11/04/2014 09:16 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

Eugene O'Neill At The Ballot Box

From his earliest years of political consciousness, America's foremost playwright Eugene O'Neill regarded our electoral process, in what he saw as an unabashedly unrepresentative democracy, as "the acme of futility." The Supreme Court's Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions of 2010 and 2014, which together legitimized the bribery of politicians by the .001% as a constitutional right, only doubled-down on what O'Neill had railed against over a century ago. Still, O'Neill did cast a ballot in the 1912 presidential race between the Progressive Teddy Roosevelt, the incumbent Republican Howard Taft, and the Democrat Woodrow Wilson (who eventually won). His vote went for the Socialist Eugene V. Debs, who'd run his campaign from a jail cell, not because O'Neill thought a reformer like Debs had a chance in hell of winning the presidency (Debs received 6 percent of the votes), but merely "because I dislike John D. Rockefeller's bald head."

During the hard-fought tumult of the 1912 election, O'Neill was in his early twenties and a wet-nosed cub reporter in his hometown (and now mine) of New London, Connecticut. But he also made time to publish propagandizing verse against Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, and other big business interests. One bit of this doggerel titled "The Shut-Eye Candidate" waggishly calls our attention to the timelessness of the financial stranglehold over the American political system:

Sez the wily campaign manager
To the Corporations' man,
"Our candidate has gone dead broke,
So help him if you can.
For the tour is long and the speeches strong
And travelling comes high,
And we'll have to gather coin in
In order to get by."
Then it's "Graft!!! What graft?," we can't see
anything wrong,
Standard Oil and U.S. Steel, but candidate shut your eye;
And it's "Pass! All's well!" as the coin rolls along,
You'll need an affidavit pretty badly by-and-by.

O'Neill threw over poetry for playwriting, fortunately for us all, and he also resolved to avoid open propaganda in his dramas. But it's a mistake to consider O'Neill, which many still do, as an apolitical writer. O'Neill's plays goad audiences into confronting tough social issues that remain divisive in our own time: poverty, abortion, war, immigration, prostitution, addiction, evolution, Western materialism and imperialism, wage slavery, racism, and, yes, political corruption. When a younger playwright named Arthur Miller attended the 1946 premiere of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, Miller was "struck," he said, while admitting he'd condemned his predecessor's seeming lack of political conscience up to then, "by O'Neill's radical hostility to bourgeois civilization... It was O'Neill who wrote about the working-class men, about whores and the social discards and even the black man in a white world, but since there was no longer a connection with Marxism in the man himself, his plays were never seen as the critiques of capitalism that objectively they were." As Miller suggests, O'Neill's tragedies, in their denial of Americans' most cherished desire as a people, largely hinge on the fact that the American Dream seldom if ever materializes as the American Reality. O'Neill believed that the game, "from Benjamin Franklin's snuff box to Citizens United," as Zephyr Teachout aptly phrases it for the subtitle of her recent history Corruption in America, has been rigged from the start.

One of the more striking episodes of O'Neill's career, in fact, was when the playwright astonished a throng of reporters with a near-treasonous anti-American declaration while promoting The Iceman Cometh. It was his first such public appearance in more than a decade, at the height of the patriotic triumphalism that had gripped the nation in postwar America. At the conference, O'Neill lambasted the concept of the American Dream, and it's easy to imagine the impact such a statement might have even today: "Some day this country is going to get it--really get it. We had everything to start with -- everything -- but there's bound to be a retribution. We've followed the same selfish, greedy path as every other country in the world. We talk about the American Dream and want to tell the world about the American Dream, but what is that dream, in most cases, but the dream of material things? I sometimes think that the United States, for this reason, is the greatest failure the world has ever seen. We've been able to get a very good price for our souls in this country -- the greatest price perhaps that has ever been paid."

O'Neill's core frustration over America's claims of representative government might well be summed up in the recently formulated political riddle, "What's the matter with Kansas?" It's the most vexing mystery of our democracy: Why do the working-class vote for politicians with only big business interests -- tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation, the decimation of organized labor, the dismissal of a fair minimum wage, the rejection of universal health care--in mind?

The year before casting his doomed protest vote for Debs, O'Neill had already published his first literary work, the 1911 poem "American Sovereign," in the anarchist Emma Goldman's journal Mother Earth. The title of O'Neill's poem refers to a phrase from a speech made by the "muckraker" Lincoln Steffens, one of the first of a dauntless cohort of fire-eating journalists who in the early decades of the twentieth century denounced the nation's wealthiest classes and the graft they handed over by the millions to corrupt politicians. The previous December in Greenwich, Connecticut, ironically one of the wealthiest towns in the United States, Steffens asserted the muckraker doctrine that "American sovereignty has passed from our political establishment to the national organization of money, credit, and centralized business."

For this mid-term election, as the Republican Party appears poised to take control of the United States Senate along with the House of Representatives (which for some time now has been compromised as a representative body by the perfidious tide of state-level gerrymandering), I find it worth revisiting O'Neill's "American Sovereign" in its entirety, a poem that unswervingly confronts "the matter with Kansas." The message is not to abstain from voting, in spite of O'Neill's scorn, but rather to understand in just whose interest your vote has been cast:

Into the Polling-place, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like water, willy-nilly, flowing
And out again, when he has made the Cross,
Back to his fruitless, ill-paid labor going.
He, in his youth, did eagerly frequent
Old party rallies, heard great argument,
About the Robber Tariff, and the Trusts,
And came away, no wiser than he went.
With them the seed of Piffle did he sow
In hopes of some cheap job, helped make it grow,
And this is all the Working Class has reaped--
Their efforts help their leaders get the Dough.

Robert M. Dowling is the author of Eugene O'Neill: A Life in Four Acts.