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.

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.

Eugene O'Neill in 1936. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories