Friday, May 1, 2015


Several years ago, I wondered if Eugene O’Neill had written plays directly related to World War One during the period in which it was being fought.  He had created three war plays during that period.  Each one is concerned with a different reality of war.  The first play relates to the tragedy and cruelty for civilians living in the path of war, the second deals with how wartime affects the fears and uncertainties developed during potential life threatening situations, while the third play illuminates the impact on the mental health of many surviving soldiers.

Eugene O’Neill (1883-1953) at age twenty-six was completing his first year in Harvard University’s playwriting course taught by George Pierce Baker when he wrote The Sniper (1915), a one-act play. He entered it into the Harvard Dramatic Club’s competition where it received honorable mention.  The recognition of honorable mention did not carry the prize of being produced by the Harvard Dramatic Club.  The topic of the play may have been too timely for presentation on a major university campus that did not want to advocate for the United States to enter the war.

The Sniper is set in the Belgium countryside during August 1914 when the German army marched through that country without permission in order to attack France.  This march became known as the “Rape of Belgium” and raised awareness in the United States about the war.  The play takes place in a Belgium village that has been destroyed in one day and has left many villagers dead.  The play focuses on one peasant family whose home and farm building are destroyed and the son is killed. Towards the conclusion of the play, it is revealed that the son’s mother and fiancée were killed while trying to reach safety in Brussels. The surviving member of the family is the Father, named Rougon, who realizes he has lost everything in one day.  While the Priest tries to reconcile Rougon to his situation, the distraught man retaliates by shooting two German soldiers approaching his ruined cottage.  He is immediately condemned to death by a German captain and is executed at once.

O’Neill’s actor father showed the script to various producers who expressed interest, but each one believed the censors would either suppress it or require O’Neill to omit all the references to actual places and countries currently involved.  The Sniper was staged by the Provincetown Players on February 16, 1917.  This was after the United States broke diplomatic ties with Germany on February 1, 1917; therefore, the topic was suddenly considered to be timely.

The second war play titled In the Zone was written in 1917.  The action takes place on a British tramp steamer in the fall of 1915. This play is one of four sea dramas concerning the crew of this particular ship named the S. S. Glencairn.  The ship entered the waters of the war zone during the night. German submarines are in the same waters.  The sailors discover one of their mates is acting in a suspicious manner so they decide he must be a German spy.  They proceed to act on their instincts only to find their suspicions were incorrect.     

 This play was staged by the Washington Square Players in New York City on October 31, 1917 and opened to glowing reviews. The New York Times praised the play: “It was all simple and heartfelt as it was vivid with picturesque character, tense with excitement.”   Later in the review after discussing the other three plays on the same bill, the reviewer returned to praising O’Neill’s play.  “‘In the Zone’ was of a very high order, both as a thriller and as a document in human character and emotion.”  This production of In the Zone launched O’Neill’s career and he received his first royalty payments from a vaudeville tour of the play. 

During the 1920s, In the Zone toured as part of the S.S. Glencairn series of plays. This group of plays all take place on the same tramp steamer and many of the characters appear throughout.    In the Zone is the second play in the group to be written and is usually discussed under the sea plays grouping.

Shell Shock was written in early 1918 and it is set in the United States prior to the end of the war. The play takes place in the grill of the New York club of a large Eastern University.  The dialogue reveals that university to be Harvard. The three male characters knew each other during their college days at Harvard. Robert Wayne is an officer in the Medical Corps.  He has been transferred back to the United States to assist shell shocked patients who are returning home. Herbert Roylston, a returning first lieutenant, was severely wounded in action during one of the campaigns in France.  His life was saved by a mutual friend, Jack Arnold, who was Wayne’s roommate at Harvard.  Arnold had crawled into No Mans Land three nights after Roylston had been shot and brought him back to the trench.  Arnold thought Roylston was dead and he believes that his act of bravery was nothing more than his need to rescue Roylston’s pack of cigarettes.  Arnold had become a compulsive smoker while living in the trenches.  He is suffering a serious form of shell shock.  He feels guilt for his act of bravery.  Wayne is able to quickly help restore Arnold’s mental balance and the play ends with Arnold reuniting with Roylston, who returned to the club to see him.  

Critics have commented that the plot of this play is overly manipulated just so it ends with a positive outcome. This negative comment has been repeated over the past century.  While the comment does identify a real short coming for the drama, O’Neill was warning that numerous soldiers would be returning to the United States with various levels of shell shock.  O’Neill’s theme was timely, but one that no theatre was willing to produce, despite the positive results for the characters in the play.  I admire him for broaching the topic and desiring to expose audiences to what they may have to encounter.

After considering these three war plays together, O’Neill’s thematic concerns are clearly discernible. I believe the plays also revealed, in advance, the manner and timeliness in which the events of the war unfolded for many Americans. 

There are many books devoted to Eugene O’Neill and his plays. I have appreciated several of those resources which helped me to organize my thoughts for this post. If you are interested in reading more about O’Neill and his plays, I particularly enjoyed a new resource: 
Dowling, Robert M. Eugene O’Neill A Life in Four Acts. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014.

NOTE: The Provincetown Theater will present The Sniper as one of four plays to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Provincetown Players. This event is scheduled for July 11 and 12, 2015.

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