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Save Eugene O'Neill!

By Jack Marshall

On January 2, in its Metro Section, the Washington Post reported that the Fairfax County library system was dumping thousands of volumes that had not been checked out in the last 24 months. Among the classics tossed to make room for more novels by John Grisham and Tom Clancy, the ghost-written autobiography of Hillary Clinton and the fulminations of Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter: Gibbon's Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire; Voltaire's Candide, Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie got the heave-ho, too. Holding on by a thread only because one librarian professed a bias as a former English major: Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill.

The book was compiled by O'Neill himself , during a creative lull after his 1936 Nobel Prize for Literature. He was in ill health, battling alcoholism and depression (as usual), and it was widely assumed, perhaps even by the playwright himself, that his career was over. The nine plays were thus O'Neill's summing up of his artistic legacy before the burst of genius in the 1940s that produced a second act to his career that was even more impressive than the first. The nine plays include Desire Under the Elms. If a Fairfax County English major yields to public opinion, it will no longer be in the shelves a year from now.

And when that happens, it will be a cultural turning point, just as the banishing of Hemingway and Voltaire are turning points. When public libraries base their collections on public tastes rather than literary worth, it guarantees widespread loss---loss of memory, loss of perspective, loss of ideas, loss of inspiration, loss of critical standards, loss of cultural depth and diversity. But what is the alternative? One can hardly argue that a book that never makes it to the check-out desk is contributing anything to the community. Books, like plays, don't communicate all by themselves. Somebody has to want to read them and watch them.

One could be more sympathetic with the decision of the Fairfax libraries if its policy were uniformly applied with a consistent philosophy. The librarian who was interviewed for the Post story said that the plays of William Shakespeare would "always" be available, as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Well why? Why is Britain's greatest playwright guaranteed enshrinement in our culture, while Tennessee Williams loses his place on the shelves to reader apathy and Eugene O'Neill barely makes the cut? For that matter, why should one librarian's biases give O'Neill a pass? And who decided that Fitzgerald's masterpiece gets the equivalent of academic tenure, while, for example, Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings flunks out? If pure popularity is the measuring stick, than let's apply it to all. On the other hand, if the library is going to assume the responsibility of cultural guardian, its choices should be based on better criteria biases, conventional wisdom and individual favorites.

Libraries, art museums, orchestras and theater companies are either the guardians of cultural riches, or there are no guardians. Art forms that cannot escape commercial forces are doomed to slough off supposed classics like dead skin. Commercial radio is gradually eliminating not only classical music and jazz from the airwaves but also the popular music of the 40's, 50's and 60's, and with it Bob Dylan, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers. With hundreds of cable TV channels now available, only one consistently shows great black-and-white classic films, which are gradually fading from public awareness along with their inimitable stars: James Cagney, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, Spencer Tracy, and dozens moreeven Shirley Temple!

What will save Eugene O'Neill? Commercial necessities long ago invaded the theater: grants are all that keep most companies, even prominent ones, out of bankruptcy, and grants are linked to audience. With libraries, it's circulation. The Post story notes that circulation in Fairfax libraries has been on the rise, meaning more fundingand, it is clear, more Stephen King novels pushing Emily Dickenson and Edgar Allen Poe out the door. "I think the days of libraries saying, 'We must have that, because it's good for people,' are beyond us," said Leslie Burger, president of the American Library Association and director of Princeton Public Library. "There is a sense in many public libraries that popular materials are what most of our communities desire. Everybody's got a favorite book they're trying to promote."

This is an odd attitude in a society that delivers messages and promotes policies to discourage smoking, trans-fats, fast driving, excessive drinking, pot use and junk food. "Most of our communities" enjoy those things, too. What's the difference between promoting good health and good art? It couldn't be that the dollars for unhealthy food, drink and drugs flow to corporations, while corporations, foundations and governments will pay for increased public consumption of rap music, Steve Martin plays, Ann Rice novels, Ben Affleck movies and Broadway juke-box musicals.

Could it?

So the hurdles to keeping the plays of Eugene O'Neill, America's greatest playwright, in our cultural memory become more and higher. Each generation of teachers reflects its own cultural experience: today The Color Purple, the poems of Maya Angelou and The Heidi Chronicles are more likely to be assigned in high school than Moby-Dick, the poems of Robert Frost and A Long Day's Journey into Night. Libraries, it seems, will be no help. ""A book is not forever," said Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch Fairfax system, in the Post story. He is proving it by dumping the writings of Plato and Aristotle, the thoughts that launched the Renaissance and formed the foundation of Western philosophy and science. At least they stayed with us for 3,000 years; the libraries are ready to jettison O'Neill in less than a century.

If O'Neill is to survive, as well as Miller, Williams, Albee, Hellman, and all the other great American playwrights of the past, it must be the theater that saves him. Even as other cultural institutions abandon their obligation to fight for the best of our art and literature, the theater try to adapt its own versions of the model set by art museums, blending old and new, using current fads and momentary hits to attract new attention to proven works of quality and lasting value. And it must find ways to present O'Neill's plays in new and innovative ways, without distorting or destroying what makes them great. Most of all, the theater must do O'Neill well, a difficult challenge, because his are uniquely difficult plays. Nothing will kill a classic like a string of shoddy productions.

Even all of this will not be enough if audiences take no responsibility for preserving their own cultural heritage. Encouraging the public to see plays that are more than time-killing eye-candy or strings of formula one-line jokes is often derided as an "eat your spinach" tactic that is bound to fail, but while spinach may not appeal, most adults know that they won't thrive on a diet of Oreos and Big Macs, either. The argument for Eugene O'Neill's plays is more persuasive than the case for spinach: it's not just that they are good for us, but also that they are good.

O'Neill ought to be saved, not for him (for he is well past caring), but for us and those who come after us. Can he be saved in an era where art that doesn't pay the bills is regarded as a burden, not a treasure?

We shall see.

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