Noteworthy for its use of masks to delineate between the characters’ personal feelings and public personas, playwright and Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill’s The Great God Brown
was first performed in 1926. As in many of O’Neill’s plays, the story tends toward tragedy and disillusionment. O’Neill is one of several playwrights around the turn of the twentieth century credited for establishing a uniquely American approach to theater.
On the night of the high school commencement dance, Billy Brown stands on a pier with his parents who declare that he will study architecture in college and join his father’s firm. The Brown family leaves and the Anthony family appears. At first, Mr. Anthony is reluctant to send his son Dion to college, preferring he perform manual labor. When Mrs. Anthony reveals that Billy will go to college to study architecture, Mr. Anthony changes his mind, challenging Dion to be a better architect than Billy.
Margaret and Billy come to the pier and Margaret announces her love for Dion as Billy confesses his feelings for her. Disappointed, Billy declares he will remain her friend. The focus shifts to Dion, also on the pier, as he takes his mask off to reveal a face full of sadness and insecurity. Billy comes near and Dion, at first feeling resentful, confesses his insecurity about his love for Margaret. When Dion’s father passes away, Dion marries Margaret, and together they move to Europe for Dion to pursue a career as an artist.
Seven years later, Dion and Margaret return from Europe after his career as an artist fails. Depressed, Dion has turned to alcoholism. His mask has become more cynical. Desperate for money to support their family, Margaret convinces Dion to join Billy’s architecture firm. A young woman named Cybel finds Dion passed out and offers emotional support, to which Dion responds by taking off his mask and revealing his true self. Billy also accepts emotional support from Cybel.
Over the next seven years, Billy’s mask transforms into a gentler face. He reveals his real face to Margaret one night, declaring his intention to go away. She can’t bear to see his face. Later, Dion meets Billy at a library with a torturous mask. He admits to Billy a time when they were young and Billy betrayed his trust. Since that time, Dion has lived in jealousy of Billy and has been unable to confidently assert himself and form an identity. Dion dies, and Billy takes Dion’s mask and clothes to assume his identity and pursue Margaret’s love.
One month later, Margaret comes to Billy’s office looking for her husband. She no longer wears her mask because Billy, still appearing as Dion, makes her happy. Margaret asks once again where Dion is and Billy breaks down, taking off his Billy mask to reveal a face tortured by the demon of Dion. He declares his love for her, but Margaret runs away. Later that night, she talks to Billy as Dion and tells him what just happened. Billy responds that he will murder the man, to which Margaret is surprised.
Another month later, Billy appeals to God for the strength to kill himself. At his office, he frenetically switches between his mask and Dion’s as he interacts with Margaret and his clients. He finally disappears and when his coworkers find the Billy mask, they think he has died. Everyone except Margaret believes that Dion killed him. The police go to Billy’s house and, seeing him in his Dion mask, shoot him. Margaret finds the Dion mask and mourns her dead husband. Dying, Billy tells Cybel that he has found God.
Four years later, Margaret stands on the pier from the beginning of the play with her children and reminds them to respect the memory of their father. She declares her never-ending love.The Great God Brown
explores the themes of identity and the pursuit of the American dream through both straightforward and experimental theatre techniques. The masks both depict and hide the characters’ true feelings as they wrestle with the drama of their lives. Billy’s successful career as an architect, along with his natural good looks and college degree, paint him as a successful pursuer of the American dream, yet his love life is lacking. Meanwhile, Dion has struggled to establish an identity since Billy betrayed him at a young age by mocking his art.The Great God Brown
met with mixed reviews upon its release. Some critics appreciated O’Neill’s experimentalism—the attempt to physically represent inner feelings—while others were turned off by it, finding the play illogical, confusing or boring. The Wall Street Journal
called it “a laboratory experiment not good for the theatre.” Even so, the play had a successful initial run with 283 performances in New York. Over time, the critical response to the play has remained mixed.