In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Eugene O’Neill and the Cruelty of Theater Joseph J. Moleski The division between signifying written language and in­ toxicating spoken language opens up a gulf in the solid massif of verbal meaning and forces the gaze into the depths of language. Walter Benjamin The Origin of German Tragic DramaX I O’Neill’s influence, as hypnotic as the rhythm of decompo­ sition that marks one of his plays in the form of a drumbeat (The Emperor Jones), has abated little in the years since his death. The negativity of his judgments on human life and possibility, seemingly the very insignia of courage and sincerity, easily reconcile themselves in the mind of theater-goer and critic alike with an intoxicatingly rich “theatrical experience.” Possessor of an almost violent stylistic fecundity, a fecundity whose origin in the positing of a noumenal “reality” which can only be death itself as one of his late plays tells us,2 a fecundity we simply enjoy without questioning the price we are expected to pay on its behalf: O’Neill and his heirs continue to hold sway over the American stage. Ruthless critics though they are pro­ claimed, their popularity seems hardly to have suffered for it. Yet behind the sumptuousness, the profusion of forms and techniques (the term “technique” here summarizing the whole of a tradition that reduces art to the status of a mere supplement to physis), stood, according to O’Neill, a simple self-conception and modest intention: he was to be thought of as having been “a bit of a poet, who has labored with the spoken word to evolve original rhythms of beauty, where beauty apparently isn’t . . . The innocuousness, the innocence, even the humanism of that project—as much a program in public perception as an aesthetic manifesto—are assumed to be obvious, especially 327 328 Comparative Drama when we read in the phrase immediately following that this “beauty” is associated with discovering “the transfiguring no­ bility of tragedy, in as near the Greek sense as one can grasp it, in seemingly the most ignoble, debased lives.”3 It is a familiar schema, “Nietzschean” in its hypostatization of the tragic and its belief in the aesthetic justification of suffering.4 As a statement, these words of O’Neill define the level and degree of his complicity with the culture whose critical son he was to have been, taking us as they do to the constitutive center of Western theater and beyond, to the cardinal postulate of the logocentrism that inspires Western culture in its most funda­ mental project. The privilege of speech; the unity of voice and meaning in the spoken word; the human voice as origin of difference (thus turning difference into rhythm which is tradi­ tionally the realm of patterned recurrence); speech as archon of a system of differences from which it is itself exempt, which it sustains without participating in: all these point out the paralle­ lism of O’Neill’s dramatic program with the most tenaciously pursued project of our culture.5 Influence, the spell of the other proposing and imposing itself as self-subsistent presence outside the play of difference, is produced by this elevation of the voice. My intention here is not to trace O’Neill’s work in its contours back to the project he defined for us, a course that would serve his purposes as well as another, but to situate it, inscribe it in a system of differences it cannot command but whose occlusion is decisive. n The most incisive of Antonin Artaud’s objections to clas­ sical representational theater was its domination by, its orien­ tation to speech.6 In that phenomenon, really a radical historical intention, he saw the very name of all that the “Theater of Cruelty,” that site not necessarily of bloodshed and carnage but rather of “the affirmation/ of a terrible/ and, moreover, implac­ able necessity,”7 was to raise itself up against. Artaud’s denunci­ ation of the inherently theological word was not, however, un­ dertaken as an act of simple metaphysical or aesthetic terror­ ism, but as a preliminary to achieving a form of writing, a “veritable theatrical passigraphy reaching beyond empirical languages...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 327-342
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.