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  • The Theatre of Eugene O’Neill: American Modernism on the World Stage by Kurt Eisen
  • Aaron Scully
The Theatre of Eugene O’Neill: American Modernism on the World Stage. By Kurt Eisen. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2018. Cloth $91.80, Paper $26.96. xiii + 241 pages.

Kurt Eisen’s The Theatre of Eugene O’Neill: American Modernism on the World Stage is a fascinating examination of O’Neill’s works, situated in the context of the modernization of the American theatre during the first half of the twentieth century. By utilizing O’Neill’s evolution as a wary social progressive grappling with competing forces—including his appreciation of traditional theatre techniques, his desire to contribute to social progress, the advancement of the American stage, and his quiet yet apparent need for adulation—Eisen constructs an analysis that is well worth the read for not only theatre scholars but anyone interested in O’Neill or theatre during O’Neill’s career. Through the lens of American modernism, which Eisen defines as “an ideological and aesthetic response to how . . . new possibilities had been realized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, reflecting a fundamental change in the nature of experience itself amid rapid changes of modernized, often mechanical society, frequently critical but at times celebratory of those changes” (7), the author effectively places O’Neill in the middle of modernism and describes, through his plays, how O’Neill both reacted to and facilitated the modernization of American theatre.

The book is organized into seven chapters and a conclusion. Eisen begins by first defining and contextualizing American modernism. In the first chapter, he places the young O’Neill in the middle of the evolving American theatrical landscape, providing crucial insight into O’Neill’s early years and his decision to become a playwright. Chapter 2, “A Modernist in the Making: O’Neill Before Broadway,” is a chronological analysis of O’Neill’s playwriting and its relationship to American modernization prior to his Pulitzer-Prize winning production of The Emperor Jones. Chapter 3 delves into O’Neill as a reactionary to the revolutionary social progressiveness of the 1920s and 1930s with his plays The Hairy Ape, Lazarus Laughed, Days without End, and The Iceman Cometh. Eisen states that with these plays O’Neill is “reflecting not a revolutionary vision but a sympathetic iconoclasm in its image of society constructed of many sustaining if illusory narratives” (49). Chapter 4, “New Women, Male Destinies: The ‘Woman Plays,’” is perhaps Eisen’s most successful chapter, as he smartly discusses O’Neill’s drama in response to “the emergence of women from the home into the public sphere” (71). Two of the plays analyzed in this chapter are Anna Christie and what Eisen deems O’Neill’s “woman play”: Strange Interlude. With Strange Interlude, Eisen declares that “No play more fully conveys O’Neill’s ambition as a modernist in its relentless imposition of form on experience, and thus reveals his inescapable involvement with the American modernity that he generally sought to critique, as well as his obsession with the feminine anima he persistently sought both to reveal and to [End Page 125] contain” (83). Chapter 5, “‘Souls under Skins’: Masks, Race, and the Divided Self,” is an engrossing examination of O’Neill’s fascination with the convergence of the science of psychoanalysis and the advent of cultural anthropology, and of how these fields related to black experiences in America. “O’Neill himself was less interested in any solution to black urban problems than in how his predominantly white audience would feel the emotional impact of this representation, however stereotyped and sensationalized, of lives uprooted from the tradition that once gave them identity and meaning” (98). Chapter 6, “Transience and Tradition: O’Neill’s Modern Families,” considers the plays Beyond the Horizon, Mourning Becomes Electra, Ah! Wilderness, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, and how these plays illuminate O’Neill’s belief that the American family was the “primary force resisting modernity and its ideal of wholeness that can repair a divided modern self” (144). In his analysis of Long Day’s Journey, Eisen profoundly states that O’Neill’s use of the mother’s “drug-induced...


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pp. 125-127
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