Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama

By Marc Maufort | Go to book overview

The Pathology of Resistance to Cultural Assimilation in Eugene O'Neill's Late Plays

Martha Bower

As the son of Irish Catholic immigrants, Eugene O'Neill was plagued by an inferiority complex that was endemic to the majority of Irish families who emigrated from Ireland to America, a complex that involved an irresolute tension between the shame of coming from peasant roots, a loyalty to those roots, and a longing to become one with the established Protestant ruling class, to belong to the mainstream. This tension is at the core of the Late Plays' dramatic impact. O'Neill and his characters are victims of a cultural disease, a schizophrenic confusion that gets in the way of their realization of identity, their mental health and their sense of place in the universe. In studies of immigrant families in therapy, Monica McGoldrick found that Irish immigrants had more problems than other ethnic groups and that, psychologically, Irish Catholics in America were under the dominion of the Church. Irish "Roman" priests instilled a sense of personal guilt tantamount to no other Catholic ethnic group. According to McGoldrick, "The Irish struggled with their sense of sin and guilt. Irish schizophrenics ... are commonly obsessed with guilt for sins they may not have committed," while "Italians tend to place responsibility for their problems outside of themselves" (313). The neighborhood church was at the core of Irish family life, and unequivocal obedience to its rules was embedded in every Irish psyche. In this paper, I will demonstrate how (based on the above assumptions) O'Neill's identity crisis and that of his characters in the Late Plays reflect a general psychological dysfunction and cultural confusion peculiar to the Irish people.

When Irish immigrants came to New England they were faced with a Protestant elite not unlike the one they escaped in Ireland. Already imprinted with indigenous behaviors, bred into them before reaching American shores, the Irish were not able to change their image or aggressively move from the margins to the center of mainstream English society. Monica McGoldrick acknowledges that "The Irish in America (especially since Kennedy's presidency) as a result of intermarriage, upward mobility and geographical relocation," have moved beyond the margins of Irish culture, but her work with Irish families in therapy indicates that there still exists a "cultural continuity" (311). O'Neill's own family experience bears out much of what McGoldrick posits in her discussion of Irish psychiatric patients.

The second chapter of Louis Sheaffer's first volume of O'Neill's

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