Pro-Worker Parallels Between Oona O’Neill’s Playwright Father and Filmmaker Husband

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[dropcap]The[/dropcap] first play I saw in Los Angeles upon my return from Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, was Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, playing at the Odyssey Theatre through July 17. These two occurrences ended up peculiarly linked. It was in Switzerland where I visited the new film museum, Chaplin’s World, located on the mansion grounds once owned by Charlie Chaplin and his fourth (and last) wife, Oona O’Neill Chaplin.

Some history: Born in Bermuda in 1925, Oona was the daughter of Eugene O’Neill, the only American playwright to win both Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, and UK-born writer Agnes Boulton. After her parents divorced when she was four, Oona had little contact with her father. In 1942, she was anointed the Stork Club’s “Number One Debutante”; Oona hobnobbed with Gloria Vanderbilt and dated J.D. Salinger (before he wrote 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye). In 1943, Oona married the Oscar-winning Chaplin when Charlie — only a year younger than Eugene — was 54 and she was 18.

It was the Chaplin’s World exhibit for his 1936 film, Modern Times, that I harkened back to after attending The Hairy Ape. There, the cogs and wheels of the film’s assembly line were on display — alluding to the classic’s most memorable sequence, in which Charlie’s “Little Tramp” character is swallowed up by the factory’s machinery. In the exhibit, visitors can actually lie down in the reconstructed set as if they are Charlie the proletarian, being consumed by the industrial apparatus.

It seems that, in addition to their ages and stature as renowned artists, Eugene and Charlie had even more in common; the playwright and filmmaker seemed to share some of the same profound thematic concerns regarding the human condition, and were influenced by similar pro-worker political currents.

Alienation of Labor + +

The Hairy Ape, written in 1922 by O’Neill, opens — according to stage directions — in “the firemen’s forecastle of a transatlantic liner.” The playwright describes the crew’s living quarters in jail- and zoo-like terms: “cramped space” in the bowels of a ship, “imprisoned by white steel.” He paints the full picture with the confinement of the space: “The ceiling crushes down upon the men’s heads. They cannot stand upright.”

Director Steven Berkoff has ensured that, in this production, the seamen’s workplace is hellish. The set, the chiaroscuro lighting, the sound design (in addition to Will Mahood’s live drumming) all contribute to the nightmarish underworld on the Odyssey stage.

O’Neill’s further stage directions are numerous, and gritty. One hanging electric bulb swings overhead, shedding just enough light through the coal dust. The noise from the furnace is grating, steel against steel — the crunching of coal. The workers handle their shovels “as if they were part of their bodies.” He paints, impeccably, a world of oppressive working conditions and the exploitation of these workers.

Chaplin’s Modern Times depicts a similar tone of industrial tyranny. In it, his character joins the industrial proletariat in a factory that spies on workers during bathroom breaks. In an experiment to shorten lunchtime, he’s force-fed by an automated feeding machine that goes haywire. Working on the assembly line, Chaplin tightens bolts. Striving to keep up as the conveyor belt gains speed, Chaplin leaps onto the assembly line and is swallowed up by the turning cogs and gears — like Jonah inside a mechanical whale.

Dehumanization of labor causes O’Neill and Chaplin to liken workers to animals. O’Neill’s simian stokers have “crouching, inhuman attitudes of chained gorillas.” Modern Times opens with a shot of sheep being herded that dissolves into blue collared men going to work.

Revolutionary Influences + +

At different points in their lives, O’Neill and Chaplin also moved in similar leftwing, intellectual social milieus, and both their work — stage and screen — reference radical politics. O’Neill often associated with left-wingers, including journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant, and Chaplin’s son, Michael, confirmed in an interview that his father “had lots of socialist and communist friends, [including] H.G. Wells, [George] Bernard Shaw, Ellen Ogden Stewart, Ivor Montagu… to mention just a few.”

Chaplin and O’Neill were hardly party-line Marxists, but both were aware of leftist politics, which led to their surveillance. Press notes for the Odyssey’s The Hairy Ape state: “The play… attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which had kept a file on O’Neill. [The FBI] report on the playwright stated that ‘The Hairy Ape could easily lend itself to radical propaganda…’”

The Manoir de Ban, the Swiss mansion where Oona and Charlie Chaplin lived and is now part of Chaplin's World. Photo by Ed Rampell.
The Manoir de Ban, the Swiss mansion where Oona and Charlie Chaplin lived and is now part of Chaplin’s World. Photo by Ed Rampell.

To fight the Power, Ape’s protagonist Yank (played by Haile D’Alan in the Odyssey production), turns to terrorism and, in scene seven, tries joining the Industrial Workers of the World. (Ape depicts something very topical: by what means alienated individuals become “radicalized,” including media disinformation and extremist ideology.)

On the other hand, Modern Times takes place during the Great Depression. After the Little Tramp’s hospitalization, he strolls down a street when a construction truck’s red flag falls off. After Charlie retrieves and waves the flag to get the driver’s attention, a workers’ demonstration turns the corner. In an ensuing clash, protesters and police believe the red flag-waving Tramp is the proletarians’ leader.

Banished + +

Future FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover had his eye on Chaplin as early as 1917’s The Immigrant, Chaplin’s World co-founder Yves Durand told me. Hoover disliked Modern Times, 1940’s antifascist satire The Great Dictator, and 1947’s anti-capitalist black comedy, Monsieur Verdoux. This contributed to British-born Chaplin’s expulsion from America during the McCarthy era and his resettling in neutral Switzerland in 1952.

Charlie and Oona eventually raised eight children and lived at Manoir de Ban, a mansion overlooking Lake Geneva and the Alps, until Charlie’s death in 1977 at age 88. They reportedly enjoyed a devoted marriage. Their restored mansion is now part of Chaplin’s World, bestowing a sense of the Chaplins’ family life.

Although there are film clips and photos of her there, there is no wax figure by Paris’ Musée Grévin depicting Oona — although there are many waxen statues of husband Charlie and his various co-stars, including ex-wife Paulette Goddard, featured in Modern Times and The Great Dictator. Oona lived in 19th Century Manoir de Ban until her 1991 death, when she was 66.

Suggesting that in certain ways Oona O’Neill lived out a role “written” in some sort of subconscious script is speculation. However, as Antonio says in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the “past is prologue.”

NOW PLAYING: THE HAIRY APE at The Odyssey Theatre, through July 17.

hairy ape iconWith unflinching theatrical force and explosive lyricism, The Hairy Ape explores the tragedy of a forgotten voice and the perennial human need to belong.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored the third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” available at: