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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 431-432
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Beyond Mourning and Tragedy
Eugene O'Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy. By Stephen A. Black. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999; pp. 524. $29.95.
Given the spate of Eugene O'Neill biographies, any new work on that old subject must offer fresh insights. Steven A. Black builds upon studies by Louis Sheaffer, Arthur and Barbara Gelb, Doris Alexander, Travis Bogard, Michael Manheim, and Edward Shaughnessy to hone a surprisingly simple and compelling thesis. A trained psychotherapist as well as a literary critic, Black claims in the opening pages that "O'Neill found a way to use the writing of plays as a form of self-psychoanalysis" (xviii). This handsomely designed and well-executed book will prove invaluable to O'Neill [End Page 431] scholars, theatre practitioners, and anyone interested in the creative process.
In thorough detail, the author traces the playwright's career as an attempt to understand and repair the damage inflicted upon him as a child. O'Neill suffered from the emotional and physical abandonment of his mother, from her drug abuse, and from the knowledge that his birth caused her addiction. Later, the successive deaths of his father in 1920, his mother in 1922, and his brother in 1923 left O'Neill, the lone survivor of his family, in a prolonged state of mourning. In subsequent plays ranging from Desire Under the Elms (1924) to The Great God Brown (1925) to Strange Interlude (1927) and to Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), death and loss emerge as recurring motifs. Black contends that Lavinia's self-interment at the end of the latter play represents not only O'Neill's crowning achievement up to that point, but a remarkable coming to terms with his own process of grieving. Black cites Lavinia's refusal to kill herself as a sign of the playwright's willingness to contemplate who he is and what he has done. O'Neill's final plays, his masterpieces, including A Touch of the Poet, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Hughie, and A Moon for the Misbegotten, are the products of a man who has moved past the state of mourning to achieve acceptance. These mature plays are notable for rich characters, multiple points of view, and complex meanings and interpretations.
Black outlines a convincing case that O'Neill healed himself through his work and then went on to produce some of the best drama that has been written. His theory answers a question that dogs O'Neill's critics. Almost alone among writers, O'Neill's plays get demonstrably better as his career unfolds, in contrast to the arc of many careers, which decline sharply after major success. Black infers that O'Neill's career followed a very different, ascending path. Repeatedly, Black reminds the reader of what is important to a psychoanalytic critic and what to make of the evidence. However, the force of his argument and the neatness of his claim do beg certain questions that go beyond the scope of the book. It is possible to imagine, for example, a playwright gaining insight into his personal demons but not having the means to translate such knowledge into effective drama. O'Neill's final plays are successful in part because they are better crafted than earlier efforts. Black largely takes for granted O'Neill's considerable technical and artistic skills.
Still, the book delivers many riches to a prospective director and actor. The psychological profile of the O'Neill family is superior to any previous biography. Black relates the O'Neill family to the Tyrone family in Long Day's Journey Into Night and discusses specific issues in that play, such as money and home, which are vital to its interpretation. For Ella O'Neill, the absence of a permanent home represented the loss of her father, while money was a means to deny that her father was dead. This characterization of O'Neill's mother, reduced here for the sake of example, would be quite useful for an actress...