Eugene O’Neill – Psychology of Expressionism

O'Neill-86868 In the interval between the two world wars there flourished a literary genre which seemed to have been neglected for a long time. Drama, with its capacity to use a local scene as a microcosm of the life and mind of the whole of society, was the genre which could best present man’s worried consciousness in action on the stage voicing his yearning for individual attainment, but during the first two decades of the century American drama had only continued the long established conventional patterns.

However, responding to the inner necessitties and to the experimental symbolic and critical patterns from abroad, it came, in the 1920’s, to involve the intellectual and emotional life as well as the major problems of society, of man and of the world he lived in.

The influience at work in the drama of the twenties were all centred on the subtile analysis of life and man. Expressionism, in the first place  – a device developed by nineteenth century painting –  held sway with its view that, in order to  “express” or to convey the inner significance of his work, the artist must, in his efforts to objectify inner states of mind and emotion, stylize the representation of literal reality.

Secondly, ample use was made of the device of analysing psychological motivations which had already been ilustrated by Henry James in America and by James Joyce in England.

A third feature of new drama was the preference for and adoption of the language of poetic symbolism.

The playwright who did more than anyone else to destroy the stereotypes and to substitute for them an essentially different dramatic imagination along the lines already mentioned was Eugene O’Neill.

Throughout his plays his chief theme was to be the classic predicament of man struggling to understand his place in the universe while the answer to this was to be set forth in his affirmation of love as the basis of existance.


Born in New York City, on October 16, 1888, he was son of an actor who was a famous interpreter of Shakespeare. During his early years he travelled much with his parents from town to town being educated by tutors and in private schools. In 1906 he was sent to Princeton University but left before his first academic year was out, to travel as a seaman aboard a Norwegian freighter to Buenos Aires. During the ensuing voyages he came to know a variety of individuals such as sailors, stevedores, waifs, etc., who were to become his dramatis personae.

In 1912 we find him in a sanatorium affected with tuberculosis. During the six months he spent there   he read the classic repertoire of the theatre including the Greeks, the Elizabethans and the most noteworthy among the modern playwrights such as Ibsen, the expressionist Strindberg, etc. His reading experience was to be added late on his experience of life at sea and in the world of the oppresed and the outcast.

In 1916, O’Neill joined the Provincetown Players that began to produce his “one-actres”. This group which side by side with others was to revolutionize the American theatre belonged to the new trend which had been started a year before.


Fidel Garcia – Filled with the Silent

After a series of one-act pieces O’Neill began to write his full-length plays. The first one, Beyond the Horizon, was followed by The Emperor Jones, an expressionist play which tells the story of a giant Negro, Brutus Jones, who becomes an autocratic  “emperor” and is finally killed by the tribesmen rebelling against his exploatation. Desire under the Elms is a realistic study of the manners, morals, and psychology of a definite society which serves as the background for the eternal drama of man and his passions.

All God’s Chillum Got Wings as been taken as a contribution in the study of the Negro problem. The climax and triumph of his career is Mourning Becomes Electra, a trilogy imitating Aeschylus’s Orestia. Of his later plays special mention deserves Long Day’s Journey into Night an overwhelming tragedy based on the life of his parents.


Eugene O’Neill was the most daring and successful playwright who embarked upon destroying the rooted convention of the American theatre based on the combining of the Elisabethan tradition and the “well-made” play of O’Neill’s European predecessors.

Fundamentally, his liberation of the theatre was psychological. He enriched the American drama with a remarkable understanding of the new psychology – not simply Freudianism, but a far wider psychology including the analysis of all conscious and subconscious realities.

O’Neill work is free from direct influiences although indirect efects of his aquaintance with the plays of the Norwegian dramatist Ibsen and the Swedish dramatist Strindberg can be seen in his work.

His imagination was so rich that he never respects himself in any of his numerous dramas. Each of them is basically different from the others and each of his plays grows from its own conflict and psychology so that organically it is prefectly constructed.

Like Ibsen and Strindberg he shows preference for expressionism, a device first developed by nineteenth-century painting which allows the artist to stylize  or distort the representation of literal reality in order to express better the inner significance of his work.

O’Neill also adopts the language of symbolism and considers that the imagination and emotion of high drama are more nearly those of poetry, than of prose. But in what he completely differs from many of his immediate European predecessors is his faith in the dignity of man which rejects the wiev that man’s destiny is determined by forces quite beyond his control.


Vincent van Gogh – Girl in the Woods

While this philosophy presents an orderly view of the human situation, it does not imply a sanguine one. If pain and action are inseparable, then it follows that the active, creative sensitive man is doomed to suffer. He is the one who knows that desire to express or to avoid grief is the impelling force of life – the pain is the Janus-face of joy; but then he becomes aware of the duality of all value ! He sees that life and action exist in a perpetual tension between opposites, each of which owes its existance to the presence of the other.

The tension is the source of all change and growth, for as night exist only in contrast to day, so night flows eternally into day and day to night again. The life of the race is perpetuated in the flow of natural process from birth to death to birth again. The life of the individual man moves from joy to pain to joy eternally.

SOURCES: Doris V. Falk – Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension

Virgiliu Stefanescu – Eugene O’Neill

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