Beyond Mourning and Tragedy

By Stephen A. Black

Yale Univ. 543 pp. $29.95

Reviewed by Wendy Smith

"The thesis presented in this biography is that Eugene O'Neill spent most of his writing life in mourning," Stephen Black writes in an alarming opening chapter that suggests he will take a rigidly psychoanalytic approach to literary criticism and biography. Not only is this approach reductive; in the case of O'Neill it also seems redundant. The autobiographical roots of his plays are well-known. O'Neill's birth in 1888 led to his mother's drug addiction; his father, a talented actor, frittered away his gifts in commercial melodrama; his brother was a self-loathing drunk; the deaths of all three in rapid succession just as O'Neill was establishing himself as a dramatist left him reeling with grief and guilt.

Who cares? What's interesting is how America's greatest playwright transmuted these personal sorrows and his resulting neuroses into masterpieces that uncompromisingly examined our national and individual delusions.

It's a pleasure to report that this complex process is what interests Black as well, and that his combined credits as a professor of English (at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia) and as a psychoanalytic therapist give him a good background for understanding it. Throughout his lengthy, subtle dissection of the O'Neill family's dysfunction, the author displays an exemplary awareness that psychological traumas are only part of the story. Response to such traumas is shaped by intellectual conviction and individual choice built on the bedrock of a basic personality that can never be fully explained. Black's contrast between young Eugene and his doomed older brother is typical: "Eugene's intellectual hunger and curiosity had nothing to do with satisfying school authorities or impressing his father or mother . . . for Jamie, it seems, intellect was useful only for outwitting the world."

Black's careful assessment of O'Neill's development, by contrast, shows the young man constructing a spiritual credo that provided emotional and artistic sustenance. It's no accident, the author argues, that O'Neill was devoted throughout his life to classic Greek drama, which gave him "a space in which to contemplate responsibility as an idea not always identical with guilt" (a welcome insight for someone who knew his birth had been the innocent cause of disaster) and to such 19th-century philosophical nihilists as Nietzsche and Max Stirner, whose view of good and evil as relative terms offered an alternative to his parents' Catholicism, replete with moral certainties horribly at odds with the realities of their family life.

Black shows us the psychological necessity of the tragic vision O'Neill assembled from these diverse sources while maintaining respect for its power as the wellspring of his art. From the masks that must be torn off in "The Great God Brown" to the "pipe dreams" that deform and sustain the barflies in "The Iceman Cometh," the images that sprang from O'Neill's personal history were transformed by his genius into metaphors of universal significance.

In the second half of the book, Black devotes his attention more intensively to the plays themselves. (The evaluations of O'Neill's relationships with his wives and children, although shrewd, are less detailed.) The central premise that O'Neill's major works played a crucial role in the process of mourning for his family proves to be illuminating rather than confining. Black broadly defines mourning as "pity, understanding, forgiveness" (O'Neill's own words for the spirit in which he depicted his kinfolk in "Long Day's Journey Into Night"), which are the essence of all great art as it seeks to see men and women whole, with both good and bad qualities, and to place individual lives in a context that gives meaning to human suffering.

In the critical passages, Black's psychoanalytic orientation occasionally results in jargon-laden sentences and questionable judgments, as when he contends that at the end of "Mourning Becomes Electra" "Lavinia reaches the point of being ready to begin the `working-through' stage of grieving" -- not a very apt description of someone who has just ordered the shutters nailed shut on the house where she intends to "live alone with the dead . . . until the curse is paid out and the last Mannon is let die!" These are small faults, however, in comparison to the wealth of fresh insights Black brings to the great final plays. It's a particular pleasure to read his loving elucidation of the crucial comic elements in "The Iceman Cometh," "Hughie" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten," works that are profoundly misunderstood if we fail to see the almost Shakespearean acceptance of human folly and failure that balances their more evident bleakness.

Black's persuasive argument that in these masterful works "the playwright had passed beyond mourning and tragedy" makes the grim chronicle of O'Neill's last years, consumed by a mysterious nervous disorder that prevented him from writing, almost bearable. But not quite. The entire thrust of this sensitive book is that O'Neill's art gave him the means to transcend his pain. Because Black has delineated the healing powers of that magical process so fully, readers will feel O'Neill's agony over its loss all the more keenly.

Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."