- Eugene O'Neill's America: Desire Under Democracy
John Patrick Diggins, an historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has written a study of Eugene O'Neill that attempts to capture two spirits in his plays: history and desire. The way in which American history and how the fulfillment of desire—economic, emotional, dynastic—pervades democracy in a peculiar way is a more specific description of the theme. I am not sure that most O'Neill scholars would agree to this thesis from the start, but this book makes a powerful argument for those themes as O'Neill's. [End Page 508]
As an historian Diggins is as committed to Tocqueville and his famous perspective on American history as O'Neill was to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. So, we read Diggins's interpretations of O'Neill through a lens with a peculiar adjustment—with the end-of-the-enlightenment Frenchman and the German Philosophers as constant points of reference. For example, Schopenhauer is invoked as the creator of the phrase "pipe dreams" as O'Neill used it in The Iceman Cometh (63), and there are dozens of other references to him and Nietzsche in the book. Diggins takes O'Neill at his word that these philosophers were the greatest influence on him. He also takes seriously O'Neill's anarchism, a miserable failure as an applied form of philosophy, but one that he always kept in mind, as we see so well in Iceman (241–46).
O'Neill wrote a number of historical plays, most set in the nineteenth century with the events of the period as the background. A Touch of the Poet is set on the eve of Andrew Jackson's famous election of 1828; More Stately Mansions in the heart of the Age of Jackson; Desire Under the Elms in the 1850s; and Mourning Becomes Electra in the post–Civil War period. These are not the plays that have sustained O'Neill's reputation, or even enhanced it; however, they helped make him famous and are important in his body of work. Their attention to history is convincingly developed by Diggins, as is the desire for wealth or love or family as the inspiration for O'Neill's characters.
O'Neill's stage egos make the argument for the theme of desire convincing. I mean the egos that he created for his plays—early, middle, and late—and the strong, almost churning believability and vitality of his most forlorn characters—Brutus Jones, Erie Smith, Anna Christie, and Jamie Tyrone. I re-read The Emperor Jones after reading Diggins's treatment of the play and he gives it a convincing resetting as a distortion of Jefferson's confidence in the ordinary man, a confidence that abhorred slavery but did nothing to end it (148). Jones's destiny makes him a Caribbean tyrant after growing up an American second-class citizen. He goes from Pullman porter to emperor, but his uniform still is ripped to shreds by the end of the play.
O'Neill's anarchism is never taken for granted by Diggins. He discusses almost every play from the perspective of a man whose applied anarchism—his political involvement—is finished, but whose personal anarchism was always alive. This explains a good deal about O'Neill's conduct and life, including his mistreatment of his wives and children, and the need to come to terms with an earlier generation, his parents and brother. Anarchism is invoked (convincingly) throughout the book, even when Diggins is describing points of O'Neill's career well into middle age, when he was a world famous playwright and quite well off financially. I don't believe I have read another critic or biographer of O'Neill who is quite as determined as Diggins to see this as O'Neill's worldview, the philosophy [End Page 509] of life that shaped his plays. This position is backed by his very intelligent reading of the plays themselves.
O'Neill's letters are given their due...