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The Sniper

by Eugene O'Neill


The third play of the Seventh bill of the Players first New York season (1916-1917) was by O’Neill, titled The Sniper and written in 1915 for his class at Harvard with George Pierce Baker.  With the war escalating in Europe, Jack Reed’s assignment in China for Metropolitan was cancelled, but he and Louise Bryant spent most of their time in their house in Croton.  With Bryant less accessible, O’Neill, who had been having an affair with her while living intermittently with his family at a hotel and, with his frequent extended stays at the Golden Swan bar and its “Hell Hole” back room, O’Neill’s state of mind seemed to prevent him from working on a new play.  Once rehearsals began, however, Kenton leads one to believe that perhaps O’Neill was still tinkering with the play when she compares the “ease” of working on Wellman's Barbarians with The Sniper, saying the latter was “a bit more difficult, for here the playwright was experimenting.  Half the time we who knew him best did not know what kink lay behind his maddest insistences.”(1)  Sheaffer tells us that the play was “inspired by the mass slaughter in Europe as millions advanced, retreated and dug in,” obviously almost two years earlier at the beginnings of the war.(2)  He also reports that Baker found the play “’worthy’ but not ‘timely,’” and that it received an “honorable mention” in the annual Harvard Dramatic Club competition.(3)

The plot of The Sniper is set in Belgium, like Wellman’s play, and begins when its lead character, a sixty-five year old farmer named Rougon, enters carrying the dead body of his son, a Belgian soldier, that he has recovered from a skirmish with German forces near his home.  His home has been visibly destroyed from some kind of attack, forcing Rougon to enter through a hole in the back wall.  Typical for even early O’Neill, and as part of the visual and aural texture asked for in the opening stage directions of the play, we hear cannons booming in the distance.  As Rougon mourns his son’s death, the village priest passes the home, sees him and enters, trying to give comfort with the words “There, there, my son!  It is the will of God.”(4)  We learn that Rougon’s son was soon to be married and earlier that day had successfully urged his mother and fiancée to leave for Brussels in anticipation of a possible attack.  The priest continues to try to comfort with some unhelpful ministerial responses and we see Rougon’s anger and sense of victimization grow.  We learn that this anger is a part of his nature when he tells the Priest that he had promised his son he would not touch his rifle, his son fearing he would do something rash.  However, when a shell-shocked young boy who had been traveling with the mother and fiancée enters and reveals that the two women were killed by an enemy artillery explosion on the road, Rougon gets his rifle and begins to shoot at a group of marching troops nearby.  The Priest tries to stop him in the name of God, but Rougon has passed the point of no return, responding simply with “Bah, God!”(5)  Troops quickly arrive at the house, and The Captain, whom we met earlier when he told the Priest to make it known that “Civilians with arms will be immediately shot,” comes to enforce his orders.(6)  As Rougon is about to be executed, the priest tells him to make his peace with God, to which Rougon responds by spitting on the floor, shouting “That for your God who allows such things to happen!” and then tells the Captain he is ready.  After Rougon is shot, the Captain exits, shrugging his shoulders and telling the priest, “It is the law.”  The Priest, looking at the dead bodies of father and son, exclaims “Alas, the laws of men!” and the play ends with the “stifled weeping” of the child, who has witnessed all while standing in the corner.(7)

Some O’Neill commentators have dismissed the play’s writing as O’Neill’s “beginning work,”(8) but some have also noted his consistent approach to war in this and other early plays.  Peter Egri wrote that O’Neill wasn’t interested in presenting the physical horrors of war as much as “the way in which the war dehumanized, disturbed and destroyed lives and souls.; he exposed the manner in which it fatefully derailed and diverted individuals from their human and humane courses.”(9)  Bogard calls the work “little more than an anecdote, illustrative of the atrocity of war, intended to appeal to an audience’s horror at the Prussian ‘rape’ of Belgium” and feels it was best that after the Provincetown’s single production of it, The Sniper was “advisedly forgotten.”(10)  Paul D. Voelker has written about the play extensively, in one article stating that “O’Neill has confronted directly that previously identified ‘ironic life force’ and given it a name—God the Father.”(11)  Sarlos labels the work “O’Neill’s only play dealing with a contemporary political topic,”(12) and Voelker, in another writing, calls it “as topical a serious play as O’Neill ever wrote.”(13)  While the play’s anti-war theme is clear, Sheaffer calling it “not so much anti-German as anti-war,” Voelker observes that some commentators have focused only on the political implications of the play: “The equally important metaphysical or religious implications are present from the beginning and fully integrated with the characters and the events,” and states the play is “also distinctly anti-church and anti-religion.”(14)  I think Voelker sums up his analysis by writing that “The Sniper is truly an anti-war play, but it is also much more, it is a protest against warmongering human nature and the God who created it.”(15)

Nina Moise, who directed the production, later told Sarlos that though The Sniper was not among O’Neill’s best one-acts, “it had an excitement and vitality the others on the bill not have.”  She reported that, as the playwright calls for in his stage directions, “the set represented a mud hut with an enormous opening in the back,” designed by Donald Corley, who also played the role of the Priest.  Cook played Rogoun, and Ida Rauh played Jean, the peasant boy, telling Sarlos that she “rouged her lower lip almost to the shin in order to achieve an idiotic expression, and wore a ‘terrible wig.’”(16) Moise’s negative first impression of O’Neill came because he “made no effort to be friendly,” and because he was so “withdrawn and morose,” but eventually she warmed to him, saying that when he finally smiled, “a strange thing happened: it was like the sun coming through the clouds.”(17) She said that O’Neill “rarely attended rehearsals,” unlike most of the other playwrights, and that he “generally avoided his first nights”; when she asked him what he thought of the opening performance of The Sniper, he replied: “I didn’t see it; an opening is no place for a nervous writer.”(18)

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Kenton 52.

(2) Sheaffer, Playwright 302.

(3) Sheaffer, Playwright 303.

(4) O’Neill, Complete Plays 296.

(5) O’Neill, Complete Plays 307.

(6) O’Neill, Complete Plays 303.

(7) O’Neill, Complete Plays 308.

(8) Bogard 52.

(10) Peter Egri. “The Fusion of the Epic…” Eugene O’Neill Newsletter Vol. X, No. 1 (Spring 1986).

(11) Bogard 53.

(12) Paul D. Voelker, “Politics, but Literature,Eugene O’Neill Newsletter, Vol. VIII, No. 2, (Summer-Fall 1984).

(13) Sarlos, Provincetown 127.

(14) Paul Voelker, “Eugene O’Neill, World Playwright: the Beginnings,” Eugene O’Neill in China. ed. Haiping Liu and Lowell Swortzell (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992) 104.

(15) Voelker, “Eugene” 104-105.

(16) Voelker, “Eugene” 104.

(17) Sarlos, Provincetown 127-128.

(18) Sheaffer, Playwright 378.

(19) Sheaffer, Playwright 395.