Notes on O'Neill and A Touch of the Poet
Per K. Brask
“Reason has no business in the theatre (…), any more than it has in a church. They are both either below – or above it.” (Eugene O’Neill in letter to George Jean Nathan. May 7, 1923. Selected Letters, P. 175)
From the window, to the side of which he sat at his desk, writing his tiny script with pencils sharp as needles on lined paper, Eugene O’Neill had an exquisite view of the San Ramon Valley with its rolling hills, like frozen waves, cresting at Mt. Diablo. His study outfitted with wood paneling and beams and built-in shelves crammed with books suggested a ship’s cabin and was only accessible by first traversing his bedroom, with its black mirror and the Chinese opium bench turned into a bed, and then his dressing room, with his elegant suits and ties. When he was writing, three closed doors protected his solitude. Yet, if he shifted in his chair ever so slightly, he could keep company with Diablo. O’Neill sitting there, struggling against the increasing tremour in his hand to give life to letters on a page so they would reveal something of the world he knew so well, sitting in a home and on grounds designed with Feng Shui in mind to keep evil spirits at bay; this is an image hard to avoid when visiting what is now a National Historic Site in Danville, CA. Eugene O’Neill wrote his last plays, A Touch of the Poet, More Stately Mansions (incomplete), The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, “Hughie,” and A Moon for the Misbegotten, at Tao House while he lived there between 1937 and 1944.
In a conversation with the critic and editor Joseph Wood Krutch, Eugene O’Neill famously maintained that contrary to most modern plays whose interest lay with the relations between people, his interests were, “in the relations between man and God.” (Nine Plays, P.xvii) Plays generally do happen between the characters, of course, and so do O’Neill’s, but his statement gives us a hint towards a first principle in his artistic agenda, so to speak. In an letter to his friend, the critic George Jean Nathan, in 1928, he wrote something which may clarify what he meant. “… the roots of the sickness of today as I feel it – the death of the old God and the failure of Science and Materialism to give any satisfying new One for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears with. It seems to me anyone trying to do big work nowadays must have this big subject behind all the little subjects of his plays or novels, or he is simply scribbling around the surface of things and has no more real status than a parlor entertainer.” (Selected Letters, P. 195)
O’Neill was indeed “trying to do big work” and he was striving to understand the basis for meaning in the face of “the death of the old God,” perhaps in an attempt to find a new one, but certainly, I think, in order to reveal the gods that replaced the old one in people’s lives. In this way his project was similar to at least an aspect of Nietzsche’s, whose Thus Spoke Zarathustra had influenced him more than any other work. (Selected Letters, P. 245)
It is his interest in this kind of “big work,” that draws me personally to O’Neill’s plays. Because it is mesmerizing to watch such artistic ambition at work and because the insight he brings to bear on the actions of his characters, his penetrating view of behavior and its bases, provides an always provocative encounter with one’s own thinking.
In a conversation, my friend Alan Williams, the playwright and actor, maintained, rightly I’m persuaded, that it was Augustine who invented our inwardness and not Shakespeare as suggested by Harold Bloom. Williams called Augustine the writer everyone in the western tradition has read, most without knowing it. Cultural pressure towards a Neo-Platonist oneness, with its consequent hierarchy of the real, has prevailed in the western tradition since the impact of Augustine’s writings: “I beheld other things below you, and I saw that they are not altogether existent nor altogether non-existent: they are because they are from you; they are not since they are not what you are. For that truly exists which endures unchangeably.” (The Confessions of Saint Augustine, P. 171)
O’Neill’s personal experience was rooted in mercurial multiplicity (as, no doubt, has been the experience of a good many people) and, though he may have struggled as much as Augustine himself to attain alignment with the One, he lent his sense of the multiple, the shifting, to many of his characters who seem to be in such flux that they crave death or booze or sustain themselves with pipe dreams to end or become numb to this state. In other words, over against the pervasive cultural ideal of oneness, of aligning with the supreme form and its necessary stasis, O’Neill is a playwright of the dividium rather than the individium, as per Rudiger Safranski’s comment on Nietzsche who realized that the basic human condition “was actually a person’s relationship to himself. Man – the dividium – can and must relate to himself. He is not a harmonious being, but a discordant one, (…).” (Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, P. 184). During a good deal of his career O’Neill experimented with ways of representing this basic human condition in his plays by using masks, writing different roles for aspects of one character, and spoken subtext in which characters state their “real” intentions and feelings, etc.
In A Touch of the Poet O’Neill introduces us to a group of characters many of whom have very strong ideas about themselves and the world, ideas which are greatly challenged. In this play all the main characters attempt to live “up to” some ideal, some notion of themselves or of how they’d like to be seen to get what they want. But O’Neill shows that personality, character in the psychological sense, is an aspect of one’s interactions with others, and, so, any amount of holding on to a definition of oneself will lead to a masquerade.
Set in the dining room of a rundown tavern in a village a few miles from Boston on July 27, 1828, A Touch of the Poet portrays the final demise of Cornelius (Con) Melody, a former decorated major in Wellington’s dragoons, decorated because of his valour against Napoleon’s forces at the battle of Talavera precisely nineteen years ago on this day. A few years after having been hailed as a hero, Con had to resign his commission due to an affair he had with the wife of a Spanish nobleman. Born in Ireland to an ambitious tavern owner who became wealthy and saw to it that his son grew up in a manor house and was educated as a gentleman, Con left the old country feeling disgraced for having to marry his peasant wife, Nora, with whom he has a daughter, Sara, now twenty. Con is still dedicated to an image of himself as a gentleman, though he is now the owner of a poor tavern, is a drunkard and is deeply in debt. Specifically Con cultivates an image of himself as a Byronic hero. He is aloof and disdainful, and given to quoting Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, “I have not loved the World, nor the World me;” (Canto III, Stanza 113) while preening himself in front of the mirror.
(What does he see in that mirror? After all, he knows he’s putting on a mask, so to speak, because he’s checking out how it fits. As masks both conceal and reveal, one verb annulling the other, he really sees no one. Or perhaps he sees O’Neill, that is, O’Neill recognizing and playing with his own masking process. What does the audience/reader see as Con checks his mask? We must recognize ourselves in that dynamic, or stop watching/reading).
Con keeps a thoroughbred mare, which is a huge drain on the household finances, but it helps him maintain, at least for himself, the fiction of his station and every year he celebrates his day of glory at Talavera. The countrymen who hang around the tavern for the free drinks Con liberally offers – mainly for the companionship he in turn needs for his own drinking – see him as a fool. He sees them in the same way and despises their support for Andrew Jackson in the upcoming presidential elections against whom he supports Quincy Adams, joining ranks with the very Yankees who don’t accept him. His alcoholic personality moves rapidly between the poles of pride and regret in various stages of cruelty.
Con’s worn down wife, Nora, adores him, has since she laid eyes on him and will until the day she dies. She takes a deep pride in her love for him and this in spite of Con’s cruel treatment of her, blaming her for the misfortunes that befell him when he had to marry her.
Sara’s pride lies in what she wants to become. She does not want to become a sham like her father nor love so much as her mother only to subjugate herself. She wants to move up in the world and her means to do so lies ill in an upstairs chamber, Simon Harford, who is never seen on stage. He is the son the richest Yankee family in the area. Anticipating Henry David Thoreau by seventeen years, he has been living in a shack by the lake on Con’s land, trying to get around to writing an essay of human emancipation by means of the simple life, untouched by greed. His mother, Deborah, whom we do meet, cautions Sara that though this life of simplicity of Simon’s is only a phase, he does come from a line dedicated to “pure freedom” (CP III, P. 224) as manifested by the family hero Napoleon; i.e. it is a pursuit of pure freedom for themselves. Indeed, Simon’s father and Deborah had their honeymoon in Paris in order to witness the coronation of Napoleon as emperor in 1804. Deborah herself has now mainly withdrawn to her garden, where she at times dreams of being Josephine. In the next play in the cycle, More Stately Mansions, we learn that Simon’s ideals change over time, as he becomes a Napoleon of business. In their meeting Sara says to Deborah that she admires Napoleon and holds it against her father that he fought with Wellington against him. (CP III, P. 225). Feeling threatened by Deborah’s hold over her son, Sara secures Simon by sleeping with him, much in the same way her mother secured her father – after which she says she now knows her mother’s kind of love of love, that she now belongs to love (CP III, P. 263).
Having taken offense at Mr. Harford’s offer of money (in return for terminating any possible union between Sara and Simon, and removing himself and his family to Ohio), Con, dressed in his ceremonial uniform and drunk, leads his comrade-in-arms, Cregan, also drunk, if less so, to the Harford estate ready to challenge Simon’s father to a duel. Roundly trounced in a fight with the police, Con returns a broken man. Reminiscent of the killing of the duck in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, Con slaughters his mare, the icon of his position as a gentleman and the only living being in the play with no choice but to be itself. He also begins to speak in brogue, returning, at least in language, to his simple origins. Having first detached himself from the common folk, the chorus, as it were, and developed his own dissonant individuality which foundered, Con is now reabsorbed into “the rank breath” of the World in a manner resembling the pattern of tragedy outlined in Nietzshe’s The Birth of Tragedy (see Nietzsche, Pp. 61-62).
Two major personality ideals are confronting each other in this play, the Byronic will to stand out, to make oneself better than the crowd, and the Napoleonic will to power, and as they engage each other they are seen to be two sides of the same coin (albeit that for the time being the will to power wins the contest) and they both cause devastation to others.
Nora, however, occupies a ground from where she seems to be able to take anything and everything and still be able to adjust to any new demand because of her commitment to love, her sense of love itself. Yet, this also enslaves her. What is O’Neill really up to with her? Could she be the real “hero” of the piece in that she points to some very different notion of self? Perhaps she’s a kind of Job-character who remains steadfast no matter what because she understands and accepts change?
If this were the case, O’Neill would have pulled off an interesting feat of dramatic as well as intellectual irony, since in all this struggle to stand out and be independent that surrounds her, she is actually the most independent because her real interest, love, lies beyond the immediate. This doesn’t mean, of course, that she’s to be imitated, that she’s a role model, for then she’d hardly be an O’Neill character. But it does mean that she points to a horizon more wholesome than do Con, Sara or the Harfords. In other words, there are aspects to her character above her meek acceptance of her slavish status and her consequent codependency role with Con.
Could it be that she suggests, at least partly, an Emersonian view of life? In this view:
Certainly Nora can be said to trust herself (Essential Writings, P. 132) and despite her worries, she is no coward. Indeed she seems very much ruled by a law of her own.
Apart from her attachment to the church she left and the sin in which she feels she has lived with Con and Sara, Nora may be said to have come closer to an Emersonian ideal of self than either Con or Sara who very deliberately aspire to become the arbiters of their own lives, but both of whom are actually more deeply concerned about how they are perceived by others, more deeply perhaps than they are about how they perceive themselves. This latter is most obvious with Con and his wounded pride but it is evident also in Sara when she can see even her newfound love as a tool of revenge against the Harfords and not a value in and for itself; a dichotomy she suddenly becomes aware of herself. (See C P III, 269).
Where Nora falls down in relation to this Emersonian self-reliance is that there is no edge to her.
Nora’s love is too merciful, lacking a sense of justice. However, what she feels she must do is what concerns herself, “not what the people think.” (Essential Writings, P. 136).
In the end one must put the question to Emersonian self-reliance that Louis Menand poses: “What is the “I” that is being urged to rely on this “self”? Emerson’s thought plays continually with the limits of thought, and his greatest essays are efforts to get at the way life is held up, in the end, by nothing.” (The Metaphysical Club, P. 18). I will not suggest that Nora plays with the limits of thought, but being unable to confront the nothing that subtends her love of love, however consciously or unconsciously, could be a powerful motivation for her religious certainty of sin.
When Con has spoken in brogue for awhile and declared his old self dead, Sara who could not stand the old Con either, eventually begs him, “Please! Oh Father, I can’t bear – Won’t you be yourself again.” (CP III, P. 277). Sara knows full well that the new Con is a mask, as the old Con was, but of the two she preferred his old pride and hauteur. But a mask covering what? This we are not told in the play, but it is clear that Con, in addition to alcohol, requires an illusion, a pipe dream, be it self-aggrandizing or self-demeaning, in order to endure life. So do the other main characters: Sara’s sense of being worth more than she has, Nora’s martyrdom to love or Deborah’s carrying forward the history of the Harfords. According to Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O’Neill learned from experience that “man must have his illusions to survive” when he was recovering from tuberculosis in 1913 (O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo, P. 336) This deeply Nietzschean theme of the necessity of self-mythology pervades the play. Says Safranski on the psychology of this myth-making tendency,
Con is split against himself, fighting with himself, but like most he couldn’t give an account of who he is and so he doesn’t know what he fights when he fights against himself, nor what he fights for when he fights others – apart from a vague notion of honour and the status that ought to be accorded him. There is no one there (and I don’t mean that just because his a fictional character) but the habits, conventions and desires with which he’s identified himself. So who made the identifications? His “I” did and now we are back at Nietzsche’s insight that the “I” is a grammatical figure and therefore thinking precedes identity. “Nietzsche was well versed in the medley of voices within us, which offer people a choice as to which of the voices they will grant the power of determination.” (Nietzsche, P.184)
Does O’Neill posit a redemptive power behind this interaction among myth-makers striving to make their lives and the world meaningful? I don’t think he poses any unitary force that would redeem the characters if they would only hook into it. He doesn’t seem to pity any of them for the errors of their ways, but neither is his description indifferent. The writer of this play empathizes, there is something at stake here and it seems to be the condition in which we make meaning of our lives that is at stake – whether we are successful at it or not, as Con and Deborah are not, as Sara is not yet and as Nora may be. Perhaps John Henry Raleigh put it best when he characterized the universe that subtends and is implied in a play by Eugene O’Neill? “(U)nderlying everything he wrote,” says Raleigh, “from first to last: the principle of polarity; the universe as an endless series of polarities, oppositions, antitheses, antinomies; the world as a kind of perpetual dialectic without synthesis, or the world as a perpetual alteration between opposites, which are both separate and inseparable.” (The Plays of Eugene O’Neill, P. 3).
When I visited Tao House, the Park Ranger who guided our group, Ms Margaret Stiles, read from A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Edmund’s speech to his father about the sea as an illustration of O’Neill’s love of it. In that speech, Edmund recounts moments at sea when he lost himself to a sense of belonging to life itself. Towards the end of the sequence he says with a wry grin that, “It was a great mistake, my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish.” (CP III, P. 812)
As I listened to Ms Stiles, I gazed out at Mt. Diablo and thought of the shortcuts people take to get or to repeat this experience of belonging-in-the-world many of us long for as a sudden healing of some, perhaps imaginary, primordial breach. Often the shortcut is ironically the same means we use to numb ourselves: drugs or drink, two providers of experiences that are deceptively close to the oceanic feeling that Edmund expresses, two providers that always let you down, two providers Eugene O’Neill knew only too well in his lifetime. While at Tao House O’Neill apparently did not drink. Perhaps the environment, the concentration writing his last difficult plays required and life with his wife Carlotta Monterey, who guarded him fiercely, and their Dalmatian Blemie provided enough opportunities for the respite of the oceanic feeling by means of honest connection?
Freud saw the oceanic feeling as a vestige of infantile narcissism. However, as David Copland Morris has argued in an article about the psychology of Robinson Jeffers’s inhumanist perspective, this sense of belonging in and to the world doesn’t only, and maybe not at all, contain regressive dreams of returning to the womb, it may well be the spur of a mature ecological understanding of the human in wider a context, as an interactive part of an ecology and not its ruler, its reason for being nor the top of its hierarchy. In this view of the oceanic feeling, the rolling hills seen from O’Neill’s study at Tao House reflect well the emotional roiling that must be navigated to find The Way.
The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson edited by Brooks Atkinson. NY: The Modern Library, 2000.
The Confessions of Saint Augustine (translated by John K. Ryan). NY: Doubleday, 1960.
Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.
Complete Plays 1932-1943 (Vol. III) by Eugene O’Neill, edited by Travis Bogard. NY: The Library of America, 1988.
O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo by Arthur and Barbara Gelb. NY and London: Applause Books, 2001.
Lord Byron: The Major Works edited by Jerome J. McGann. Oxford University Press, 1986.
The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001
“Courtesy in the Universe: Jeffers, Santayana and “The Adult Habit of Thought”” by David Copland Morris in Jeffers Studies, Vol. 1, No. 3
Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill. NY: Liveright Inc., 1932
The Plays of Eugene O’Neill by John Henry Raleigh. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965; cited from edition published by Arcturus Books, 1972.
Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography by Rudiger Safranski (translated by Shelley Frisch). NY and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.
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