TRACKING THE LATE O'NEILL'S LABYRINTHINE WAYS
[A review of Judith E. Barlow's Final Acts: The Creation of Three Late O'Neill Plays. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1985. vii + 215 pp. $22.50. ISBN 0-8203-0759-9.]
It has always been a source of amazement to me how so many literary artists maintained voluminous correspondence, compiled notes, diaries, and workbooks, and wrote drafts, redrafts, and final manuscripts for the printer, all in laborious hand-written copy, and all accomplished while pursuing, we must assume, reasonably active lives. Equally amazing has been the propensity of these artists to preserve every word they scribbled. To one such as this writer, battling typewriter or word processor, throwing into the local salvage bin more sheets of paper by the ream than survive in the final product, both the time consumed in writing by hand and the space required to store the results seem overwhelming.
Eugene O'Neill was a "saver," and although we know
that he destroyed many later works, including most of the
"Dispossessors" cycle, the remaining papers provide substantial
enough evidence of the impressive scope of his ideas and the size of
his accomplishments. To read Virginia Floyd's study of these papers,
Eugene O'Neill at Work (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981), is
to encounter a creative mind constantly in ferment, conceiving
themes, characters, and plots in numbers which could not possibly
have been completed in any one lifetime. The evidence of the
might-have-beens, had O'Neill survived in reasonably good health
even a few more years, offers tantalizing wonder: what, for
instance, might have been the critical and popular impact of the
whole vast "Dispossessors" cycle alone?
The last three plays, taken together, these "Final Acts"--The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten--varying as their critical and popular reception has been, are unarguably the plays upon which O'Neill's artistic reputation now rests. At one time Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra might have seemed the apogee of a major literary career; but however important they remain in the canon, they have not stood up to the kind of continuing serious scrutiny and evaluation which has brought recognition to these three plays as major dramatic works of world stature. Now, through Barlow's outstanding scholarship, we are privileged to see how they arrived.
We all know how Eric Bentley tried his best to "like" O'Neill, and we're familiar enough with the problems he and others have continually encountered with the size--in the physicist's word, the sheer mass--of Iceman, Journey and, to a lesser degree, Moon. Why didn't O'Neill know when to stop? when to cut the seemingly interminable dialogue? when to eliminate the endless redundancies? As the story goes, when asked why he had to say a certain thing X number of times, O'Neill replied that he meant to say it X number of times--a response he deemed quite sufficient to silence his critic. What Barlow's study reveals, surprising as it may be to those of us who know only the final product, is that O'Neill arrived at X number of repetitions through a process of cutting, revising, rewriting and repeated polishing, up to and including printer's proofs, which belies the common assumption that, No. 2 pencil in hand, he proceeded to pour out words, willy-nilly, entirely out of control. If there is one thing that Barlow proves, it is that O'Neill was a conscientious editor of his own works, never entirely satisfied with what he had written, and, in many ways, his own best and severest critic. To most of us, much cutting and pasting could still be done. But what we do have, as Barlow demonstrates, is the result, not of uncontrolled compulsive writing, but of a compositional process which O'Neill took very seriously and over which he long labored in the most literal sense of the word.
Barlow had originally called her work "Pencil, Tears and Blood." I wish the title had remained, not only because it is so appropriate to O'Neill's method of working, but also because of the nature of the plays as Barlow describes them in her introduction:
In the three chapters of Final Acts, each devoted to a single play, Barlow impressively accomplishes what she sets out to do. The entire process through which O'Neill struggled in bringing these last plays into a form suitable for staging and ultimate publication is meticulously documented. With very little time left to complete the last play, as his health rapidly worsened, Moon suffered the most, having been staged in out-of-town try-out failures without ever reaching New York, and having been published without benefit of the further revisions that O'Neill well knew were needed. Iceman and Journey, however, received full editorial treatment, despite Carlotta's complaints about the increasingly shaky miniscule script which she was forced to decipher as O'Neill's primary typist.
In the development of Iceman one of the more interesting aspects is the evolution of the characters. O'Neill had stated that "All these people I have written about, I once knew," and though there were significant changes, Barlow shows their origins in early scenarios and drafts which used the real names of the models: e.g., Tom W. (Harry Hope) who was Tom Wallace, proprietor of the Hell Hole; Joe S. (Joe Mott) who was Joe Smith, a black gambler; and "Terry," originally Terry Carlin, who became Larry Slade. Changes in characters' dramatic emphasis are also outlined; for instance, Chuck the bartender (originally called Bull) passed from a central figure to one of strictly secondary importance. Even more interesting is the disclosure that in the earliest notes there was no mention of Hickey. In tracing his development, Barlow considers the possibility that his place was originally filled by Bull. The whole question of Hickey's sanity was explored by O'Neill in a variety of directions before arrival at the conclusion of the gang in Hope's saloon (which is not necessarily that of the audience) that the only explanation is that Hickey is, indeed, mad.
O'Neill's handling of the relationship between Larry Slade and Rosa and Don Parritt, including the question of Larry's paternity (is he or is he not Don's father) went through several approaches before the final version of Larry's condemning the pitiful, guilt-ridden young man to his death. Barlow concludes that despite the failure of O'Neill's struggles to make Larry Slade the dominant figure of the play, above Hickey, Slade does emerge as the "only genuine tragic figure in this complex dramatic work."
Barlow reveals that the play was, surprisingly enough, completed in relatively short order, a period of less than seven months between June 1939 and January 1940. But this still does not represent precipitous haste, for she shows very clearly how the development of the published and production versions--each a bit different, but undertaken simultaneously--passed through copious manuscript revisions, evidenced by many excisions and half page insertions, especially in dialect in order to make the language more consistent and convincing. Barlow also looks at the religious images, from the obvious "Last Supper" parallels through other allusions in action, character, and dialogue, as well as the convoluted arrival at the title with its biblical and bawdy music hall derivations.
Long Day's Journey was derived from ideas noted as early as the spring of 1927, when O'Neill spoke of "the grand opus of my life"--the autobiographical "Sea-Mother's Son." Barlow is certainly right when she observes, "It is probably to Journey's disadvantage that its biographical roots are so well known. Critics have tended to spend too much time discussing how the drama does (or does not) square with the facts of O'Neill's life and condemning historical inaccuracies." It is, as she observes, "patently unjust" to assert that O'Neill had no right to veer from the "figure from history" whom Edmund represents; but she does go on to show how, in the main, the play is "surprisingly faithful to many historical details."
Journey took somewhat longer than Iceman, beginning with notes in late June of 1939 and ending with the presentation manuscript for Carlotta in July 1941. Also, the extant notes and other material are more numerous than those for Iceman, so it is possible to follow many of the changes: in character names, from Mother, Father, Younger Son and Older Son to the choice of actual family names; in emphasis upon the dead Eugene, which diminished considerably in later versions; and in the various stages of Mary Tyrone's addiction and the family's reaction to it. Barlow's observation about Mary's position in the final scene should be cited:
In fact, as we follow the character development, it is clear that O'Neill became increasingly gentle with his family, perceptibly lessening the underlying hatred so evident in earlier drafts. As Barlow observes, "Love and anger are the warp and woof of Journey from O'Neill's first conception of the play, yet the fabric is more darkly colored in early versions," with the final drama making clear that "the Tyrones' bitterness and even hatred grow out of the very bonds of need and love that hold the family together." A telling point is made--one which seems to apply to much of what O'Neill did in the course of writing and rewriting his plays: "The act of composition apparently was, for the playwright, a lesson in compassion," with ultimately softened portraits of characters not only in this play but also in such characters as Larry Slade and Hickey. Barlow devotes a very long section to the evolution of Edmund, showing O'Neill's attempts to make him strong enough to hold his own against the more flamboyant James and Jamie and possibly become the central figure--a problem similar to that he had with Larry Slade. Barlow concludes that O'Neill did not entirely succeed, despite his determined efforts, and Edmund eventually emerged as the weakest of all.
A Moon for the Misbegotten was first mentioned in work notes in late October 1941. Considerable revisions along the way--all done by hand, all under the great difficulty of the increasing hand tremor--were still being made as late as 1945. Here, again, the central characters underwent considerable change before the play finally appeared, resulting in what is virtually a two-character play. Josie's father decreases considerably in emphasis from the first versions, becoming softer, with fewer "rough edges," including, for fear of offending audiences, the elimination of many of his more blasphemous utterances. Jim Tyrone's younger brother, although never appearing on stage, also lost importance after the earlier versions which referred to him frequently, so that he all but disappears entirely.
Barlow's presentation of the evolution of Josie is fascinating. She was apparently patterened to a considerable degree after Christine Ell of Provincetown days, who acted, in her relationships with the Greenwich Village crowd, in much the same general manner as Josie. But, of course, we are less interested in the "original" upon whom a character is based than in what O'Neill did with it, and Barlow shows Josie's progress toward the "split" personality of the supposed slut, but with the ultimate realization of her earth-mother quality, shown in her size, prowess and large nurturing breasts--the redeeming virgin who "saves" Jim Tyrone before she sends him off to his death. She is much gentler and more appealing in her "final" form, with less emphasis upon her "earthiness" and more upon the symbolic significance of "her role in the confessional design," while also emerging as a complete and credible woman with "very human needs and desires."
What is most important in the whole discussion of Moon is Barlow's account of the changes in Jim Tyrone, who is transformed "from a hazy figure philosophizing vaguely about the misery of life Ito] a graphically realized example of a man tormented by personal guilt, trapped by past mistakes and present weaknesses, seeking only the love and forgiveness that will allow him to face death with some measure of tranquility." All of this is well shown in the many, often severe, revisions which O'Neill undertook. Barlow also discusses the development of the mother/son relationship, so common a problem with O'Neill men. The virgin/mother figure of Josie provides what Jim has needed and sought. (And not only Jim: as Barlow states, "Despite wide variations in the personalities and circumstances of O'Neill heroes, most seek a maternal woman for a mate.") While the relationship is not consummated, Jim has satisfied his need, being "totally unable to face life without the primal protection of the mother," with the quest for the womb shown as "ultimately the quest for the tomb."
I have always had trouble with A Moon for the Misbegotten, finding it difficult to accept even as a second-rate "masterpiece," with its gaps, flaws, and rough edges. I have no difficulty agreeing with Barlow's conclusion:
For one seeking to understand the artistic development of the playwright, Barlow's study is invaluable, a genuine scholarly achievement. One can always ask of such a study, "What is its significance with relation to the final product? Does it in any way affect or alter the value or importance of the completed work?" Of course not. Then why undertake it?
Perhaps the answer is that we are all voyeurs who would like to know what really went on in the artist's mind as he created his or her play. What were the internal struggles that Shakespeare went through in creating Hamlet? In our insistence on knowing, in seeking "meaning" through our knowledge of these things, we may well be counting trees while losing sight of the beauties of the forest. No, such a study doesn't make any one of O'Neill's plays any more or less important, and to judge the autobiographical/historical aspects in terms of their accuracy or distortion is a meaningless exercise, since the true work of art, while always reflecting its creator, certainly must remain artistically valid first and historically valid second.
We do learn a lot about O'Neill from this book. Most of us, without access to the O'Neill papers and without the temperament to plow through them as Judith Barlow has done, will learn a great deal about the creative process, and in many ways, we learn things about O'Neill as an artist which tell us a lot more than we would have imagined about how the end products came about. Final Acts is revealing, gripping, fascinating, and although ultimately irrelevant insofar as the value of the final artistic work is concerned, it is an important scholarly contribution, well written, beautifully organized, a pleasure to read. In this respect it was well worth the effort, and Judith Barlow is to be congratulated on an important accomplishment.
--Jordan Y. Miller
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