Menu Bar


"I Have Been Faithful...Cynara!"
by Louis Sheaffer

In Long Day's Journey Into Night O'Neill gave what he considered the essential portraits of himself and the others of his family—his mother, father and brother. But after completing the work, he apparently was nagged so by the feeling that he had been unjust to his brother that he wrote A Moon for the Misbegotten. Though the latter play can stand alone, it is more effective, more poignant when viewed as a fifth act to the four-act Long Day's Journey. Set in 1923, more than ten years after the action of the family portrait, Moon for the Misbegotten draws a deeply compassionate picture of Jamie as it tells of his sad final days. By this time the elder O'Neills (the family is called "Tyrone" in both plays) are dead, yet their ghosts lurk in the background and, in fact, the unseen mother is as important to the story as the principals on stage. For the umbilical chord between Ella Quinlan O'Neill and her elder son was never cut.

In life scarcely anyone except his playwright-brother detected the lost desperate soul beneath the jaunty mask worn by James O'Neill, Jr. Generously gifted by nature—good looking, quick-witted, ripe in Irish charm and blarney—he liked attention and used to enter saloons with a cheery cry of "What ho!" Women, especially those out for a good time, found him attractive, and men enjoyed his ribald story-telling. However, despite his usual air of hail-fellow-well-met, he was at bottom a loner. When in his cups he liked to reel off something from the fin-de-siècle poets, especially Wilde's "The Harlot's House" or the well-known Dowson verse:

Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet; But I was desolate and sick of an old passion, When I awoke and found the dawn was gray: I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

There was a "Cynara" in his life—his mother, of course. As a grown man he liked to paddle his hands in the scented water in which she had just bathed. A heavy drinker from youth on, he quit cold right after his father's death in 1920, once he had his mother to himself, and never touched a drop until she lay dying.

"No, my brother is not alive," O'Neill said in 1931,replying to a query by an old schoolmate." He died in 1923. Booze got him in the end... He and I were terribly close to each other, but after my mother's death in 1922 he gave up all hold on life and simply wanted to die as soon as possible. He had never found his place. He had never belonged. I hope like my `Hairy Ape' he does now."

Although Jamie's feeling for his mother, the effect that this had on his life—making it impossible for him ever to love another woman—is the basic concern of Moon for the Misbegotten, the play approaches the heart of its subject-matter slowly and warily, as though the author had to force himself to come to grips with something intensely personal and painful to him. The play, considering what is to follow, opens deceptively; it opens humorously, boisterously, and for much of its length reminds one, in fact, of the exuberant writings of O'Casey. The action takes place on a pig farm in Connecticut—the locale is actually New London—and chiefly involves not only James Tyrone, Jr., who is drinking himself to death, but Phil Hogan, the farmer, a wily clown with an Irishman's flair for invective and rhetoric, and his daughter Josie, who is almost freakish in size. Massively built, nearly six feet tall, stronger than almost any man, Josie, is nevertheless, "all woman." Like Jamie, she wears a mask: where he is a despairing child in search of a mother, behind a man-around-town facade, she is a virgin, emotional, sensitive and proud, but talks coarsely, boasts of being shameless, pretending that she has slept with nearly all the men of the community.

The confrontation between the two is among the most moving scenes in all of O'Neill. Jamie, seeing through her pretense and appreciating the real Josie, seeks her out. Josie, who has long loved him and who in turn sees through his mask, tries to help, hoping that her affection can save him and make a new life for them both. After guardedly circling one another, they finally drop all their defenses, but, she learns, it is too late. He has come to her not for love but for confession, forgiveness, absolution for an outrageous act that profanes his memories of his mother. She had died on the West Coast. While bringing her body home for burial he had slept his way across the country (this happened in the actual life of Jamie O'Neill) with "a blonde pig who looked more like a whore than twenty-five whores ... It was as if I wanted revenge—because I'd been left alone—because I knew I was lost ...."

Sitting in the moonlight, he rips the confession out of himself, then falls asleep, nestled like a child at Josie's great breast, and awakens at dawn feeling "sort of at peace with myself ... as if all my sins had been forgiven."

Moon for the Misbegotten is both one of the most Irish of O'Neill's plays, in its mixture of lusty humor and bone-deep sadness, and among his most universal works in its dramatization of man's isolation. As the two unhappy souls, Tyrone and Josie, struggle to make contact in the moonlight, the play builds to an emotional power, a feeling of naked reality, that O'Neill alone in the American theater could attain.

The Theatre Recording Society, 1969.


© Copyright 1999-2008