Mrs. O’Neill’s diary for June 21, 1939, contains what is possibly the first recorded mention of another play he planned whose subject was his family and whose title was Long Day’s Journey into Night. The play was begun shortly after the completion of The Iceman Cometh and, together with Hughie, was O’Neill’s major creative effort of 1940. It was completed in September. Then, after a period of illness, he turned to its sequel, A Moon for the Misbegotten. He had written half of the first draft of that play when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. O’Neill wrote to Dudley Nichols on December 16, 1941, that he had managed to finish the draft, but that the heart had gone out of its writing. Although he worked on it sporadically through 1943 and during the same period made revisions of A Touch of the Poet and developed the scenario of The Last Conquest, O’Neill’s career as a playwright ended as the United States entered the war. By 1943, the tremor in his hand made sustained work impossible.
His illness and the war were real reasons for silence, but equally important was an underlying cause: having written the two plays about his family, O’Neill had no further place to go. Long Day’s Journey into Night was the play he had been trying to write from the outset of his career; its achievement was his raison d’être as an artist. A Moon for the Misbegotten was an essential coda, an act of love, of charity and of contrition. Mrs. O’Neill recorded movingly what happened to O’Neill as he wrote. His work day was a long one, five hours in the morning and additional hours in the afternoon. As she described him, he was a man “being tortured every day by his own writing. He would come out of his study at the end of a day gaunt and sometimes weeping. His eyes would be all red and he looked ten years older than when he went in in the morning.”14 O’Neill said not without irony that he was writing plays he knew he could finish,15 but the Tyrone plays were more than substitutes for the cycle. A lifetime’s psychological and physical pressures had cornered him at last. It was a moment for truth and he told it.
When it was said, he was not entirely certain that it had emerged as truth. Edmund Tyrone, having told his father of all that has meaning for him, concludes his account of his quest by saying, “I couldn’t touch what I tried to tell you just now. I just stammered. That’s the best I’ll ever do. . . . Well it will be faithful realism, at least. Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog-people.” (154) He was wrong. Long Day’s Journey into Night is not the work of a stammerer, but of a man who had become a master of his art, and whose native speech—not the words only, but the full acted drama—had the eloquence of a poet. The technical experimentation of the 1920’s often caused him to beat frenetically against the limits of the stage. In the last four plays, the stage did all he asked of it without strain. The result is the highest achievement of the American realistic theatre.
What he asks is deceptively simple. Ironically, O’Neill’s ultimate “experiment” was a return to four boards and a passion—to in other words, a confident reliance on his actors. He, who had gone to such elaborate lengths to ensure that his actors would fulfill his purposes, loading them with masks, asides, choral support and an infinity of pauses, now removed all exterior pressures. He was still generous with stage directions suggesting intonation and attitude, but he no longer tried to enforce a performance with the impedimenta of the Art Theatre. Everything, now, is in the role. An actor in these plays cannot hide behind personal mannerisms, clever business or habitual stage trickery. O’Neill has stripped all but the most minimal requirements from the stage, leaving the actors naked. They must play or perish.Essentially, what is needed as setting for the four last plays are table surfaces and chairs. Properties are few, mostly bottles and glasses. Costume requirements are negligible. The most elaborate of the plays is The Iceman Cometh, which requires the bar structure and the essentials of the birthday feast, but even these are minimal in view of the play’s length and the size of its cast.* What O’Neill makes from his simple materials is extraordinary. In the printed texts, he describes in elaborate detail each of the settings, listing titles of books on the shelves, giving the history of Hope’s saloon and the hotel where Erie lives. It is information that he provides but does not insist on. An actor should know it, but an audience will perceive such details only through the filter of performance. It is said of Shakespeare that when he wishes the details of his setting to be specific, he makes it possible for the actor to show them. The same, despite the very different theatrical conventions, can be said of O’Neill in the last plays.
What an audience learns is surprisingly detailed, considering the limited means. The house of the Tyrones, its environment and the historical period are confidently set forth. Although the setting is bare, the audience knows that the house has four bedrooms and an attic and a cellar, that there is a big lawn ending in a hedge by the street, that the sea is near and that the town is a long streetcar ride away. The importance of the house to the action is evident, but it is through the action that the setting is fully evoked. So for the period. In creating the historical time for the two Tyrone plays, 1912 and 1923, O’Neill has relied on few specific historical details. The sinking of the Titanic or the arrival of Scott at the South Pole in 1912 might well have provided imagery for the desperately isolated Tyrones. The point, however, is that they are isolated, and no superficial references to period are needed to testify to the fact that they live in a society that is not very complex, in which they can find such privacy. By comparison, the world of A Moon for the Misbegotten is difficult, involved with new economic realities that Hogan resists as the post-war boom overruns his individualism. O’Neill has felt the difference, conveyed it in each line and attitude and has needed nothing more elaborate to evoke the period.
The arrangement of time in the autobiographical plays, however, is anything but arbitrary or extraneous. Around the time plan, O’Neill marshals such “effects” as he uses. Both plays begin in the full light of day to the sound of laughter. In Long Day’s Journey into Night, as the Tyrones enter from the dining room, laughter sounds gently. Sun pours through the windows, the fog and the sound of the foghorn that has kept the family awake through the night have gone. The moment is poised and normal, but almost at once O’Neill denies its normalcy and starts the progression that had been a hallmark of his style from the first work he did for the theatre. The light dwindles, the fog returns, the foghorn sounds again. Gradually, the space diminishes to the area defined by a single light bulb over the central table in the room. The Tyrones’ world is seen in its barest essentials. The proposition is clear, both to the actors and their characters: if life is to be created it must be evolved from the simple elements in this limited space. There are no extraneous symbols—isolating actors in follow-spots, diminishing the room by pulling in the walls of the set. Everything is in the action as the fog becomes the physical evidence of the isolation of the Tyrones.
The view of human nature set forth in the plays is of divided beings—the conception that earlier occasioned O’Neill’s use of masks and other devices to suggest outer and inner lives. The Tyrones, however, need no masks. In their nearly mortal extremity, they have nothing to hide. Their pain fills their being so completely that their essential natures lie close to the surface. Thus Tyrone’s charm, his friendliness and grace have worn thin under the erosion of despair. His actor’s carriage and voice are ingrained in his demeanor, but as the night wears on and as the whiskey sickens him without making him drunk, the hidden man comes clearly into view. Jamie’s cynical mask is dropped as the whiskey begins to talk, permitting the defenseless child in him to be seen. In the same way, as Mary descends farther into the doped state, the young girl alive within the pain-wracked woman comes forth to haunt them all. Whiskey and morphine effectively remove all disguise.
The words that come when the masks are off are in the form of soliloquies and monologues such as were from the first a characteristic of O’Neill’s playwriting. Now, however, there is no breaking of the play’s realistic limits. When, for example, Mary is left alone at the end of the scene with Cathleen in Act II, she speaks of her past in a long monologue that arises naturally from her addiction. As the morphine takes effect it causes her to babble, but she is still sufficiently aware not to be entirely dulled to her condition. Her words rise involuntarily out of her loneliness and guilt and speak of her longing for the life of the girl she was. It is as if she speaks to the girl in the past so as to assuage the loneliness of the present. Similarly, the long monologues of Edmund and his father in Act IV evoke the past as the only surcease from the doped present. Over their words there hangs no hint of Art Theatre Show Shop. O’Neill has enabled his actors to motivate the monologues and make them convincingly natural, psychologically real.
The two Tyrone plays hold firmly to the best realistic theatre practice. Yet for all their “faithful realism,” it should be remarked that the dramas more readily than many earlier works approach the abstraction and symbolism so characteristic of the expressionist mode. The quality and force of that abstraction is difficult to define. O’Neill does not try to convince his audiences that the world of the Tyrones is a microcosm, as he suggested with the typified chorus of The Iceman Cometh. The Tyrones and the Hogans are particular people, moving in a specific time, facing highly individual problems. Like many other works of the realistic American theatre—Come Back, Little Sheba or A Hatful of Rain, for example—the plays are contained and domestic, well-told case histories. Yet to call Long Day’s Journey into Night a “domestic tragedy” is to underestimate seriously its emotional effect. It is enlarged, not in the sense of Aristotelian “heightening,” but more by its unremitting movement “behind life,” in the phrase O’Neill once used to describe Strindberg’s expressionist dramas. For a play to move “behind life” means that it expands inward, through the surfaces, and toward the core of life itself. The inner enlargement of the Tyrone plays enables an audience not only to scrutinize the motives that produce the painful events but also to respond more fully to the suffering these events create. No drama of modern times contains more of pain’s substance than Long Day’s Journey into Night, but in the final analysis, it is not the events, shocking though they are, that grip the audience. The Tyrones suffer and the spectators are convinced that when suffering is the only reality, life is truly as it is depicted in the play.
Verisimilitude does not necessarily lead to a universal statement. However, when Long Day’s Journey into Night is played, another dimension opens. In the theatre, the suffering of the playwright is more real, if that is possible, than that of his characters. The audience shares them both, and moves as in a dream that is both real and more than real along the course of this “Wander Play.” Pain exists in a double layer, one that can seem a fiction, one that must be a truth as the truth of suffering has seldom been stated. An emotion appropriate to an aesthetic experience and an emotion evoked by reality join to create in the spectators a capacity for pity that extends well beyond the boundaries of the theatre and rises to an acknowledgment of exceptional purity: that the universality of pain makes pity and understanding and forgiveness the greatest of human needs.
At their climactic moments, both the Tyrone plays convey the qualities of a dream. The fog or moonlight, the whiskey or dope causes the characters to drift in slow emotional movements. Activity ceases, and each play becomes .“a play for voices” that permits the lyrics of lamentation and loss to be heard clearly. Physical objects are only the source of reverie. Edmund and his father play cards. A bottle and glasses are on the table and above it an electric chandelier. Only these have substance in the room. The two men sit in near darkness and silence. A card is played or a drink is poured or a light bulb is turned on. Something in the outer world is touched, but it is a meaningless gesture. Then, as the object is touched, the mind recoils, moving away from that physical contact with the present into the past, wandering in a reverie that is as formless and far-reaching as the night outside. The reverie ended, the ballooning thought returns to the space where life is. Something else is touched; reverie begins again, in a movement that is like a man’s swimming, sinking and touching bottom in order to rise up again into the currents of the water. In such scenes, time as an adjunct of reality has stopped; forward motion has ended. The slow turning of memory is the play’s only action. Life becomes a dream of pain.**
What the morphine
brings to the surface in Mary Tyrone is awareness of the isolation
that is both her need and her terror. As she appears in the first
scene of the play, although small hints of what is to follow quickly
become apparent, she seems a woman to whom her home and family are
all, as they were to Essie Miller in Ah,
Wilderness! The dependence of the men on her is marked, and not
only in their concern for her health. She emerges in the few moments
of normalcy as the source of life for them, the quiet hub around which
they move, happy in her presence. The summer house seems to be truly a
home, and the comforts it offers, though modest, are sufficient to
their well-being. The illusion of the home is an essential image to
establish at the outset, for it, of course, is not what it seems. The
room is shabby, poorly furnished, a temporary residence at best. It is
like the cheap hotels of Tyrone’s road tours, where Mary has waited
alone, unable to associate with theatre people, spending nights in
idleness until her husband comes or is brought home from the theatre.
Mary’s life has taught her loneliness and provided her with the
definition of a home as a place where “one is never lonely.” (72)
She remembers having had in her girlhood a “real” home, yet the
memory is illusory. Idealizing her father, she has obliterated
whatever faults existed in him. Tyrone tells Edmund her home was an
ordinary one and her father a steady drinker. (137) His implied
question is whether Mary’s girlhood was indeed the happy time she
remembers it to have been. O’Neill makes clear that her desire, even
as a girl, was to escape into a lonely world—into the convent where
she could be sustained by a vision and live a simple, virginal
existence. That Mary loves her husband admits no question, yet in a
larger sense, love has disturbed her spirit and violated her desire to
retain her encapsuled purity. Love has led her into a world for which
she was not and never could be ready.
She needs to be alone in a protected silence. She blames her failure
vaguely on life, and she is right to do so. She says,
In seeking her “true self,” Mary is looking for a self that does not exist. Repeatedly she remarks that she cannot find her glasses and therefore cannot see to fix her hair. In other words, she cannot see what she is. She associates her Catholicism loosely with her need for morphine. Morphine is medicine to still the pain in her arthritic hands; the hands once played the piano; she studied music in the convent. “I had two dreams. To be a nun, that was the more beautiful one. To become a concert pianist, that was the other.” (104) But the dreams of lost faith and spent talent are dreams of escape which affect her as the morphine does by pulling her from the present, from the house, from the irony of Tyrone’s buying property without providing a home, and from her indifference that is like hatred of her family.
In the course of the play, Mary shifts repeatedly between a young girl and an embittered, self-contemptuous creature. Her guilt at failing to take care of her dead child, Eugene, is translated into insane hatred of her husband: “I know why he wants to send you to a sanatorium,” she tells Edmund. “To take you away from me! He’s always tried to do that. He’s been jealous of every one of my babies! He kept finding ways to make me leave them. That’s what caused Eugene’s death. He’s been jealous of you most of all. He knew I loved you best because—” (119) Frantically babying Edmund does not prevent her from blaming him for being born and starting her on the dope habit. Edmund is her scourge and should never have been born. Her hatred of Jamie is less ambiguous. Jamie’s need for her is by no means reciprocated. She hates his cynicism, turns from him in fear that he will discover her need of the dope and silently accuses him of murdering the dead child. When the morphine talks in her, she treats her husband with a mixture of love and contempt, dwelling on his failures and yet maintaining the truth of her love for him. As Deborah Harford escaped in her dreams, Mary needs to turn from them all, to find a path that will take her deep into the fog, hating the loneliness, yet wanting to be rid of the obligations the men’s love place upon her. Edmund describes the blank wall she builds around herself:
Mary’s refusal of all her responsibilities has bred in her a guilt she is incapable of bearing. The morphine must be used to wipe out “the pain—all the pain—I mean in my hands.” (103) In the morphine trance, she moves gently back in time, seeking to recreate the illusions of a happier world, before there was a past to make her what she has become. Her wedding dress, like Con Melody’s red uniform, is a symbol of something that never was a substantial reality. Her quest is for a hope lost, a goalless search for salvation never to be attained.***
The men around Mary
are condemned as she is to hopeless questing. Her husband like Con
Melody is both poet and peasant. Under the graceful bearing of the
aging actor, trained to eradicate the brogue, to gesture and speak
with authority, there lies the fear of the poverty-stricken past.
O’Neill has falsified to a degree the penny-pinching qualities in
his father in drawing Tyrone,16 yet the fear his father
felt was undoubtedly a real one, as was the sense he expressed of
having failed his potential as an actor. Like Mary, Tyrone is doomed
to an endless life of regret for something lost in the past, holding
to a hope that has no reality. “What the hell was it I wanted to
buy?” he asks, and there is no answer unless it is protection and
the quieting of irrational fears. His failure as an artist and as a
husband had made him guilty beyond pardon. Like a lugged bear he
stands as the target for all of his family’s recriminations. Yet,
perhaps more than any of the others, he shoulders the responsibilities
of their lives. He has kindness in him, and a devotion
to his wife that overrides all her animosity. For Edmund he
demonstrates little close feeling. A generalized, somewhat distant
affection is the most he reveals for his younger son. For Jamie,
however, he has a strong feeling that is so positive it can turn
easily into hostility. The two months during which Mary has returned
to normal he describes to Jamie as “heaven,” and he adds, “This
home has been a home again. But I needn’t tell you, Jamie.”
O’Neill amplifies the sense of understanding with a stage direction:
It is Jamie’s
sobbing in the final moments of the play that breaks Tyrone, and Jamie
who evokes in him his only shows of violence and perhaps also his most
bitter expression of sorrow. As his son lies drunk and unconscious he
says with sadness,
Tyrone, more than any other member of the family, honors the bonds of the home. He is capable of love but is often driven toward hatred. Even so, he never truly hates, but lives isolated within the frame of the bond, attempting to love in spite of everything. He turns from the pain of his life, to the local barroom; he buys bad real estate to purchase security he cannot find; he drinks to dope his mind to the point of forgetfulness. But he does not betray. He remains a simple man, free of cynicism, incapable of hatred. O’Neill’s view of his father contains full charity.
O’Neill’s picture of his younger self and of his brother Jamie is on the surface clear enough. Jamie, like his brother and father, is lost, embittered and cynical, wanting his mother whose rejection of him perhaps reaches farther back than the time when morphine forced her into drugged isolation. To compensate for her loss, he has sought to destroy himself with the profligate life of the Broadway rounder, and he has attempted to corrupt his brother, in the pretense of “putting him wise” to women and liquor. In Jamie, pain can have no anodyne. Liquor, far from dulling his loss, makes it unbearable, and, while Edmund is fussed over, even babied, no one tries to help Jamie. Nor is escape possible. Edmund can move into the fog—as he does in the third act—and find a kind of peace. The peace of belonging to a secret at the source of life, “the vision of beatitude” which he attempts to describe to his father, offers him a way out, just as Mary’s dream of finding her girlhood faith and Tyrone’s memory of Booth’s praise have power to assuage the present. There is no vision of beatitude for Jamie in Long Day’s Journey into Night. His need is always beside him, in Mary, but he cannot reach her. Like Tantalus, he has no refuge from desire. His is the howl of a soul lost in hell.
Edmund, as O’Neill presents him, is clearly drawn, and, as a dramatic character, offers adequate material to an actor, but there is perhaps less truth in his portrait than in the others. He is a strangely neutral figure, except in the scene with his father in Act IV. Even there he speaks out of a solitude that is unlike the isolation of the others. Although O’Neill has been at pains to show what the past has made his parents and brother, it is unclear what the past has made Edmund. O’Neill perhaps understandably suppresses the fact of his brief marriage and his child and omits the crucial event in 1912 of his divorce. He mentions that Edmund has been to sea, and almost perfunctorily adds that he has lived in the sewers of New York and Buenos Aires and has attempted suicide. None of these events, except insofar as his having been to sea conditions his vision of belonging, bear heavily on what he is. He seems to be the victim of the family, unwanted, betrayed, led astray by his brother and, now, with tuberculosis, suffering under his father’s penuriousness. It is easy—perhaps too easy—to sympathize with Edmund. He is no more than an embittered adolescent, certainly a pale copy of what Eugene O’Neill was at that time.
How deliberate the
suppression of personal qualities was is difficult to estimate. In A
Moon for the Misbegotten, Jamie’s brother is mentioned, but many
descriptions of his reactions to Jamie’s behavior were deleted in
final revision. For example a speech of Jamie’s in Act III, reads in
the printed text, “Don’t want to touch me now, eh? (He
shrugs his shoulders mechanically)
Sorry. I’m a damned fool. I shouldn’t have told you.” (151)
In the typescript the speech contains a canceled reference to
The responses of Jamie’s brother in the second play are justifiably deleted. Whatever reticence O’Neill may have felt in describing his reactions to his brother’s behavior, his views are irrelevant to the moment in the play. However, the elimination of detail about his own character in Long Day’s Journey into Night is of another order. Edmund’s somewhat poetic inclinations to lose himself in the fog and his desire to enter into a state of Dionysian ecstasy are recognizable characteristics of the young playwright as his early plays showed him to be. Such melancholy, mingled with narcissism, is little more than a normal stage of the developing adolescent ego. Yet, in this connection, one anecdote of the year 1912 is important.
It is an account by
a nurse, Olive Evans, who cared for O’Neill shortly before he
entered the sanatorium:
How much may be read from the anecdote is uncertain, but the later remark to George Cram Cook, who had taxed him for continually looking in mirrors, should be remembered. When a man says he looks into mirrors to be sure he is there, the habit may indicate more than simple vanity. Con Melody’s need to posture before the mirror to bolster his ego and his dreams is not much removed from O’Neill’s need of the mirror to maintain his identity. Long Day’s Journey into Night is a mirror, the last into which O’Neill looked, and it is of concern to explore what he found there when, for once, he committed himself to see himself unmasked and clear.
The characters most unambiguously drawn as self-portraits are the Poet in Fog, John Brown in Bread and Butter, Robert Mayo in Beyond the Horizon, Stephen Murray in The Straw, Michael Cape in Welded, Dion Anthony in The Great God Brown, Richard Miller in Ah, Wilderness! John in Days Without End, Simon Harford in More Stately Mansions and Edmund Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night. The physical portrait of each is that of a sensitive man, with big, wide-set dark eyes, a high forehead, dark hair brushed straight back, a dark, often sunburnt complexion, a narrow face with high cheekbones, a straight, thin nose and a fulllipped, sensitive mouth, suggesting weakness. His physique is tall, slender and wiry, and his demeanour is shy, restless, rebellious and a little delicate. All the details are not mentioned for all of the characters, and there are some variations in the color of eyes and hair. Yet in general, the image conforms—with the interesting exception of the frequently mentioned weak, sensual mouth—to photographs of O’Neill taken throughout his lifetime.
The reflection he saw in the stage mirror was a strangely softened portrait of the saturnine, hard, disciplined man he became in his maturity. The theatrical face reveals consistently a softer man, a somewhat sentimentalized dreamer. With the exceptions of Michael Cape and John Loving, the character is young, in his late. adolescence or early twenties. He is artistic, a writer, painter or poet, and he holds himself apart from a world that he views as his enemy. He loathes its materialism and seeks to escape it by “belonging” to something beyond life. In this, he reveals a pervasive death-wish suggesting that he will try to avoid undergoing the process of struggle and maturation. Certain of the characters develop positively. John Loving, for instance, finds his faith, but by and large, the course the character charts through his life is a downward one, leading to the destruction of the bright, adolescent dreams.
Setting Simon Harford momentarily aside, no one of the characters finds a significant sexual fulfillment. Indeed, each one of them turns away from sexual experience. As Dion Anthony makes love to Margaret, he denies life, and he seeks out Cybel for reasons other than her sexuality. Michael Cape hopes for something beyond sexual love, that will prove “a faith in which to relax,” (444) and he too refuses a sexual encounter with the prostitute. Richard Miller, who like Cape and Anthony turns away from the whore, is transfixed in innocence in a moment of pre-sexual puppy-love. Stephen Murray refuses Eileen Carmody’s love so long as it offers sexual possibility. John Loving’s casual adultery produces a convulsion of spirit that rocks his faith. John Brown and Robert Mayo emerge from their minimal sexual encounters filled with hostility toward the women who have caused them to betray their dreams. The self-portrait is oddly antiseptic. None of the characters O’Neill cast in his own image, Dion excepted, reveals his tendency toward dissipation, nor displays his knowledge of life in the lower depths.
Reasons for his imaging of himself as an innocent might be attributed to personal reticence, or to fastidiousness that rejected public confession. It is also true that each of the characters is an image, formed for a specific theatrical occasion, but like any reflection existing without past or future and empty of physical and psychological depth. With this possibility there can be no quarrel. Self-portraits or not, they are creatures of the imagination, and O’Neill cannot be denied the editorial rights and privileges of any author.
With the creation of Edmund Tyrone, however, the conditions change. Edmund is more than an imaginary figure. He is a figure from history and one upon whose truth-to-life an audience has a right to insist. Yet he is cut in the same pattern as the earlier selfportraits and emerges as a curiously two-dimensional reflection, whose past has been bowdlerized and whose negative characteristics are only lightly touched. It cannot be. If Mary and Tyrone and Jamie are “true,” then Edmund should be equally so. If the characters in the play are “what the past has made them,” then Edmund’s past is of grave concern, as are the ambitions and desires that will move him on in the future. The past, however, is not there as it is with the others. The future is never suggested. He remains a participating observer, a little apart, an eavesdropping creature of the imagination. The truth, whatever it was, is at least distorted.
To seek for a reason why O’Neill drew such a suppressed self-portrait is to move toward areas of psychoanalysis that are not relevant here. Whatever the reason, it was not only simple reticence at public self-exposure or a lack of frankness in dealing with some aspects of his own nature in other guises. To counter charges of mere shyness, there is the figure of Simon Harford, whose face is very like that of Edmund Tyrone. Moreover, there are three others, very different characters from the dreaming poet, in whose general aspect something of the essence of O’Neill’s theatrical image may be noted: Eben Cabot, Reuben Light and Orin Mannon.**** Eben’s physical characteristics are not described in detail. His hair is dark, he is tall and sinewy, and he has about him a “fierce repressed vitality.” (203) Reuben is tall and thin, has the typical large, sensitive eyes and indecisive mouth, but his thick curly hair is red blond, and his jaw is “stubborn.” (422) Orin Mannon, whose resemblance to his father and to Adam Brant is marked, is tall and thin and has the acquiline nose, dark complexion, black hair and sensitive mouth of the O’Neill portraits. Each of the four has in him the somewhat feminine weakness and the “touch of the poet” displayed in the routine self-portraits, but there is additionally represented a capacity for sensual experience, a maturity, a masculinity that the dreamers lack. Eben, closest to a dreamer of the four, has a harshness, an animal quality and an eagerness for sexual encounter that is manifested in his encounters with the prostitute, Min, and later with his stepmother. Reuben begins in a condition of adolescent weakness, but his nature hardens and in his seduction and murder of Ada, he too reveals his capability for passion. So with Orin and Simon, who emerge more fully, more in three dimensions and with greater strength and masculinity than do any of the easier, sympathetic self-portraits.
The lives of the four are similar, their desires astonishingly special. Each is oedipally in love with his mother. Each is embittered by her loss and feels either that she has betrayed him, or that by seeking to possess her, he has betrayed her. Yet without her he is lost and must in compensation seek a surrogate. Eben, Reuben and Orin, each in revulsion from the attempt to find the mother in another woman, call the surrogate a whore. Thus Eben, when he comes to believe that Abbie has seduced him in order that her child may possess the farm, tells her that he hates her and that she is “a damn trickin’ whore!” (256) As he kills Ada, Reuben calls her “Harlot!” (488) and Orin, when Lavinia, who has blossomed and come to resemble her mother, confesses to kissing the Tahitian native, cries out “You—you whore! I’ll kill you!” (155) Simon attempts to turn Sara into a whore, and at the same time to use her as a substitute for Deborah who has been lost in her dreams of being a royal whore.
The search for the surrogate mother turns each man toward a condition that is child-like. Reuben, Orin and Simon seek to become children again and to rejoin their mothers in death or in mad dreams. Eben, who in possessing Abbie has felt that he has also possessed his mother, moves toward a final position that is more resolute than the others. Yet midway in the play, the gratification of the child comes to him as well. To be sure, Dion’s relations with Cybel have some of the characteristics of the search for the mother in the whore. The great difference between Dion and the others, however, is the degree of sexuality involved in the relationship. Between Dion and Cybel there is no sex, and furthermore there is between them no suggestion of incestuous desire as there is in the other plays.
The dissimilarity between these four characters and the other portraits of the poetic dreamer of which Edmund Tyrone is a culmination is vast. Importantly, the difference is not one of increased revelation, of plunging deeper into the dreamer to reveal more of the man. The difference is really in kind, and it evolves from a difference in subject. Although they wear a face that resembles that of Edmund Tyrone, they are in fact another character, one who conforms closely to the characterization O’Neill drew of his brother in both the Tyrone plays.
Day’s Journey into Night, Jamie’s need for his mother is the
central explanation for his despair. His revulsion against her and
himself is extreme. It is he who calls Mary a “Hophead” and who
marks her final entrance with the “self-defensively sardonic” cry:
“The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!” (170) He confesses to hating
Edmund because “it was your being born that started Mama on dope,”
(166) and he dates his own dereliction from the day he first “got
wise” when he saw her injecting herself with morphine. “Christ,”
he says, “I’d never dreamed before that any women but whores took
dope.” (163) What he feels to be his mother’s whore-like behavior
has left him with no belief. That Mary had appeared to be beating the
habit “meant so much,” he says. “I’d begun to hope, if she’d
beaten the game, I could too.” (162) When he realizes that she has
defeated his hope, he heads for the local brothel and goes upstairs
with the least attractive, and, it is to be assumed, the most maternal
of the whores, Fat Violet, who drinks so much and is so overweight
that the madam has determined to get rid of her. He summarizes the
The maternal whore and the mother whose addiction is a whore’s addiction merge in Jamie’s befuddled consciousness as the source of his self-disgust and his need.
The Fat Violet episode served in all probability as the basis for a romantic fantasy surrounding that need in A Moon for the Misbegotten. Jamie’s account of his actions with the whore on the train while he was bringing his mother’s body home suggests the same pattern of loss, the same despairing self-destruction as the earlier play did. Not having the mother, he must expend his spirit on the most repulsive facsimile he can find in an orgy of self-defilement. Later, he finds peace with Josie Hogan, the giant woman, who pretends to be a whore, but who is really a virgin, and who in the course of hearing Jamie’s confession, holds him pièta-fashion through the long, calm night, as if she were a “virgin who bears a dead child in the night, and the dawn finds her still a virgin.” (160) In his drunkenness, Jamie sometimes confuses Josie with the “blonde pig” on the train, but at other times she becomes much more than a substitute for his lost mother: she becomes a mother in truth. As she kisses him, “There is passion in her kiss but it is a tender, protective maternal passion, which he responds to with an instant grateful yielding.” (141) Josie, finally, in her double role of mother and whore, can bring to Jamie his mother’s forgiveness and blessing. As he sobs himself to sleep on her breast she tells him she forgives him as his mother forgives and loves and understands them both. (152) In his last play, it was fitting that O’Neill should create the woman who could be in reality for his brother what other of his characters—Eben, Reuben, Orin and Simon—had sought with such frenzy.
These four men, although they appear to have Eugene’s face, are more nearly to be recognized as portraits of Jamie as the Tyrone plays depicted him. If this is so, three explanations for the transference may be considered. The first is that the oedipal tendencies were in truth Eugene’s and that in presenting them on stage, he could not be sufficiently honest to expose himself, and, for this reason, when the character became expressly autobiographical in the Tyrone plays, disguised his need as Jamie’s. Against this stands the biographical evidence, especially the story of Jamie’s behavior after his mother’s death as it is accurately recounted in A Moon for the Misbegotten. Clearly Jamie was possessed of an overt oedipal drive, and the portrait in the Tyrone plays rings true.
A second possibility is that both brothers reacted to the situation in identical ways. Some biographical evidence might support such a conclusion. O’Neill was well known in the brothels of New London and New York. Strange Interlude and The Great God Brown reveal that he was concerned imaginatively with the symbolism of the whore and the mother that could be found in ancient religious myths and particularly in those associated with Dionysus. Mrs. O’Neill said that on his deathbed her husband reached out and took her hand and said to her, “You are my mamma now.” The phrase occurs in other wordings in the plays and could imply that the desire to find the mother in the wife underlay an oedipal necessity of long standing. Macgowan records that O’Neill told him after the interviews with Dr. Hamilton that he was suffering from an oedipus complex,18 and Louis Sheaffer claims that in his nurse, Sarah Sandy, the young O’Neill found a surrogate mother.19 Yet no biographer has presented an O’Neill so obsessed with the need for a mother as the four characters, if taken literally as self-portraits, might suggest he was. Sheaffer makes the point that O’Neill, feeling that the other members of his family blamed him for his mother’s addiction, stood on the defensive with all three, and held himself alone, very much his own man. As Sheaffer relates it, O’Neill’s sexual initiation, a hideously traumatic experience, might well mean that despite his youthful profligacy, there remained in him “a residue of puritanism, of regarding sex as immoral, a result to some extent of his Catholic indoctrination.”20 Sheaffer further suggests that the cult of the Virgin Mary, one that tended to foster “guilt feelings about the flesh,” was something O’Neill carried with him from his early days in Catholic schools, and that it was kept alive if not increased in O’Neill by his mother’s personality. He writes, “Ella, from all indications was sexually inhibited and lacking in sensuality; her drug addiction clearly signaled a retreat from the responsibilities and obligations of her position, including those as a sex partner.”21 Adequate resolution of the questions is impossible to achieve, but the biographical evidence points toward O’Neill’s repression of any aggressive or overt sexual demonstrations toward his mother. On the other hand there is ample evidence that Jamie’s life displayed an attraction for his mother openly and continually.
A third alternative may be suggested: that what O’Neill saw and explored at first in self-portraits—through the figures of Eben, Reuben, Orin and Simon—and later, in the Tyrone plays, through Jamie, was both himself and Jamie. Or, more specifically, he inspected that part of himself that was in effect Jamie’s creation, that to which Jamie referred when he told Edmund, “Hell, you’re more than my brother. I made you! You’re my Frankenstein!” (164)
The implication of
the Frankenstein image is that Jamie was both the creator and
destroyer of his brother. Jamie reminds Edmund that it was he who
first interested him in reading poetry and he who, because he wanted
to write, gave his brother the idea of becoming a writer. By moulding
Edmund’s tastes and encouraging his talent, Jamie gave himself a
kind of creative life. The negative aspect, however, appears as well,
as Jamie brags how he introduced his brother to alcohol and to the
whores with whom he found release.
In the play, speaking in vino veritas, Jamie claims that he dragged
Edmund down “to make a bum” of him, and that he did it in full
Loving and hating his brother, Jamie has tried to create Edmund in his own image, possessing him in an almost demonic way. In the play, Edmund refuses to pay attention to Jamie’s confession, but the Frankenstein image is nowhere denied.
The imagery implies that Jamie was responsible both for Edmund’s positive qualities and also for their opposite, the negatives that led him to follow a course of self-destruction. To some extent these polarities exist in all of O’Neill self-portraits, starting with a simple opposition of a poetic man with a crassly materialistic society. Quickly, however, as O’Neill became capable of more complex conceptions of human nature, the creative and self-destructive forces were centered within the hero, as in Stephen Murray and Michael Cape. As yet, however, there was no radical division of personality, but this was to come and it was to be expressed in strange intermingling of personalities.
Between Dion Anthony and William Brown, a fraternal relationship exists. Yet it goes beyond this. Dion assumes Brown’s rights when he takes Margaret, but later Brown reverses the relationship and absorbs Dion by wearing his mask. Speaking to the mask of the dead Dion, he talks of how he will assume Dion’s role and says, “Then you—the I in you—I will live in Margaret.” (307) Something of the same closeness may be sensed in Eben’s relationship, not to his brothers, but to his father. The two are the “dead spit an’ image” of one another, mirrored reflections, bound yet opposite. Again the conception of a man divided into very different, opposed but closely bound beings is in Mourning Becomes Electra, where Orin, Ezra and Adam have the same desires and the same face, and yet are locked in a death struggle. The most extreme example is, of course, John and Loving in Days Without End, where only by an act of exorcism can the negative force be eliminated from the divided soul.
The image shifts,
dazzles, puzzles, but the provocative possibility is that O’Neill
believed that his brother had done as he claimed, and that part of him
was Jamie, and, therefore,
that Jamie was more than his brother, was somehow an image of himself,
an image that was a hostile double, bent on his destruction, a form of
The myth of the demonic double is perhaps more a literary affectation than a reality in men’s minds. Despite many early anticipations of the idea, the legend was given form in early nineteenth-century Gothic thrillers like Frankenstein. It persisted, however, in a not entirely literary form. In a brief, seminal treatise, The Double,22 Otto Rank has shown that the legend can become an actuality in the neurotic fantasies of disturbed personalities. In legend, the double emerges from a mirror or shadow and detaches itself from the man who gave it form. Henceforth, the man is without reflection. Instead the double moves through life in a mysterious course parallel to his progenitor and at each crucial turn steps between the man and his achievement. The double accepts his triumphs, steals the love he has sought and in the end destroys him.
investigation and in areas of psychoanalytic study the double, as Rank
presents it, is a product of paranoid fantasy, involving fear of
inexplicable and hostile pursuit. Yet Rank points out that in addition
to paranoia another syndrome appears:
Rank continues to discuss this fraternal rivalry toward the hated competitor in the love for the mother and ultimately the death wish of the subject. He adds, “The most prominent symptom of the forms which the double takes is a powerful consciousness of guilt which forces the hero no longer to accept the responsibility for certain actions of his ego, but to place it upon another ego, a double, who is either personified by the devil himself or is created by making a diabolical pact.” (76) He also suggests that slaying of the double, “through which the hero seeks to protect himself permanently from the pursuits of his self, is really a suicidal act.”***** (79)
plays, the double, divested of its Gothic horror, and therefore
without the suggestions of paranoia, appears continually: in
Days Without End, in the
deep divisions of personality of many of the characters in Strange
Interlude and the extant cycle plays, in Ah,
Wilderness!, where the division of each member of O’Neill’s
family into two characters exorcises guilt, in Orin Mannon’s sense
that having killed Adam Brant he has killed himself—the list can be
multiplied. What is of immediate interest, however, is that while the
plays correspond with startling exactitude to much of Rank’s
analysis, O’Neill creates a significant variation on the pattern.
The variation is suggested in Beyond
the Horizon. Andrew has taken Robert’s life and despoiled it,
and in the context he may well be thought of as the double. But it is
equally true that Robert has taken Ruth from Andrew and spoiled his
brother’s life. From another point of view, Robert might well be
considered Andrew’s double. In The
Great God Brown, Billy steals Dion’s talent and takes his wife
by assuming his appearance. Clearly this is the way of the double, but
so is Dion’s macabre mockery of Billy and his theft of Margaret in
the beginning of the play. As with Robert and Andrew, as with the
doubles in the Mannon family, which is the
A possible explanation lies in Jamie’s image of Frankenstein. If it is true that O’Neill, however unconsciously, felt himself to be Jamie’s creation and in particular viewed his own negative tendencies as implantations Jamie had made, it may be argued that he drew the self-portraits, both those presenting a corrupted, poetic innocent and those of the sensual, even destructive man, as a way of sorting out what lay within him. To understand Jamie was not difficult, as Long Day’s Journey into Night attests, but to understand what Jamie had done to Eugene may have been nearly impossible. Was it that Jamie had stolen Eugene’s life? Or was it that Jamie was Eugene’s Loving? If Eugene was Jamie’s Frankenstein, what was Eugene’s truth? O’Neill’s growing interest in the God-denying materialist, first seen in Marco Millions and continuing through the cycle, appears to reflect his growing need to analyze the uncreative qualities within himself. Searching in mirrors to discover whether anyone is there is to look for the double within. In the end it was the essence of Jamie in himself that became of concern and that may have led Eugene to draw Jamie as Eben, Reuben, Orin and Simon, as a way of looking at Jamie when Jamie became Eugene. It was an instinctive way of separating the elements within to discover what Eugene was and what it meant to be Jamie’s Frankenstein.
This cannot be the truth of it. O’Neill was an artist, not a do-it-yourself psychoanalyst. Yet some implications of the suggestion may shed light on O’Neill’s career as a playwright. After 1922, the year of his mother’s death, with the single exception of his adaptation of The Ancient Mariner, all the extant plays reveal some direct autobiography. Far from inventing dramatic fictions to please and move his audiences, O’Neill’s imagination turned to the creation of narrative masks for a central situation among four people he obsessively sought to understand. He did not dramatize the full situation all of the time, but aspects of it are to be found in the central focus of thirty-five of the plays. Edmund Tyrone, who stumbles in from the fog where he has walked as if he were “a ghost belonging to the fog,” returns from the dead to tell his father of his vision of belonging to a life force. So Lazarus was resurrected to speak of the life force, and Hickey, coming from a murder, comatose, as if he were dead, returns to Hope’s to preach a vision. The concern of Nina’s three men for her welfare reflects the care of the three male Tyrones for Mary’s health. The image of the poet destroyed by the materialist has multiple recurrences, and characters return: the mother who is a betrayer of her children and who resents being the object of their need; brothers bound in opposition; wives who persecute their husbands; fathers and children fixed in a pattern of love and hate; the maternal whore to whom men turn for surcease; men and women who feed on dreams. The list is long, but it evolves from a single, central source, the action of Long Day’s Journey into Night, in which O’Neill’s whole creative life centered. He had to write the play; literally, he lived to write it.
In the play’s dedication, O’Neill thanks his wife for giving him “the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play—write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones.” Pity, understanding and forgiveness surely are there for three of them, but for Edmund the understanding, the pity and perhaps the forgiveness is less pervasive. Edmund is only a slightly more mature version of the sentimental rebel O’Neill created in Richard Miller. Except in such episodes as his reaction to his father’s attempt to put him into a cheap sanatorium, his responses to his family are not specifically defined. He repeatedly avoids conflict, refuses to face issues, remains neutral and a little passive. Partly the blandness may be because Jamie is now on stage in his own person, and much that O’Neill had previously explored of Jamie in himself is now, as it were, returned to its source. About Jamie, as about his mother and father, O’Neill, the playwright, is totally perceptive. Their relationships to one another as well as to Edmund are strongly and clearly defined. His to them are not. Perhaps, if Long Day’s Journey into Night may be called a “dream play,” an explanation might lie in the fact that Edmund is the dreamer’s dream of himself. He moves like a dream’s protagonist in wonder and dread, but is uncommitted to the dream’s occurrences. Commitment, finally, belongs to the dreamer and not the dream. The play is O’Neill’s last mirror, the last time he would look to see if he was “there.” In itself, the image of the young, gentle, unhappy man he saw proved nothing, but having gone through the door in the mind to the fogbound room in the past, he perhaps understood himself as his figure was illuminated by the pain and concern of those about him. In the agony of the others, it is possible, the playwright’s identity was at last to be found.
* Mention should be made of the use of the wagon stage in The Iceman Cometh. The setting, according to O’Neill’s plan, was to be built twice as wide as the proscenium opening, and placed on a long wagon, extending into the wings. By shifting the wagon different sections of the bar and backroom could be exposed. It is an unassuming, efficient but unusual way of achieving some small variety in the setting. Virtually the only excess in the mounting of the last plays is the unnecessary change of scene from exterior to interior in the second act of A Moon for the Misbegotten. The change, accomplished by the removal of a wall of the house as in Desire Under the Elms, has no apparent purpose other than to lend variety to the scenic plan.
** The slow motion is very reminiscent of the rhythm of Strindberg’s A Dream Play. The point is difficult of proof, the impression having arisen from seeing the two plays on successive evenings. Much more fragmented and “stylized” than O’Neill’s work, A Dream Play also moves its action in the form of a reverie arising from the light touch of a “real” object. The sense of pervasive, universal suffering, together with the pity which the goddess Indra feels for man, is also in its emotional effect very like that created by O’Neill.
*** At least as the play presents it. Mary speaks to Edmund of her plan to rid herself of the dope habit by entering a convent and praying for a restoration of the faith she had in the convent days. Then, “when the Blessed Virgin . . . sees no one in the world can believe in me even for a moment any more, then She will believe in me, and with Her help it will be so easy.” (94) What is illusion in the play became a fact for Ella O’Neill, who cured her addiction by prayer.
**** Eben, Reuben, Orin, Simon—the names are strikingly euphonious. They form an acronym of interest.
***** The possible implications of Rank’s study for an understanding of the complex personality of Eugene O’Neill are many. Rank points out, for example, that E. T. A. Hoffmann in whose Tales the double appears “was nervous, eccentric, and strongly dependent upon moods.” When Hoffmann wrote stories of doubles, he actually saw doubles around him, and wakened his wife to show them to her. Rank continues “After one drinking bout, he wrote in his diary: ‘Seized by thoughts of death: doubles’. . . . At the age of forty-seven he succumbed to a neurological illness, which (was) diagnosed as chorea (a condition characterized by a nervous twitching). . . . ” Rank adds that the disease “gives evidence of his neuropathic constitution, which he shared with most of his companions in adversity. . . . ” (35)
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