Exorcism was O’Neill’s second attempt in these years to deal with his past directly. The first he had written in the fall and winter of 1918-19, in the period of lull before Beyond the Horizon was produced. The play, whose title shifted from Eileen Carmody to The Hope in this Twain to Mirages became known finally as The Straw, an image intended to suggest the difference between life and death that even the most nebulous hope can make. The narrative, however, recounts in some detail O’Neill’s experiences at the sanatorium, especially his abortive romance with a fellow patient, Kitty MacKay, who appears as the heroine, Eileen.
To shift from presenting persons he had known to depicting himself onstage was not, of course, a large step so long as the character of the autobiographical figure was not subjected to a detailed analysis. In The Straw, O’Neill treats himself much as he treated the friends of his sailor days, with a certain objectivity that sought no genuine revelation. The name he gave to his fictional self was Stephen Murray* of whom some years later he said, “I confess I believe there is a great deal of the ‘me’ of that period in ‘Murray’—unintentionally.”14
To claim that Stephen Murray was an unintentional self-portrait is absurd. To be sure, in the published text, Murray’s face departs at some particulars from the face of the earlier self-portrait. O’Neill mentions Stephen’s high cheekbones, intelligent, large hazel eyes, and large mouth, but he stresses Stephen’s habit of protecting himself with a “concealment mechanism of mocking, careless humor whenever his inner privacy is threatened,” and he refers to this habit as “a process of protection.” (348) In the manuscript version, the face is less protected, much closer to the faces of John Brown and the Poet. O’Neill describes the face as “long and thin. His high forehead, broad and rugged; his large thick-lipped mouth perversely self-indulgent, weak, and ironical. . . . ”15 Nothing is said here of a “process of protection,” a description in the revision that might be taken to mean that O’Neill was creating a mask for his own, too recognizable face.
Of related interest are some of the manuscript’s canceled passages in which Murray describes his own life. His mother has been long dead. She was a woman with musical talent who had married a real estate agent. Stephen is the youngest of four children, and claims his mother did not want him at his birth. From high school, as his career is traced, he went to Yale where his drinking and his wild escapades caused him to be expelled at the end of his freshman year. He fell ill of what he calls “summer pneumonia” and during a long convalescence began to read poets, novelists, philosophers, the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Nietzsche and Tom Paine. His reading turned him into a radical, and for a time he had thought himself a born rebel. Recovering from his illness, he took a job as a reporter to escape having to work for his father. Late hours and dissipation caused him to contract tuberculosis and sent him finally to the sanatorium.
The reasons O’Neill altered the draft version are complex. Some, of course, was simply cutting for length, but beyond this, the quasiparodistic presentation of his parents as a real estate salesman and wife was unworthy. Not that O’Neill was a model of filial piety. Nevertheless, there were limits of taste that made the near burlesque needlessly personal. Furthermore, the matter was irrelevant and distracting. The play is not about Stephen Murray. It centers on its tubercular heroine, Eileen Carmody. Throughout the play, she is an innocent victim of her father and family, of her fiancé, and of Stephen himself. To create sympathy for her, O’Neill opens his play with a scathing picture of her father. Bill Carmody is a dour, miserly Irish peasant, brutally selfish and too fond of liquor. After he is convinced that his daughter has contracted more than a cold and must be sent immediately to “Hill Farm Sanatorium,” he complains at spending the weekly charge of seven dollars needed to save her life. The father of Eileen’s prototype, Kitty MacKay, was as he is portrayed in the play, parsimonious and resentful of his daughter’s illness. The character is therefore to be accounted an actual portrait. Nevertheless, the relationship between father and daughter incorporates some of the disgust with the miserly father that O’Neill later was to express as his own at the climactic moments of the first Tyrone play. Undeniably, some of O’Neill’s experiences at the time he entered the sanatorium form part of the image. Carmody must be viewed not only as a picture of a man O’Neill had seen, but also as a cartoon of James Tyrone.
The possible parallel between MacKay and James O’Neill suggest a second reason why O’Neill may have suppressed the directly autobiographical details of Stephen’s portrait. By 1918, he and his father were growing closer. James had purchased the abandoned Coast Guard station at Peaked Hill Bars on the Cape as a wedding present for his son. It was a loving gift that O’Neill received gratefully. He responded, too, to his father’s genuine interest and pride in his developing career as a dramatist. At the end of James’s life, understanding was developing to something like love, and O’Neill’s memory of his adolescent indignation stopped short of potential libel of his father by drawing a close parallel between James and Bill Carmody or by the inclusion of trivial and needless detail about Stephen’s background.
A final reason for blurring the image of himself as Stephen may have been his somewhat ambiguous relationship to Kitty MacKay. In the details of her life and in her physical appearance, Eileen Carmody is nearly identical with her actual counterpart. Photographs show Kitty to have had the mass of wavy dark hair, parted in the middle and combed over her ears that O’Neill describes, and in both Kitty and Eileen “the oval of her face is spoiled by a long, rather heavy, Irish jaw.” (344)** Kitty was the oldest of ten children and assumed care of the family after the death of her mother. O’Neill cuts the family to four younger children, but, as Kitty did in life, Eileen worries continually about their welfare.16 There is no doubt that O’Neill and Kitty broke one of the rules of the sanatorium by involving themselves in a flirtation. As the play suggests the balance of devotion was on the girl’s side, rather than on O’Neill’s and he, after he received his discharge, never saw her again. She died of her disease in 1915.
The play’s account of the love affair is true in its general outlines. Kitty developed a strong interest in the iconoclastic young writer. Insofar as the regimen of the sanatorium permitted, the two had a chaste “affair,” confined for the most part to literary matters, she encouraging him to write and reading dutifully the books he recommended. No doubt the love Kitty felt for O’Neill was out of proportion to its provocation. O’Neill responded to her warmth and interest, and when it was no longer needed, he let her go. He had made her no commitment, owed her nothing. Yet the play suggests that he felt a guilt about his ultimate neglect of her that conceivably led him to hide his own features under a mask—Stephen’s “concealment mechanism.”
Stephen Murray is drawn in unexpectedly negative terms. He is a shallow, mildly talented and cynical man. Although he has done some writing on a small town newspaper, in the sanatorium, he spends his time dreaming before the fire. He is bored and lazy, and although he admits that he has ideas for stories, he complains of never having had time to write them down. Eileen sensibly points out that now he has nothing but time, an idea that strikes Stephen as magnificent inspiration. He eagerly follows the suggestion, determined to write and sell stories of small-town life to the Saturday Evening Post. He adds, “But you must promise to help—play critic for me—read them and tell me where they’re rotten.” (361) His ambitions are greatly enlarged when his first story is sold. Then: “—wait till I turn loose with the real big ones, the kind I’m going to write. Then I’ll make them sit up and take notice. They can’t stop me now.” (368)***
When his case is diagnosed as being arrested, Stephen leaves Eileen behind. His letters dwindle away and she pines and dies, much as Kitty MacKay died. O’Neill’s image of himself at the time, although blurred, is far from complimentary. In the perspective that time permitted him, it reads more like a self-judgment, verging on condemnation.
A sense of guilt possibly led him to devise an ending that deviated far from the forlorn facts. In the last act, Eileen lies dying. As all terminal cases are, she is to be sent to another hospital so that healthier patients will not be reminded of the dying. Stephen returns for a checkup and is asked by a benevolent nurse to pretend that he loves Kitty so that her last weeks may not be passed in despair. He agrees, but as he lies to her, he discovers that what he speaks is truth, that he genuinely loves her. Passionately, he makes plans to marry her and take her to the West where she may yet recover. Love, he tells her, will work a miracle, and even the hope of a miracle will hold her to life. In a final scene with the nurse, he cries out exultantly: “You’ll see! I’ll make Eileen get well, I tell you! Happiness will cure! Love is stronger than—” He breaks off, despairing in the face of the certain fact of Eileen’s approaching death. To the nurse he says, “0 why did you give me a hopeless hope?”
The nurse, consolingly replies with what passes for a revelation: “Isn’t all life just that—when you think of it? . . . But there must be something back of it—some promise of fulfillment—somehow— somewhere—in the spirit of hope itself.” (415) The play ends with ambiguous optimism.
Caught as he was in a semi-autobiographical narrative, the conclusion was perhaps the best that circumstances permitted. For Eileen to have made a miraculous recovery would have suited the films or the theatre of Jane Cowl, but it would have betrayed whatever loyalties O’Neill felt toward Kitty MacKay and been no more than a wishful expiation of his own feeling of neglect. To have permitted her to die in Stephen’s arms in Camille-like spasms would have proven harrowing and, in all probability, meaningless. The ending moving midway between exultation and despair and striking a note of embittered romanticism that he was to sound again, notably in Welded and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, was not a compromise. In the phrase “hopeless hope,” O’Neill came to the central theme of all the plays he had worked on since Beyond the Horizon, and one which would provide a substantial element of O’Neill’s truth.
It means—or it comes to mean—something more than the maniacal fixation on an anticipated event that he toyed with in The Rope and Where the Cross Is Made. Here, it begins to suggest that men must accept any kind of delusion, force themselves to believe any falsehood if they are to survive the frightening courses of their lives. Significantly, there is no suggestion that Eileen will live. Both know better, but even without the possibility of fulfillment she and Stephen must hope, for hopelessness cannot be borne. Elsewhere in the play, such hope is called a “pipe dream that keeps us all going,” and the words imply that the object of desire does not matter, so long as desire exists. The concept, in the phrase wrung from Stephen at the play’s climax, crystallizes one of O’Neill’s most important themes, even though it loses its full meaning in the romantic ambiguities which resulted from O’Neill’s attempt to pay a debt to the ghost of Kitty MacKay.
Considering O’Neill’s practical theatrical experience up to 1918, The Straw is a work of considerable merit. The play is ambitious, calling for a cast of approximately sixty persons, and was clearly one that the Provincetown Players could not mount. O’Neill’s faith in it was great, but it had less than enthusiastic response from commercial managers. It was rejected by both J. D. Williams and the Theatre Guild, newly formed from the Washington Square Players. In September, 1919, he submitted it to George Tyler, who had agreed to produce Chris Christopherson, saying that the work was “far and away the best and truest thing I have done.”17 Tyler’s production of it, in November, 1921, proved otherwise. The rehearsals were troubled, and at the last moment the opening was delayed while a substitute for an unsatisfactory actor playing Stephen was rehearsed. An opening in New London was not successful, and the New York run—off-Broadway in the Greenwich Village Theatre because of the “grim” subject matter—lasted twenty performances. The work was reasonably well received by its critics, but in comparison to the excitement that audiences had by then learned to expect from O’Neill on the basis of Beyond the Horizon, The Emperor Jones, and “Anna Christie,” The Straw by 1921 seemed a minor work.
“Murray” was the name of a nurse who was kind to him and who gave
him a copy of Francis Thompson’s Tile
Hound of Heaven, which he had not read before. Louis Sheaffer
suggests that the name “Stephen” was borrowed from that of Stephen
Dedalus, and points to a possible influence on the play of Joyce’s A
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners.
** The same features are to be seen in Sara Melody in A Touch of the Poet and Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten.
*** The words probably reflect O’Neill’s own impatience to progress to works of greater scope than the Provincetown permitted.
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com