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Madness in the Plays of Eugene O'Neill ARTHUR H. NETHERCOT • BACK IN 1934 Virgil Geddes published a booklet with the revolting title, The Melodramadness ofEugene O'Neill. In this brief study, which was actually more serious than its title would indicate, punster Geddes emphasized what he regarded as two major aspects of O'Neill's work, but actually paid more attention to the melodrama than to the madness. Other critics, of course, have noted the presence of the latter element in the plays, but have put so little stress on it that Louis Sheaffer, in the "Foreword " to the first volume of his two-volume definitive biography, O'Neill, Son and Playwright (Boston and Toronto, 1968), was able to state concerning this question: Neither, for that matter, has any biographer heretofore dealt more than passingly with the playwright's preoccupation with insanity - the subject figures in five or six of his plays. (The usual offhand judgment is that he had a bent for "strong" subject matter.) As I illustrate in my narrative, his interest in insanity was apparently familial and personal in origin, stemming from a fearful phase in his boyhood. In the phrase "preoccupation with insanity" Sheaffer put his finger on O'Neill's pulse, but unfortunately removed it too soon, for instead of beating in only the "five or six" plays that he alludes to without really discussing them (pp. 79-80), it actually throbs - sometimes powerfully and sometimes almost undetectably - in forty-two of the forty-five printed plays. In other words, O'Neill - consciously or unconsciously - found it almost impossible to write a play in which he did not use - sometimes 259 260 ARTHUR H. NETHERCOT incidentally, but usually fundamentally - the idea of mental unbalance. The idea appears in many verbal forms - madness, craziness, insanity, frenzy, imbecility, idiocy, queerness, half-wittedness, distraction, nuttiness , lunacy, loco, and so on. He uses these words in their various grammatical forms in both the literal and the figurative senses, and often in such purely casual and colloquial expressions as "Are you crazy?" But even such instances as the last indicate how deeply rooted in his mind was the idea of the widespread imbalance of the easily disturbed human mind. Sheaffer's attribution of O'Neill's "interest" (I would prefer to say "preoccupation") in the subject to "familiil and personal" sources is well documented in his book.1 He has even coined an excellent phrase to sum it all up when at one point he describes O'Neill as an "emotional hemophiliac ," whose "wounds [and] grievances would never heal." The situation in some ways reminds one of Thomas Wolfe, except that it seems clear that Wolfe, particularly during his stay in Germany, had spells in which he definitely wavered over the line between sanity and madness, whereas O'Neill himself probably stopped just short of that line, though coming very close to it at times. O'Neill's childhood as a supersensitive and often morbid boy, "who used to fear for his mother's sanity and his own," has already been well described by Sheaffer and others. But this streak did not disappear as O'Neill grew older; in fact, it widened and deepened. Sheaffer records several instances in which a sort of desperate revulsion against life overwhelmed O'Neill as a young man. These episodes usually occurred after he had been on one of his frequent binges. While at Princeton, for example , where his friends spoke of him as a "wild Irishman," he once "went berserk from absinthe," tore up all the furnishings in his room, and tried to shoot a friend. When the friend escaped and returned with help, "They found the place a shambles and O'Neill, wide-eyed, still on a rampage . It took all four of the other students to subdue him and tie him up with bed sheets. Then he passed out." But liquor was not always the cause of these violent outbursts. One hot midsummer afternoon he came into one of his familiar eating places, Jack's Restaurant in New York, and without any provocation attacked the bartender. As a result of this assault he was given the "bum's rush" by...


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