- Critical Insights: Eugene O’Neill ed. by Steven F. Bloom
Following the surge of O’Neill scholarship from the 1988 centennial through the 2007 publication of John P. Diggins’s Eugene O’Neill’s America: Desire under Democracy and Steven F. Bloom’s Student Companion to Eugene O’Neill, the production of monographs on O’Neill has slowed to a relative crawl. As the concise bibliography in this new collection edited by Bloom shows, only two monographs on O’Neill have been published since 2007: Laura Shea’s production history of A Moon for the Misbegotten (2008) and William Davies King’s Another Part of a Long Story (2010), a detailed study of O’Neill’s literary codependence with his second wife, Agnes Boulton.
Instead, O’Neill scholarship has been dominated in the past several years by the multiauthor collection, most notably Robert Dowling’s two-volume Critical Companion to Eugene O’Neill in 2009 and more recently this gathering in the Salem Press Critical Insights series, edited by Bloom and featuring seventeen essays by many distinguished and some relatively new O’Neillians. Unlike the other volume reviewed in this issue, there is no attempt to focus on any particular aspect or subset of the playwright’s work, but rather to offer, according to the editor, “many examples of various critical approaches used to appreciate a range of O’Neill’s plays from all phases of his extraordinary career in the theater” (vii). The two essays that conclude the volume, by theater practitioners including O’Neill’s great contemporary inheritor, playwright Tony Kushner, seem positioned to remind readers that scholarly discovery ultimately serves the purpose of enhancing the performance of O’Neill’s plays and inspiring new writers to take up the artistic challenge that O’Neill’s work exemplifies.
Bloom sorts the essays into four sections, guiding the reader from the playwright’s “Career, Life, and Influences,” through selected “Critical Contexts,” and into the eleven “Critical Readings” that comprise the majority [End Page 257] of the book, concluding with a brief “Resources” section that supplies a chronology of major events and achievements in O’Neill’s life, a list of his plays, and a concise bibliography of O’Neill scholarship. Notes on contributors follow the same order in which their essays appear; the sparse index omits many references (e.g., Nietzsche) that probably should have been included for the convenience of the reader and fails to give a fuller sense of the range of materials covered in the essays.
The editor begins the volume with his own essay, “On O’Neill.” Bloom has earned a reputation as perhaps the most trustworthy mediator between the extensive body of O’Neill scholarship and the newcomer to O’Neill’s drama, and his essay selects the most telling details of the life and work, based on his own lifetime of study, such as his balanced analysis of the decision of O’Neill’s widow, Carlotta, to release Long Day’s Journey for production just a few years after his death, which Bloom calls “a kind of betrayal” that also demonstrated Carlotta’s devotion to her late husband’s literary reputation. Complementing Bloom’s more interpretive overview in the “Career, Life, and Influences” section is the more purely factual and briefer “Biography of Eugene O’Neill” by Trevor M. Wise, the main virtue of which is its coverage of some details left out of Bloom’s essay, but otherwise it seems redundant and in some respects an apprentice piece to the editor’s own presentation of O’Neill’s life and art.
The four essays in “Critical Contexts” begin with Jeff Kennedy’s overview of modernist culture and particularly the bohemian Greenwich Village scene that shaped O’Neill’s early vision and on which Kennedy is a leading authority among O’Neillians. Though less sure-footed in discussing social values and structures of the nineteenth century, Kennedy expertly weaves telling details with larger movements in recreating the cultural upheaval of the 1910s that gave birth to the...