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.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
Show Hide image

The best film soundtracks to help you pretend you live in a magical Christmas world

It’s December. You no longer have an excuse.

It’s December, which means it’s officially time to crack out the Christmas music. But while Mariah Carey and Slade have their everlasting charms, I find the best way to slip into the seasonal spirit is to use a film score to soundtrack your boring daily activities: sitting at your desk at work, doing some Christmas shopping, getting the tube. So here are the best soundtracks and scores to get you feeling festive this month.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Although this is a children’s film, it’s the most grown-up soundtrack on the list. Think smooth jazz with a Christmas twist, the kind of tunes Ryan Gosling is playing at the fancy restaurant in La La Land, plus the occasional choir of precocious kids. Imagine yourself sat in a cocktail chair. You’re drinking an elaborate cocktail. Perhaps there is a cocktail sausage involved also. Either way, you’re dressed head-to-toe in silk and half-heartedly unwrapping Christmas presents as though you’ve already received every gift under the sun. You are so luxurious you are bored to tears of luxury – until a tiny voice comes along and reminds you of the true meaning of Christmas. This is the kind of life the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack can give you. Take it with both hands.

Elf (2003)

There is a moment in Elf when Buddy pours maple syrup over his spaghetti, washing it all down with a bottle of Coca Cola. “We elves like to stick to the four main food groups,” he explains, “candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.” This soundtrack is the audio equivalent – sickly sweet, sugary to an almost cloying degree, as it comes peppered with cute little flutes, squeaky elf voices and sleigh bells. The album Elf: Music from the Motion Picture offers a more durable selection of classics used in the movie, including some of the greatest 1950s Christmas songs – from Louis Prima’s 1957 recording of “Pennies from Heaven”, two versions of “Sleigh Ride”, Eddy Arnold’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Eartha Kitt’s 1953 “Santa Baby”. But if a sweet orchestral score is more your thing, the Elf OST of course finishes things off with the track “Spaghetti and Syrup”. Just watch out for the sugar-rush headache.

Harry Potter (2001-2011)

There are some Christmas-specific songs hidden in each of the iconic Harry Potter scores, from “Christmas at Hogwarts” to “The Whomping Willow and The Snowball Fight” to “The Kiss” (“Mistletoe!” “Probably full of knargles”), but all the magical tinkling music from these films has a Christmassy vibe. Specifically concentrate on the first three films, when John Williams was still on board and things were still mostly wonderful and mystical for Harry, Ron and Hermione. Perfect listening for that moment just before the snow starts to fall, and you can pretend you’re as magical as the Hogwarts enchanted ceiling (or Ron, that one time).

Carol (2015)

Perhaps you’re just a little too sophisticated for the commercial terror of Christmas, but, like Cate Blanchett, you still want to feel gorgeously seasonal when buying that perfect wooden train set. Then the subtly festive leanings of the Carol soundtrack is for you. Let your eyes meet a stranger’s across the department store floor, or stare longingly out of the window as your lover buys the perfect Christmas tree from the side of the road. Just do it while listening to this score, which is pleasingly interspersed with songs of longing like “Smoke Rings” and “No Other Love”.

Holiday Inn (1942)

There’s more to this soundtrack than just “White Christmas”, from Bing Crosby singing “Let’s Start The New Year Off Right” to Fred Astaire’s “You’re Easy To Dance With” to the pair’s duet on “I’ll Capture Your Heart”. The score is perfect frosty walk music, too: nostalgic, dreamy, unapologetically merry all at once.

The Tailor of Gloucester (1993)

Okay, I’m being a little self-indulgent here, but bear with me. “The Tailor of Gloucester”, adapted from the Beatrix Potter story, was an episode of the BBC series The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends and aired in 1993. A Christmastime story set in Gloucester, the place I was born, was always going to be right up my street, and our tatty VHS came out at least once a year throughout my childhood. But the music from this is something special: songs “The Tailor of Gloucester”, “Songs From Gloucester” and “Silent Falls the Winter Snow” are melancholy and very strange, and feature the singing voices of drunk rats, smug mice and a very bitter cat. It also showcases what is in my view one of the best Christmas carols, “Sussex Carol.” If you’re the kind of person who likes traditional wreaths and period dramas, and plans to watch Victorian Baking at Christmas when it airs this December 25th, this is the soundtrack for you.

Home Alone (1990-1992)

The greatest, the original, the godfather of all Christmas film soundtracks is, of course, John William’s Home Alone score. This is for everyone who likes or even merely tolerates Christmas, no exceptions. It’s simply not Christmas until you’ve listened to “Somewhere in My Memory” 80,000 times whilst staring enviously into the perfect Christmassy homes of strangers or sung “White Christmas” to the mirror. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules. Go listen to it now—and don't forget Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, which is as good as the first.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.