representative of the working class. He represents Everyman who is a victim of the modern machine age. Mildred Douglass stands for the rich capitalist class with all its vain glory, artificiality and exhibitionism. Light, in Dynamo, is an ironical name for the Fundamentalist Reverend, who is a victim of spiritual darkness and cannot distinguish between lightning, thunder and Jehovah’s wrath. Ramsay Life is the superintendent of a hydro-electric plant and stands for modern, godless values. In Hughie, O’Neill has created the strange and terrifying figure of a matter-of-fact professional clerk - a victim of a modem civilization.


      Archetypal characters frequently figure in the dramatic world of O’Neill. They are both male and female. Archetypal symbols belong to the collective conscious of the human race. Such symbols are supposed to have a special emotional power because they evoke racial memories which belong to the unconsciousness of all of us. In The Servitude, Mrs. Fraser is the archetypal eternal mother who stands for tolerance and self-sacrifice. Stephen’s experiences in The Straw are in no way different from the experiences of the writer himself. He is an archetypal man as an artist. Like Stephen, O’Neill had experienced alienation and his sensitive nature was the main cause of this alienation from himself and others. In The Emperor Jones, the images are archetypal and instinctual. In Welded, Michael is the tormented, creative spirit and Eleanor, the earthly mother. “Woman” is another archetypal character and so is John, a theatrical producer. Cybel is the Earth-Mother in The Great God Brown who stands for the feminine and motherly principle in Nature. Here Billy Brown is a conventional modem woman. In Desire Under the Elms, Abbie is the Earth-Mother who has given Eben the strength to defy God, the Father. In Lazarus Laughed, Lazarus is the masculine counterpart of the Earth-Mother and pagan equivalent of Christ-the Mother and Son in one person.


      O’Neill has used myths and legends as symbols in Electra Mourning Becomes. He writes: “Modern psychological drama using one of the old legend plots of Greek tragedy for its basic theme - the Electra story? the Medea? Is it possible to get modern psychological approximation of Greek sense of fate into such a play, which an intelligent audience of today, possessed by no belief in gods or supernatural retribution, could accept and be moved by”? O’Neill places the emphasis again upon broadening the implications of the original Electra theme, making it include the most comprehensive, intense, basic human inter-relationships which can easily be widened in scope to include others.


      Symbolism is concerned more with the ‘inner’ and less with the ‘outer’ life. The final thrust is always inward. O’Neill has made use of psychological symbolism to push back the boundaries of the stage. He uses this poetic device to impart psychological realism to his plays, to portray effectively the soul of his characters. O’Neill’s use of aside is essentially unrealistic. It is for him a kind of symbolism which enlarges the scope of his works. In The Strange Interlude, the focus is intensely clinical. O’Neill has employed asides and double dialogues to reveal the crucial conflicts between man’s private and public selves. In Dynamo, O’Neill uses the aside-technique to present a symbolic interpretation of man’s age-long struggle to find a meaning of life - a meaning of the meaningless: It is a dig, as he puts it, at “the roots of the sickness of today as I feel it - the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new one for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with”.


      Masks too have a symbolic meaning in O’Neill’s plays. They conceal and yet reveal the motives of the characters who wear them. They may have psychological, mystical, and abstract values. In Lazarus Laughed, this technique is pushed to its utmost limits. The play calls for seven masked choruses (each representing a period of life and each consisting of seven types of characters. It is an attempt to objectify the moment of Lazarus’s death. In The Great God Brown, masks are made to bear a heavy load, for each individual mask represents both age and quality of the wearer. The characters wear masks that they put on or put off at will. This new use of masks has suggested psychological complexities beyond the scope of the old realistic drama. In Hughie, characters wear masks to conceal the agony of their hard-pressed life.


      ‘Fog’ is a comprehensive and complex symbol with O’Neill and it has no one fixed meaning in his works. Fog can be symbolic of the mystery behind this existence. It may mean meaninglessness and cruelty of life. It stands for Fate in the play Fog which broods over the entire action of the play. It is also the fog of ignorance and fear. In The Moon of the Caribbees, the imminence of death is suggested by the oppressive fog and its disappearance brings a sigh of relief and hope to the people on the deck. In Bound East for Cardiff, Yank looks upon fog as a symbol of death and it is lifted with his passing away from life. Fog is also a symbol of the “veiled borderland between Life and Death”. It is also connected with violent deaths or with foreboding of such deaths. In Anna Christie, Anna’s father is responsible for ruining her life and that of others in the thick fog of his ignorance. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the fog is a symbol of peace and is a fine shelter for those who nourish dreams and wish to be drowned in the world of their own making.


      “Sea” is another important symbol in O’Neill’s plays having multiple meanings. It is a world in itself It is also a symbol of mystery. For O’Neill, sea is a source of fear and suspense. It can stand for timelessness and eternity. It represents collective consciousness, which is associated with racial memories. The sea has been there since the inception of the universe, an unknown and unknowable phenomenon. Sea stands for the collective unconscious in Anna Christie is in Christopherson blood and the family has a long sea-faring history. The members of Anna’s family are both repelled and attracted by the sea. For Chris, it is the “ole Devil Sea” which plays hide and seek with human life. But it has a soothing impact on Anna who has been regenerated in its very company. It is the sea which has united her to her lover, Mat, and given her immense happiness. She tells Chris: “And I feel clean, somehow-like you feel just after you have taken a bath”. In Mourning Becomes Electra, the sea has assumed new dimensions. It is no more a symbol of life but of lifelessness. Sea has come before us as the symbol of hell and its bottom presents a glimpse of the desolate emptiness of life.


      “Ship” symbolizes a miniature form of the external world. The life on the ship is constantly marked by restlessness and uncertainties. In Bound East for Cardiff, the crowded quarters of the S.S. Glencairn are in contrast to the vastness of the sea. In The Hairy Ape, the life on the ship points to the short and precarious existence of man on earth. Ship is “steel frame-work of a cage” and sailors look like animals caged in it. The sailors work under inhuman conditions and are denied every type of freedom. The life on the ship is like life in hell where there is perpetual darkness. The horrors and tortures of this place may be noticed in this heartrending picture of the life of sailors: “The ceiling crushes down upon the men’s heads. They cannot stand upright. This accentuates the natural stooping posture which shoveling coal and the resultant over-development of back and shoulder muscles have given them”. The ship is also an achievements for man, like his civilization.


      “Home” stands for life on island with all its comforts. It shows the sense of peace and security in the dramatic world of O’Neill. The quest for home becomes a quest for love and conviction. But, in O’Neill’s works, it is a quest that more often than not remains tragically unfulfilled. “Home” is a place where one can have company and does not feel bored. A person does not face the problem of alienation in it. The Long Voyage Home shows that such a journey is not very easy to materialize. Swede Olson’s plan to settle on land could not be fulfilled because the money collected by him was stolen by Fat and Fred who drugged him to sleep. Anna, in Anna Christie, suffered because her father’s ill-planned move to separate her from sea and to send her home where she was exploited by her cousin who lured her to prostitution. Anna’s separation from sea and her failure to settle on land made her hard and cynical. “Home” can also be a source of repulsion in O’Neill’s works. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the traditional sense of harmony is hard to realize in its vicinity. Home has many disturbing features also. For Marry, it is not a place worth-living. It is ironical to note that in her home she suffers from an acute sense of loneliness. The place is like a prison and is devoid of any sense of communication. She finds herself in an atmosphere of fear and suspense and this makes her life all the more miserable and unbearable.


      “Island”, in O’Neill’s plays, is a place of enchantment, the dream of men. It is a place which ensures peace and security. In The Hairy Ape, the transatlantic liner is a sort of an island, but is not fixed like a rock. It is quite mobile and depends on coal and not on its inner strength like the island. It is a symbol of security and peace for Yank who cannot dissociate himself from it. In The Emperor Jones, Jones heaves a sigh of relief and is confident of ruling over the island peacefully through craft and cunning. Island is also treated quite romantically in Mourning Becomes Electra and it stands for peace, security, beauty, etc. All the characters feel a special fascination for it and each tries to visit it at the earliest available opportunity.


      “Forest” has many shades of meanings in the plays of O’Neill. It is a symbol of collective unconscious in The Emperor Jones. It stands for the racial unconsciousness of Jones who is a part and parcel of the Negro race. Forest is also the most suitable place for committing crimes. In The Fountain, the forest is like a death-trap where Prince de Leon is finally betrayed. “Farm” is another manifestation of the forest and it also stands for loss and, instruction. In Beyond the Horizon, farm has a crumbling impact on Robert and drives him into bankruptcy. It destroys the love between Robert and his wife, Ruth, and makes their life hateful and unbearable. It, finally, brings about the fatal tuberculosis on Robert. “Farm” is both loved and hated in this play. If Robert hates it and wants to run away from it, Andrew, on the other hand, is ready to spend his entire life on it. “Tree” is another aspect of “forest” which connects different ages. It is a symbol of family fate in Beyond the Horizon. The tree also indicates the symbolic nature of the fraternal relationship, the brothers’ love for each other despite their contrasting natures. In Desire Under the Elm, the elm trees signify and suggest the true nature of the New England Puritanism. They “look like two exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands on its roof’. They intend to suggest the spirit of Eben's mother who became a victim to Ephraim’s materialistic possessions.


      The symbols of “Sun” and “Moon” recur frequently in O’Neill’s plays. The sunset usually carries the traditional meaning of death; the sunrise represents birth or rebirth. The noon Sun is experienced as plaguing curse. In Thirst, the Sun is represented as a punishing deity. It “glares down from straight overhead like a great angry eye of God”. The fury of the Sun is evident on every character. The Gentleman’s head is “burnt crimson” and his face is “blistered with sunburn” and his eyes are “like two balls of fire”. The Dancer finds that her brain is “scorched with sun-fire and dream-fire” and it can burst any moment. The Sailor has a swollen tongue. In Gold, the characters are badly scorched by the intense heart of the Sun and are in the verge of madness. The piercing heat of the Sun gives a further jolt to the already disturbed mind of Captain Bartlett and thus hastens his end. In The Great God Brown, the Moon’s traditional role is completely reversed. It is no more a fertile promoter of life, but a promoter of sickness. Where the Cross is Made shows that the Moon is ghastly and it has no traditional romantic grandeur about it. A Moon for the Misbegotten shows that the Moon can be both ghastly and beautiful. The moonlight appears quite dark, threatening, and repulsive in The Straw.


      O’Neill has made frequent use of audible symbols in his plays and many of them are tapestries The Moon of the Caribbees of sound. Here form and content coalesce. It is this purified wholeness that O’Neill aspires as a symbolist. Words are sometimes organized and orchestrated almost as if they are musical notes. In Fog, the steamer’s whistle is the audible symbol of the lonely sea, of the oppressive and approaching death. The ship’s fog-horn, blown at regular intervals, predicts the death of Yank in it. There is also the melancholy Negro chant which is faint and far-off, drifting, crooning over the water. In Thirst, the Negro’s song strikes a note of caution for self-defense. The Gentleman finds that only singing makes him feel the silence more keenly. He has always preferred singing to “dead-silence”. The sound of the foghorn makes Mary Tyrone, in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, restless and she fails “to get sleep with that awful foghorn going all night”. She finds it extremely awful and it makes her crazy. The snoring of Tyrone has a striking resemblance with that of the foghorn. In Dynamo, the dynamo is “always singing everything in the world”. It is the “hymn of eternal generation, the song of eternal life”. It is the “Mother of life”. Mrs. Fife and the dynamo hum or purr in the same way. Dynamo is also the symbol of science, as a replacement of God. It is like a hidden, yet ever-present God. It is a god without meaning, a religion without spirituality. O’Neill tells the stage designer Lee Simonson in “A Memo from O’Neill on the sound effects for Dynamo”. ‘‘It must be realized that these are not incidental noises but significant dramatic overtones that are an integral part of that composition by the sound effect”. In Fountain, Juan sings a song which calls him back in life again. The chant that runs through the play is a lyrical comment on the theme which also helps in creating the desired poetic mood. In Hughie, the external noise indicates that “the night recedes, that death approaches”. “Thunder” and “Lightening” stand for primitive fears in O’Neill and they have a special appeal for the most sophisticated modern minds.


      “Silence” is another important symbol in O’Neill’s plays. The entire action of Fog takes place in “a menacing silence”. The great silence in Thirst is like the “great angry eye of God - a manifestation of a world order that appears malignant in its inscrutability”. The “dead silence” is known for its monotonous, mournful and incomprehensible nature. The silence that pervades Captain Bartlett’s ship in Gold has virtually deranged his sensitive mind. In Welded, the silences between the speeches are very meaningful and expressive. In Hughie, there is a complete break in communication which is poignantly suggested by repeated silences. Such pauses add to the macabre stillness of a city in early morning. “The emotional center of the play”, observes Bogard, “perhaps evokes less from its words than from its silences”.


      “Cross” stands for Christianity and its relevance in life. In Days Without End, John, in the end, kneels before the Cross and is happy to learn that he has been forgiven by his wife and will now live by the Grace of God. He becomes a man at last, whole, at peace with himself. He becomes a believer and realizes that Christ is love. He says: “Life laughs with gods’s love again. Life laughs with love”. His recovery of faith coincides with the miracle of Elsa’s restoration to health. In Welded, the scenic image of the Cross produces an anti-realistic visual effect. In the end, Eleanor makes a Cross with her hands, which symbolizes love for Cape. The Cross made by the two lovers is a symbol of their mystic unity. The loss of their respective ego has finally resulted in peace and harmony. This union leads to rapture and peace in the long run.


      O’Neill has made use of symbols to provide larger perspective to his plays. He uses symbols to heighten the dramatic effect and successfully conveys the purpose of using them. It enables him to suggest the deeper and more profound significance of his theme. It imparts depth and richness of texture to his plays. O’Neill’s plays reveal the unreal reality, the concealed truth. The use of symbolism has lent a poetic quality to them. O’Neill’s plays grow in scope and theme and with this growth his symbolism grows more complicated. The changes that come with maturity in O’Neill’s plays are quite evident in degree, not in kind. He has used symbolism with great effect and mastery.

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