Vision of Life in Eugene O'Neill's Drama

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      O’Neill was not a philosopher having any well-defined philosophy of life and it will be futile to hunt for any systematic or coherent body of ideas in his plays. He was never in favor of or prejudiced against any particular ideology or philosophy of life. No attempt has been made on his part to preach any doctrine or to support any movement or cause. It can be conceded that O’Neill lacked any absolute intellectual originality. He may not possess any lofty or sublime ideas, yet his approach to life is very deep and thought-provoking. It will be equally unfair to dub him as second-rate dramatist. The ideas used in his plays may be borrowed from other sources, yet they have been put to optimum dramatic advantages or purpose.


      O’Neill was in touch with the major thought currents of the twentieth century. Frederic Nietzsche exercised tremendous impact on his mind and had gone a long way in shaping his intellectual sensibilities. It was Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy which affected him the most and thus conditioned his responses to life. O’Neill followed him in his affirmation of life. He, like Nietzsche, stressed the need for living a purposeful life and not for the sake of eternity. Both were critical of Puritanism and conventional code of life. O’Neill’s concept of Superman had a striking resemblance with Nietzsche’s idea of Eternal Transcendence implicit in all tragedy. But O’Neill differed from Nietzsche also. Unlike Nietzsche, O’Neill refused to believe that “God is dead” and he never totally gave up his Dionysian faith.


      O’Neill’s thinking was also affected by the idea of August Strindberg and he always held him in great esteem. The two great writers must have had an emotional and intellectual affinity. Strindberg’s influence on O’Neill seemed strongest in plays produced during the first part of the 1920’s. In 1936, accepting the Nobel Prize, O’Neill paid rich tribute to the genius of Strindberg and expressed his indebted to him: “For me, he remains, as Nietzsche remains, in his sphere the master, still to this day more modern than any of us, still our leader”.


      The impact of Terry Carlin is clearly seen in his works. Both criticized the capitalist system and its inborn tendency to exploit and crush the working classes. Like Terry Carlin, O’Neill was also vehemently opposed to exploitation to gain personal interests at the cost of human interests and to the organized society with all its hostility and lack of interest in the common man. Both showed special interest in the life of bums, the criminals, the prostitutes, the broken ones. They lashed out at bourgeois morality but failed to discover any remedy in socialism. They believed that the age of individualism had come to an end. Terry was contemptuous of the vote as a political ideal. O’Neill expressed the same feeling in The Hairy Ape by calling it “a lousy vote”. Terry’s mysticism pointed to the rejection of logic and reason as methods of arriving at truth. O’Neill always glorified emotions over reasons as the only way to find out the truth: “They are deep undercurrent, whereas our thoughts are only the small individual surface reaction”. Like Terry, O’Neill also believed in the idea of Eternal Recurrence”.


      O’Neill’s quest was for the discovery of the ultimate meaning of man’s existence on earth. His chief concern had always been with the eternally tragic predicament of man and his failure to adjust himself in life. Man is faced with the problem of existence and his inability to deal with it in a satisfactory manner. He is equally unaware of the fact whether he is an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ in life. Man’s chief dilemma is reduced to the fact that he has no clear-cut purpose for realization of which he has been sent on the earth.


      O’Neill believed that man suffered from the sense of alienation in this hostile world. He finds himself completely isolated in a spiritually sterile universe and, therefore, he cannot have a sense of harmony in it. All the protagonists of O’Neill’s plays feel isolated, alienated, and frustrated for lack of center of belonging. As O’Neill put it: “His work reveals a keen sense of loss of connection with God, nature, society, family, father”. The tension in his work is nearly connected with the struggle against alienation. It is gathered from his plays that a man has to face tough times in a world without God, without love, and without trust in life. The Long Voyage Home shows Olson’s feeling of alienation and his desire to go back to his family. Jones, in The Emperor Jones, is an American Negro - a type of an alienated man, who remains uprooted and finds himself unwanted everywhere. In The Hairy Ape, Yank suffers from immense loneliness which in spite of his best efforts he fails to overcome it. Yank is the predominant symbol of modem man’s quest of identity-a quest which intensifies his sufferings and leaves him all the more confused and disenchanted. Man can belong, but it is possible only after sacrificing his life. In Dynamo, Reuben’s search for strange gods ends in the mother and at last he ‘belong’. He goes to the power-house to die in the lap of his Mother, that is the Dynamo, and this realizes his final integration.


      There is a constant tension between the real and the ideal in O’Neill’s works. Illusions incapacitate action and yet without them life becomes unbearable. Dreams are a powerful means of denying or overlooking the harsh realities of life. Illusions make us see things in their true perspective. Illusion and reality are not opposed to each other in O’Neill’s plays. A stage illusion ultimately becomes a life reality. O’Neill tells us: “Any victory we may win is never the one we dreamed of winning. The point is that life in itself is nothing. It is the dream that helps us fighting, wiling-living”. O’Neill is never in favor of running away from life but impresses upon us that life must be faced in a bold and heroic manner.


      Dreams are indispensable and they sustain our interest in life. Illusion and reality together make life. Illusions are also realities, the only difference being that they are subjective. Reality often becomes so unbearable that one should have one illusion or the other to make life livable. Illusions are destructive but they are also necessary. The bums in The Iceman Cometh do not feel the need to distinguish between illusion and reality and for them illusion is reality. Their lives in Harry Hope’s Saloon show that they have no desire to leave this place and move into the open. But when they actually leave this place at the advice of Hickey to face the reality of the external world, their dreams are shattered and they become extremely sad and dissatisfied. The moment they finally return to the Saloon, they become happy, contented and at peace. Paradoxically, their illusions are the only reality for them. Hughie shows that a shared illusion can make life bearable, livable and happy. The essential dichotomy between illusion and reality gains a rich dramatic texture in it. The outcasts, in their dreams, try to pose what they are not, but find that living human contact alone cake make their life worth-living. They play ends on a hopeful note. To Eric, the moment of realization that in the night he has touched another life is a “saving revelation To Hughes, it is even more, “beatific vision swoons on the empty pools of the Night clerk’s eyes. He resembles a holy saint, recently elected to paradise”. Though the vision is no more than a pipe dream, it is enough. Bogard rightly observes: “The man’s only sense of life come through sharing a vision with another human being”. In More Stately Mansion, Deborah prefers illusion to reality without which in her dreams regarding Louis’ court an illusion without which she cannot live. Deserted by her son, she has opted for the implausible past where French Monarchs courted her favor.


      Illusions can be very dangerous and destructive if they are nourished in excess. Such illusions are likely to disturb human relations and can lead to misunderstanding and confusion. In A Touch of the Poe, Con Melody lives entirely in his memories of earlier gallantry and war. He has pretensions of aristocracy. In his illusion he hates his low-bread mare - a symbol of his pretensions. In the end, he is forced to accept an image of himself which he has been despising throughout his life. His daughter makes him realize that he is a starving immigrant, without money or property. He kills his mare because he cannot afford to feed her and finally he joins his class and gives up his extravagances. Now he feels fresh as a man and newborn”, and is “content to stay myself in the proper station I was born to this day on”. Thus, he is shorn of all his illusions and pride.


      O’Neill’s too much pre-occupation with illusions has a ring of pessimism. The picture of life as presented in his plays is bleak and pessimistic. As Carl Van Doren observes: “O’Neill’s view of life, it now seems clear, is of something which unaccountably frustrates the individual spirit”. The world depicted by him is essentially one of sorrows and suffering. In the words of S.K. Winther: “His pessimism is of a man in this world in which he must live and justify himself, if life is to have a meaning. His pessimism is born of man, not of God or the universe”. O’Neill’s view of life is poetical and it illuminates even the most sordid and mean. He looks at the worst only to suggest a way out of the evils of the contemporary age. His is not an unrelieved philosophy of pessimism. In O’Neill’s plays, man’s predicament is of his own making and an amelioration of his lot is possible.


      O’Neill is a “pessimistic optimist” and he has always hoped for the best. His contention is that a “work of art is always happy” and it aims at discovering the truth and helps us in getting rid of illusions. O’Neill’s philosophy of life is the acceptance and not its rejection. He strikes a characteristic note of affirmation, of faith in man and God and of joy in living. The urge to live will constantly assert itself as man’s search to discover the meaning of life will continue in the face of death and destruction. O’Neill heroes show hope even in the most hopeless situations. They do not bow down before the forces of evil and destruction and keep up their attitude of defiance against them. The Straw looks upon life as a “hopeless hope” - but still a hope. Stephen’s acceptance of Eileen, after many years of neglect, gives his life a sense of direction. Ah, Wilderness affirms life and is a timely call for foil involvement in it. It shows that life is not meaningless or bad. Lazarus Laughed is an affirmation of life, denial of death. It asserts that ecstatic affirmation of life can lead to salvation. It stresses joy in life. Days Without End is a play of splendid affirmation instead of death and it stresses the power of love and forgiveness. A Moon for the Misbegotten epitomizes the playwright’s affirmation of temporal existence and of the redemptive, creative potential of man’s selfless response to the other in his concrete, immediate situation. In Hughie, living itself is affirmed as the basis of a meaning in life. The play ends on a hopeful note. It shows that man’s sense of life comes through sharing a vision with another human being.


      O’Neill has very little hope for man or society in the philosophy of materialism. His dramas present a strong and persistent reaction against its destructive implications. It has always rejected the Philistine world of American society and business. He has found man a big loser, both physically and spiritually, in his pursuit of money. O’Neill finds materialism as opposed to free life and against forming harmonious human relations. For him, materialism is a corrupting influence, devoid of any human content - love or sympathy. Beyond the Horizon shows how Andrew’s life is ruined by his frantic pursuit of money. It is his faith in materialism which ruins his love and peaceful life on the farm. Marco Millions is an attack on the materialism of the West. It is a powerful protest against the dehumanizing effect of a mechanistic civilization. The money-minded Marco Millions is the epitome of corruption and greed. The beauty and romance of life have no meaning for him. He is the living embodiment of the profit-motif ideology of materialism. His excessive love of money stands in his way of having any meaningful dialogue with Princess Kukachin who has fallen in love with him. The Great God Brown shows the conflict between Dion Anthony, the artist, and William Brown, the businessman, and how the latter kills the former. Lazarus Laughed is a complete repudiation of bondage to work and money. It also suggests that rejection of materialism can still make life more meaningful and worth-living. More Stately Mansions shows how materialism of American life has despiritualized love and disintegrated family harmony. Simon and Sara are the embodiment of lust without love, aspiration without idealism.


      O’Neill also deals with the problem of existentialism in this world. He presents a stark, existentialistic picture of life and existential problems are frequently dramatized in his works. It is the turmoil of a whole generation that finds its artistic presentation in O’Neill’s plays. O’Neill studies man in his immediate situation or context and the way it affects his life. He depicts in a very systematic and convincing manner the depth of man’s human anxiety and despair about fate and death, emptiness and meaninglessness, etc. He dramatized the feeling of anguish which threatens modern man’s psyche and adds to his crisis. In The Hairy Ape, Yank’s final defeat reveals all the anguish, guilt and despair which are the direct outcome of modem man’s search for self-hood and belongingness in this hostile world. The Emperor Jones is another example of the lost self and of the confusion, dread, guilt and despair it experiences when forced to confront the real world. The loneliness of the sailors in the S.S. Glencairn sea-plays becomes the loneliness of man in the universe. Strange Interlude is concerned with the anguish of Everyman. The bums in Harry Hope’s Saloon suffer from alienation and have no desire to communicate with the outside world. The play also shows that love is non-existent; it is a pipe-dream only. Hughie presents the paralyzed view of life’. The characters live in solitude and have no desire to come in touch with others. The play finally shows the way, that in human independence, which transforms isolation into communication and bitterness into love, lays the essence of human existence. More Stately Mansions deals with the theme of mankind’s universal prostitution and utter lack of humanity. The play shows modern man’s degeneration in the moral scale and his readiness to sell himself to gain petty ends. The vulgarization of matrimony is supposed t epitomize the vulgarization American life. Sara and Simon are the living embodiments of lust without love.


      O’Neill had no faith in an institutionalized religion and he was dissatisfied with religion which he found to be antiquated and obsolete. He saw his God as deaf, blind and merciless - a Deity who returned hate to love revenged Himself upon those who trusted Him. “Religion is so cold”, the nine-year old Eugene said. At the age of 18, when he was at Princeton, he said: “If there is God, let him strike me dead”. At 15, he decided to stop attending church. He rebelled against the Puritan way of life and thinking. Ella’s addiction provided reason for his faltering faith. He lost his faith when he learned that his father had an illegitimate child, his brother was an alcoholic and his mother had been a drug addict for years. This produced a spiritual change in him. Dynamo shows how Reuben (and also O’Neill) departs from the old faith and turns to science for his god, whose incarnation he worships in the dynamo. He finds electricity a possible modem equivalent to the old, exploded theism. He replaces the god of olden times with the new God of science. The old god is dead; the new God is the Dynamo. The play does not settle the theological point whether God is or is not: it shows the futility of man’s engaging in such a quest. The old god is dead, but science provides no satisfactory new god.


      O’Neill’s rejection of religion was never total or final. Tom F. Driver has rightly put it: “O’Neill was anti-religious only in so far the quest is concerned; he was extremely religious in terms of the quest itself’. He always sought comfort in religion. His revolt was actually a search for a substitute faith. O’Neill was an agnostic in search of redemption. In Lazarus Laughed, Lazarus discovered the secret of life in the acceptance of God. Days Without End describes the hero’s faith (and also O’Neill’s) quest for a true faith. The play also emphasizes the need for the acceptance of formal Christianity in which true redemption lies. O’Neill had made his peace with Catholicism by depicting a character who returns to the faith. As a Christian play, it aims at uniting man with God. John Loving finds peace in his acceptance of the Roman Catholic Church. He returns triumphantly to his old faith.


      O’Neill was also preoccupied with the problem of death in his plays. He was more than a little in love with it and he stressed death’s inevitability in his plays. Like Schopenhauer or Freud, O’Neill also believed in fulfillment through death. O’Neill vacillated between the dramatization of death as an inevitable termination of life and dramatization of belief in some king of eternity or immobility. Death plays many roles in our lives, In Thirst, death releases the Dancer from the life-and-death struggle in which she is involved. In Frog, death is looked upon as a “fine sleep” which frees the child from the drudgery of its existence. It is again death which helps James Knapp in Warning, to get rid of this “penny pinching existence”. Death saves Hughie from troubles in Hughie and is given a warm welcome. Eric observes: “But Hughie’s better off, at that. Being dead, he has got all the luck. He need not do no worrying now. He is out of the racket”. Days Without End shows that death is a final release, the warm, dark peace of annihilation. The Emperor Jones, The Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra portray the finality of death in time.


      O’Neill also believes that death is not the end of life. He offers the doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, his own version of death and rebirth. In Lazarus Laughed, Days Without End and Fountain, O’Neill unequivocally defends the existence of some kind of personal immortality Lazarus Laughed shows that man’s salvation lies in realizing that life does not die, that life is laughter. It affirms his belief in life beyond the grave. Lazarus is brought back from the dead and is claimed as a Redeemer and Saviour. Lazarus’s message is: “Yes! Yes!! Yes!!! Men die! Even a son of Man must die to show that Men Live! But there is no death”.


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

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