Shakespeare’s in the room

Did Eugene O’Neill look to the Bard for inspiration?
By Yu Jin Ko | Published: April 1, 2014


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Art by George Danby

Not long ago, I saw A.R. Gurney’s play The Cocktail Hour, which is a light-hearted, sentimental send-up of living room drama – the type of play that exposes the darker underbelly of family life. Fun as it was, it made me want to go back to the real thing, to Eugene O’Neill. Or Shakespeare. I would argue that no American did more than O’Neill to unleash the power of the living room drama, and that the playwright he learned the most from was Shakespeare. Although O’Neill never publicly named Shakespeare as an influence, Shakespeare was a constant presence in his life, beginning literally from the crib, since he was the son of an actor who worshiped and obsessively recited Shakespeare. O’Neill himself also read Shakespeare voraciously, and, after a bet with his father, even memorized the part of Macbeth.

So what might he have learned? I’ve been teaching Shakespeare for more than 25 years, and it’s still astonishing to me how seamlessly Shakespeare combines the extraordinary and the ordinary at so many levels – from scenes that mix sublime pathos with obscene jokes to passages in which epic grandiloquence or rhapsodic lyricism progresses hand in hand with the most conversational diction.

In King Lear, perhaps the greatest of all domestic tragedies, the king is constantly given to volcanic outbursts in soaring jeremiads or high bombast, as when he curses his youngest daughter “by the sacred radiance of the sun” for refusing to announce publicly how much she loves him and then banishes her. But in a telling moment, he adds, “I loved her most.” This simple declaration of his vulnerability gives the fable-like action an intimately human dimension. The play always remains both the story of an ordinary, broken old man suffering from dementia and a grand tragedy of immense proportions. When O’Neill is at his very best, he is at his most Shakespearean; you feel that his characters could easily walk into your own living room because they feel so intimately familiar, and yet the long day’s journey that they’re on also takes you beyond the ordinary, both emotionally and linguistically.

Consider first some of the titles of O’Neill’s plays. The Iceman Cometh. Mourning Becomes Electra. Long Day’s Journey into Night. Although the plays treat the lives of people we might call ordinary, the titles suggest something larger and even epic in dimension. (Of course, Mourning Becomes Electra is a modern rewriting of the classical Greek tragedy The Oresteia.) Then, in the progress of the action and dialogue, the material of everyday life – from its routine agonies to its hopes – resonates with uncommon power and significance. Here’s the younger Tyrone son (from Long Day’s Journey) with the Shakespearean name Edmund sputtering in a drunken stupor about drunkenness, mixing Shakespeare (and the poet Baudelaire) with colloquial wit:

We are such stuff as manure is made on, so let’s drink up and forget it….Be always drunken. Nothing else matters: that is the only question. If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time weighing on your shoulders and crushing you to the earth, be drunken continually.

And indeed, drink is a substitute for the sublime and dreamy form of escape from the ordinary – “Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like a veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand” – that exists for Edmund only as an elusive memory.

Such moments build in O’Neill’s dramas toward scenes that are at the heart and soul of living room drama: confrontations. Characters in these dramas often labor under layers of illusion, self-delusion and denial, sometimes fighting to retain the emotional safety that the veneer of normalcy offers, until a confrontation blows the lid off the situation. At that point, the ordinary disappears and a new reality comes lurching into view. But I could be describing King Lear again, or the shape of a scene that O’Neill learned to craft from reading Shakespeare.

Yu Jin Ko is a professor of English  at Wellesley College, where, among other literary subjects, he teaches Shakespeare. George Danby is a political cartoonist in Maine.