Eugene O'Neill's America Desire Under Democracy
by John Patrick Diggins
University of Chicago Press, 2007
Cloth: 978-0-226-14880-9 | Electronic: 978-0-226-14882-3
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

In the face of seemingly relentless American optimism, Eugene O’Neill's plays reveal an America many would like to ignore, a place of seething resentments, aching desires, and family tragedy, where failure and disappointment are the norm and the American dream a chimera. Though derided by critics during his lifetime, his works resonated with audiences, won him the Nobel Prize and four Pulitzer, and continue to grip theatergoers today. Now noted historian John Patrick Diggins offers a masterly biography that both traces O’Neill’s tumultuous life and explains the forceful ideas that form the heart of his unflinching works.

Diggins paints a richly detailed portrait of the playwright’s life, from his Irish roots and his early years at sea to his relationships with his troubled mother and brother. Here we see O’Neill as a young Greenwich Village radical, a ravenous autodidact who attempted to understand the disjunction between the sunny public face of American life and the rage that he knew was simmering beneath. According to Diggins, O’Neill mined this disjunction like no other American writer. His characters burn with longing for an idealized future composed of equal parts material success and individual freedom, but repeatedly they fall back to earth, pulled by the tendrils of family and the insatiability of desire. Drawing on thinkers from Emerson to Nietzsche, O’Neill viewed this endlessly frustrated desire as the problematic core of American democracy, simultaneously driving and undermining American ideals of progress, success, and individual freedom.

Melding a penetrating assessment of O’Neill’s works and thought with a sensitive re-creation of his life, Eugene O’Neill’s America offers a striking new view of America’s greatest playwright—and a new picture of American democracy itself.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

John Patrick Diggins is Distinguished Professor in the PhD Program at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Meaning of History.

REVIEWS

“Biographers have published dozens of books on Eugene O’Neill over the last 50 years in an attempt to explain the complexities of America's 20th-century ‘master playwright.’ What makes Diggins’s thoroughly researched effort particularly effective is his use of political, philosophical, social, psychological, and religious themes in his discussion of O’Neill’s life and plays within the context of a dynamic American society. Diggins begins with a narrative describing O’Neill’s troubled early personal life and follows with thematic chapters discussing the major influences on the playwright’s writing, from contemporary philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche to the ancient Greek tragedians. Diggins generously illustrates each theme with multiple examples from O’Neill’s plays and correspondences. Particularly insightful are his comparisons of O’'Neill’s work with that of other great writers on the theme of American democracy, including Alexis de Tocqueville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Abraham Lincoln. This book offers the reader a lot to think about, regarding not only O’'Neill’s life and work but also American society at large.”

— Library Journal

"Shedding new light on the O'Neill canon, Diggins offers an einsightful examination of O'Neill's haunted past and the cultural background against which he wrote his plays. This is the first book this reviewer has encountered that fully explains how . . . 'O'Neill's writing traces a dark stain on American history.' "
— Choice

"[The book] succeeds in placing O'Neill in the context of a body of philosophical, political, and historical thought, and it makes a convincing case for Diggins's contention that O'Neill was a prime example of what Eric Bentley has called the playwright as thinker."
— Brenda Murphy, Journal of American History

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Preface and Acknowledgments

- John Patrick Diggins
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226148823.003.0001
[Eugene O'Neill, American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, America, ourselves]
Eugene O'Neill is the great dramatist of American democracy. O'Neill almost appears to be claiming that in the encounter with life one learns from experiences that enrich one's perspectives. If O'Neill aimed to give “a better understanding of ourselves,” it appeared that he wanted to show Americans how tempting it was to flee from one's self rather than face the challenge of self-realization. This book represents an attempt to appreciate O'Neill beyond the aesthetic criteria of dramaturgy or the neurotic symptoms of psychology. Alexis de Tocqueville's America became O'Neill's America; one thinker's worries became the other's realities. The tentative hopes that Tocqueville had for America are not to be found in O'Neill's outlook on America. In O'Neill's modern America, democracy leaves the mind uninformed of any conception of the desirable and with no easy means of self-identification. (pages 1 - 10)
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- John Patrick Diggins
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226148823.003.0002
[misbegotten, Eugene O'Neill, Irish, As He Lay Dying, Long Day's Journey into Night, modern drama, desire]
The story of Eugene O'Neill's ancestry and that of his immediate family shows how the emotion of desire could arise from the experience of desolation. The O'Neill family carried the “curse of the misbegotten” to the grave. His Irish background carried as much pain as pride. The early American stage remained too cheerful to be a training ground for young O'Neill. Eugene O'Neill appeared upon the scene in 1916, producing a one-act play that might have been titled, in view of its existential dread, “As He Lay Dying” (the actual title was Bound East for Cardiff). O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night is considered as among the greatest plays in modern drama. The personal torments in this play have left a deep impression among those who have seen the play in the past half-century. (pages 11 - 30)
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- John Patrick Diggins
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226148823.003.0003
[Eugene O'Neill, The Iceman Cometh, Freidrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Oswald Spengler, America]
The Iceman Cometh was one of the last Eugene O'Neill completed and the very last of his enduring works that he lived to see produced on stage. Its unsuccessful debut may have had less to do with the promising social conditions of the time than with the shortcomings of the director and the actors involved in the first production. Criticisms of O'Neill's plays long antedated the performance of his post-World War II productions. His Nietzschean perspective played havoc with the socialist assumption that the masses were capable of rising to class consciousness. He was also a dramatist of ideas, and the philosophical outlooks of Freidrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Oswald Spengler, and others run through his plays. In O'Neill's America, there is no clear presence of authority, no firm voice informing people what they should do or not do. Furthermore, O'Neill addressed the revolutionary Wobblies of the World War I years. (pages 31 - 50)
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- John Patrick Diggins
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226148823.003.0004
[anarchism, Eugene O'Neill, Emma Goldman, socialism, playwright, Left, The Personal Equation, The Hairy Ape, radical politics, America]
Eugene O'Neill once remarked that his radical activist friends were at war with society while his quarrel was with God. He once referred to himself as “a philosophical anarchist,” which he defined as “Go to it, but leave me out of it!” O'Neill may have become intrigued with Emma Goldman because he viewed her as being a paradox at the heart of anarchism. Goldman may have quitted possessiveness in the name of socialism but she continued self-fulfillment in the name of anarchism. While the playwright's outlook on life was thoroughly pessimistic, O'Neill's political sympathies flowed directly to the radical Left. O'Neill wrote The Personal Equation and The Hairy Ape that were meant to be observations on the state of radical politics. His sentiments were expressed in the early twenties, a time when much of intellectual America had given up on radicalism and lost interest in politics altogether. (pages 51 - 78)
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- John Patrick Diggins
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226148823.003.0005
[Eugene O'Neill, Shakespeare, American history, contemplation, moral reflection, Marco Millions, Eastern religions]
Eugene O'Neill became one of the greatest historical dramatists since Shakespeare. O'Neill took American history as seriously as Shakespeare took English history. He approached history the same way many Greek playwrights approached story-telling, as the study of the emotional depths of human nature that may tie the past to the present. Additionally, he put history on the stage, where it could be reenacted as an object of contemplation and moral reflection. As a playwright-historian, O'Neill is no sentimentalist about alien cultures. Working on his Orientalist play, Marco Millions, provided the occasion for O'Neill to draw upon his knowledge of Eastern religions. Furthermore, O'Neill saw the Spaniard's lust for looting and Marco's acquisitive instinct as continuous with American history. (pages 79 - 94)
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- John Patrick Diggins
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226148823.003.0006
[Eugene O'Neill, Desire Under the Elms, lusty emotion, political philosophy, humanity, American history, Christianity]
The opening of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms educes lusty emotion. O'Neill's description of the elm trees in his stage directions indicates that human emotions create the conditions of their own entrapment. In this play, ownership of the farm represents the Christian duty to labor in a universe where “God is hard.” The play also undermines the main currents of political philosophy. There was always a touch of the romantic in O'Neill, and he concluded Desire Under the Elms on a note foreign to a U.S. Constitution that had forsaken any possibility of human regeneration. O'Neill saw humanity as condemned to losing its soul by aspiring to possess something outside it. He noted that American history needed both the father and the daughter, a soul that thought in compliance with Christianity and a body that willed in defiance of it. (pages 95 - 110)
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- John Patrick Diggins
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226148823.003.0007
[Eugene O'Neill, A Touch of the Poet, More Stately Mansions, Sara Harford, Simon Harford, slavery, business]
Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions dealt with the conviction that America and American democracy had failed its ideals. A Touch of the Poet stood at the center of the cycle project, whose “spiritual undertheme” was the Irish immigrant's acquisitive impulses and uncertain status. In More Stately Mansions, democratic America comes face to face with itself. The political loyalties of Sara and Simon Harford suggest a look at American historiography. The character Simon indicates why O'Neill thought self-determinism was the key to understanding human action and historical development. Sara and Deborah are polarities, one focused and almost predatory, the other aloof, effete, genteel, far removed from the sordid world of business. The equating of “grinding daily slavery” to working for a business firm is only one of several references to slavery in O'Neill's plays dealing with the Jacksonian era and the Civil War. (pages 111 - 136)
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- John Patrick Diggins
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226148823.003.0008
[Eugene O'Neill, The Dreamy Kid, The Emperor Jones, All God's Chillun, African Americans, Irish immigrants, deprivation, discrimination]
Eugene O'Neill's interest in blacks and black history has generally been interpreted as expressing his own experience of deprivation and discrimination as a descendent of Irish immigrants. His compassionate treatment of African Americans implies more about the need of a writer to transcend his background than to express it. O'Neill first addressed the situation of the black ghetto in The Dreamy Kid. This play suggests what would become more explicit in O'Neill's future plays: that American culture could well have eroded any ties that may have sustained the core values of the black family. In The Emperor Jones it was as though O'Neill took the conventional Sambo image of the black male, humble and loyal, and presented an extreme counter-image of arrogance and pride, particularly the Christian pride that goeth before the fall. Finally, All God's Chillun shows the trauma of race relations and the human condition in general. (pages 137 - 156)
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- John Patrick Diggins
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226148823.003.0009
[Eugene O'Neill, women, marriage, sexual relations, Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, Welded]
The philosophers and playwrights of Eugene O'Neill's era contributed significantly to the misperceptions of women, whom Friedrich Nietzsche regarded as “God's second mistake.” O'Neill would write numerous plays dealing with women, marriage, and sexual relations. The loss of his first loves crushed O'Neill. He could rarely write about women as objects of sensual pleasure, intellectual companions, or as hopes of spiritual deliverance. Instead, he would write plays satirizing marriage, parenting, free love, and the search for sexual fulfillment. O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon has been praised as the first successful classical tragedy in the American theater. Anna Christiewas the first play he wrote that would give prominence to the female character. Moreover, Welded examines the institution of marriage. Sometimes, the anarchist-leaning O'Neill treated the emotion of love with the same suspicion that he treated religion: faith in either meant loss of freedom and self-control. (pages 157 - 182)
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- John Patrick Diggins
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226148823.003.0010
[religion, death, Eugene O'Neill, science, Dynamo, Lazarus Laughed, The Great God Brown, Days Without End]
Eugene O'Neill's encounter with religion was as much personal as philosophical, and it is understandable that he would be attracted to Friedrich Nietzsche and think that he could regard the once-shocking saying “God is dead” as a celebration. O'Neill felt deeply the dualisms of philosophy, particularly between matter and spirit, experience and meaning, and the individual and society. The conflict between science and religion divides two families in O'Neill's Dynamo. During the years immediately preceding Lazarus Laughed and The Great God Brown, O'Neill was confronted by sickness and death. Death is a meditative dread to O'Neill during the writing of Lazarus Laughed, and a possible answer to facing death becomes the central theme. He made his last effort at treating religion on the stage in Days Without End. It can be stated that O'Neill may have used the theater to deal with religious questions. (pages 183 - 206)
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- John Patrick Diggins
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226148823.003.0011
[tragedy, Eugene O'Neill, America, Mourning Becomes Electra, American history, A Long Day's Journey into Night]
Eugene O'Neill believed that tragedy reflected primarily the desperation of desire unaware of which forces are driving it to self-destruction. O'Neill attempted to make America appreciate the meaning of tragedy. Mourning Becomes Electra was his greatest work of tragedy. It was an instant success and the decisive achievement in O'Neill's winning the Nobel Prize in 1936. It also dealt with two contrary impulses that divide the Mannon family as it had in some respects divided American history in the antebellum era. A Long Day's Journey into Night was O'Neill's most revealing work. It was a deeply personal play, a memoir of pain and sorrow. The elegy remains on works that are political and personal, a mourning for what has been lost and can never be restored. (pages 207 - 230)
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- John Patrick Diggins
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226148823.003.0012
[Eugene O'Neill, The Iceman Cometh, Theodore Hickman, Hickey, America, revolution, radical politics]
Eugene O'Neill began writing The Iceman Cometh in 1939. Whatever the postwar optimism of the Left, the play suggested that revolution and radical politics must be seen as a misplaced dream, especially when activists themselves cannot tell the horrible truth about their own political motives. It also indicts people who are quick to judge and convert others and reluctant to face themselves. The character Theodore Hickman, or Hickey, the play's long-awaited protagonist, represents a nihilism so complete that it is oblivious of itself. The Iceman Cometh is about betrayal and deception toward others and toward one's self. It promises to lay bare the “secrets of the soul.” In this play, the characters prefer to sleep and pass out rather than to listen and learn. They also oblige the audience to think about politics in regard to political agency. O'Neill's entire oeuvre cries out for America to take freedom seriously. (pages 231 - 256)
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- John Patrick Diggins
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226148823.003.0013
[democracy, Eugene O'Neill, America, American theater, drama, tragedy, pain, human passion]
Democracy becomes the very expression of desire in Eugene O'Neill's historical plays. The dialectic between past and present runs through his plays. In America, liberal democracy is esteemed for guaranteeing freedom, the exercise of rights, and the possibility of opportunity for all. In O'Neill's modern American theater, characters rarely progress toward self-realization or even to the beginnings of a higher order of understanding. O'Neill was not always thinking about his family when he worked out the characters and plots for his plays. Moreover, he used America not only for the material of drama but for the theater of tragedy. It is noted that the playwright Eugene O'Neill tried to express the quality of understanding that is born only of pain and rises to perception to reach the truths of human passion. (pages 257 - 266)
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Notes

Index