Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) is one of the most prolific, most highly recognized American playwrights of the 20th century who sadly had not real American contemporaries or precursors. O has been the only American dramatist to win the coveted Nobel Prize and while his work is for American audience and is certainly American in most respects, we notice that he has been greatly influenced by European writers and thinkers who shaped his literary interests and had a serious impact on his early plays.
When we discuss Eugene O'Neill, we must understand that his work can be divided into two broad phases. One phase of early fame was 1920s when the playwright, under the influence of writers like Strindberg and Ibsen, wrote some important expressionist plays including Dynamo and The Emperor Jones. Expressionism can be defined as "The attempt to create the essence rather than the appearance of reality through the use of non-related realistic symbols." (Elwood, 1966)
The second period began after his work came under strict scrutiny of stern critics like Francis Fergusson, Lionel Trilling and Eric Bentley. This was indeed a low period in his life and career. For one O'Neill's work began suffering in quality and second, criticism also led to a kind of oblivion, which proved tragic and almost fatal. But it was during this second phase of his career that he produced some of his best and most important plays including such masterpieces as A Touch of the Poet (1935-1942), More Stately Mansions (1935-1941), The Iceman Cometh (1939), A Long Day's Journey into Night (1939-41) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943). His work in the second phase was certainly more intense and a highlighted realism at its peak. Unlike the early expressionist plays where the reality was often distorted, the later plays infused element of realism to a great extent thus making the two phases of his career distinct.
While it is believed that Eugene O'Neill was basically influenced by European writers, it has also been noticed that his work is certainly focused on American life and culture. For him, his audience was always American. "O'Neill is often viewed in histories of the American drama as a kind of inexplicable and unexplainable upthrust in that history, a huge alp looming up between William Vaughn Moody or Percy McKaye and Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams and not appearing to have solid connections with either his predecessors or his successors... It is revealing and enlightening then to place him in, and view him in, the context and tradition to which he belongs, the tradition of serious American writing of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Once this readjustment is made, it becomes apparent that O'Neill is a major American writer and that his work constitutes one of the quintessential expressions of American culture. In fact few other American writers have explored so thoroughly the ranges and the depths of the national experience...On the other hand, O'Neill's work had stronger popular appeal for middle-class American audiences than that of almost any other serious writer of his time. Many of his plays were Broadway successes, and on several occasions were made into moderately popular movies." (Raleigh, 239)
Now that we understand the significance of Eugene O'Neill as an American writer, we must move ahead to compare and contrast works from his two distinct career phases. This will help us understand how when the author came out of the influence of European thinkers and writers that he managed to write some of his best plays. Eugene O'Neill was an authentic writer who experimented with expressionist techniques but didn't find as much success as he did later with his more realistic plays. The forces of expression and naturalism in his early plays turned his writing into ambiguous pieces that often appeared meaningless and not many viewers could relate to the constant conflict between actuality and dream that his plays contained. But it was when the author became determined to prove his merit and his worth as a true writer after having been severely criticized by new breed of critics that he produced plays that received worldwide acclaim and took him to new heights of fame.
We shall now focus on the expression play The Emperor Jones and compare it later with A Long Day's Journey into Night. The Emperor Jones consists of series of monologues, which are so subjective in nature, and they almost sound ambiguous and meaningless. The only significant character is our black hero, Brutus Jones. In this play, like, most other expressionist plays of the period, what is most important is the darkness that resides within the human soul. Readers and viewers need to pay close attention to "that dark center of emotion inherent in his characters and in the ideas represented in his works. The dark centers appear to represent a reflection of reality, an inability to cope with life as the playwright saw it. The German Expressionist movement was clearly reflecting a similar view of life, although some would contend that the base of reaction from expressionism was ultimately an exhortation for return to positive values. It is safe to say that expressionism is centered upon an internal dramatization of ideas, not always dark, although mostly that is the case." (Haiping Liu: 129)
In this play, the author illustrates the one man's journey into the heart of darkness where he meets his fears in form of apparition and finally comes to accept his humanity. The Emperor in this case is Jones who has been controlling an island ruthlessly; robbing the natives of their wealth and making them believe he was an invincible god-like being. When he learns of a revolt brewing, he runs into the forest and loses his way. This journey is the most important part of the play as it reveals the inner struggle that every man goes through when choosing between right and wrong, good and evil. Doris Falk explains: "The progress of Jones is progress in self understanding; it is the stripping off of the masks of self, layer by layer, just s bit by his emperor's uniform is ripped from his destiny, himself in nakedness." (67) Jones is stripped of the front that he had put on for so long. It is when that identity is gone, that Jones is forced to question and accept his own limitations. He is a human being with all the same desires, urges and fears that every man experiences and it is when he realizes how helpless he is without his fake identity that he becomes more human and humble. Expressionist plays have a different rather subjective way of dealing with real problems and issues. For example, fears in this case have been projected as apparitions or ghosts that haunt Jones and remind him of his weaknesses. "They are black, shapeless, only their glittering little eyes can be seen. If they have any describable form at all it is that of a grub worm about the size of a creeping child. They move noiselessly, but with deliberate, painful effort, striving to raise themselves on end, failing and sinking prone again." (Scene II, 28)
Some other important issues have also been raised in the play especially race and racism. Threading it with the issue of identity, the author explains that Jones' belief that he had the same powers, as a white man was a faulty one since it negated the significance of his own black race. Because he denied his race and shunned it and since he was certainly not white, the man lost his identity completely and was lurking in the dark, looking for an identity and a sense of belonging. While reminiscing about his criminal past, the protagonist thinks about Jeff, the white man he had murdered. This murder plays an important role in highlighting the issues of race and identity in the play as Tornqvist observes:
Jeff is an image of Jones himself as a Pullman porter, affected by the white quality talk, a gambler loading his dice to cheat others. Jeff's color is important: neither black nor white, it is a blend of the two, a true representation of Jones in between position. Jones has tried to believe that black is white, but this has only resulted in making him a confused hybrid, excluded from both races, a lonely brown man in a world that is either black or white." (235)
While The Emperor Jones is an expressionist play with a subjective quality about it and deviates from realism to create a world of illusion where everything has dual meanings and purpose, A long Day's Journey into Night written during the second phase is an intensely realistic play that focuses on the actual events and how normal people react to abnormal circumstances. It is different from the TEJ as far as style is concerned but deal with the similar problems of man and his reaction to his circumstances. What is common between both plays is the element of naturalism that remains dominant…