is not surprising that O’Neill fixed on A
Touch of the Poet as the play he could finish. It is the central
play of the eleven-play scheme, standing in relation to the whole much
as the scene on Adam Brant’s ship stands at the center of Mourning
Becomes Electra—isolated, a little apart, giving pause to the main
action and providing a perspective on what had happened, at the same
time as it replenishes the material for what is to come. The
introduction of Sara and Simon provides a relief from the concentration
on the fatal Sisters and the cursed family. Now there are new people to
consider and, in the person of Nora Melody, a character drawn in
profound contrast to any of the Harfords—a woman who simply and deeply
loves. Furthermore, the action is complete in itself. The potential
conflict between Deborah and Sara does not require a sequent play
for its resolution. In the present action, the questions it has
raised have been answered by Sara’s love for Simon. The theme is
Yet the play belongs in the whole. It sets forth the major motifs as in a microcosm. Deborah’s two appearances in Act II re-tell in outline the history of the Harfords which has been enacted in the first four plays. Her account extracts from what has passed the major symbols and thematic essence and brings them to bear on the present action. And, although her view is of what has passed, what she says applies not only to the Melody family but to the Harford’s sons who will soon be enveloped in the dark. As she phrases it: “The Harfords never give up their dreams, even though they deny them.”
Touch of the Poet unexpectedly
recalls the Abbey Theatre play O’Neill saw in 1911, Birthright by T. C. Murray. The Irish folk drama which provided him
with the root situation for Beyond
the Horizon at the outset of his career and Desire
Under the Elms at its mid-point served him yet one more time as he
came to the end of his long life in the theatre. He remembered, perhaps
without being fully aware of it, the situation in Murray’s play when
one of the family must shoot a mare in which he took particular pride.
The scenes are not identical. In Birthright,
the mare must be shot because she has been injured, but on the two
stages the same kind of tension builds. Birthright
also offers a parallel to the scene in which Nora waits for Con’s
return, working at her household chores until fear and exhaustion
overcome her, and she sits numbly keeping watch. O’Neill’s falling
back on an earlier source of inspiration is of the same order of return
to first commitments as is suggested by the play’s title, which he
took from a stage direction describing Robert Mayo in Beyond
the Horizon.* What such returns meant can only be surmised. Perhaps
the tangles of the cycle’s story caused him to turn back to a time in
his creative life when the design of the whole was simpler and a
play’s action fell into a reasonable compass. Whatever the reason, it
is possible to see in Cornelius Melody an older version of Robert Mayo,
holding to dreams he cannot realize and who must therefore be ground to
defeat by pervasive failure.
Mayo, as O’Neill thought of him, was a man who renounced his dream for the sake of a trivial love affair. To some extent, Melody does the same. He has risen to the rank of major in Wellington’s army, but he betrays himself by attempting to seduce a Spanish noblewoman and by killing her husband in a duel. What follows is a long road down. He sells his castle in Ireland, goes to America and invests in a once-prosperous tavern, formerly a coach stop on a now-abandoned post road into Boston. Like Mayo, he is a man who cannot cope with life beyond the dream. His illusion is his life.
Where he differs from Mayo is that his dream was once fulfilled. He had his moment of glory in his hand. Where Mayo merely reached for it, Melody, more grievously, lost it. Mayo must live in the expectation O’Neill came to call “hopeless hope.” Melody lives with fragments of memory, constructing all he possesses from them. O’Neill significantly does not allow him to become pathetic. Melody is presumptuous, arrogant, overbearing, a domestic tyrant and, as Sara rightly calls him, “a drunken fool.”8 Perversely, by virtue of these qualities, he summons an audience’s pity far more than the tubercular Robert Mayo can ever do. Mayo remains a literary construction; Melody moves as a man.
As the action turns, after his belligerent attack on the Harford mansion and his defeat by the household servants, the dream is shattered. Ex-Major Melody is not unlike those Homeric heroes whose armor “clattered about them” as they fell in battle. The dream was an armor, and as he falls, it too is destroyed. His decision to kill the mare and himself is right, as is his further understanding that having killed her, he has already killed himself. Melody is nothing without his dream. He has lived only in his chosen role.
The bar off the dining room of Melody’s tavern is not Harry Hope’s saloon. The Irish contingent who loaf there, sponging drinks off the proprietor, have nothing in common with Hope’s roomers. Only Patch Riley, an old man whose “washed-out blue eyes have a wandering, half-witted expression,” bears any resemblance to the drifters of The Iceman Cometh. When he is drunk, he sinks “deeper in dreams,” where he is lost except when called upon to play a tune on his pipes. The rest, mortal peasants, are ordinary men, who come to get drunk and whose psychological need for the comfort of the bar has little in common with the need Hope’s roomers have to float their dreams on a drink of nickel whiskey. Yet they are dependent on Melody, as he, to a degree, depends on them. For him, they and the barroom provide an escape. The bar is the one place where he can strut in his dreams without fear of contradiction. There, refighting the Battle of Talavera, he is emperor of his illusions; there he is free both of disturbing obligations, as to Nora, and of criticism, as from Sara.
At such a time, in
such a moment of defeat, to enter the bar would lead to destruction.
Stripped of all illusion, Con has neither love nor dreams to help him.
To save some vestige of what he was, he goes to the mirror and repeats
the pantomime of arrogance that he has created for the Major, forcing
himself erect, reciting the verses
from Byron, pumping air into the deflated self. As he does so Gadsby,
the Harford lawyer, enters, and the end begins. The sequence shows
that in the rooms the family inhabits, the necessary, sustaining
illusion can be maintained only with cruelty to those about him. The
bar means freedom to exist in illusion and to escape. The glimpse of
Con empty of pretense at the bar door is not in essence different from
the revelation of what happens to the bums at Harry Hope’s when
Hickey takes their dreams from them. The action is, in vignette, the
action of The Iceman Cometh.
After the shooting of the mare, when Melody emerges from his semi-comatose condition, the Major is dead. The loutish shebeen keeper has taken his place, and Con tells Sara that this role is true: “I’m not puttin’ on the brogue to tormint you, me darlint. Nor play-actin’, Sara. That was the Major’s game.” (168) He lies. The peasant is nothing but another role. He leers into the mirror and grotesquely mimics his antics as the Major, quoting Byron with a comedian’s brogue: “I stood / Among thim, but not av thim . . . ,“ and breaks off, crying “Be God I’m alive and in the crowd they can deem me one av such! I’ll be among thim and av thim, too—and make up for the lonely dog’s life the Major led me.” (177) With this he turns and moves toward the barroom door. Sara stops him and pleads with great passion for him to return, calling on his pride, begging his forgiveness. But he has turned the knob. She makes a last appeal and offers to give up Simon: “I’ll even tell Simon—that after his father’s insults to you—I’m too proud to marry a Yankee coward’s son!”
As Melody hears her appeal, he crumbles “until he appears to have no character left in which to hide and defend himself. He cries wildly and despairingly, as if he saw his last hope of escape suddenly cut off. ‘Sara! For the love of God, stop—let me go—!’ ” (178)
A moment more, and
he is through the bar door, received with shouts of greeting. His
final exit is his last escape, as he takes refuge in the role of
shebeen-keeper and waits for the death that will follow within four
years. To substitute the Irish shebeen-keeper for the role he had
formerly played is meaningless. The new performance—The Lower Depths after The Count
of Monte Cristo—is no nearer reality. He cannot rid himself of
the need of a mask, for he has no substance without one. His need to
clutch about him the ragged garment, the torn uniform in which he
finally clothes himself, makes him a pathetic figure whom Sara can
properly mourn. Yet she mourns an image, the dead Major. Such
substance as he has is apparent only to his wife whose pride in her
love survives all his failure and humiliation. Her love makes him
something, if he exists at all. Without it, he is as lifeless as the
men at the Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller in The
If A Touch of the Poet was intended to provide an emblematic center in the cycle’s structure, Melody’s life becomes the epitome of the lives of all the major characters. Deborah in her talk with Sara describes the Harford men in words that apply equally to Con. She warns Sara that the Harford men “never part with their dreams even when they deny them.”9 Con’s life shows that without the dream, man is nothing. The dream unfulfilled, mocked or destroyed, the man no longer has reason to live. Even denying his dream, by admitting its falsity, he must try to live by it. To do so is to live with frustrating illusion, and in retaliation Con—as do the Harford men—turns cruel and lives estranged from those who love him. “You can have no idea,” Deborah tells Sara, “what revengeful hate the Harford pursuit of freedom imposed upon the women who shared their lives.” (83) The life Sara and Deborah share with Simon in More Stately Mansions exemplifies the truth of what she says.
Touch of the Poet, Deborah is given two brief, strong scenes as
she comes to the tavern to see her son who lies ill in an upstairs
room. She appears cool, distant, fragile, elegantly aristocratic, almost
a woman from the world of Melody’s past. His crude attempts to
seduce her fill her with disgust, but she also responds involuntarily
to his sensuality. With Sara, she is aloof, mocking and
“Cassandra-like,” as she warns her of the danger in the Harford
men. She appears to be a woman who has made her choices in the world
and is prepared to live by them. Her son’s book that “the pure
freedom of Nature” is to inspire him to write amounts in her mind to
only a “crude imitation of Lord Byron,” (81) but she admits that
her excursion to Simon’s cabin has been strange to her. She tells
Sara, with an echo of O’Neill’s earlier awareness, of the power of
Her intention, however, is to return to her garden “and listen indifferently again while the footsteps of life pass and recede along the street beyond the high wall. I shall never venture forth again to do my duty.” (86)
The implications of Deborah’s return to her garden from the world of duty are not made wholly evident in A Touch of the Poet. In More Stately Mansions, it becomes clear that her reclusiveness is a retreat into dreams very like the illusions by which Melody has lived. In Deborah’s walled garden nature is “meticulously tended and trimmed.” The shrubs and trees are clipped into geometrical shapes, the sunlight falls in chiaroscuro patterns, and the effect “is of nature distorted and humiliated by a deliberately mocking, petulant arrogance.” (95) In the center of the garden stands Deborah’s little summerhouse, her father-in-law’s “Temple of Liberty” built as a refuge in which he could act out his Jacobin dreams. There, wearing his old uniform, like Melody, he wasted his life, and there he died. To his daughter-in-law, the summerhouse is a similar refuge. It is a more elegant version of Melody’s barroom. Inside, there is nothing but “darkness and dust and spider webs—and the silence of dead dreams.” (112) But the Chinese red lacquer door, as crucial in More Stately Mansions as the barrom door in A Touch of the Poet, leads to forgetfulness and to the peace of the mad.
Deborah’s fear of
nature unmethodized, her retreat into the misshapen artifice of her
garden are the outer signs of a division in her that is revealed, as
are the oppositions of peasant and aristocrat in Melody, in her
assumption of two very different roles. Unlike Melody’s, Deborah’s
roles conceal more than emptiness. In the garden, she gives way to
dreaming that she is the mistress of a man of supreme power, Louis XIV
or Napoleon. Walking with her lover in the gardens at Versailles, she
attracts all eyes and, triumphing over their jealousy, flaunts the
fact of her power over the ruler by leading him to the summerhouse, in
her imagination a “Temple of Love” he has built for her. There she
permits him to make love to her. In her garden, she strolls up and
down the paths daydreaming of
romantic evil, and to those who come upon her she behaves as if she
were indeed such a royal whore. The danger is clear, even to her. The
dreams centering in the summerhouse have a fascination that can lead
her away from normal life—tempt her to escape forever into dreams.
To pass through the
“door in the mind,” whose physical realization is the door to the
summerhouse, is to pass through to madness, where Deborah knows she
can “at least believe in a dream again.” (102)
Opposed to the fear of being lost in dreams is her concern that life may be passing her by beyond the walls of her garden. Sometimes an aching loneliness possesses her, and she does not find, as Melody does in the mirror, a way of reaffirming illusions. Although she holds the Harfords in disdain, the possibility that she may choose madness terrifies her, and she forces herself to return to their world, to become an affectionate mother-in-law and grandmother to her four grandsons. She speaks passionately of an existence which is entirely simple, “the meaning of life so happily implicit, the feeling of living so deeply sure of itself, not needing thought, beyond all torturing doubt, the passive ‘yes’ welcoming the peaceful procession of demanding days.” (171) In such an opposition, between the dreaming aristocrat and the simple, accepting woman, she finds her roles.
The roles, however, conceal a shadowy substance. Like Nina Leeds, Deborah cannot give over the attempt to “meddle in lives.” Her son describes her as being “extremely greedy for others’ lives,” and he is right. Her eagerness to possess is so strong that even at her most giving (she speaks of longing for the “happy greedy laughter of children”), she seems to herself to be hypocritical. Having patched a peace with Sara, she jeers when alone, “At least old age has not impaired your talent for acting, Deborah!” A moment later she denies her insincerity: “No! You lie! You know you lie! I meant every word sincerely! I will make myself love her! She has given me life again!” (57) Her greed makes her doubt her own sincerity and her life swings between two illusions.
The metaphor of her desire to possess lies in a story she has told to her son when he was a child playing in her garden. It is the story of a young king, dispossessed of his inheritance by a “beautiful enchantress.” The king must search for a door which he will know when he finds it to be the door leading to his lost kingdom. Deborah’s story has no ending. As the king discovers the door and seeks to enter, he hears the voice of the witch behind it, warning him that she might have lied and caused him to follow a false hope: “If you dare to open the door you may discover this is no longer your old happy realm but a barren desert, where it is always night, haunted by terrible ghosts and ruled over by a hideous old witch, who wishes to destroy your claim to her realm.” The king in fear remains by the door, unable to enter or to leave it. He becomes a beggar for alms from passers-by. (111)
The fairy tale of dispossession perhaps was intended as a central image for the entire cycle, as it is for the play in which it is told: like the king, Americans are condemned to wander the earth seeking to regain their “happy realm,” the free land they have lost. For Deborah and her son its meaning is more personal. It expresses Deborah’s own longing for entrance to a lost kingdom of her dreams. The king’s door and the summerhouse door are the same. She, like the king, stands on the outside of the door in fear to enter. Yet in her other role, she becomes the dispossessor, the witch. She tells Sara that if she were in her place she would hate Simon and revenge herself on him: “I would make him pay for me until I had taken everything he possessed! And when he had no more to pay me, I would drive him out of my life to beg outside my door!” (133) In the last scene, she becomes what she has called the three spinsters who created the family fortune: a witch.
To Simon, the story has remained a horror from his childhood. He yearns for a happy ending which Deborah denies him even to the last. When she determines to enter the summerhouse, to will herself to madness, he begs her to take him with her, to help him through the door into the happy kingdom, but she refuses and enters alone. When she returns she appears mad, but Sara cannot be sure, any more than she was sure of her father’s deliberate choice of roles. Is Deborah mad or is she merely acting? The play does not resolve the issue, but leaves her in imperious possession of the only kingdom she could finally claim.
Simon’s roles shift as he matures. In A Touch of the Poet, he is portrayed as a Mayo-esque dreamer, a poet-philosopher, writing in the tradition of Rousseau about the simple goodness in man. Sara, who calls him “a born dreamer with a raft of great dreams,” somewhat breathlessly tells her mother that he has left his father’s business in order to
Early in More
Stately Mansions, Simon describes the premise of his dream kingdom
Shortly, however, he
renounces such an idealistic conception of man. “Rousseau,” he
says, “was simply hiding from himself in a superior, idealistic
dream—as Mother has always done in a different way.” He continues
to consider the possibilities of another book,
Sara replies to
this: “If it isn’t just like you to start dreaming a new dream the
moment after you’ve woke up from the old! It’s the touch of the
poet in you!” Simon denies it, and as idealism turns cynical, he
plunges forward in the assurance that “Power is the only freedom.”
Late in the play he tells Sara and Deborah,
In Simon’s character, role playing is somewhat less conscious than it is in Melody’s or Deborah’s. Nevertheless, neither idealism nor cynicism has significant reality for him. When he was a child, his mother instilled in him ideals of perfect freedom. Now that he is a man she has deserted him, leaving him nothing but a Napoleonic dream of achieving freedom through power. The two “dreams,” as he calls them, “encourage a continual conflict in his mind, so that he lives split into opposites and divided against himself! All in the name of Freedom! As if at the end of every dream of liberty one did not find the slave, oneself, to whom oneself, the Master, is enslaved!” (49) Simon, to be sure, is Master, the head of the house of Harford, but at heart he is a crying child, clinging to his mother for protection. The child, far more than the man, threatens both women, who turn against him in what becomes a mortal struggle.
The pattern which has shown the Harfords and Melody attempting to hold to an idealistic dream and being forced to substitute its opposite in a greedy struggle for life is repeated in the person of Sara Melody. Sara’s beauty is spoiled by her heavy ankles and stubby hands—peasant hands, her father calls them, knowing that the ambitious peasant will succeed, although with difficulty, in rooting out Simon’s idealistic dreams. “He’s set in his proud, noble ways,” Melody says, “but she’ll find the right trick! . . . She’ll see the day when she’ll wear fine silks and drive in a carriage wid a naygur coachman behind spankin’ thoroughbreds, her nose in the air; and she’ll live in a Yankee mansion, as big as a castle, on a grand estate av stately woodland and soft green meadows and a lake.” (173)
At the end of More Stately Mansions, Sara blames herself for having caused Simon to desert his early dreams, saying that she has driven him to attempt to secure her father’s aristocratic pretenses as her reality. The implication is that she has somehow forced him to trade his ideals for the greedy life of the Harford company. In fact, although the point is often made, in the published script, Sara is not shown to be responsible. Deborah and his brother ask his help when the company has come near failing upon his father’s death. He agrees to aid them, and in this decision Sara plays no part. Later, Simon forces her to take charge of the Harford empire, deeding the control to her in bits, and teaching her how to assume his hated burden, but as to whether Sara’s materialism is an essential of her nature, the plays remain ambiguous. Indeed, there is evidence in Act I, scene iii, that Sara has forced Simon to his study every night in order that he might either write or renounce his Rousseauistic book. By the same token, it is Deborah who asks Simon to take over the Harford Company, and thereafter uses him so that she may find her way back to a normal, less lonely life. Nevertheless, Sara clings with part of her desires to the idea of being a “grand lady,” and in idle times in her husband’s office, where she serves as his secretary and “mistress,” she designs the stately mansion of her dreams.
The hunger for a new version of Melody Castle is part of the motive that causes her to accept Deborah’s bargain. If she permits Deborah to live with them and to be with her grandchildren, Deborah will deed the mansion to Sara. Sara is won by the bribe, and thereafter becomes mistress of one of the finest houses in the community. At the same time, she is defensive of her peasant origins, and on occasion defiant in her use of the brogue, playing the peasant in a schizoid way, just as she had formerly done to mock her posturing father. What appears most true about her is that she is anxious at the end of More Stately Mansions to leave the world of false aristocrats and become a true peasant, a farm woman justifying her life by her labors. Only in such renunciation can she express truly her love for Simon. In any other existence than that of the peasant, her love is destroyed by greedy dreams.
What Sara tries to do is to love simply and wholly as her mother had done. Nora Melody is drawn with the most complete, uncomplex affection of any character in the O’Neill canon. She has found in her total acceptance of her husband a way to resolve all the conflicts of love and hate that beset O’Neill’s characters, generally. She is without a mask, humble in her devotion. Like Miriam in Lazarus Laughed in her unabashed earthy simplicity, she finds her pride of life in her love. Others may speak of pride as governing their action. To live by pride is to live falsely. Nora lives by love, and pride comes because of it. She passes gently from the story, and although she appears in the unpublished first scene of More Stately Mansions, after Melody dies, she enters a convent and is forgotten.
Nora’s legacy is inherited by Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten, but a little of what she was remains alive in her daughter. Sara, at the end of A Touch of the Poet, speaks of the fullness of her love for Simon, to whom she has given herself. Simon has said that he can support her through his business knowledge gained from working briefly with his father’s company, and has asked her if she will be satisfied with a simple life, so that he may write his book. She tells her mother “So I kissed him and said all I wanted in life was his love, and whatever meant happiness to him would be my only ambition. . . . And I meant it, Mother! With all my heart and soul! . . . Isn’t that a joke on me, with all my crazy dreams of riches and a grand estate and me a haughty lady riding around in a carriage with coachman and footman! . . . Wasn’t I the fool to think that had any meaning at all when you’re in love? You were right, Mother. I knew nothing of love, or the pride a woman can take in giving everything—the pride in her own love!” (146) She speaks here as her mother had spoken. Her father, however, has another view of her:
At the end of A Touch of the Poet, Sara stands poised between the two estimates, but in the plays to follow, Con’s view of her triumphs, and her destiny, judging from the cycle notes, is to become a greedy alcoholic shut away in the mansion she built on the site of the woodland cabin where she first knew love.
The personalities of the Harfords and of all those with whom they associate** are divided between two antithetical roles—mother and wife, wife and whore, mother and whore, or child and master. The masks are used as the pieces in a game that the players enter with a savage delight. It is called “Bewilder with Opposites,” and its point lies in the shock created by unexpected changes of the mask. Changing the masks terrifies and also permits continual shifting realignment of allegiances. It is as if the players, naked in their masks, were caught up in an intricately patterned charade and passed with grotesque and crippled stateliness before mirrors whose reflections mock the game of dispossession.
In the central figure of the game, Sara becomes Deborah’s ally. The two women enter into a strange unspoken compact, almost as if they were coalescing the functions of Mother and Wife into a single whorish force. O’Neill writes of their behavior that “They are like two mothers who, confident of their charm, take a possessive gratification in teasing a young, bashful son. But there is something more behind this—the calculating coquetry of two prostitutes trying to entice a man.” (128) Allied, they prove strong enough to resist Simon’s greed for their love, and, like the witch in the fairy tale, they dispossess the son of his kingdom and reduce him to beggary. Then, when he is destroyed, and when the female power moves without check, they are able to make the substance of Deborah’s fantasies and Sara’s dreams real, and seduce, corrupt and command at will.
The coalition of the
women leaves Simon alone. When he first senses it happening, he says,
Retaliating against rejection he attempts to divide the force that threatens him, so that when the women are separated he may possess both or at least choose between them. Deborah he confines to her garden, separating her from his children so that when he enters her world, he may be the only child of the adored and adoring mother. Sara too must be isolated and forced to play the role of Deborah’s dreams, that of a powerful whore who controls a Napoleon of finance and whose power over both the man and his empire is unlimited. Deborah calls her fantasies “real life,” (13) but Sara must go to her husband’s office to live out Deborah’s dream in fact, playing the role of her husband’s “mistress,” indulging him sexually on a garish couch under an ornate mirror, in return for control of the company.
The irony is that although Simon is fighting to survive, his actions reveal his desire both to submit to the women and to defeat them, by taking them as a single being, possessing one to possess them both. In making the sexual demands on Sara, Simon is enabled to live the life of one of his mother’s fantasy lovers, but clearly his real need is to return to Deborah. “All we are is the past,” he says, (73) and his past lies with his mother in an enchanted existence in the grotesque garden behind the wall, beyond the door in the mind. He pleads with Deborah to take him with her as she goes to lose herself in dreams. She rejects him, pushing him with unexpected force from the steps of the summerhouse. The thrust is like an act of emasculation. He falls, knocking himself unconscious. He awakes, cradled as a child by Sara, who becomes his mother now that Deborah has gone into the shadows.
Sara lovingly tells him that it was her father’s “crazy dreams” that made her his enemy. Now she will try to restore to him the dreams that he had when she first loved him, when he was “the dreamer with a touch of the poet in his soul, and the heart of a boy!” (191) She says she will destroy the company and retire to the old Harford farm, and Simon can write poems and plan the book that will “save the world and free men from the curse of greed in them!” (191) But Simon will not return. The final moments are reminiscent of the ending of Ibsen’s Ghosts, the mad Oswald clinging to his mother:
It is not a comforting conclusion, and Simon, like Melody who also reverted in his despair to a point of origin, will soon disappear from the history.
The destruction of Simon, like the death of Con Melody, is reminiscent of much that O’Neill had written earlier. It is not entirely an accident that the last words of The Web, spoken by the plainclothesman to Rose’s deserted child—”Mama’s gone. I’m your mama now”—are in substance identical with the last line of More Stately Mansions. O’Neill was from the first instinctively concerned with deserted children, orphans of God the Mother who yearned to return to the memory of old harmony. Such desire was the agony and the salvation of those touched with poetry. Men without visions, the materialistic descendants of Caligula, were in his first view the enemy, the possessors who denied the poet’s attempt to be possessed. Later, however, the poets were corrupted by possessive drives from within, and they dispossessed themselves of the possibility of peace and harmony by their instinctive greed. In the cycle, they become the greedy meek, those who seek both liberty and death, who build stately mansions to shut themselves from heaven, whose limits are the earth and who, having gained, find nothing is lost save their honor. O’Neill’s finely ironic titles all point in the same direction toward the depiction of man as an alienated, lost, vision-haunted denier of his dreams. The action of the cycle, although the theological implications of such a play as Desire Under the Elms are absent, recapitulates the major theme of O’Neill’s earlier work. He had often written of possessors self-dispossessed and of men who have lost their souls.
Who has lost his soul has no reality. The center of his identity has diminished until what is left is an inarticulate cry of deep need. In place of the true center, man dons the masks of the game. Such assurance as the masks bring him is evanescent. Their reality is no more than that of an image caught in a mirror, Melody’s mirror in the tavern before which he reassembles his life-lie, or that in Simon Harford’s office, before which Sara constructs her image of the whore, or the soul’s mirror of Deborah’s fantasies, wherein she sees Death staring over her shoulder. (12) The images caught in them are arrogant; they distort nature as Deborah’s garden does. They reflect the prisoner in his cell divided between roles assumed in pride and roles bred of dreams. They create nightmares, and they destroy the divided self by driving it to madness.
In telling his tales of the Harford family, O’Neill apparently intended to present their lives as emblematic of the history of the United States. Yet to conceive of the Harford dynasty as a metaphor for American destiny is to blur a subtle proportion. It is more true to say that American history is a symbolic extension of the Harford story, that the historical story is the secondary term of the vast image. Thus, Shakespeare used the story of national destinies in his tragedies to reflect and extend the internal division of his real point of focus, the tragic hero; thus O’Neill had used the story of a nation divided to reflect and to parallel the story of the divided Mannon household. The story of the nation as O’Neill tells it is in many respects less complex than the story of the Harfords. In the beginning, men lived in simple freedom. Simon’s uncompleted book, written like Walden in rustic settings and in praise of minimal selfsufficiency, is intended to express the virtues of a world where men live without pride or greed. This is the perfect freedom sought by Jonathan Harford, determinedly rural, isolated, uncommitted to society. Hog-like man, however, finds simple harmony uncongenial. Instead of taking from the earth the small measure of his true need, he becomes an exploiter: “Power is Freedom.” He will possess not only the earth but other men. His greed, born of his drive for liberty, makes him an enslaver. All the means to power, money, transportation, the slave trade itself, cause him to despoil his original heritage, transforming it to a materialistic wilderness, where enough is synonymous with too much, where Sara can say, “I am good because I am strong. You are evil because you are weak,” (152) and where the enslaver is finally enslaved.
To a limited extent, the story traced in A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions can be viewed as a microcosm of the national history. The growth of the Harford Company from the proprietorship of small mills to the possession of ships, banks, consumer outlets, arriving at last at the establishment of a self-sufficient trust epitomizes America’s commitment to greedy expansion. O’Neill has clearly intended the personal stories to augment the national account. When, for example, Simon tells Sara “The Company is you. Your nature is its nature,”*** or when he describes the “game” he plays at the office as “A fascinating game—resembling love,” there is an obvious invitation to read the relationship between the two as somehow symbolizing forces at work in the national past.
Among the American dramatists of the thirties, quasi-allegorical narratives were a convenient way by which audiences could be induced to eat both cake and social message. S. N. Behrman’s biographies of enchanting liberal ladies caught between lovers whose political stances were as important as their amatory prowess, Clifford Odets’s studies of the corruption of golden boys, Robert E. Sherwood’s melodramas that urged American intervention into the European war, not to mention lesser plays such as Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End or Irwin Shaw’s The Gentle People, all used the personal narrative to comment on the condition of the nation. Although elements in the two plays offer this possibility, in general O’Neill refused the allegorical gambit. The Melodys and the Harfords relate to American history in a more direct way. They represent nothing, but are what they are, men and women who have come from a background of European experience and who fight for their well-being in the New World.
Therefore, to attempt to read the cycle plays as allegories is to mistake the true emphasis. The main stress is on the personal account that details a Strindbergian pattern of female domination over the male, and that tells of a struggle that was to be repeated throughout the length of the work. The farmer’s widow who causes the freedom-seeking deserter to give up his dream, the Sisters who rule over the life of Evan Harford and his family, Leda Cade and Elizabeth Harford, the female tycoon who was to dominate A Hair of the Dog all point to the same thematic center: the cycle was to show woman as the destroyer of ideals, dreams, and even life.
Woman’s dream is of corruptive and spectacular power; man’s dream is of perfect, idealistic freedom. The cynical monarchial motivations of women conflict mortally with the democratic concepts that move men. Woman’s power is achieved through control of man, and she sets herself to destroy his dreams that she may in owning him live free of his desire. His dreams destroyed, he becomes corrupt, but she survives in greedy health, feeding on his power. In revulsion at his own corruption, he seeks a purer condition of being, free of the complexities and disappointments women create for him. He turns for solace to the only hope he has, the memory of the woman he knew when he was a child, and he seeks in her one who will be both mother and mistress. Yet he is not a child, and he is further degraded by the sense that with both mistress and mother he is incestuously involved. For the same reason, the woman rejects him or emasculates him so that, reduced to impotence, he cannot harm her by stepping between her and her dreams. Should he fight her, she tricks, cajoles, seduces, but she does not give him his desires. She remains aloof or withdraws from him in pride and disdain, leaving him no protection. In the end what remains for him is to make babbling appeals for her charity or to escape into madness or death. The “final fate” of the Harford men held out no possibility of spiritual salvation. The picture O’Neill sketched of their destinies was of a desperate fall to a frightening end in a world that offered only vicious struggle as a way of life.
To this story, the history of an America corrupted by greed provides a large-scale metaphor, but the psychological relationships do not explain what happened to the country. “Possessors, Self-dispossessed” on its metaphorical and historical level means that those to whom the nation was given made themselves aliens to the land in seeking to possess it. On its psychological level, however, it must refer to the lost human beings, who are doomed to live in darkness haunted by the nightmares of a Godless world.
* “There is a touch of the poet about him expressed in his high forehead and his wide dark eyes.” (81) In this connection O’Neill’s return to Irish dialect comedy in A Moon for the Misbegotten may be mentioned.
** Nicholas Gadsby, the lawyer, masks with a conventional mercantile exterior a dreamer who allows himself to remember that Napoleon was such a short, fat man as he. Only Simon’s brother Joel is without the mask, and he is viewed as a singularly lifeless creature.
*** (89) The lines echo with irony Ephraim’s words to Abbie: “Sometimes ye air the farm an’ sometimes the farm be yew,” and Orin Mannon’s association of the tropical islands with his mother’s presence.
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