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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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses