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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Will the latest wave of revivals, with X-Files leading the way, serve or undermine loyal fans?

How fandoms are affected when their favourite characters return to their screens.

The X-Files has returned to television. The beloved sci-fi drama, which was on screen for nine years (plus two feature films, including nobody’s favourite, 2008’s I Want to Believe), wrapped up in 2002. More than a decade later, the show is back on FOX for a six-episode run, a length that’s standard in Britain but new to American broadcast audiences used to 22-episode seasons.

And last night, before the US watched the fourth episode, everyone in the UK who hadn’t already found another way to watch it saw the series premiere on Channel 5.

Watching America watch the premiere was a curious thing. I’ve never been an X-Files fan (for no particular reason, I just never got down to it), but spending your time deep in fan culture means having plenty of friends who cut their teeth on X-Files fandom in the mid- to late-Nineties.

Modern media fandom was born in online X-Files communities, laying templates for a lot of our current language and practices. The most prominent example might be the term “ship”, short for relationship, because the fandom was (and still is?) divided between shippers – proponents of MSR, or “Mulder/Scully relationship”, a desire to see the two leads move past platonic affection onscreen – and “no-romos”, who, as you might guess, wanted the opposite. Two decades later, “ship” has spread far beyond the fandom where it originated, or even beyond fandom at large.

The X-Files wasn’t just a fan favourite, though: far from some cult sleeper hit, it was the kind of mainstream success that the network tapped to air after the Super Bowl one year (that particular episode, in 1997, earned 29m viewers). So when the new series premiered, I watched with interest as America seemed to fall over itself in excitement. The start-time was pushed back due to a late NFL championship game, and the entire internet seemed to be clamouring to get the football off the screen. And when the show finally came on, I watched the collective glee.

It was fascinating to see a Nineties mainstay get the instant-collective-reaction treatment of the social media era, but I was abstractly worried, too: people who’d seen preview screenings were reporting that the first episode was pretty terrible, and I was ready for some serious backlash.

I messaged a friend, one of those whose first fandom experience was The X-Files, and she told me, with considerable confidence, that it didn’t matter. “Nobody cares,” she said.It’s not about that – it’s about having them on TV again.”

Sure enough, as the episode concluded, I gauged a similar sentiment among fans: “That wasn’t very good . . . I’VE MISSED THIS SHOW SO MUCH.”

I got in touch with a few long-time X-Files fans to ask if they felt this ambivalence. Aloysia Virgata told me that, despite initial trepidation (she’s been wary since the 2008 film), she was hopeful. “As the filming progressed, as David and Gillian proved to have developed a lovely friendship that was a joy to watch, as the promotional team got their feet under them, I found myself back in the Nineties, scheduling appointment TV.”

And Dasha K said: “Mulder and Scully are wonderful, complex characters and I'd watch them doing just about anything as long as we got snappy dialogue and longing looks between them. The X-Files revival is more than a nostalgic experience for me. It’s setting off with some old friends for new adventures.”

Fans tend to stick by their favourite characters. It’s sort of one of our defining features. Some people watch a film again and again to memorise every fact; others might build on fictional worlds in stories of their own – there are a lot of reasons to write fanfiction, but a common one is that you aren’t quite ready to give up the characters you love.

We hold on to them after shows are cancelled too soon, or after individuals or relationships are massacred in the writers’ room. But one question leaves us divided: if you could have these characters back, if this show could come back on the air, would you even want it to?

If the past decade has been the era of the reboot, we’re embarking on the era of the revival. The X-Files isn’t the first big show to be resurrected – Family Guy springs to mind, or the Netflix series of Arrested Development, or the 2014 Veronica Mars film, notable not just because it brought a show back from oblivion, but because it was literally done by fans, via a Kickstarter campaign.

It’s easy enough to quibble over the differences between reboots, revivals, sequels, and franchise continuations – where exactly does Doctor Who fall, for example – but I’m specifically interested in the swathe of shows that we’ll see in the next year or two, most with the original casts, most following on from where we left our characters before. Friends, Gilmore Girls, Twin Peaks, Full House, and a new Star Trek (aside from the one in cinemas); I can already hear those critics moaning about how we’re stuck a morass of cheap and easy nostalgia.

Let’s be real here – most of the time, the sequel is worse than the original. And there are fundamental questions at work about narrative: whether shows with structural arcs and some semblance of closure should be resurrected from the dead (never mind that many shows end for other reasons, creative differences or squabbles over salary or flagging viewing figures).

I personally occupy a place that might seem paradoxical to people who don’t write or read fanfiction: I love my characters so much that I never, ever want them back in any “official” capacity beyond the initial text – I’m too busy doing unofficial (and, to me, much more interesting) things with them.

But like it or not, our characters are coming back. This always seems to stress people out who don’t get attached to things: revivals are prime targets for accusations of “fan service”. The term originated in anime and manga, where it often meant inserting gratuitous sexy bits into the story to, well, service the fan.

But in recent years it’s morphed into the suggestion that elements of a show or film are meant for the hardcore fan alone: complicated plots, winking in-jokes, meta- and intertextuality are all recipients of the accusation. Revivals are built on intertextuality; it’s rare that a cast and writing team will reunite and not work to build from where they left off.

The age of revivals owes a lot to rapidly changing television formats, viewing habits, and funding models – David Duchovny explicitly said the that they agreed to make this X-Files series because they were only locked into six episodes, after all. But it also owes a lot to the ever-increasing exposure of fans, whether they’re actively campaigning for a show’s resurrection or just very visibly continuing to flip out over and scrutinise and dissect and love a show that’s been off the air for nearly 15 years. I can’t help but think that when people complain about reboots and revivals, they sense that people stay loyal to a show, or to its characters, out of some sort of slavish inertia, which has no connection to what actually happens in fandom.

All of this isn’t to say that fans are looking for revivals that peddle nostalgia alone. In a review of the first three episodes of the new X-Files, the Guardian expressed its frustration:

The best reboots need to make a case for their very existence, otherwise it’s just the members of Fleetwood Mac getting together to play Rhiannon for the millionth time as we clap along and remember the good old days. New episodes should create something new, should take a series to a different place or comment on their legacy rather than just muddling around in the past hoping it’s enough for some good ratings.

Fans – who are rarely satisfied, and always ask for more from their media – want to push the story along, too. (The fact that they can do this while still enjoying clapping along to Rhiannon for the millionth time might baffle some critics, but what can you do.)

But developing the story may look different to different people: take the complaints (from George Lucas, but also plenty of other guys on the internet) that the new Star Wars just spins its wheels and plays to the crowds’ expectations. And then consider how the film, with its pair of leads being a woman and a black man, both wielding a lightsaber, arguably breaks more new ground than any series of plot twists every could. And if the audience enjoyed itself along the way, seeing something new while still revelling in the old things it loved, even better. Fans, serviced.

That’s not to say that the new X-Files is necessarily progressively forging into the future. (In fact, it’s come under fire for getting a bit stuck in the past.) But the television landscape is broad and varied enough that TV no longer has to mean one thing: we’re seeing the earliest hints of the long tail of the internet reflected back on our screens.

“Reviews in the US also indicate that the series vastly improves,” The Telegraph wrote in its review of the first episode. “But on this form, it’s hard to imagine anyone but the most loyal X-philes still believing.”

I understand that shows like to have broad critical or audience appeal. I’m just not sure there’s anything wrong with a show having deep fannish appeal instead. (And by the way, from what I gather from seemingly devastated fan friends and critics alike, the show does get much better. Like, they’re devastated by their emotions, not the quality of the writing.)

If this is the first year of the great wave of revivals – potentially a new format for media storytelling, fueled by fannish devotion – then I can think of no better show than The X-Files to lead the charge.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.