- My Transformation through the O’Neill Society
I first heard of Eugene O’Neill in 1957, from the late Dr. J. Preston Cochran who directed plays at my alma mater, Alabama A&M. He had been cast while a doctoral student at the University of Iowa in the title role of The Emperor Jones. My mother was on the A&M faculty, and we had a rich Lyceum series, a marvelous amateur theater group, and an annual production by the Shakespeare Players, but no O’Neill.
Then, in 1976, when I was a doctoral student at the University of Iowa, Dr. Thomas D. Pawley taught a course on the Black Man in American Drama, in which he lectured on O’Neill’s The Dreamy Kid and All God’s Chillun Got Wings. Pawley, who is ninety-six at this writing, published essays on O’Neill and traveled to China as a member of the Eugene O’Neill Society, but he was distressed with O’Neill’s portrayal of Jim in All God’s Chillun Got Wings as “the black man who failed.” I, too, have never liked what O’Neill wrote about black people: the Negro dialect, the low self-esteem, the focus on ne’er-do-wells from the lower depths. I do know some black people like these characters, but most do not fit the description, and the most severe communication cripple does not speak like Brutus Jones. Discussing that role with Jasper Deeter, Paul Robeson said, “You may know this kind of person, and Mr. O’Neill may know this kind of person, but I don’t.”1 If some degree of universality is to be found in O’Neill, it is in his white characters, as most people of any race know a Hickey or an Anna. As James Earl Jones said to me in a 1998 interview, “O’Neill wrote about the common man … and most black people have common man roots.” However, on the subject of race per se, O’Neill’s sense of the human family seems to have been limited, and I took little interest in seeing or teaching his plays. [End Page 227]
Then, in 1998, Daniel Larner, a board member of the Eugene O’Neill Society, invited me to join, and it is no exaggeration to say that doing so changed my life, transforming my research, my teaching, and my horizons. The annual meeting of the MLA was in San Francisco that year, and I asked Danny to accompany me to my first meeting of the Society, in Danville. We took the shuttle up to Tao House, that “final harbor,” as O’Neill called it, where I observed all the relics of his years there, including the desk where he wrote his late plays. On that occasion and the next day, when I attended the O’Neill session, I felt included in a way unlike what I had experienced at other academic conferences.
Around this time I began teaching O’Neill’s plays at Michigan Technological University, where I had been on the faculty since 1990. One student, who went on to receive a PhD in physics, wrote to tell me that The Iceman Cometh was “one of the most transformative pieces” he had found. Another, who had been the only black student in my class that term, was inspired by that same play to write a poem, “Ashamed,” about the Negro gambler Joe Mott, who was ashamed of his race.
I liked having students do lively readings of the plays, as well as writing critical papers and performance analyses, and a play they especially liked was Desire under the Elms. I relished showing photos of the African American actor Carl Jay Cofield as Eben in a 1998 production at the Pecadillo Theatre. The actress playing Abbie was white. I also taught The Hairy Ape at times and had students read portions of the Gelbs’ biography of O’Neill. Most students were fascinated by the playwright, although one male physics major said, “Lady, you really have peculiar tastes,” when I showed the film of The Hairy Ape.
The Fifth International Conference of the Eugene O’Neill...