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When Playwrights Talk To God: Peter Shaffer and the Legacy of O’Neill Michael Hinden Eugene O’Neill’s contributions to the modem theater are by now beyond dispute, and it is time for critics to assess his impact on more recent dramatists. “Most modem plays are concerned with the relation between man and man,” O’Neill once remarked in conversation, “but that doesn’t interest me at all. I am inter­ ested only in the relation between man and God.”l In order to explore this monumental theme, O’Neill borrowed, transformed, and in good part invented a grammar of stage presentation that mixed naturalistic and expressionistic means and that embraced a variety of techniques, including masks, mechanical sounds, pantomime, music, song, elaborate stage directions, powerful visual and auditory images, and a vast, flexible array of lan­ guage—slang, poetry, choric voices, thought-asides, soliloquies, expletives, rhetorical persuasion, searing condemnations, and occasional flights of rhapsody. Numerous dramatists on both sides of the Atlantic owe him an enormous debt. But because O’Neill did so much that was new, and because he did it so convincingly, he does not, strictly speaking, have a contemporary peer. He does, however, have a variety of successors. Already Williams, Miller, and Albee have secured their reputations, and there are other perhaps equally important playwrights who are just now reaching their prime. Of these, Peter Shaffer increas­ ingly comes to mind. I Considering thematic concerns, dramaturgical techniques, MICHAEL HINDEN is currently Chairman of the Integrated Liberal Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin, and has written on a variety of topics in modem drama. 49 50 Comparative Drama and the all-important power to rivet the attention of an audience, Shaffer is the playwright now writing in English who has benefitted most from O’Neill’s legacy. Eschewing the bare settings and minimalist abstractions of the theater of the absurd, Shaffer traces his lineage directly to O’Neill and to the tradition of robust expansiveness that he inspired. Following O’Neill, Shaffer experiments with such devices as thought-asides or audible thinking (Strange Interlude, The White Liars), the split prota­ gonist (The Great God Brown, Equus), masks, mime and spec­ tacle (Lazarus Laughed, The Royal Hunt of the Sun), and the extended monologue as a means of revelation (The Iceman Cometh, Shrivings, Amadeus). Indeed, compared to Beckett, Pinter, and Stoppard, who may be called postmodernist play­ wrights in terms of their self-reflexive attitude toward form, Shaffer does appear “old-fashioned,” which is to say that he places himself squarely in the tradition of modernism that was established—largely by O’Neill—in the American theater of the twenties.2 Even more significant is O’Neill’s legacy to Shaffer in regard to theme. For many of the postmodernists, the passing of God, philosophy, and religious institutions is no longer a matter of concern so much as it is a foregone conclusion, but that is not the case with Shaffer. Like O’Neill, he is obsessed with man’s longing for divinity, and like O’Neill, he is determined to do “big work.” Indeed, he is drawn specifically to O’Neill’s subjects and to his metaphysical themes. In The Royal Hunt of the Sun, the Spanish conquest of the New World serves him as the setting for a clash between Catholic and Pagan visions of the world, a subject first assayed by O’Neill in his early play, The Fountain. In Equus, Shaffer builds upon O’Neill’s idea, developed in The Great God Brown, that modem life destroys our capacity for union with divinity. And in Amadeus, he expands upon O’Neill’s perception in The Iceman Cometh that man’s disillusionment with God can poison the relation of the self to others. It is tempting to speculate that Shaffer and O’Neill’s interest in religious questions may stem in part from parallel events in their experience. At least, both playwrights depict characters who in their youth witness a glimpse of mystical revelation, a sense of oneness with the universe. Curiously, in both instances the experience is associated with the sea. Here Edmund speaks in Act IV of Long Day’s Journey...


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