During an eleven-year period that began in 1913 with the composition of his first play, Eugene O’Neill repeatedly experimented with New Comic forms. His seven “metacomedies” from this period—most focally Bread and Butter, “Anna Christie,” and Desire under the Elms—render grotesque the inseparably erotic, familial, and financial tendencies of comic plot. In Desire under the Elms, for example, lovers are brought together but placed under arrest. The metacomedies record O’Neill’s reaction against the coalescent endings common to two modes of drama that he knew well: the melodrama of his father’s generation and the melodramatic-cum-realistic Broadway fare of his own youth. Textual history has impeded their categorical recognition: in 1924, when Desire under the Elms was first published and performed, 39 percent of O’Neill’s oeuvre (seventeen of forty-four plays), but just 19 percent of his staged work (five of twenty-six plays) and 16 percent of his published work (four of twenty-five), was comic or metacomic. It is no wonder, then, that the metacomic O’Neill has remained invisible, at cost to our understanding of his early dramatic practice. The other plays principally at issue are A Wife for a Life, The Movie Man, The Personal Equation, and The Straw.

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