Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Eugene O’Neill and the Robber Barons


Portrait of Eugene O’Neill by Carl Van Vechten, 5 Sept. 1933. (Credit: U.S. Library of Congress)

After the success of Mourning Becomes Electra on Broadway, Eugene O’Neill labored in silence during twelve years (1934-1946) at the writing of a cycle of eleven plays (“A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed”) which told the story of an American family from before the founding of the republic to the 1930s. One of O’Neill’s sources for his ambitious project was Matthew Josephson’s The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists 1861-1901. A reading of Josephson’s book today provides illumination on the contemporary plutocracy that controls the nation today behind the façade of the Trump presidency.

Josephson’s book chronicles the ascendancy to power of that group of capitalists which built railroads (Cornelius Vanderbilt), controlled the oil and steel industries (John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie), and revolutionized the country’s banking and financial sectors (J.P. Morgan and Jay Gould) after the Civil War.


Black and white portrait of actress Carlotta Monterey O’Neill in a Plymouth Theater production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape,” 1922. Monterey later became O’Neill’s wife. (Credit: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University)

A composite portrait of these “great silent men” reveals that all of them shared (in common with our contemporary politicians) a “distaste for gunpowder.”[1] Most of them came of age during the time of the War Between the States. Here is how Judge Thomas Mellon (father of banker Andrew Mellon) explained patriotism to his son James, who was contemplating enlisting in the Union army:

I had hoped my boy was going to make a smart, intelligent business man and was not such a goose as to be seduced from duty by the declamations of buncombed speeches. It is only greenhorns who enlist…. In time you will come to understand and believe that a man may be a patriot without risking his own life or sacrificing his health. There are plenty of other lives less valuable or others ready to serve for the love of serving.[2]

The young men who would form a “new nobility of industry and banking” (Mellon, Rockefeller, Pierpont Morgan, Jay Gould and others) paid for substitutes to go in their place to the draft armies.

Their refusal to serve derived not only from a disinclination to go to war, but also because of their single-minded, all-consuming dedication to the accumulation of riches. They also advised against government service. Andrew Mellon once observed: “It is always a mistake for a good business man to take public office.”[3]

What need to hold elected office and run a government when you possess the kingdoms of the world and their glory? Better to hire servants to run them for you, and pay a carnival clown to instill the illusion that the show is going on.

It matters not one iota what political party is in power, or what President holds the reins of office. We are not politicians or public thinkers; we are the rich; we own America; we got it, God knows how; but we intend to keep it if we can by throwing all the tremendous weight of our support, our influence, our money, our political connection, out purchased senators, our hungry congressmen, our public-speaking demagogues into the scale against any legislation, any political platform, any Presidential campaign, that threatens the integrity of our estate.[4]


Eugene O’Neill’s study, 2 June 2004. (Credit: Jerrye and Roy Klotz MD)

In 1946, with the United States flush with imperial victory after World War II, O’Neill gave an interview to a group of reporters in which he spoke about the premises of his American Cycle:

I’m going on the theory that the United States, instead of being the most successful country in the world, is the greatest failure…. It’s the greatest failure because it was given everything, more than any other country…. Its main idea is that everlasting game of trying to possess your own soul by the possession of something outside of it, thereby losing your own soul and the thing outside of it, too…. This was really said in the Bible much better. We are the greatest example of “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”[5]

It is tempting to conclude that the Robber Barons—some of them wearing garish Russian garb—have come back to haunt us. But the truth is that they never left, for we have ripped Christ away from the Cross, and set Mammon squarely in His place.



Poster for Federal Theatre Project presentation of “The Emperor Jones” at the Columbia theater, showing a woodcut design of a man in military uniform holding a handgun, 1937. (Credit: U.S. Library of Congress)

[1] Matthew Josephson, The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists 1861-1901 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1934), 336 and 50.

[2] Matthew Josephson, The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists 1861-1901 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1934), 32 and 50.

[3] Josephson, 349.

[4] Frederick Townsend Martin, The Passing of the Idle Rich, quoted in Josephson, 352.

[5] John S. Wilson, “O’Neill on the World and The Iceman,” in Mark W. Estrin, ed., Conversations with Eugene O’Neill (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990), 164-165. For a reconstruction of O’Neill’s “lost” Cycle, see Donald Gallup, Eugene O’Neill and his Eleven-Play Cycle: “A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

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