A Conversation with Robert M. Dowling on Eugene O’Neill and the Arc

Intro Letter by Jennifer Emerson, Drama Editor, on the Conversation with Robert M. DowlingJennifer: Could you talk a little about your own research?

Robert: My first book is called Slumming in New York:  From the Waterfront to Mythic Harlem. My aim was to understand the relationship between New York writing and the city’s cultural environment from the 1880s to the Roaring Twenties—O’Neill’s formative period. In it, I argue what O’Neill reveals in nearly all of his plays and personally helped ensure as a social reality: that the American “cult of respectability” had amplified to such an extent it provoked a backlash of rebellion from defiant voices like his own. Once Slumming in New York was securely under contract, I decided O’Neill had to be the sole subject of my next book. I was soon offered the opportunity to write my two-volume, 800-page-plus Critical Companion to Eugene O’Neill: A Literary Reference to His Life and Workthat’s geared toward a general audience, but mainly high school and college students. It took four years to write and edit, and it contains original commentaries on each of O’Neill’s over 50 published plays and short fiction; singular essays on important people, places, and topics relevant to O’Neill’s life and work (this section contains over 120 essays by myself and 40 contributors); and an in-depth biographical essay. I now suffer from an angry case of carpal tunnel syndrome/tendonitis.

My latest book just came out. It’s an anthology of essays, co-edited with Eileen Herrmann, entitled Eugene O’Neill and His Early Contemporaries: Bohemians, Radicals, Progressives, and the Avant Garde. This book covers the people he knew best as a young man and who influenced his art though his entire career—his friends in Greenwich Village, New London, Provincetown, and on waterfronts around the globe. Another called Eugene O’Neill: The Contemporary Reviews, a compendium of reviews of O’Neill’s premieres, co-edited with Jackson R. Bryer, will be out in the summer of 2012. Friends and colleagues ask me all the time if I’m bored with O’Neill. My answer is always simple: not on your life, quite the opposite, in fact. I’ll continue sharing my life with this man for some time.

Jennifer: How do you present O’Neill’s life to your students and others?

Robert: F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that there are no second acts in American lives. By my count, O’Neill had four. Each had its own idiosyncratic characters, dramatic episodes, and mise en scène. Once when I asked a class of mine in my O’Neill seminar the play they felt most attached to, one student said that O’Neill’s actual life was his finest play. In many ways, I couldn’t agree more. And to my mind, it uncannily follows the dramatic structure, or narrative arc, of his greatest plays as well (of most great plays in fact): the exposition through his childhood, Irish-Catholic upbringing, and early years in New York and the merchant marine from the 1880s to the 1900s; the rising action, starting in the summer of 1916, when the Provincetown Players discover him, he proves his chops as a young playwright, and then swiftly becomes the Great O’Neill by the ‘20s; the climax, for me, is when he suffers from a depressive episode in 1934 after his “God play” Days Without End was universally panned by the critics, and mental and physical chaos ensued; the falling action when he removes himself from the public eye after this episode, and, unbeknownst to anyone but a handful of friends and relations, writes his greatest plays (after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1936); and the denouement with the peculiar story of his final years and death in 1953. Then there was this Adonis- or, Lazarus-like occurrence that followed, now known as “the Eugene O’Neill Renaissance.” This was in the mid-1950s and into the ‘60s, when his reputation was reborn—the most astonishing resurrection in American literary history. (Melville’s in the ‘20s is close.)

Jennifer: I understand that O’Neill loved classical Greek tragedies.

Robert: Yes. O’Neill was heavily influenced by the Greeks, I’d say in three main ways from the beginning of his career: His interest in masks, his use of classical dramatic structure, and, to a lesser extent, the chorus. Whether he used actual masks or not, he was always fascinated by what was being projected by the outer self as contrasted to the inner psychic struggle. His most famous mask play The Great God Brown is a perfect example of this. (Masks also force the audience to confront their own inner and outer selves, since it’s not an actor looking out into the audience, with his or her own individuality, but an abstraction, easier to project their own selves upon.) He experimented with the classical dramatic structure—exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution; it’s interesting to work out how he experiments with it in each play, especially with a class. The chorus can appear as parochial townspeople (Mourning Becomes Electra), working-class drudges (The Hairy Ape), or even a traditional chorus (Lazarus Laughed). Of course, Mourning Becomes Electra is a trilogy that places Aeschylus’s Oresteia in a historical American setting: after the American Civil War rather than the Trojan War.

Later in his career, he also used the tighter elements of a tragedy as prescribed by Aristotle: a limited time frame, a single setting, and restricted action and cast of characters (there’s lots of controversy here, but that’s the general idea). Long Day’s Journey, for example, takes place over the course of a single day, in an undersized living room, with talk among a small family. This contrasts greatly from his earlier plays, that often used many characters, diverse settings (without the benefit of our staging technology today), and a fair amount of action. This development is significant aspect of his own narrative arc as a playwright.

Jennifer: How was his craft affected by an age when audiences wanted realism?

Robert: O’Neill’s bottom line: Realism in drama had rendered the soliloquy obsolete—soliloquies and asides were now considered a hackneyed throwback that made characters seem more like mere romantic symbols than actual human beings. Fair enough, so far as it goes. But what theatrical device was left to express true personal conflict, the psychic pain and inner language of the speaker? O’Neill’s imagination was ill-served by unadulterated “kitchen sink” realism, a development that overnight consigned the soliloquy to Shakespeare and hack melodrama. No sane person in actual life looks off into nowhere and bares his soul to the heavens. So he came up with lots of techniques to combat this—masks, thought asides, a doppelganger only the protagonist can see, drunkenness, morphine, etc. Weird to say this, but intoxication was his best method—he’d been using it since the beginning, but perfected it in his late masterpieces A Touch of the Poet, The Iceman Cometh, and Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Jennifer: I have read that O’Neill saw theatre as a literary medium. How did he get into playwriting? If he considered drama to be a restrictive genre, why did he become a playwright?

Robert: First off, theatre should always be considered a “literary medium.” As well as being performed on the stage as entertainment, scripts can be read, taught, deconstructed, and historicized as much as any poem or short story or novel. People in America don’t generally get this (aside from Shakespeare), which is one reason I believe American drama is often considered the unwanted stepchild of American literature. O’Neill published many of his plays as books during his lifetime, and some of them—like Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra, and especially Long Day’s Journey into Night (published three years after his death)—were real bestsellers. His decision to become a playwright in many ways was no decision at all. O’Neill’s father was one of the most famous stage actors in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He took O’Neill around with him on more than one occasion, and O’Neill basically learned about theatre through osmosis, then by reading. He tried poetry first, and wrote it intermittently throughout his early life, and he wrote several short stories. But his fiction was based on plays he had already written with the exception of “Tomorrow,” which he wrote in 1916 and turned out to be the only piece of fiction published in his lifetime.

Jennifer: Many artists produce great masterpieces through suffering. How do O’Neill and the arc fit into this belief?

Robert: If you’re going for uplift, O’Neill is not your man. But suffering for the Irish is an art form, one that offers an arc through suffering toward something else. Complacency and comfort is not interesting literary material. Stephen Dedalus of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, uses a Latin expression in that novel that nails it: “per aspera ad astra”—“through difficulties to the stars.” O’Neill’s autobiographical character Robert Mayo’s dying words in the denouement—the final stage of the arc—of O’Neill’s first Pulitzer-Prize winning play Beyond the Horizon (1918) echoes this: “Only with contact with suffering…will you awaken.”

Jennifer: If O’Neill were to teach a class on playwriting and had to concentrate on arc, what would he tell a classroom of aspiring writers?

Robert: He would most likely tell them to be “true to themselves,” to rely on their instincts and desires, even when, maybe especially when, the dramatic structure or “arc” is concerned. Don’t let audience expectations drive how you begin and end your play. I think he would also encourage the “delayed entrance,” though probably not prescribe it. Usually in his arc, the exposition at the outset establishes the protagonist, the problems at hand, etc., second-hand, through other characters, then the protagonist appears in a delayed entrance. This happens in “Anna Christie,” Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra, Iceman Cometh, and many others. An O’Neill scholar named Steven Bloom wrote a marvelous essay about this, and concluded by pointing out that the final scene of Long Day’s Journey is the entrance of the “other” Mary Tyrone that the Tyrone men have been alluding to throughout the play, the one utterly subsumed by her girlhood past via morphine—a past that does not include the men. At some point, the illusion (or delusion) the character has constructed for themselves is called out as false or misleading, a climax that intensely disillusions the character. The falling action then becomes the spectacle of the dying away of the illusory self. This is not always the case, but it generally is, and I could see him teaching the method (if I could see him teaching at all).

Jennifer: Are there any of his plays that seem to teach better than others? Do you have favorites?

Robert: Probably my three favorite plays to teach are The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, and Long Day’s Journey into Night. The Emperor Jones is excellent for describing expressionism, since it’s the first major expressionistic play to emerge in America (Theodore Dreiser had published and staged a couple before this, but they made little impact), and it shows O’Neill’s interest in and engagement with African American subjects. The Hairy Ape, also expressionistic, is the play that most powerfully spoke to me when I first became interested in O’Neill. It contains all the major themes of modernism: alienation, dehumanization, disillusionment, experimentation, individualism, etc. Long Day’s Journey is the finest American tragedy, maybe the finest American play, ever written. Everyone should read that, but especially my students.

Jennifer: Could you talk a little about some of the techniques O’Neill used in Strange Interlude? He wrote that in 1927, right?

Robert: That’s right—It was a bombshell when it first appeared on the stage in 1928, and won him his third Pulitzer. But it also sold incredibly well as a book. Strange Interlude is essentially a novel projected onto the stage. Many critics recognized the novelistic qualities of the play when it first came out, and this was precisely what O’Neill had in mind. As I said before, since the soliloquy was no longer an option after the realist movement, O’Neill had to figure out how to share his characters’ inner-thoughts without making it seem trite or overwrought, which a novelist can do without a problem. But it’s tough for a playwright. Strange Interlude was his first really determined effort for this. He used “thought asides”—short monologues that express what the characters are really thinking. While they spoke, the other actors froze so the speaking character’s inner thoughts could be heard commenting on what had just been said or done by the others. When everyone is speaking and moving, it’s showing what’s being said out loud. O’Neill, of course, thought that what is not being said was most interesting—hence his envy of novelists.

Jennifer: Could you talk about his Irish heritage?

Robert: One of my favorite topics. In fact, I recently edited a folio for the online literary journal Drunken Boat called “Celtic Twilight: 21st-Century Irish Americans on Eugene O’Neill”: http://www.drunkenboat.com/db12/ . There’s some incredible material in there by Alice McDermott, Brian Dennehy (now the preeminent O’Neill actor), T.C. Boyle, and over 30 others. O’Neill’s page includes a list of statements he made in letters and elsewhere about Irishness.

O’Neill never visited Ireland, but he was 100% Irish by blood, which he was quick to point out to anyone who would listen. O’Neill thought critics downplayed this fact: “The one thing that explains more than anything about me is the fact that I’m Irish,” he told his son Eugene, Jr., “and, strangely enough, it is something that all the writers who have attempted to explain me and my work have overlooked.” After writing Long Day’s Journey, O’Neill wrote another letter to his son, in which he expresses how Irishness is embedded in that play: “To the outer world we maintained an indomitably united front and lied and lied for each other. A typical pure Irish family. The same loyalty occurs, of course, in all kinds of families, but there is, I think, among Irish still close to, or born in Ireland, a strange mixture of fight and hate and forgive, a clannish pride before the world, that is particularly our own.” Rather than thinking of how Irishness affected his work as exclusionary, though, I strongly believe that O’Neill’s work shows the extent to which such immigrant lives contribute to our national character, no matter what country your ancestors are from. Rather than the arc of immigration being inclusion/mixture/assimilation, I like to think of it as inclusion/mixture/reward.

O’Neill includes lots of Irish characteristics among the characters in Long Day’s Journey, some pretty racialized—their use of language and quick mood reversals; their physical features; heavy whiskey drinking; the sympathy with the tenant farmer Shaughnessy; the democratic sensibility; James’s assertion that Edmund’s (O’Neill’s) “self-destruction” stems from his denial of the Catholicism of his youth; the fact that O’Neill decided upon the name “Tyrone” because that’s the county in Ireland where the O’Neill clan hailed from in early Irish history; James O’Neill’s terror of tuberculosis; mother-worship (related to the significant emphasis of the Virgin Mary in the Irish brand of Catholicism). That last, the mother figure, is a particular obsession among Catholic men. O’Neill definitely shared that obsession, which is tough when you have a morphine addict for a mother.

Jennifer: I have only ever seen photos of O’Neill in a brooding pose. What was his sense of humor like? Could you share a favorite example?

Robert: O’Neill was often very funny, though people don’t give him much credit for that. People also make the mistake of saying that Ah, Wilderness! is his “only comedy,” though it’s not—maybe his only “mature” comedy. For me, Marco Millions, a historical satire that uses the 14th century Marco Polo to castigate 1920s big business capitalism and American-style imperialism—is hilarious. It can be taught profitably with our current wars in the Middle East in mind. There are also very funny scenes and lines throughout A Touch of the Poet and A Moon for the Misbegotten, among others. My favorite example of his humor in actual life: O’Neill showed zero interest in the movie business, and in the 1930s, he responded to a $100,000 screenwriting offer from Howard Hughes with a collect telegram, with the number of words restricted, that read: “No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. O’Neill.” Pretty much everything you need to know about O’Neill is in that anecdote.

Jennifer: What do you think O’Neill’s greatest professional fear would have been?

Robert: That’s an easy one: Selling-out.

Jennifer: Please talk a bit about O’Neill’s commitment to his audience.

Robert: I’d say he had very little, if any. If a play was too popular, he often saw it as a failure. “When everybody likes something, watch out!,” he told one interviewer. In fact, O’Neill always considered “Anna Christie” a failure—though it was a big hit and won him his second Pulitzer Prize in 1922—because audiences misread his ending as a “happy ending.” He meant the ending to be entirely ambiguous, meant to give the audience a sense of bemused wonderment about what’ll happen to the characters once the curtain went down and the lights came up. He even gave it the working title “Comma,” meaning the play was supposed to be read as a long run on sentence that ends with a comma. (Most of his plays can be read this way.) When advising up-in-coming playwrights as a panelist for a Harlem Renaissance playwrighting contest, he advised them to” be true” to themselves, a central theme in O’Neill’s life as well as his plays.

Fearless dedication enabled O’Neill to convey to his audience the full measure of the arc because he allowed it to reach its full potential. It conjures up the image of Polonius bestowing fatherly advice upon Laertes in Hamlet (I, iii, 78-82):

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

It is good advice. Trust and be true to yourself, and you will be true to your audience. Make it visceral, and they will understand you.

How refreshing it was to discover that even someone so successful in his craft (who had wanted to pursue a completely different genre) persevered against the very ironic fate that inspired him. Like his beloved Greek heroes, Eugene O’Neill faced conflict, and dared to think that he could overcome it. May we all do the same.


Interviewee Bio
Robert M. Dowling, Associate Professor of English at Central Connecticut State University, has conducted years of research on Eugene O’Neill… More >

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