January 5, 12, 19 and 26, 1930

Four Sermons on Plays by Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O'Neill in 1924
In the winter of 1930, Rabbi Eisendrath delivered four Sunday morning sermons, each on a play by the American playwright Eugene O’Neill. These plays were: Strange Interlude (January 5), Dynamo (January 12), Marco Millions (January 19), and Lazarus Laughed (January 26).

Rabbi Eisendrath was a great admirer of Eugene O’Neill’s dramas, believing them to depict “man’s craving for life—a more abundant life.” It is noteworthy that, although O’Neill was already an established artist, with several successful plays to his credit, his most often produced plays were yet to come: Mourning Becomes Electra and Ah, Wilderness would come out in the next few years, while The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten would be written in the following decade. (Long Day’s Journey Into Night, perhaps the author’s most famous play, would not be performed until 1956).

Of the plays that the rabbi considers, only Strange Interlude is still in the repertoire, and it was the only one made into a movie (in 1932 starring Norma Shearer and Clark Gable). It is also, likely, the only play that Rabbi Eisendrath actually viewed. He tells us that he recently witnessed a performance of the play (probably in New York, although he doesn’t specify this), and that the audience behaved badly, from his point of view, having come to the theatre “for prurient reasons.” The play was banned in Boston because of its treatment of the topics of adultery, abortion, and (implied) homosexuality. Undoubtedly, this banning of the play led to increased attendance at the Broadway performance. The other plays about which the rabbi speaks he probably would have known through reading them; he tells us that he has carefully read and reread almost all of O’Neill’s plays.

It was not (and still is not) unusual for rabbis to review books in their sermons as well as in study groups. Usually, these were of current best sellers, often of novels with a Jewish connection. Rabbi Eisendrath was no exception. It was (and is) less usual for a rabbi to review plays, especially plays that are not currently in performance in the city of his congregation. It is even more unusual for him to review a play that likely neither he nor his congregants have seen. None of O’Neill’s plays is about Jews or features a Jewish character, with the possible exception of Lazarus Laughed, which is based, very loosely, on a New Testament character.

Why then, would Rabbi Eisendrath choose to discuss these plays on four successive Sunday mornings? I suggest that it is because their themes appealed to him, and that he and Eugene O’Neill had the same criticisms of American society, especially the materialism that they both saw around them in the years before the Great Depression. Both men are critical of business as a source of social injustice, and both are critical of American foreign policy. Both are suspicious of the worship of science as a new kind of god, displacing the God of religion. And both men are critical of a society that treats people as objects on a social and commercial ladder rather than as individuals with an inner emotional and spiritual life to which we must give attention.

Strange Interlude

This play, which won a Pulitzer Prize, is notable for the dramatic device, unused since Shakespeare’s time, wherein the characters speak their inner thoughts out loud in the form of ‘asides’ that are not heard by the other characters onstage. This is a lengthy play, running close to five hours. Rabbi Eisendrath notes that the performance he saw began at the ‘inconvenient hour’ of 5:30. (He tells us that there was no a dinner break, much to the audience’s displeasure, but, in fact, the play is sometimes given with one.)

The central character in the drama is Nina Leeds, and the rabbi says that he has a “profound understanding and infinite pity “ for her. She is, he comments, a creature created by her past and the war. Before the war, she was engaged to Gordon, a man with whom she was deeply in love. However, before he goes overseas, she refuses to consummate their love, at her father’s insistence, because they are not yet married, and Professor Leeds wants her to wait for marriage until Gordon returns home—which, of course, he does not. Nina is devastated by his death, and, in her attempts to find happiness without him, she embarks on a series of acts that have unintended consequences for her and the other characters. We may judge her harshly for actions, the rabbi tells us, but, knowing her story (partly through the thoughts she reveals to us through her asides), we should not be so quick to condemn her. (Ever the pacifist, the rabbi refers to Nina’s heart “that the war had blown to bits.”)

“Primarily,” Rabbi Eisendrath tells us, he sees the drama as “the story of woman… crying out for the tender affection of the father, the passion of the lover, the protection of the husband, the devotion of the child.” What Nina seeks is happiness from a relationship with a man who can live up to the example of her dead lover. The rabbi goes on to talk about the nature of happiness, which is what Nina and all the other characters in the play are seeking. The problem is that happiness is not attained simply by seeking it. “Like the characters in the play, we feel that happiness is an end to seek rather than a reward which comes unsolicited and unsought.” Happiness, the rabbi suggests, comes to us when we devote ourselves to other ends. (He is not terribly specific about just what those ends might be.)

At the conclusion of the play, one of the characters comments that “We must not learn the cry for happiness.” Rabbi Eisendrath believes this sentiment to be the theme of the play, and he goes on to say:
Only when we forget the cry for happiness and plunge ourselves into the battle and struggle for life; when we seek to solve the complex problems of existence, our own and our neighbors, only then do we become truly happy.
This sermon consists both of an in-depth analysis of the play and its characters and an appreciation of its theme. The rabbi has tremendous admiration for the plays of Eugene O’Neill, and this particular play provides much fodder for his sermonic skills.


Rabbi Eisendrath begins by telling us that, compared to Strange Interlude, Dynamo is a disappointment. He expected more from a playwright whose dramas he had enthusiastically anticipated since his early one act plays. However, Dynamo does explore an important problem and present us with an “eternally perplexing and profound” theme.

In fact, the play is not considered among O’Neill’s best, and it ran on Broadway in 1929 for only fifty performances. It is rarely revived.

The subject of the play is the conflict between religion and science, or more properly between religion and modern technology, in this case the dynamo that produces electricity. We are presented with two families, neighbours who are quite unalike. Reverend Light and his family are deeply religious, while Ramsay Fife is the superintendent of a hydro-electric plant and a firm atheist. While the two men cordially dislike each other, their children, Reuben Light and Ada Fife, take a liking to each other. However, the play is no update of Romeo and Juliet. Due to the results of a prank played by Ramsay Fife on the Light family, Reuben leaves home for fifteen months. He returns as completely devoted to the ‘religion’ of electricity—and to the dynamo in particular—as his father is to his fundamentalist Protestant religion, with disastrous consequences for Ada and himself.

It’s not surprising that this play would appeal to Rabbi Eisendrath, if not as drama, then as material for a sermon on religion and technology. He dwells at length on Reuben’s crisis of spirit when he believes that his ardently religious parents have betrayed him. The rabbi believes that the play is a critique of primitive belief (like the Reverend Light’s) that, when found wanting, leads to agnosticism or atheism or materialism. For Reuben, electricity becomes his god and the dynamo his idol.

For Rabbi Eisendrath, the play reveals a great truth about religion:
... that every faith, no matter how enlightened or superstitious, no matter how civilized or how pagan, no matter how primitive or how advanced, that every faith that man has ever know regardless of its creed, has evoked in its followers the selfsame devotion and deeds, the identical practices and routine.
 The rabbi goes on to comment that, like Reuben’s worship of the dynamo, many “blind and credulous believers” also worship objects, or at least “never think of the spiritual reality behind the objects they so feverishly worship: the Torahs, the Crucifixes, the sacraments and the Scriptures, the Churches, the Temples which they regard as holy and inviolate and sacred and sacrosanct in themselves.”

Rabbi Eisendrath also sees in Reuben a reflection of “the youthful scientists of our day, among our university students and scoffing sceptics who bow down to a new born God of Matter and Motion, of Energy, and Might and Force…”  as well as those who make idols and gods of “the state, the flag, the constitution, the laws of gravitation, the harmony of the spheres, the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest, all of which, since Einstein at least, may be as transitory, as ephemeral, and fleeting as any creed and dogma of the past.”

It seems to me that the rabbi is getting a bit carried away here. O’Neill’s play concerns itself only with the tendency of those who lose their faith to find a new faith in science and technology, which will likewise, in the end, prove unsatisfying. O’Neill comments not at all on nationalism or social Darwinism, even if, to the rabbi’s mind, they too are gods that fail us.

In what, then, can we put our fate? Rabbi Eisendrath believes that O’Neill fails to answer this question, at least in this particular play. He fails to reveal to us that in which we may truly sense the Divine: man himself.
… in so far as there is any spiritual destiny for the cosmos, it rests in man alone, in him only is there evidence and promise of the living God…The spiritual, in short, overflows man’s life and in one form or another is implicit in all that is. Where then has man come from, if not from the hidden sources of being that are behind him.
Whether this is a particularly Jewish view of the world is open to question. It strikes me as more Emersonian or universalist than Jewish. In this sermon, the rabbi makes no mention of anything Jewish, except Torah and Temples, which he cites as objects of idolatry among some believers. But we must remember that he is here speaking to a congregation composed probably of as many non-Jews as Jews, and he is responding to a play that is not at all concerned with anything specifically Jewish. He is also responding to what he sees as the great challenges to religion (including the Jewish religion) of his time, namely the challenges of science and technology and materialism, challenges that O’Neill also saw. We can understand why, in spite of his calling the play ‘mediocre,’ he would nevertheless include it among the plays he chose to discuss in a Sunday morning lecture.

Marco Millions

This play, which Eugene O’Neill wrote between 1923 and 1925, made its Broadway debut in 1928. Rabbi Eisendrath refers to it, as early as 1930, as “another of the less familiar of Eugene O’Neill’s always artistic plays.” It remains less familiar even today; however, there was a New York revival in 2006 that played to at least a few good reviews. It has also been performed, from time to time, in other cities. The rabbi makes note of the fact that, although its theme is very serious, it is also a lot of fun, employing satire as a means of getting its point across. There are also some songs, and they are sometimes performed with instrumental accompaniment.

Rabbi Eisendrath characterizes this play as one that demonstrates the contrasting values of the west and ‘the orient,’ and he clearly prefers the latter:
For here in this book we find all the vapidity, all the spiritual emptiness, the froth and ultimate futility of our modern mechanistic and commercially dominated West, which threatens so tragically to spread its fangs Eastward, there to poison and slay an ancient, a rich, a colorful, and a profound culture and to drag down amid the roar and thunder, the whir and wail of its merciless machines the whole of human civilization.
The rabbi then proceeds to give a rather detailed synopsis of the plot. It is clear that he has read the script. (Note that in the above quote he refers to the play as “the book.”) We do not know if he ever saw a production of the play, but he assumes, no doubt correctly, that his congregation has neither seen nor read the play. The action comprises twenty-six years in the journey of Marco Polo, along with his father and uncle, on a sales mission to the Orient, through Moslem and Buddhist countries, culminating in the China of Kublai Khan. The Polos react to their surroundings as typical western salesman, engaging in typical chamber of commerce banter with the local merchants while, among themselves, mocking their hosts for their unsophisticated practices. In time, Marco becomes mayor of one of the Chinese towns, where he proceeds not only to do business, but to invent the cannon, a device that, because of its immense destructive power, will end war (a very costly pursuit) and bring lasting peace—and prosperity—to the world.  Only the Khan and his court philosopher see that this world will be without a soul. (Today, we might see this scene as a mocking of the postulate of ‘mutually assured destruction’ brought about by the atomic bomb, long before the invention of the bomb. Rabbi Eisendrath and Eugene O’Neill would no doubt have been amused by Dr. Strangelove.)

The play, as Rabbi Eisendrath notes, is a satire of the western, and particularly the American, credo that “business is business.” This credo is, in fact, the title of the rabbi’s discourse. He refers to (and expects his audience to know) Babbit, the fictional subject of the eponymous novel by Sinclair Lewis that also satirized the commercial obsessions of 1920s America.

For Rabbi Eisendrath, the notion that “business is business” is the source of just about every evil. It prevents social justice and leads to such international consequences as the United States’ invasion of Nicaragua (presumably to promote American business interests, which was, in fact, the case.)
Thus does this battle cry gag the critics, hobble the investigators, hoodwink the press, stifle religion, and muzzle the law.  
It is this catchword which enables otherwise sensitive and intelligent and wholly humane persons to trample upon human rights and to render subservient to commercial interests human aspirations and strivings.
The rabbi gives, as proof of this rather broad charge, an article in the current issue of The Nation, written by the American playwright, Sherwood Anderson, in which he describes child laborers in the textile mills of Tennessee. Their working conditions cannot be improved because “business is business,” reports Anderson.
Rabbi Eisendrath also avers that this maxim has subverted religious life, and even prevented people from objecting to a production of the Freiberg Passion Play by Morris Gest and David Belasco (both Jewish):
Business is business they retort, and thus, at the price of human suffering and woe, they perpetuate blindly a Christian lie and a Jewish libel that their profits might wax fat.
The rabbi concludes his sermon with the words of Kublai Khan, the one person in O’Neill’s play who sees through the superficiality of the dogma that “business is business.”
In silence—for one concentrated moment—be proud of life. Know in your hearth that the living of life can be noble. Know that the dying of death can be sublime. Be inspired by life, be exalted in death. Be humbly proud, be proudly grateful. Be immortal because all life is immortal. Contain the harmony of womb and grave within you. Possess life as a lover as a lover of all men, then sleep requited in the arms of eternity. If you awaken, then love once more. If you sleep on, then rest in peace. Who knows? What does it matter? It is nobler not to know and, regardless, bravely, heroically, generously, to live and to love.
This sermon was first given in The United States. We are not sure on what date this sermon was given, but we have its typescript. It makes many references to “our country,” and “our president,” and so on, that tell us that this was given before an American audience. (It also refers to “this evening,“ so we know that it was not delivered on a Sunday morning.) The typescript was not professionally typed. There are many spelling and punctuation errors, and the rabbi has hand-edited many sentences. The handwritten manuscript is even more heavily edited, so much so that it is quite difficult to follow. It is somewhat expanded (the rabbi’s Sunday morning sermons would last for almost an hour), and a few emendations are made on the page to tailor it for a Canadian (or at least non-American) audience. No specifically Canadian references to the power of business are made, but “our president,” has been changed to “president of the U.S.”

A number of ironies emerge from reading this sermon. One is that, from the time of its delivery in the States to its delivery in Canada, the stock market had crashed, and the Great Depression had begun. To chastise a group of people for their worship of business, whose own businesses were now threatened with closure, and they themselves with financial ruin, is more than ironic; it is downright cruel. Was Rabbi Eisendrath aware of the irony? Harsh as he might be in his criticism of his congregants’ values and behavior, he was certainly not a cruel man.

It is perhaps more ironic that this sermon and the play on which it is based, with their critique of unbridled commercialism, are perhaps more appropriate now, when free enterprise, small government economic policies are being advocated in many quarters, than they were when the rabbi delivered his sermon at Holy Blossom in 1930.
Another irony is that the rabbi would soon come to prevail upon his congregants, especially those untouched by the vicissitudes of the Depression, to contribute to the building of a new—and magnificent—Temple. Rabbi Eisendrath’s project of constructing a splendid new home for his congregation would depend on the generosity of those members who were most successful in business.

Lazarus Laughed

Subtitled “A Play for Imaginative Theatre,” Lazarus Laughed had its premiere performance in 1928 by the Pasadena Community Players. According to Wikipedia, It featured 151 actors portraying 420 roles. After its premiere, there were no further major productions of the play until 1971, when the American Repertory Theatre in Europe, with a cast of 40 mostly student actors portraying 150 different roles took it on a European tour. The play was performed in English in several ancient outdoor amphitheatres in Italy and received rave reviews from major Italian newspapers.

Unless he attended the Pasadena premiere of the play (and he surely would have mentioned it had he been there), Rabbi Eisendrath would have been familiar with the play only from reading it. And yet he tells us in this sermon that he considers it O’Neill’s best play, and O’Neill himself “our foremost prophet of life.” What he especially likes about this play, he tells us, is its “humanism” and its protest against the “materialistic spirit of our age.”

The play concerns itself with the character of Lazarus of Bethany, he who was raised from the dead by Jesus. Returned to life, and being unique among men for knowing what lies beyond the grave, Lazarus responds to all queries, from his family, from the Jews, from the Romans, only with the assertion that there is no death, only “God’s eternal laughter.” Lazarus himself laughs throughout the play, even when he loses the members of his family, including his wife (who grows older even as he himself becomes more youthful and strong). In the end, he laughs as Tiberius burns him at the stake.

Rabbi Eisendrath acknowledges that the play is Christian, but he maintains that it contains within it
… the very essence of our faith … a Judaism pure and prophetic, of a Judaism uncontaminated by ghetto accretions or rigid creeds, of a Judaism which quite in contradistinction to Christianity … and in contrast likewise to the religions of the east … [contains] the theme of an eternal and unwavering acceptance of life.
The rabbi attempts to connect the play to Judaism by linking Lazarus’s response to his critics to those of Job to his critics (“Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him …” Job 13:15) and Joseph to his brothers (“… you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good,” Genesis 50:20).  He makes mention of the scene in Lazarus’s home in Bethany, attended by “Orthodox Jews” and Nazarenes (followers of Jesus). Both groups consider themselves betrayed by Lazarus when he tells them that there is no death, only life. He also mentions Akiba’s dying not with concern for his own future but only for that of Judaism.

Rabbi Eisendrath refers to an arms conference that took place in London the week in which he gave his sermon on Lazarus Laughed (probably the London Naval Conference, January 21 to April 22, 1930). He is contemptuous of such conferences, and asks, “Do we really need arms to protect ourselves?” He answers, “No! We need more laughter which will show how ‘fictitious’ such needs as arms are.”

Rabbi Eisendrath is enthralled by this play because of its portrayal of Lazarus as one who simply loves life for its own sake, not for power or prestige or material goods, but simply for itself. He likes the play’s evocation of eternal life as part of a greater whole: we defeat death simply with our affirmation of life. We are immortal, he tells us, “not because we will be resurrected or live in a pearly gated heaven, but because we never really die. We are part of the great life force.” We need to remember, he tells us, to laugh as we did as children. As always, the rabbi tells us that we pursue too seriously our materialistic goals.

There is much in this sermon (if not the play) that I find troubling. The rabbi’s attempt to portray “the essence of Judaism” as “unwavering acceptance of life” may be true as far as it goes; however, an acceptance of life is surely not reducible to laughing at everything life throws at us, as Lazarus does. The rabbi’s sermons throughout his tenure at Holy Blossom (and even before) are clear evidence that he did not view life as a laughing matter—even before the Great Depression and the rise of Nazism.

Furthermore, I’m not sure what “a Judaism pure and prophetic … uncontaminated by ghetto accretions or rigid creeds” is. Is it Classical Reform Judaism of the kind Rabbi Eisendrath brought to Holy Blossom? The prophets surely did not view life as a laughing matter. The books attributed to them are not exactly full of laughs, and I cannot recollect any accounts of the prophets themselves laughing.  Koheleth tells us that there is time to laugh, but it is not all the time. Lazarus laughs all the time.

There is, of course, something called Jewish humour, often characterized as “laughter through tears.” But this humour is often precisely that humour conditioned by the ghetto and by the Jewish experience of persecution and of being ‘other.’ In short, I fail to make the connection between Judaism of any kind and Lazarus’s approach to life.  As for Rabbi Akiba, he went to his death affirming the sh’ma, convinced that he now understood its true meaning. He wasn’t laughing!

Also, Judaism does, in fact, affirm life beyond the grave. The Reform Union Prayer Book used by Rabbi Eisendrath speaks of “those who have finished their earthly course and been gathered to the eternal home. Though vanished from bodily sight, they have not ceased to be, and it is well with them; they abide in the shadow of the Most High.” Lazarus’s claim that there is no death, only life, is not in keeping with Jewish belief. We may indeed defeat death, or, more precisely, cope with death by affirming life, but that is not the same thing as denying the existence of death as Lazarus does.

Of all the sermons on the plays of Eugene O’Neill, I find this one the most unconvincing, even as I rather disliked reading the play itself. Rabbi Eisendrath does not summarize his comments on the four plays he reviews taken as a whole. It would, of course, be fascinating to have his comments on the O’Neill plays yet to come, including his acknowledged masterpieces. Unfortunately, we have no record of the rabbi issuing any further reviews (at least while in Toronto) of the plays of the man he considered the outstanding dramatist of his time.


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