O'NEILL'S USE OF IRISH-YANKEE STEREOTYPES IN A TOUCH OF THE POET*
Steve Goodman, the late and very funny country music composer, wrote a song parodying the clichés of that genre in which he managed to crowd train, blue eyes, rain, pickup truck, jail and mother into one verse. In like manner, I worry about the clichés of O'Neill criticism and envision that archetypal paper which somehow combines sea, rolling fog, a drunken elder brother, a freighter and its hands, a mother on drugs, a whore-virgin and a performance of The Count of Monte Cristo. In my own title I have waved one of the red flags of O'Neill criticism--the Irish. The Irishness of O'Neill's work has been well established; the main point that I want to argue is that O'Neill wrote out of an American theatre tradition that went back to the 19th century. It is not the particular Irish-Yankee theme that interests me so much as the persistence of certain stage stereotypes which O'Neill found handy to his needs from the repository of dramatic practice in 19th century American theatre.
Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, character actors like John Brougham, Barney Williams, William James Florence, Tyrone Power, W.J. Scanlon and Dion Boucicault regaled their audiences with portrayals of the pitfalls of life for the Irish in America in such vehicles as Irish Courtship (1798), The Irish Wife (1832), The Irish Tutor (1841), The Irish Heiress (1842). The Irish Fortune Hunter (1850), The Good for Nothing (1853), Irish Assurance and Yankee Modesty (1856), Yankee Housekeeper (1856), The Irish Emigrant (1860), Irish Life (1888), Irish Eyes (1889), The Irish Gossoon (1892), The Irish Alderman (1896), An Irishman's Home (1918), and of course The Irish Yankee (1856). These Irish plays and players were part of O'Neill's dramatic heritage, and A Touch of the Poet can be seen as a sort of homage to all those long-dead Irish character parts. O'Neill himself acknowledged his indebtedness to that theatrical tradition when he said to critic George Jean Nathan that no one could do full justice to the role of Con Melody with the exception of "Maurice Barrymore or my old man" (Gelb 885).
In addition to echoing Irish-character stage types in Jamie Cregan and Con and Nora Melody, A Touch of the Poet also utilizes one of the dramatic situations that fascinated American audiences in the 19th century--the courtship or encounter of an Irish boy and a Yankee girl. A Touch of the Poet. features a possible and an impossible Irish-Yankee pairing--the possible one is between Sara Melody and Simon Harford: the impossible, between Con Melody and Deborah Harford--both reflections of the Irish boy-Yankee girl en-counter of the 19th century popular comic theatre.
The popularity of such
pairings is attested to by the existence of penny songsters,
collections of songs printed from the touring shows of popular
entertainers. One, The Irish Boy and Yankee Girl Songster, a
collection of favorites from the repertoire of Mr. and Mrs. William
James Florence, contains such titles as "The Irishman's Shanty,"
with its obligatory reference to pigs that "roam at their aise,/And
come into the shanty whenever they plaise" (Florence 14-15).
The Florences' exploitation of this new ethnic material began when
Mrs. Florence joined her husband as a Yankee foil to his Irish
character parts in such plays as The Good for Nothing (1853).
They later toured London. Scotland and Ireland in The Yankee
Housekeeper (1856), which introduced the comic couple
Another famous husband and wife team who popularized the same stage types were Mr. and Mrs. Barney Williams. In the cover illustration for their songster, Irish Boy and Yankee Gal (1860), he is shown in an Irish hat with a pipe and shamrock in the hatband, and she wears modified Pilgrim garb. One of the songs, "The Quilting Party," has the rousing chorus:
Interestingly enough, these songbooks also turn up a kind of Irish braggart soldier, Major Longbow, a comic officer from Dublin who has fought in many lands. Several versions exist of his adventures--amatory, military and gustatory. The collection entitled Theatrical Comicalities of 1828, the same year in which Touch of the Poet is set. features a song entitled "Major Longbow's Appetite," in which the major brags about eating up both Adams and Jackson men crying for elections and the disturbance they brought to this digestion:
Besides the general interest in Irish and Yankee characters in the 19th century, the work of two playwrights lurks behind O'Neill's Irish Americans: John Brougham and Dion Boucicault. O'Neill's play echoes specific characters and situations from the works of both. For example, in Boucicault's Andy Blake, or The Irish Diamond (New York: Samuel French, 1856), a brother and sister are befriended when it is learned that their father had died fighting under Wellington. This recalls Con Melody's nostalgia for his moment of glory while serving under the Iron Duke at the Battle of Talavera. Their problem is similar and perhaps a common one for American immigrants: how to transfer the glory they had achieved in a European context to the new American scene. The "native" Americans or Yankees refused to recognize or give credit for any activity that took place before the immigrant came to the New World. Only what was done in America counted. In answer to this problem both playwrights invented a role for the Irish in American colonial and revolutionary history. To counter the antagonism of the Native American Know-Nothing Party, they created a heroic past for the Irish newcomers to justify their right to participate in American life.
Brougham's Irish Yankee, or The Birthday of Freedom (1856) presented a model for that genre. Set in the 1770s and the early days of the American Revolution, the play presents a main character, Ebeneezer O'Donahoo, the child of an Irish father and a Yankee mother. He is a kind of composite of Irish and Yankee stage types, and he explains: "Sure that small fragment of national bashfulness that I inherited from my father, doesn't prevent me from estimating the personal beauty which descended to me from my maternal mother" (Brougham 6). When this speech of Irish blunders and malapropisms draws comment from his Yankee listeners, he must admit: "I speak like my father and he was suspected of being an Irishman" (18).
These plays also demonstrate the era's fascination with the comic courtship or marriage of an Irish man and a Yankee woman, a subject whose popular interest is also revealed in the songsters. A play like James Pilgrim's Irish Assurance and Yankee Modesty (1856), written especially for Barney Williams, is an enlargement of the same theme. The play focuses on the comic courtship of two servants--Pat, who explains, "I was found in a basket like a lump of butter, all of a heap on St. Patrick's Day" (Pilgrim 14); and a Yankee housekeeper who introduces herself as "Nancy Stokes from Seekonk Plain, not a mite less or a grain more" (5). Each tells a story. Nancy's is of an Irish pig who "could whistle 'Paddy Carey,' and kick over the swill pail, and stick his feet through the window, and spit tobacco juice all over the carpet, and wipe his nose on the buckwheat cakes and make himself so sociable, such a critter you never did see" (9). Pat responds with a description of a Yankee cat, neat and prim. Nancy says that cat and pig should be of the same family. Pat replies, "Yes, you be the pig and I'll be the cat"--and they have sealed their marital agreement (9).
These plays and scores more that were popular in northeastern cities show the fascination with immigrant types; they raise questions and suggest solutions to immigrants' daily problems of integration and acceptance in the new society. Perhaps it was inevitable that stage Yankee and stage Irish characters should meet.
O'Neill, writing at the other end of the experience as a second generation Irish American, redrew the stereotypes to suggest not merely their inadequacy but also their culpability, as part of a propaganda of assimilation, in generating false consciousness and raising false hopes of ultimate equality and acceptance. A Touch of the Poet exhumes these Irish types and Irish-Yankee courtship scenes and exposes their raw edges and tragic potentialities. In so doing, O'Neill performed a service comparable to Shaw's in John Bull's Other Island, where he exposed the familiar scene of the wooing of an Irish colleen by an English visitor as the symbolic rape of Ireland by English imperialist interests.
The stock encounter of Irish boy and Yankee girl followed a familiar comic pattern. Essential ingredients included the boy's brogue and blunders, which raise laughter, and some variation of the staple "Is this what they mean by Blarney" question from the prim Yankee girl. The Irish boy advances relentlessly for his kiss. When he wins it, the Yankee girl usually concludes that they are more alike than different or that the differences are whimsically endearing. As I have noted, the purpose of such literature of accommodation. written to offset the hate propaganda of the "Know Nothing" or American Party, was to minimize or turn to comic advantage the differences between the new Irish immigrants and the older Yankee population.
O'Neill's play, although set at a time when the nativist and Irish antagonism was just becoming manifest (1834, the year of the burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, is usually cited as the start of Know Nothing hostilities), was actually written 100 years later. with a perspective that reveals the tragic tensions in the comic routine of that stock encounter. Looking in detail at the short scene between Con Melody and Deborah Harford (O'Neill 69-72), we discover all the usual ingredients----but with what a difference!
Melody begins with a mistake, calling Mrs. Harford "Mademoiselle." He also uses the highflown circumlocutions often associated with comic Irish characters: "Permit me to say again, how great an honor I will esteem it to be of any service." And he moves inexorably towards a kiss, beginning with a seemingly casual brush of his hand on her shoulder. When he states his name and heritage, it is not unlike the braggadocio of Ebeneezer O'Donahoo or Major Longbow: he boasts, "I am Major Cornelius Melody, one time of His Majesty's Seventh Dragoons." When his flowery speech recalling his glory at Talavera ends with a tribute to the fact that "there's not a man whose heart does not catch flame from your beauty," Deborah finds her response in the cultural stereotypes; right on cue, she replies, "Is this what the Irish call Blarney, Sir?" Believing that they have finally found their proper footing, Melody advances for his kiss. (Any mention of the Blarney is always interpreted as an invitation to kiss; for one receives the gift of the gab by kissing the Blarney Stone, and one uses the gift to gain kisses from something more yielding than stone.) Deborah also seems momentarily caught up in the force of their conventional roles. The stage direction describes her fascination: "He bends lower, while his eyes hold her. For a second it seems he will kiss her and she cannot help herself----." The smell of whiskey, of course, breaks the spell and. recovering, she characterizes Melody's approach to her as "this absurd performance." Nora enters and the mood is dispelled, but for a few moments O'Neill has utilized and shown the power of that "absurd performance" of Irish-boy and Yankee-girl courtship onstage. Looking for a vehicle for his expression of the Irish American experience, he found a tradition of well developed stage types and situations which he could use and transform. If in looking at A Touch of the Poet, we find. as the Gelbs do. that "despite the period setting and historical context the play was like so many of his others, emotionally and psychologically the story of his own family" (800). this should not surprise us. As Irish immigrants to America, they had recapitulated much of the same experience.
However. as fascinating as this search for biographical resonances may be, it is too narrow for a great playwright, and it does not do justice to O'Neill as a master at reviving and transforming the American theatrical heritage. I began my remarks with a comic list of clichés of O'Neill criticism. Behind them lurks a larger and more dangerous assumption. The stress on O'Neill as a lonely, isolated giant on the American theatre scene is a damaging one for O'Neill scholarship since it calls into question the level of dramatic activity in the United States. Although it is true that O'Neill was our first world-class playwright and there has been little challenge to his pre-eminence since his death, there are other great American playwrights: Boucicault before him, and Miller and Williams since. In a larger sense, it is self--defeating to insist on the solitariness of his achievement, and it is wrong-headed to ignore the theatre tradition that he grew out of and that nurtured him. To counter this reading of O'Neill plays in theatrical isolation, I have raised one small example of how he drew upon, used, and transformed native American dramatic character types and situations of the 19th century. Much more needs to be done to establish the depth and range of his debt to his American theatrical forebears. My own research has just begun to uncover these connections.
Since this is not merely an antiquarian exercise but part of the essential task of documenting the living interaction of theatre with its own past and future, I would like to end by suggesting the scope of O'Neill's contribution to re-visioning America in this late play that he had such grand designs for. While recreating in A Touch of the Poet a particular stage representation of American settlement and history, he transcended its specific Irish-Yankee references and provided, more broadly, a psychological and sociological model for understanding the destructive impact of American life on other cultures.
A theatre historian remarked to me recently that we can't care about A Touch of the Poet because we don't care about the Irish anymore and their whining about their troubles and problems in America. That seems too narrow a view. We know that the Irish, as the first unwanted aliens in the smug Yankee Republic, were targets for "Know Nothing" violence. They populated the first American urban slums, and their treatment and response to it set a tragic paradigm for "making it" in America. My contention is that O'Neill appropriates the Irish stage stereotypes in order to regenerate them as broader archetypes of American experience, and that the power of A Touch of the Poet comes from this central myth of American life that it depicts in a particular Irish-Yankee context.
The tragedy of assimilation is the insistence that nothing of another culture can be acknowledged as valuable or worth holding on to. The false dichotomy of American history is stripped bare by O'Neill's play, which forces only one possibility on the proud, aristocratic Con Melody: forget Byron and Napoleon, Wellington and Talavera; kill your high bred mare; sink into your proper place; the hoi polloi, the American melting pot, beckons. Of course, Con Melody's resistance to that alternative makes him look ridiculous; any holdout against the new patricians of American Puritanism is made to seem powerless, futile and ultimately insane. The only possible alternatives for acceptance are purveyed in the overblown images of the American election which serves as background to the action of the play--John Quincy Adams or Andrew Jackson. In setting these electoral choices, the American ruling class defines not only its own role and culture but also the acceptable role, culture and pastimes of the lower classes: Andrew Jackson embodies the approved channels for their oppositional energies as well.
Although some see the 1828 scene and the Irish-Yankee antagonism as kitsch and more than a little dated, translation of the same conflict into more recent struggles of groups within American culture might reveal the basic power of the myth O'Neill has provided. Imagine Con Melody as a black man and you have some of the tensions of Raisin In the Sun or, more violently, Dutchman. Transfer the time to the 1940s and the place to Los Angeles and the Hispanic culture, and you are not far from the world of Zoot Suit. All of these plays portray men who are proud and are destroyed for it. They will not be allowed to enter the kingdom of the heavenly U.S. dollar with one shred of dignity intact. By gathering many old dramatic stereotypes into his characterization of the mercurial Con Melody and investing him with mythic significance, O'Neill presented a model for other rebels living in America with other codes and cultures who are ultimately destroyed by the behemoth of American mainstream hegemony. In the destruction of Con Melody O'Neill has created a brilliant, Janus-like embodiment of the tragedy of American assimilation.
* This is a slightly condensed version of a paper delivered during the O'Neill session at the 1984 Modern Language Association Convention in Washington, D.C. Partial support for the research was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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