Three Plays: Anna Christie / The Emperor Jones / The Hairy Ape, by Eugene O’Neill
Eugene O’Neill is widely considered to be among the best playwrights ever in the United States concerning drama, having one four Pulitzer prizes for his playwriting. To put it mildly, these are not his best works. I had never heard of any of these, and I am someone who reads plays relatively often, and looking at these plays in greater detail (thankfully they are all pretty short), they are not plays that I would expect to see revived now or any time soon. In fact, the word that springs to mind when looking at all of these plays as a set is problematic. And it is not only in one way that these plays are problematic, for they are problematic in a variety of ways. Whether we are looking at the author’s insensitive and borderline racist use of dialect, his tendency to paint women as whores that appears over and over again in his works, or the author’s lack of nuance when it comes to dealing with issues of class and politics, these plays can do one thing well, and that is offend, as these plays are likely to offend most of the people who read them, for better or worse.
The three plays of this collection combine for less than 200 pages of material, making them easy to read, at least, from a perspective of length. We begin with “Emperor Jones,” which looks at a high and mighty black in the postwar period who acts with a great deal of violence and ends up killing himself in a vain attempt to escape madness. The titular black character is portrayed with a startling lack of empathy and compassion, and is viewed as a savage and as almost an animal, and would surely run afoul of contemporary attitudes regarding race and ethnicity. The same concerns about ethnicity follow into the second play, “Anna Christie,” which takes up about half the book’s contents as a whole and contains a conflict between a father with a strong Swedish accent and would-be suitor for control over the free and independent titular woman, who ends up having spent some time as a harlot before her return home to the sea. The third play, “The Hairy Ape” looks at the decline of a man from an honest worker on a ship in the ocean to a victim of an aggressive ape as he comes to realize (thanks to science and politics) that mankind is nothing more than a hairy ape.
Obviously there are some problems to be found here, but it is unclear just where these problems come from and how they could best be handled. It is clear that O’Neill had some very stereotypical views when it came to others, whether those others were women or people of different backgrounds than his own. His best works (especially Long Day’s Journey Into Night) deal with insider stories where he is at his most penetrating, but when he writes outside of his own experience he seems to do a poor job of it. He also seems to view scientific ideas like evolution a bit too highly–and it has some negative results on the dignity of humanity that he has in some of his plays. His drama as a whole could use a bit more dignity, but given his problems with alcoholism and his own worldview problems, the fact that his plays fail so notably when it comes to issues of morality and decency is not a surprise. The fact that he views “The Hairy Ape” as a comedy when it involves the death of a person who it is fairly easy to identify with suggests that he is laughing at others rather than seeking to laugh with them, and I’m not inclined to laugh at any of these plays or their lack of humanity.