Comparing Ritual in Beckett, Hemingway, and O'Neill
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Ritual in Beckett, Hemingway, and O'Neill
"Perhaps the public psyche has simply been overloaded and, like an electrical circuit, has blown its fuse and gone cold under the weight of too many impulses" (Miller, lvi).
The modern world is often looked upon as a cold and unfeeling one. And the modern existence is such that it has been called a "Wasteland" by T. S. Eliot. It has also led Camus to parallel it with the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned to repeatedly push a boulder up a mountain, after which it would roll down the other side, and he would have to start all over again. It is this ritualistic behavior which has become a significant factor in modern life.
Although ritualism is a common theme in modern literature, its function had been interpreted differently by modern writers. Many, like Beckett and Hemingway, see ritualistic behavior almost as a form of therapy, a healing action used to cope with internal turmoil. Others, chiefly expressionists like O'Neill, look upon ritual with scorn. They see it as the deadening of society, the mechanization of humanity. "Expressionist drama protested strongly against the system of industrialized production that transformed man into an automaton" (Glicksberg 51).
O'Neill's scorn of ritualism, which is typical of the expressionists, is evident in his plays. The expressionists believed that humanity is out of kilter with nature, and man's obsession with materialism and machines is a factor in the deadening of the soul. O'Neill was a man described by Joseph Golden as being
a godless, despondent, pessimistic, antisocial creature who was also prone to such exuberance that he could write to a friend "I'm tickled to death with life! I wouldn't 'go out' and miss the rest of the play for anything!"(31).
O'Neill's lack of belief in religion was a constant struggle for him. He was disturbed not only by the absence of Christianity, but by humanity's inability to find a replacement for it. He described this feeling in a letter to George Jean Nathan when he wrote,
The playwright today must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it--the death of the Old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new one for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning of and to life in, comfort his fears of death with (qtd in Golden 39).