Menu Bar

 

Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. IX, No. 1
Spring, 1985


(IN THIS ISSUE)

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY TOWARDS SEPARATION: THE MARY-EDMUND STRUGGLE

There is something terribly seductive about the idea that all an artist needs is emotional honesty and the good fortune to possess a thoroughly miserable personal family history in order to create an enduring masterpiece. Unfortunately, it is an idea that has produced instead many an embarrassingly bathetic and thoroughly tiresome domestic melodrama. That Long Day's Journey Into Night is not one of these, but a work of truly enduring dramatic resonance, is a tribute to Eugene O'Neill's supreme skill in translating and altering the raw material of his life into thoroughly theatrical terms. The subtle perfection of dramatic artifice rather than the abandonment of it gives Journey its transcendent power.

No small part of the play's intensity derives from O'Neill's setting it convincingly within a narrow sixteen-hour time frame despite the unlikelihood that such a precipitous family fall could actually occur within this period. But the movement of Journey is not determined by everyday reality, but, rather, by the demands of a single relentless dramatic action--Edmund's struggle to separate from his mother. This is the very spine of the play. Lending urgency to this struggle is the fact of Edmund's consumption. Creating the essential dramatic conflict of the play is Mary's equally determined effort to keep Edmund tied to her. The resulting relationship between these two produces a psychological battle-ground on which the entire family is attacked and ultimately destroyed.

Aside from the telescoping of time through re-shaping a complex mother-son relationship into a more basic theatrical conflict, O'Neill's artistic hand is evident in the fictional reshaping of his characters and the family history.

The playwright himself has given us an unusual warning against equating Edmund with himself. He has reversed names so that Eugene becomes the dead child whose memory haunts the Tyrones and Edmund the living playwright-to-be. Considering that the play was always intended for posthumous production, is it not likely that author is telling an audience far separated in time from the events of his family life not to see the dead writer as a living character on stage, but to view Edmund as an independent fictional creation? I think he is.

While the similarities between the young O'Neill and Edmund are obvious, the differences may be more telling. Young Eugene found himself back in the family fold not simply because he was suffering from consumption, but because he had already made a brief and messy foray into marriage, producing a namesake offspring. He enlisted his father's help in securing a quiet annulment and left the child with his ex-wife. The omission of this information can be regarded as the author's attempt to make himself look better. But O'Neill's portrait of the alcoholic Edmund is hardly flattering or idealized even with this history excised. A more likely reason for presenting us with an unmarried and childless Edmund is to intensify further the impression of his failure to separate from the Tyrone family. In Journey what efforts he has made to leave have actually bound him to them more closely. Unable to earn an independent living, his adventures having produced in him a deadly physical disease and a greater loneliness, he is in a developmental limbo with no vision of his future or even the certainty that he has one.

Edmund is far more than a dependent son, however. He is supposedly a portrait of the artist Eugene O'Neill. And this he most assuredly is--but not the artist as he was in 1912, when the events of this play transpire. Young Eugene did determine upon a career as a playwright at that time. However, in 1912 almost all his writing was in verse, the greater part of which was in the form of political parody, highly socialist in sympathy. Young Edmund is virtually without politics. He appears to have given up on his own poetry and recites from memory only the poetry of others. By the end of the play he has set an artistic course towards achieving "faithful realism." His artistic vision resembles nothing so much as the fully mature artist who is writing this play in 1940. Put another way, Edmund evolves towards an insight into his artistic self which took the actual Eugene some 28 years to discover.

Unlike his father and brother, Edmund has been relatively sheltered from the experience of the "fiend" in Mary. Kept physically away from home during her worst periods, his knowledge, with one striking exception (more of which later), is second-hand. His primary source of opinion on family matters has been Mary herself, whose accusations against Tyrone he mimics. His is a romantic vision of his mother which he clings to long after the audience is on to Mary's deception.

The dramatic movement of the play is not built upon whether or not Mary will descend into total addiction, but on when Edmund will accept the inevitability of that descent.
It is a terrible thing for a child to discover that the parent whom he most resembles both physically and temperamentally, even to "the quality of extreme nervous sensibility," is not a goddess. It is no less terrible for a young artist to become aware that the muse to his work is not the center of a positively beautiful and harmonious universe, but the harbinger of a faithless, tortured life to come. Mary is not simply Ella O'Neill. She is the muse to Edmund the artist.

If the situation in Journey were more normal, Edmund's artistic strivings should follow the path of his father, by profession an artist. To some degree the elder son has done just that, with disastrous personal results. Edmund, on the other hand, though he "looks like both his parents," has moved physically and professionally away from the family business, the theatrical tour of "that God-damned play." By siding with his mother, he has already separated himself fairly successfully from his father. The long fourth-act scene between them suggests a relationship in which some real respect and compassion is now possible. But O'Neill's portrait of the elder Tyrone remains a deliberately one-sided sketch of the real James O'Neill's failure as father and artist.

Significantly, O'Neill attributes his father's obsessive frugality and his bartering away of his charismatic talent to a psychological guilt. Tyrone's very survival through childhood he attributes to "a fine, brave, sweet woman," his own mother, from whom "he learned a lesson, it's hard to unlearn." He has patterned the behavior of his prosperous adulthood after the desperate scrounging needed to survive an impoverished childhood. Had he separated himself from his mother's "lesson," he might have released the artist and the loving father within. This point of view is essential to the artistic design of the play, but, as with other facts, it is a highly edited version of the raw reality.

A young O'Neill might well have given more weight to the external economic facts of life facing James. No professional actor of his time, a time pre-dating both Hollywood and large-scale Broadway production, could hope to earn an even moderately successful living without touring the country. Transportation was, of course, much more problematical, leaving little choice for theatrical families but to travel together or endure long separations. That James O'Neill looked for alternatives is borne out by a fact omitted from the play--that the elder O'Neill spent the greater part of the summer of 1912 working on an ultimately unsuccessful film of his Monte Cristo play. His obsession with frugality is rendered unmercifully in the comic screwing and unscrewing of light bulbs during Act IV. Actually, the cost of electricity was proportionately more expensive than it is today. Tyrone's attempt to save on the light bulbs is depicted almost entirely as a product of his fearful and stingy character. But the very fact that the real-life O'Neill had electric lighting at all indicates that he was willing to make some substantial use of his money to secure a then modern and by no means typical creature comfort for his home and family. All along the way--from sending Eugene to good schools to bailing him out of his marital difficulties--the senior O'Neill seems to have gone a long way towards being a supportive father.

James Tyrone is a man totally tied to the parochial values of his impoverished Irish immigrant background, incapable, no matter how hard he tries, of giving the free nurture of a warm and loving father. His very attempts become comical, as when he tells Edmund to choose a sanatorium of his liking at any cost, and then adds, unable to stop himself, "Any place you like--within reason." When, at the end of their long talk together, he declares,

I'd be willing to have no home but the poorhouse in my old age if I could look back now on having been the fine artist I might have been[,]

Edmund breaks into "a burst of strained, ironical laughter."

TYRONE. What the devil are you laughing at?

EDMUND. Not at you, Papa. At life. It's so damned crazy.

We know that, whatever the scope of the real James O'Neill's talent, James Tyrone lacks both the temerity and vision of a truly great artist. In the end, he has probably made the best of a good but small talent and a large capacity for charm. Edmund is laughing with loving forgiveness at his father's pipe dream.

But Tyrone also embodies Edmund's dilemma. Edmund is an artist with a small talent, the makings of a poet without the ability to put the words together with the skill of a poet, a writer who cannot write. If he is his father's son in this respect, how can he possibly break away from his father's failure as an artist? Ironically, it is Tyrone who leads the way to an answer by drawing the distinction between them in his response to Edmund's monologue about the fog:

You have a poet in you but it's a damned morbid one.... Why can't you remember your Shakespeare and forget the third-raters. You'll find what you're trying to say in him--as you'll find everything else worth saying.

And in the next moment, using his "fine [actor's] voice," he is quoting the bard with total inappropriateness:

"We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep."

EDMUND. (Ironically) Fine! That's beautiful. But I wasn't trying to say that. We are such stuff as manure is made on, so let's drink up and forget it. That's more my idea.

Faced with his son's loving homage to death as an escape from the horrors of reality, Tyrone is relentlessly optimistic. Given the unrelenting pattern of self-destruction all about him, there is something amazing about Tyrone's view of life; he remains essentially healthy-minded, in the sense that William James used that expression. In Tyrone's peculiar cosmology, Shakespeare was a Catholic whose plays reinforce the simple faith he has retained despite the utter failure of his prayers to help Mary or his children. He is a man who dreams that he might have surpassed the tragedian Edwin Booth but has shut out any tragic vision of the universe.

Here is the point of separation between Edmund and his father. Edmund has a sick-souled view of the world that may result in personal tragedy or lead him to a truly artistic creativity. Tyrone's exhortations to return to the Catholic faith are at best bromides for the severely ill son and at worst dangerous calls to complacency for the searching artist.

There is evidence that the real-life model for James Tyrone was not nearly so contented a soul. In early biographical notes drafted by the playwright in 1926, we read that:

In later days of his life husband periodically talks when depressed of doing as his father did, deserting family, going back to Ireland to die.

Such depressive behavior with its suggestion of a suicidal longing is completely absent from the fictional James Tyrone. We cannot envision him expressing anything quite like James O'Neill's last words to his playwright son:

Eugene--I'm going to a better sort of life--this sort of life--here--all froth--no good--rottenness!

Here is a character very likely to inspire a creative artist. As a matter of fact, the playwright was to claim that these very words were "seared on my brain--a warning from the Beyond to remain true to the best that is in me though the heavens fall." This profound kinship between father and son is virtually eliminated from the play.

Edmund must turn away from his father towards his mother for the kind of nurturing he needs. She, too, has failed him in the past, but, as the play begins, there is renewed hope in the warm summer air. Mary has been born again to her better self and is ready, he assumes, to become the nurturing mother he seeks.

Mary Tyrone is different from her real-life counterpart as well. She lives completely isolated from all but her family, having rejected her husband's theatre associates while apparently abandoning any friendships pre-dating her marriage. Ella O'Neill, according to the playwright's biographical notes, had "a few loyal friends scattered over country." No mention of them is made in the play. Mary speaks of being cruelly vilified by her late mother just before her wedding. In real life, according to the same notes, "M's mother still alive--M has still her affection for comfort when husband fails."

These alterations make Mary more vulnerable and desperate, more tied to her familial roles of wife and mother. Living under the shadow of her own critical, competitive mother reinforces the psychological fears Mary has concerning her adequacy to perform these roles.

And behind these fears is Mary's peculiar relationship to her men. In the play, the marriage of James and Mary had been brought about through the pandering of Mary's father:

You can imagine how excited I was when my father wrote me he and James Tyrone had become friends, and that I was to meet him when I came home for Easter vacation...My father took me to see him act first...I couldn't take my eyes off him...My father had said we'd go backstage to his dressing room right after the play, and so we did...I fell in love right then...I forgot all about becoming a nun or a concert pianist. All I wanted was to be his wife.

The father who had always spoiled his daughter turned her over to his friend and not long after the marriage was consummated a pattern of heavy drinking helped to hasten the father's death from consumption. This is a heady sequence of events by which to interpret Mary's subsequent behavior towards Edmund, her consumptive and alcoholic son. And the most fascinating part about these events is that, with one exception, the facts are fabricated. James O'Neill and Ella's father did meet and become friends, but the latter had died before his daughter even met his actor friend.

Mary was Ella O'Neill's never-used Christian name. The virgin Mary, mother of God, is Mary Tyrone's intermediary with God the father from whose grace she has fallen. Once the idealized daughter of a loving father, destined to be a nun, the bride of Christ, or a concert pianist, an artist in God's service, she is now the drug-addicted spouse of a successful second-rate actor. In truth she bears closer kinship to Mary Magdalene than St. Mary, but, unlike that fallen woman, there may be no redeemer son of God to restore her to a state of grace.

On the other hand, both in her mind and, to some extent, in his, the role of redeemer son is profoundly connected to Edmund. For the reasons outlined earlier, he alone within the family is able at the outset to believe in Mary's potential for redemption. More importantly, he of all the family has the greatest need to save her. He may be dying, and he seeks not to die alone. If he can only reclaim his mother from the sin of her addiction, she will be the companion he seeks on his journey towards death or his own redemption. But paradoxically, this companionship which he seeks is only possible if he can first make her see him as a mortal being separate from the immortal son whose image she seeks desperately to sustain. What he does not realize at the beginning is that his own image of her is something from which he must separate himself as well.

Before we can understand this struggle to separate, however, we need to examine the unique bond between them. That bond derives from the circumstances of Edmund's birth, a birth enveloped by images of death. Any birth is a joining of spiritual aspirations with biological realities. Both are distorted in the history of Edmund's birth. Out of the guilt she feels for Eugene's death, Mary conceives Edmund, a conception urged upon her by her husband psychologically and biologically too soon. In a parody of the birth of Christ, she starts to deliver in the hotel room to which her husband's tour has brought her. Driven by her pain, she makes a compromise with death. Accepting morphine addiction, a living suicide, she completes a long fall from grace which began with her marriage to Tyrone. From her womb emerges a child "born nervous and too sensitive"--by implication, incomplete.

In the presence of death, both Mary and Edmund are triggered into a recollection of this bond at birth. A profound guilt on both their parts has been the glue to keep them stuck to one another. He is still a child, a son failing to solace his mother, an artist without creative direction or power--beneath all, a frail mortal. Born to be the virgin mother to her "perfect" father, Mary instead was encouraged by that father to assert her physical and emotional desires with disastrous results. Her marriage to Tyrone was rewarded by the death of her father and the birth of Jamie, Cain to the Abel of his infant brother Eugene. With each assertion of her "sinful" desires against the claims of God, she has been pun-shed by a confrontation with her mortality. She is a mother unable to nurture; a muse stifling creativity; most frightening of all, a harbinger of imminent death.

Living as they do in the shadow of death, these two failed Catholics can only hope to find peace in one way, some kind of return to a state of grace. To achieve grace--the favor of God who alone grants immortality and purpose to man--Edmund must atone for his guilt in driving his mother to addiction, and Mary must save Edmund from death, the fate of her father and Eugene. On the surface, Edmund's seems the more reasonable goal. If he can only make his mother see him as the mortal he is, she will turn from the fantasy of her addiction to the nurturing role of mother. But his goal does not account for the desperate need Mary has to see him as immortal, free from the danger of death. This need compels her to move in the opposite direction from Edmund. As he endeavors to make her see him as a separate mortal adult, she strives to hold him firmly in the position of her immortal child. The situation is set up for failure. The success of one can only mean the sacrifice of the other.


There are four acts in Journey and four scenes between Edmund and Mary, each of them coming at the end of an act and charting the development and resolution of the central struggle. Together they are akin to a single musical theme played out with variations.

Even before they meet alone for the first time, the troubles that will pressure them to disharmony are well established. Mary has already revealed a dangerous reversion to behavior associated with her past addiction--oversensitivity to her appearance, particularly her graying hair and her wrinkled hands. The deterioration of her once sexually alluring red hair and her gracefully artistic hands is a constant reminder of her loss of innocence. She is reluctant to be looked at directly, indicating a fear that her true physical and emotional state will not stand scrutiny. Her preoccupation with the painful past is further reinforced by her having slept the previous evening in the spare room, a room intended for the dead Eugene.

Stimulating this behavior is Edmund's physical condition, his "summer cold," which has progressed to the point where the first act is regularly punctuated by his coughing, a sound that causes Mary visible distress. Edmund himself does and does not know he has consumption; he is really only awaiting Doc Hardy's official report before conscious acknowledgement of the worst.

Appropriately this mother and son who seek from each other artificial role-playing prepare for their private meeting much as actors about to enter the stage. Edmund leaves the previous scene to get his prop, a book he carries on stage with no real intention of reading. Mary is even more blatant. After Tyrone and Jamie have left, she sits and lets go, "her face betraying a frightened, furtive desperation, her hands roving over the table top, aimlessly moving objects around." As soon as she hears her "cue," Edmund's footsteps off-stage followed by the inevitable coughing, "she springs to her feet, as if she wanted to run away from the sound," but rather than run away, she takes position for her scene, going "quickly to the windows at right," and adopts her initial acting pose, "looking out, apparently calm, as he enters from the front parlor, [prop] book in one hand. She turns to him, her lips set in a welcoming, motherly smile"--pure acting!

She lies about having been on the way to look for him, a lie obvious to the audience, but evidently not to Edmund, who mistakenly thinks he has caught her in a receptive mood. He launches immediately into "I feel too rotten," which, instead of receiving the sympathetic mothering response expected, is attacked by Mary with "You're such a baby." His bitter disappointment must register fairly visibly, since Mary immediately backtracks--"I'm only teasing, dear"--as she takes his arm and places him in the rocking chair with a pillow under his head and tender kisses upon his cheek.

She has--momentarily, as it turns out--returned her son to the position of "the baby of the family," quite content to nurture him as long as he willingly acquiesces in that role. But the role is no longer satisfying to Edmund; to accept it, he must deny the reality of his sickness and the adult autonomy he is unconsciously striving for. In the first of only two such moments in the scene, he initiates a physical gesture towards her, taking her hand "with deep seriousness," in an effort to force her to confront her own potential sickness. Edmund sees this as a positive step towards her becoming the mother who can give the adult Edmund the support he needs. Mary, on the other hand, sees this as a hostile intrusion on her necessary defenses.

Once more she retreats to the window to regain her actor's concentration and to attempt a new action. She tries to enlist her son against his father, criticizing the latter's social gaucherie. But Edmund is no longer so easily diverted and actually takes the father's side, forcing a slight tactical retreat on Mary's part which in actuality she converts into a more clever assault. She begins to appeal to Edmund's sense of rootlessness by linking that feeling to Tyrone's failure to provide a stable home.

Edmund becomes noticeably irritable. While the issue is irrelevant to what he is trying to get her to do, face up to her present weaknesses, it forces him to defend his own area of vulnerability, his failure to be a good son. He attempts to assert himself with a phony toughness of language (e.g. "the Old Man") but is scotched by Mary's naked appeal: "But sometimes I feel so lonely."

Unable to accept the desperation of this statement, he presses Mary to own up to the role her addiction had played in isolating her from others. However, before he has fully broached this subject, he wavers, realizing that he is not prepared to deal squarely with this reality. Mary, for her part, recognizes that beneath Edmund's expressed desire to help is an unexpressed fear that she is incapable of a dynamic recovery. She pursues this fear, interrogates him really, until he must admit to sharing with his father and brother the same essential distrust of this imperfect mother.

(Suddenly a strange undercurrent of revengefulness comes into her voice.) It would serve all of you right if it was true!

With this veiled threat to destroy herself, she pushes her son into full retreat. Once more he accepts her mothering him as if he were still a child, her insistence on his condition as "a bad cold." One last timid attempt on his part to make her entertain the possibility of "something worse" is thwarted by the following exchange:

MARY. I give you my sacred word of honour [that I won't become an addict again]! (Then with a sad bitterness.) But I suppose you're remembering I've promised before on my word of honour.

EDMUND. No!

MARY. (Her bitterness receding into a resigned helplessness.) I'm not blaming you, dear. How can you help it? How can any one of us forget? (Strangely.) That's what makes it so hard--for all of us. We can't forget.

EDMUND. (Grabs her shoulder). Mama! Stop it!

She has at last invoked her fall from grace, the betrayal of her "sacred word of honour." Even Edmund does not wish to be reminded of this truth. Once more he makes physical contact with her, this time to return her to a more manageable reality. Realizing that she has temporarily defeated him, his mother announces her intention to take a "nap" with no fear that her son will pursue her real intention. For the first time she can boldly look at him, knowing that it is he who will avoid her eyes. He beats a hast retreat out of the house, leaving Mary with her victory. But as her return to the nervous behavior which preceded the scene indicates, the victory is hollow. She has had to dredge up her ineradicable loss of faith, that permanent damage that cannot be forgotten and which, from this moment on, will dominate her every thought.


All doubts as to Mary's return to addiction as well as the gravity of Edmund's illness have been erased before they next confront each other. Immediately following her first scene with Edmund, she has taken a small dose of morphine from a secret stash. Because she does not have enough of her "medicine" to get really high, she is still reasonably lucid and connected to reality. And this means that, when Doc Hardy's phone call comes, both she and Edmund are able to detect the bad news behind Tyrone's efforts to cover up what he has been told.

The situation has become more desperate and is further intensified by this exchange between father and son:

TYRONE. ...I wish she hadn't led me to hope this time. By God, I never will again!

EDMUND. That's a rotten thing to say, Papa! (Defiantly.) Well, I'll hope! She's just started. It can't have got a hold on her yet. She can still stop. I'm going to talk to her.

When both Tyrone and Jamie seek to convince him of the futility of talking to his mother, Edmund runs off rather than accept their harshly accurate assessment. By setting himself against his father's despair, he has placed his manhood even more squarely on the line.

Holding him to his promise, Tyrone creates the impetus into the second Edmund-Mary scene: "Maybe if you asked your mother now what you said you were going to--." With the lamest of excuses ("look at the time"), he leaves the two of them to work it out. His retreat is spurred by the discomfort just aroused by his younger son's bad joke ("Did Doc Hardy tell you I was going to die?") and his wife's violent reaction to it:

I won't have it! (She stamps her foot.) Do you hear, Edmund! Such morbid nonsense! Saying you're going to die! It's the books you read!

--Even his props are fair game for Mary.--

Nothing but sadness and death! Your father shouldn't allow you to have them. And some of the poems you've written yourself are even worse! You'd think you didn't want to live! A boy of your age with everything before him! It's just a pose you get out of books! You're not really sick at all!

This bullying assault from his wife prompts Tyrone to bid her hold her tongue. Knowing now that Edmund intends once more to confront her with his illness and that her husband will not stay to smooth things over, she launches even more aggressively than in the first scene into her action of babying Edmund into submission.

However, even as the earlier scene seems to be repeating itself, Edmund is responding with a very different awareness of Mary's behavior. Despite the almost brutal energy with which she presses her mothering upon him, he refuses to be enveloped by it, steadily pushing his own appeal. He succeeds to the extent that Mary momentarily desists from her mothering and "stammers pleadingly." This pleading drains Edmund of all desire to fight. As in the first scene, her apparent retreat turns out to be a ploy to disarm her son and allow her to mount again an assault on his failure as a son. But this time the assault is more profound, as she links his illness to her return from the sanatorium, implying a hostile intent on his part to undermine her stable recovery.

Irrational as it may be, this attack is clearly and cruelly successful on the guilt-ridden Edmund. Mary once more shifts tactics, returning to her mothering stance. Edmund's defeat seems complete, and it allows Mary to move more straightforwardly into her own fantastic vision of salvation. "Her manner remote and objective again," she can now share her terrible secret, "that one day long ago I found I could no longer call my soul my own." "Lowering her voice to a strange tone of whispered confidence," she confides to her son for the first time her vision of a return to grace:

...when the Blessed Virgin Mary forgives me and gives me back the faith in Her love and pity I used to have in my convent days, and I can pray to Her again--when She sees no one in the world can believe in me even for a moment any more, then She will believe in me, and with Her help it will be so easy. I will hear myself scream with agony, and at the same time I will laugh because I will be so sure of myself.

This is the climactic moment in their relationship as Edmund "remains hopelessly silent" before this humanly impossible vision of a perfect communion with God. Both characters sense the unbreachable separation between them, but Mary accepts it more willingly and is the first to act upon it: "Now I think of it, you might as well go uptown." There is no longer a need for his presence. Morphine will be her companion.

While he accepts this dismissal, Edmund does not leave without exhibiting his first openly hostile attack on his mother. As she tries to behave with some affection, urging him to follow Doc Hardy's advice, he "bitterly" throws her earlier words of disparagement back at her: "I thought he was an old idiot."

Truly alone now, Mary is finally allowed to express her inner voice and it is a voice in total isolation from her family: "Then Mother of God, why do I feel so lonely?"
 

In the interval between Acts II and III, Mary has secured a fresh supply of morphine and is well on her way to becoming once more, to use her own phrase, "a dope fiend." Edmund, in the meantime, has been explicitly informed by his father of the results of his examination. Each character has been pushed closer towards an unbearable awareness of mortality. Significantly, each is still in touch with reality: Edmund has not yet gone on a drunken binge; and Mary, not yet sure of the proper dosage to achieve oblivion, has taken an insufficient amount of her drug. She is about to go for more when the entrance of her family stops her. They are at maximum stress without the immediate power to run for relief.

That all pretense is over becomes clear from Edmund's reaction to his mother having sent Cathleen in to pick up her prescription: "For God's sake, Mama! You can't trust her! Do you want everyone on earth to know?" The once hopeful son has joined his father and brother in the task of covering up the family skeleton. Even so, there is still one more variation of the Edmund-Mary scene to be played out. As the second scene to some extent opened with a repeat of the opening process of scene one--Mary's aggressive mothering--so the third scene opens with Tyrone's running out on his son as he had at the beginning of the second scene. His excuse in this instance is less specious; he is running for a special "fresh bottle of whiskey," one that he intends to share with the young Edmund. On the most basic level, he is trying to console his son for the bad news; but, more profoundly, this whiskey will serve in Act IV to provide the liquid warmth to the body, a perverse substitute for the security of true motherly nurturing denied to all her men by Mary.

Mary's treatment of Edmund at the outset of this third confrontation reveals to what point matters have advanced. She no longer feels compelled to play the mothering role. Having chosen morphine, she need not curry favor from Edmund. Presently she will need no family at all for protection. Ironically, this "detached amusement" allows her to experience sincerely positive feelings towards her husband:

You must try to understand and forgive him, too, and not feel contempt because he's close-fisted. His father deserted his mother and their six children a year or so after they came to America. He told them he had a premonition he would die soon, and he was homesick for Ireland, and wanted to go back there to die. So he went and he did die. He must have been a peculiar man, too. Your father had to go to work in a machine shop when he was only ten years old.

Her behavior here is a total reversal of her earlier contempt for her husband's peasant roots as well as her attempt to enlist Edmund's enmity against him. Earlier in the play such behavior might have spurred Edmund on to gently press his claims. His response now is also a reversal as he puts down her effort. Having failed to receive any sympathy himself from her, having been denied permission to express his fear of dying, he is frustrated and angry with her. How dare she lend her voice to the pain of Tyrone's desertion by his father when she is guilty of the very same desertion of her son.

Listen, Mama! You're not so far gone yet you've forgotten everything. You haven't asked me what I found out this afternoon. Don't you care a damn?

The tone is dramatically different--aggressive, hostile, uncompromising. Edmund has carried the emotional lesson of the previous scene into this one, clearly seeing his mother as his adversary, her hypocrisy to be broken down once and for all.

Mary is plainly taken aback by this new Edmund; but, as before, her son has underestimated her desperation and the lengths to which she will go to protect herself. Battered by Edmund's insistence, she strikes back by evoking the most devastating moment in Edmund's past: she describes her attempted suicide. It was for Edmund his loss of innocence, the end of his faith: "God, it made everything in life seem rotten."

As it devastated him then, so it threatens to destroy him now. Mary, taking advantage of the pain she has evoked, begs him to end his attack, but, with "stubborn persistence," he gets his message out:

EDMUND. Listen, Mama. I'm going to tell you whether you want to hear or not. I've got to go to a sanatorium.

MARY. (Dazedly, as if this was something that had never occurred to her.) Go away? (Violently.) No! I won't have it!

O'Neill's strange stage direction for her and Mary's violent reaction make complete sense if we see her effort from the beginning as one to preserve the image of Edmund as her immortal baby, the one creation of her life that did not die, that justified her existence and could lead her back to a state of grace. While she has abandoned this fantasy, Edmund's effort to summon her back to reality threatens the escape into her new morphine fantasy. Her own counter-effort cruelly alludes to his most vulnerable point:

[Doc Hardy's] been jealous of you most of all. He knew I loved you most because--

EDMUND. (Miserably.) Oh, stop talking crazy, can't you, Mama!

He cuts her off before she refers to the fact that his birth was paid for with her addiction, her fall from grace. He tries desperately to prevent her from placing this responsibility upon him, for the first time openly attacking her lack of motherly nurturing: "I've been away a lot, and I've never noticed it broke your heart."

But she is in control now, relentless in her accusations, questioning his sensitivity, burdening him as the cause of her self-conscious guilt ("I had to be glad whenever you were where you couldn't see me"). And Edmund is simply no match for her as "he reaches out blindly and takes her hand," once more attempting through physical contact to achieve an emotional bond. "But he drops it immediately," realizing the futility of his gesture.

She senses victory as, "with an abrupt transformation into a detached bullying motherliness," she makes her boldest move to render her son impotent:

(With a belittling laugh.) If I gave you the slightest encouragement, you'd tell me next you were going to die--

EDMUND. People do die of it. Your own father--

She has overplayed her hand, not expecting that her own willingness to use psychologically cruel means will be matched by her son, who sees his own survival at stake:

MARY. ...I forbid you to remind me of my father's death, do you hear me?

This remarkable demand is such a total dismissal of Edmund that he is left with no choice if he is to survive with any autonomy at all. At last the bitter rage building inside him finds expression in his most openly cruel and aggressive action towards her:

(He gets up from his chair and stands staring condemningly at her--bitterly.) It's pretty hard to take at times, having a dope fiend for a mother!

With this one action he turns the guilt back upon her and separates himself from her forever. But, even as he does so, he tries to retreat from the consequences of his action. Those consequences are nothing less than the psychological murder of his mother as "she winces--all life seeming to drain from her face, leaving it with an appearance of a plaster cast."

He feebly attempts to take back what he has said, but Mary's zombie-like behavior and preoccupation with the fog, associated in this play with death, reveal all too well the thorough success of his action. He has won his separation from Mary, but at a cost he cannot face. "I--I can't stay here," he stammers as he hurries away, seeking his own escape in drink.


If the three scenes discussed above comprise a theme with variations, then the final scene acts as a startling coda to the rest.

Morphine has permitted Mary to retreat into an eternally innocent past, to that moment when a young girl dreamed of a life dedicated to God. Edmund has drunk his way to a sober realization that he

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!

For one last time, the two meet in a brief but conclusive confrontation. Echoing the pattern of her movements at the end of their last scene, she enters "like a sleepwalker" during the last moments of the play. As she passes behind him, Edmund

(turns impulsively and grabs her arm. As he pleads he has the quality of a bewilderedly hurt little boy.) Mama! It isn't a summer cold! I've got consumption!

Still not accepting the inevitable consequences of his previous actions, he again tries through physical contact, and the little boy behavior she had earlier sought, to break through to her. It seems "for a second" that he might succeed, but then Mary renders the separation between them irrevocable with the simple command, "No."

He drops his hand, releasing her forever. It is an awesome theatrical moment--one in which we certainly see nakedly revealed the personal tragic theme of O'Neill's life, but also an artistically brilliant vision unmatched before or since by any other American playwright.

--Robert Einenkel

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Gelb, Arthur & Barbara. O'Neill, 1st edition. Jonathan Cape, London, 1962.

Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill, Son and Artist. Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1973.

O'Neill, Eugene. Long Day's Journey Into Night. Yale University Press, New Haven, London, 1955.

Other sources could be cited, but these three were used directly. Textual quotes, of course, come from the edition of the play listed above. General biographical background was arrived at from both of the other sources. However, the Gelb book is particularly thorough regarding the elder O'Neills. James' last words and O'Neill's reaction come from this source. The author's biographical notes are to be found only in the Sheaffer book which alone makes his study a necessary companion to the other.

(IN THIS ISSUE)

 

Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com