It’s Friday, and I thought I’d celebrate by giving you my review of all nine works in “Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill.” Brace yourselves!
“Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill” by… You guessed it (Eugene O’Neill)
Favorite Quote: (From “Strange Interlude”): “All the twenty odd books I’ve written have been long-winded fairy tales for grown-ups–about dear old ladies and witty, cynical bachelors and quaint characters with dialects, and married folk who always admire and respect each other, and lovers who avoid love in hushed whispers! That’s what I’ve been, Nina–a hush-hush whisperer of lies! Now I’m going to give an honest healthy yell–turn on the sun into the shadows of lies.”
In September, I vowed to read everything O’Neill had ever written. This book was a great resource. O’Neill himself chose the plays that would feature in this book, so we get to see what works he considered his best. Also, they’re arranged in chronological order, so we get to see O’Neill mature as a playwright.
At first, he writes shorter and simpler works like “The Emperor Jones,” but by the end of this anthology, he’s progressed to complex trilogies (in the form of “Mourning Becomes Electra”). By the end of this collection, he’s experimented with using drums to increase tension, employing masks as props, and having his costume-clad characters exit the play alongside the audience and get into limousines that are waiting outside the theater (!!!).
Were the 800 pages of play worth it? Yes.
The only complaint I have about this marvelous writer is that his female characters all chase men. Evidently, there are more things to want in the world than men. Maybe his future plays will be able to do women justice.
Short Takes on Each Play:
“The Emperor Jones”: This reads like a fable–the islander challenges a Brit, and the islander loses his mind. The protagonist’s dense accent helps to obfuscate meaning rather than to clarify it, but the use of gradually-quickening drum-beats in the background effectively accentuates the protagonist’s increasingly-wild thoughts.
“The Hairy Ape”: It reads like another fable, this time about man’s descent into bestiality. It’s slightly better at its readable accents, and its ending is more impactful than that of “The Emperor Jones.”
“All God’s Chillun Got Wings”: This play is about race-relations. It has a good beginning and a good middle. However, the ending seems to lack the impact possessed by “The Hairy Ape”. You do begin to see O’Neill trying his hand at somewhat longer works of drama though (by a few acts). He also begins to write with more nuance and realism.
“Desire Under the Elms”: Cardboard female characters run rampant in this play. Although it’s more nuanced than O’Neill’s previous plays, it still seems somewhat contrived.
“Marco Millions”: This is the play that has an epilogue where Marco Polo (yes, that Marco Polo) exits the theater alongside the audience and takes a limousine that awaits him on the street outside. I don’t see how this adds to the play, other than to perhaps suggest that European colonialism was the source of American wealth. This play is much longer than any of the previous plays in the book. It’s better than “The Hairy Ape”, although the female characters remain cardboard.
“The Great God Brown”: This play incorporates masks to show the difference between a character’s public self and private self. Interestingly, characters are usually afraid of each others’ private selves. Some characters steal others’ masks, which leads to even more identity-based chaos. The play is good, but the women are still obsessed with the men.
“Lazarus Laughed”: This play has a good idea but I feel like its execution is flawed. O’Neill tells of the time after Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus. Lazarus constantly laughs, and his laugh inspires joy in others, so they form a cult around him. This cult constantly chants, “Laugh! Laugh! Laugh!” This cult chants this throughout the whole play. Because there is so much chanting, it slows the pacing, and is rather distracting.
“Strange Interlude”: This play is pretty long. It involves a woman who wants to have a child. Her husband’s family has mental health issues that may be inheritable. The woman wants a child, so she has one with another man and tries to pass it off as her husband’s. For the first time in O’Neill’s drama, each and every scene has momentum. Each scene changes the dynamic between characters and increases tension. The play is great. Just beware of contrived female characters.
“Mourning Becomes Electra”: This play parallels “The Oresteia” by Aeschylus, only it takes place during the Civil War. The best part of this play is a character named Sid who sings “Shenandoah” at various intervals throughout the trilogy, which really accentuates the changing mood of the play. O’Neill’s play cycle is better than Aeschylus’s in some parts (characters are more-fully realized, for instance). At this point, O’Neill’s writing has matured. It shows through his treatment of his content. “Mourning” combines some fable-istic aspects from “The Hairy Ape” with the more naturalistic elements of “Desire Under the Elms.”
Those are the nine plays. I hope you enjoyed my reviews, and check out the book here.