GHOST STORIES: ICEMAN'S ABSENT WOMEN AND MARY TYRONE
Judith Barlow's Final Acts has reminded us (in impressive detail) of the intricate relationship among O'Neill's late autobiographical plays.1 The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night are particularly close. Set in the same year (1912, the year of O'Neill's attempted suicide and the discovery of his tuberculosis), they were conceived in the same month (June, 1939); and their common themes and similar tragicomic tones bear out Louis Sheaffer's conclusion tat Journey "was already taking shape in [O'Neill's] mind as he worked on The Iceman."2 One striking similarity is that between Iceman's female ghosts--the missing women who haunt the play's central figures--and Journey's Mary Tyrone, who becomes increasingly remote, "ghostly," throughout the first three acts, and spends the last act off-stage, where she continues to haunt the Tyrone men until her reappearance a play's end. O'Neill's strategy of female "absence as presence" (in Bette Mandl's words)3 is, of course, hardly unique to these plays: Eben Cabot's mother exerts a ghostly power over her son in Desire Under the Elms, as does Orin Mannon's mother in Mourning Becomes Electra. And when he conceived and composed Iceman and Journey, O'Neill himself was again plagued by his mother's ghost. Carlotta Monterey O'Neill recalled her husband talking in June, 1939, about his family as "a thing that haunted him";4 and the playwright projected this personal condition into the action of both plays. In Iceman, however, the projection is more diffuse than in Journey, for the former play represents O'Neill's final attempted escape from his familial ghosts before his direct confrontation with them in the latter. As a consequence, the absent women of Iceman--Bessie Hope, Marjorie Tomorrow, Evelyn Hickman and Rosa Parritt--represent, as Michael Manheim has demonstrated, various aspects of O'Neill's mother, Ella Quinlan O'Neill.5 But they can also be viewed as sketches for the character of Mary Tyrone. Taken together, they suggest (in their absence) his reluctance to create a character modeled so directly on his mother; but his handling of their relationships with men also points toward the particular strategies he will pursue, and the ambivalence he feels, in using his mother's ghost to make that character in his next play.
If one conceives Iceman's structure as interlocking circles, Hickey, Larry Slade and Don Parritt inhabit central circles, and all the other characters can be located on rings outside of theirs. On very peripheral circles are Maggie, Pearl and Cora, the three prostitutes. The only women on stage, they have virtually no impact on the major figures, and practice a profession which symbolizes emotional distance from men--but also suggests women's sexual power over them. This power links them to two absent women who influence a pair of characters who reside immediately outside the central circles of the plot. Jimmy Tomorrow and Harry Hope, whose allegorical names underscore their status as major symbolic figures, also occupy leadership positions among the derelicts: Larry designates Jimmy the head of the Tomorrow movement (in which all members pipe-dream of regaining past jobs or status "tomorrow"); Harry provides the saloon setting and the birthday occasion where hope may flourish, and helps restore the derelicts' hopes at the end by declaring "insane" Hickey's dreadful gospel of self-honesty. Their personal pipe dreams apparently complement one another, with Harry's focused on the past, Jimmy's on the future. But these illusions share the figure of a missing woman whose memory each distorts, in order both to elicit the sympathetic support of his fellows and to rationalize his inertia. The manner of those distortions, and the differing weights given to their pipe dreams by O'Neill, help explain certain features in the portrait of Mary Tyrone which would soon emerge in Long Day's Journey.
Harry Hope's pipe dream about his dead wife Bessie is more prominent than Jimmy's about Marjorie, partly because Bessie is related to Ed Mosher, who uses his sister's memory to manipulate Harry. Mosher first brings Bessie up as an alibi for his failure to put Harry to bed, claiming Harry "said you couldn't bear the fat because it was one of those nights when memory brought poor old Bessie back to you."6 Harry's face instantly turns "long and sad and sentimental," and "a suitable sentimental hush falls on the room" as he recalls Bessie's sweetness and gregariousness, remembering that after her death twenty years ago he "didn't have the heart" to run for Alderman (602-603). Since that time, grief has kept him from even walking outside the bar. Larry, however, quickly establishes an ironic context for Harry's sentimental non-journeys by confiding to Parritt that "by all accounts, Bessie nagged the hell out of him" (603); and in the second act, Mosher facetiously rebukes McGloin's criticism of Bessie by reminding him, "you are speaking of my sister! Dear Bessie wasn't a bitch. She was a God-damned bitch!" (651). Hickey's frontal assault on Harry's false memory in Act Three completes the process, and it becomes obvious that Harry's idealization of Bessie serves to justify his neurotic withdrawal from outside contact.
Instances of men sentimentally grieving over dead women are common in O'Neill, of course. Sheaffer cites the "legion of dead wives and mothers in O'Neill's writing,"7 and Eben Cabot, Reuben Light and Orin Mannon spring immediately to mind as particular precursors of Harry in the neurotic nature of their grief. But these are all young agonists, whose bereavement is treated sympathetically. By contrast, Harry is sixty, Bessie's been dead twenty years, and (most important) his bereavement is ironic, since the sweet Bessie he recalls bears little apparent relation to the real thing. O'Neill's comic treatment of Harry suggests his recognition of how sentimentalism can mislead a man about his relationship with a departed woman. It had, in fact, earlier misled O'Neill himself: witness the various Earth Mothers in plays like The Great God Brown, Desire Under the Elms and Dynamo, all sentimentalized, heightened figures evidencing O'Neill's longing for the maternal nurturing which he never had. Preparing while he wrote Iceman to confront his mother's ghost in the subsequent Journey, O'Neill parodies Harry's sentimentalism, and thereby reveals his own subconscious decision to discard the sentimental mask. He succeeds: no one would argue that Mary Tyrone represents a sentimental idealization of Ella O'Neill.
Unable to confront the emotional pain caused by Edmund's illness, Mary withdraws into her house, into the spare room, into morphine--thus failing to provide her son with a mother's love and emotional support in time of crisis. Nor does she spare the other Tyrone men, as she relentlessly dredges up the past to blame Jamie, Tyrone and Edmund--and occasionally herself--for their present afflictions. However victimized by life she herself may be, her narcotic numbing of pain deepens the suffering of the other family members. There is little sentimentalism here, at least of a positive nature.
Indeed, the case of Jimmy Tomorrow suggests that O'Neill may have been a bit too stringent. Jimmy's memory of Marjorie resembles Harry's in its self-serving sentimentalism, for Jimmy remembers Marjorie as beautiful and speaks of her with "muzzy, self-pitying melancholy out of a sentimental dream" when he tells Harry "there are more bitter sorrows than losing the woman one loves by the hand of death" (656-657). Hickey quickly points up the discrepancy between Jimmy's pipe dream and reality: while Jimmy believes that discovering Marjorie in bed with an officer "started you on the booze and ruined your life," the truth is "you were pretty sick of her for hating you for getting drunk. I'll bet you were really damned relieved when she gave you such a good excuse" (657). If Harry Hope's case symbolizes the false idealization of one departed woman, Jimmy Tomorrow's represents the false blame of another.
The play, then, would seem to suggest O'Neill's awareness of the dishonesty of attributing your unhappiness to victimization by a female ghost, rather than taking responsibility for your own condition. But the Jimmy-Marjorie relationship receives much less attention than that of Harry and Bessie. Bessie's name is invoked early and often--on eight separate occasions, in fact; Marjorie is mentioned once in Act Two, once again in Act Four. Moreover, Jimmy himself plays a smaller role in the action than Harry, speaks far fewer lines, and thematically symbolizes illusions about the future, not the past. O'Neill's recognition of the potential dishonesty of falsely blaming a long-departed woman, then, seems far less acute than his awareness of the danger of false idealization; and the subsequent Journey reflects this imbalance. Intriguingly, the Mary-Edmund relationship obliquely resembles Jimmy's pipe dream about Marjorie, with the woman presented as prime betrayer in both. After all, Edmund's only "sins" toward Mary are the original one--being born--his sickness and sensitivity as a child, and his current contraction of tuberculosis. His verbal attacks on her are rare, and partially justified by her narcotic withdrawal. Considering the circumstances of his birth and life in a tormented family, one can hardly blame O'Neill for picturing himself in Edmund as one more sinned against than sinning. But it is interesting to note the subtle indications of this conviction forming in the play immediately previous to Long Day's. Journey.
Minor ghosts from a distant past, Marjorie and Bessie foreshadow the recently deposed, major ghost of Hickey's wife. Found in bed with an officer, Marjorie reflects Hickey's joke about discovering Evelyn in bed with the iceman; nagging Harry, Bessie anticipates Evelyn's attempts to reform Hickey. But Evelyn's reformist impulses have more tragic consequences than Bessie's simple nagging, because of the Hickmans' deeper love--a love that generates Evelyn's abiding faith in Hickey, prompting her always to forgive him for his alcoholism and womanizing in the false belief that he can reform. With tragic irony, her forgiveness breeds hatred and resentment in her unregenerate husband, who "couldn't forgive her for forgiving me.... There's a limit to the guilt you can feel and the forgiveness and pity you can take!" (714-715). The irony here is directed against Christian dogma as well, which posits a God who requires man's moral reform but always offers love and forgiveness to help effect it. Instead of conferring grace, Evelyn's forgiveness only deepens Hickey's awareness of his sinfulness, breeding hatred from love.
Once again, a female Iceman ghost anticipates the ghostly Mary in Journey. In Act Three, Mary recounts to Edmund the countless times she waited in ugly hotel rooms for Tyrone to return from drunken nights with his barroom friends, and leaves Tyrone "overwhelmed by shame" at the recollection. The next moment, after he pleads with her to forget, Mary responds, "No, dear. But I forgive. I always forgive you."8 Both recollection and forgiveness are offered in her remote, drug-induced tone, "as if she were speaking impersonally of people seen from a distance" (112-113). Consequently, as in Hickey's case, the forgiveness fails utterly to heal the wound, or to reform Its object. Minutes later, Tyrone pours himself another drink; shortly thereafter, he abandons Mary for several rounds in town with his barroom friends. The perverse dynamic of Hickey's relationship with his absent wife thus anticipates Tyrone's encounter with the remote Mary in this scene. And the scene epitomizes Mary's relationship with the Tyrone men in the play. Her detached, drugged behavior breeds guilt in all, since all are complicit in causing it: Edmund by being sick, Jamie by being suspicious in the present and by "killing" Eugene in the past, Tyrone for hiring a quack doctor who prescribed morphine after Edmund's birth--and Edmund for being born, in the past. Her attempts at expressing forgiveness, in her remote state, simply deepen the guilt. Thus, by dramatizing the tragic dynamic of sin prompting forgiveness prompting guilt in the central relationship of Iceman, O'Neill prepares for the more intimate exploration of that dynamic's personal roots in the subsequent Journey.
Another off-stage woman in Iceman also breeds guilt and self-loathing in a man: Rosa Parritt, mother of Don and ex-lover of Larry Slade. Rosa represents the most important of Iceman's sketches of Mary Tyrone, for here O'Neill explored the psychological devastation wrought by an absent mother upon a son. However, O'Neill was not ready to highlight the mother-son dynamic, so he makes it the subject of a sub-plot that parallels--indeed, "Parritts"--the central story of Hickey and Evelyn. The sub-plot not only displaces the mother well off-stage (in jail on the West Coast), but heavily disguises her resemblances to O'Neill's mother by modelling her on Emma Goldman, a leader of the Socialist-Anarchist movement. And as Professor Manheim has suggested, further masking of the autobiographical source of Rosa Parritt results from O'Neill's projection of himself into both her son and her ex-lover, Larry.9 Larry resembles O'Neill in late 1939: deeply cynical about political movements (as war raged again in Europe), apart from others yet perceptive about their dreams and motives--and still attached, despite his protestations, to a woman from a "dead" past. Larry assures Parritt in the first act that quitting the Movement "had nothing to do with your mother," but he doth protest too much, and Parritt "smiles almost mockingly" in response (590). By Act Three, Parritt concludes "it's really Mother you still love" (680), and plays on Larry's disgust at the son's betrayal to goad Larry into becoming his executioner. To be sure, Larry's motives for condemning Parritt are multiple: compassion and moral outrage mingle with personal "detestation" as he finally orders Parritt to "get the hell out of life, God damn you, before I choke it out of you!" (720). But the vehemence of his disclaimers of love for Rosa makes clear that continuing attachment to her is among those motives.
Through Larry, O'Neill deals with his own previous unwillingness to acknowledge his mother directly in his work, and reveals the pull toward her portrait in Journey. Again, Carlotta's words about O'Neill's state in June, 1939, are pertinent: "he told me he was going to write a play about his family. It was a thing that haunted him. He was bedeviled into writing it.... He had to get it out of his system, he had to forgive whatever it was that caused this tragedy between himself and his mother and father."10 Larry Slade is similarly haunted, similarly "bedeviled" by Parritt, an agent from the past, into facing a ghost he thought he had laid to rest. Through Larry, O'Neill projects his resistance to the painful encounter--a resistance evident in the very decision to write Iceman before composing the subsequent "play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood" (Journey [vii]). But Larry also symbolizes, in his eventual confrontation with a woman's ghost, O'Neill's ultimate capitulation to his mother's memory.
The agent provoking that capitulation, Don Parritt, may represent the playwright at younger ages. As is well know, O'Neill's suicide attempt took place in 1912 in a similar setting, and (as Professor Manheim suggests) Parritt's betrayal of his mother may re-enact O'Neill's betrayal of Ella O'Neill following her death, when he could not bring himself to meet the train bearing her dead body back from California in 1923.11 Parritt also, as Sheaffer has indicated, dramatizes O'Neill's connection of his self-hatred to its source in his mother, with a consequent matricidal impulse that finds expression in both Parritt and Hickey.12 But most important for my purposes, the Parritt-Rosa relationship anticipates that of Edmund and Mary in Journey. Parritt confides to Larry in the third act that Rosa "used to spoil me and made a pet of me. Once in a great while, I mean. When she remembered me. As if she wanted to make up for something. As if she felt guilty" (667). Victimized by neglect in his childhood, Parritt came second to Rosa's pipe dream, the Movement, and to her numerous lovers. Edmund is similarly, briefly spoiled by Mary--when she remembers him, before her true lover and her cross, morphine, comes to reclaim her, in times past and present. In Iceman, Rosa's emotional abandonment of her child is rationalized by her political, idealistic and sexual motives. But those motives are masks devised by O'Neill's imagination to shield him one last time from the truth proclaimed repeatedly in Journey, that Edmund's birth caused the addiction that caused his mother's neglect--a neglect wrenchingly re-enacted during the long day's journey of the play.
Finally, Parritt (like Larry) offers us another revelation of O'Neill in the process of journeying toward the painful truths of his next play. Parritt first informs Larry he betrayed his mother for patriotic reasons, later claims he did it for money, and finally faces the reality that his betrayal stemmed from hatred of a mother who gave him neither attention nor freedom. Peeling the onion, Parritt proceeds through a process of disillusion--like O'Neill, preparing for Journey as he composes Iceman, subconsciously stripping away layers to get at the truth about his feelings toward his mother. Hickey, Larry and Parritt all endure similar ordeals of disillusion about their feelings toward an absent woman; and the play itself is, of course, the final illusory construction which must be created, then cast off, before O'Neill can "face [his] dead at last and write" Long Day's Journey Into Night ([vii]).
Obviously, a paper of this length cannot exhaustively treat the subject of the complicated connections between the relationships and strategies of Iceman and Journey. One might object in particular that the link I perceive between the (alleged) female betrayals of men in Iceman and the portrait of Mary as the prime betrayer of Edmund in Journey ignores the destructive role played by the other Tyrone men; for Journey's depiction of the aggression of brother against brother and father against son is clearly anticipated in Iceman's middle acts, when male camaraderie collapses under the weight of Hickey's systematic exposure of pipe dreams. But however hostile the men of both plays may be toward one another, they also offer emotional support in a way that the absent women of plays--by their very absence--cannot. As several recent articles have suggested,13 O'Neill (like many male American authors) was hardly fair or objective in his portraits of women. Journey points to the major source of this in his relationship with a moer whom (according to Louis Sheaffer) "he could never, on an emotional level, absolve."14 But Journey did, at least, permit Ella Quinlan O'Neill to enter fully into her son's creative consciousness, liberating her ghost from the subconscious realm she inhabited during his previous plays. Without Iceman, however, that liberation might never have occurred; and the offstage sketches of women in that play thus shed light not only on both plays' themes, but on the complex processes of a creative mind which composed one masterpiece while preparing for another.
-- James A. Robinson
1Final Acts: The Creation of Three Late O'Neill Plays (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985). For specific comparisons of The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night, see pp. 3, 14, 18-19, 20, 29, 43-44, 50, 59, 62, 72, 76, 83, 97, 109, 110, and 157-62. See also Virginia Floyd, ed., Eugene O'Neill at Work: Newly Released Ideas for Plays (New York: Ungar, 1981), pp. xvi-xvii, xxii, 260, 276, 280, 281, 297-298.
2O'Neill: Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1973), p. 505.
3"Absence as Presence: The Second Sex in The Iceman Cometh," Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, 6, 2 (Summer-Fall 1982), 10-15.
4Sheaffer, p. 505.
5Eugene O'Neill's New Language of Kinship (Syracuse University Press, 1982), pp. 134-136.
6The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, I (New York: Random House, 1954), 602. Future citations will be included parenthetically in the text.
7Sheaffer, p. 500.
8Long Day's Journey Into Night (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), pp. 113-114. Future citations will be included parenthetically in the test.
9Manheim, pp. 138-139.
10Sheaffer, p. 505.
11Manheim, p. 138.
12Sheaffer, p. 499.
13In the same issue of The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter as the Mandl article cited above are two other feminist approaches to O'Neill: Doris Nelson, "O'Neill's Women," 3-7; and Trudy Drucker, "Sexuality as Destiny: The Shadow Lives of O'Neill's Women," 7-10. See also Sheaffer, pp. 500-501; and the O'Neill Newsletter 10, 2 (Summer-Fall 1986), 15-16, where Prof. Jean Anne Waterstradt summarizes the papers delivered at a panel on "Women in O'Neill's Plays," including Judith Barlow's "Mothers and Virgins: Mary Tyrone, Josie Hogan and Their Antecedents" and Bette Mandl's "Wrestling with the Angel in the House: Mary Tyrone's Long Journey."
14Sheaffer, p. 499.
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