THE WAR AMONG THE TYRONES*
This paper addresses the problem of how Eugene O'Neill creates the peculiarly "poetic" or "musical" or "rhythmic" effects often noticed in his best plays. The matter is a problem because it cannot be explained satisfactorily by conventional rhetorical analysis. Instead of expressing meanings through prose syntax and diction, O'Neill creates sub-verbal processes that carry meanings different from--and often opposed to--the meanings in the words and sentences themselves. How dense, subtle, and complex can be the meanings O'Neill creates through his dramatic process I hope to show by describing in detail a brief and quiet moment from the beginning of Long Day's Journey Into Night.
A concept borrowed from the clinical practice of psychoanalysis enables one to describe minutely any process of human interaction. A process is any chain of cause and effect events. A process of human interactions usually includes some responses of which people are not aware, as well as those within awareness. We react to things that are not explicitly and verbally stated by the people we are with, and regularly learn that they have not consciously intended to affect us as they have. And we move others through actions we do not deliberate.
Some of the strongest links in the chain, those that elicit the most powerful and complex consequences, are not things said or done or even thought; but are the feelings accompanying actions and thoughts. Darwin showed long ago how clearly and powerfully animals and humans express emotions and interpret those of others. By processes we variously call intuition, empathy, identification, and sympathy, we know what another feels, and react with feelings of our own, as well as with thoughts and actions. In ordinary circumstances one's sense of another person's sincerity or falseness, warmth or pretense, derives from one's intuitive perception of the fit between words or actions and the feelings that go with them.
When we come to the Tyrone family in Long Day's Journey, however, we are not in ordinary circumstances. The Tyrones seem ever driven by dread of their fears and by expectations of betrayal, by their own hatreds, and especially by guilt. They have, therefore, the strongest motives not to know their feelings. In them the isolation of feelings from thoughts or actions works in an all or nothing way. They conceal from themselves, and deny to others, benign feelings as well as those they believe malignant. Around the most trivial conversation they create an atmosphere of judicial objectivity,' acting as if they would be called to answer for every phrase, every word. They act as though they might escape responsibility for the impulses and feelings underlying the verbal surface by excluding impulses and their affects from consciousness.
Psychoanalysis insists that every event has multiple causes, implying that in plays like O'Neill's, driven by a certain complexity of vision, several dynamic processes may occur at once. The great playwrights have always known how to show such interactions among their characters, and the great actors and directors can sometimes represent them in all their complexities. Literary interpreters, construing dramatic action on the basis of a play's text, have not always known how to explain what ordinary life has taught them intuitively to understand. In that regard, articulation of the psycho-dynamic process may be helpful.
Such processes are evident on any page of Long Day's Journey, but can be most easily understood in quiet passages like the following fragment from the opening scene that occurs on pages 20-21 in the Yale edition. Mary and Tyrone are at first together, talking about her good health, his good appetite, his real estate deals, their sons' whispered conversation, Edmund's illness, the foghorn, and Tyrone's snoring. When Jamie and Edmund enter, their mother smiles and speaks "in a merry tone that is a bit forced":
The reader or audience must first be struck, not by the meaning of anything said, but by the discrepancy between the apparently trivial topic, Tyrone's snoring, and the intensity of Mary's unease; indeed by the intensity of the entire moment. Retrospectively we know that Mary's concern with the snoring and the foghorn imply the sleeplessness she experiences when resuming her morphine after a cure; but at a first reading, we only know that she didn't sleep well. The anxiety accompanying our retrospective knowledge may divert our attention from other processes in the scene and their meanings.
Mary's remark, "I'll leave it to the boys," invites Jamie and Edmund to become her allies in the quarrel against Tyrone. But immediately after giving the invitation to both sons, she excludes Jamie on the grounds that he was snoring too; he is just like his father. Jamie responds to Mary's change of mind with an "uneasy, probing look" which causes her to become extremely flustered. Jamie, in turn, "looks away guiltily" and says "Your hair's all right, Mama. I was only thinking how well you look." Once again, in retrospect, we know that Jamie suspects his mother may have gone back to her drug; but our retrospective knowledge may divert us from another motive for his "uneasy probing look": that he retaliates against her rejecting him from the alliance against his father. Her unease testifies to the effectiveness of Jamie's thrust, making him feel guilty in turn. His denial, made facing away from her, creates another kind of alliance with Mary than she had imagined; they join in feeling guiltily anxious. Meanwhile, they exclude Tyrone and Edmund from their intimacy.
Tyrone now "heartily" enters the conversation, affirming the content of Jamie's statement so emphatically that he gives the impression of wanting to abolish the tone of anxiety and guilt that links his wife and older son. He also probably wants to deflect the trend toward ganging up "on the old man" which he had anticipated on page 18. Edmund now enters the battle, agreeing with his father and brother that Mary looks "grand." The stage direction tells us that Mary "is reassured and smiles at him lovingly. He winks with a kidding grin," and adds, "I'll back you up about Papa's snoring. Gosh, what a racket!" The last remark answers Mary's original invitation for an ally against her husband. By speaking, Edmund and Tyrone try to participate in, as well as eradicate, the painful intimacy that binds Mary and Jamie.
Jamie now tries to enter the new alliance of Edmund and Mary, saying that he too had heard his father snoring, and adds a sneering quotation from Othello which provokes Tyrone to defend himself and the bard by condemning Jamie's gambling. At this moment Mary and both sons are allied against Tyrone. Mary speaks in defense of Jamie, and Edmund adds in support, "Yes, for Pete's sake, Papa! Give it a rest, can't you?" The stage direction has him slump into the chair next to his brother.
Now Mary does a most unexpected thing by turning on Edmund "reprovingly": "Your father wasn't finding fault with you. You don't have to always take Jamie's part. You'd think you were the one ten years older." Her words expel Edmund from the alliance against Tyrone. And since he has just criticized his father, Edmund is left alone. Like a cat who has just gotten the cream, Jamie says "boredly," "What's all the fuss about? Let's forget it."
Why does Mary turn on Edmund? In retrospect one finds several explanations in the content, the most conspicuous being that if Edmund proves to have consumption she risks feeling the loss of him to the disease that killed her father. Threats of loss so overwhelm Mary that she can do nothing but try to deny them. She pushes Edmund away when she senses that her attachment might cause pain beyond her bearing.
But the process of the scene suggests a quite different explanation for Mary's rejection of Edmund, one that operates throughout the play as well as throughout this fragment. Any stable alliance makes the Tyrones anxious, for any alliance carries the potential for one to conspire against another. The most important meaning of the scene is not whether Tyrone snores: a more important meaning is conveyed by the process of alliances that organize, disband, and reorganize around the matter of the snoring: mother and her sons; then Jamie and his mother; then Edmund, Jamie and Mary; and finally Jamie and Mary again.
The foregoing analysis leads to some conclusions about the Tyrones that cannot be reached by any other path. In the process of rejection and acceptance, each of the Tyrones feels it is better to be the one who rejects, rather than the one rejected. Regarded from this point of view, Tyrone and Edmund seem better able than Mary and Jamie to tolerate passivity, while Mary and Jamie need more desperately to control the shifts and changes occurring in the family dynamics.
On the whole, an alliance of all four Tyrones seems not to occur. Even when Edmund tells the story of Shaughnessy's pigs, where the butt of the joke is a neighbor they all detest, Mary's enjoyment is forced and Tyrone's alternates with disapproval and worry.
Alliances of three occur frequently but disintegrate at once, because one begins immediately to compete with another for the favor of the third, or one sets the other two in competition for his or her favor.
Certain alliances of two endure according to a different rhythm from that which governs alliances of three. Jamie and his mother have a permanent bond in their despair and self-loathing. Edmund and his father are aligned in having a capacity for flexibility greater than the others, which they show in working through their dispute about the sanatorium to a partial resolution.
These and other stable alliances--alliances that remain intact, despite momentary interruptions, throughout the play--serve as a rhythmic constant against which O'Neill presents the countering process of alliances that crystallize and shatter in an instant. The counterpoint of stable and unstable alliances contributes to the symphonic-like structure and effect that many, including O'Neill himself, have noticed.
The process of the play carries not only meanings, but the drama itself. By this dramatic process, O'Neill compels the audience to feel what his characters feel. The process of shifting alliances makes us feel the intolerance of any of the Tyrones to separation from the others. Every change of alliance implies rejection and loss. The threat of isolation and loss causes anxiety so intense that the Tyrones cannot, convey in words alone either the strength or complexity of the experience. If they could speak clearly of their dread of separation, it would not be so serious a problem for them. O'Neill dramatizes their reaction in its very essence--its inability to be articulated. In so doing, he forces the audience to grope for meaning among the multiple uncertainties that plague the Tyrones themselves.
--Stephen A. Black
*A somewhat different version of this paper, entitled "O'Neill's Dramatic Process," appeared in American Literature (March 1987), pp. 58-70. The present version emphasizes a psychoanalytic point of view omitted from the other. --S.A.B.
© Copyright 1999-2011 eOneill.com