Monday, July 27, 2020

Lazarus Laughed

The Resurrection of Lazarus. Byzantine icon, late 14th – early 15th century

Lazarus Laughed is a 1925 play by Eugene O'Neill. Generally, I much prefer seeing a play performed to reading it. O'Neill is an exception. I discovered his plays in high school and read what was available in our school's library with great enjoyment.

from Wikipedia: " It is a long theo-philosophical meditation with more than a hundred actors making up a masked chorus. In theatrical format, Lazarus Laughed appears to be a Greek tragedy. But the underlying message is similar to the mystery plays from the Middle Ages." It has never been filmed and is only rarely performed. You can read this one online here. It begins,
Lazarus Laughed



SCENE--Exterior and interior of Lazarus' home at Bethany. The main room at the front end of the house is shown--a long, low-ceilinged, sparely furnished chamber, with white walls gray in the fading daylight that enters from three small windows at the left. To the left of center several long tables placed lengthwise to the width of the room, around which many chairs for guests have been placed. In the rear wall, right, a door leading into the rest of the house. On the left, a doorway opening on a road where a crowd of men has gathered. On the right, another doorway leading to the yard where there is a crowd of women.

Inside the house, on the men's side, seven male Guests are grouped by the door, watching Lazarus with frightened awe, talking hesitantly in low whispers. The Chorus of Old Men, seven in number, is drawn up in a crescent, in the far corner, right, facing Lazarus.

(All of these people are masked in accordance with the following scheme: There are seven periods of life shown: Boyhood [or Girlhood], Youth, Young Manhood [or Womanhood], Manhood [or Womanhood], Middle Age, Maturity and Old Age; and each of these periods is represented by seven different masks of general types of character as follows: The Simple, Ignorant; the Happy, Eager; the Self-Tortured, Introspective; the Proud, Self-Reliant; the Servile, Hypocritical; the Revengeful, Cruel; the Sorrowful, Resigned. Thus in each crowd [this includes among the men the Seven Guests who are composed of one male of each period-type as period one--type one, period two--type two, and so on up to period seven--type seven] there are forty-nine different combinations of period and type. Each type has a distinct predominant color for its costumes which varies in kind according to its period. The masks of the Chorus of Old Men are double the size of the others. They are all seven in the Sorrowful, Resigned type of Old Age.)

On a raised platform at the middle of the one table placed lengthwise at center sits Lazarus, his head haloed and his body illumined by a soft radiance as of tiny phosphorescent flames.

Lazarus, freed now from the fear of death, wears no mask.

In appearance Lazarus is tall and powerful, about fifty years of age, with a mass of gray-black hair and a heavy beard. His face recalls that of a statue of a divinity of Ancient Greece in its general structure and particularly in its quality of detached serenity. It is dark-complected, ruddy and brown, the color of rich earth upturned by the plow, calm but furrowed deep with the marks of former suffering endured with a grim fortitude that had never softened into resignation. His forehead is broad and noble, his eyes black and deep-set. Just now he is staring straight before him as if his vision were still fixed beyond life.

Kneeling beside him with bowed heads are his wife, Miriam, his sisters, Martha and Mary, and his Father and Mother.

Miriam is a slender, delicate woman of thirty-five, dressed in deep black, who holds one of his hands in both of hers, and keeps her lips pressed to it. The upper part of her face is covered by a mask which conceals her forehead, eyes and nose, but leaves her mouth revealed. The mask is the pure pallor of marble, the expression that of a statue of Woman, of her eternal acceptance of the compulsion of motherhood, the inevitable cycle of love into pain into joy and new love into separation and pain again and the loneliness of age. The eyes of the mask are almost closed. Their gaze turns within, oblivious to the life outside, as they dream down on the child forever in memory at her breast. The mouth of Miriam is sensitive and sad, tender with an eager, understanding smile of self-forgetful love, the lips still fresh and young. Her skin, in contrast to the mask, is sunburned and earth-colored like that of Lazarus. Martha, Mary and the two parents all wear full masks which broadly reproduce their own characters. Martha is a buxom middle-aged housewife, plain and pleasant. Mary is young and pretty, nervous and high-strung. The Father is a small, thin, feeble old man of over eighty, meek and pious. The Mother is tall and stout, over sixty-five, a gentle, simple woman.

All the masks of these Jews of the first two scenes of the play are pronouncedly Semitic.

A background of twilight sky. A dissolving touch of sunset still lingers on the horizon.

It is some time after the miracle and Jesus has gone away.

CHORUS OF OLD MEN--(in a quavering rising and falling chant--their arms outstretched toward Lazarus)

Jesus wept!
Behold how he loved him!
He that liveth,
He that believeth,
Shall never die!

CROWD--(on either side of house, echo the chant)

He that believeth
Shall never die!
Lazarus, come forth!

FIRST GUEST--(a Simple Boy--in a frightened whisper after a pause of dead silence) That strange light seems to come from within him! (with awe) Think of it! For four days he lay in the tomb! (turns away with a shudder)

SECOND GUEST--(a Happy Youth--with reassuring conviction) It is a holy light. It came from Jesus.

FIFTH GUEST--(an Envious, Middle-Aged Man) Maybe if the truth were known, our friend there never really died at all!

FOURTH GUEST--(a Defiant Man, indignantly) Do you doubt the miracle? I tell you I was here in this house when Lazarus died!

SEVENTH GUEST--(an Aged, Sorrowful Man) And I used to visit him every day. He knew himself his hour was near.

FOURTH GUEST--He wished for death! He said to me one day: "I have known my fill of life and the sorrow of living. Soon I shall know peace." And he smiled. It was the first time I had seen him smile in years.

THIRD GUEST--(a Self-Tortured Man--gloomily) Yes, of late years his life had been one long misfortune. One after another his children died--

SIXTH GUEST--(a Mature Man with a cruel face--with a harsh laugh) They were all girls. Lazarus had no luck.

SEVENTH GUEST--The last was a boy, the one that died at birth. You are forgetting him.

THIRD GUEST--Lazarus could never forget. Not only did his son die but Miriam could never bear him more children.

FIFTH GUEST--(practically) But he could not blame bad luck for everything. Take the loss of his father's wealth since he took over the management. That was his own doing. He was a bad farmer, a poor breeder of sheep, and a bargainer so easy to cheat it hurt one's conscience to trade with him!

SIXTH GUEST--(with a sneer--maliciously) You should know best about that! (a suppressed laugh from those around him)

FIRST GUEST--(who has been gazing at Lazarus--softly) Ssssh! Look at his face! (They all stare. A pause.)

SECOND GUEST--(with wondering awe) Do you remember him, neighbors, before he died? He used to be pale even when he worked in the fields. Now he seems as brown as one who has labored in the earth all day in a vineyard beneath the hot sun! (a pause)

FOURTH GUEST--The whole look of his face has changed. He is like a stranger from a far land. There is no longer any sorrow in his eyes. They must have forgotten sorrow in the grave.

FIFTH GUEST--(grumblingly) I thought we were invited here to eat--and all we do is stand and gape at him!

FOURTH GUEST--(sternly) Be silent! We are waiting for him to speak.

THIRD GUEST--(impressively) He did speak once. And he laughed!

ALL THE GUESTS--(amazed and incredulous) Laughed?

THIRD GUEST--(importantly) Laughed! I heard him! It was a moment after the miracle--

MIRIAM--(her voice, rich with sorrow, exultant now) Jesus cried, "Lazarus, come forth!" (She kisses his hand. He makes a slight movement, a stirring in his vision. The Guests stare. A frightened pause.)

FIFTH GUEST--(nudging the Second--uneasily) Go on with your story!

THIRD GUEST--Just as he appeared in the opening of the tomb, wrapped in his shroud--

SECOND GUEST--(excitedly--interrupting) My heart stopped! I fell on my face! And all the women screamed! (sceptically) You must have sharp ears to have heard him laugh in that uproar!

THIRD GUEST--I helped to pry away the stone so I was right beside him. I found myself kneeling, but between my fingers I watched Jesus and Lazarus. Jesus looked into his face for what seemed a long time and suddenly Lazarus said "Yes" as if he were answering a question in Jesus' eyes.

ALL THE GUESTS--(mystified) Yes? What could he mean by yes?

THIRD GUEST--Then Jesus smiled sadly but with tenderness, as one who from a distance of years of sorrow remembers happiness. And then Lazarus knelt and kissed Jesus' feet and both of them smiled and Jesus blessed him and called him "My Brother" and went away; and Lazarus, looking after Him, began to laugh softly like a man in love with God! Such a laugh I never heard! It made my ears drunk! It was like wine! And though I was half-dead with fright I found myself laughing, too!

MIRIAM--(with a beseeching summons) Lazarus, come forth!

CHORUS--(chanting) Lazarus! Come forth!

CROWD--(on either side of the house--echoing the chant) Come forth! Come forth!

LAZARUS--(suddenly in a deep voice--with a wonderful exultant acceptance in it) Yes! (The Guests in the room, the Crowds outside all cry out in fear and joy and fall on their knees.)

CHORUS--(chanting exultantly)

The stone is taken away!
The spirit is loosed!
The soul let go!

LAZARUS--(rising and looking around him at everyone and everything--with an all-embracing love--gently) Yes! (His family and the Guests in the room now throng about Lazarus to embrace him. The Crowds of men and women on each side push into the room to stare at him. He is in the arms of his Mother and Miriam while his Sisters and Father kiss and press his hands. The five are half hysterical with relief and joy, sobbing and laughing.)

FATHER--My son is reborn to me!


ALL--(with a great shout) Hosannah!

FATHER--Let us rejoice! Eat and drink! Draw up your chairs, friends! Music! Bring wine! (Music begins in the room off right, rear--a festive dance tune. The company sit down in their places, the Father and Mother at Lazarus' right and left, Miriam next to the Mother, Martha and Mary beside the Father. But Lazarus remains standing. And the Chorus of Old Men remain in their formation at the rear. Wine is poured and all raise their goblets toward Lazarus--then suddenly they stop, the music dies out, and an awed and frightened stillness prevails, for Lazarus is a strange, majestic figure whose understanding smile seems terrible and enigmatic to them.)

FATHER--(pathetically uneasy) You frighten us, my son. You are strange--standing there--(In the midst of a silence more awkward than before he rises to his feet, goblet in hand--forcing his voice, falteringly) A toast, neighbors!

CHORUS--(in a forced echo) A toast!

ALL--(echoing them) A toast!

FATHER--To my son, Lazarus, whom a blessed miracle has brought back from death!

LAZARUS--(suddenly laughing softly out of his vision, as if to himself, and speaking with a strange unearthly calm in a voice that is like a loving whisper of hope and confidence) No! There is no death! (A moment's pause. The people remain with goblets uplifted, staring at him. Then all repeat after him questioningly and frightenedly)


SIXTH GUEST--(suddenly blurts out the question which is in the minds of all) What did you find beyond there, Lazarus? (a pause of silence)

LAZARUS--(smiles gently and speaks as if to a group of inquisitive children) O Curious Greedy Ones, is not one world in which you know not how to live enough for you?

SIXTH GUEST--(emboldened) Why did you say yes, Lazarus?

FOURTH GUEST--Why did you laugh?

ALL THE GUESTS--(with insistent curiosity but in low awed tones) What is beyond there, Lazarus?

CHORUS--(in a low murmur) What is beyond there? What is beyond?

CROWD--(carrying the question falteringly back into silence) What is beyond?

LAZARUS--(suddenly again--now in a voice of loving exaltation) There is only life! I heard the heart of Jesus laughing in my heart; "There is Eternal Life in No," it said, "and there is the same Eternal Life in Yes! Death is the fear between!" And my heart reborn to love of life cried "Yes!" and I laughed in the laughter of God! (He begins to laugh, softly at first--a laugh so full of a complete acceptance of life, a profound assertion of joy in living, so devoid of all self-consciousness or fear, that it is like a great bird song triumphant in depths of sky, proud and powerful, infectious with love, casting on the listener an enthralling spell. The Crowd in the room are caught by it. Glancing sideways at one another, smiling foolishly and self-consciously, at first they hesitate, plainly holding themselves in for fear of what the next one will think.)

CHORUS--(in a chanting murmur)

Lazarus laughs!
Our hearts grow happy!
Laughter like music!
The wind laughs!
The sea laughs!
Spring laughs from the earth!
Summer laughs in the air!
Lazarus laughs!

LAZARUS--(on a final note of compelling exultation) Laugh! Laugh with me! Death is dead! Fear is no more! There is only life! There is only laughter!

CHORUS--(chanting exultingly now)

Laugh! Laugh!
Laugh with Lazarus!
Fear is no more!
There is no death!

(They laugh in a rhythmic cadence dominated by the laughter of Lazarus.)

CROWD--(who, gradually, joining in by groups or one by one--including Lazarus' family with the exception of Miriam, who does not laugh but watches and listens to his laughter with a tender smile of being happy in his happiness--have now all begun to laugh in rhythm with the Chorus--in a great, full-throated pæan as the laughter of Lazarus rises higher and higher)

Laugh! Laugh!
Fear is no more!
There is no death!


Laugh! Laugh!
There is only life!
There is only laughter!
Fear is no more!
Death is dead!

CROWD--(in a rhythmic echo)

Laugh! Laugh!
Death is dead!
There is only laughter!

(The room rocks, the air outside throbs with the rhythmic beat of their liberated laughter--still a bit uncertain of its freedom, harsh, discordant, frenzied, desperate and drunken, but dominated and inspired by the high, free, aspiring, exulting laughter of Lazarus.)



  1. ...I must have been asleep in high school.

    1. lol Well, we didn't read it for a class.

  2. Therefore let's all laugh because death is no more.

  3. WOW - that was quite the interesting read. It would have been nice if we could have known more about Lazarus after Jesus brought him back from the dead.

    1. So much I'd like to know just isn't known :(

  4. I don't know this play. What's new? I don't know a lot. Smile. But I do like the Byzantine painting you posted.

    1. I had a good selection to choose from :) Lazarus was a popular subject.

  5. I agree.O'Neill is to be seen and not read. But I really love the beginning as he sets the stage. Any director would feel half their work was done for them with this!

    1. I've tried to find video of someone's staging of this play. Still no luck :(