Eugene O’Neill’s life was a purgatory, as he never ceased informing us. His final plays, those written or revised from 1939 on, leave us with a vision of him plodding at last toward the top of that inverted mountain, the man emerging from his lifelong torments and the artist from his befuddlements. O’Neill is unique among American dramatists in having had a long, continually challenging career and in actually learning his art as a result: his last plays are of course his best, hi comparison to them, only The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape, out of all the pieces churned forth between 1913 and 1934, can give a clear-eyed playgoer the slightest inkling of what all the fuss was once about. A half-dozen truly remarkable plays out of 50 written may seem inefficient, like the ratio of shot footage to finally edited film in a Hollywood movie, but who are we, after the fact, to complain?
Still, purgatory (as I remember my catechism) is not only for the searing away of unrepented sinfulness but also for “the temporal punishment still due to sin already forgiven,” the idea being that a sin’s ongoing harm to other people continues to deserve some retribution. In this light, O’Neill may yet stand in need of the prayers of the faithful, for his career, though exemplary in its perseverance and final accomplishment, has continued to serve as a model for the most baleful of our dramaturgical vices, the confusion of artistic production with confessional, self-serving autobiography. Every week, year in and year out, every playreader of every theatrical company groans under a new pile of scripts revealing “How My Mother (My Father, Capitalism, the Church, a Small Town) Made Me a Rebel (Homosexual, Sensitive Artist, Alcoholic, Nymphomaniac, Vegetable)” and “What It’s Really Like to Be a Jew (Negro, Irishman, Italian, Southerner, Lett, Playwright, Inmate, etc.).” Moreover, at least until the passing away of Beck and Malina, American drama remained infected by that other of O’Neill’s bad examples, Nietzschean gasbaggery about “Oneness” with more or less everything. O’Neill’s shade still needs indulgences.
And, yes, his work still fascinates us, on every level of generality or pedantry. If you want to know (let us just suppose you might) how many characters in O’Neill’s oeuvre ever pulled a gun, you can find out in Virginia Floyd’s The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment, on page 557. If your mad interest lies in counting the characters described by stage directions as looking like O’Neill himself (or like one of his parents, or like brother Jamie, or like an old shipmate or a onetime drinking buddy), you can track that information easily through the play-by-play entries in this handy handbook. A virtual concordance to the 50 completed—and fistfuls of “projected”—plays, Floyd’s little book is a most useful addition to the five- or six-foot shelf of O’Neilliana by now available to all of us caught by that brooding, awkward, overreaching, self-lacerating, windy, honest, and impressive monument of American drama. Floyd has put together a catalog (lacking, however, a decent bibliography) of plot-summaries, recurring “motifs” of character and theme, first productions and copyright dates, and references to O’Neill’s workaday notebooks and rough drafts.
It is by no means “A New Assessment”; it is scarcely even criticism. Floyd researched and annotated O’Neill’s hitherto unavailable “idea” notebooks in Yale’s Beineke Library for Eugene O’Neill at Work (Ungar, 1981), two years after having edited a collection of critical essays on O’Neill for the same publisher. Her close familiarity with her subject is obvious; it makes possible her latest book’s particular virtues. But her “assessments” are the same old inflated impressions of O’Neill’s accomplishment prior to his 1930’s withdrawal-and-return, and the same old biographical biases, by which the early and middle plays are graded according to the degree in which they “reveal” O’Neill’s own family, to that extent “prefiguring” his late masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Floyd, it is true, employs other—albeit rubbery—yardsticks of value, but the one thing they never measure is that which most needs measuring and which is, by sensitive critical acumen, measurable: the adequacy of a play’s “language” (including its visual signs) to its evidently intended meanings and to its temporal and affective design. This has always been the O’Neill problem, often noted, rarely addressed. It comes as no surprise that Floyd, in her own banal, repetitious, and cliche-clogged prose, turns out to be unequal not only to the effort but even to locating the problem. For that, I recommend Jean Chothia’s Forging a Language (Cambridge, 1979). The book is not entirely successful, but it remains the best try since Francis Fergusson (in a Hound and Horn essay of January 1930) articulated O’Neill’s difficulty in the starkest terms.
But all that this means, finally, is that Floyd’s book is mistitled. As, say, The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: An Informational Survey, it is still well worth having.
[The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment, by Virginia Floyd (New York: Frederick Ungar) $24.50]