Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Interview with Alexander Pettit about Eugene O’Neill


Interview with Alexander Pettit, “The Texts of Eugene O’Neill’s The Fountain: Indigeneity, Stereotype, Survivance” TSLL: Texas Studies in Literature and Language 61.2 (2019): 193-223. Interview conducted by Michelle Duran.

KEYWORDS: Eugene O’Neill, The Fountain, Indigeneity, Gerald Vizenor, Maxwell Anderson, Susan Glaspell

ABSTRACT: Eugene O’Neill’s anti-colonialist agenda in The Fountain (1925) is remarkable for its embodiment in a furiously agential Indian, Nano, who vanquishes and outlasts his tormentor, Juan Ponce de Leon. An “old Indian woman” endures too, mockingly. The play thus protests the genocidal fantasies that Gerald Vizenor calls “vanishment” and approximates Vizenor’s “survivance,” or “a sense of native presence over absence, nihility, and victimry.” Essential to O’Neill’s imagining of the survivant Indian is the dismantling of stereotypes, those that putatively ennoble and those that bluntly denigrate.

New York City, 1898

Eugene O’Neill is best known for such plays as Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh. What made The Fountain, an earlier drama, so compelling to you?

The Fountain is, let’s say, situationally interesting. It’s not a particularly good play, in any formal or technical sense; and its large cast and outrageous staging demands pretty much guarantee its status as a “specialists only” contribution. But, in an academic sense, it’s fascinating, mostly because it’s one of two plays that O’Neill wrote in the early 1920s that manifests a radical stance on Indigeneity out of synch with conventions of thought and representation characteristic of American drama since the Colonial period. O’Neill was way ahead of his time in this as in many other respects. And that’s pretty darned cool. 

Could you list your top 3 O’Neill works and explain why you favor them? What O’Neill play do you see as especially underappreciated? 

Hmmmm. O’Neill wrote about fifty plays, not including a handful that may have been lost, so that’s a tough question. Long Day’s Journey Into Night has to make any list, because it’s the finest manifestation of American dramatic realism; because it in effect codified the centrality of family relations to the enterprise of American drama; and, more importantly, because its equally long on wisdom, compassion, and fine writing. I’d also list A Moon for the Misbegotten. It follows and extends the interests of Long Day’s Journey and manages a more honest portrayal of O’Neill’s debauched brother, James Jr., than O’Neill achieved in the earlier play. It feels like his most honest play to me. Josie Hogan is often taken to be O’Neill’s greatest female character, and with reason. Speaking of great female characters (and Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey qualifies, too), my third choice would be Mourning Becomes Electra, O’Neill’s sprawling and sinewy riff on those jolly denizens of the House of Atreus. It’s a page-turner (O’Neill was a best-selling author by the time of its release); and in Lavinia and Christine Mannon, O’Neill created two generations of female characters long on grit, smarts, agency, and the sort of sexuality that doesn’t court the reptilian parts of our northernmost organ.

The framing of your question allows me to address two “underappreciated” works that make my Greatest Hits list. Marco Millions is simultaneously O’Neill’s most lyrical and funniest play, equal parts Horatian satire and gorgeous passages of tear-your-heart-out yearning. (If the play were a song, I’d want Buck Owens or Nina Simone to sing it.) In Marco, as rarely in O’Neill’s canon, the philosophy feels unforced, supportive rather than intrusive. The Great God Brown (over and over) stumbles over its Nietzschean enthusiasms but still makes my list for its dazzling experimentalism and, to borrow from Tennessee Williams, its “lit by lightening” moments of intense human contact. Eric Fraisher Hayes’s 2019 staged reading near O’Neill’s home in Danville, California, locked that one into my list.

Eugene O'Neill portrait

For someone new to O'Neill, what order would you recommend reading your favorites and any other must reads in his canon?

This is something I do when I construct the syllabus for my single-author classes on O’Neill. So, among the early one-acts, Bound East for Cardiff and The Moon of the Caribbees; from O’Neill’s early maturity as a playwright, Beyond the Horizon and “Anna Christie”, both Pulitzer winners; from his fabulously diverse “all-over-the-map” phase in the 1920s, The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, Desire Under the Elms, Marco Millions, and Mourning Becomes Electra; then on to the celebrated late plays: Iceman, Long Day’s Journey, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. (Then I spend the semester regretting my exclusion of The Great God Brown, Ah, Wilderness!, and A Touch of the Poet; and wishing that all of Strange Interlude was as good as the best bits, which are stunning.) Another angle: a fellow O’Neillian starts (and ends) his O’Neill seminars with the biographical Long Day’s Journey and, early, mixes in the long-lost Exorcism, a one-act of dubious artistic value but an important biographical statement. I’d like to try that some time. In any case, it’s wise to keep a good biography readily at hand; Rob Dowling’s superb 2014 offering is the best choice.

Members of the Provincetown Players setting up the stage for O'Neill's Bound East for Cardiff at their first Playhouse at 139 Macdougal Street in New York City, Fall 1916. Photo shows O'Neill to the far left.

O'Neill ushered the American theater into maturity. What are some of your favorite non-O'Neill plays from during and just after his career?

I’ll take “favorite” here on indicate plays I really enjoy, not just ones I find interesting. O’Neill’s first phase overlaps with the late work of the early American realist Edward Sheldon, to whom he was sometimes compared. I’m a fan of his Salvation Nell, but I’m also a sucker for unapologetic sentimentalism. Susan Glaspell (e.g., Trifles and the later Alison’s House) and Neith Boyce’s Winter’s Night are my picks from O’Neill’s colleagues in the Provincetown Players. S. N. Behrman’s The Second Man is a favorite from the 1920s. The loss of talent to Hollywood is a big problem in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Depression pretty much rerouted American drama and encouraged an ideology-first approach to drama (e.g., Clifford Odets) that doesn’t cater to my personal preferences. That having been said, the 1930s give us great plays from Lynn Riggs, whose Cherokee Night and The Year of Pilar are among my favorites; Lilian Hellman, who’s long been ensconced in my Personal Pantheon, due to her unparalleled skills as a plotter and her skillful negotiation of form and, yes, ideology (e.g., Little Foxes); and the great George Kaufman/Moss Hart comedies, which I dearly love (e.g., Once in a Lifetime and You Can’t Take It with You). Much of the drama of the later 1920s and 1930s material pointedly rejects the O’Neill inheritance. That’s healthy, but this span is an unsettled one in American drama nonetheless.

TIME Magazine cover featuring O'Neill, 1924

How would you describe the history of indigeneity on stage before O’Neill?

This is a big topic, and I’d point readers of this chat to the pertinent parts of the Fountain essay and the sources I reference therein. Leaving aside O’Neill’s own Emperor Jones, Susan Glaspell’s Inheritors, and George Cram Cook’s well-intentioned but wretched The Spring (all Provincetown Players’ productions from the 1920-21 season), an accurate generalization would be “ugly; very, very ugly.” Awful stuff. I read it this stuff so you don’t have to.

Your essay mentions Virgil Geddes’s Pocahontas and the Elders when describing Indigenous women’s sexuality. How do you view O'Neill’s representation of this issue?

O’Neill isn’t much interested in this matter. The most charitable way of looking at this is also, in my opinion, the most meaningful: he declined to engage in the sort of drooling objectification of Native women that Geddes and many other playwrights (and novelists, &c.) indulged before and have indulged since. That having been said, his representation of a nearly naked Nano muscling out of the water in The Fountain is eroticized in a way that doesn’t add much to the play other than (in the first run) a chance to ogle the cork-blackened chest of an actor known for being “ripped.” This isn’t O’Neill’s finest moment, both because it’s gratuitous and because it taps into modes of Native sexualization that he avoids elsewhere.

How does religion relate to the Indigenous characters in The Fountain?

O’Neill didn’t know much or care about Indigenous religion; indeed, he quickly wearied of what he called his “facty” research for this play. But the “relation” at issue is an important one: The Fountain is an anti-Christian play that, reasonably, conflates conquest, colonialism, and Christianity. (Talk about sailing the c’s!) A scene in which an Indigenous character inverts a cross that the Spaniards had planted on the beach and is then shot by a priest is remarkable in its willingness sympathetically to represent what a good many folks would have regarded as a shocking act of impiety. Of course regarding the play as specifically anti-Catholic encourages other and less savory meanings in that Klan-sodden decade, but O’Neill only “goes there” insofar as he has to, historically.

By the by, Graham Parker has a song about mezzo-Atlantic colonialism called “Syphilis and Religion.” O’Neill loved popular music, and I’m pretty sure he’d have been keen on this one. Definitely the best choice of music to accompany the closing credits, should any enterprising studio get a hankering to film this one!

How might O’Neill's Irish heritage have affected his depiction of minority characters in his plays? 

That is did is beyond doubt, and it’s worth noting that O’Neill’s famous father, the actor James O’Neill, emigrated from New Ross, County Wexford in 1850, during the Great Famine, and that, as we know from Long Day’s Journey and other sources, the young Eugene man heard a great deal about the challenges endured by that generation of immigrants. Remember, too, that Irishness is a de facto state of Blackness in racist apologetics of the period; in a very real sense, a scholar I respect recently argued, James was “seen as” Black. But I’m punching above my weight here: I haven’t pondered this matter as closely as I’d like to. But for a good collection of essays on O’Neill and Ireland, see Eugene O’Neill Review 39.1 (2018).

O'Neill's study in Tao House, where he wrote many of his last works

What kind of influence did O’Neill have on the representation of race on the American stage (e.g., The Emperor Jones)?

Unquestionably, O’Neill was the first American playwright to enabled the mature discussion of intersections, or collisions, of race and drama. My work, alone and in collaboration, is often concerned with O’Neill’s “take” on Indigeneity in particular; but the discussion to date has primarily concerned his African American characters in The Emperor Jones, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and his early one-act The Dreamy Kid, remarkable for being an Anglo-authored play with an all Black cast—and a thoughtful play at that, if not one that has aged all that well. The two later plays were hotly debated in their own day by prominent African American intellectuals and others; All God’s Chillun has the distinction of having prompted the Klan to threaten O’Neill with death, should he in fact stage the play. (Advance ticket sales spiked. O’Neill responded to the Grand Dragon—or whatever it was—with a three-word imperative, opening with “Go,” then moving through a salty verb and concluding with “yourself.” I love him for that.) So, yes, O’Neill got race “out there.” Of course the discussion continues, and recent scholars like Katie Johnson, Johan Callens, Robert Baker-White, and Kurt Eisen are among those who have advanced it meaningfully.

Maybe because I’m a huge August Wilson fan, I regard this partly as a matter of job creation. Although All God’s Chillun isn’t often revived, The Emperor Jones created a complex, demanding role that has showcased world-class actors from Charles Gilpin and Paul Robeson to James Earl Jones, Paterson Joseph, and others. No other commercially successful Anglo writer of O’Neill’s century can equal this accomplishment. That matters.

Emperor Jones poster 1937

Recently, there has been controversy surrounding the observance of Columbus Day. Imagine that the O'Neill of 1926 (the year of The Fountain) were to learn there would be such a controversy: how do you think he might have responded? 

In a 1946 interview, O’Neill opined that the Plains Indians’ triumph at Little Bighorn (1876), where “the Indians wiped out the white men,” was “the greatest victory in American history.” ’Nuff said. 

Jack Nicholson played Eugene O’Neill in the movie Reds directed by Warren Beatty in 1981. What do you think of the portrayal? Which actor (of any era) is your ideal O'Neill?

I saw that movie when it came out and didn’t think much of it. Gregory Peck would do nicely, I think: lean, angular, and severe of mien. David Tennant? An independent filmmaker named Arthur Egeli recently made a film about Charles Gilpin, who created the role of Brutus Jones (The Emperor Jones). He raves about his actor John Hensley’s portrayal of O’Neill. Here’s hoping for a distribution deal!

Actress Carlotta Monterey in Plymouth Theatre production of O’Neill’s The Harry Ape, 1922. Monterey later became the playwright’s third wife.

Should O’Neill’s plays be included in the educational curriculum? If so, which plays, and at what level of schooling? 

They’re better options than his poems, that’s for sure. Seriously though, colleagues, this seems an odd question to pose to someone who, you know, teaches these plays for a living. Unless we limit college curricula in English to seed catalogues, apothecaries’ bills, and works of imaginative literature meant primarily to guide students to their “happy places,” I can’t imagine a formulation that would exclude the US’s first great and arguably greatest playwright. (I rate only Wilson as O’Neill’s equal in the American canon, although I’m hoping that  Annie Baker, Brendan Jacobs-Jenkins, and a few others hang around long enough to crash this party.) For high school classes, I’d recommend Beyond the Horizon or “Anna Christie”. Horizon, about a dreamy poet manqué and his brutal encounter with Real Life, fares well with students generally and has an undeniably (and appealingly) “adolescent” flavor to it. O’Neill himself loathed “Anna Christie”, but in my opinion it’s the better of these two plays. To propose an ad hoc slant, it concerns a fascinating young woman who’s grappling with the superevident infelicities of the lug with whom she falls in love. Capitulation? Calculation? Pragmatism? A canny play for dominance? The play never fails to initiate discussions that extend beyond the top-tier of students.

O'Neill's 20th century home in Bermuda

What challenges do his works pose in the classroom?
The current batch of graduate students often struggles with authors whose lives and works don’t meet their somewhat fuzzy moral standards. This isn’t a challenge unique to O’Neill, but it does—usefully, if one handles it well—come up in the study of an intermittently inebriate author whose treatment of women was often disgraceful and whose representations of race require patient unpacking and contextualizing. Current undergrads seem readier to accept O’Neill’s personal failings; and my general sense is that they haven’t sacrificed intellectual rigor or moral discrimination to reach this position. I’m a big fan of the class of 2020.

What are you working on now?
Staying sane and sheltering at home, of course, and stressing out about Texas’s dunderheaded strategy for “reopening” our state to the novel coronavirus. Also, celebrating the release of the new issue of the Eugene O’Neill Review, the editorship of which I assumed a while back. Why mentions this, here? Because EOR 41.1 (2020) features a fine essay by former TSLL student assistant Brice Ezell. Well done, Brice! To continue the UT/TSLL connection, I’m working on my third co-authored essay with James Cox, professor of English and TSLL’s co-editor. It’s amazing how smart a learned collaborator can make one look. 

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