Some twenty-five years ago I enrolled in a class on modern drama with the aim of broadening the course of study for my doctorate. From high school my abiding interest had been poetry, though as an undergraduate I’d taken an introductory course in continental European drama that included Goethe, Racine, Moliere, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekov, and Beckett. I had picked up some of Yeats’s plays on my own, particularly the later strange one-acts like Purgatory, reading them as extensions of the poetry rather than works of drama in their own right. I had not read much if any twentieth century drama (other than in the Irish grain—Synge, Yeats, Lady Gregory, O’Casey, Beckett), and in particular I had not read much American drama, which is what attracted me to this particular class.
Though Irish-American, I had not yet read O’Neill—a sad admission—and was looking forward to the prospect, sensing by some sort of sub-cultural atmospherics that we had breathed the same air. O’Neill, I had heard, was famous for his low-life characters, and I vaguely remembered William Bendix as Yank in a 1940s film version of The Hairy Ape. Just like Yank, my father had worked on ships, on the docks. Didn’t my father’s brother, Eddie, when I asked him the family’s profession back in Ireland before they came over, reply tersely, “Horse thieves”? There were also those post-Famine laborers in the wards of St. John, New Brunswick, some buried in a mass grave in St. Mary’s Cemetery outside town before the remnant of the family uprooted again for a Brooklyn slum. And there were also more than a few alcoholics on both sides of my inherited DNA, more than a few lost souls and ne’er do wells, more than a few of the misbegotten.
On the first day our distinguished but affable professor handed out the syllabus with its reading list that included, among others, Shaw, Brecht, Pinter, Stoppard, Miller, Albee, and Williams. O’Neill’s absence felt like the palpable refusal of a figure that should not have been refused. How do you leave out an American Nobel laureate from a course in Modern Drama? That unspoken sense of slight deepened when our professor drew attention to his reason for the dismissal: “You’ll notice there is no O’Neill in the reading. That is because he’s overrated—a caricaturist of the human condition, a sentimentalist.”
The proclamation stunned me and, admittedly, cowed me. It brought me back to my sophomore year in high school when Mr. Dondiego announced to our English literature class that, unlike the Italians who boast a retinue of giants beginning with Virgil and extending to Dante onward, the Irish had contributed nothing to Western culture. I seethed, of course, but mine was not a literary household and, consequently, I had no answer back. The experience reminds me now of a review my first book of poems received, which eschewed any judgment on the artfulness of the poetry (or lack there of) and, instead, confidently affirmed, “Who wants to read a book of poems about Irish Americans in Brooklyn?” The review, in a prominent venue, was unsigned, which in itself may be an oblique gauge of the understood need among literati to efface one’s ethnic prejudices even if it requires the ham-fisted strategy of remaining anonymous.