Acts of recovery : Eugene O'Neill and addiction treatment in post-WWII America
- Rebecca Ormiston.
- [Stanford, California] : [Stanford University], 2018.
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- 1 online resource.
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- The playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) produced a body of work—thirty-one full-length plays, and twenty-one one-act plays—that was ambitious in its stylistic innovations, and daring in its thematic concerns. As recounted by historians, biographers, and critics, O'Neill's private life informed his writing process, with his various ailments serving as prompts for the stage. Whenever the theme of addiction appears, as it does in his final plays The Iceman Cometh (1939), Long Day's Journey Into Night (1941), and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943), scholars note the autobiographical aspect as generative for his artistic output. Painted as a depressive figure whose dysfunctional upbringing made a lifelong impression on him, current literature on O'Neill celebrates the playwright for his distinctly sincere expression of suffering and strife. O'Neill wrote his final plays during a period of renewed interest in addiction science in the nation following World War II. After the failed enterprise of Prohibition, scientists, politicians, and the public instated a new treatment paradigm that placed responsibility on the individual who drinks problematically. This approach helped solidify addiction as a biological—rather than a social or cultural—phenomenon. As a result, the disease model of addiction offered an identity that was receptive to addiction treatment. While the previous century saw the construction of the addict as a person with a weak will, the disease model of addiction constituted the addict's condition as an illness treatable through performative acts. O'Neill's final plays, then, reflect more than the playwright's direct experience with addiction. They reveal the nation's ambivalence towards the concept of addiction as a disease, and with the addict as a sick person. Spectators in post-WWII America labeled O'Neill's final plays as autobiographical not only because he drew from his personal experiences while writing them, but also because such an approach was seen as critical to the addict's recovery. As a result, theater scholars continue to position O'Neill as an artist who utilized the theatre as a transformative tool to address how addiction impacted his own life. Through his compassionate depictions of characters suffering from a disease, O'Neill's late plays showed how recovery depended upon theatrical acts of self-reflection, self-narrative, and self-actualization. They also reflect how spectators saw autobiography as the discursive mode for recovering from addiction. In this sense, I claim that it was not so much that O'Neill's plays were true to life and accepted as such, but that their content on addiction necessitated a search for disclosure in the first place. Rather than explore how the theatre allowed O'Neill to channel his suffering, I instead consider why live performance serves as a durable site for legitimating addiction as an illness. As O'Neill's late plays show, self-disclosure does not lead to an emancipatory experience devoid of coercion. Despite claims made by the medical field and mutual aid groups of its liberatory potential, these acts of recovery encourage self-governance, and trade on the morally inflected narratives about the addict circulating since the nineteenth century. As the first study to consider the collaborative relationship between Eugene O'Neill and the medical field, I consider how the playwright's representation of addicts directly influenced doctors and scientists who engaged with his work from 1939 until the present.
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- Submitted to the Department of Theater and Performance Studies.
- Thesis Ph.D. Stanford University 2018.
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