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Historical Context
Born in 1888, Eugene O’Neill’s life spanned some of the most important events of
contemporary history. While he played no actual role in the events themselves, the issues
involved — particularly those related to democracy and materialism — figure
prominently in his plays.
O’Neill came of age during America’s Progressive Era. Interested in politics and political
philosophy, the young playwright associated with the radicals and reformers who
comprised his Greenwich Village and Provincetown circle of Bohemian friends.
A close friend of John Reed, the journalist known for his book about the Russian
Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, O’Neill had a longtime affair with Reed’s
wife, the journalist Louise Bryant. Many critics believe that O’Neill based Strange
Interlude’s love triangle on this experience. O’Neill’s writings explore the problems
confronting American society, particularly rampant materialism, loss of individuality, and
lack of spiritual values.
During the first twenty years of the twentieth century, more than ten million European
immigrants arrived in America. O’Neill’s father and his family had come to America
during an earlier wave of immigration, arriving from Ireland in 1850. Factory jobs and
mass transit drew millions of people to the cities, and America became an increasingly
urban nation. Many immigrants brought with them a tradition of union activity and joined
the American labor movement.
During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt attempted to regulate large corporate interests
and enforce anti-trust statutes. In 1902, he forced an arbitrated settlement during a major
coal strike. President William Howard Taft, though less aggressive than Roosevelt,
generally continued his predecessor’s progressive policies, breaking up the Standard Oil
Company’s monopoly, and establishing a Children’s Bureau and Department of Labor.
President Woodrow Wilson urged banking reform and anti-trust actions, supported farm
loans and a ban on labor by children under fourteen — though the Supreme Court
deemed this later action unconstitutional. In 1920 the 19th Amendment to the constitution
gave women the right to vote.
Domestically, politicians did little to end segregation, halt the rising influence of the Klu
Klux Klan, or curb the practices that prevented many African Americans from voting. In
two plays, O’Neill created a leading role for a black man: The Emperor Jones (1920) and
All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924). Both plays appeared as productions of the
Provincetown Theatre.
This was also an era of American imperialism. Overseas, the United States fought a war
with Spain in 1898 and gained colonial influence in places like Cuba and the Philippines.
In 1903, American gained dominance over Panama and began the construction of the
Panama Canal.
In Europe, industrialization, colonialism, and militarism resulted in World War I. Wilson
tried to maintain American neutrality, restricting trade with the warring parties. However,
the United States entered the war in 1917. After the war ended in 1919, Wilson worked
for the formation of the League of Nations, precursor to today’s United Nations.
Declining wages, farm economy problems, protectionist tariffs, and overproduction of
manufactured goods contributed to the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great
Depression, which threw millions of people out of work. While President Franklin
Roosevelt’s New Deal policies of government spending to stimulate employment did
improve conditions somewhat, the American economy did not fully recover until the
Second World War.
In Mourning Becomes Electra, O’Neill’s symbolic use of the post-Civil War setting
reveals his understanding of American history and ideology, raising parallels between an
earlier war fought for firm ideological beliefs and WWI, which was fought in large
measure over colonial issues. He also compares New England’s nineteenth-century
Puritan heritage with contemporary America, in which conformity and materialism
contribute to cultural relativism and the lack of a moral compass.