DIALOGUE BETWEEN SON AND MOTHER IN CHEKHOV'S THE SEA GULL AND O'NEILL'S LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
Eugene O'Neill acknowledged his debt to August Strindberg from the beginning, and the special sharpness of recrimination among family members in his later plays offers ample evidence of the unabating influence of the tormented Swedish genius on America's greatest playwright.1 So, too, is Ibsen's varied and pervasive influence throughout the entire O'Neill canon, from the social radicalism of the 1920's to the seeming nihilism of The Iceman Cometh, a play which, as several critics have demonstrated, is remarkably similar in theme to The Wild Duck.2 What has never been adequately discussed--in fact, has hardly even been alluded to--is the similarity between Anton Chekhov's plays and O'Neill's, especially O'Neill's later works. O'Neill only once mentioned Chekhov in the 1920's--in a perhaps sarcastic remark about Chekhov's "perfect plotless plays"3--and he vehemently denied a reviewer's suggestion that his popular Strange Interlude was Chekhovian.4 Nevertheless, there are qualities in O'Neill's later plays and Chekhov's five great dramas which suggest that the Russian and the American not only saw life in similar terms but dramatized the dynamics of close emotional relationships in similar ways.
The large similarity between the two, which links them to the greatest playwrights of the past, is one of moral vision--their mutual sense that in the midst of overwhelming futility there is hope. Few modern playwrights have so thoroughly devastated the traditional avenues of human belief and aspiration as have these two, while at the same time unflinchingly affirming the strength and capacity of the human spirit to endure. Certainly not Ibsen, whose social protest of the 1870's and 1880's gave way to the dark defeatism of the 1890's in a play like John Gabriel Borkman. Nor Strindberg, who withdrew into worlds of private fantasy, and thereby helped found the whole movement called dramatic expressionism. And the ever-sunny Bernard Shaw, who was also a favorite of the early O'Neill, could never take human depravity really seriously. Chekhov and O'Neill alone, among early twentieth century dramatists, could look at the ghosts in the human closet--could acknowledge the hatred, deceit, violence, and cowardice with which all human beings, even those we consider the "best," are burdened--and at the same time find their central characters, with few exceptions, redeemable. They could say incontrovertibly that by any rational standard life is morally and spiritually bankrupt, and could at the same time make human experience rich and glorious. To be sure, both found man saved to an extent by the comic--the way Chekhov uses the term "comedy" to define The Cherry Orchard is quite appropriate to a play like A Moon for the Misbegotten--but it is something other than, more than, the comic which makes these the great playwrights they are for a century so deprived of the promise and expectation which kept men and societies going in the past. I have heard it said by audiences of both The Three Sisters and The Iceman Cometh that "for some reason" they are not so despairing as they first appear. In fact, that they are finally quite the opposite of despairing is what gives them the awesome power they possess in our time. Viewers and readers deeply familiar with these plays find that they make life at its very worst seem bearable--a quality that has been a characteristic of all great tragedy from the Greeks on down.
Lengthier discussion than this can provide would be needed to isolate the salient characteristics of the kind of hope Chekhov and O'Neill have in common. What I wish to introduce here is that, as psychological dramatists, they see both hope and despair as two sides of a single coin and as responses which grow out of the closest of human relationships. They seem to imply that both what is wrong and what is right with the world grow out of the way people get along with one another in families, friendships and close-knit societies. Further, their dialogue indicates their mutual belief that close relationships--most often family relationships--are inevitably characterized by sudden alternations of feeling, by violent shifts from great affection to great hostility and back again. Their characters express their need to love and their need for love; they show as well their need to hurt and the inevitability of their being hurt in return. And these playwrights realize that the creation of hope versus the creation of despair is directly related to the success versus the failure of these severe confrontations.
Two plays in particular indicate more precisely the way in which the two playwrights treat the dynamics of intense emotional confrontation by members of a family. In both plays what results from the confrontations in question is despair--despair which in one case leads to suicide; but it is the kind of confrontation which in other instances leads to great reassurance for the central character involved and indirectly for the audience. The two plays are The Sea Gull and Long Day's Journey Into Night, both of which deal with the disastrous effects on a creative youth of parental instability. Arkadina affects her son Konstantin very much the way both James and Mary Tyrone affect their son Edmund in the O'Neill play. As James's egotistical vociferousness as an actor helps make his son feel inadequate, similar histrionics on the part of the great actress Arkadina persistently shake her son's self-confidence in The Sea Gull. As James combines this bravado with an oft-alluded-to miserliness, Arkadina denies her son even clothing suitable to his social position, so great are her fears concerning money--fears which, it seems implied, grow out of the same kind of earlier deprivation which James explicitly describes in his own background. Both Arkadina and James, of course, also spend money quite recklessly when it suits them--to the added dismay of their sons.
But Arkadina's deeper effects on Konstantin resemble more closely still the influence of the mother, Mary Tyrone, on her son in the O'Neill play. There are surface similarities between the two women: for example, their mutual contempt for the social backgrounds of their husbands and their disdain for "country" life. But the deeper influence on their sons has to do with what in one is a literal addiction, and in the other an obsession with an individual which to her son is like an addiction. Mary's morphine affects Edmund precisely as Arkadina's Boris Trigorin affects Konstantin. The addiction/obsession of the mothers contributes to the suicidal frenzy of their sons, a frenzy which explicitly culminates in Konstantin's suicide in the Chekhov play. In the case of Edmund, potential suicide is a shadow which lingers on the fringes of the play, as Louis Sheaffer's two-volume biography amply demonstrates.5 Long Day's Journey is unquestionably an autobiographical play, and anyone even remotely familiar with O'Neill's life realizes that his entire canon persistently re-enacts his struggles with suicidal feeling directly related to his relationship with his mother. The devastating consequences of a mother's rejection of her son is central to both Chekhov's play and O'Neill's.
The similarity goes beyond situation, however. It is also reflected in the way mother and son in these plays talk to each other at critical junctures, at those points where the depth of their closeness is revealed but where also the lasting damage to the son is done by the mother. Arkadina and Konstantin have only one such encounter in The Sea Gull: their dialogue in Act Three, which begins with Konstantin's request that his mother change his head bandage--he has wounded himself superficially in an unsuccessful suicide attempt--and ends with his furious tearing off of the dressing Arkadina has applied. There are several such encounters in Long Day's Journey. In one, late in the play, Edmund begins by appealing to his mother to acknowledge his illness (consumption) and overcome her addiction, and ends by calling his mother a "dope fiend." Such encounters are critical because one feels the sincerity of the characters and knows that they are being as honest as they possibly can with each other. The possibility for honesty in the mother, however, is limited by the addiction or obsession she will not admit, and this sharp limitation brings about her cruel rejection of her son. What chiefly characterizes these mother-son encounters in the two plays is the violent shifts in feeling on the part of both figures, shifts which culminate in sudden, explosive insult. In both plays the son appeals while the mother evades. Both mothers feel quite tender toward their sons at the start, but it is they who begin the vicious exchanges that ensue. The confrontation in The Sea Gull begins as follows:
After reminding his mother of her charitable nature, which she tends to forget, Konstantin continues:
This, of course, Konstantin rejects completely, and instead accuses Trigorin of cowardice.
Arkadina's charge of envy is her evasion of what Konstantin is saying about her feelings toward Trigorin. She ends in further evasion, alluding to the middle-class background of Konstantin's father, then calling her son a decadent and a nonentity. He retaliates by calling her a miser. That they make up before they part testifies to their deep love and need for one another, but the damage to the son is great and, as it turns out, fatal.
Here is O'Neill's handling of the same kind of exchange:
Mary, sensing what subject he wishes to bring up, evades what he will have to say, first by her excessive concern about his "summer cold," and then by attacking doctors. But Edmund is determined to make his point:
She then begins her oft-heard but to Edmund persistently hurtful accusation that it was his being born that started her on morphine. This leads him in turn to a tone of seeming indifference to her claim that one day the Virgin Mary will help her overcome her problem. In response she assumes a tone of cold indifference to his feelings and lets it be known that she will have someone drive her to the drugstore for the obvious purchase. While they do not quite hurl insults here, as do Arkadina and Konstantin, the effect is the same, and their later exchange on the same subject (too long to be quoted here) leads to Edmund's "dope fiend" accusation. There is always a truce of sorts, but Edmund is terribly deflated by his failure, forced to accept for perhaps the thousandth time that his mother is impenetrable. Following their later, similar exchange, Edmund dashes out for a long walk in the fog, with what one can well assume are suicidal thoughts on his mind. Were it only his mother that stood between him and the "insane despair" that leads Konstantin to take his own life, Edmund could easily have suffered the same fate. (In O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, a distraught son does in fact take his own life because of his mother's rejection of him--and his subsequent betrayal of her.)
What makes these mother-son confrontations in Chekhov and O'Neill so tellingly similar is that the violent opposition of tenderness and quick, deadly hostility in them is so unmitigated--there is no holding back of either feeling--and that they are so obviously part of a long-standing trauma of rejection felt by the son from his earliest years. One senses the endless repetition of these exchanges; they feel like echoes of similar exchanges going back to the point of the mother's first withdrawal and the son's first terrible disillusionment. The son eternally appeals, but the mother will not hear. We sense that we are witnessing part of a long-established pattern of confrontation which makes explicit the nature of the despair both sons feel. Mary's addiction from the start, says an Edmund who could also be speaking for Konstantin, "made everything in life seem rotten." The critical rejection which results from their mothers' obsessions is central to what makes Edmund and Konstantin want to give up on life.
The difference between the heroes is, of course, that Edmund is able to triumph over his hurt, whereas Konstantin is not. Edmund is finally able to find from his father and his brother the love he has been deprived of. His dialogue with them is characterized by the same violent vacillations of feeling which characterize his relationship with his mother, but with father and brother there is no sudden denial, no cold cutting off. Quite the opposite. Edmund's confrontations with father and brother during the final act of Long Day's Journey end in new openness, with deep hurt but still deeper reconciliation. Those confrontations end in confession and mutual reassurance, unlike Edmund's confrontations with Mary, which end in an utterly artificial "making up," which involves no confession and very little reassurance. Edmund finally feels with father and brother the kind of emotional contact which Konstantin never finds. The doctor (Dorn) and Konstantin's uncle (Sorin) try but cannot truly reach him. Nina, who might have saved him in the end, is herself too deeply hurt by Trigorin, and by life, to do anything for Konstantin. She remains prisoner to obsessions which parallel those of Arkadina and Mary--so there is nothing left for Konstantin but the overwhelmingly cold terror from which he cannot escape. Edmund, in being able to be reached by others, is more fortunate.
Long Day's Journey, by juxtaposing the best with the worst in close human relationships, becomes for me a uniquely hopeful modern play. Chekhov, not yet ready to find the same kind of hope in the emotional chaos of The Sea Gull, or its monumentally painful predecessor Ivanov, came to the same kind of acceptance in his final three plays. For example, an exchange similar to the one from The Sea Gull occurs between the still-youthful Petya and the motherly Lyubov in the third act of The Cherry Orchard--an exchange of heated insults culminating in Petya's storming out of the room. But despite Petya's abrupt exit, there is no breaking off of communication. In fact, the two are seen waltzing together not twenty lines later. Far from being brought to a sense of their abiding hostility, we gain a sense of their abiding affection in spite of their anger at one another. So, too, what Vanya and Sonya are ultimately able to do for one another in Uncle Vanya turns that play away from the despair which characterizes the ending of The Sea Gull and makes its conclusion not unlike the conclusions of O'Neill's later plays (especially, A Moon for the Misbegotten); while the final union of the three sisters--which is nothing short of miraculous--is the very embodiment of the transcendent hope in the midst of apparent futility with which I began this discussion. My main idea, however, has been that the means by which Chekhov and O'Neill arrive at the same point, create the despair and later the hope which links their plays, is in the intense dialogue of emotional confrontation which is best illustrated by the mother-son dialogue in The Sea Gull and Long Day's Journey.
1 Numerous articles have linked O'Neill and Strindberg. See, for example, S. K. Winther, "Strindberg and O'Neill: A Study in Influence," Scandinavian Studies, 31 (1959), 103-120; and Murray Hartman, "Strindberg and O'Neill," Educational Theatre Journal, 18 (Oct. 1966), 216-223.
2 The similarity between these two plays was first pointed out in Sverre Arestad's "The Iceman Cometh and The Wild Duck," Scandinavian Studies, 20 (Feb. 1948), 1-11. It has been reiterated by several critics since, most recently by Peter Egri. (The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, Winter 1981, pp. 7-9.)
3 From an interview with O'Neill which appeared in the New York Herald Tribune, 16 March 1924; reprinted in Oscar Cargill et al., O'Neill and His Plays (New York: New York University Press, 1961), pp. 110-112.
4 See Louis Sheaffer, Eugene O'Neill: Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1973), p. 384.
5 Eugene O'Neill: Son and Playwright (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1968); and Eugene O'Neill: Son and Artist (see note 4).
6 Quotations from The Sea Gull are from Chekhov: The Major Plays, tr. by Ann Dunnigan (New York: The New American Library, 1964), pp. 143-145.
7 Quotations from Long Day's Journey Into Night are from the sole published edition of that play (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), pp. 91-92, 120.
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