More Stately Mansions (1939)
by Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)
America’s playwrights have their work cut out for them if they are to influence a paradigm shift to a healthier narrative in our catatonic society. Eugene O’Neill was a pioneer on this frontier of “modern” theater in America playing the same role as Ibsen and Strindberg who had earlier challenged unconsciousness in Europe. “These new ideas, new forms, new styles coming into American theater challenged the deepest thing in American society, which was materialism. Theater was the first form that challenged the ‘goodness’ of the fact that America is the richest, the most successful, the most powerful country in the world—and that challenge has never stopped since.”
Stella Adler, one of American theaters most influential teachers was also highly intuitive regarding the role that playwrights, actors and directors could play in shocking American audiences into admitting that all was not well in the land of the free. “The audience, by nature, is against what the playwright says, by virtue of being in the business that says, ‘Gee, to be successful you don’t go against, you go with the tide.’ The playwright says, ‘You’re a schmuck! You have to break away!’” Stella wasn’t a politically correct critic with her Yiddish schtick.
We continue with the role of the playwright in creation of consciousness in America. Guilt is the emotional reaction triggered by the belief that we have done something bad or sinful, whereas shame is the upsetting reaction experienced when we believe that we are that something that is sinful. Guilt and shame make for good drama but are fatal to attempts at creating nurturing human collectives whether they be families or nations.
“The notion of culpability—in both its subjective and objective sense—has been center stage in Western theater at least since the days when Aeschylus portrayed the homicidal domestic life of the House of Atreus. Such tragedies aimed for catharsis, and audiences were meant to go home purged of nasty emotions, grateful that someone else had done their suffering for them.” Eugene O’Neill, an admirer of Aeschylus, sought to provide that catharsis for American audiences, and if any modern playwright managed to succeed at that compassionate objective, it was probably him.
The “House of O’Neill” had only slightly less tragedy than that of the House of Atreus and perhaps O’Neill was engaging in self-catharsis in writing his plays, several of which are plainly autobiographical. It couldn’t have been that bad, you might think, reeling up the aisle after Long Day’s Journey into Night or The Iceman Cometh or one of the other semi-autobiographical plays in which Eugene O’Neill depicts “betrayal, guilt, murder, incest, infanticide, suicide, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, [etc].”
For O’Neill, it clearly was that bad. “O’Neill feels everything that’s going on underneath. It isn’t just a plot, it’s what’s going on farther down. A lot of the plays are terribly in torment, which comes out of the need for some solution and not knowing where to find it. He’s groping in the dark—without a church, without a neighborhood, without a tradition, without security.” Like most of us do today, O’Neill lived a life of suffering without a survival strategy that offered any protections from the everyday vicissitudes of his life.
Ed Baierlein of Germinal Stage Denver directed O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions having the actors wear masks. The effect was astonishing when combined with a slow-motion body language choreography unique to each character. If that were not enough to emphasize the disconnection among the personas on the stage, he had the actors facing the audience most of the time rather than each other. The context created was a dreamy and tragic unreality paradoxically not unlike the human condition when seen from the perspective of the audience. Most of O’Neill’s plays are categorized as “realistic” rather than “expressionistic” as this one has been called. However, ironically, this is a play more “real”—disturbingly so—than if the director had intended it to evoke “realism,” which he most certainly did not.
Critic Ben Brantley of The New York Times is one observer of American theater who has his doubts that playgoers leave their guilt in their theater seats. Speaking of several modern American playwrights: “Each promises to remind us that guilt remains a powerful catalyst in theater and an inspiration for searing performances. But don’t expect to leave these works feeling cleansed. In modern drama, the stains of shame never come out in the wash.” We tend to agree with Brantley who fails to distinguish guilt from shame, which as we have seen, is a yawning chasm. Nevertheless, it would take more than catharsis in a theater to even begin the healing process so desperately needed in contemporary American society.
Both Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller have written plays where guilt and shame were central themes. “The Jewish Miller and the Irish Catholic O’Neill may not share ethnic origins. But they are equals in showing how shame took root and continues to flourish in a country founded by Puritans, in works that echo with the primal wails of ancient Greek tragedy.” Miller’s The Crucible, with a Puritan setting and O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night which has a New England setting are examples
Given that Mansions is autobiographical, as are most if not all of O’Neill’s plays, the inability of the characters to find a way to honestly connect with one another or to awaken from their genetically induced nightmare is doubly tragic. The power struggle in the Harford family threatens to destroy all of them as the agonies they suffer seems to be heightened by rather than hidden behind the masks.
O’Neill himself suffered from many of the delusions which are revealed in his writing. He struggled to understand why the behavior of his family members were so dysfunctional and tried in this play to portray some of the possible underlying causes. As we humans are wont to do, he projected blame away from the Harfords as he did the O’Neill’s and found a scapegoat in the worldview of America itself. “The cycle [More Stately Mansions is one of a projected eleven play cycle] was to follow a New England family, the Harfords, from post-Revolutionary days through 1932—and was meant to show how American idealism had been corrupted by greed and self-interested capitalism.”
We know that “American idealism” is and was based on the illusion of P-B and that the greed and corruption are a structural part of human consciousness within the false self. O’Neill’s “greed and self-interested capitalism” is an expression of the security center of the false self and common to all human beings not just the Harfords and the O’Neills. We are all wearing masks and groping around the world stage seeking to make a meaningful connection to one another and to reality itself. When we do that we will have no need for masks or catharsis.
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.