In an investigation, a Parisian newspaper asked the question: what sign makes us recognize the coming of old age ? Someone replied: old age comes when your memories overwhelm you.
Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy
For some time I have felt this very intense. In my moments of loneliness, I see fragments from my past. I review a certain scene, think I hear voices… These memories are often related to my father, Leo Tolstoy, who was everything I had dearest and brighter in my life.
I can not always relate them to events that preceded or followed them, nor to fix them at a certain date. But I see the episode as if it had happened yesterday. I write down these “memory flashes” as they emerge.
Dad Gets a Baksheesh
From Moscow to Iasnaia Poliana is about 200 km and sometimes my father was walking this way. With the bag in his back, he mingled among the pilgrims he was interested in, but for whom he has been just a simple traveler. He was making this trip in five days. On the way, he stopped eating and sleeping in a wooden house or at a country inn. When he approached a train station, he went to eat in the waiting room of the third class.
In one of these stops, walking on the platform where a train was ready to leave, he heard someone call him.
“Hey, old man, old man !”, a woman yelled from the train window. “Do you want to go to the woman’s toilet and bring me the bag that I left there ? But go quickly, because the train leaves soon.”
My dad ran to the women’s toilet where he was lucky to find the bag, and then gave it to the lady.
“Thank you very much,” said the lady, and gave him a large bronze coin.
“Do you know who you gave those five kopecks ?”, asked her a traveler who recognized the dusty pilgrim as being the author of the book War and Peace. “To Leo Tolstoy !”
“God, what have I done ! Lev Nikolayevich, Lev Nikolayevich ! Please forgive me and give me back the five kopecks I gave you out of my stupidity .”
“Why ?”, my dad answered. You didn’t do anything wrong. The five kopecks I won honestly. I keep them…”
The train moved into motion, carrying with it the lady who continued to apologize, bagging Tolstoy to give her the coin back.
Tolstoy, with a smile, was watching the train moving away.
from Tatiana Tolstaya, Avec Leon Tolstoi. Souvenirs
I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,
Pitch like King Billy bombs-falls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.
All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great scene curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All man have aimed at, found and lost;
Black-out; Heaven blazing into the head;
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Uppon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.
Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving man
Carries a musical instrument.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.
William Butler Yeats, Lapis Lazuli
King Billy – William II, the German emperor who had started World War I
palette and fiddle-bow – the artists (painters and musicians)
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