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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. III, No. 2
September, 1979


(IN THIS ISSUE)

THE ICEMAN MELTETH: O'NEILL'S RETURN TO CULTURAL ORIGINS

A humorous passage in Long Day's Journey into Night raises the question of Shakespeare's national origin and religion. Edmund taunts his father: "What you want to believe, that's the only truth! Shakespeare was an Irish Catholic, for example." And the elder Tyrone responds defensively: "So he was. The proof is in his plays." If nothing else, the exchange ought to challenge the tiresome complaint that O'Neill lacked a sense of the comic. For all the foolishness in the tiff over Shakespeare, however, what rich implications might be suggested by substituting the name of O'Neill for that of the bard. Such a reading (albeit unfaithful) would render a valuable truth: that in his late plays, the period of his masterpieces, Eugene O'Neill had at last come to terms with his cultural identity. By this time he could depend confidently on two internalized powers—a theatrical sophistication by then a part of blood and bone, and a memory forged by the language and symbols of Catholicism.1 Always fiercely proud of his Irish heritage, he had now accepted the full implications of his Catholic background. "The proof is in his plays."

This acceptance, of course, signified no theological recanting. Indeed, the point has no parochial importance at all. Speaking of The Iceman Cometh, O'Neill stated flatly that the play marked "a denial of any other experience of faith in my plays."2 Still, we may wonder what moved him to relive the depths of his life experiences in his late creative burst. It is no doubt true that the dynamics of any masterpiece must always remain something of a mystery. Such works defy total analysis. But we can identify their logic (praxis, Aristotle called it, the motivation that impels the action). The logic of O'Neill's last works is profoundly Christian. Thus it was possible for him to remark on the eve of The Iceman's first production: "In all my plays sin is punished and redemption takes place."3 It would be difficult to imagine language more convincingly or traditionally Christian.

Sin and redemption—the very words recall the central mystery of Christianity. But if O'Neill's remark cannot be construed as having a theological explanation, what can it mean? Was it no more than a sentimental or ironic characterization of his work? That seems improbable, as we shall presently see. Nevertheless, it is important to observe something in the psychology of his utterance, a habit of language rooted in memory. By the time he wrote his final plays he had, I believe, settled the question of his identity. And, although it would be silly to speak of him then as a doctrinal or practicing Catholic, it seems perfectly reasonable to think of him as a man who knew himself to be an Irish Catholic. So it was that he could speak without self-consciousness of sin and redemption.

For many years frozen into Nietzschean coldness and Strindbergian hardness, in the end the iceman melted. In the wrenching effort to bring forth Long Day's Journey, the playwright had wept so profusely that, as his widow recalled, ridges were etched into his face each day as the work continued. Even so, he maintained thematic fidelity: the results were vintage O'Neill.

For his theme had never really changed. Announced as early as 1922 in The Hairy Ape, it would be rendered in variations in all of his later plays. One can state that theme very simply: modern man can no longer integrate with his universe; he has lost his "old harmony" with nature and can find no viable substitute for his old faith. The individual seeks to know, like Yank in The Hairy Ape, "Where do I fit in?" As he becomes more articulate and sophisticated, like Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh, modern man knows that he no longer does fit in. Thus defeated by his fate, he creates a life-lie, the dream that he counts on and upon which he builds the shaky structure of his existence. Such grim philosophy offers but little consolation.

An ambivalent modernist, O'Neill never wrote except with religious intent, as Virginia Floyd has said. He had always been inclined to mysticism and in a way that juxtaposed oddly with his philosophy. For, while he felt the urge to unite with the sublime, O'Neill questioned whether there is anything beyond this existence (a questioning about which he would always feel guilty). But he was also convinced that to believe we belong is our necessary pipedream, a supportive illusion without which we cannot live. Man's modern tragedy is, then, to seek a higher life but to know that it cannot be attained. This impossible condition, O'Neill held, gives modern drama its stature. It represents the closest imitation of the Greeks he could conceive: "Of course, this is very much of a dream, but where the theatre is concerned one must have a dream, and the Greek dream in tragedy is the noblest ever!"4

Despair and exaltation: have they not always fused paradoxically in tragedy? In the modern period, however, O'Neill stands as an anomaly-the classicist who said he accepted the melancholy assumptions of recent philosophy, particularly Nietzsche's. Again and again. we find his characters tortured, sick, poorly integrated with their time and world. Defeated and dodging self-knowledge, they seek escape in pipedreams. Yet they experience guilt caused by having embraced the illusions in the first place. Such self-deception requires deft rationalization. As one of them observes, "It's a great game, the pursuit of happiness."5 Turning a deaf ear to the ancient maxim, "Know thyself," each feels humiliated in his weakness and becomes, like Edmund Tyrone, "a little in love with death."

If many moderns see guilt as an unhealthy vestige of superstition, O'Neill cannot so summarily dismiss it. In his world quilt compels the individual to seek dignity in spite of a sense of his own insignificance. Psychologically O'Neill's characters cannot accept that insignificance, even if they claim to accept it "rationally." This is a matter of the highest importance because, stripped of his sense of worth, the person becomes merely pathetic. His guilt, then, contributes in large measure to his tragic humanity. Of course, there is nothing new in this view; it has always been that of the tragedian. Moreover, a sense of quilt, as judged in the Christian view of man, permits the individual to long for redemption. O'Neill's lack of faith in the dogma would not necessarily preclude his recognizing the human meaning of guilt.

But let us not sentimentalize. Of the Pauline virtues-faith, hope, and love—O'Neill seems to have been denied the peace which is the reward of the first two. As noted earlier, he looked upon The Iceman as "a denial of any other experience of faith." And, as Larry Slade says at the end of the play, "Be God, there's no hope" (258). But compassion, rooted in love (caritas), supports like a foundation the structures of the last plays-not the spineless pity that informs cheap melodrama, but rather a controlled and disciplined love for one's fellows and family born of tragic experience. O'Neill could speak with the "authority of failure" and thus could write the truth without assuming a moralizing or condescending stance. He could draw perfectly the underside of human existence because "there is always one dream left, one final dream, no matter how low you have fallen, down there at the bottom of the bottle. I know, because I saw it."6 No bogus compassion for the lost souls at Harry Hope's could have prompted his odd tribute to them: "The people in that saloon were the best friends I've ever known. Their weakness was not. an evil. It is a weakness found in all men."7

"A weakness found in all men." That would seem to suggest a universal condition-fate, we might call it. Here O'Neill is at one with the world's greatest dramatists. For his vision of man allows guilt, the sine qua non of the tragic condition. Its presence suggests potential dignity, a quality denied by narrow determinism. And I submit that it is this view of human nature which elevates O'Neill's naturalism above that of the rigorously "scientific" school which denies any element of will or guilt, except as conditioned response. Whence this fate derives is the preoccupation of all tragedians worthy of the name, for they see man in the tragic mystery of his weakness.

II

The Iceman Cometh is about the dream at the bottom of the bottle. The men and women who inhabit Harry Hope's, a sleazy bar with upstairs rooms, are all sustained by a shaky philosophy of "tomorrowism." Here each tolerates the pipedreams of the others in order that his own may not be jeopardized; thus is their ersatz faith in tomorrows kept alive.

The Iceman is typically seen as O'Neill's ultimate statement of despair. Yet for all his insistence on the theme of "hopeless hope," it is not the playwright's pessimism that gives the play its convincing depth. Nor is the impact to be accounted for by theatrical pyrotechnics in which O'Neill had sometimes indulged. No, The Iceman's success depends largely on its simplicity of language and action. Here we find dialogue unencumbered by stream-of-consciousness; we experience a naturalistic directness unconfused by masking, explicit techniques of expressionism, or heavy-handed Jungian symbolism. The simple and naked character, in elemental conflict, becomes once more the focus as had been the case in the dramatist's early sea plays. This effectiveness, I believe, derives not only from O'Neill's conscious strategy but from the deeper wellsprings of his creative intuition and memory.

If The Iceman's philosophy can be identified as a variety of existentialism, its psychology is Christian. By this I mean that O'Neill had trusted the responses and employed the symbolism rooted in the Catholic origins of his life. His inability to accept Catholic dogma and to retain a belief in the supernatural resulted in the same sort of intellectual deracination suffered by many modern artists (we might call it the Prufrock syndrome). But we are speaking at the moment of coming to terms with identity, a phenomenon more psychological than philosophical. And the early identity-creating nimbus of his life was the world of Irish Catholicism.

No matter if his parents seldom practiced their religion; they identified as Irish Catholics. Recall James Tyrone's moving apologia: "It's true I'm a bad Catholic in the observance, God forgive me. But I believe." Thus it happened that Eugene O'Neill grew up in a world where the Mass was held to be the central mystery of one's earthly life; where the mother was often identified with the Virgin; where there was always a residue of guilt owing to one's very nature as it participated in the fallen nature of man; and where verbal signs constituted a very medium of expression—a poetical, if not theological, way of pointing to man's estrangement from Love in the tragedy of time.

The agony of deracination might be compounded if one were born a poet or a mystic. For then his sense of isolation would become intensified, since beauty and peace alone could satisfy his nature. In a sense Edmund Tyrone speaks for many modern poets, Catholic and other, who have lost faith. They have only the sensors for faith but no inner capacity to believe. Like creatures whose appendages have become useless, they seem lost in the wake of evolution. we are reminded of the hapless Prufrock, who felt he "should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas." Again, Edmund Tyrone comes to mind:

It was a great mistake, my being born a man. I would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish. As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death!

Thus the modern poet, born of a Christian tradition but not a Christian time, feels that he no longer fits in. And it is precisely his philosophy which is most often at odds with his sentiments and sorrows. Santayana, describing his last Puritan, Oliver Alden, makes the point exactly: "(Oliver) ought to have been a saint. But here comes the deepest tragedy of his lot: that he lived in a spiritual vacuum."8 One was left with the equipment of the poet-ascetic yet with nothing worthy of his allegiance.

III

Larry Slade, ex-anarchist and house cynic, claims only to be waiting for death, "a fine long sleep." His pose of "old foolosopher"-in-residence is important in The Iceman Cometh; he wishes to play the role of detached observer. Yet Larry's very need to comment suggests his serious side and uneasy alliance with truth. His "seat in the grandstand of philosophical detachment" serves only to shield a real vulnerability. Once an agent in the turn-of-the-century Anarchist Movement, Larry now sneers at human nature: "When man's soul isn't a sow's ear, it will be time enough to dream of silk purses" (30).

Larry nevertheless shepherds his fellow lost souls. Indeed, O'Neill stresses his "expression of tired tolerance giving his face the quality of a pitying but weary old priest's" (5). Though he protests that he can no longer believe in the Movement or mankind, he is in truth a deeply compassionate man. Bound by the seal of secrecy, the "old priest" must hear every confession. And his unconvincing detachment and claim of freedom from pipedreams are to be severely tested. In the day-and-a-half covered in The Iceman, Larry is destined to collide with two men who will force him to see that he, too, lives a life-lie. As the most cynical, of course, he is the most open to hurt.

The youthful anarchist-on-the-run, Don Parritt, seeks a hiding place at Harry Hope's. This lad has betrayed his own mother, for whom the Movement is a way of life. Parritt knows that Slade had once been close to his mother and asks forgiveness of a man who had himself betrayed the cause. The stage is set for Larry's disillusionment.

Enter hardware salesman Theodore Hickman, an inveterate rounder and drunk, who appears every year to treat the "gang" to a party on Harry's birthday. The son of a backwoods preacher, Hickey has secularized his inherited gift for oratory and put it to the service of salesmanship. Now, recently reformed, he comes on a quasi-religious mission to deliver his gospel of death-to-illusions and thus bring the "Brothers and Sisters" his "line of salvation." Like any missionary spreading the "good news," Hickey must let them have their way for a time. But as he provides drinks, he hopes to force all to jettison their tomorrowism and seize the day. If made to live out their fragile dreams, he believes, they will inevitably fail but will no longer experience guilt. To this end he must take on Slade, their stoutest defender, who teaches that "the lie of the pipedream" alone gives life.

As Hickey turns the screw tighter on each of them, the brothers and sisters become testy; the earlier calm breaks up. All grow to hate him and hope that he will be destroyed by his own misguided zeal. Harry Hope's becomes a den of sullen losers, each prepared to tear the heart out of the other. His confidence weakened, Hickey is forced to re-examine his own achievement of peace, to test it by reconstructing the manner of its evolution.

Compulsively ("I've got to tell you!"), he rehearses with them how he delivered his wife Evelyn of her pipedream that he would reform. For years she had forgiven him his infidelity and binges. Unconsciously he had grown to hate her pity: "There's a limit to the guilt you can feel and the forgiveness and pity you can take!" (239) So, to free her of her need to forgive him, Hickey (the Iceman/Death) murdered his wife in her bed. He had grown to loathe her insufferable kindness, just as the derelicts' fondness has now grown into hatred of him. In a brief flash of insight, he recognizes his real motive in killing Evelyn. But almost immediately he denies this truth.

His subsequent treatment of Hickey marks a startling instance of O'Neill's reliance on his Christian memory. One day, at a rehearsal of the 1946 production of The Iceman, he spoke of his character in a language whose cultural nuances are everywhere betrayed. Was the salesman a good man, he was asked. "Revenge," he replied, "is the subconscious motive for the individual's behavior with the rest of society. Revulsion drives man to tell others of his sins.... In all my plays sin is punished and redemption takes place. Vice and virtue cannot live side by side."9

"Sin is punished": Hickey is taken off by the police at the end, presumably to face the electric chair. So had Abbie and Eben been taken away by the sheriff for the murder of their baby (Desire Under the Elms, 1924). Public knowledge of the sinner and his condemnation might have been O'Neill's meaning, but that is doubtful. In his late plays the "sinner's" torment is often inflicted by conscience and must be confessed. This is Hickey's punishment. He is guilty of the sin of pride which fosters his particular pipedream, a destructive messianic illusion whose vitality depends upon the weakness of others.

In O'Neill's universe the greatest sin is neither drunkenness nor adultery; it is rather the robbing another of his hopeless hope. Such an act constitutes a profound violation of the individual. To deny one his self-image is to strip him of his dignity and his interior life. Without his pipedream a person becomes merely pathetic. I think it can be argued that even Evelyn's forgiving Hickey was destructive because by this she continually robbed her husband of his feeling of self-worth. "Christ," he shouts, "can you imagine what a guilty skunk she made me feel! If she'd only admitted once she didn't believe any more in her pipedream that someday I'd behave.... Can you picture ... all the guilt she made me feel, and how I hated myself!" (238) For all her long-suffering abjectness, Evelyn's "saintliness" was subtly destructive: "I got so sometimes when she'd kiss me it was like she did it on purpose to humiliate me, as if she'd spit in my face!" (239) Her virtue more apparent than real, Evelyn's forgiveness served only to remind Hickey of his weakness, what O'Neill called "a weakness found in all men."

In historical Christianity redemption does not mean a denial of the sinner's weakness, but it does mean an acceptance of his total humanity through love. In a world where the Christian can no longer locate God, his impulses do not cease to be formed by his tradition. O'Neill's plays picture such a world. The microcosm of Harry Hope's bar is a retreat where men and women find something worthy of love in each other and where they are mutually supportive. But Hickey's relentless campaign to bring them salvation derives not from love, but from a self-hatred born of the guilt Evelyn had made him feel. So there are two kinds of guilt: that borne simply by being a man (which is very Christian), and that engendered by the knowledge that others pity us for being ourselves. Hickey's guilt carries disease to the corporate body. Since he would rob the gang of their feeble illusions, Hickey represents a threat that must be eliminated. He endangers everyone's painfully wrought self-image. He must go.

IV

The portrayal of Larry Slade, however, shows O'Neill's profoundest reliance upon a memory galvanized by Irish Catholicism. It is important to recall that Slade's Irish-Catholic background has been established in the opening character description. Over the years his faculty for belief has been paralyzed, and his sense of lost faith has defeated him. Like Edmund Tyrone, he knows that he can never escape the inevitable tragedy that life is. Yet what he is he is, the compassionate and weary priest. Therefore, in a moment of crisis he reverts to the bedrock of his cultural identity. This marks a brilliant insight on O'Neill's part, an insight into character that staggers us with its dramatic truth.

Having heard Parritt's confession (a confession stimulated by the incantatory power of Hickey's long self-analysis), Larry gives a kind of profane absolution: "Go! Get the hell out of life, God damn you, before I choke it out of you!" (248) The boy can now take his own life, shriven. Larry's pity, however (unlike Hickey's), has been impelled by his Christian nurture, not his philosophical pessimism.

When Larry is certain of Paritt's suicide, O'Neill inserts a significant stage direction before his speech: "(A long-forgotten faith returns to him for a moment and he mumbles) God rest his soul in peace" (258). Superb insight. In the moment of crisis a man reverts to his fundamental nature. Larry's genuine belief in what the line implies is not the point; what is important is that men still respond to trauma in terms of their basic selves-in this case an identity formed by culture and religion. Residual faith and hope sputter momentarily in Larry Slade's response, only to die again forever. But it is in the heart of his character that O'Neill has touched upon a deep truth: men still love to love.

Granting "absolution" to Parritt has drained Larry. This is his final "living" act; thereafter, he is dead. But in a wonderfully muted way, Larry has given what surfaces but rarely in human action—selfless love. Hereafter, he is to be without his pipedream; he becomes "the only real convert to death Hickey made here" (258). Parritt's suicide, nevertheless, is not left to stand as a base human deceit, unmourned. And in this, Larry's response provides a further insight into O'Neill's psychological rapprochement with his culture's ideal of caritas. Men still need a confessor to bless their tragic failures. Perhaps, then, men can still redeem one another. ("Redemption takes place.")

For Larry Slade himself there can be neither escape nor evasion: the truth does not set him free. Early in the play he has scorned the truth as irrelevant, as having "no bearing on anything," yet he must come at last to live in the knowledge of it. His despair is terrible, but even here his language betrays his identity: "Be God, there's no hope" (258). (Are we reminded of Con Melody's slipping into the brogue when all his pipedreams have been dissolved in A Touch of the Poet?)

It is hard to imagine a greater tragic hero in modern drama than Larry Slade. For in his way he gives his life for his friend (maybe, it is hinted, his own son). whatever his philosophy, his deepest identity is Christian. In the moment when his love is tested to the breaking point, one does not hold first to his flim-flaw line. The wisecracks stop, the layers of cynicism and feigned detachment melt, and the mask falls away as Larry hears Don Parritt's body strike the ground. "He half rises from his chair just as from outside the window comes the sound of something hurtling down, followed by a muffled, crunching thud. LARRY gasps and drops back on his chair, shuddering, hiding his face in his hands" (257). When a man is stripped of all his defenses, his utterance will come not from logic but from the heart: "God rest his soul in peace."

V

In the twenties O'Neill had experimented with a variety of dramatic techniques and symbolism (expressionism, Freudianism, etc.). Although he occasionally succeeded brilliantly, too often he seemed to be practicing a kind of literary legerdemain. His characters tended to be stilted, more or less stalking abstractions, while the Hickeys, Slades, and Tyrones waited in the wings of memory. Although he won the Nobel Prize in 1936, O'Neill would write his greatest plays when the world had apparently rejected him: nay, when the world had all but forgotten him.

What had happened to liberate the tragedian's full creative powers? what wellsprings had been tapped—sources ignored in otherwise inventive but unconvincing characterizations? I submit that O'Neill had retraced his steps and found the sources of his power in the familial and cultural grounding of his life. He had moved beyond ancient hostilities and toward acceptance of the tragic conditions that make the web in which all lives are caught. This condition could be experienced most immediately and poignantly in the family. If O'Neill and his older brother Jamie had often mocked their father's defense of Catholicism, he had come to see James, Sr., as a man whose heart had been broken by his betrayal of his own genius. If the sons viciously attacked their mother as a morphine addict, he made of her the modern heroine in Long Day's Journey into Night. And Jamie's life-nightmare of self-contempt and alcoholism he dissolved in the sweet poetic peace of A Moon for the Misbegotten.

The extent of O'Neill's presence in The Iceman Cometh is startling. His reminiscences of the men and women at Harry Hope's came directly out of his own experiences at "Jimmy the Priest's" on the New York waterfront. Like them, he too had failed, and he pitied each of them as the "victim of the ironies of life and of himself." For him they were not the debris of the cosmos but "the best friends I've ever known." It was as if the artist-creator, in the absence of some greater Love, had taken compassion on their sufferings and thereby invested them with a kind of nobility. For once he knew that he had created something worthy of his talent. As he wrote to Lawrence Langner in the oft-quoted letter of August 11, 1940:

Personally I love it! And I'm sure my affection is not wholly inspired by nostalgia for the dear days "on the bottom of the sea," either. I have a confident hunch that this play, as drama, is one of the best things I've ever done. In some ways, perhaps, the best. What I mean is, there are moments in it that suddenly strip the secret soul of man stark naked, not in cruelty or moral superiority, but with an understanding compassion which sees him as the victim of the ironies of life and of himself. Those moments are for me the depth of tragedy, with nothing more that can possibly be said.

The Iceman Cometh, in other words, is tragedy rendered with the authority of failure. But more than that, it is a work of art created from a fully convincing reliance on cultural wisdom and power available to O'Neill as a writer in the Irish-Catholic tradition.

Asked late in life if he had returned to the faith, he replied, "Unfortunately, no." Nor has our purpose here been to suggest that he became again a "Catholic in the observance." The point has rather been that, self-consciousness and resentment having melted away, O'Neill could finally trust himself in the total definition of his heritage. At last he could fit in.

--Edward L. Shaughnessy

1. Although several scholars have written on O'Neill's Irish Catholic background, none has, I think, treated the subject as I have here -as a manifestation of Christian identity. A number of papers were read at the 1976 MLA Convention in New York under the general theme "'Behind Life' Forces in Eugene O'Neill." The session was moderated by Professor Virginia Floyd, who has written: "My original intention in attempting to explore the 'behind life' forces that predominate in O'Neill and his work was to examine the playwright's Irish Catholicism and Puritanism, but the scope was broadened to include his mysticism and humanism. O'Neill was a religious playwright."

Chief contributions were papers by John Henry Raleigh ("Irish Catholicism in O'Neill's Later Plays") and by Frederick Wilkins ("'Stones Atop 0' Stones': The Pressure of Puritanism in O'Neill's New England Plays"). Of course, Professor Raleigh had published his seminal essay, "O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night and New England Irish-Catholicism," in the Partisan Review, Fall, 1959.

2. Croswell Bowen, "The Black Irishman," in O'Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, eds. Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin, and William J. Fisher (New York, 1966), p. 84.

3. Quoted by Bowen, p. 82.

4. A letter to Arthur Hobson Quinn, quoted in O'Neill and His Plays, p. 126.

5. Eugene O'Neill, The Iceman Cometh (New York, 1957), p. 14. (Further page references are given in parentheses following quoted passages.)

6. Quoted by Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (New York, 1974), p. 873.

7. Quoted by Bowen, p. 82.

8. The Letters of George Santayana, ed. Daniel Cory (New York, 1955), p. 302.

9. Quoted by Bowen, p. 82.

(IN THIS ISSUE)

 

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