HOUSE OF COMPSON, HOUSE OF TYRONE: FAULKNER'S INFLUENCE ON O'NEILL
Judith Bryant Wittenberg's article, "Faulkner and Eugene O'Neill" (Mississippi Quarterly, Summer 1980, pp. 327-341), is a thought-provoking discussion of the influence that the dramatist may have had on the novelist. What Professor Wittenberg describes, however, is a one-way street: "Thus Faulkner's life, both personal and professional, gave him access to the work and ideas of the playwright who, though only nine years older than Faulkner, seemed almost to be from a previous literary generation..." (p. 29). While I certainly agree that O'Neill influenced Faulkner, my study of the two writers1 has suggested that the novelist is overlooked as a shaping force on several of the dramatist's plays. It is curious that Long Day's Journey into Night (1940; 1956) has not been juxtaposed with The Sound and the Fury (1929), because the similarities are quite striking. To my knowledge, only Stephen Whicher's 1956 review of Long Day's Journey notes this kinship: "A book that comes close to O'Neill's play in theme and mood [is] Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury."2 Whicher does not develop this comparison any further, but I should like to do so now.
Little has been written about O'Neill's indebtedness to anyone with regard to Long Day's Journey into Night--largely, I suspect, because the autobiographical nature of that play is emphasized to the exclusion of everything else. Even its dedication to the dramatist's wife underlines the "real life" content:
Add to this Carlotta Monterey O'Neill's oft-quoted description of her husband's anguish as he was writing the play: "He would come out of his study at the end of a day gaunt and sometimes weeping. His eyes would be all red and he looked ten years older than when he went in in the morning."3
Reviews of Long Day's Journey focused almost universally on the drama's autobiographical content and stressed that it was based on the playwright's own family and experiences. Moreover, most reviewers felt that the element of autobiography enhanced its impact. For example, Harold Clurman wrote (The Nation, March 3, 1956, p. 182) that the play "is a precious gift to us," but his emphasis was on O'Neill's life. Similarly, when Henry Hewes reviewed Long Day's Journey for the Saturday Review (November 24, 1956, p. 30), he, too, drew attention to this aspect: "The late Eugene O'Neill has shown himself, his elder brother, his father, and his mother as they slip back and forth from one plane to another in a grim dance of life." Brooks Atkinson's review was featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review (February 19, 1956), and, once again, "real life" triumphed over art:
Atkinson praises the play, insisting that its grounding in fact adds to its worth: "The story of Long Day's Journey into Night is no more devastating than others he told. But it seems more devastating because it is personal and as literal as a drama can be. This was the environment, respectably middle class on the surface, obsessed and tortured inside, out of which our most gigantic writer of tragedy emerged."4
Common to nearly all the reviews is the absence of speculations about literary debts. In evaluating his earlier plays, critics had found that O'Neill was invariably reminiscent of someone: maybe Before Breakfast suggested Strindberg, perhaps The Iceman Cometh looked back to Gorky, surely O'Neill's pipe dreams were Ibsenesque. But the category "autobiography" seemed to eradicate the desire to find echoes of anyone else. Recently, the playwright Hugh Leonard--author of two autobiographical dramas, Da and A Life--wrote an article entitled "Can a Playwright Truly Depict Himself?" Quoting the British historian Philip Guedella--"Autobiography is an unrivaled vehicle for telling the truth about other people"--Leonard adds, "and for telling lies about oneself." He singles out Long Day's Journey into Night as "undoubtedly the best autobiographical play ever written, and ironically ... one of the least factually reliable."5 The Irish dramatist goes on to single out two "liberties" that O'Neill took with the truth: we find no clue in the play that Mary Tyrone will cure herself of morphine addiction, as Ella O'Neill was to do; and Jamie O'Neill was nowhere near his brother when tuberculosis was diagnosed. Actually, O'Neill was even more free with himself, in the character of Edmund Tyrone: he omits entirely his early marriage to Kathleen Jenkins and the birth of Eugene O'Neill, Jr.
Since recent theoretical work in autobiography-as-genre has suggested that the trans-formation of people, places, and things into aesthetic artifacts is considerably more complex than we once thought, we should expect such major revisions of actuality. Nonetheless, the fact remains that Long Day's Journey has been unnecessarily inviolable to analyses of influence. Juxtaposition with The Sound and the Fury suggests that there may have been a source for the play other than the dramatist's own life.
Irving Howe has said that Faulkner's novel shows a "family's history in all its vulnerability, and the result is not an account but a picture of experience, a series of stripped exposures."6 Long Day's Journey is also a series of stripped exposures in which each character voices his own version of reality. Although technically very different--Faulkner is at his most experimental, O'Neill at his least--both authors have the identical goal: to tell the same story from multiple viewpoints. The Sound and the Fury and Long Day's Journey are both quadripartite in structure, but they move in reverse order, the novel from chaos (Benjy) to order (Dilsey), the play from daylight (order) to night (chaos). Narration becomes justification as the characters offer "evidence" to prove their "innocence." This same-but-different repetition (what Cleanth Brooks calls "traversing the same territory in circling movements"7) contributes to the feelings of exhaustion and entrapment which both works convey. Novel and play are intensely claustrophobic. As O'Neill had said earlier, "Life is for each man a solitary cell whose walls are mirrors."8
Perhaps the most obvious similarity between the two works is the focus on a family which is destroying (has destroyed?) itself. The failure of love and the presentness of the past dominate the novel as they do the play. Accusation and attack, recrimination and retreat: that is the pattern both follow. Parents have failed their children long ago and continue to fail them. "None of us can help the things life has done to us," Mary Tyrone mourns,9 voicing the victimization which characterizes the Compsons as well. Each family must blame someone or something; only one's self is exempt from censure. Mary can blame her morphine addiction on James's stage life, on Edmund's birth, on the quack doctor who treated her; James, The Count of Monte Cristo for his failure to become a great Shakespearean actor; Jamie, his mother's dope habit for his own dissipation and aimless life; and Edmund, his delicate health for his inability to have a life on the sea. All are active participants in the blame game.
The Compsons, too, have their escapes and excuses. Caroline Compson retreats into her imaginary illnesses just as Mary Tyrone hides behind her fog of morphine. Her husband chooses neither dope nor hypochondria but, like Jamie Tyrone, immerses himself in alcohol in order to obliterate past and present. Jason, consumed by martyrdom and paranoia, blames Quentin's Harvard, Caddy's wedding, and Benjy's idiocy for his seemingly ceaseless woes. Quentin attributes his impotence--sexual and otherwise--to his forbidden love for his unattainable sister.
What has happened to create the familial tragedies? Who is responsible for the end-less dissonance? Faulkner and O'Neill both place a great deal of blame on the mother; in neither novel nor play is there a mother in any real sense of the word. Caroline Compson, who is drawn very harshly, and Mary Tyrone, who is portrayed more sympathetically, are nonetheless quite similar in the devastating influences they have on their families. Caroline never feels that she is a Compson and remains obsessed with her identity as a Bascomb long after her marriage. She is tormented by her sense of inferiority because the Bascombs were considered socially less respectable than the Compsons. Denying her love to all but Jason, she declares that he is a true Bascomb and "the only one of them who isn't a reproach to me."10 For her other children, Caroline has no love. Quentin thinks, "if I'd just had a mother so I could say Mother Mother" (p. 190). On the final day of his life, Quentin thinks of her as a "dungeon" and "us lost somewhere below.... Finished. Finished. Then we were all poisoned" (p. 121).11
Like Caroline, Mary Tyrone is obsessed with the memory of her life before her marriage. However, her situation is the opposite of Caroline's; the Quinlans were socially superior to the Tyrones, and Mary feels that she married beneath her former station in life. She returns again and again to thoughts of her revered father and the contrast between him and her actor-drinker husband, James. That he has failed to provide adequately for her resounds throughout the play: "And for me it's always been as lonely as a dirty room in a one-night stand hotel. In a real home one is never lonely. You forget I know from experience what a home is like. I gave up one to marry you--my father's home" (p. 72). Clutching about desperately for a reason for her addiction to morphine, she tells James, "You should have remained a bachelor and lived in second-rate hotels and entertained your friends in barrooms! Then nothing would ever have happened" (p. 67). Memories of her girlish beauty, her refined piano-playing, and her schooling with the Sisters are counterpointed with her grey hair, her gnarled fingers, and her loss of faith.
Although the portrayal of Mrs. Compson is unmitigatedly severe, the treatment of her husband is somewhat ambivalent and therefore problematic, especially for the reader who remembers Mr. Compson as the sympathetic father in "That Evening Sun." In The Sound and the Fury, Compson has taken refuge behind cynicism and alcohol; he has simply given up. His advice to Quentin is that of a man who is bereft of all hope:
Faulkner does not assign causes to Compson's alcoholism, but his relationship--rather, his lack of one--with his wife is surely a major factor. The damage has been done by the time The Sound and the Fury opens; he has only to drink himself to death.
Although his inclinations toward alcohol are not of suicidal proportions, James Tyrone nevertheless shares with Mr. Compson the use of drink as refuge. Faced with his wife's fluttering fingers and dilated eyes, James resignedly heads for the bottle. When Mary talks, the lack of a stable family life seems to be James's fault. But when he explains, we hear a different story. He tells Edmund (pp. 137 ff.) that Mary's own beloved father drank to excess, that she was never talented enough to be the concert pianist she talks about endlessly, that she wasn't devout enough to be a nun because she was a rogue and a coquette. James tells Edmund that he knew nothing about morphine, that it was years before he realized what was wrong with his wife. Edmund accuses James just as Mary does: "You've dragged her around on the road, season after season, on one-night stands, with no one she could talk to, waiting night after night in dirty hotel rooms for you to come back with a bun on after the bars closed! Christ, is it any wonder she didn't want to be cured. Jesus, when I think of it I hate your guts!" (p. 141). But James asserts his innocence yet again: "Will you stop repeating your mother's crazy accusations, which she never makes unless it's the poison talking? I never dragged her on the road against her will. Naturally, I wanted her with me. I loved her. And she came because she loved me and wanted to be with me" (p. 142).
The resemblances between the senior Compsons and Tyrones are readily discernible, but the characters of Quentin and Edmund evince even stronger similarities. Both are obsessed with the past, unwilling to live in the present, and incapable of thinking about the future. A generous appraisal of them would include "sensitive," "poetic," and "idealistic"; a less tolerant view, "narcissistic," "maudlin," and "solipsistic." Critics have been far more negative about Quentin than Edmund, perhaps because the former is not seen as a portrait of Faulkner, while the latter is pinpointed immediately as O'Neill.
Paralyzed by the realization of his own mortality, Quentin is obsessed with time. Clocks chime throughout his section of the novel, echoing in his mind long after their sound has ceased. Pulling off the hands of his watch does not annihilate time but only heightens his consciousness of it: "I could hear my watch ticking away in my pocket and after a while I had all the other sounds shut away, leaving only the watch in my pocket" (p. 102). Similarly, Edmund hears "the fog drip from the eaves like the uneven tick of a rundown, crazy clock" (p. 152). Both Quentin and Edmund feel that their time is, literally, running out. O'Neill has underlined the passage of time in the very title of his play, and it is further emphasized in his specifications of the hours for the various scenes: Act I, 8:30 a.m.; II, 12:45 p.m.; III, 6:30 p.m.; IV, midnight. Time creeps on inexorably in both novel and play.
Quentin often mentions gulls in his wandering reveries, presumably because they symbolize that oxymoronic motionless movement which is so characteristic of Faulkner. For example, he relates, "I could smell water, and in a break in the wall I saw a glint of water and two masts, and a gull motionless in midair, like on an invisible wire between the masts..." (p. 108). Quentin is similarly fascinated by the never-to-be-caught trout which, like the gull, hangs "delicate and motionless" (p. 136), suspended in the water as the bird is in the air. Trout and gull are somehow out of time, eternally poised just on the brink of action. Perhaps, too, Quentin envies the "sense of place" that the gull and fish possess; they are sure of their elements, while Quentin is sure of nothing. Edmund shares Quentin's feeling of displacement: "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!" (pp. 153-4) Just as Quentin finds timelessness in the arrested motion of gull and trout, Edmund finds a sense of eternity on the sea: "I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself--actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea .... I belonged, without past or future ..." (p. 153).
Both men (or should they be called boys?) are all thought and no action. They are hyperaesthetic and intuitive to the extent that the sensations of the world impinge upon them to an unbearable degree. They possess in an extreme way what Keats--one of Faulkner's and O'Neill's favorite poets--called negative capability, that state of entering into another's being so completely that one's own individuality is annihilated in the process. Quentin is able to identify with people, animals, and even inanimate things to such an extreme degree that his own being is called into question. He literally seems to overflow the confines of his self. It is no surprise, then, that he returns again and again to thoughts of water, that element which suggests dissolution, timelessness, and--most of all--oblivion. All those sensations characterize Edmund's experiences on the sea; the self simply dissolves. Quentin's death by drowning is paralleled by Edmund's attempted suicide, which James tries to explain away: "You weren't in your right mind. No son of mine would ever--You were drunk." Edmund's reply voices the yearning for oblivion which Quentin courts as well: "I was stone cold sober. That was the trouble. I'd stopped to think too long" (p. 147).
After the morbidity and intense introspection of Quentin and Edmund, the harsh wit and angry violence of Jason Compson and Jamie Tyrone provide a welcome release through black humor. Both men prefer not to gloss over "the facts"; they "tell it like it is," covering themselves with thick layers of cynicism and self-deprecating sarcasm. No solipsism for them.
Jamie's acerbity and drunken ramblings highlight the fact that for him the only woman in the world is his mother. Taking to drink (or so he would have us believe) because he discovered Mary's morphine habit--"Christ, I'd never dreamed before that any women but whores took dope" (p. 163)--Jamie has, in his father's words, "wanted to believe every man was a knave with his soul for sale, and every woman who wasn't a whore was a fool" (p. 34). But Jamie has "seen a lot more of this game" than Edmund: "You never knew what was really wrong until you were in prep school. Papa and I kept it from you. But I was wise ten years or more before we had to tell you" (p. 57). It is clear that Mary's condition changed Jamie's life and, although he phrases his mother's condition crudely--"Where's the hophead?" (p. 161)--it is he who, more than Edmund or James, has real knowledge of what Mary endures. Jamie clearly identifies with her: "I'd begun to hope, if she'd beaten the game, I could, too" (p. 162). Mary's relapse propels Jamie into heavier drinking than usual, and into Fat Violet's arms. His choice of Violet is easy to understand; she is fat and she plays the piano, just as Mary has "gotten too fat" (p. 14) and still attempts to play. Jamie is the outsider, bereft of his father's admiration and his mother's love. It is Edmund--"Mama's baby, Papa's pet!" (p. 165)--who has what he wants.
Jason, too, is an outsider, a mordantly realistic observer of his family's actions. Just as Jamie refuses to keep silent about his mother's condition, so Jason's phrases are brutally direct. Language is his mask. Benjy is "the Great American Gelding" (p. 280) rather than a pathetic, retarded brother; Caddy is a whore, and her daughter, as Jason periodically reminds us, is no better: "Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say." For his alcoholic father Jason has no pity--"We'd all been a damn sight better off if he'd sold that sideboard and bought himself a one-armed strait jacket with part of the money" (p. 215)--and, although his mother often tells him that he is her only hope, he is as scornful of her as he is of the rest of his family. To hear Jason tell it, Quentin's suicide is hardly an event worthy of pathos: "I says no I never had university advantages because at Harvard they teach you how to go for a swim at night without knowing how to swim and at Sewanee they don't even teach you what water is" (pp. 213-214). Life's experiences have taught Jason to suspect everyone. Women are not exempt from his suspicion, although Jason, like Jamie, is most comfortable with prostitutes: "I've got every respect for a good honest whore" (p. 251). Exhibiting the same kind of insight which Jamie showed for Fat Violet, Jason remarks, "I'd like to see the good, church-going woman that's half as square as Lorraine, whore or no whore" (p. 263). He is determined not to get married: "I have all the women I can take care of now if I married a wife she'd probably turn out to be a hophead or something. That's all we lack in this family, I says" (p. 264).
The Compsons and Tyrones are bound together not by love but a common past of hurt, betrayal, and resentment. Each person in The Sound and the Fury and Long Day's Journey into Night has his own special set of grievances and his equally unique response to them, whether it be cynicism, hypochondria, alcohol, drugs, or suicide. What is remarkable is that, in spite of this uniqueness, the characters in novel and play are so alike. A decaying mansion in Mississippi, a waterfront cottage in New England--quite different locales for very similar families whose love is inextricably mixed with hate and whose present is determined by the past.
--Susan H. Tuck
1 See my article, "Faulkner and O'Neill: Their Kindred Imaginations," The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter (Winter 1980), pp. 19-20.
2 Stephen Whicher, "O'Neill's Long Journey," Commonweal (March 16, 1956), p. 614.
3 Seymour Peck, "A Talk with Mrs. O'Neill," The New York Times, Nov. 4, 1956; rpt. O'Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, ed. Oscar Cargill, et al. (New York: New York University Press, 1961), p. 93.
4 Marya Mannes, in "A Dissenting Opinion on the O'Neill Play," was one of the very few who thought that the autobiographical content of the play lessened its universality--and hence its impact: "To me, the Tyrone family remained O'Neill's family throughout, torn piece by piece from his guts; and it was in this very specialness that the play's short-comings as tragedy stood revealed" (Reporter, Dec. 13, 1956, p. 38)
5 Hugh Leonard, "Can a Playwright Truly Depict Himself?" The New York Times, Nov. 23, 1980, II, p. 5.
6 lrving Howe, William Faulkner: A Critical Study, 2nd ed. (New York: Random House, 1962), p. 165.
7 Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963; rpt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), p. 326.
8 Eugene O'Neill, Lazarus Laughed, in The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Random House, 1934), p. 309.
9 Eugene O'Neill, Long Day's Journey into Night (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), p. 61. Subsequent references will be included parenthetically in the text.
10 William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929; rpt. New York: Random House, 1956), p. 199. Subsequent references will be included parenthetically in the text.
11 Cleanth Brooks is one of the most outspoken critics of Caroline Compson: "The curse upon Quentin and the rest of the Compsons is the presence of their hypochondriac, whining mother.... The basic cause of the breakup of the Compson family--let the more general cultural causes be what they may--is the cold and self-centered mother who is sensitive about the social status of her own family, the Bascombs, who feels the birth of an idiot son as a kind of personal affront, who spoils and corrupts her favorite son, and who withholds any real love and affection from her other children and her husband. Caroline Compson is not so much an actively wicked and evil person as a cold weight of negativity which paralyzes the normal family relationships" (Yoknapatawpha Country, pp. 333-4).
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