- Eugene O'Neill's One-Act Plays: New Critical Perspectives ed. by Michael Y. Bennett and Benjamin D. Carson
The year 2013 marks the centenary of Eugene O’Neill’s first plays. Within six months of his discharge from Gaylord Farm Sanatorium in June 1913, he wrote his vaudeville piece, A Wife for a Life, and his first one-act plays, The Web, Thirst, Recklessness, and Warnings. Over the next six years, he came to wide attention with a series of impressive one-acts. However, the plays he wrote before Beyond the Horizon—his 1920 full-length, Pulitzer Prize winner—have been generally neglected over the years. This collection of essays by talented O’Neill scholars aims to correct that oversight, casting needed light on O’Neill’s one-act plays, including Hughie, the only one that was written after Beyond the Horizon.
Eugene O’Neill’s One-Act Plays: New Critical Perspectives, edited by Michael Y. Bennett and Benjamin D. Carson, consists of twelve short essays and a useful introduction written by Carson. Together, these essays demonstrate how O’Neill’s one-acts do not constitute mere preparatory “stammerings” or “babble” (11) in advance of the masterpieces to come, even if some of them did serve as apprentice pieces for his later plays. Individually, the essays offer new perspectives on the playwright’s work. On first consideration, the inclusion of essays on The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape in this study is surprising. As longer plays, divided into scenes, both are not, strictly speaking, one-acts. Moreover, they have hardly been ignored in the secondary literature on O’Neill as have the other plays discussed in the collection. Yet Carson justifies their inclusion in his introduction: they were “meant to be performed in one sitting,” and they mark “the continuity between O’Neill’s early works and those of his mature years” (5). [End Page 253]
The individual essays explore fifteen plays that exemplify various facets of O’Neill’s work. While most essays are dedicated to the analysis of a single play (J. Chris Westgate on The Web, Lesley Broder on Abortion, Thierry Dubost on The Movie Man, Kurt Eisen on Exorcism, Paul D. Streufert on The Emperor Jones, and Thomas F. Connolly on The Hairy Ape), three concentrate on the Glencairn cycle: Phillip Barnhart’s “‘God Stiffen Us’: Queering O’Neill’s Sea Plays”; Bennett’s “Epistemological Crises in O’Neill’s SS Glencairn Plays”; and Steven F. Bloom’s “Waiting for O’Neill: The Makings of an Existentialist.” The penultimate essay, Robert Combs’s “O’Neill’s Hughie: The Sea Plays Revisited,” tries to establish the lineage between these sea plays and the late one-act play Hughie.
In “Rethinking O’Neill’s Beginnings: Slumming, Sociology, and Sensationalism in The Web,” Westgate reconsiders the contradictory roles of O’Neill’s first play, The Web, a work once pronounced a total “failure” by the Gelbs, as entertainment and as sociological study. Basing his analysis on the dual influences of Victorianism and Progressivism, Westgate points out how the Victorian use of the term “squalid” (the adjective used to depict the place where Rose lives) to describe persons who were “morally degraded” also meant “wretched” for O’Neill when applied to “conditions” (39), which corresponds more to Progressivist attitudes that consider the poor (and particularly “fallen” women) as victims rather than sinners. In “Eugene O’Neill’s Abortion and Standard Family Roles: The Economics of Terminating a Romance and a Pregnancy,” Lesley Broder examines the role that class stratification and women’s dependency on men play in this ambivalent one-act, whose title is evocative but whose controversial theme is constantly understated, referred to as the “thing” or the “operation.” Thierry Dubost’s “The Movie Man: The Failure of Aesthetics” focuses on what is often considered O’Neill’s worst play, in an attempt to understand why O’Neill resorted to melodrama, the theater of his father. Dubost concludes that The Movie...