The Hairy Ape (1922), Beyond the Horizon (1918),
and Mourning Becomes Electra (1931)
by Eugene O’Neill
Where does Eugene O’Neill fit in the flow of human theatrical expression in the West that began in classical Greece? “One of the most ambitious playwrights since Aeschylus and Shakespeare, he introduced the European movements of realism, naturalism, and expressionism to the American stage as devices to express his comprehensive interest in all of life.” In other words O’Neill was seeking, whether he knew it or not, the answer to that all-important metaphysical question. What is the nature of reality? If indeed, he was seeking the nature of reality, what did he find?
O’Neill, like most of humankind, was doomed by his worldview and was unable to find a way for humanity to escape perpetual suffering. “His plays exhibit a keen sense of loss of the individual’s relationship with his family, his nation, his society’s values, nature and God. Science, materialism, religion all fail to give O’Neill’s heroes a satisfying meaning for life, or comfort from the fear of death.” That is what makes O’Neill such a profound playwright. He is correct that religion, science and materialism expressing the false self energy centers will not help humanity transcend the illusion of P-B. He was able to see that the survival strategy has humanity mesmerized and conditioned to behaviors that ironically give the illusion of comfort while at the same time threaten the destruction of humanity. “Many of O’Neill’s strongest plays center on the question of whether illusions are, after all, the only things that make reality bearable.”
It is not an uncommon experience that those of us aspiring to experience reality by seeking a new story are characterized as idealists, romantics, naïve, softheaded or worse. However, that which cannot be conceived as attainable cannot be attained. Nobody will transcend P-B who does not first believe that they can. “The Hairy Ape, characterized by the language of realism, expresses a desire for a life not attainable.” O’Neill’s characters, in this play and others he has written, seek to rationalize their failures by projecting blame onto other people or conditions that they believe control them. The human condition is seen by O’Neill as the story of “man caught in the confusion of the modern world.” His characters are trapped because they don’t believe in the possibility of change in their situation, they surrender without trying to alter their narrative.
One of the ways that O’Neill’s characters give away their power is by surrendering to the illusion of P-B by blaming forces that seem to overwhelm them. “Are machines or capitalism or labor to rule?” And yet O’Neill understands that the problem of coping with life is not a matter of conventional knowledge. “As in several of O’Neill’s plays, we are told that a trust of the intellect may be dangerous.” And he is correct about that. The principles that would have given O’Neill’s characters a chance of success include self-reliance, that is to say, a refusal to surrender to the illusion of P-B and trusting in the inner wisdom possessed by each individual. The plays of Eugene O’Neill are dark and foreboding but so is the future of a global village in a deep and dangerous slumber.
Robert, a character in O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon, expresses the playwright’s struggle to differentiate (albeit intuitively) the True-self identity from that of the false self. “This is the way O’Neill says he [Robert] is special. To know what special is, you have to know what average is: in O’Neill, it is the desire for material things, mindlessness, unselectiveness, lack of awareness. What is special? Being ethical, not driven to materialistic things—being selective, disciplined. Robert says, ‘I can remember being conscious of it first when I was only a kid.’ Conscious of being different. He is a dreamer. An exceptional man needs to dream.”
In effect O’Neill sees P-B as a type of madness. “The Mannons [the family in Mourning Becomes Electra] are driven to their self-destructive behavior by inner needs and compulsions [false-self behaviors] they can neither understand nor control. Such, O’Neill believed, was the material of contemporary tragedy.” O’Neill didn’t give up on humankind, and seemed to know, in part what needed to be done even if he couldn’t do it himself. “He says that to avoid falling into these Oedipus and Electra patterns Freud described, you must treat life objectively or you’ll destroy yourself. Fate controls the characters in Greek tragedy. O’Neill says you need to make your own fate.”
Our fate in the human community is not predetermined. Contemporary humanity can understand and control its reactive behavior which O’Neill attributed to the “repressiveness of the New England Puritan tradition.” This is projection on O’Neill’s part and we know that the self-destructive behaviors that he depicts in his plays are universal and natural but not inevitable. In the end O’Neill did not find the reality which he sought but he made a courageous effort to do so and left a legacy of great art which is often the case with those who seek the good, the true and the beautiful.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.