one hundred essays I don't have time to write*
*Please consider these essays as starting points. Consider them starting points for someone else to finish.
44. O’Neill and PicassoPicasso and O’Neill’s long trajectories were the opposite; Picasso moved from the representational in his early work into the abstract, while O’Neill moved from early abstract experiments (The Great God Brown) to the representational at the end of his life (Long Day’s Journey). Would it be true to say that many long-lived twentieth century painters moved from the representational to the abstract and that many long-lived twentieth century playwrights move from the abstract to the representational? You are already thinking of exceptions—Beckett, Ionesco—who never wrote a family drama toward the end of their lives, to be published after their deaths. So let me undo the generalization, and ask instead, what would it mean for a painter to move from the representational to the abstract, as opposed to the meaning of a playwright moving from the abstract to the representational?
When faced with an unanswerable question, it is perhaps best to digress. I once wanted to be a portrait painter. I wanted to study the face in general and people’s faces in particular. I wanted to commit to memory each line on a face, try to reproduce its exact beauty and keep it. In the end, I was not skillful enough to make a life doing this. And I was suspicious of myself as a painter of pictures, because I was unable to paint not from life. The great painters, I felt, could paint from life but also out of nothingness. If I’d lived in the nineteenth century, my inability to paint from nothingness would have presented no conundrum. Everything came from life. But now…life is perhaps suspect.
There is perhaps an economic analysis; that an artist’s style evolves to fit the demands of the changing marketplace. But O’Neill wrote his most representational play for publication after his death. One assumes, then, that the form was born out of an inner, rather than an external necessity. And one could argue that Picasso fashioned the marketplace rather than changing with it.
And so, after a digression: what does it mean to shrug off life-as-model for the painter, to see life studies as merely that, studies, preparation for the blazing light of the internal landscape? And what is that model in comparison with: a playwright throwing off the solipsism of youth, the world of symbols, masks, the private interior, in favor of a detailed accurate (one might say objective) rendering of others later in life? Is either end-point less authentic or less earned? Chekhov said that being a doctor made him see the world more objectively. Did O’Neill’s sight become more objective, and do we care?
Please, someone with a knowledge of art history and the arcane details of O’Neill’s life, finish this essay for me.