Playwriting is the theater’s engine room, its operations of real interest only to those who understand how the elaborate, unpredictable machinery works. (The word dramaturgy, still used by the French to mean “playwriting,” implies study of the “workings” of drama—from Greek ergein, “to work.”) While the young Eugene O’Neill was mastering the workings of drama, he became one of the first writers in theater history to do what an infinite number have done since: He took a playwriting course, the first one ever offered, with Professor George Pierce Baker, at Harvard. In O’Neill’s letter of application, he wrote Baker that he was the son of James O’Neill, “of whom you may perhaps have heard”—roughly the equivalent of one of Meryl Streep’s or Kevin Kline’s children writing the same thing to a drama school today. Once ensconced in Baker’s Drama 47 Workshop, he set about planning the full-length play required for his final class assignment: a battle of wills between a convention-bound father and his rebel son, in which the father, a ship’s engineer, prefers his machinery to human beings. The climax is a struggle, set in the engine room, in which the father, armed with a gun he doesn’t know how to use, defends his beloved dynamos by doing permanent damage to his son’s brain.
When the Freudians in the back row have stopped giggling, we can go on to perceive other aspects of The Personal Equation, as O’Neill ultimately baptized his play. (Its first title, focusing on the father’s rank, had been The Second Engineer.) Apart from having grown up in the theater whose principles he was scrutinizing in Baker’s class, O’Neill was already a man of wider experience than most playwriting students. He had garnered the seaman’s knowledge he would put to use in the one-acts that later made his reputation; he was also well up on radical-left movements, from both his oceangoing and his extensive early reading. If the play’s young hero, rebelling against his father’s meek slavery to the machine and the capitalist combine that owns it, is inevitably an autobiographical figure, Olga, the equally heroic and self-sacrificing anarchist girl whose love drives him on, is surprisingly modeled on that magnetic speaker and passionate Ibsenite, Emma Goldman. Goldman, whose extravagant love affairs were as much the stuff of leftist legend as her political sagacity and her charisma, had been one of O’Neill’s idols since his high school days, when he discovered her writings at the anarchist Benjamin F. Tucker’s Unique Book Shop. (Goldman’s nephew, the dentist and litterateur Saxe Commins, would later become one of O’Neill’s closest friends.)
Tucker, who was nurturing the young O’Neill on a more peaceable and less activist brand of anarchism than Goldman’s, undoubtedly disapproved of the youngster’s boyish adulation. The Tucker-Goldman dispute is reflected in the play’s sniping conversations between Olga and her passive, ironic fellow anarchist, Enwright—a debate that the revival of anarchist thought, confronting a newly imperious global capitalism, has made astonishingly pertinent. Last week’s New York Times feature on anarchism’s persistence hashed out the same issues as The Personal Equation‘s opening scene, in which Olga and Enwright fling them back and forth across Tom Perkins junior, the engineer’s rebellious son. Not only is Tom living with Olga without, as they used to say, benefit of clergy, but he has just been sacked from his job in the shipping company’s office for passing out leaflets urging the sailors and stokers on his father’s ship to strike.
Brutally exploited and underpaid by the cartel that dominates transatlantic shipping, the strike-ready seamen are about to be sold out by the bosses of their own union, comfortably bribed with shipowners’ money. Tom’s leaflets were steering them toward the “International Workers of the Earth,” O’Neill’s fictional variation on the real-life IWW. Eventually, the anarchist scheme compels Tom to ship as a stoker, under an assumed name, on the same vessel as his father, and then, after some elaborate hugger-mugger with a spy in the sellout union’s hierarchy, to dynamite his father’s precious engines. When the dynamiting is called off, Tom must rally the men to do the job by hand, bringing on his climactic engine-room confrontation with his father. The epilogue finds Olga, inevitably pregnant with Tom’s child, battling his father for the right to take care of the now brain-dead Tom.
As these melodramatic twists suggest, The Personal Equation is full of mawkish, lumpily written, novice stuff, well stocked with surprises familiar even in 1919 from dozens of previous plays. For a work so anarchist-friendly, it has a maddeningly tidy structural sense, with every event arriving neatly on cue, its way prepared by neatly pat, flat exposition. (And O’Neill can’t help giving his anarchists a touch of right-wing conspiratorial cliché straight from Conrad’s Secret Agent.) But for all its hideous flaws, the play has an intellectual flair and an emotional fire that are rare in O’Neill’s early work, so often marred by plodding factitiousness. Baker’s stern but supportive presence, or something in the classroom situation, must have kept O’Neill truthful here. He may be talking through his hat, but a lot of the words come from his heart.
This is most true in the long second-act scene between Tom and his father. O’Neill spent nearly his entire career seesawing his male parent figures between Ephraim Cabot and Nat Miller, trying to find some image of a father who wasn’t either a tyrannizing bully or a gooey-hearted sitcom pop. The Personal Equation reveals, ironically, that he had a fully achieved version of the father-son relationship playing in his head from the start; he wrote it down for Pierce Baker’s class in terse, lucid, uninflated language. The engineer’s alcoholic bonhomie, the feelings of inadequacy and shyness it masks; his son’s resentful defiance, coupled with his unconscious impulse to emulate the father’s failings in his own generation’s way; the shared sense of a poisonous family pride, seeing the world as a conspiracy against the clan—the scene wraps them all in a neat bundle, of a kind O’Neill wouldn’t achieve again till he depicted his father much more literally as Long Day’s Journey‘s James Tyrone.
The metaphor he chose carries its own ironies. Most people think of actors as having an artistic, not a mechanical, sensibility, and being fairly independent-minded figures. In portraying his father as a servile conformist who preferred tending machinery to human contact, O’Neill was serving notice not only on his parent but on the whole carpentered and contrived 19th-century stage, and on the cartel of money-minded producers who controlled it, the American theater’s equivalent of the play’s “shipping combine.” (Four years later, the laborers it exploited would finally rebel, in a famous strike action, and defend themselves by founding Actors Equity.)
Having experienced England’s 1911 General Strike during his seagoing time, O’Neill had every reason to be skeptical about the outcome of labor agitation: In his version, the anarchists’ hopes are dashed when the advent of World War I divides the crew along lines of nationality. He’s even percipient enough to notate his own fascination with the hokey, mechanized theater that made his father a star. When Perkins senior apologizes for his inability to talk about anything but engines, Tom replies, “Ah, I like to hear about them well enough, when you’re not so technical I can’t follow you.” O’Neill will go on, in 1928, to create Dynamo, a play in which the father is long dead, and the engine-worshiper is the deranged son. It’s one of the most peculiar, and embarrassing, plays ever written by a dramatist of major stature—proof that the melodramatic brain-damage metaphor, too, was truer than the boy playwright of 1915 realized. The beauty and triumph of O’Neill’s late plays is that you can watch as he talks his way toward healing the damage; this early, crude lump of a work holds inside it the ringing announcement that such healing is possible.
You may find it hard to hear, though: Despite the presence of a few good actors, Stephen Kennedy Murphy’s flaccid production seems to put all its efforts toward muffling the playwright’s voice. I understand all about Downtown budgets and time commitments, I’m grateful that admission is free and that we have the chance to see this rarity. But surely, for a world premiere of a work by Eugene O’Neill, New York could provide a better cast than this. Ralph Waite and Daniel McDonald make what they can of engineer and son under the dispiriting circumstances; they get some help from Steve Brady as the inevitable anarchist plotter with the foreign accent (I keep thinking of him as “Mr. Verloc”), and rather more from Con Horgan as the ship’s most pugnacious stoker—O’Neill’s first sketch of the character who evolved into the hero of The Hairy Ape.