A CABIN IN THE WOODS, A SUMMERHOUSE IN A GARDEN: CLOSURE AND ENCLOSURE IN O'NEILL'S MORE STATELY MANSIONS
"I would still like
to discover if you could possibly imagine a happy ending to that
Although critics for some time now have attended seriously to the question of closure in fiction and poetry (see. for example, Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, and Barbara Herrnstein Smith's Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End--both published in 1968), to my knowledge no comparable work exists on the problem of closure in drama, on how plays end. And if the drama under study is self--contained and yet forms part of a larger cycle, then the difficulty for the playwright can only be compounded. I do not intend to map out much of this uncharted territory, but if we consider much earlier cycles in English drama, at least two models for achieving closure present themselves: what I shall call the paradigm of incident (that is. of character in action) and the paradigm of image--though these two are not necessarily antithetical. The medieval cycle plays can exemplify the first, just as Shakespeare's history cycles can the second. It hardly needs saying, of course, that many contemporary plays whose action remains unresolved, or open-ended, attain what degree of closure they do possess primarily through imagery.
The playlets in a medieval mystery cycle, whose epic sweep--sacred and profane; past, present, and to come; in time and out of it--can only adequately be apprehended by the mind of God, are fused together (as V. A. Kolve in The Plaie Called Corpus Christi, among others, has shown) by a vast network of correspondences between type and antitype, with characters and actions fulfilling what had been foreshadowed or figured forth by earlier ones. So, for instance, the Crucifixion harkens back to and completes the murder of Abel, the putative sacrifice of Isaac, and the slaughter of the Innocents. This paradigm of incident as juncture appears in the two "finished" plays from O'Neill's incomplete cycle, A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed, in such instances as Sara's initially echoing in More Stately Mansions her mother Nora from A Touch of the Poet when she claims that her "honor" comes wholly from loving her husband; or in Deborah and Simon's recitation in Mansions of Byron's "I have not loved the World, nor the World me; ... I stood/Among them, but not of them" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964, pp. 107-108), lines Con Melody was enamored of in Poet.
In his first tetralogy, Shakespeare employs (along with the central symbolic prop of the crown) ritual processions to the throne and to the grave to frame individual plays as well as to unite the cycle: 1 Henry VI begins with a funeral, 2 Henry VI with a coronation, 3 Henry VI with a "dethroning," and Richard III with another funeral, while 3 Henry VI and Richard III each end with a coronation. The journeys to throne and grave are, finally, little different: the king must die. In his second tetralogy, Shakespeare shifts the dominant image to that of the actor and the stage: the image of the Globe Theatre, the "wooden o," neatly opens and closes Henry V itself, and also rounds out the entire cycle, which had begun with Richard II as the consummate actor--a player king---in the first scene of his play carried on in a coffin in the last.
Not only does O'Neill's practice in what remains of his cycle seem closer to the Shakespearean model of unity through imagery, but the plays that precede and follow Mansions even employ a version of the theatrical metaphor: Con, in Poet, relies heavily upon the mirror--what Jan Kott has recently termed "the classic paradigm of the theatre" (The Theatre of Essence, [Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1984])--to confirm the "reality" of his dream world, just as Deborah was "always [her] own audience" (Mansions, p. 13) when she acted out roles. And in The Calms of Capricorn the clipper ship "Dream of the West" that dominates the theatre is, like Shakespeare's "wooden o," a microcosm where all are players; as Esther Jackson observed (at the March 1984 O'Neill Conference), "the ship is the stage and the stage is the ship." But my particular focus is on More Stately Mansions, and my argument, simply stated, is that in it O'Neill achieves closure through multiple images of enclosure.
While certain subsidiary images, such as Sara's pregnant body clothed in mourning (life enclosed in death) or Deborah's "skull beginning to emerge from its mask of flesh" (p. 28) (death enclosed in life), reinforce the motif of enclosure, I intend to focus on three central images, one of them a gestural movement, the others actual structures on stage at the beginning and end.
The gestural image (reminiscent of the scenic configuration that ends Act Six of Strange Interlude and shows Nina Leeds totally fulfilled as woman by the men who surround her) occurs at the end of Act Two of Mansions and dramatizes the dynamics of the struggle for possession. Simon has by this point successfully pitted wife and mother against one another, making each think that she reigns supreme in his affections. So he sits in the foreground, positioned as a wedge "between them." He understands, however, that to maintain control means to never give up playing "the game," and thus his freedom is illusory. Deborah and Sara, meanwhile, realize they no longer depend upon him alone for someone to control, and so Sara joins Deborah on the sofa where they "sit with clasped hands ... staring defiantly at Simon" (p. 124). A few moments later, Deborah and Sara--whose position as wife has been superseded by the role as mistress that Simon prefers---advance and encircle him. He appears to have no option except surrender to mother and whore; yet when their jealousy reasserts itself, he manages to exclaim, "No!" and they retreat. Their momentary possessiveness, however, foreshadows the drama's end. for in Act Four they align themselves by again "sit[ting] together, as one" and then, with "pitying ... maternal love" in their faces, encircling him, calling him "Our beloved son! Our husband! Our lover!" (pp. 174-175). Woman--mother, wife, mistress in one--smothers man in her embrace. This presages the final image of Simon, "like a little boy" (p. 194), being comforted, helped up off the ground, and led into the house by Sara, a "passionate, possessive" mother/wife.
Unlike the Pietà configuration late in Moon for the Misbegotten, this image augurs a debilitating regression into childhood, a return to the womb and fulfillment of the Oedipal wish. By possessing and being possessed by someone outside the self, Simon has dispossessed the self. And so we have the first type of self-dispossession that the play charts.
Along with this gestural image are the two actions of literally enclosing oneself within a small onstage structure that O'Neill uses both at the very beginning and near the end of More Stately Mansions. The play opens as Sara arrives, in the autumn of 1832, at an abandoned "log cab by a lake in the woods" (p. 1)--a cabin Deborah designates as "the corpse of a dream" (p. 6), since it was there that Simon had retreated in Poet to write his now destroyed socio-political tract. (Simon's destruction of his manuscript—he reports, "I threw all I've done in the fireplace and burned it" [p. 46]--becomes prophetic of what O'Neill himself later did with much of the work on his aborted cycle.) The cabin is associated not so much with Sara as it is with Simon's Thoreauvian sojourn in the woods to dream dreams of a utopian "society where there would be no rich nor poor," man having been successfully "educated to outgrow ... spiritually ... his stupid possessive instincts" (pp. 8-9). Yet once he has committed himself to personal greed, a disillusioned Simon forgoes his Rousseauvian notion that it is civilization which corrupts, in favor of a Hobbesian vision of man as petty, selfish. rationalistic, morally deficient. Simon claims a new realism as the basis for a new morality: "what [man] is, no matter how it shocks our sentimental, moral and religious delusions about him, is good because it is true" (p. 47). What man now is, however, is no longer "naturally ... virtuous and good," but, rather. "a hog" (p. 172).
When Sara leaves the cabin, she decisively deserts any vestiges of respect for Simon's dream. concretizing Simon's own turning of his back upon the past to espouse a new ethic: strength is good and will be rewarded; weakness is bad and will be punished; life is selling oneself; love is lust. Now he can "buy" Sara as his mistress, and she can earn his business and a fine house. That she has freed herself of the values symbolized by the cabin is evidenced by her own dream of "the country estate with the great mansion" (p. 92). The disparity between cabin and mansion becomes visible not in another onstage structure but in the architect's rendering prominently displayed beside her desk in Simon's office: "a pretentious, nouveau-riche country estate on the shore of a small lake, with an immense mansion, a conglomerate of various styles of architecture, as if additions had been made at different times to an original structure conceived on the model of a mediaeval turreted castle" (p. 139). Thus the second avenue to self--dispossession--by possessing something material outside the self.
The end of More Stately Mansions is, so to speak, in its beginnings: Sara locks herself in a cabin in the woods; Deborah entombs herself in a summerhouse in a walled garden. The garden itself is a paradise lost; no amount of formal patterning. of nature "perversely ... distorted and artificial" (p. 161), can reclaim it. Cut off from time and change--from process--Deborah can feel "aloof ... and spiritually remote" (p. 14). Yet such an existence deadens: it is without lived life. The octagonal summerhouse (interestingly, its "arched door. painted a Chinese lacquer red" [p. 25], copies the paint used at Tao House, where O'Neill wrote Mansions) is itself equated with the mind. This movement into complete interiority, into solipcism, reveals itself in the dramatist's variation on the interior monologue technique from Strange Interlude that imparts an aria-like aura to the play's already operatic quality. Deborah engages in "insane, interminable dialogues with self" (p. 3), as Simon later does: he "address[es him]self" because, as he says, "I have no one but myself" (p. 74). And thus the third means, somewhat paradoxical, for dispossessing the self--by withdrawing totally into the mind.
Since such an ultimate confrontation with the self can, however, be akin to madness, characters often venture down a fourth avenue to dispossession of the self: withdrawal through the romantic imagination into the world of the dream. For Deborah, "playing make-believe with romantic iniquity out of scandalous French memoirs" as mistress to Napoleon (p. 14) has functioned as an escape from both life and death: from life, because to pursue the dream has precluded embracing life; from death, because to live in the imagination has substituted for choosing physical death. Simon, too, once had a favorite fairy tale about a banished ruler who could reclaim "his lost kingdom" by finding "a certain magic door" (p. 110)--a door that became associated in his mind with the entrance to the summerhouse; yet, as Deborah warned him, the story might not have a happy ending, since across the threshold might be "a barren desert ... ruled over by a hideous old witch" who would "devour" the young king (p. 111). This possibility of an unhappy ending causes Deborah to vacillate in her decision to lose herself in the dream; sometimes she advances towards the summerhouse--image of the mind--where only the dream lives; but just as often, at least until near the close of the play, she flees from it.
How is it, then, that Deborah, whose only salvation and chance of resurrecting the life within herself came originally from rejecting the summerhouse and loving others, now willingly enters the summerhouse and even gains stature in doing so? The answer lies in her motive: she shuts herself off from the world precisely because she loves Simon enough to realize that she must do what she can to free him from his obsession with her. In a final effort to possess her and be possessed by her, Simon attempts to accompany Deborah into the garden house. If only she would take him with her, he could be reassured of the totality of her love and, Simon claims, she would repossess the self she lost when she rejected him. But Deborah knows that for him it would be a journey back to the womb-become-tomb, and so she dies a little to self that he might have a chance to live. By blocking his entrance to the summerhouse, by literally pushing him "down the steps" (p. 190), she demonstrates her love. Her chosen entombment becomes an expiatory rite, but she had first to earn the right to expiate--as Lavinia Mannon, for example, did in Mourning Becomes Electra. (Only by telling Peter the truth about herself so that he would not become corrupted through marrying her, and thus saving him by sending him away, did Lavinia open herself up to the possibility of atoning for the Mannon family sins by entombing herself in the house.) The plight of the O'Neill protagonist, from the playwright's earliest days, nearly always has been a hard and lonely one, though the sight of Deborah, "look[ing] beautiful and serene, and many years younger" (p. 191), lost forever in her dream but feeling "happy" and "blessed" in her choice, perhaps recalls Nina Leeds more than Lavinia; for Nina, cleansed of destructive possessiveness by giving her son Gordon to her dying husband Sam so that he, in turn, could give Gordon in marriage to Madeline, can rest in peace in the arms of Charlie/father. In all three of these instances, what seems like diminishment at best and a kind of death-wish at worst may in fact be nearer to transcendence.
Like the characters in
Interlude, whose mainly destructive actions spring from an
ethic of searching after personal happiness, those in Mansions
worry over and act from the drive to happiness. Early in the play,
Deborah urges Simon, "Be happy!" (p. 17); Sara, too, will apparently
do everything to see that he is--or thinks that he is. Near the
close of the play, she even offers to "go away ... to save him,"
claiming she "can
Sara ends Mansions as she ended Poet, on a note of pleading. In the earlier play, she begged Con to return to the illusion of Major Melody for her sake. In this play, uncertain whether Deborah is indeed lost in the mind or only game-playing, Sara begs her mother-in-law--with whom she has alternately been in league and at war over Simon--for reassurance that Deborah's happiness is real, that she is not feigning in order "to save [Simon] and set him free!" (p. 193). Is Deborah, in other words, another Hickey, and is her action, like Hickey's pose of insanity in Iceman Cometh, only playacting to save another? The answer is left ambiguous, except we know that in the O'Neill encomium, only the rare individual, like Larry Slade at the end of Iceman, can face life totally without illusion--which is tantamount to being a "convert to death."
If the end of More Stately Mansions looks backward to Mourning Becomes Electra, it looks forward as well to Long Day's Journey Into Night, for the action of enclosure as a means of effecting closure remains a common dramatic strategy in O'Neill. Deborah's last action of entering the summerhouse finds perhaps its nearest parallel in Mary Tyrone's ineffably sad enclosure of herself in a drug-induced state that takes her back to her girlhood, to her dreams of being a nun or a concert pianist, to the days before she met and married James Tyrone and "was so happy for a time"--happy until she realized herself cursed by a romantic imagination that promised too much. By retreating to a past ever more distant, she, too, in a sense, gave up the writer/son, the fog of forgetfulness assuaging the pain of loss. The search for "a happy ending to [the] tale" is always suspect in O'Neill and, what is more, is generally elusive.
---Thomas P. Adler
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