When Playwrights Talk To God: Peter Shaffer and the Legacy of O'Neill


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Eugene O'Neill's contributions to the modern theater are by now beyond dispute, and it is time for critics to assess his impact on more recent dramatists. "Most modern plays are concerned with the relation between man and man," O'Neill once remarked in conversation, "but that doesn't interest me at all. I am interested only in the relation between man and God."1 In order to explore this monumental theme, O'Neill borrowed, transformed, and in good part invented a grammar of stage presentation that mixed naturalistic and expressionistic means and that embraced a variety of techniques, including masks, mechanical sounds, pantomime, music, song, elaborate stage directions, powerful visual and auditory images, and a vast, flexible array of language-slang, poetry, choric voices, thought-asides, soliloquies, expletives, rhetorical persuasion, searing condemnations, and occasional flights of rhapsody. Numerous dramatists on both sides of the Atlantic owe him an enormous debt. But because O'Neill did so much that was new, and because he did it so convincingly, he does not, strictly speaking, have a contemporary peer. He does, however, have a variety of successors. Already Williams, Miller, and Albee have secured their reputations, and there are other perhaps equally important playwrights who are just now reaching their prime. Of these, Peter Shaffer increasingly comes to mind.

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