23 April 2017

Book Reviews: Eugene O'Neill Biography

[On 18 April, I reported on The Hairy Ape on Rick On Theater. Given the importance of Eugene O'Neill to American and world theater, I think it’s worthwhile to have a look at some reviews of a recent biography of the playwright, Eugene O'Neill: A Life in Four Acts (Yale University Press, 2014) by Robert M. DowlingBelow are notices from the Washington Post, Modern Drama, and the Wall Street Journal.  At the end, I’ve appended an essay by Dowling that appeared in the Hairy Ape program at the Park Avenue Armory.

[Eugene Gladstone O’Neill (1888-1953) is the first (and so far only) U. S. playwright to have won a Nobel Prize for Literature (1936).  That he is still regarded as the country’s foremost playwright, and has been since the Provincetown Players began to present his plays in 1916, is reason enough for O’Neill to have been an influence on many later playwrights like Tennessee Williams.  Indeed, if the Provincetown had not broken with the commercial pap then being offered in New York, and had it not started presenting the experimental and innovative works of O’Neill, the American theatre might not have been ready for Williams or his contemporaries and successors when they came along.   

[O’Neill, the son of the famous 19th-century actor James O’Neill (1847-1920), known nationwide for his portrayal of the Count of Monte Cristo, was born in New York and into the world of the theatre.  He learned the craft by direct contact, but eschewed his father’s field and went off to experience life at sea.  O’Neill turned to writing because he was confined to a sanatorium for months in 1912-13 when he contracted tuberculosis and he spent the time thinking about his life.  When he was released in 1913, he began writing plays, mostly about life at sea, and in 1916, he joined with a group of amateur artists from New York’s Greenwich Village who took their notions to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and launched their company with productions of O’Neill’s sea plays.  He and the troupe were an almost immediate success and they moved back to New York and later  that year, established themselves in Greenwich Village, the bohemian art center of the city and the country. 

[O’Neill debuted on Broadway in 1920 with Beyond the Horizon and his career as the preeminent playwright in the United States was launched.  O’Neill became world-famous, the first U.S. dramatist to attain an international reputation.  At the end of 1931, Mourning Becomes Electra opened in New York accompanied by extraordinary press attention (including a Time cover).  From that point on, no theatre student or would-be stage artist of any level could be immune from O’Neill’s influence to one degree or another.]

by Wendy Smith

Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts by Robert M. Dowling, 
Yale; 569 pp.; $35

Robert M. Dowling’s thoughtful book restores balance to the slightly skewed 21st-century reputation of America’s greatest playwright. The ubiquity on world stages of Eugene O’Neill’s three crowning achievements — “The Iceman Cometh,” “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “A Moon for the Misbegotten” — has led to a narrow perception of him as the grimly naturalistic purveyor of a desolate worldview formed by his horrific family history. These late-career masterpieces have overshadowed the many groundbreaking works that preceded them, fostering the notion that O’Neill was exclusively concerned with his internal drama.

On the contrary, Dowling reminds us, O’Neill’s plays consistently voice his lifelong contempt for American materialism, imperialism, racism and puritanism. His empathy for the oppressed and outcast is evident in the seafaring dramas that first made his reputation in 1916-17. He believed audiences wanted more than trivial, phony entertainment, and he was proved right in the years between the two world wars, when his innovations in theatrical form and content gave him a string of unexpected hits. Dowling selectively highlights key moments that demonstrate the playwright’s “ripple effect . . . on American theater and culture,” dividing his narrative into four “acts” linking O’Neill’s experiences with historic shifts in American theater.

The first act depicts a childhood shadowed by his mother’s drug addiction and his father’s perpetual touring in “The Count of Monte Cristo,” a profitable, artistically negligible melodrama. Dowling sensibly relies on Louis Sheaffer’s pioneering research in “O’Neill: Son and Playwright” (1968) and “O’Neill: Son and Artist” (1973) for most biographical facts. But while Sheaffer sees O’Neill’s relationship with his parents as central to his life and work, Dowling contends that O’Neill’s turn to playwriting was part of the process of “abandoning the child-self that had possessed him for too long.”

In the book’s second part, Dowling spotlights O’Neill’s collaboration with the Provincetown Players, a Greenwich Village group that shared his desire to smash outworn theatrical conventions. The playwright had two successful Broadway productions during this period (“Beyond the Horizon” in 1920 and “Anna Christie” in 1921 ), but Dowling focuses on his downtown experiments with effects such as the use of colored lights and beating drums. He argues persuasively that O’Neill primarily was interested in discovering new ways to move and challenge audiences. His explorations were triumphantly justified in 1920 by “The Emperor Jones,” the first popular American play to make use of European expressionist techniques (such as symbolic scenes and sound effects to portray emotional states) and to star an African American actor supported by a white company.

O’Neill continued to mingle theatrical and social provocation in his productions of the 1920s and early ‘30s, refusing to bowdlerize his material to suit contemporary prejudices or commercial imperatives. He didn’t have to, Dowling demonstrates in the third part of the book , which follows O’Neill from the Village to the Broadway theater as it succumbed to the revolution he and his comrades had wrought in the little theater movement.

The downtown shows were radical. “The Hairy Ape” (1922) dramatized working-class rage. “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” (1924) portrayed an interracial marriage. “Desire Under the Elms” (1924) made brilliant use of symbolist scenery and lighting to make palpable the play’s themes, but critics noticed only its sexual frankness, which led to censorship battles across the country. “The Great God Brown” employed the ancient device of masked actors to illuminate contemporary psychological conflicts.

O’Neill’s Broadway productions were just as radical. “Strange Interlude” (1928) aimed for the freedom of a novel, voicing its characters’ private thoughts in a new kind of soliloquy. “Marco Millions” (1928) satirized Marco Polo as a Babbitt-like businessman interested only in making money. “Mourning Becomes Electra” (1931) created an American equivalent for Greek tragedy by relocating the Oresteia to Civil War-era New England. All were box office successes. O’Neill had forced the commercial theater to accept him on his own terms. The Nobel Prize in 1936 capped the decades of his greatest celebrity and influence.

In the last section of the book, Dowling takes us from that high point through the dark years of declining health that made it impossible for O’Neill to write after 1943. “The Iceman Cometh,” which received mixed reviews in 1946, and “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” which closed out of town in 1947, were the last plays produced while he was alive. O’Neill destroyed the incomplete manuscripts of his 11-play cycle about the dire spiritual consequences of Americans’ lust for success. He forbade publication of the nakedly autobiographical “Long Day’s Journey into Night” until 25 years after his death, which came in 1953.

Dowling covers this bleak period briefly. Although he serviceably relates the major events in O’Neill’s life, including his three marriages and struggle with alcoholism, readers looking for a comprehensive biography would do better with Louis Sheaffer’s two volumes. What makes this book a valuable complement to them is Dowling’s emphasis on the playwright’s engagement with the world and the theater.

Glib journalists often condescend to O’Neill as someone who spewed forth his personal demons in badly written plays that occasionally turned out to be great almost by accident. Dowling reclaims him as a self-conscious, committed artist who strove to break through the limits of production and get as much of the human condition onstage as possible. The freedom he seized and bequeathed to subsequent playwrights — from Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams to Tony Kushner and Sarah Ruhl — transformed the American theater. Compelling though his tragic personal story is, that is the more important story, perceptively recounted in “Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts.”

[Wendy Smith’s review appeared in the “Style” section of the Washington Post of 2 December 2014.  Smith is a writer in New York who frequently reviews books for The Washington Post.]

 *  *  *  *
by Alexander Pettit
University of North Texas

Robert M. Dowling. Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.
Pp. xiv + 569, illustrated. $35.00 (Hb)

The storyline is well known. Born “in a goddamned hotel room” in 1888 and fated (the word seems apt) to die in another one sixty-five years later, Eugene O’Neill, in the intervening years, endured a mother’s indifference and a father’s panicky fear of penury; survived tuberculosis; quit college, read widely, and shipped out to sea; bludgeoned himself with drink; abandoned a wife he barely knew and beat two whom he loved; treated two of his children with biting cruelty; declined slowly and horribly, unable to write and battered by emotional warfare; and, of course, made American drama do and mean things it hadn’t previously done or meant, earning a Nobel Prize and several Pulitzers in the process. O’Neill’s best biographers have found their tonal palettes limited: their subject, the arch anti-sentimentalist, resists sentimental representation by lending himself poorly to the roles of victim and scoundrel and not at all to the role of hero. In a self-reflective summation at the end of his impressive new biography, Robert M. Dowling defers to O’Neill’s third wife, Carlotta Monterey O’Neill: “Don’t sentimentalize him . . . He was a simple man. They make a lot of nonsense and mystery out of him. He was interested only in writing his plays” (472).

Carlotta presumably intended to disparage mythopoeia, on the one hand, and fancy-pants criticism on the other. She would have appreciated Dowling’s lack of interest in either. Unlike Steven A. Black, whose 1999 biography rose and fell on the relative strength of its psychoanalytic readings, Dowling has no particular version of O’Neill to peddle. Nor is he interested in the juxtaposing of voluminous oral histories and trenchant close readings practised by Louis Sheaffer, in his two-volume biography of 1968–73. Dowling’s passages on the written texts are concise summaries, punctuated occasionally by brief, pointed observations framed in sensible prose. At first, there seems something timid about his even-handedness, but the impression abates as one realizes that Dowling regards the biographer as principally an archivist, secondarily a stylist, and only incidentally a critic. Indeed, the few occasions on which he favours argument over exposition seem misplaced. Notable is an intermittent inquiry into O’Neill’s putative desire to write novels rather than plays. The evidence is compelling, but this seems more the stuff of the essay than the biography.

The years since the publication of Black’s biography have been busy ones in O’Neill studies, and this book’s currency is conspicuous among its merits. As Dowling notes, his is the first life to benefit from the discovery of a copy of the autobiographical, one-act Exorcism, which he presents as “a prequel of sorts to Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (77), thus making O’Neill the autobiographer easier to discern and less beholden to inference than he had been. Dowling’s mastery of canonical and recent scholarship – as recent as four months before the book’s release, in one instance – is always evident. An attentiveness to William Davies King’s post-1999 work on O’Neill’s wives, for example, allows Dowling to flesh out episodes that are necessarily sketchy in prior biographies.

When Dowling notes that he has introduced “a wealth of previously overlooked materials” (21), he gets to the nub of the matter: one marvels at the athleticism with which he has exhumed and incorporated documentary materials housed in government offices, regional archives, private collections, and academic repositories. A judgment until recently sealed in a county courthouse suggests that O’Neill may not have legally married his second wife, Agnes Boulton. In an unpublished 1928 treatise, O’Neill regretted the preference for music over “mechanical sound” that had prevented some of his plays from being produced in a suitably “modern” manner (359; emphasis in the original). An interview from the Sheaffer-O’Neill Collection has a young Marlon Brando fumbling through an audition for The Iceman Cometh and declaring the play’s author “nuts,” within earshot of O’Neill (451). According to a first-hand account, Carlotta Monterey O’Neill violated her husband’s injunction against prompt publication of Long Day’s Journey into Night in order to thwart the calumny of “whore[s]” who might otherwise have claimed after her death – tenuously, I’d think, given Carlotta’s well-known talent as a gate-keeper – to have bedded O’Neill during the play’s composition (481). And so on, marvellously.

Dowling’s accounts of O’Neill’s opening nights, the best on record, are enlivened by reviews, interviews, and anecdotes, many of them unfamiliar. His treatment of the premiere of All God’s Chillun Got Wings demands special notice. Dowling reanimates the “racially charged firestorm” (275) by reproducing, in provocative counterpoint, the commentary of respondents black and white, thoughtful and hateful, witty and pious, all grappling passionately with a play that still challenges us. I have never read a more engaging history of a play’s reception, and I find myself hoping that the book’s paraprofessional readers will recognize how much deeper than the Internet the historical researcher must dig and will appreciate the melding of honed instinct and time-killing commitment that this work demands.

Sometimes documentary inclusiveness works against Dowling. I would love to believe that Orson Welles predicted Oona O’Neill’s marriage to Charlie Chaplin after reading her palm. Dowling’s crediting of the account to a celebrity bio doesn’t allow me to, however, nor does the more circumspect representation of the alleged incident in that source. The assertion that Babe Ruth attended the premiere of The Iceman Cometh falls short for a similar reason, although, in this instance, the odds seem a bit better. But these are the sorts of quibbles that one feels obligated to indulge on such occasions, and I indulge them here reluctantly. This remains a book to celebrate: a master class in research methods, an exuberant acknowledgement of the scholar’s obligation to delight as well as instruct, and an arresting life of a man who, as Carlotta Monterey O’Neill’s appraisal suggests, cared little for living. Dowling says that he has written with a “general audience” partly in mind (20–21), and I suspect he will reach that elusive demographic without alienating more discriminating readers. The analogy to O’Neill should be obvious.

[This book review was originally published in Modern Drama [Toronto] 58:3 (2015). Alexander is the University Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the University of North Texas.  He specializes in the study and teaching of modern drama and has recently published essays on Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Luis Valdez, Caryl Churchill, and American Indian drama. ]

*  *  *  *
by Robert Brustein

Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts
By Robert M. Dowling
Yale, 569 pages, $35

‘The intellect of man is forced to choose,” wrote Yeats, “perfection of the life or of the work.” Eugene O’Neill chose the work. A few of his biographers, regrettably, choose his life.

The qualities we normally associate with the art of Eugene O’Neill are intensity, repetition and length. After his early one-act ”sea sketches,” inspired by the playwright’s own youthful days at sea, O’Neill rarely wrote a play under three hours – “Strange Interlude” (1923) and a number of others can take much longer. “Mourning Becomes Electra” (1931) is a 12-act trilogy, and his unfinished cycle, “A Tale of Possessors Dispossessed,” was designed to be a marathon of nine plays, performed on nine successive evenings. Neither of his two late masterpieces, “The Iceman Cometh” (first performed in 1946) and “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (first performed in1956) are meant to be performed in less than four hours (though Jonathan Miller’s brisk, semi-farcical rendition of the latter cut it almost in half). Except for an uncharacteristically late one-acter, “Hughie,” composed in 1941, virtually all of O’Neill’s mature plays are written in at least four acts.

Robert M. Dowling’s biography of O’Neill is subtitled “A Life in Four Acts,” and like his subject’s plays it is also very long, intense and repetitious. Some might ask why this book was necessary, given that O’Neill has already been the subject of a number of fine critical biographies, most notably those of the late Arthur Gelb and his wife, Barbara – “O’Neill” (1962) and “O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo” (2000), a revised version of their earlier work.

Mr. Dowling makes a few references to the Gelbs in his footnotes, in addition to minimal nods towards other critical studies. More than critics or scholars, however, he prefers the company of librarians, curators and archivists. He consults primary sources whenever possible (letters, interviews and especially manuscripts from the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library) and adds a mountain of fresh biographical facts to those already known, exposing virtually every incident in O’Neill’s 65-year life to microscopic scrutiny.

As a result, it seems as if we are being told a great deal more about the playwright than we actually want to know – perhaps because we are being insufficiently instructed about why we would want to know it. Mr. Dowling has performed a monumental feat of investigative research. Virtually every aspect of O’Neill’s daily life, right down to his bathing habits and the letterheads on his stationery, comes under discussion. Would anyone complain if a biographer had uncovered as much detail about Shakespeare’s life?

I think there might indeed be some protest, if the Shakespeare biographer had fully explored daily events and only synopsized the works. Because Mr. Dowling largely reduces O’Neill’s plays to plot summaries and their productions to incidents in the biography of the playwright, we rarely feel that his overstuffed satchels of facts contain anything that could enhance or clarify O’Neill’s art.

Another problem with Mr. Dowling’s approach is that the playwright’s personal history is insufficiently various to keep the general reader from nodding. Much of his life seems to have been a cycle of illness, depression, fistfights, drunken debauches, rehabilitations, wife beatings, extramarital affairs, divorces, suicide attempts, recriminations and remorse. When asked by an interviewer why he writes about O’Neill, Mr. Dowling replied: “Because I am an Irish-American male who grew up in Connecticut and New York and feels at home in dive bars. I also love plays. And if they’re set in dive bars, all the better.” This suggests that Mr. Dowling is attracted to O’Neillmainly because he identifies with the ethnic lineup at Jimmy the Priest’s saloon, the Fulton Street dive that inspired “The Iceman Cometh.” But apart from an affection for plays with boozy settings (he names every pub where O’Neill ever lifted a glass and every brand of bourbon he ever consumed), Mr. Dowling never seems to probe very deeply into the creative soul of his subject.

Mr. Dowling’s species of alcoholic biography is characterized by generous blow-by-blow descriptions of the innumerable battles O’Neill had with his three wives and his abject failures as a husband and father. His first wife, Kathleen Jenkins, mother of Eugene Jr., divorced him because he was having an affair with another woman. O’Neill had a similar odi-amo (love-hate) relationship with his second wife, Agnes Boulton, mother of Shane and of Oona O’Neill. Agnes divorced him after he reportedly punched her in the face and threw a novel she was writing into the fire. His last marriage, with the snobbish, anti-Semitic actress Carlotta Monterey, was a dustup from beginning to end, though it admittedly constitutes the most lively portions of the book.

O’Neill’s extramarital activities drove Carlotta crazy. The playwright once leveled a gun at her, and she went at him with a butcher knife. (He later tried to get her committed to an insane asylum.) But somehow the marriage lasted, and Carlotta became the major caretaker of his talent, making the wise decision to produce “Long Day’s Journey,” first in Sweden, then on Broadway, soon after his death in 1953, despite O’Neill’s stipulation that it be withheld for 25 years. The dedication of “Long Day’s Journey” to Carlotta – “I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play” – is among the most tender descriptions extant of a literary marriage, even though this one was marked by constant brawls.

O’Neill’s relationships with his children were even more disordered. He never wanted them, and he didn’t like them – his Dalmatian dogs were treated with more affection. He told his daughter Oona, a would-be actress, that if she ever went to Hollywood he would refuse to see her again because she was “trading on my name.” (She responded by marrying the 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin when she was barely 18.) Although Oona ended up in Switzerland rather than Hollywood, O’Neill kept his promise. He never saw her again, or any of his eight grandchildren.

As for his two boys, Shane was a deadbeat, addicted to heroin, while Eugene Jr. made some effort to follow in his father’s footsteps by teaching classical drama at Yale and publishing the invaluable anthology “Complete Greek Drama” with Whitney J. Oates. The two sons rewarded O’Neill with the unusual paternal distinction of both committing suicide. (Shane jumped out of a window, and EugeneJr. cut his wrists, Roman-fashion, in a bathtub.)

O’Neill may have been aggressive toward his wives and indifferent to his offspring, but the closest relationships reflected in his plays are with the older generation of his family – his father, mother and older brother, Jamie. His father, James O’Neill Sr., after sharing the American stage with Edwin Booth in classic Shakespeare plays, made the fateful decision in midcareer to spend the rest of his professional life playing the lucrative leading role in ”The Count of Monte Cristo.” According to his son, his father always regretted this sell-out (“What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder”). The roiling family resentments – O’Neill’s bitterness toward his father for not sending him to a proper sanitorium to cure his tuberculosis, Jamie’s love-hate for his brother’s talent, the family’s despair over the drug habit of their mother – form the autobiographical basis for what is universally considered the greatest play in the American language, “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

O’Neill had written many semi-autobiographical works before this, particularly about his failed love affairs and marriages. None possessed such a burning capacity for self-revelation. Even the names of O’Neill’s dramatic characters reveal some family secrets. All the Tyrones’ Christian names are the same as those of the O’Neill family – except for the author, who calls himself Edmund. As has often been observed, Edmund is also the name of Eugene’s brother who died in infancy, and the playwright may have been expressing here a desire never to have been born. But Edmund (Edmond Dantes) is also the title character in ”The Count of Monte Cristo,” so intaking that name, O’Neill may have been thinking not only about his own extinction but unconsciously about his uneasy relationship to his father’s career.

Mr. Dowling’s obstinate biographical approach is most compelling while discussing this extraordinary autobiographical play. Elsewhere “Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts” often seems irrelevant and unvaried. As a result, the book may strike one as ascholarly version of today’s celebrity gossip, where, instead of celebrating the quality and content of an artist’s or performer’s work, the media publicize every childhood illness, every marital failing, every false step, every drunken quarrel, every displaced bra strap, every nude photograph, drowning us in a sea of irrelevant scandal. There is no question that such material has its entertainment value. It is also a distraction from the true nature and purpose of art. O’Neill used his disturbed personal experience in his plays, but unlike his biographer, he knew how to use this material selectively. His intellect clearly chose perfection of the art over a fearfully imperfect life. Robert M. Dowling has done prodigious research on his subject, but we must continue our hunt for the real O’Neill in his plays.

[The review above first ran in the Wall Street Journal [New York] on 8 November 2014 (sec.  C). Robert Brustein, longtime theater critic of the New Republic, is an emeritus professor at Harvard and the founder of the Yale Repertory Theatre. (New Haven, Connecticut) and the American Repertory  Theatre (Cambridge, Massachusetts).  His most recent book is Winter Passages.]

*  *  *  *
by Robert M. Dowling

March 9, 1922, New York City: After the final curtain had fallen on the premiere of The Hairy Ape at the Provincetown Playhouse, a cramped theater space in the heart of Greenwich Village, the audience leapt to its feet. Louis Wolheim, who played the anti-hero Robert “Yank” Smith, received a deafening ovation, and the packed auditorium then echoed with cries of “Author! Author!” Their shouts carried on after the house lights went up; but once it became clear that the “author” wouldn’t be appearing, everyone slowly headed for the exit, still eagerly glancing over their shoulders for a potential last-minute, delayed entrance by playwright Eugene O’Neill.

A glowing New York Times review was printed the next morning, in which the theater’s auditorium was described as “packed to the doors with astonishment . . . as scene after scene unfolded.” Though the Times’ critic, Alexander Woollcott, contended that O’Neill’s script was “uneven,” he nonetheless acknowledged that “it seems rather absurd to fret overmuch about the undisciplined imagination of a young playwright towering so conspicuously above the milling mumbling crowd of playwrights who have no imagination at all.”

O’Neill’s mélange of dialect writing, his melding of dramatic techniques, and his terrifying indictment of the industrial world arguably made The Hairy Ape the most revolutionary American play yet performed on a stage. The Hairy Ape, his friend and future producer Kenneth Macgowan breathlessly declared after attending its opening, “leaps out at you from the future.”

When the thirty-three year old playwright first read his script to the Provincetown Players, the avant-garde “little theater” company who’d discovered his talent back in 1916, he did so without theatricality or embellishment. But after slowly muttering the last lines, he stood up, faced the assembly and shouted, “This is one the bastards [uptown on Broadway] can’t do!” Stunned by the play’s bold originality, the Players all cheered in agreement. Of course they soon realized that the commercial “bastards” would, inevitably, produce the play. And when it opened on April 17, 1922, at the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway, O’Neill’s name shone upon the marquee in electric lights as a heady draw for uptown theatergoers. This fact alone was an extraordinary leap for an American playwright—the marquee was where the star’s name went, never the playwright’s. Broadway plays had nearly always been written and produced with moneymaking stars in mind, and their authors were principally viewed as hired guns rather than artists.

The Hairy Ape builds upon the thematic structure of O’Neill’s pioneering “race play” The Emperor Jones, which also enjoyed a popular run on Broadway after its 1920 downtown premiere. Each takes place over eight scenes, during which the protagonists are incrementally stripped of their grandiose delusions. Of the two, however, The Hairy Ape notably contains a more all-inclusive catalogue of O’Neill’s grievances against the unstoppable tide of technological “progress”—class conflict, materialism, alienation from the self and society, dehumanization, and disillusionment. “I have tried to dig deep in it,” O’Neill said of his newest achievement, “to probe in the shadows of the soul of man bewildered by the disharmony of his primitive pride and individualism at war with the mechanistic development of society.”

The Hairy Ape was bestowed rave notices after both the Greenwich Village and Broadway productions, yet much of the after-hours barroom chatter revolved around the play’s uncertain style and its origins. New York’s drama critics had vaguely heard of European expressionism, but not many had actually witnessed it aside from O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (which few at the time identified as expressionism) and the Hungarian Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom (1909), a play just translated into English and produced by New York’s Theatre Guild the previous summer. (In 1945, Liliom returned to Broadway as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical adaptation Carousel.)

Even after The Emperor Jones, O’Neill was still largely identified with his naturalistic dramas based on life at sea, which as a young man he’d experienced firsthand. The Pulitzer Prize was awarded to O’Neill’s naturalistic sea play “Anna Christie” in the same year The Hairy Ape appeared, and two years earlier he’d won his first Pulitzer for Beyond the Horizon, also a work of naturalism. The school of literary naturalism is a grittier form of realism (the two terms are often mistakenly interchanged), which believably renders the philosophy that an individual’s fate is determined by biological, historical, circumstantial, and psychological forces beyond their control. But by the 1920s, O’Neill had found naturalism too limiting for his imaginative scope.

“Naturalism is too easy,” he said in 1924. “It would, for instance, be a perfect cinch to go on writing Anna Christies all my life. I could always be sure to pay the rent then….Shoving a lot of human beings on a stage and letting them say the identical things in a theatre they would say in a drawing room or a saloon does not necessarily make for naturalness. It’s what those men and women do not say that usually is most interesting.” Hence his adoption of, or semi-conscious appropriation of expressionism, a method that originated with Central and Northern European dramatists such as Molnár, Germany’s Frank Wedekind, and Sweden’s August Strindberg (O’Neill’s self-styled mentor). Expressionist plays depict grotesque exaggerations of character and setting in order to represent distorted psychological states. Also unlike naturalistic plays, they “express” inner conflict through fantastical staging: “King Lear is given a storm to rant in,” one of the Provincetown Players explained, whereas “the Expressionist hero in anger walks on a street, and all the perspectives of the walls, windows and doors are awry and tortured.”

O’Neill’s true innovation, though, was to combine the two. “It isn’t Expressionism,” he remarked of The Hairy Ape. “It isn’t Naturalism. It is a blend—and, as far as my knowledge goes—a uniquely successful one.” (He nevertheless instructed that the set designs “must be in the Expressionistic method.”) It was this merger, what he later termed “super-naturalism,” that would prove to have the longest lasting impact on theater history. Throughout what O’Neill called the “Mad Twenties,” he kept working in this style with plays like All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1923), Desire Under the Elms (1924), The Great God Brown (1925), and Strange Interlude (1927), which won him a third Pulitzer. The Hairy Ape thus signaled O’Neill’s complete transformation from an unruly naturalist to one of the consummate avant-garde modernists of the 1920s, and ultimately led to his becoming, in 1936, a Nobel laureate.

As late as 1946, after O’Neill’s writing career was cut short by an incapacitating, ultimately fatal neurological disease, a reporter asked him which of his plays he “liked the best.” He responded that this was really two questions: which play he liked the best and which he thought was the best. For the second question, he hedged a bit, but named The Iceman Cometh (its Broadway premiere was about to open). For the first, O’Neill was unequivocal: “I like The Hairy Ape.”

[Robert M. Dowling, Eugene O'Neill scholar and Professor of English at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain,  is the author of the new biography Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography in 2014.  He participated in a panel discussion of “A Hairy Ape for the 21st Century” alongside director Richard Jones and actor Bobby Cannavale of the Armory production of The Hairy Ape.  This essay was originally written for Jones’s Old Vic mounting of O’Neill’s play.]

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