Essay: American Literature



American Literature begins with the orally transmitted myths, legends, tales and lyrics of Indian culture among more than five hundred Indian Languages and tribal cultures that existed in North America before the first Europeans arrived. The result of this arrival, Native American oral literature is quite divers. Natives from Quasinomadic hunt cultures like the Navajo are different from stories of settled agricultural tribes. This Literature takes a new turn in the seventeenth century in a search for the ideal and directed by hoped and expectation. The search has been persistently a part of the entire history of the Literature growing out of the impact of European Civilizations upon the developing American frontier. This literature has never been removed from involvement in human situation. It has indicated concern and compassion.

This Literature pictures intolerable injustice, social blindness, and brutalization conditions. These all have been brought before the bar of public conscience by writers feeling responsibility to brotherhood and the integrity of the self. The weight of the American literary tradition has held confidently to a vision of a man based on a conception of justice and the value and unlimited potential of the individual whose essential dignity is not betrayed. This is the literature of the new generation which reveals a trust in men. The American writers today are not aloof from the wishes, the visions and the frustrations of the human being looking for the stars in a world where clouds form on the horizon. Thomas Wolfe was not out of key with the coming generation when he wrote at the end of his life “The essence of all faith for people of my belief is that man’s life can be and will be better.” This belief in the creative power of the human spirit to endure and prevail whatever the obstacles of the individual is still central and fundamental in the literature of America.

American Literature starts its journey with Anne Bradstreet (1612-162), the first American woman who published a book of poems printed in England followed by Edward Taylor (1644-1729) who wrote Metrical History of Christianity. Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705) wrote The Day of Doom; Samuel Sewall (1652-1750) recorded Diary which is lively and engaging; Many Rowlandson (1635-1678) gave a moving account of her eleven — week captivity in1676; Cotton Mather (1663-1728) wrote Magnolia Christi Americana, Roger Williams (1603-1683) wrote A Key into the Languages of America.

This literature steps into the eighteenth century with the work of John Woolman (1720-1772) who wrote Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) wrote a sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God; William Byrd (1674-1744) wrote History of the Dividing Line, Robert Beverley (1673-1722) wrote the History and Present State of Virginia; Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) wrote an autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah or Gustavus Vassa, The African; Jupiter Hamman (1720-1800) Wrote An Evening Thought the first poem published by a black male in America.

The eighteenth century American Enlightenment was a movement marked by an emphasis on rationality rather than tradition, scientific inquiry instead of unquestioning religious dogma and representative government in place of monarchy. Enlightenment thinkers and writers were devoted to the ideals of justice, liberty and equality as the natural rights of man. The first enlightenment writers Benjamin Franklin (170-1790) and John de Crevecaeurr (1735-1813) wrote Letters from an American Farmer.

With the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), American Literature steps into 19th century. He was the towering figure of his era; he had a religious sense of mission. He got popularity due to his essays and poems. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), the simplest person wrote Walden or Life in the Woods (1854). This literature has the Brahmin Poets and their masterpieces. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) and Oliver Wendell Holmes(1809-1894). Longfellow wrote Evangaline (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855) and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858). Lowel wrote A Fable for Critics (1848) and Holmes wrote The Autocrat of the Breakfast — Table (1858) and Elsie Venner (1861) the two Reformers John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) and Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) emerged before Civil War. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) who wrote 1,775 poems. She was no widely read but knew the Bible the works of William Shakespeare and works of Classical mythology in great depth.

Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson and the transcendentalists represent the first great literary generation produced in the United States. In the case of the novelist, the romantic vision tended to express itself symbolic form of the novel. Romances were not the love stories, but serious novels that used special techniques to communicate complex and subtle meanings.

“Perhaps this disillusionment was the offspring of the romantic streak that also marks Dos Passos’s work. His political idealism seemed to evaporate whenever its cause was successful or its heroes came to power. Since history worked through individuals and individuals and individuals were being shunted aside” 1

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 -1864) wrote The scarlet Letter (1850) which became the most popular works of Puritan America. The House of the Seven Gables (1851) presented the history of New England. Herman Melville (1819-1891) wrote Type which was based on his time spent among the supposedly cannibalistic but hospitable tribe of the Taipei in the Marguesas Islands of the South Pacific. Moby Dick or The Whale, Melville’s masterpiece, is the 18th century epic story of the whaling ship peguod and its ‘ungodly, god like man.’ Captain Ahab whose obsessive quest for the white whale Moby Dick leads the ship and its men to destruction.

American women endured many inequalities in the 19th century and they were denied to vote, barred from professional schools and most higher education, forbidden to speak in public and even attend public conventions and unable to own property. Despite those obstacles a strong women’s network sprang up. Through letters, personal friendships, formal meetings, women’s newspapers and books, women furthered social change. Abolitionist Lydia Child (1802-1880) was a leader of this network and her novel Hobomok (1824) shows the need for racial and religious toleration.

Harriet Jacobs (1818-1896), born a slave, was taught to read and write by her mistress, and on her mistress’s death, she was sold to a white master who tried to force her to have sexual relations. Under the pseudonym ‘Linda Brent’ she wrote her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) in which she openly condemned the sexual exploitation of black slave women.

“Rowson Counsels resistance: men are “Vile betrayers,” “monsters of seduction”, “and if they know the meaning of the word “honour” are undoubtedly too swayed by modern fashion and “refinement” to practice if.”2

American scholars have spent an inordinate amount of time arguing that “American” really refers to “Americanness”: national characteristics shape and mirror the form of a literary work. Some idea of American animals the narrative, controls and orders the very pattern of words upon the page. A variant on this idea of “Americanness” would be that recognizable issues, concerns, preoccupations appear again and again in some books that are supposedly representative of American experience. Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain are the most American nineteenth — century novelists, and Whitman is our true American poet, since something like an American identity can be discerned from reading their works. Ultimately, Spengemann has said, “America must make a difference in the way literature is written”.

The U.S. Civil War between the Industrial North and Agricultural Slave—owning South was a watershed in American History. Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn indicates author’s towering place in the tradition. Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy depicts the damage of economic forces and alienation of the weak and vulnerable individual. It explores the dangers of the American dream. It is a reflection of the dissatisfaction, envy, and despair that afflicted many poor and working people in America’s competitive, success driven society.

The second half of the nineteenth century pictures the number of social reform movements in the United States. The Age of protest and reform began around 1878, when the nation was racked by postwar financial panic and depression, and ended in 1898 with a return to “prosperity” occasioned by the discovery of gold and by inflation related to the Spanish — American War. From the Civil War into the 20th century, the Southern United States had remained political and economic back water ridden with racism and superstition. Ranson, leading theorist of the Southern United States, published a book, The New Criticism (1941) offered an alternative to previous extra — literary methods of criticism based on history and biography. New criticism became the dominant American critical approach in the 1940s and 1950s.

Modern American Drama in the USA was always incapable of keeping pace with the progress in other branches of literature. Although by the 19th century, the puritan prejudice again of theatre had completely vanished and a great many plays had been produced, they were anything but significant. The majority of the plays seldom transcended mediocrity. If the plays were poor, the playwright was also neglected. The tyranny of the actor and the producer held sway in America too, as it did in England. The people’s need for drama was satisfied often by important stuff.

By 1920 the American theatre had come to mean New York and the small number of nearby cities where plays opened before their New York premieres. In New York itself the boom nineteen-twenties introduced a period of cut throat competition and insensate speculation on theatre profits. The playwrights became increasingly aware of the richness of the American Scene. Themes of wide interest and contemporary significances found their way into the theatre by this time. Edward Shield on his play the Nigger has as its theme racial tension, whereas in the Boss, we find as the central idea the antagonism between labor and capital. Augustus Thomas another playwright sought to dramatize regional peculiarities thus introducing local color into drama. All these writers however were handicapped by a tendency towards sentimentality and a readiness to follow theatrical convention. The much needed break with convention took place only with O’Neill. The rise of the Little Theatre Movement marked in American Literature. The Province-town players, a group of young artists and playwright got dynamism from the leadership of O’Neill.

“The theatre in modern times has flourished only by virtue of its ability and willingness to amuse, titillate, excite, mock, and afford vicarious enjoyment of pleasures not always countenanced by society. Its ability to communicate an understanding and a vision of life has become incidental” 3

The fashion prevailed of rendering successful novels into plays. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stove and the Gilded Ace by Mark Twain underwent transformation from one artistic medium to another. Even when men of talents like W.D. Howells wrote plays, they were not found very valuable. The standards of drama had fallen and the theatre had become impoverished by the end of the nineteenth century. English drama had felt the invigorating influence of Strindberg and Ibsen. A sudden revival in drama took place, and George Bernard Shaw, more than any other single playwright contributed to this revival. But the American theatre was found far behind the times.

By the next decade, playwrights became increasingly aware of the richness of the American scene. William Vaughan Muddy’s The Great Divide contrasts East and West. Themes of wide interest and contemporary significances found their way into the theatre by this time.

“the advent of motion pictures is a menace of unprecedented seriousness. Because its product is capable of mechanical reproduction, the cinema has, in America particularly, lent itself to mass production and to the control of huge trusts who have made it their business to cripple the theatre as a competitor, and have very nearly succeeded in doing so” 4

Modern American Drama originates from the Little Theatre Movement of the second decade of the 20th century. It was started from the book American Drama since 1918 by Joseph Wood Krutch. In February 1915, an enthusiastic group of young amateurs calling themselves The Washington Square Players waved a solemn manifesto in the face of New York Drama Critics and opened the Bandbox theatre near the corner of 57th street and Third Avenue. Just a year and a half later, another group equally young and equally enthusiastic came home from a summer on Cape Cod to take possession of a table in MacDougal Street to be known thereafter as the Provincetown Theater. New American Theatre was born on Third Avenue in MacDougal Street in which Eugene O’Neill acted a role in Bound East for Cardiff, the first play let on its first bill.

When O’Neill’s celebrated actor-father made his theatrical debut in 1867, the American Theatre was organized around the so-called stock and star system. Most Critics had at least one resident stock company; major metropolitan areas had several. For the most part, these companies presented standard, traditional dramatic fare, mixed with an occasional new play, on a repertory. Basis — productions were changed or rotated weekly, bi-weekly, or more often. Visiting stars, bravura actors traveling alone from city to city, were regularly engaged to supplement the resident company. The head of the company was an actor — manager who was usually an experienced as respected performer. This system had been in place since the 1820s. It had short comings and critics, but it offered artistic familiarity, a certain stability and financial security for common players’ handsome incomes for many stars, and a respectable profit for managers.

Beginning in the mid-1870s, the organization of theatrical performance changed significantly, stars would remain a permanent fixture in the theatrical cosmos, but the stock system was steadily eroded, initially by the traditional fare to attract audiences. Since new plays were usually more expensive to mount than revivals of old plays to recoup their investment — and when box office demand warranted it — managers would run a production continuously night after night, rather than rotating it with other productions. A run of one hundred continuous performances soon became benchmark for a commercially successful production.

O’Neill believed that the theatre would help us recognize ourselves in our emotions and desires. Curiously, however, his character was rarely so on. Instead, they felt the tug of a divided self that eludes the mind. Believing in reason, they responded to emotion; hungering for freedom, they were haunted by memory, defeated by reality, they were driven by illusion.

“The theatre,” instructed Eugene O’Neill, “Should reveal to us who we are.” Action on the stage can provide “a better understanding of ourselves and a better understanding of one another.” A possibility, to be sure. Yet one wonders whether the audience attends the theater rather to be entertained than take the plunge into the depths of self-knowledge. In classical thought it was assumed that “a man is at least known to himself ” (Cicero). In the milieu of modern thought in which O’Neill wrote, a recipe turns into a riddle. “We knowers are unknown to ourselves,” observed Nietzsche,” and for a good reason; how can we ever hope to find what we have never locked for!” 5.

One of our most introspective playwrights suggests that the mind comes alive by turning outward and responding to change and contingency. O’Neill almost seems to be claiming that in the encounter with lie one learns from experiences that enrich one’s perspective. That view, however, was one he expressed as a youth. Ancient Greek thinkers believed in the self revelatory potential of the theatre. On the stage philosophy steps aside to allow the “dark underside” of desire to express itself. O’Neill’s plays turn on what has been experienced, and they call up a whole swarm of memories, desires, and fears associated with that experience.

A consortium of wealthy businessmen established what they hoped would be an American equivalent of Europe’s great national Theatres — like the Theatre Francis or the Vienna Burg theater. Not only did they build the architecturally splendid New Theatre, but they endowed or subsidized its operations, presumably freeing its management and repertoire from commercial interests. Winthrop Ames, a young director from Boston, with a Harvard education, a private income, and first — hand knowledge of contemporary European theatre, was installed as the New Theatre’s artistic director.

Some mainly commercial producers also occasionally aimed beyond mere financial success. In 1911, Veteran producer William A-Brady built the small, 1000-seat playhouse, where he staged his actress-wife Grace George in a number of modern plays, including Shaw’s Major Barbara (1915) and Caption Brass Bound’s Conversion (1916). Producer — director John D. Williams propelled John Barrymore into stardom with a production of Galsworthy’s Justice (1916) and then two season later he did the same for Lionel Barrymore in Augustus Thomas’s Civil War drama The Copperhead.

Certain external forces also impacted the commercial theatrical establishment and theatrical tastes. In the Second decade of the new century, a number of non-profit, mostly amateur theatrical groups, collectively called Little Theatres, began springing up across America. The founders of Little Theatres were usually dissatisfied with commercial theatrical fare. They modeled their organization. After late nineteenth — century European art Theatres such as Andra Antonie’s Theatre — Libre, Otto Brahms’s FreieBuhne, J.T. Grein’s Indipendent Teatre, The Moscow Art Theatre, and Dublin’s Abbey Teatre, all of which had been founded by talented, dedicated amateurs. Like their models, Little Theatre organizers were interested in modern European drama; new, serious American drama; and dramatic classics — all plays which were not ordinarily mounted by the typical commercial producer. By 1920, there were hundreds of such little theatres scattered across America. Some would retain an amateur community theatre status, while others became semi or fully professional. The Provincetown players, in particular, and the Washington Square Players, to lesser degree, were two Little Theatres that would figure importantly in O’Neill’s development.

“The Provincetown players began informally in the summer of 1915 when a score of aspiring performers and playwrights, including O’Neill, staged a of one-act plays in a makeshift theatre on an old wharf in Provincetown, Massachusetts, They repeated the experiment the following summer; and then flush with enthusiasm, they relocated to a small theatre in New York’s bohemian Green which Village becoming one of the first of what would later be called an off — Broadway theatre” 6.

Although after a few seasons, some of its members were paid, the Provincetown players remained mainly amateur and resolutely experimental. But it established a growing reputation for inventive staging of compelling dramas. All of O’Neill’s early plays were staged by the Provincetown players, including Bound East for Cardiff (1916), The Long Voyage Home (1918), and The Moon of the Caribbees (1919). After O’Neill was established as a young playwright to be reckoned with the Provincetown continued to provide a venue for the daring experimentation of The Emperor Jones (1923), and Desire Under the Elms (1924). Without the Provincetown Players, plays of this sort probably would not have been produced.

The Washington Square Players was founded in1914 to present realist and symbolist plays, preferably new plays in these styles by American authors. During four seasons, they presented over sixty productions, predominantly one-act plays. They remained an amateur, volunteer organization — although some actors and technical personnel did receive token salaries. The Washington Square Players steadily built a critical and popular following, but when key members were conscripted for service in World War I, the organization disbanded in May 1918. A year later, however, the Washington Square Players reformed as the theatre Guild.

Like its parent organization, the Guild was mainly interested in modernist plays, especially pieces that were anti-realist in style, although some of their notable successes were essentially realist plays. The Guild intended to be self supporting. It never sought subsidies or endowments, but it privileged artistic merit over commercial interests. To capitalize their enterprise and to organize interested playgoers, the Guild offered tickets by season subscription. Subscription tickets were discounted from a pre-production, single — ticket rate, even though Guild prices were comparatively cheaper than tickets to commercial production. Subscriptions were common for concert and operatic series, but they were unusual for theatre companies. The Guild’s subscription system got off to a slow start with only 150 subscribers in 1919, but the numbers grew significantly with each season.

By the mid 1920s, the Guild had over 20,000 subscribers and was an established mainstream Broadway institution with its own permanent company and theatre. Not all of its productions were financially successful, But a commercial failure was invariably offset by one or more successes. With innovative business starry, the Guild maintained high artistic standards and commercial viability. Beginning with Marco Million (1927), the Guild would produce O’Neill’s next six plays. Indeed, it is unlikely that any other organization of the time had the capital, artistic resources, and managerial acumen to take on O’Neill’s increasingly challenging lengthy dramas.

Interest in modern drama was also stimulated by new theatrical publications. The Drama League of America, for example, was founded in 1909 to stimulate interest in modern drama and the role of theatre as a cultural force. It sponsored play reading circles and circulated play scripts, and information about meritorious productions. In 1911, the Drama League began publishing a quarterly journal. By 1920 the Drama League had Ten Thousands of members and 100 centers nationwide. Theatre Arts influenced Broadway Standards in difficult to determine, but they suggest that there was a growing audience for modern drama and an intense interest among some theatre professional in elevating the overall artistic quality of American theatre and drama.

Popular entertainment, however, not modern drama ruled on Broadway in the Teens and Twenties. The greatest hit of the era was Abie’s Irish Rose (1922), a romantic ethic comedy, pitting young lovers — a Jewish boy and an Irish Catholic girl — against their hide — bound parents. It ran five years for over 2,500 performances, a record that held until the sensational, rural melodrama, Tobacco Road (1933), chalked up over 3000 continuous performances. Running not for behind these hits were such plays as the Gold Diggers (1919; 720 performances), a farce about chorus girls searching for wealthy husbands.

Popular entertainment held sway but a few plays of dramatic merit always managed to find an audience. O’Neill was the genius behind the change that came over American theater and made the 1920’s and 1930’s the greatest period in its history. He wrote things of contemporary interest; gave American drama its requisite genius and authority, dynamism and force. American theater was in a desperate need for reform. There were writable playwrights in America before O’Neill but the drama had got enmeshed in a stereotyped pattern demanded by the commercial theater, a pattern consisting of a mixture of Elizabethan tradition and the “well — made” play. Clyde Fitch and August Thomas, who wrote a decade before the arrival of O’Neill, contributed to the strengthening of the conventions rather than freeing drama from them. Eugene O’Neill proved himself to be the chief insurgent against worn but dramatic conventions and the romantically banal and established himself as the symbol of a renaissance that paralleled on the stage the so-called renaissance is poetry.

O’Neill seemed capable of so many new ideas for the theatre. He incorporated both realism and expressionism. Expressionist — effects were first made noticeably a part of his drama in The Emperor Jones (1920). Later O’Neill moved to bolder and more varied experiments. During O’Neill’s lifetime, however, the scholarship and critical analysis of his plays seemed far from encouraging. His wife Carlotta Monterey told the drama Critic Joseph Wood Krutch that interpretations of her husband and his work missed the mark.

“I know him fairly well, “she wrote impatiently. “ The junk that is written about him amazes me. The man and his work are one.” The ever—sensitive wife, no doubt. But is O’Neill’s lifetime critics seemed to have analyzed his works as though the playwright wrote for all persuasions. There were only two books of interpretation, O’Neill informed the Romanian director Petre Comanescu in 1947: One was “conceived from a strictly left — wing materialistic standpoint, “the other from a right wing religious mystic standpoint. And both are, in general, favorable, if you can believe that!” 7

Whatever is unclear about Eugene O’Neill, One thing is certainly clear that is his genius. The judgment is Lionel Trilling’s offered in an essay on the playwright. The Genius of O’Neill that appeared in the New Republic in 1936, the year he won the Nobel Prize. The essay was written in the midst of “the red decade,” When writers were asked to turn their faces to the barricades and write about social realism and the struggles of the workers and to take seriously the issues of class and class conflict. Trilling explained why O’Neill, though sympathetic to radical causes, chose to bribe deeper issues”

“on the whole, our theater, when it is serious, it social and realistic in the tradition of Moliere and Ibsen, and although this tradition may, obviously, lead both to profoundly and to poetry, it tends to avoid the ultimate problems of existence with which philosophy deals. O’Neill is least interesting when he occasionally concerns himself with social realism. His tradition is that of Lear and Faust, and if this need not be taken as indicative of his poetic stature it is atleast indicative of the philosophic tendency of his work and of the dramatic form this tendency suggests. For that O’Neill had his beginnings in a movement of social protest, he is always looking beyond the social to the transcendental. He looks for the “meaning of life” and his dramatic technique must allow him to attempt equivalents to the scenes (of Shakespeare and Goethe). Trying to solve the riddle of the universe, he needs wide room for movements.8

The “Wide room” what O’Neill needed was supplied by American History. Several of his plays take place in the very environment of the pre-civil war era that Tocqueville keenly analyzed in Democracy in America, wherein

“the woof of time is ever being broken and the track of past generations lost. Those who have gone before are easily forgotten, and no one gives a thought to those who will follow. All a man’s interests are limited to those near himself” 9

O’Neill’s characters bear the same limitations of being incapable of thinking beyond themselves. Yet O’Neill himself could rarely separate his thought from those of others, and he scarcely forgot those who had preceded him, particularly members of his family and his Irish ancestry. Perhaps his interest in history had to do with his own preoccupation with memory and the return of the unconscious, the legacy of emotions that defy reason. O’Neill dramatized what Tocqueville had earlier depicted: an American character that sees itself as individualistic while succumbling to the gaze of others, a people proudly idealistic and caught up in its own possessive materialism and egoism. As subsequent chapters will indicate, O’Neill’s perspective on American history partakes not only of Tocqueville’s sensibilities but of those of Neitzsche, Emerson, and for validation. The country that proudly issued its “ Declaration of Independence” in a bold rebellion against political power, quietly submits to society and conforms to its ways. But the problem that burdened O’Neill, the problem of time and memory, should not have been a problem for America.

Nowadays it is not only necessary for a producer to like a script, but for a legion of advisers, ranging from his favourite director to this business manager, his publicity agent, and his office boy, to approve of it. Having received this endorsement, the manager must procure backing, and this often involves hawking the script about for months until the requisite thirty or forty-five thousand dollars have been raised. The less the share holders knows about the theatre the more eager he is to participate in revision and rewriting, even in costing and staging. Naturally this is less apt to be the case with the successful dramatist, who is moreover apt to sell his play to a solid producer with assured backing. But when production is once under way, he will find himself battling with the same forces of chaos as his less prosperous colleagues.

Paramount among the influences that shapes the playwright is that of Hollywood, not only because it is a secondary market for his plays, but because it employs him directly, in his capacity as a writer. The successful dramatist today is almost always a screen writer as well. Sooner or later he signs a contract with a picture company, usually over a term of years; the only outstanding exception so far has been O’Neill. Of the writers who have gone to West, some have done so in more ways than one. Hollywood has been called the graveyard of Broadway. A good many playwrights have stayed there; others have tried to make of screen writing a dual career, dividing their time between plays and pictures. A few, having sampled the work and found it not worth the fantastic remuneration, have abandoned it completely.

O’Neill tended to cast his work in universal terms, critics tend to write of him in relation to the world stage and to the recognizably seminal thinkers and playwrights of his time — Neitzche, Freud, Jung, Isben, and Shaw etc.,. O’Neill is often thought of as a distinctly American playwright working in an American theatrical tradition and living almost all of his life in the United States, keenly interested in the political, social, and moral development in his country. Yet, in his lost decade of playwrighting, O’Neill was at work on a most ambitious treatment of American history, his projected play cycle about the cultural history of the United States from 1775 to 1932, based on the story of a single American family, a union of the English Harfords and the Irish Melodys. The Cyeli’s overall title, A Tale of possessors, Self-Dispossessed, indicates O’Neill’s point of view, to valve spirituality or beauty. A Touch of the Poet (1942/57), the only one O’Neill carried through to completion, and his third wife, actress Carlotta Monterey, destroyed the outlines and drafts of the play cycle in his last year. In 1948, O’Neill explained the overarching theme of the play cycle.

“This country is going to get it-really get it. We had everything to start with everything — but there’s bound to be retribution. We’ve followed the same selfish, greedy path as every other country in the world. We talk about the American Dream, and want to tell the world about the American Dream, but what is that dream, in most cases but the dream of material things? I sometimes think that the United States, for this reason, is the greatest failure the world has ever see. We’ve been able to get a very good price for our souls in this country — the greatest price perhaps that has ever been paid but you’d think that after all these years, and all that man has been through, we’d have sense enough — all of us — to understand that the whole secret of human happiness is summed up in a sentence that even a child can understand. The sentence? “For what shalln’t profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and loss his on soul”.10

The history of the Harford and Melody families embodies a fundamental struggle that O’Neill saw at the heart of American culture — the struggle between pragmatic, materialistic grad, essentialized in the success myth, and the search for spiritual transcendence, whether through God, through beauty, through nature, or through human love. All of his treatments of American culture, whether historical or contemporary, reveal similarly fundamental conflicts within and among Americans. While the oppositions among these values are refracted in various ways and given different emphasis in his dramatic representation of the twenties and thirties, the sense of endlessly seeking a higher ground for human experience is never absent from them.

O’Neill’s most effective treatment of history is in Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). In which, he combined two characteristic of America modernism, and historicizing to endow contemporary human experience with transcendent meaning. Electra embodies a struggle between the New England puritan heritage of the Mannon’s family and the influence of the “foreigners” who have mixed with them people who have the capacity to free America from its self imposed oppression by the Mannon’s life denying puritan ideology. Looming over the action of the play, the house is a constant statement of the failures of the Mannon, and of the United States, to overcome the failures of its native form of Puritanism. O’Neill saw as moral hypocrisy and aesthetic repression of emotional sensuality and aesthetic response to beauty like the false face on the Mannon’s house, the overlay of a pseudo —classical civilization has served only to emphasize the ugliness of the Mannon’s values.

O’Neill saw the same struggle between life denying Puritanism and the desire for freedom and sensual experience in the United State of the Twenties. In his review of Diff’rent (1920), Kenneth McGowan called the play

“a vigorous and healthful attack upon the Puritanism that eats away so much of the creative happiness of life”11

The Modernists’ attack on Puritanism was at the center of the Play, but the opposition was not quite as simple as McGowan suggested it. O’Neill represents the struggle of the conflicting forces that define the character of Emma Crosby visually in the setting, even before the play opens. The Crosby’s are a fishing family in a small coastal New England Village. The dismal room is filled with furniture that is dark and old — fashioned for the eighteen — nineties. It is dominated by a bulky Bibble with a brass clasp and several enlarged photos of strained, stem-looking people in uncomfortable poses. In short it is a pictorial representation of small — town New England Puritanism from the point of view of the modernist playwright. Like Emma herself, the room is joyless and life — denying, dominated by the religiosity of its patriarchal puritan past. O’Neill uses the pictorial image of the set to convey the change that has taken place in the thirty intervening years.

The stage direction went on to describe a room that shrieked “modern” in 1920, with its orange Curtains, hardwood floor with “garnish — colored rugs,” flowered wallpaper, painted to — order seascapes in gilded frames, varnished oak and cane bottomed furniture. Displaying the new conspicuous leisure and the rather frenetic pursuit of entertainment in the postwar years, the room is completed by a brand new piano, a set of unread installment — plan books, a pile of fashion magazines and a Victrola that is playing a jazz record as the curtain rises. Significantly, however, the family Bible has survived the redecorating, suggesting that the inherited Puritanism in this family is not dead, just overwhelmed by the material culture of the Twenties.

Diff’rent is not a very good play but it was an early exploration of the ideas that O’Neill was to employ too much better effect in the plays of the Twenties and early Thirties. In a somewhat crude mythologizing of the cultural situation in the United States of the early Twenties, Emma Crosby represents a country that is deeply divided between its inherited puritan culture, which is joyless, repressive, and focused on death, and the postwar world view, which is hedonistic, amoral, and unable to think beyond the present moment. On the positive side, while the puritan heritage offers a purpose in life based on faith in God and a clear set of moral principles, the postwar revolution offers a new creative freedom and a healthy acceptance of the body and its natural desires. This play indicates that the country’s situation is tragic, for a while Americans of Emma’s generation can desire the new modern freedom of body and spirit, their puritan training converts it to something perverse and grotesque, and the “lost generation” simply has no values except the infantile gratification of its immediate desires.

Representing the opposition of cultural forces from a slightly different viewpoint, the conflict between materialistic greed and the desire for spiritual transcendence is at the center of O’Neill’s historicized satire of the American businessman, Macro Million. O’Neill’s version of Marco Polo, who was widely compared to Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt when the play was produced has not even a mortal soul, he has only an acquisitive instinct. The division O’Neill presents in Macro Million is a division between the materialistic West personified in Marco, who cannot recognize beauty when it is placed in front of him, and the contemplative East, which values wisdom and beauty above the material.

The least successful of O’Neill’s treatments of the opposing forces in contemporary American culture, The Dynamo (1929), was a complicated representation of the conflict between Puritanism and science. Basing his play loosely on Henry Adams, O’Neill combined the forces that are working upon Reuben Light — Puritanism, a desire for religious faith, sexual desire for both his mother and his girl friend, guilt material jealousy, fear, electricity, and hatred for his father — into one unified force that comes into being when Reuben Fetishes’ The Dynamo that produces electricity into a female idol representing the power of science in opposition to the patriarchal Puritanism of his father, a fundamentalist minister. Projecting the sexual prudency of his mother onto his self-created god, Reuben is overcome with guilt for his own sexuality and immolates himself on the dynamo. The last of O’Neill’s plays searching for what he called “god replacements”, Dynamo demonstrates the futility of trying to replace America’s outworn Puritan religion with a worship of power through science.

By far the most ambitions of O’Neill’s treatments of contemporary American culture was Strange Interlude (1928), a nine-act play that addresses all the concerns in other plays in its mythicizing of the cultural condition of the United States in the Nineteen-Twenties. Strange Interlude generates meaning at a number of levels, the most obvious of which is as a Freudian — influenced study of character. For this play, O’Neill developed a technique of dialogue that was similar to the “stream of consciousness” technique that was being introduced by modernist fiction writers like James Joyce, but had been used in American drama as early as 1913 in Alice Gerstenberg’s overtones. The “Interlude technique” involves two levels of dialogue — one that is recognized as regular speech to which the other characters respond and one that is recognized as what in film would be a “voiceover” the character enunciating his or her thoughts, which are heard by the audience but not by the other characters. This allowed O’Neill to interpolate the characters’ analyses of themselves and each other into the dialogue. While the psychology comes across as rather crude Freudianism today, the dialogue method has been successful with theatre audiences as recently as the 1984 revival with Glenda Jackson, directed by Keith Hack, which was well received in both London and New York.