Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama

By Marc Maufort | Go to book overview

Eugene O'Neill's First Transcultural Epic:
"Universal History" in The Fountain

Ronald R. Miller


I

During his period of experimentation during the 1920s, Eugene O'Neill engaged a theme which would concern him through much of his career: the collision of cultures brought about by migrations in world history. His most expansive treatments of the theme, in works such as Marco Millions, Lazarus Laughed, and Mourning Becomes Electra, reveal his interest in the liminal moments in which one culture confronts another.

O'Neill's first attempt at an epic treatment of this theme was in The Fountain, written in 1921. The play begins with an early event in the history of the Americas, Columbus' second voyage to the West Indies, and takes as its principal focus the original myth of the European ethos in America, the search of the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon for a "fountain of youth." It is evident that O'Neill interpreted these early events in the history of the new Americans in transcultural terms. He saw the Spanish impulse towards the "New World" as emerging from an intercultural conflict taking place contemporaneously in Europe, between Granada and the Moors. The playwright's treatments of these conflicts demonstrate that he saw each as part of a universal pattern of cultural confrontation extending through history.

Most telling in this respect is O'Neill's reliance on a popular historical work from the period, H. G. Wells The Outline of History. This volume, which Wells termed a "universal history," was an attempt by the British writer to describe patterns informing human social, economic and political evolution throughout history ( Wells v). Wells saw the historical evolution of humankind as emerging from the conflict of two elemental kinds of societies, the "heliolithic" agrarian peoples settled in fertile areas along the world's coastlines, and the "Aryan" nomads of the Eurasian grasslands and deserts. From the intermingling of these two kinds of peoples, according to Wells, were created the institutions which evolved into modern Western culture.

In The Fountain, O'Neill used Wells's historical paradigm to interpret the initial confrontations between the aboriginal Americans and the would-be Americans from Europe, a confrontation between a "heliolithic" agrarian culture and an armada of seaborne nomads. In the mythic persona of Ponce de Leon, he created a heroic figure capable of integrating the values of the two

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