When one thinks of great American playwrights, Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) is
certainly at the top of the list. Four-time Pulitzer Prize-winner (the last awarded posthumously) and the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in
1936, O'Neill's plays, according to Wikipedia, were among the first to introduce realism into American theater, a technique associated with the
Russian Anton Chekhov, Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, and Swedish August Strindberg. He also used American vernacular speech. His plays are disturbing,
uncomfortable, and his characters often less than likeable, stuck in situations that they cannot seem to escape, or make choices that are not conducive to fulfillment.
Drugs, alcohol, immoral behavior, and generally dysfunctional relationships (which are probably a reflection of O'Neill's own troubled personal life), make
up a great part of his themes.
This collection contains three of O'Neill's well-known plays. The first, The Emperor Jones, is nearly a monologue. It is one act with eight scenes. Brutus Jones, an African-American who was a Pullman porter, jailed for killing another black man, has escaped to a Caribbean Island, where he has set himself up as Emperor. He has abused his "subjects," whom he refers to as "common bush niggers," and made himself rich on what he has demanded from them, or stolen from them. He doesn't plan on keeping his position forever, so he is quite self-assured when Henry Smithers, a Cockney trader, informs him one day that his people have all escaped into the woods. Jones knows what that means, and with a laugh, says he will be off. He has food buried under rocks, and has made a point of getting to know the deep forest through which he must pass in order to catch a ship on the other side of the island.
In Scene Two, it is nightfall and he has reached the end of the plain where the Great Forest begins. He is still smirking that he's planned ahead for the inevitable, but when he goes to look for the stone where he had food buried, it is gone, or he cannot find it. By now he is worn out, but the tom-toms are beating faster and louder, so Jones knows he must get through the forest. He tries to shore up his courage, but the first of his hallucinations begins, in the shape of "formless fears." He has a gun, but only five lead bullets and one silver one. When he first came to the island, through a lucky circumstance which the natives thought was magic, he had them all believing that only a silver bullet could kill him. He now uses one lead bullet to scare away the hallucination, and proceeds into the forest.
With each scene, a new hallucination appears, and these are memories from his former life that he'd sooner forget. As each scene progresses, he becomes more ragged, his clothes and shoes torn to pieces, and his mental state rapidly deteriorating. By Scene Five, he tries praying:
Oh Lawd, Lawd! Oh Lawd, Lawd! [Suddenly he throws himself on his knees and raises his clasped hands to the sky—in a voice of agonized pleading] Lawd Jesus, heah my prayer! I'se a po' sinner, a po' sinner! I knows I done wrong, I knows it! When I cotches Jeff cheatin' wid loaded dice my anger overcomes me and I kills him dead! Lawd, I done wrong. When dat guard hits me wid de whip, my anger overcomes me, and I kills him dead. Lawd, I done wrong! And down heah whar dese fool bush niggers raises me to the seat o' de mighty, I steals all I could grab. Lawd, I done wrong! I knows it! I'se sorry! Forgive me, Lawd! Forgive dis po' sinner!
But it doesn't help, and he goes slowly mad.
The second play, Anna Christie, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1922, but it was actually my least favorite of the three. It is set in New York City, where an old drunken Swede, Chris Christopherson, captain of a coal barge, has just come onshore. He has his woman, Marthy with him. There is a letter waiting for him, from his daughter that he hasn't seen since she was a child. Her mother is long dead, and she lived with cousins on a farm. Her father believes she is a nurse.
But she arrives, and in fact, she is a prostitute. Marthy takes off, and Chris dearly wants his daughter to love him, and he wants to take care of her. He has no idea what she was. She goes to stay with him on the barge, and they go to Boston.
She meets Mat, and Irishman who is a stoker, and they fall in love. Chris is angry that his daughter would fall for a seaman, when he knows the kind of life she would have—like her poor mother. But she swears she will not marry him. Soon after, Mat approaches Chris, and says he is marrying Anna. Neither of them know of Anna's past, but an argument ensues, and she blurts it all out. Mat is livid. He wants to kill her. Chris, however, changes his mind, and decides he wants Mat to have her, (no doubt because he thinks no other man will.) This one actually has a happy and positive ending.
The last play, The Hairy Ape, was my favorite, but for the life of me, I have no idea why. Maybe because it is almost avant-garde, which I like. It is considered more in a style of expressionism, as opposed to the first two, which are realism.
It begins on an ocean liner sailing from New York. The coal stokers complain about the horror of their job, but Yank keeps them positive and energized, because they are important in what they do, and "they belong."
YANK: [Fiercely, contemptuous] Shut up, yuh lousey boob! Where d'yuh get that tripe? Home? Home, hell! I'll make a home for yuh! I'll knock yuh dead. What d'yuh want wit home? [Proudly] I runned away from mine when I was a kid. On'y too glad to beat it, dat was me. Home was lickings for me, da's all. But yuh can bet your shoit no one ain't never licked me since! Wanter try it, any of youse? Huh! I guess not. [In a more placated but still contemptuous tone] Goils waitin' for yuh, huh? Aw, hell! Dat's all tripe. Dey're all tarts, get me? Treat 'em rough, dat's me. To hell wit 'em. Tarts, dat's what, de whole bunch of 'em.
One of the passengers, Mildred Douglas is the snobby daughter of a wealthy steel industrialist,
but she is attempting to be in the social services and care about "how the other half lives." She has lied in order to visit the stokehole. However, when
she arrives, Yank has gone off on one of his rants and raves, unaware she is standing behind him in her white dress, while the others, facing Yank, see her.
She calls him a filthy beast, then faints. He vows to get back at her for the insult.
Later, he and Long, another Stoker, are in New York. It is Sunday and they are on Fifth Avenue, looking at the shop windows with horrendously expensive items. No one is around, but Long says they're in church, and will be getting out soon.
Here is where it gets rather experimental in style. As the people file out of church, they are like wooden characters, and do not even notice Yank standing in the way. At one point, he deliberately runs into a gentleman, who simply says, "I beg your pardon," and walks on. Finally, he actually hits a man who is running to catch a bus, and misses it. The man seems not to notice he has been hit, but calls for the police because he missed his bus. Yank is arrested.
Another example of avant-garde style of experimentalism is in Scene Four, right after Mildred has fainted. Yank sits down to think, and he tells the guys to leave him alone:
YANK: [Resentfully] Aw, say, youse guys. Lemme alone, Can't youse see I'm tryin' to tink?
ALL: [Repeating the word after him as one with cynical mockery] Think! [The word has a brazen, metallic quality as if their throats were phonograph horns. It is followed by a chorus of hard, barking laughter]
This "ALL" response repeats four more times, with the words, Love!, Law!, Governments!, and God!
Very interesting. I would like to see a performance of this, and hear how those directions are interpreted.
In all, as I said, these plays are not pretty, but they are certainly examples of fine art. If you are looking for more than just "fun" reading, check them out. O'Neill wrote a lot of plays and many are now available as eBooks. Check out the University of Adelaide (Australia) for a listing.
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