Thursday, June 21, 2018

Gold by Eugene O’Neill

From pulp fiction to family tragedy
Gold is a four-act play by Eugene O’Neill. It was published in 1920, the same year as his better known works Anna Christie and The Emperor Jones. The first act takes place on a deserted island in the Malay archipelago of the South Pacific. Captain Isaiah Bartlett of the whaling ship Triton and five of his crew members are marooned on the isle after having survived a ship wreck. Having drifted on the open seas for days, they are now starting to feel the pangs of starvation and are on the verge of being driven mad by the lack of drinking water. Though the island is devoid of the bare necessities of life, the castaways have discovered a treasure chest full of gold and jewels, which provides them with yet another reason to go mad. Fortunately, they are rescued by a passing ship at the end of the first act, but what has transpired on the island will continue to haunt them long after they have returned to civilization.

Though depictions of sailors and seafaring life are common in O’Neill’s body of work, there is a pulp-fiction quality to this scene that is refreshingly unexpected. In the second act, however, the play returns to territory more familiar to readers of the Nobel laureate’s dramas. Act Two takes place at Bartlett’s house on the California coast, where we see the sea captain interacting not only with his crew but also with his family. Dysfunctional families are stock-in-trade for O’Neill, and here we witness the Bartlett family being torn apart by the father’s obsession with gold as his greed and guilt drive him further from the ones he loves.

The play’s change in direction from the sensationalistic sea story to the more prosaic and depressing concerns of family dynamics is not unexpected, given O’Neill’s track record, but it is not really a welcome change either. After the first act, which is kind of fun, the audience wants more of the gold-hunting narrative, even if it is uncharacteristic of O’Neill, but he goes out of his way to avoid gratifying those desires and instead delivers another variation on the tragedy of the American family. Though in general I’m a fan of O’Neill’s plays, Gold is not one of his better pieces of writing. The dialogue generally consists of overly protracted arguments that end with predictable results. When the story does occasionally take a surprising turn, it’s usually more of a letdown than an improvement. The behavior and choices of the characters are not always realistic, even when their judgment is not clouded by gold fever. The use of gold as a poisoner of minds and a destroyer of relationships is a convenient and clichéd way of arriving at the sort of emotional turmoil that O’Neill would explore more intelligently in later, greater plays like Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Gold isn’t a terrible play—it is Eugene O’Neill after all—but it’s hard to imagine an audience exiting the theatre or a reader closing the book feeling noticeably excited or moved by it. When compared to other plays in O’Neill’s impressive body of work, Gold may have been a necessary step in his artistic development, but on its own it is an overwrought melodrama that feels a little too simplistic and half-baked to be compelling.

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