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Desmond MacCarthy on Eugene O’Neill: “Poetry did not blow about the words”

Mixed feelings on the great American playwright, who died this day in 1943.

A portrait of Eugene O'Neill
Eugene O'Neill in 1936. Photo: Getty Images.

On 27 November 1953, the American playwright and Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill died in Room 401 of the Sheraton Hotel, Boston. “I knew it, I knew it,” were his final words. “Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.” Like so many lines associated with O’Neill, it was a simple statement of the facts. Sixty-five years earlier he had been born in the Barrett Hotel in New York, a site which today houses a Starbucks coffee franchise, Disney and NASDAQ offices, and a rectangular steel plaque which reads: “Eugene O’Neill, October 16, 1888 – November 27, 1953, America’s greatest playwright was born on this site, then called Barrett House”.

O’Neill’s anti-rhetorical style – a terse naturalistic idiom through which he voiced the addict’s despair, the violence of family life and the misery of unfulfilled potential – was picked apart by Desmond MacCarthy, writing in the New Statesman in 1943. “The fear and poetry on which tragedy flourishes pervaded the scenes, but poetry did not blow about the words,” MacCarthy wrote. The best playwrights are, of course, Irish or of Irish extraction, but where most conquered through their “command of language,” O’Neill “owes his place in the front rank of contemporary dramatists to his invention, vigour, psychological insight and his theatrical sense, not to his use of words.”

The piece, reprinted in full below, was in response to a performance of Days Without End at the Mercury Theatre, Notting Hill Gate. MacCarthy is not won over by the play, whose theme – that without belief, there can only be despair – drove him to think up counter-examples:

Not very many have enjoyed life more than David Hume, or been more constantly possessed by benevolent feelings; yet few men can have been more sceptical. On the other hand some great Christians, Pascal for example, have come perilously near being haters of life and enemies of the natural good.

He encourages readers to approach the play’s protagonist, “John Loving”, within his own context. For him, either Eternal Love underpins the workings of the universe, or it does not, and our complicity in the entropic depletion of meaning should not be tolerated any longer than necessary.

What is notable is that MacCarthy writes as though sampling from a writer’s oeuvre, mid-career. He has stated his appreciation for O’Neill’s genius, and proceeds to engage critically with its most recent incarnation, confident that he will continue to do so for years to come. What he could not know was at the time, ten years before O’Neill breathed his last, the writer in him was already dead. Owing to a debilitating tremor, compounded by alcoholism and depression, O’Neill wrote nothing for the final ten years of his life. He narrowly finished the three great autobiographical works for which he is most often remembered: The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten. It is in them that the weight of his deaf style would strike home most memorably, as Edmund – the unambiguously titled stand-in for a young Eugene, about to leave the family home with tuberculosis – attempts to formulate, in his own words, the facts as he sees them:

None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realise it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.

The Drama of Eugene O’Neill

It is odd but indisputable that after the era of great English verse-drama, since Elizabethan and Jacobean days, the best English-speaking playwrights have been Irishmen or of Irish extraction. Among eighteenth century dramatists (Dryden is seldom read now and hardly ever revived) it is Congreve, Goldsmith, Sheridan who stand out; as the turn of the nineteenth century, Wilde and Synge. And among living dramatists whom would you put before Shaw and Eugene O’Neill?

I am at a loss to account for this Hibernian preponderance, but I note that, with one exception, they all have one characteristic in common. From the dialogue of Congreve, so elegantly voluble yet precise, from the fluid grace of Goldsmith and the concentrated wit of Sheridan, to the extravagant suavity of Oscar Wilde, the nutty and golden talk of Synge’s characters and the brilliantly telling prose spoken by Shaw’s, the work of all these Irish dramatists has been marked by a command of language. They have excelled in diction in addition to their other merits – with one exception. Eugene O’Neill owes his place in the front rank of contemporary dramatists to his invention, vigour, psychological insight and his theatrical sense, not to his use of words. The Hairy Ape is a tremendous little play; its scenes are unforgettable, yet not one line remains in the memory afterwards. In Desire Under the Elms we never disbelieved for an instant in the strength of the longing which drew two heart-starved creatures together. The passion between them and the passion of old Ephraim for his Stone God, lifted it high above the usual adultery play. (Contrast with it the imaginatively inedible synthetic substitutes for passion we are offered year in year out.) The fear and poetry on which tragedy flourishes pervaded the scenes, but poetry did not blow about the words. The same is true of O’Neill’s masterpiece, Mourning Becomes Electra. The force of that tragedy sprang from a dramatic intuition, wonderfully worked out that the conception of the unconscious as something pushing men from within in directions unknown and undesired, might be used on the modern stage with the same tremendous effect as the conception of Fate in ancient Greek drama. In all his plays the characters say what is dramatically effective and psychologically appropriate, but they never say it in memorable manner. He has no ear for a phrase, no eye for a metaphor, no tongue for a period. His dialogue is matter of fact and naturalistic, and yet his dramatic methods are figurative, symbolic! His plays abound in symbols, and the consequence is that if his symbolism fails to grip us, whenever it strikes us as more grotesque than impressive, the play is lost. No verbal imagination comes to the rescue of it. Days Without End, running at the Mercury Theatre till March 17th, is an instance of this happening.

It is described as “a modern miracle play,” and that description will do. Its theme is the conflict in a divided personality between the Christian religion and militant scepticism. It ends with the whole man’s surrender before a crucifix to the God of Love, a surrender which synchronises with the recovery of his wife from approaching death – with a miracle. To the would-be Christian-self in “John Loving” she is unspeakably dear; to the atheist-self she is detestable, because he loathes life, and “John Loving’s” marriage with Elisa (Miss Mary Newcomb) had temporally bound him again to life, just when the bitter nihilistic self had been heading “John” for suicide.

In this play scepticism is equated with a desire for death – death personal, death universal. Dramatically, this equation is effective; but if the value of the play’s content is considered, it is a weakness. Sceptics don’t necessarily loathe and dread life and therefore also those who share it most intimately with them. Not very many have enjoyed life more than David Hume, or been more constantly possessed by benevolent feelings; yet few men can have been more sceptical. On the other hand some great Christians, Pascal for example, have come perilously near being haters of life and enemies of the natural good.

Readers may recall having known men and women who, though unable to believe that Eternal Love created the world, have nevertheless not found life empty, despicable, intolerable, nor have they lost the feeling that some things are good, some bad. From the point of view of appreciating this play, such people will do well to regard it as a study of a special case. There are undoubtedly people like “John Loving” for whom there is no alternative between belief and absolute despair. But they are few. O’Neill’s method of presenting this split personality is to make both halves visible and audible to the audience. They invariably appear together, but sometimes what the evil, savage sceptic says is audible to those on the stage, and is received by them, of course, as proceeding from the mouth of “John Loving” himself. (This composite part is acted by Mr van Gyseghem and Mr John Trevor.) Now this method requires extreme tact on the part of the dramatist. He must stress the perpetual opposition between “the double” and the visible man – that is his theme. But if what the double says contradicts immediately and violently what the visible man has just uttered violently what the visible man has just uttered, then the behaviour of the other characters listening to him is apt to be unconvincing. And this is what happened on the stage. They know him well enough no doubt to know that he is, and has been since he lost his faith in boyhood, a man divided against himself – at least the priest, his uncle, knows that well, though his wife apparently does not, until the plot of the novel he is writing reveals it to her. But a man who uttered in the same breath the tenderest sentiments and violent cynicisms would strike others as mad. This is the technical weakness of the play. It is so grave a one that it relegates Days Without End to the list of Eugene O’Neill’s failures. At moments it has power, even real dramatic force, and it is rather fascinating, but it is a failure. In The Great God Brown, which I have neither seen nor read, I am told he tried to present a double personality by providing the actor with a mask, which from time to time he put in front of his face and spoke through. Eugene O’Neill has always been intensely interested in the problems of personality. Both these plays preceded Strange Interlude, which is an extremely interesting drama in which the dialogue is composed of what the characters say to each other and what they think to themselves. That, oddly enough, came off.

The acting at the Mercury Theatre is quiet and naturalistic. It is apt, perhaps, to degenerate at times into mere behaviour, but Mr Trevor does rise to exaltation of his surrender at the end and Mr van Gyseghem achieved an uncanny, acrid bitterness.

The above piece was uncovered during ongoing research for The New Statesman Century, available August, 2013.