Monday, September 17, 2018

All God’s Chillun Got Wings by Eugene O’Neill

Mixed marriage with mixed messages
Eugene O’Neill
Likely one of the reasons that Eugene O’Neill won the Nobel Prize in Literature is because he pushed the boundaries of realism on the American stage, thoughtfully confronting audiences with uncomfortable subject matter previously unseen in theaters. In plays like Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, and The Hairy Ape, O’Neill gave audiences unflinchingly frank portrayals of dysfunctional families and grittily authentic depictions of the working class. In his 1924 play All God’s Chillun Got Wings, O’Neill pushed the envelope even further by tackling the topic of race. The curtain opens on a city street corner where white and black tenement neighborhoods converge. Black and white children play in the street, all but oblivious too their differences. As those children grow older, however, their attitudes change and they become more divided by prevailing racial prejudices. Nevertheless, one young black man, Jim Harris, retains his love for his childhood sweetheart Ella Downey, a white woman.

When first staged in 1924, the play was quite controversial. Predominantly white audiences were outraged by O’Neill’s portrayal of love between an African American man and a white woman. Today we can see that O’Neill deserves to be commended for his groundbreaking depiction of an interracial marriage. On the other hand, his representation of that mixed marriage is certainly not a positive one, and if anything he seems to be saying that such relationships are bound to end in tragedy, despair, and perhaps even insanity. That’s hardly the enlightened attitude towards race that today’s theater-going audiences would expect, yet it is characteristic of the well-intentioned but rather half-hearted attempt at racial justice that pervades this drama.

By the end of the play, O’Neill makes Ella such a racist that it’s unbelievable that she could ever have married a black man in the first place. She is paralyzed by guilt for betraying her white race, and she sabotages her husband’s chances at success in order to keep him from reaching above his accepted station in society. Ella’s “keeping the black man down” attitude doesn’t make any sense in the context of their marriage. On the other hand, if the two characters are meant to stand for their races as a whole, then it does make some sense as a commentary on white society’s treatment of the black population in the early 20th century. In truth, however, O’Neill really doesn’t treat Jim much better than Ella does. He depicts Jim as the exceptionally intelligent son of an upwardly mobile black family, but then he renders him incapable of succeeding in his studies towards becoming a lawyer. In one scene O’Neill has Jim overtly begging to be Ella’s “slave,” a surely intentional word choice on the part of the playwright that would be considered offensively inappropriate today. On the bright side, the most positively portrayed character in the play is Jim’s sister Hattie, who is depicted as a smart, capable, independent black woman and an outspoken straight shooter in conversations about race.

One undeniably good thing that came from this play is that it launched the theatrical career of the great black actor Paul Robeson, who would also go on to star in the 1925 revival of O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones. While today All God’s Chillun Got Wings seems a bit antiquatedly tone deaf in its discussion of race, in the 1920s it was a big leap forward for the realistic depiction of blacks in mainstream white culture. When it’s faults are taken into consideration today, that leap may seem more like two steps up and one step back, but nevertheless it amounted to one important baby step forward.

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