Friday, August 31, 2007

The Eugene O'Neill Paradox

It feels sacrilegious, as an American playwright, to admit this, but I've never been able to muster much enthusiasm for Eugene O'Neill. For one, he is an extremely earnest and humorless writer, while my tastes tend more toward the sharp and wry. For another, I don't think he has a good ear for dialogue. He may have been "the first playwright to use true American vernacular in his speeches" (as says Wikipedia), but he does not delight in our pungent vernacular the way that Mark Twain or Preston Sturges do. O'Neill's vernacular mainly consists of writing all of his lower-class characters' dialect phonetically, which is extremely laborious to read:
Waal--I've had a hard life, too--oceans o' trouble an' nuthin' but wuk fur reward. I was a orphan early an' had t' wuk fur others in other folks' hums. Then I married an' he turned out a drunken spreer an' so he had to wuk fur others an' me too agen in other folks' hums, an' the baby died, an' my husband got sick an' died too, an' I was glad sayin' now I'm free fur once, on'y I diskivered right away all I was free fur was t' wuk agen in other folks' hums, doin' other folks' wuk till I'd most give up hope o' ever doin' my own wuk in my own hum, an' then your Paw come... (from Desire Under the Elms)
Compare this with Huckleberry Finn, which captures the idiosyncrasies of an uneducated boy's speech, but reads smoothly and suggests Huck's accent rather than spelling it all out:
Pap he hadn't been seen for more than a year, and that was comfortable for me; I didn't want to see him no more. He used to always whale me when he was sober and could get his hands on me; though I used to take to the woods most of the time when he was around. Well, about this time he was found in the river drownded, about twelve mile above town, so people said. They judged it was him, anyway; said this drownded man was just his size, and was ragged, and had uncommon long hair, which was all like pap; but they couldn't make nothing out of the face, because it had been in the water so long it warn't much like a face at all.
On the other side of the spectrum, O'Neill's "serious" dialogue easily becomes pompous and melodramatic. Ernest Hemingway was O'Neill's contemporary, but Hemingway's dialogue still sounds fresh and modern due to its understatement, while O'Neill's is often old-fashionedly florid. In the late 1920s, both authors invented women whose boyfriends were killed in World War I, before they ever had sex. Here is Hemingway's Catherine (from A Farewell to Arms) describing her reaction to her lover's death--stoic on the surface, but with a palpable underlying sorrow:
I was going to cut [my hair] all off when he died. [...] I wanted to do something for him. You see I didn't care about the other thing and he could have had it all. He could have had anything he wanted if I would have known. I would have married him or anything. I know all about it now. But then he went off to war and I didn't know. [...] I didn't know about anything then. I thought it would be worse for him. I thought perhaps he couldn't stand it and then of course he was killed and that was the end of it.
And here is O'Neill's Nina (from Strange Interlude):
What did I give him? It's what I didn't give! That last night before he sailed--in his arms until my body ached--kisses until my lips were numb--knowing all that night--something in me knowing he would die, that he would never kiss me again--knowing this so surely yet with my cowardly brain lying, no, he'll come back and marry you, you'll be happy ever after and feel his children at your breasts looking up with eyes so much like his, possessing eyes so happy in possessing you! (then violently) But Gordon never possessed me! I'm still Gordon's silly virgin! And Gordon is muddy ashes! And I've lost my happiness forever! All that last night I knew he wanted me. I knew it was only the honorable code-bound Gordon, who kept commanding from his brain, no, you mustn't, you must respect her, you must wait till you have a marriage license! (She gives a mocking laugh.)
I find this extract impossible to read without imagining the high-pitched tones of the melodramatic hysteric. (And this is just Act 1, mind you--there are still eight more acts to go! It is very difficult to begin a play on such a high emotional pitch and keep raising the stakes till the end. Plus it's exhausting for the audience.) Perhaps it would work onstage with a talented actress as Nina, but the writing seems to inhibit truthful, natural acting.

Strange Interlude brings up another problem: the play's innovation of having the characters speak their thoughts aloud is the antithesis of drama! As Walter Kerr points out in this review, it takes away the suspense, over-explaining what should be obvious from the dialogue and the characters' reactions, and constraining the actors by giving them motivations and inner lives rather than letting them discover things for themselves. And if it's hard to write good dialogue, it's even harder to write good soliloquies, and O'Neill doesn't succeed, too often falling prey to his over-the-top pseudo-profundity:
there's something in this room! … something disgusting! … like a brutal, hairy hand, raw and red, at my throat! … stench of human life! … heavy and rank! … outside it's April … green buds on the slim trees … the sadness of spring … my loss at peace in Nature … her sorrow of birth consoling my sorrow of death … something human and unnatural in this room! … love and hate and passion and possession! … cruelly indifferent to my loss! … mocking my loneliness! … no longer any love for me in any room! … lust in this room! … lust with a loathsome jeer taunting my sensitive timidities! … my purity! … purity? … ha! yes, if you say prurient purity! … lust ogling me for a dollar with oily shoe button Italian eyes!
Does your inner monologue sound like this?! Add in some hoary plot devices (which garnered laughs in the production Kerr saw) and no wonder I prefer Groucho Marx's parody of Strange Interlude to the real thing:

In short, because of O'Neill's phonetically spelled dialect, his spots of purple prose, and his penchant for inserting a stage direction before every line (which, like the "spoken thoughts" of Strange Interlude, make things seem mechanical and constrained), I find it very hard to enjoy his work, or even to read it. But I thought, "Maybe I would like O'Neill better if I saw his plays onstage. But where can you see them, nowadays? Hardly anyone produces them!"

And then I thought that it might all be a paradox, or a vicious circle: even if O'Neill's plays work onstage, maybe no one produces them because they do not hold up well on the page. And because no one produces O'Neill, we lose the ability to read his plays as they should be read, to see them as they should be seen...


Felipe el Hermoso said...

I landed on your blog by accident. But it was cool since I am an arts lover too. Let`s keep the communication

Felipe el Hermoso said...

I tell you a secret. When I was a the Drama school in Costa Rica, most of my fellows were loosing their heads about Tennesse Williams. They used to tell me it was so deep and great and such and such. But the truth was...Its so boring for me and still.

When I said that a lot of those fellows were as insulted as if they were the sons of him. So I know what you mean by sacrilegepus or whatever you write it. Some times people just follow patterns, and in the drama world this is twice as common

Tethered Iguana said...

okay, i am of two minds...

agree: o'neill is awfully hard to take, even done well (see Hughey, Iceman Cometh dvds with excellent actors at the peak of their craft and it's in.ter.min.a.ble....).


Read Long Days Journey Into Night! You will not fail to love it. There is nothing nothing nothing like it in O'Neill's bag of tricks.. so different and mesmerizing. Then read Moon for the Misbegotten (it includes Jamie Tyrone and you'll get this wonderful character named Josie who loves him).

And you will feel differently about O'Neill.

My take on his problems as a dramatist is: he was a break out artist.. trying to overcome the pompous theatre he was seeing (thus he had to actually annotate the script with the phonetics because he'd probably get actors how used ROUND TONES when they were on stage). He was teaching his actors what they needed to do. In 1919-1930 this was still new stuff.

Then he got into all the Greek theatre stuff--masks and the like. And his inner monologues were the beginnings of expressionism.. so you have to read him as part of a thread.. evolution of theatre..

anyway: Long Days will change your mind, I am hopeful. Also it is probably THE most produced O'Neill play around.. actresses of a certain age always want to play Mary Tyrone.. great film version with Katharine Hepburn too.

Marissa said...

TetheredIguana: I have read Long Day's Journey... it was actually the first thing we had to read in Drama 101 (so I guess Vassar doesn't ALWAYS ignore the American classics!). I agree that it's a stand-out (in a good way!) among O'Neill's works. Not ever having seen a production of it, I may not have gotten its full emotional impact--so right now my attitude toward it is "respect without great enthusiasm." Still, you know, the Pulitzer committee's decision to award "Long Day's Journey" still seems like the right choice, whereas their decision to award "Strange Interlude" now just seems silly, in my eyes. A case of rewarding a play more for its ambition than its actual merit.

Thanks for pointing out that there was a reason behind his phonetic dialect...still, living in an age where all you have to do is write "This character speaks with an Irish accent" on the first page, it can still be a pain to read.

Putting the film version of Long Day's Journey, and the script of Moon for the Misbegotten, on my endless list of things to watch/read.

Felipe: I definitely believe in questioning received wisdom--I'm not going to be shocking just for the sake of shock, but every generation needs to reevaluate the heritage that has been passed down to it from previous generations. We ought to look for the wisdom in it first, but if we find less than we expected, it's our right to say that such-and-such now seems dated or boring or less than profound. Hurrah for independent thinking!