Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Diff’rent by Eugene O’Neill

A cautionary tale of romantic idealism
Eugene O’Neill
Diff’rent is a two-act drama by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill that was first published in 1921. The story takes place in a New England fishing port, where, not surprisingly for an O’Neill play, all the male characters are sailors. Emma Crosby, the protagonist of this drama, is in love with one of these sailors, Caleb Williams, a young captain of his own vessel. The two are due to be wed in a few days. Having grown up amid sailors and the sailing life, Emma has become accustomed to the ways of rough men, but when it comes to the man she loves, she insists that Caleb is “diff’rent” from the rest. Though he resists being put on a pedestal, she insists he has a truer heart and a more sensitive soul than the average specimen of malekind. While the other women in town resign themselves to a “What happens at sea, stays at sea” attitude in regard to their men’s activities in foreign ports, Emma aspires to a higher ideal of love which requires no such compromise. When she hears rumors to the effect that Caleb may not be living up to her lofty standards of romance, she exhibits a zero tolerance policy towards deviation from her ideal. Though her moral righteousness may be admirable, will she ultimately live to regret it?

The two scenes in this drama take place 30 years apart and represent the before and after pictures of Emma’s idealistic intractability. While the early scene is somewhat picturesque and hopeful in tone, the latter half of the play takes a decided turn towards the dark. With rare exceptions, O’Neill was not a feel-good playwright. The power of his plays generally relies on his ability to examine the darker sides of human nature. For today’s readers, Diff’rent reminds one of the misanthropic themes and callous characters one finds in a Neil LaBute film. O’Neill not only shatters illusions of romantic love, but escalates the harboring of such illusions to a form of insanity. If this play were produced today, it’s likely O’Neill’s depiction of Emma as obdurate and foolish would be criticized as a misogynistic bitterness toward women, but in this day and age there’s no reason why the genders of the roles couldn’t be switched. It’s more a play against the irrationality and impracticality of love than against women.

Given the abundance of masterpieces in O’Neill’s body of work, it’s unlikely Diff’rent is going to draw anyone’s attention away from Anna Christie, The Iceman Cometh, or Long Days Journey into Night. Nevertheless, amid the catalog of lesser-known works in this master playwright’s catalog, Diff’rent is a noteworthy entry. It is an engaging and thought-provoking read, and relatively brief and brisk compared to O’Neill’s more celebrated opuses. If you’re a newcomer to O’Neill’s plays, you would be better off starting with one of his “greatest hits,” but if you are already a fan of his dramas, this one is worth a look.
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