Monday, January 23, 2017

The First Man by Eugene O’Neill

The demands of family
Eugene O’Neill
The First Man is a full-length four-act drama by Nobel Prize-winning American playwright Eugene O’Neill. It was first published in 1922. Though not one of his best known works, it is one of the few O’Neill plays currently in the public domain in America, so it can be downloaded, read, and performed for free.

The drama takes place in Bridgetown, Connecticut, a rather stuffy New England town where families pride themselves on their aristocratic pedigree and irreproachable family history. Curtis Jayson is a member of one such family, though he gives little thought to such matters. Curtis is a geologist and anthropologist, about to embark on an important expedition to Asia in search of mankind’s prehistoric missing-link progenitor. His wife Martha is his indispensable research assistant and the love of his life. Curtis met her in a mining town in the American West, where she was born and raised. As such, she has a freer spirit and more open nature than that typically found in conservative blue-blooded East Coast society, and she suffers from the scrutiny of Curtis’s sanctimonious and judgmental family. Her siblings-in-law can’t help noticing that while Curtis has been busy writing a book, Martha has been spending a lot of time with his old friend Bigelow, which sparks gossip and rumors of infidelity.

O’Neill does a great job of establishing all the family conflicts in the first act. It’s easy for the reader to get quickly invested in the troubles and desires of these characters. That holds up through most of the play, but starts to weaken towards the fourth and final act. Dysfunctional families are O’Neill’s strong suit, but this one doesn’t hold up as well as most. The women’s parts, with the exception of Martha, are written in a manner that’s so catty and harpyish it begins to annoyingly detract from the realism of the family dynamic. The wholeheartedness with which everyone latches onto unfounded rumors also defies believability.

The one unique element of the play that makes it stand out from other family dramas is Curtis’s attitude toward children. He has a very uncompromising stance on parenthood that is shocking to his family and perhaps even to the reader in its utter lack of conventional sentimentality. Curtis’s rationalized self-interested aversion to fatherhood likely reflects some of O’Neill’s own thoughts on the subject. Whether one sympathizes with Curtis or finds him reprehensible, the fact remains that this is the most interesting aspect of the play. I wish O’Neill had stuck by his guns with this unpopular idea, instead of allowing Curtis to waffle on the subject. Perhaps the result would have been too intense for the 1920s, so he felt the need to pull his punches.

O’Neill may be America’s greatest playwright, and this is a pretty good play, but it won’t go down in history as a revered classic. O’Neill has too many other masterpieces in his repertoire. Only diehard readers of his work looking to dig deeper into his varied career need venture this far off the beaten path. The First Man has been recently staged in London and New York, however, and someone’s working on an indie film version, so perhaps a resurgence of interest will prove me wrong.
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