Saturday, September 8, 2012

Lazarus Laughed - Eugene O'Neill

Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953)

So, I'm not the biggest fan of plays...there are few play that's I've read and thought "wow...I bet that would have been amazing to see!" This was definitely not one of them. In fact I can hardly think of anything that would be worse to see on stage than this play, this is mostly due to the fact that act laughing is rather difficult to pull off, but O'Neill doesn't stop there he wants his actors to "laugh snivelingly" or "laugh while simpering and feeling afraid for your life" ect. I can't imagine sitting in a crowd of hot bodies, having probably paid an arm and a leg for a ticket, only to be forced to listen to multiple people laughing while sniveling.

(For the record, I though Long Day's Journey Into Night was infinitely better.)

Like many of O'Neill's plays there is an underlying current that cries "We are tragedy" or as Harold Bloom prefers, "We are farce." O'Neill often wrote of the despair of American illusions and our inability to achieve a spiritual reality because to choose hope is more precarious that to choose despair. Written in 1925, Lazarus Laughed follows the resurrection of Lazarus and the subsequent effect this has on the rest of his life and the lives of those around him.  As Lazarus is the first person to return from the realm of the dead, the response from the crowd slowly evolves from disbelief to adoration.

Although Lazarus has been miraculously resurrected, the fact that Jesus, the Nazarene, is calling himself Lord is causing extreme dissension. As the crowd huddles around Lazarus to hear what being dead for three days was like they observe the curious fact that he is laughing. Over and over again he declares there is no death, only God's laughter and the crowd begins to intently listen to his words, hailing him as Dionysus, the savior and conqueror of death.

By the second act, Lazarus is rumored to be a god, a deity of laughter and he is rumored to heal the sick by his laughter. He has also begun to get noticeably younger. Caligula's response to the adoration of the crowd is to say that man is basically the same everywhere, willing to worship any new charlatan. There are also whispers throughout that Lazarus has discovered immortality, and Caligula, hoping to become the next Caesar, disdainfully hopes this is not true, saying:

"You lie! Whatever you are! I say there must be death! You have murdered my only friend, Lazarus! Death would have become my slave when I am Caesar - he would have been my jester and made me laugh at fear!"

Lazarus responds by telling him to be his own jester and that "men call life death and fear it. They hide from it in horror. Their lives are spent in hiding. Their fear becomes their living." Slowly as time passes, the story becomes that Lazarus raised himself from the dead, assisted by his pawn Jesus. As Lazarus continues to grow younger his wife Miriam grows older, aging quickly and becoming more cast down, she is a figure of a sad, resigned mother of the dead.

In Act 3, Lazarus and Miriam are presented to Caesar who is immediately murdered by Caligula. Without taking more than a nanosecond to mourn, the mistress of Caesar, Pompeia, makes a play for Lazarus, who is now shimmering with youth and vitality. Caligula assures Pompeia that Lazarus will remain faithful to his wife, and Pompeia quickly crafts a malicious plan to get rid of Miriam and increase her odds. She picks up on the boredom of the crowd and suggests they demand another miracle of Lazarus, she convinces the new Caesar, Tiberius, to poison Miriam and test Lazarus' ability to bring back another from the dead.

As Miriam takes the poisoned peach, Lazarus raises his hand as if to stop her and the crowd wildly jeers "He is afraid of death!" Miriam eats the peach and slowly, like a wilting flower becomes weaker and more confused until she lies still. As Lazarus bends over to kiss her he quietly weeps, for a moment being shaken in his anti-death stance. And then in one last spontaneous spasm, Miriam laughs and tells Lazarus that he is right, there is no death, only laughter...and then she breathes her final breath.

Act 4 opens with Tiberius post-rationalizing what various life experiences have caused him to become a lecherous old man. Caligula, growing tired of the never ending monologue kills him and finally has claimed Caeserhood for himself, crying "Do not take pain away from us! It is our only truth! Without pain there is nothing!"

Caesar demands than Lazarus be burned at the stake to prove once and for all that there really is death, and while Lazarus is burnt alive he laughs, spitting out "The hope of God is eternal laughter..." At the last second, Pompeia, who is now completely infatuated with Lazarus throws herself into the flames.

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