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A Controversial Play

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The Play

Eugene O'Neill writting at desk in New London, 1914

Act Two, Scene Three excerpt.

ELLA:(starts and wheels about in her chair) What's that? You got -- you got a letter -- ?

JIM:(turning to close the door after him) From the Board of Examiners for admission to the Bar, State of New York -- God's country! (He finishes up with a chuckle of ironic self-pity so spent as to be barely audible. )

ELLA:( writhing out of her chair like some fierce animal, the knife held behind her -- with fear and hatred) You didn't -- you didn't -- you didn't pass, did you?

JIM:( looking at her wildly) Pass? Pass? (He begins to chuckle and laugh between sentences and phrases, rich, Negro laughter, but heart-breaking in its mocking grief.) Good Lord, child, how come you can ever imagine such a crazy idea? Pass? Me? Jim Crow Harris? Nigger Jim Harris -- become a full-fledged Member of the Bar! Why the mere notion of it is enough to kill you with laughing! It'd be against all natural laws, all human right and justice. It'd be miraculous, there'd be earthquakes and catastrophes, the seven Plagues'd come again and locusts'd devour all the money in the banks, the second Flood'd come roaring and Noah'd fall overboard, the sun'd drop out of the sky like a ripe fig, and the Devil'd perform miracles, and God'd be tipped head first right out of the Judgment seat! (He laughs, maudlinly uproarious.)

ELLA:(her face beginning to relax, to light up) Then you -- you didn't pass?

JIM:(spent -- giggling and gasping idiotically) Well, I should say not! I should certainly say not!

ELLA:(With a cry of joy, pushes all the law books crashing to the floor -- then with childish happiness she grabs Jim by both hands and dances up and down.) Oh, Jim, I knew it! I knew you couldn't! Oh, I'm so glad, Jim! I'm so happy! You're still my old Jim -- and I'm so glad! (He looks at her dazedly, a fierce rage slowly gathering on his face. She dances away from him. His eyes follow her. His hands clench. She stands in front of the mask -- triumphantly) There! What did I tell you? I told you I'd give you the laugh! (She begins to laugh with wild unrestraint, grabs the mask from its place, sets it in the middle of the table and plunging the knife down through it pins it to the table.) There! Who's got the laugh now?

JIM:(his eyes bulging -- hoarsely) You devil! You white devil woman! (in a terrible roar, raising his fists above her head) You devil!

Play excerpt courtesy of Yale University.

The Controversy

Portrait of Eugene O'Neill
"Judging by the criticism it is easy to see that the attacks are almost entirely based on ignorance of 'God's Chillun.' I admit that there is prejudice against the intermarriage of whites and blacks, but what has that to do with my play? ... The persons who have attacked my play have given the impression that I make Jim Harris a symbolic representative of this race and Ella of the white race -- that by uniting them I urge intermarriage. Now Jim and Ella are special cases and represent no one but themselves. Of course, the struggle between them is primarily the result of the difference in their racial heritage. It is their characters, the gap between them and their struggle to bridge it which interests me as a dramatist, nothing else."
-- Eugene O'Neill in a May 11, 1924 New York Times interview
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