A CRUTCH OF THE POET*
O'Neill used the phrase "a touch of the poet" a number of times: in his correspondence, in Beyond the Horizon, and with a variation ("the makings of a poet") in Long Day's Journey. It's generally taken to mean, approximately, an ambition to write like a poet without a poet's imagination, or the imagination to write like a poet without a poet's craft. But when he appropriated it for the title of the first completed play in his "Possessors Self-Dispossessed" cycle, he seemed to ask for a broader interpretation; so that it doesn't refer only to Simon Harford, who wants to unburden himself of poetic and society-chastising tracts--and who, after all, is a discussed, not an actual character, one who remains offstage throughout the action. Like the words "the wild duck," the words "a touch of the poet" invite us to receive them generously, rather than literally: with poetic license, if you will. I would say then that they apply to all four principal characters who do feature in the action: Cornelius Melody, his wife Nora, his daughter Sara, and Sara's future mother-in-law, Deborah Harford; and that the phrase itself denotes a yearning on all their parts to be what they are not. In other words, it just about coincides with what O'Neill would later call a pipe dream.
We notice this wishfulness clearly in the protagonist, Con Melody--a name that sounds like a composer's direction to an instrumentalist, or the music that accompanies a television jingle. Con likes to quote from Canto III of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, less to savor its poetic defiance than to appreciate his reversed image as he poses while reciting before the dining-room mirror and feels himself the Byronic hero if not the Byron. Lord Byron. An aristocrat! Con despises the English but reveres the most popular British poet of the era, dead only four years before the play takes place, in 1828. He also reveres Wellington, the Duke of Wellington, under whose command he served in Spain. Perhaps, like James Tyrone, he knows that the Duke was born in Ireland. We can almost picture Con in the first three acts hoping that a title will somehow fall on him, as Byron's did from his great-uncle. Meanwhile, he will feel mollified if others look upon him as a gentleman.
Con Melody evokes reminiscences of earlier dramatic figures. No, not the Miles Gloriosus, for Con, rather than shrinking from a fight, goes into it eagerly; his cousin Jamie Cregan tells us more than once how tenacious a scrapper Con can be. I am thinking particularly of his resemblances to Molière's Monsieur Jourdain, the bourgeois gentleman with a similar, overpowering passion, snobbery. The dictionary defines a snob not as someone who believes himself or herself better than others--that is more like an elitist, although Con is an elitist too--but as someone who apes his or her social superiors. Snobbery means looking upward with longing rather than downward with disdain. It denotes a desire to exceed the Joneses, not merely to keep up with them; to ape the Rockefellers and Carnegies and others who have fought and bought their way to the top. Snobbery incurs the urge to self-gentrification.
Like Jourdain again, Con is a merchant and a big spender, although Jourdain has the wherewithal and Con doesn't. Both men behave despotically toward their families. Both are attracted to women above their station--Con to Deborah Harford, Jourdain to the marquise Dorimène. Both revel in the prose they utter, Con's being a stiff, if not stilted, language that harks back to certain of O'Neill's early writings, such as Servitude and Abortion.
Between the two characters and their dramatic situations there are also obvious contrasts. When A Touch of the Poet begins, Con is on the declining side of the hump-backed curve that traces his life's fortunes; whereas we meet Jourdain on his climb to the dizzying altitude of a Mamamouchi, where Molière will leave him ecstatically suspended. Jourdain's dream is a feasible one; he does pay his way into the ranks of gentlemen; and one still can. Con's pipe dream, however, carries him back in time, not forward. Like Harry Hope and his guests, he tries in vain to recover his past, which he gilds with nostalgia. Jourdain is an unrelenting buffoon, Con an arrogant prig who turns pathetic. Jourdain's wife opposes his ambition; Con's pipe dream or "poetic touch" is supported by Nora, a circumstance I'll return to, Despite these differences, they both ache to be gentlemen, or to be looked up to as such.
Con, a man of peasant stock, reminds us in another respect of Jean from Miss Julie, who displays only a few trappings of a gentleman and reverts in the final scene to a state of humility. Melody's trappings consist of his formal speech patterns, his high-quality Irish whiskey, his uniform, his mare, and the presence of apparent servants who happen to be his wife and child. In Act Four, having ruined the uniform and shot the mare, he rounds on the remnant of himself, slumps into the brogue he has despised, and completes his degradation by splitting his personality, sloughing off the major and leaving only the peasant for him to live in, as the author works one of the most astounding transformations in the modern theatre.
The coincidence between a touch of the poet and a pipe dream becomes most explicit during Deborah Harford's brief but striking appearances in Act Two. With one of his neat, ironic jabs, the playwright has her remark to Sara that her son's poetry is "but a crude imitation of Lord Byron's." As if to sustain or even deepen the irony, Sara answers, "I don't think Simon imitates Lord Byron. I hate Lord Byron's poetry. And I know there's a true poet in Simon." Sara, a sharp-witted young woman, is not offering a serious literary comparison here, only saying that she loves Simon and has come to hate that one stanza of Byron's with which her father appears to indulge in self-glorification but which he actually uses to stave off his sense of defeat:
Deborah then picks up Sara's affirmation that there is a true poet in Simon by saying, "Oh, in feeling, of course." She has already mentioned that her husband, Simon, and she herself are "inveterate dreamers." She goes on to relate how that "feeling" or dreaminess--that "quality," she calls it--has haunted the spirit of the Harford family, back to Jonathan Harford during the War of Independence, and his son Evan, who "would have liked to have gone to the guillotine" with Robespierre. Further on in the text, she speaks of how relieved she will be to get back to her replica of a French garden, inside her walls, with her books and meditations. Not until the next play in the cycle, More Stately Mansions, do we learn that she indulges in her own pipe dream in which she figures as the mistress of Louis XIV, Mme. de Maintenon reborn.
I have already suggested a distinction between a dream of an O'Neill character and a pipe dream. Let me formalize that distinction. A dream looks to the future, the attainable. A pipe dream, as the author uses the term in The Iceman Cometh, looks to the past, the irrecoverable. A dream is an ambition; it may or may not come to fruition. A pipe dream is a yearning to go back to an earlier point in one's life for a fresh start, to rebecome oneself, maybe, on a higher plane of achievement and prestige. For Harry Hope it means an enhanced resumption of his role as ward captain; for Willie Oban it means a career as a renowned trial lawyer; and for Con Melody, a return to a handsome, daring, woman-conquering field officer in dress uniform--without a wife. Nora Melody has her own pipe dream: to undo her premarital conception of Sara, or take her marriage back into a remoter past when she was still a virgin, and so win the tacit approval of God and the Church. Nothing less drastic would allow her to feel cleansed. Deborah's pipe dream reverts to a seventeenth-century France in which she did not exist; it verges on a psychosis, and in More Stately Mansions she will at times dream her waking self out of reality altogether.
The two representatives of the younger generation of Harfords and Melodys, however, do not "pipe dream": they dream. Simon could, in spite of his mother's doubts, go on to become a poet or a poetasting pamphleteer. As it turns out, in More Stately Mansions he will renege on that dream and, instead, outdo his father as a businessman by showing himself to be more rapacious. Divided in his love for his mother, on whom he is more or less fixated, and his wife, Sara, whom he insists on treating as a mercenary concubine, he will only then reveal another desire--a pipe dream, no less: to escape back to his childhood, his mother's devotion, and her fairy tales, like the one about the king who ended up a beggar.
If Simon's dream is possible but not plausible, Sara's, to wed Simon and become a great lady, is not merely plausible; it comes true. Not, though, in A Touch of the Poet. There we catch only glimpses of Sara's potential. A telling one occurs during one of Deborah's speeches. In thinking over her "walk alone in the woods" in search of Simon's Thoreauvian retreat, she recalls having had "a strangely overpowering experience," which she describes as being frightening, intoxicating, and wild. "I had forgotten," she adds, "how compelling the brutal power of primitive, possessive Nature can be--when suddenly one is attacked by it." These sentiments are generally taken to allude to the episode in which Con attempted to charm and kiss her. Perhaps they do. But she speaks them to Sara, after her son has told her of his determination to marry that young woman; and I would speculate that O'Neill is laying "plants" for the further encounters between these two contenders for Simon that he will engineer in More Stately Mansions.
Deborah's awareness of Nature's raw power, accompanied by a dismissive smile, has alerted her to the yeastiness of the peasant class, or, as a careless Marxist might say, of the proletariat. Miss Julie has to reckon similarly with a climbing Jean, and the Captain with a Laura he has forced onto the offensive; Engstrand will set fire to the Alving memorial orphanage and send Mrs. Alving's ten-year plan to glorify her husband's name up in smoke; and Lopakhin will buy out Ranevskaya's estate and orchard from under her. Is Sara a peasant? She can adopt a lush brogue and rough manner when she needs to, but she will learn readily how to slip into the role of chatelaine of a grand house or a corporation. Deborah apprehends this power, this force of Nature that Sara embodies.
The popular critical summation of O'Neill's female characters is that they are each a combined mother, nature girl, and whore; a bit--but not much--of a sidestep from Tarzan's Jane. Why doesn't anyone suggest that a male character by O'Neill could be viewed along the same lines as an amalgam of father, poet, and pimp? There is more to the women than that formula, or he would not have advanced far in characterization beyond the pitiful streetwalker who is also a doting mother in The Web, which he wrote in 1913. Sara's personality has subtle inflections; we hear echoes in her speeches of her father and her mother, but she has moved up the evolutionary scale and is fitter than either of them for survival on the new frontiers of greed discerned by her creator in this land of promise.
At the end of the play, Sara seems to have forsworn the ding-dong trading of insults and threats she engaged in with Con during the first three acts. She breaks down and weeps, mourning for the Major exorcized like a demon by her father and now in effect "dead." But her sympathy serves only as compensation for a brutal wish she almost gave voice to a few moments earlier. At that point Con had seized his dueling pistols and gone outside to shoot his thoroughbred mare. She cries out, "As if he hadn't done enough to destroy --" Breaking off the thought, she embarks on another, "distractedly": "Oh, the mad fool! I wish he was--" Again she stops, this time because of a pistol shot from outside. Clearly she meant to say something like, "I wish he was going to shoot himself," because almost immediately she is stricken with remorse and "babbles": "I didn't mean it, Mother! I didn't." She repeats almost the same line, evidently fearing that her wish was father to his thought. Sara has undergone a great deal of provocation. Con has treated her like a skivvy, tried to prevent her marriage to Simon, spoken to her woundingly, and added injury to insult by slapping her to the ground. In speaking to his wife he has referred to Sara as "your daughter." And now he has returned from making an enemy of Simon's father. She has reason to hate him.
And her mother? Nora looks like a personification of love undeterred. She accepts her husband now for what he once may have been and what he still purports to be. She has not managed to lift herself above her peasant background, or perhaps she never tried to, suspecting that Con sees in her a constant and iconic recollection of his parents' origins that enables him to gloat over the social distance he supposes he has traveled. Together with his retinue of courtiers, Patch Riley, Paddy O'Dowd, Dan Roche, and the hangers--out in the shebeen, who will flatter him into infinity for the sake of a shot of whiskey, Nora confirms his impression of himself as the Major still. She has caught the virus of his pipe dream. She fervently plays the part of dutiful, obedient spouse, even when he responds with indifference or contempt or outright cruelty.
But there is more to Nora than meets the icon. While she waits, distraught with worry, for him to come back from his assault on the Harford home or at least for a word of news, O'Neill, for the first time, uses the stage direction "bitterly" to describe the delivery of her lines:
With a typically O'Neillian stroke of conscience, she immediately wants to retract her words. Then, several lines later, she is "working herself to rebellion again": "I won't stay here the rist of the night worryin' my heart out for a man who--" Who what? That uncompleted sentence is as far as she will go with her mini-rebellion. But it has divulged her resentment, much as she might now like to take it back. She will go on to shift the blame to herself for "the mortal sin I did with him unmarried...." But she cannot resist some refueling of the resentment as she remembers "the promise he made me make to leave the Church that's kept me from ever confessin' to a priest."
Nora has allowed Con to go on being what he is by her passivity. She understands that he remains in some ways a child, a brat spoiled by his father, then by her--his mother died when he was born; but instead of protesting his tantrums, she spoils him further by bottling up her rage, demeaning herself before him, and growing inert, ill with unreleased rancor.
What does this relationship imply? With A Touch of the Poet O'Neill was embarking on his review of United States history. It deals, as he said repeatedly, with greed; and he called one play in the cycle "The Greed of the Meek," a paradoxical expression for those who have been taught and have accepted that the meek shall inherit the earth, but by waiting, not by greedy maneuvering. He burned the manuscript of an earlier story of the Harfords, perhaps because in 1944 he lacked the energy to unravel the excessive complications in that drama and others he had written out or plotted.
But greed constitutes only one motive behind our empire-building, which O'Neill blasted in The Fountain, Marco Millions, Mourning Becomes Electra, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. A second motive is aggression. Con Melody comes closest to realizing his pipe dream when he goes out in his uniform on a foray against the house of Harford, striking down servants with his whip and sputtering about the "man who has insulted my honor." After his defeat the pipe dream is dying and so he kills it off, although the play gives us no sign that now, as a peasant rather than a gentleman, he will abate his aggression. Sara, having witnessed the rewards of aggression, will in the next play join her husband Simon and let her behavior be governed by greed, a more efficacious motive.
Con wants to feel innately superior to others. To some he possibly is--physically, at any rate. He believes that his superiority, real or imagined, gives him the right to avenge his honor whenever and however it is wounded. In Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension, Doris Falk has pointed out that the word pride recurs "in the text sixty-three times, usually followed by humiliation or shame" (p. 168). Honor and pride: buzz words. Can we read into this play a parable by making the jump from personal to national honor and pride? If so, O'Neill may well have in mind bullying demagogues, among them presidents, who used to send out a gunboat and more recently launch an abortive invasion from the Bay of Pigs or rain bombs on Libya or finance a band of mercenaries in Honduras, ennobling them with the name of freedom fighters and so making a mockery of American history; while the Noras, the rest of us, wring our hands and cool our heels as we anxiously wait for the news of destruction to come home. Such adventures and misadventures trace their origins back to--yes, a pipe dream--about an America once feared (and for that wildly improbable reason, loved and respected) by the rest of the world, when in truth they sully the name of America overseas and bring us into contempt. Certain parasites may cheer, as Roche and O'Dowd and Riley do at the prospect of spilt blood, but only for the sake of free handouts.
Greed and aggression, pipe dreams and snobbery are no more than a dark side of the American soul. The bright sides show up in our generosity, the welcoming hand, the charms of informality--and in gatherings like the O'Neill conferences. But regrettably, as dramatic fodder these admirable qualities seem to make for the Pollyanna-ish commercial theatre with a close on the maudlin upbeat against which O'Neill set his face and pen. He was in some respects a perfectionist in his ambitions for his fellow-Americans, though his own personal ways, like those of his hero Strindberg, provide no model for other citizens to emulate. He fastened on our faults as passionately as any reformer, but without any hope of reforming them, playing a disenchanted Larry Slade to the last. But in delineating the faults he assembled a drama that lives vigorously today and will live with as much vigor tomorrow. A Touch of the Poet has about it more than a touch of the prophet.
*A paper delivered at the conference on "Eugene O'Neill--the Later Years" at Suffolk University, Boston, MA, on Friday, May 30, 1986. as part of the session on "Family Relations in the Late Plays."
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