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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VIII, No. 1
Spring, 1984


(IN THIS ISSUE)

THE ROLE OF DRINKING AND ALCOHOLISM IN O'NEILL'S LATE PLAYS*

It is obvious that drinking and drunkenness pervade O'Neill's last four complete full-length plays--The Iceman Cometh, A Touch of the Poet, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and Long Day's Journey Into Night. The dramatist has depicted the effects of habitual heavy drinking in accurate detail, going far beyond the superficial characteristics of the stereotypical stage drunk. In fact, his characterizations are remarkably rich and realistic, and they have proven consistent with later, clinical observations of alcoholics.

However, the significance of alcoholism and the symptoms of intoxication and withdrawal, as central features of O'Neill's mature dramaturgy, has been overlooked by most commentators. What needs noting is that, beyond the rich characterizations, O'Neill has integrated the "idea" of alcoholism into both his method and his vision in these late plays. It is the evolving image of the alcoholic that contributes to the cumulative effect of the four plays, which is decidedly bleak. O'Neill finally captures the despairing paradox of the human condition, as he sees it, in the contrast between the romantic myth of intoxication and the realistic symptoms and effects of alcoholism.

The Iceman Cometh takes place in the back room of a saloon, where a large number of alcoholics congregate, seek refuge in communal drunkenness, and find contentment in each other's companionship. Through the repetitious behavior patterns of this group, O'Neill creates a predictable atmosphere that is comforting for the defeated individuals who sustain it. Repetition is one of the salient features in an alcoholic's life, by virtue of the condition itself: "The use of alcohol to attain relief is reinforced through repetition, and its abuse evolves as a habitual [sic] response to discomfort."1 Thus, the repetitious patterns of the alcoholic and his family are particularly well-suited to O'Neill's vision of the human condition.

It is important to note that in O'Neill's dramatic worlds, this notion of alcoholic "abuse," in a pejorative sense, is inapplicable. Once the world is defined as causing discomfort, then as an "habitual response to discomfort," intoxication becomes the preferred means of coping. In this way, O'Neill reverses our usual assumptions about order and disorder, so that when the possibility of sobriety is introduced into the ordered, alcoholic world of Iceman, it represents a threat of chaos.

The characters in Iceman experience various stages of intoxication, from initial feelings of well-being and hyperactivity to later symptoms of dullness and even loss of consciousness; they also experience the tremors and mild hallucinations of withdrawal. All of these effects make for an interesting, and sometimes lively, assemblage of human life on stage, and ultimately it is this cross-section of drunken humanity that gives Iceman its strongest appeal. Indeed, without these characters, the quasi-philosophical debate between Larry and Hickey would be inescapably awkward and tautological, and Parritt's nagging inquisition would be insufferable. The texture of the alcoholic life endows the play with a remarkable human quality that is absent in so much of O'Neill's earlier work. It is this human quality, in fact, that finally overcomes the negativism implicit in the fates of Hickey, Larry, and Parritt. While each of these three characters reaches out for death at the end, all of the other characters sing out for life in a boisterous celebration that, in the final moments of the play, eclipses Hickey's confession, Parritt's suicide, and even the solitary figure of Larry Slade, sitting alone, waiting to die.

The evidence of the other three plays to be considered here strongly suggests that for O'Neill the intoxicated escape that the cacophonous chorus achieve at the end of Iceman is not a meaningful or successful response to life's apparent lack of purpose. Indeed, this kind of drunken release in the company of others becomes increasingly difficult, and ultimately impossible, for the characters in the other plays. Perhaps, then, Iceman represents an exercise in wish-fulfillment fantasy for O'Neill. He might very well have wished that the answer were as easy as that: "Let's drink up and forget it," as Edmund Tyrone says (but Edmund himself no longer believes in this possibility even as he says it). Perhaps O'Neill's comment on Ah, Wilderness! applies to Iceman as well. About that domestic comedy, Louis Sheaffer quotes O'Neill as saying that it was "a sort of wishing out loud. That's the way I would have liked my boyhood to have been."2 Similarly, Iceman may have been a fondly regretful look back at another period in his past. Given that in the days recalled by Iceman, O'Neill had in fact attempted to commit suicide, it is not insignificant that Parritt's jump from the fire escape is barely noticeable amid the noise and commotion of the others' drunken celebration. The shift in emphasis at the end of the play surely allows a rosier view of an extremely desperate time. Finally, it is also possible that O'Neill's newly developed dramaturgical device--drinking and drunkenness--defeated his own intended meaning. Perhaps in the enthusiasm engendered by discovering the possibilities of his new "idea," he overdid it, to some extent, with an emphasis emerging at the end of the play that is not quite consistent with the other plays of the period. Whatever the explanation, the contrast between Iceman and the other plays--in terms of the effects of drinking and drunkenness on the implications of the play--is undeniable.

A Touch of the Poet moves O'Neill's drunk characters somewhat away from the society of the bar and into the loneliness of the home. As John Henry Raleigh points out, "A Touch of the Poet combines both worlds, weaving together the bacchanal of the barroom and the excruciating tension of the family."3 Actually, "weaving together" seems rather misleading; the division of the two worlds is distinct. Melody is pulled from one to the other, but the celebration in the barroom never enters the dining room, and is never visible to the audience. We see only Melody's tormented isolation; and at the very end, when he does join the celebrants, he leaves the stage to enter the barroom.

Poet represents a clear departure from Iceman, yet it is not a total departure. The types of drunk characters in central roles in Iceman are relegated to secondary roles in Poet; and while the characters exhibit a number of the same symptoms of intoxication and withdrawal as those depicted in Iceman, the emphasis in Poet turns to the "darker" side of alcoholism, most notably in the character of Con Melody. In Melody's dependence on alcohol, O'Neill depicts the individual who drinks to compensate for his low self-esteem and for his unmet need to exercise control over his life. When he is drunk, he appears arrogant towards others, and he is able to manipulate and deceive them. A major distinction between this play and Iceman is that O'Neill allows us to observe Melody when he is alone. It is at these moments that we see the "cracks" in his intoxicated facade; in these moments of solitude, we discover his loneliness and his desperation.

Ultimately, when Melody's facade breaks, he is able to create a new one that allows him to join the celebration on the other side of the barroom door; and although we hear the singing and noise from offstage, the dominant image is the one we watch on stage as the curtain falls. In this image, the shift in O'Neill's emphasis is apparent, and he seems to have more control over his technique here. What we see on stage are two women, both quite pathetic--one in her acceptance of the sad realities of life, and the other in her failure to recognize that her romantic dreams are meaningless. This is a powerful image that comments with quiet irony on Melody's escape into the barroom. The meaning of Melody's escape is already less certain than that of the escape of the characters in Iceman, because we have seen so much of his desperation; but this final image is definitive.

There is another element in Poet that facilitates the shift in emphasis: the connection between the killing of the mare and the defeat of the romantic dream. Although there is something of the romantic in Con himself, Sara is the main believer in the romantic dream, especially towards the end of the play. She metaphorically connects romanticism to intoxication in her proclamations of love for Simon. The mare also becomes a symbol of romanticism in Melody's paean to the joys of the hunt. When he kills the mare, Melody kills his romantic dreams, and implicitly the destruction of the mare marks the destruction of Sara's romantic dreams as well. Melody responds to the loss of his dreams by entering the bar to get drunk; the "Iceman option" still exists. Sara, however, breaks down and sobs in bewilderment. O'Neill introduces the juxtaposition of romantic notions of intoxication and realistic symptoms of alcoholism here, but its significance seems lost on the characters. As he develops this paradoxical image in the other plays, the characters become less bewildered by it and more despondent about its implications.

In A Moon for the Misbegotten, the bar is moved yet farther away, down the road. The setting is now the rather isolated home of the Hogans. Social company and drunken camaraderie are unseen, unheard, and less readily available; in fact, the central alcoholic figure, Jim Tyrone, clearly finds the company there unfulfilling. The domestic setting now takes sole possession of O'Neill's stage, but this is certainly a household that does not prohibit drinking. O'Neill again uses repetitious behavioral patterns to establish a sense of comfortable predictability, much as he does in Iceman, and some of these patterns are based on addictive behavior. As in Poet, a central character does not drink habitually, but has romantic dreams that are associated with images of intoxication. Josie is a stronger, more clearly defined character than Sara, and in Moon she moves into the center of the action.

Jim is quite obviously in the later stages of alcoholism; O'Neill's depiction of him, in fact, is his most graphic characterization of the debilitating effects of chemical dependency. Numerous possibilities are suggested to explain the psychological genesis of Jim's addiction--especially in terms of his relationship with his mother--but that is not O'Neill's central concern in this play. In fact, Jim's confession would seem rather awkward were it not for the context in which O'Neill presents it; his words become relatively unimportant in the context of the moonlit scene. Actually, by the time he tells his squalid story, our attention has turned to Josie's disappointment and her reaction to this disappointment. We are much more affected by the image of the alcoholic, practically dead, lying in the lap of the romantic dreamer who knows that his position there represents the end of her dreams.

Unlike Sara, Josie does drink in the play; in fact, she consumes a considerable amount of bourbon--for a non-drinker--in the third act. Her intoxication obviously affects her interaction with Jim, and it also affects her language. As the long night wears on, she begins to speak more lyrically, and in this way, O'Neill uses intoxication to incorporate more poetic language into his prosaic drama. Josie's poetic expressions begin after her romantic dreams are lost. She is aware and self-conscious of her sudden poetic inspiration, but since she sits alone and is quite drunk, she continues to speak aloud in this fashion. O'Neill uses her language at this point as a contrast to her situation. The poetic inspiration is part of the romantic mythology of intoxication, but the more her poetic images capture her romantic yearnings, the more aware she becomes of the "dead" man she holds in her arms. Thus, as with Sara, Josie's romantic dreams are associated with intoxication, and her direct confrontation with the actual physical and psychological effects of alcoholism deflates all romantic notions about intoxication, and by extension, all romantic notions about love. In Poet, Sara remains bewildered by--and unaware of--her loss; but here, Josie recognizes it and can only return sadly to her life with her father. The games that they play, though, have now lost their meaning, since without her romantic hopes, life has lost its purpose for Josie.

In this scenario, then, O'Neill captures the desolation of a hopeless life in the paradoxical image of a woman comforting an alcoholic who is drinking himself to death beneath the romantic moon of Dionysian revelry. The image is in sharper focus here than in Poet, and the confrontation with desolation makes the impact even more poignant.

Finally, in Long Day's Journey Into Night, the bar is a considerable distance away from the house in which the play takes place. One must take a trolley car or a long walk through the fog to find social companionship. With the isolation of the Tyrone family, O'Neill's vision excludes the possibility of bacchanalian escape.

In this play, O'Neill not only portrays individual alcoholics and a morphine addict, but he also draws more extensively on the behavioral patterns typical of families of alcoholics. Here he introduces an interesting variation on the use of repetition. The patterns in this play may have begun long ago, in the context of habitual escapes from discomfort that have provided predictability and security for the Tyrones. Now, though, those patterns have become endless cycles of guilt, blame, and self-hatred from which the characters cannot escape. The escape mechanism has thus become the trap, and this is an ideal metaphor for the plight of the alcoholic and his family. The patterns of alcoholic behavior that seemed so orderly and comforting in Iceman evolve into the self-destructive cycles of Long Day's Journey.

The romantic yearnings of Edmund are tied directly to the disintegration of the entire family, and the circular patterns of the family's chemical dependencies can only lead him inward and downward. In Edmund, O'Neill combines alcoholic and romantic in one character (although Jamie is clearly the more seriously debilitated alcoholic). Edmund yearns to transcend--not simply to escape--the discomforts of this world, and he expresses this yearning in his recollections of life at sea. Edmund has more conscious poetic aspirations than Josie has in Moon, yet he too is quite self-conscious of his lyrical inspiration in the fourth act. As with Josie, it is obviously his drunkenness that facilitates his poetic speeches; but unlike Josie, Edmund has an audience--albeit a drunkenly inattentive one--in his father. In both cases--those of Josie and Edmund--O'Neill brings lyricism into his drama with a new effectiveness, because in both cases, as Jean Chothia has suggested, any awkwardness in the passages will "lead us to the character and not, as [the awkwardness] did in the middle plays, to the struggling dramatist."4 Even more significant, though, is the fact that O'Neill uses these lyrical passages to provide a direct contrast to what Frederic Carpenter has called "the ugliness of modern reality,"5 that the dramatist presents on stage. Thus, Edmund's greatest moments of blissful, lyrical contemplation and reverie are followed immediately, and significantly, by the entrance of his drunken brother, Jamie. As with Sara in Poet, and Josie in Moon, but to an even greater extent, Edmund's recognition that his dreams are unattainable is especially sad since we have seen how inspired he has been by them, and how desperate have been his hopes of attaining them.

The final image of the four Tyrones--sitting in silence, staring in front of themselves, with no possibility of escape or transcendence--undoubtedly recalls the image of Larry at the end of Iceman. But now they are four, and they constitute the only image we see, which is engulfed in a sad, overwhelming silence. The conclusion of Long Day's Journey is the strongest contradiction of the hopeful implications of the ending of Iceman. Considered from the perspective of the cumulative effect of all four plays, O'Neill's vision in this final period seems quite despondent. This cumulative effect is largely dependent upon the evolving paradoxical image of alcoholism: the hopes of transcending the miseries of existence in a feeling of euphoric bliss are repeatedly dashed by the realities of dissipation, self-destruction, and certain death.

Robert Whitman has clearly defined the essential conflict that is at the heart of all of O'Neill's tragedies:

...whatever other characteristics O'Neill may have possessed, or lacked, he had a firm grasp on one essential element of tragedy--the eternal conflict between Man's aspirations and some intransigent, ineluctable quality in life which circumscribes and limits him, and frustrates the realization of those dreams which seem to make life worth living....the vast majority of the characters [in O'Neill's plays] are painfully aware that reality is never sufficient to their demands on it, and that the chalice of life is cursed by some inexorable poison which will frustrate our fondest hopes and turn dreams to dust in our grasp.6

It is quite appropriate that Whitman uses the terms "chalice" and "poison," since they clearly suggest the central depiction of alcoholism in the four plays discussed here. The "chalice," with its romantic connotations of a "goblet of wine" and its spiritual connotations of the eucharistic cup, suggests the romantic imagery associated with characters like Willie Oban, Con Melody, Jim Tyrone, and the entire Tyrone family7 (especially Jamie and Mary). Thus, the "idea" of alcoholism becomes a central concept in O'Neill's tragic vision, as well as a dramaturgical device that enables him to frame that vision most effectively on the stage.

O'Neill's vision of the human condition, then, is most vividly conveyed by the figure of the alcoholic, who seeks meaning (perhaps the "Old God" or "a satisfying new one," as O'Neill himself put it in another context) in the bottle, but inevitably finds only his own sad face reflected at the bottom of it. Both the unyielding need for hope and the inevitability of disappointment are captured in the image of the alcoholic raising his bottle to his lips, draining it, and then staring into its emptiness.

Perhaps the essence of this vision can finally be best appreciated by comparing O'Neill's image with another theatrical image of intoxication, one which conveys an opposing vision. First, consider the entrance of Jamie in Act Four of Long Day's Journey:

...Edmund watches with amusement Jamie's wavering progress through the front parlor. Jamie comes in. He is very drunk and woozy on his legs. His eyes are glassy, his face bloated, his speech slurred, his moth slack like his father's, a leer on his lips.

JAMIE  Swaying and blinking in the doorway--in a loud voice. What ho! What ho!

EDMUND  Sharply. Nix on the loud noise!

JAMIE  Blinks at him. Oh, hello, kid. With great seriousness. I'm as drunk as a fiddler's bitch.

EDMUND  Dryly. Thanks for telling me your great secret.

JAMIE  Grins foolishly. Yes. Unneshesary information Number One, eh? He bends and slaps at the knees of his trousers. Had serious accident. The fron steps tried to trample me. Took advantage of the fog to waylay me. Ought to be a lighthouse out there. Dark in here, too.8

Now consider the words and behavior of one of the earliest stage drunks we know of, the Cyclops in Euripides' satyr play, The Cyclops:

CYCLOPS (Reeling.) Whoosh! I can scarcely swim out of this flood. Pure pleasure! Ohhh. Earth and sky whirling around, all jumbled up together! Look: I can see the throne of Zeus and the holy glory of the gods.9

Even allowing for the part of Jamie's behavior that is an exaggerated performance to conceal his real feelings, it is still apparent that his behavior is influenced by all the alcohol he has consumed. Both he and the Cyclops suffer some of the same symptoms of wooziness and loss of balance. Yet the Cyclops looks up in his drunken confusion, and he sees the gods; even as he is falling off his feet, he experiences a pleasurable feeling of meaningful transcendence. Jamie, on the other hand, looks down and sees his own dirty knees; in his drunken confusion, Jamie stumbles in the dark and crashes to the ground--modern man, alone with his empty bottle and his empty dreams.

--Steven F. Bloom

*The present essay is an expansion and revision of the last chapter in Professor Bloom's doctoral dissertation, "Empty Bottles, Empty Dreams: O'Neill's Alcoholic Drama" (Brandeis University, 1982).

1 American Medical Association, Manual on Alcoholism, third edition (Chicago: American Medical Association, 1977), p. 15.

2 Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973), p. 404.

3 John Henry Raleigh, The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965), p. 173.

4 Jean Chothia, Forging a Language: A Study of the Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 166.

5 Frederic Carpenter, Eugene O'Neill (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979), p. 63.

6 Robert F. Whitman, "O'Neill's Search for a 'Language of the Theatre,'" in O'Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. John Gassner (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964), pp. 143-144.

7 James Tyrone frequently refers to morphine as "poison": "It's the damned poison" (p. 174); "Up to take more of that God-damned poison, is that it?" (p. 123); et passim.

8 Eugene O'Neill, Long Day's Journey Into Night (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), pp. 154-155.

9 Euripides, The Cyclops, in The Complete Greek Tragedies: Euripides II, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1956), p. 35.

(IN THIS ISSUE)

 

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