William “Billy” Brown and Dion Anthony have known each other since childhood, but their lifelong friendship is marred when Dion marries Margaret - the woman whom Billy loves. Billy, outwardly moral and straight-laced, goes on to become a successful architect. Meanwhile, Dion spirals into alcoholism and gambling addiction. When Margaret asks Billy to hire Dion in order to save their family from destitution, Billy agrees. But working alongside each other awakens slumbering jealousies between the two men that eventually explode into a confrontation that ends with Dion’s death. Billy sees an opportunity to take Dion’s life and everything that comes with it - including Margaret. He assumes Dion’s identity, and plots to “murder” William Brown.
The Great God Brown is notable among O’Neill’s works for its use of masks. The text expressly calls for all the main characters in the play to wear one - or more - masks throughout, which change and deteriorate in accordance with the characters’ mental states and ages. Interestingly, the masks are not only symbolic of the “masks” of identity which protect the inner self from the outer world, but are also treated as literal icons for the person, which can stand in for individuals, be buried in their place, and seem to carry some sentience of their own within the world of the play.
The Great God Brown guide sections