On The “Vaudeville” of Eugene O’Neill


A brief addendum to our earlier post about Eugene O’Neill on his birthday. O’Neill was of course of the “legitimate” theatre (second generation in fact), and in his day was considered groundbreaking in the realism of his dialogue and his adventurous nature in humanizing previously shunted groups onstage, among other things. He did have a literal brush with vaudeville, however, when his early one-act sea play In the Zone toured the big time circuits in 1918, helping to pave his way to Broadway.

But there is something rather “vaudeville” about much of his work for the legit stage as well. While O’Neill was ahead of the pack in sympathizing with “the Other” in his day, modern standards have gotten ahead of him, and what seemed like the very soul of liberal portrayal in his own time now strike us as stereotype nearly to the point of lampoon. This is what I mean by his “vaudeville”: using the dramatic shorthand of dialect humor and very broad cultural characterizations: Irishmen who love to drink and quarrel and Swedes who say “Yumpin’ Yiminy”. The Down East Yankees in Beyond the Horizon and Desire Under the Elms. The blackface minstrel-like aspects of The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings. And the typing extends itself to gender: where would O’ Neill be without the Sentimentalized Whore?

But for a true cornucopia of such typing you can’t beat his Sea Plays, in which the sailors are generally distributed across most of the available stage types: Irishmen, Scots, Cockneys, Swedes, Germans, West Indians. The movie The Long Voyage Home (1940), cobbled together by John Ford out of several O’Neill Sea Plays has ’em all, not excepting the whores. Here’s part one, with the subsequent parts also available on youtube. Furthermore, John Wayne plays a Swede!

To find out more about vaudeville past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc


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