- Eugene O’Neill’s America: Desire Under Democracy
In Eugene O’Neill’s America: Desire Under Democracy, historian John Patrick Diggins begins with an engaging introduction set at the end of O’Neill’s career, as The Iceman Cometh opens to an unenthusiastic response on Broadway in late 1946. In this play and in his correspondences, O’Neill laments an American society worshipping the wrong values, stressing in his play the false illusions and human weaknesses preventing the nation (not to mention the individual) from realizing its lofty, and perhaps unreachable, ideals. In responding to the postwar economic boom with its freshly renewed values of materialism and conformity, both of which he had long since rejected as a hollow idols, O’Neill achieves his apotheosis as a chronicler of an America on the wrong path. As he stated in a 1946 interview: “I feel, in a sense, that America is the greatest failure in history. It was given everything, more than any other country in history, but we’ve squandered our soul by trying to possess something outside it, and we’ll end as that game usually does, by losing our soul and that thing outside it too” (xiii).
The Iceman Cometh exemplifies O’Neill’s exploration of national self-deceit, of a society driven by illusions of democracy and freedom, but through arrogance and delusion falling far short of achieving its desires. In addressing this, Diggins revisits O’Neill’s dramatic canon and the thematic roots of [End Page 155] his work, beginning with his intellectual awakening in Greenwich Village during the 1910s where, as a seething young radical, O’Neill found himself in a profound struggle with family demons and addictions to alcohol and drugs. These did not prevent him from recognizing a deep chasm between American optimism and the harsher truths of a society in the grip of materialism, deep prejudices, and an anti-intellectualism that, for him, inevitably shattered any hope of genuine democracy. Diggins explains that O’Neill’s plays gain their undeniable power through a disjunction between deep longings for a utopian future and the individual’s eternal struggle for freedom and spiritual fulfillment. Thus the tragedy faced by O’Neill’s central characters stems from an ultimate recognition of the crushing loss inherent in this disjunction—a disillusionment that changes and often destroys them.
Diggins, author of books on John Adams, Ronald Reagan, and various other aspects of American history, freshly illuminates O’Neill’s drama as a reflection of not only the cultural, but also the social and political tapestry of modern American life, concluding along the way that O’Neill was a major thinker of his time. The result is a comparatively unique take on an artist and his times, illuminating both the haunted passions of a profoundly damaged man and a societal psychosis fueled by deep (and often unspoken) conflicts and contradictions springing from a national obsession with materialism, technology, and a futile search for spiritual transcendence. In recognizing the falsities lurking beneath the American dream, O’Neill, in Diggins’s opinion, becomes a major voice in defining a floundering nation.
Drawing on these notions, Diggins persuasively places O’Neill within the context of great American voices (Jefferson, Thoreau, Emerson, Lincoln), as well as a range of European thinkers (from Aristotle to Nietzsche, Marx, Schopenhauer, Spengler), along with titans of modern drama (inevitably, Ibsen and Strindberg), unraveling a tangle of complex psychological, moral, political, and spiritual dilemmas submerged within the American consciousness and revealed in O’Neill’s plays. Rejecting the longstanding, largely unchallenged views of critics like Mary McCarthy and Eric Bentley, both of whom believed that O’Neill fell short as a modern thinker, Diggins uses his formidable knowledge of American culture to argue otherwise. O’Neill sees nothing less than America’s soul at risk, whether from such political dangers as communism (which, like religion, he identified as an empty seduction) or the aforementioned gods of materialism and technology.
In eleven densely constructed chapters, Diggins emphasizes the inevitable autobiographical...