In 1925, the American playwright Eugene O’Neill published a play that is rarely staged, though its subject is awe-inspiring. Lazarus Laughed is a fictionalized account of the life of the man Lazarus after he has been raised from the dead, his vision shifted by four days in the tomb, a story of his joys and of the trials he faces, right up to his (imagined) death at the hands of Tiberius. Its title, O’Neill said, was a counterpoint to Jesus’s reaction upon being invited to see where Lazarus has been lain in the tomb: whereas, John tells us, “Jesus wept” (11:35), Lazarus laughs in celebration of the Good News. Later, Lazarus’s message before a hostile crowd threatening to kill him at the very moment Jesus himself is being crucified is a powerful one:
You laugh, he says, but your laughter is guilty! It laughs a hyena laughter, spotted, howling its hungry fear of life! That day I returned did I not tell you your fear was no more, that there is no death? You believed then—for a moment! You laughed—discordantly, hoarsely, but with a groping toward joy. What! Have you so soon forgotten, that now your laughter curses life again as of old? (He pauses—then sadly) That is your tragedy! You forget! You forget the God in you! You wish to forget! Remembrance would imply the high duty to live as a son of God—generously!—with love!—with pride!—with laughter! […] Throw your gaze upward! To Eternal Life! To the fearless and deathless! The everlasting! To the stars!
Raised in the Catholic Church, Eugene O’Neill himself struggled greatly with doubt throughout his life. One senses in this passage (and others like it in the play) the deep-seated desire of a man who seeks the eternal, the God in himself as well as the God in those around him. O'Neill's Lazarus enjoins us not to forget the fundamental message of Jesus, and the revelation of God's love that fills our lives as Jesus continues to dwell in us.
We too are called to throw our own gaze upward and live generously,
with love and laughter, confident in the eternal life to come!
Quote source: Eugene O'Neill, Complete Plays, 1920-1931, New York: Library of America (1988), page 555.