Eugene O'Neill's Orientalism and the search for life: An Americanized Taoistic response

Yuan-Xia Zhang, Marquette University


This study joins with the earlier Eugene O'Neill scholarship that establishes the validity and significance of Orientalism in O'Neill's plays. While tracing the development of O'Neill's Taoistic response throughout his entire career, the attempt here is also to emphasize Taoist philosophy constitutes the center of Oriental influence. O'Neill's own mysticism is crucial to the understanding of his fascination with Taoism, for in his pre-Taoist dramatic works, he intuitively grasped the essential attributes of what he called "the ironic life force." This study argues that this "life force" parallels the concept of Tao in Taoism. When O'Neill discovered authentic Taoism in the early 1920s through his own study of Lao-tse's Taoist philosophy, he found a complete and systematic extension of the life force. Dramatic works of the early, middle, and late stages demonstrate a steady pattern of O'Neill's increasingly progressive understanding, interpretation, and integration of Taoism. Not only was Taoism a central part of his dramatic art, it also channeled his mysticism into a quest for full-wisdom through meditation. In 1937, O'Neill built a Chinese-style residence in California which he named "Tao House." The autobiographical plays written after O'Neill's move into "Tao House" may be called "Tao House" plays. These plays are considered to be the best of O'Neill's works, and mark a special period of time in O'Neill's life during which he withdrew into himself. These dramas culminate his own inner artistic cultivation of Tao through which O'Neill discovered the unity in himself of man and artist. Never a simple rhetorical ornament or a reference to some geographical locus in his works, O'Neill's Orientalism raises the possibility of an Oriental approach to the problems of modern American society and of the modern world at large. Through his effort to transmit the true essence of Oriental philosophy and religion, O'Neill had transformed Taoism into a vision and perspective through which he viewed the American society.

Recommended Citation

Zhang, Yuan-Xia, "Eugene O'Neill's Orientalism and the search for life: An Americanized Taoistic response" (1995). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9600868.