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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VIII, No. 1
Spring, 1984


(IN THIS ISSUE)

THE FUNCTION OF SIMON HARFORD IN A TOUCH OF THE POET

The "touch of the poet" in Cornelius Melody has enabled him to fabricate his past and deceive himself about his present circumstances. He passes himself off as a squire in country outside Boston in 1828, when in fact he is little more than the innkeeper son of an Irish innkeeper. His father made a fortune through deception and usury; Con lost it through drunkenness, sexual indiscretion, and inept business deals, of which his tavern is one (he bought it long after the stage-coach run past it had been discontinued). His name tells all: he is a con artist, a man who can con with the sweet melody of his words. Only his daughter, Sara, tries to strip him of his illusions.

Melody's foil is Simon Harford, the Yankee merchant's son whom Sara is nursing back to health in an upstairs room. Simon does not seduce her, as the philandering Con did his future wife, Nora, of whose Irish peasant stock he is ashamed. Sara seduces him out of love, while rejecting the advances of the bartender Mickey Maloy. Simon does not recite the work of others, as Melody does Byron's: he writes his own poetry and is planning a book. He is dependent neither on drink nor on an audience of lackeys for his sense of self-worth, having lived a spartan life alone in a cabin in the woods before becoming ill. The implication is that, unlike his father, he will not go into the shipping business and become a slave to money.

Simon never appears onstage. He is less a character in his own right than the symbol of the unvarnished truth--the plainness or homeliness of his name in comparison with Melody's is the first indication of that. O'Neill strategically places him above the other characters and the thick mist that surrounds the inn, and suggests that Sara, in bringing him his meals, is nourishing the truth. Significantly, Melody refuses to eat until he remembers that it is the anniversary of the Battle of Talavera, at which he boasts repeatedly that he was honored for bravery by the Duke of Wellington. His wife then prepares him and his sycophantic friends a feast, even though the family is about to be denied credit by the grocer because it cannot pay its bill.

By the end of A Touch of the Poet Simon has recovered from his illness and will marry Sara against the wishes of his parents, who have declared her too common for him: the truth needs the company of another humble truthteller. Melody has finally been stripped of his illusions at old Harford's house, where he had gone to revenge the insult to his daughter and became involved instead in a brawl with the servants. But rather than face the truth about himself, he seeks refuge in a bottle. In leaving the stage for the last time to drink with his lackeys in the bar of the inn, where he previously would not be seen with them, he has in fact become once again the commoner that he was by birth.

I have, of course, been considering Simon Harford's function in A Touch of the Poet apart from his role in More Stately Mansions, the second play in O'Neill's planned cycle on American history. In the latter work, Simon ceases to be the symbol of truth; he takes over his father's shipping business after all and becomes a slave to money. The suggestion is that he has done so partly in response to his wife Sara's desire to become a "grand lady," to live in style. Tragically, she has inherited not only her father's commonness, but also his wish to transcend it through wealth and aristocratic pretense; and she has infected Simon with her materialism. Con Melody had predicted as much in A Touch of the Poet:

[Simon's] set in his proud, noble ways, but [Sara will] find the right trick! ... She'll see the day when she'll wear fine silks and drive in a carriage wid a naygur coachman behind spankin' thoroughbreds, her nose in the air; and she'll live in a Yankee mansion, as big as a castle, on a grand estate av stately woodland and soft green meadows and a lake.1

Ironically, at the end of More Stately Mansions Simon returns to a negative version of the condition he was in during A Touch of the Poet. Deborah, his mother, has knocked him unconscious by pushing him down a set of stairs--in the earlier play she had climbed the stairs of the Melody inn to visit him in his sickbed. He comes to consciousness in Sara's arms; she nurses him just as she had in A Touch of the Poet. Sara says to Simon:

Don't I know, Darling, the longing in your heart that I'd smash the Company into smithereens to prove my love for you and set you free from the greed of it! Well, by the Eternal, I'll smash it so there'll be nothing left to tempt me! ... We'll live [on the old Harford farm], ... and you can write poetry again of your love for me, and plan your book that will save the world and free men from the curse of greed in them!2

But this time it is clear that she is not nursing the truth in Simon, that he will not return to health; instead, she can offer no more than momentary comfort to a man who has begun the descent into madness. Once the symbol of the unvarnished truth, Simon has become, through the sacrifice of his ideals for the compromising, real world of commerce, the incarnation of illusion, of benightedness.

--Bert Cardullo

1 Eugene O'Neill, A Touch of the Poet (New Haven, Ct.: Yale Univ. Press, 1957), p. 173.

2 Eugene O'Neill, More Stately Mansions (New Haven, Ct.: Yale Univ. Press, 1964), p. 191.

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