Consider the achievement of O’Neill as a dramatist.
Do you think that O’Neill is a successful dramatist? Give reasons for your answer.
Answer: O’Neill is one of the greatest dramatists of American Literature, nay of the world literature. The credit of securing international honor and recognition for the American drama goes to him. The bulk of his output is large enough to place him in the front-rank of the 20th century dramatists. He has transformed the American drama from an artificial world into one of terrifying reality.
O’Neill was a tireless experimenter with a variety of dramatic forms and modes. He is virtually the first serious American dramatist to bring in characters from all walks of life on to the stage, to make drama a naturalistic art.
O’Neill is not a mere naturalist in drama. He adds symbolism to it. He has had recourse to the expressionist dramatic style of distortion of action, speech and scene. This is very much evident in The Hairy Ape as in some other dramas. He has also used interior monologue or stream of consciousness in The Hairy Ape.
There is a strong sense of form and pattern in his realistic and non-realistic plays. The structure of the play, the pattern of action and. the shaping of the dialogue always follows a strict design. In characterization, he follows a pattern. His characters are not necessarily stereotypes, but he takes care that each is but an instrument in the revelation of his theme.
O’Neill’s vision of life is essentially tragic. The human predicament is the theme of his plays, and so his plays are tragedies with perhaps one exception. His tragic protagonists are not men of gigantic stature with some hamartia, but are taken from the humblest walks of life. His tragedies are the embodiments of cosmic anguish. He has studied man in relation to God. Man is found to be constantly on the rack, living in an impersonal, mechanical, urbanized and industrialized social environment. He suffers from a sense of isolation, a loss of identity. J. W. Krutch compares him with Shakespeare and Greeks and says that he “is alone among modern dramatic writers in possessing what appears to be an instinctive perception of what a modern tragedy should be.”
O’Neill has been successful in using “Expressionism” as a dramatic technique. Expressionism enables a dramatist to depict inner reality, the soul or psyche of his personages. This method has been effectively used by O’Neill in The Hairy Ape. He has adopted non-realistic methods. The realistic techniques have not been abandoned entirely but they have been used to serve realistic purposes. Thus in the opening scene of The Hairy Ape the setting has been realistically given. The realistic setting is intended to create an impression—here the impression of overcrowding in the manner of an expressionist. Yank serves to create the impression of man as “hairy ape”; he symbolizes the primitive, the animal-like man. The description of the inhabitants of the Fifth Avenue in scene V is equally expressionistic. According to a critic namely Allan G Halline, “this play is the purest example of the type that O’Neill wrote. In The Hairy Ape the feelings and attitudes the characters, as well as the intent of the author are brought out by heightened language, choral treatment of characters, distorted and symbolic sets, stylized acting. A majority of O’Neill’s plays, it may be noted, are expressionistic in one degree or another.”
O’Neill fused naturalistic detail with symbolism and expressionism. And taking his cue from his admired Strindberg, he ‘resorted to the “expressionist” dramatic style of distortion of action, speech and scene, as in the weird cavalry of his Emeror Jones through the jungle and in the Fifth Avenue of The Hairy Ape. He experimented with masks as a method of dramatization.
O’Neill transformed the American drama. Sinclair Lewis rightly says, “Eugene O’Neill has transformed American drama in ten or twelve years from a false world of neat and competent trickery into a world of splendor, fear and greatness.”
There are some melodramatic elements in his plays. Melodrama results from the improbability of character and situation, and some overpowering obsession which destroys superficial complacency and realistic element of character.
But as a dramatist O’Neill has some limitations. He has inadequacy of humor, and his intermittent appearance in his dramas. His characters are not life-like. They seem to be drawn in wood block. He lacks the power of memorable phrases. He lacks control on emotions, and destroys his effects by laying on his colors too thick. His symbolism is sometimes overdone, as in The Hairy Ape. To borrow the words of H. E. Woodbridge, “These early pieces show that O’Neill began as a writer of naturalistic melodrama, that he soon developed a talent for characterization and the evocation of atmosphere, his fondness for obsession led him to a kind of symbolism, and coalesced with love of striking stage effect to create a new variety of melodrama the element of melodrama remains approximately constant though it appears in various forms.”
But despite all his faults O’Neill remains a great dramatist. He is regarded as one of the greatest dramatists of modern literature. He is a serious and sincere dramatist who portrays life with the greatest fidelity. He has never compromised with the box-office demands. He has attained success without any outrage to his artistic conscience. His fine sense of dramatic values and a penetrating insight into human emotions are rare. He has greatly widened the scope of modern drama by experimenting with new things, and dealing with old things in a new way.
O’Neill was foremost among the playwrights of the first quarter of the 20 century who brought about in America a revolution which fundamentally changed its character. In the European scene, drama had already been vastly altered by the imaginative energy and inventiveness of such dramatists as Ibsen, Strindberg, Maeterlinck, and Hauptman. In the United States the theatre had a long history, and had produced notable playwrights, but it was perhaps for that reason that it was more enmeshed in an outworn rut of successful play which was based on a mixture of the Elizabethan and the “well-made” play. O’Neill did more than anyone else to destroy these stereotypes, and to substitute an essentially different dramatic imagination. He enriched his art by an understanding of the new psychology which was not merely Freudianism, but comprehensive of all conscious and subconscious realities. He achieved a new vitality, a new depth of seriousness in the dramas. His experimental techniques, stagecraft and acting completely ignored those of the tradition. They had their desired impact upon the subconscious responses of the spectators. He had, moreover, a rich imagination so that in all his many dramas he never echoed even himself. As Bradley has remarked, “He was a master of the organic form; each play grew from the inner nature of its own conflict and psychology, and almost everyone is different from the others. It is very difficult to name the “typical” O’Neill play. The three characteristics almost universally present, however are all powerfully illustrated in The Hairy Ape. Firstly, he distorted the representation of the literal reality in order to express the inner significance of his work. For example, the ceiling of the firemen’s forecastle is so low that it crushes down upon the men’s heads. Secondly, the play embodies the poetic quality of O’Neill. His imagination and emotion of high drama are more akin to poetry than to prose. Thirdly, he cherishes a faith in the dignity of man, and represented man’s self-destructive struggle expressed in the life-force.
O’Neill occupies a unique place in the dramatic literature of America and even of the world.