Eugene O'Neill and Oriental Thought: A Divided Vision

By James A. Robinson | Go to book overview

4
A Western Passage to the East

From 1916 to 1925, O'Neill's Eastern dimension developed from a scarcely visible seed to a deliberate part of his art. His early plays of the sea, which view the ocean as a mystical, amoral presence that shapes human destiny, exhibit his Orientalism in its embryonic state. Nearly all these one-act works, however, portray this sea god as an "ironic life force" (in O'Neill's famous words) that frustrates the characters; in that defeat of man by sea, O'Neill expresses the time-honored Western assumption of antagonism between man and larger forces. Only one of these plays--The Moon of the Caribbees--hints that the sea may also provide serenity if approached with wise passiveness. This Oriental attitude is highlighted in the full-length "Anna Christie," where the title character finds peace through symbolic absorption into the sea she worships. Admittedly, O'Neills' Western dualism remains prominent here, manifesting itself in Chris's distrust of "dat ole davil, sea"; but even that distrust displays Eastern shadings, for the sea god Chris fears resembles the Vedantic Brahman, weaving webs of illusion while impartially dispensing good and evil.

Not coincidentally, O'Neill initiated his studies in Oriental philosophy around the time he completed "Anna Christie." This research was reflected in two subsequent plays, which found the playwright journeying East in his imagination. The Fountain concerns the desire of the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon to discover a "Western passage to the East" and thereby locate the fountain of youth (rumored to be in China). While never reaching the Orient, Juan experiences a mystical vision that merges the Christian god of love with the rhythmical force pictured by Hinduism and Taoism.

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Eugene O'Neill and Oriental Thought: A Divided Vision
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Epigraph xi
  • 1 - A Divided VIsion 1
  • 2 - Journeys East 10
  • 3 - Northwest Passages 32
  • 4 - A Western Passage to the East 85
  • 5 - Oriental Thoughts for A Religious Theatre 120
  • 6 - Journeys Home 168
  • Bibliography 189
  • Index 197
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