At the beginning of this century, one of the biggest hit plays was "Salvation Nell," in which an unwed mother who has been "saved" by the Salvation Army in turn redeems the criminal father of her child: At play's end, as she preaches, he removes his cap and bows his head. It was 1908, four years before the young Eugene O'Neill attempted suicide, and perhaps the play helped drive him to it.

Indeed, what could the ferocious and hypersensitive O'Neill have thought as he looked at the American stage at the beginning of the 20th century? It wasn't that playwrights avoided difficult topics such as unwed motherhood, poverty and miscegenation, it's that they were incapable of treating those topics any way except sentimentally. The good people were saintly, pathetic victims; the bad people were very bad indeed; and the ideal audience response was righteous indignation followed by relief when everything turned out all right.

Nineteenth-century Europe had produced the plays of Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg (O'Neill's favorite) and Shaw. America had produced stiff verse plays, derivative comedies and melodramas--none of which are put on today, even by the theaters that consider it their duty to produce obscure, forgotten plays that audiences hate. Nineteenth-century American plays aren't even studied in school except at the graduate level. They're that bad.

Almost a hundred years have passed since "Salvation Nell" and her ilk ruled the American stage, and as a culture we consider ourselves far more sophisticated than those earlier audiences. But in fact, though O'Neill stomped on it, melodrama, with its victimization and pathos, its good characters we're meant to pity and bad ones we're meant to hate, never really went away. It remains at the heart of those plays we commonly regard as our greatest.

O'Neill's family--which he was to dramatize so unforgettably in "Long Day's Journey Into Night"--consisted of a father who wouldn't admit he was a drunk, a brother who wouldn't admit he was a drunk, and a mother who wouldn't admit she was a drug addict. Also, no one wanted to admit that O'Neill himself had tuberculosis. This household in which everyone pretended, ludicrously and shamefully, that Everything Was All Right undoubtedly fueled his exasperation with plays that did the same thing. So, brooding, bitter and brilliant, he created 20th-century American drama.

Though he hung out with sailors, whores and down-and-outers, O'Neill was fundamentally bookish and middle-class, the kind of boy who flunked out of Princeton in order to experience "real life." He had read all the great European dramatists, and he knew that it was possible to get sexuality, ambivalence and viciousness, not to mention nonrealistic narrative, into a play. As soon as his "Beyond the Horizon" lumbered onto the Broadway stage in 1920, the theater world knew it was in the presence of someone special.

O'Neill brought emotional realism, adult concerns and expressionist form into the American play, but perhaps his greatest contribution was what he took out. He ripped the innocence from American drama, the precious myth of good people and bad people and easy definitions of right and wrong. He gave our stage adult complexity and strength. The terrible family in "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and the character of Hickey in "The Iceman Cometh" are too predatory to be victims and in too much pain to be villains. An audience can't just classify them morally and be rid of them.

Three years after "The Iceman Cometh's" first Broadway production in 1946, "Death of a Salesman" opened there, and melodramatic sentimentality returned--disguised, for many people convincingly, as social criticism and psychological acuity. Willy Loman became an American theater icon as the hero who was heroic because he was a victim.

Somewhat confusingly, "Death of a Salesman" runs on two story tracks: the father-son conflict between Willy and his elder son, Biff, and the story of Willy's betrayal by the capitalistic system he has unthinkingly served, which uses up his productive years and then fires him.

The idealistic Willy has loved selling and worked hard, but somehow the American dream isn't working out for him. His house is full of appliances he hasn't finished paying for, and younger men are passing him professionally. When he goes to see his new, young boss, the fellow is playing with his new tape recorder and indifferent to this old has-been's problems. Willy's past achievements for the company might as well not have happened. At the end of his life, he's left with nothing.

In the part of the play concerning Biff, Willy is shown to have made at least some mistakes. But he's been blameless in his behavior toward his company, a perfect employee in fact, and his mistreatment is meant as proof of the heartlessness of American business. Capitalism is now the villain twirling his mustache, and Willy the maiden tied to the railroad track, run over and crushed by progress.

The same era brought Tennessee Williams's most celebrated play, "A Streetcar Named Desire," in which the sensitive Southern flower Blanche DuBois is violated and driven mad by the tough, working-class Stanley Kowalski. On Broadway and in the movie, Stanley was famously played by Marlon Brando, who gave him shadings of vulnerability, but on the page he comes across as what Blanche calls him, a brute.

Stanley is the Bad Guy and Blanche is the Good Girl, even though she's been a very bad girl and seduced half the boys in her home town, which is why she's fled to stay with her sister Stella, who is married to Stanley. Blanche, who longs for gentility, who cries, "I don't want reality, I want magic!" is Williams's heroine. Her virtue is proved by her being so sensitive that bad treatment drives her mad.

Williams saw Blanche as courageous in her idealism, a victim of Stanley's animal-like nature. Audiences have often disagreed. Both Williams and the play's original director, the usually cynical Elia Kazan, were surprised and dismayed when some audiences laughed at Blanche, finding her pretentious and dishonest.

They attributed the reaction to the strength of Brando's performance as Stanley. For some reason, neither of the men so intimately associated with the play's first staging saw what audiences often do: that, far from being a courageous idealist, Blanche is a manipulative, selfish liar. Williams presents her as a pure spirit, though, however corrupt her bodily behavior--another Victim sacrificed to unfeeling humanity.

Both these emblematic American dramas--plays we regard as our masterpieces--ask us not to admire the hero but to feel sorry for him. Pitifulness has become the mark of a character's uncriticizable virtue.

Are things any better today?

The '60s supposedly ushered in a new, tougher age of drama, but when you look closely at the famous plays of the last 35 years, nothing has really changed. We've had the occasional ironist, like John Guare, but Guare isn't a star playwright. The boys who've made it big are pretty much all in the pity business.

Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" presents its rancid characters as finally pathetic. Sam Shepard's plays are about the plight, not the strengths, of the American male. Self-pity and self-hatred twist at the center of David Mamet's dramatic exercises. The heroes of "Angels in America," however flawed, are at the helpless mercy of a vicious American political system.

The one exception to this, interestingly enough, is the writer who has the most reason to regard his characters as victims: the African American playwright August Wilson. Yet Wilson is the least sentimental of our dramatists. He acknowledges the damage white racism has done to black culture, but his characters repulse audience pity. They're stoics, making the best of a wretched situation, and neither they nor Wilson ask for sympathy. Feeling sorry for a Wilson character would be an insult.

Otherwise, the heroes and heroines of American drama remain tied to the railroad track.