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Eugene O'Neill's life was a purgatory, as he never ceased informing us. His final plays, those written or revised from 1939 on, leave us with a vision of him plodding at last toward the top of that inverted mountain, the man emerging from his lifelong torments and the artist from his befuddlements. O'Neill is unique among American dramatists in having had a long, continually challenging career and in actually learning his art as a result: his last plays are of course his best, hi comparison to them, only The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape, out of all the pieces churned forth between 1913 and 1934, can give a clear-eyed playgoer the slightest inkling of what all the fuss was once about. A half-dozen truly remarkable plays out of 50 written may seem inefficient, like the ratio of shot footage to finally edited film in a Hollywood movie, but who are we, after the fact, to complain?

Still, purgatory (as I remember my catechism) is not only for the searing away of unrepented sinfulness but also for "the temporal punishment still due to sin already forgiven," the idea being that a sin's ongoing harm to other people continues to deserve some retribution. In this light, O'Neill may yet stand in need of the prayers of the faithful, for his career, though exemplary in its perseverance and final accomplishment, has continued to serve as a model for the most baleful of our dramaturgical vices,...

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