Eugene O'Neill's play, "The Emperor Jones (1921)," is the horrifying story of Rufus Jones, the monarch of a West Indian island, presented in a single act of eight scenes of violence and disturbing images. O'Neill's sense of tragedy comes out undiluted in this surreal and nightmarish study of Jones' character in a mighty struggle and tension between black Christianity and black paganism (IMBD). Jones is an unforgettable character in his powerfulness and fatalness, made most evident by the support of language, sound and other stage effects, such as the dreadful drumming sounds and the Emperor's hallucinations. This psychological drama delves into the nature of power, the inevitable pull of history and in the belief in the supernatural as these were experienced in the first two decades of the last century.
The play is a monument to O'Neill's vision of conflict between a man and his own psyche, "between learning what life is really made of," and how the ordinary man is little prepared to learn (IMBD). It is a sordid, shattering tragedy, which brings the audience to a journey of fear, anger, humility, sadness and terror, experienced by a monster of an emperor whose only resort to sanity was to humiliate and dehumanize those whom he governs in the pursuit of social, political and financial goals. O'Neill spells out his tragic message about human reality - the truth about ourselves - after a merciless probe into its I dark alleys and frank depths.
The dehumanization of man is the same subject of another play, "The Hairy Ape (1922)." Rather than improve on the human condition, industrialization has reduced the human worker into a mere machine, which can be manipulated or turned on or off by whistles. He is no longer required or expected to think independently: machines do the job for him. The human worker is instead relegated to the most menial and meanest "grunt work and physical labor" that has reverted man into the ape or Neanderthal state.
O'Neill expresses his objection to the tyranny of progress and industrialization and the tragedy it has brought upon human life in the ironic retrogression of progressive human beings into unthinking, manipulated and helpless apes. Yank and his fellows are more than symbolic apes whose language is complex and to whom thought is difficult. O'Neill views modern man as "un-evolved," ignorant about class and concerned only with brute survival and a machine-like sense of belonging. Like an ape, Yank is territorial, pigheaded and aggressive and O'Neill uses his characterization to present a most grotesque condition of modern man.
Though a compelling primary need, the sense of belonging is not achieved in the play from an animal to a spiritual being. This frustration is presented by the character of Yank as the filthy and arrogant ship leader, who is later thrown out by the Industrial Workers of the World as a "brainless ape." In his urge to belong somewhere, he sets a gorilla free from a zoo in order to befriend it but the animal, instead, kills him, proving that even the beasts of the zoo reject him.
O'Neill's "The Hairy Ape" belongs to the category of plays for the expressionistic theater, which includes Elmer Rice's "The Adding Machine (1922)." "The Adding Machine" is a funny but a shattering presentation of the mechanization of man in the age of technology in the person of Mr. Zero. Mr. Zero is every man and no man, only a cog in the huge social mechanism of conformity and adherence among robots. There is no hope of getting liberated from this role and series of roles. The only hint of hope is precisely to escape this machine and become human again.
Expressionistic plays transmit an illusion of reality in the presence of the clearly un-real, and the last among O'Neill's naturalistic plays that do so is "Desire Under the Elms (1925)" and his first to re-create the tragedy of Euripides' Hippolytus and Jean Racine's "Phaedra." In all three, the father returns home to find his wife in love with his son. In "Desire Under the Elms," where Ephraim Cabot comes back with his a new wife to the farm and three sons he has abandoned. The youngest, Eben, hates his father for destroying his mother's life and pays his brothers t leave for California. The new wife, Abbie, gets pregnant by Eben, but deceives Ephraim into believing it is his child to entrench her security on the farm. When the child becomes an obstacle between her and Eben, she kills the infant and this infuriates him. He reports her to the sheriff but he then realizes his love for her and he confesses his part in the crime.
This play embodies O'Neill's sexual conflicts within his own family as well as his Freudian treatment of sexual themes. The elms are intended to represent a wicked kind of maternity, so that this 20th century American classic, shocked the sense of refinement of the audiences of the time because of its themes on infanticide, alcoholism, vengeance and incest - the first performance in Los Angeles led to an arrest for exhibiting an "obscene work."
His other work, "Mourning Becomes Electra (1931)," is the counterpart of the Freudian interpretation of the Oedipal complex of father - daughter and mother - son bonds. The character Lavinia longs to replace Christine as her father's wife and mother to her brother. Lavinia as the daughter is forcefully drawn to her father Ezra and Christine, to her son, Orin. Family foulness and intrigue surface when Lavinia discovers her mother Christine's betrayal of Ezra through a relationship with Brant. Christine's basic desire for her son is projected to Brant and Lavinia subjects Christine to an emotional blackmail. The clash of personalities and wills intensifies when Ezra suffers a heart attack and dies when Christine secretly deprives him of the medication. The ferocious fight then moves between mother and daughter, each trying to destroy the other for their men. The destruction that ensues is more the loss of the bond than their lives, that instinctive bond between mother and son, whether in the real mother or the projected mother image. O'Neill's exemplification of the sadness and brokenness of life, quite deeply within the family, crashes from beginning to end.
The same mothering instinct, the mother-son bond underlies O'Neill's 1932 play, "Strange Interlude," the message of which is that what people think is quite often not what they say. But this play reveals what people actually think and do not say and has the same tragic format as his previous drama plots.
Nina should have been happily married to Gordon Shaw if her father did not disapprove of the marriage and Gordon had not later joined the Army for the First World War where he was shot and killed. Charlie could have married her if he were not too withdrawn to let her know how he feels and so Nina ends up marrying Sam. But as soon as the wedding ceremony is over, she discovers Sam's hereditary mental illness and incapacity to give her children. The frustration drives her to a secret affair with Ned, who later demands that Nina leave Sam. She gets pregnant and gives birth to a dream son, whom she named Gordon, after her deceased first love. She does not tell Gordon who his father really is and manipulates the feelings of all three men, completely satisfied in devoting herself to a son.
Thornton Wilder's "Our Town (1938)" captures the everyday lives of everyday people of a fictitious town, Grover's Corner, in New Hampshire beginning in May 1901. The stage manager introduces the characters and setting and narrates the events that span years, the milkman and the paperboy doing their jobs, Dr. Gibbs performing his function as town doctor, Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb their home chores and ritual gossips for each day and George and Emily falling in love and eventually getting married.
Wilder mixes the everyday pleasures of simple life and its haunting limitations of transience and fragility. While he establishes the solidarity of human traditions and the sturdiness of the natural environment, the coming and going of the characters reveal their subjection to the passage of time, which the timekeeper himself misses. In realizing the tyranny of time, Wilder wonders if people truly appreciate the shortness of life and its preciousness precisely because of that shortness. What others would consider trivial routine activities, Wilder presents artfully and painfully because exactly these are fleeting - preparing and eating breakfast, feeding chickens, treating patients, marrying. He gives each routine activity a finality that outlasts the meaning of each event or routine. The characters themselves seem unaware of the daily entanglements and motions they go through or give them little attention as if time on earth were unlimited.
But time is not indefinite and the dead souls in the latter chapter testify to that, and these dead souls chastise the living for their ignorance, blindness or disregard for the value of time and…