Dissertation > Literature > Literary Theory > Countries in Literature

Alienation and Authenticity:Absurdity in Eugene O'Neill's Plays

Author WuZongHui
Tutor FeiChunFang
School East China Normal University
Course English Language and Literature
Keywords O’Neill’s plays alienation authenticity absurdity Sisypheanspirit
CLC I712.073
Type PhD thesis
Year 2013
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Eugene O’Neill’s plays are deeply concerned with human existential condition. Based upon his belief "men being what they are", his plays try to show us that human existence is characteristic of absurdity and struggle, which should be an authentic state of life. Despite the fact that there are titanic volumes of studies on O’ Neill characters’ existential conditions, the direct treatment of human existence and the absurd has been far from enough. First off, both in and out of the United States, most of the scholars focus on two or three O’ Neill plays to treat the link between him and the absurd, from which the possible misunderstanding is that O’ Neill’s absurdity resides in merely several of his plays. Secondly, though not a few of these studies are involved in the aspect of absurdity, their conclusions drawn are frequently based on other issues rather than the research related to the absurd. In other words, as far as the current studies are concerned, there has been no one comprehensive and penetrative research on O’Neill’s absurdity based on his whole dramatic career. This dissertation attempts to study the absurdity of O’Neill plays from the perspectives of alienation and authenticity.First, with the comparisons between Existentialism, the absurd and the absurdity in O’Neill plays, this dissertation argues that O’Neill’s absurdity is consistent with Existentialism and the absurd. From the perspectives of "repetition","faithlessness" and "incommunicability", O’Neill is theoretically connected to Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and Camus. Moreover, O’Neill is deeply influenced by Nietzsche and shares similar theoretical sources, social background, philosophy of life and religious outlook with such absurdists as Camus. His characters’ struggle is an echo of Camus’s version of the Sisyphean spirit.Second, in this dissertation, with the theories from Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and Camus, these plays each are chosen from O’Neill’s three creative periods in view of the relationships between man and nature, man and others, man and the self. It is argued that O’Neill’s absurdity embodies what he endeavors to reveal,"men being what they are". In terms of dramatic thoughts, his plays are characteristic of alienation. On the one hand, human powerlessness and hopelessness represent man’s alienation from nature. Faithlessness and incommunicability symbolize the alienation from others. The sense of not belonging, the loss of the self and cyclic fate denotes man’s estrangement from the self. On the other, the characters display strong will power for survival when trapped in the alienated state. Their ways of struggle correspond to the Sisyphean spirit, which is suggestive of the playwright’s optimistic treatment of human existence. Such a treatment is presented through "the truth of who they are","his struggle is his success!" and "his hatred of death". In terms of dramatic techniques, from the perspectives of "repetition", masked expressions, thought aside, dramatic action and stage space, O’Neill plays echo what Ionesco and Beckett are engaged in their absurdist plays and inspire the modernity of the world drama at large.In view of the foregoing statement, this dissertation believes that O’Neill’s sense of absurdity consists in not several of his plays, but his whole dramatic career. Martin Esslin in The Theatre of the Absurd apparently takes no notice of O’Neill’s contributions to the absurdist plays. This dissertation consists of the following parts:In the Introduction, those studies on O’Neill’s absurdity in different periods of O’Neill criticism are analyzed. From1934through the twenty-first century, scholars have been engaged in O’Neill characters’ existential conditions from the duality of personality, the pursuit of love and happiness, incommunicability, alienation,"belonging", everydayness and so on.Chapter One is devoted to human alienated existence through comparing the thoughts of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and Camus. Human alienation chiefly lies in "repetition", faithlessness and incommunicability which are all demonstrated in O’Neill plays. The relationship between Existentialism and the absurd, particularly the philosophical inheritance of the absurd from Existentialism, is discussed. Similarities and differences between them are analyzed in view of the theories chiefly from Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and Camus. The distinctive absurdist features reflected in O’Neill’s dramas are explored in order to demonstrate the overlappings, juxtapositions and differences between him, the existentialists and the major absurdist playwrights.Chapter Two deals with an authentic existence human beings should struggle for. The authentic existence is composed of "the truth of who they are","his struggle is his success" and "his hatred of death". What’s more, the similar views among O’Neill, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus and other theorists are tackled so as to demonstrate that O’ Neill plays convey the spirit of struggle, faith and optimism. From the persctives of "the true self","freedom","struggle", family relationship, and memory, O’ Neill’s characters display the indefatigable spirit in their fighting for an authentic way of existence.Chapter Three is concerned about the alienation between man and nature in the three early sea plays, Thirst, Gold, and Where the Cross Is Made. In these plays, the characters turn out to be totally powerless and hopeless when confronted with an indifferent nature.It is through delineation of the natural forces,"the biological world of environment", that O’Neill plays convey the alienated human existence."The biological world of environment" is presented through an indifferent and threatening nature with the sea, shark, and an illusory treasure as representatives. From O’Neill’s arrangement of these natural images, it can be seen that the relationship between his characters and nature is antagonistic and alienated. The nature is indifferent because there is no possibility of survival, however desperate the characters are in their struggle. The nature is also threatening due to the situation in which the characters are completely powerless. Faced with the frustrating existential condition, human existence is replete with hopelessness and faithlessness. In such hopeless situations, many characters with the Captain Bartlett as a representative have showed signs of the Sisyphean spirit. O’Neill’s early life is a reflection of this situation. His wandering experience leaves him nothing but his detestation of the sea.Chapter Four concentrates on the alienation between man and others in the three plays, The Hairy Ape, Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra. In this period, O’ Neill often situates his characters’ sufferings in complicated and hellish communications, in which they are unable to extricate themselves from incommunicability. Such incommunicability is equally what the Theater of the Absurd tries to delineate and stage.The middle plays are devoted to "the interaction of human beings upon one another" which is characteristic of incommunicability. Based upon the idea "hell is the others", plays in this period indicate that the characters are victims of incommunicability. There is no common ground for them to communicate due to their different understandings of the existential conditions. Their alienated relationships are associated with "a telephone man" image which is a representation of everydayness. Another representation of incommunicability is that the characters are often involved in the thought aside, ignoring each other’s speaking.Chapter Five explores the alienation between man and the self in More Stately Mansions, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night. Such human alienated state brings closer O’ Neill plays to the Theatre of the absurd. Most of the characters are torn between the illusory self and the realistic one, and feel uncertain about where their true identities lie. Issues like the meaningfulness of existence, the right attitude towards current existence and the way to authentic existence keep haunting O’Neill characters as well as human beings in real life. Sara and Simon’s return to the farm in More Stately Mansions, Larry’s detachment from those outcasts in The Iceman Cometh, and the Tyrones in Long Day’s Journey into Night attest to the nature of the authentic existence. Their ultimate choices for either the illusory self or the realistic one largely give expressions to O’Neill’s sense of absurdity.In the conclusion part, it has been tentatively concluded that O’Neill characters in their alienated existence choose to struggle for an authentic way of life,"men being what they are", rather than surrender. In their different approaches to and choices for authenticity, they display what Sisyphus fights with unyieldingness and persistence. Hence, his plays are replete with enthusiasm and passion for survival. O’Neill’s treatment of his characters’ struggle indicates that he is by no means a pessimist. Rather, his plays help advocate courage and optimism in the existential plight. Not only in terms of thoughts, but also dramatic techniques does O’Neill anticipate the Theatre of the Absurd as well as other related types of drama. Martin Esslin’s negligence of O’ Neill’s contributions enlightens us on the fact that more studies should be made on the relationship between O’Neill stagecraft and the Theatre of The Absurd.

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