BY Barbara Gelb
Struggling to complete ''A Moon for the Misbegotten'' before illness permanently silenced his writing in 1943, Eugene O'Neill fancifully described the character based on his older brother, James O'Neill Jr., as an ''alien.''
When Jim was born, wrote O'Neill in an early attempt to bring the character into focus, the first thing he did was ''look around at the round earth and realize'' he had been ''sent to the wrong planet.''
''God had double-crossed him,'' O'Neill elaborated in his scenario for the play, ''and so he began to curse . . . and he reached for a bottle of whiskey and said to himself, By God, I'll show you! Try and catch me now. And so he lived on cursing & drinking, being slapped on the back and no one ever caught him. . . .''
The idea for the play, a revival of which opens tonight at the Walter Kerr Theater, directed by Daniel Sullivan and starring Cherry Jones, Gabriel Byrne and Roy Dotrice, struck O'Neill almost immediately after he completed ''Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' his autobiographical masterpiece, which takes place in New London, Conn., in 1912. On Oct. 29, 1941, he noted in his work diary, ''This can be strange combination comic-tragic -- am enthused about it.''
The play afforded O'Neill a second look at his brother, depicted in ''Long Day's Journey'' as a 33-year-old, cynical, second-rate actor, alcoholic but still functional. Set 11 years later, ''A Moon for the Misbegotten'' portrays the brother (called James Tyrone Jr. in both plays) as a considerably more depressed, guilt-ridden and alcohol-sodden failure. He is now in his early 40's and on the brink of death.
Rather than inhabiting the realistic setting of ''Long Day's Journey,'' which closely mirrors the life of O'Neill's brother, the Jim Tyrone of ''A Moon for the Misbegotten'' materializes amid a twisted fable that is part tragedy, part raucous comedy and part miracle play. At the time and place we meet this older Jim -- ''early September, 1923,'' on a farm in Connecticut -- the real Jim was in a New Jersey sanitarium, nearly blind and in the terminal stage of alcoholism.
''A Moon for the Misbegotten'' was, it seems, a wish fulfillment on O'Neill's part. He had been unable to forgive his brother's outrageous behavior during the months before his death, and would not visit him at the sanitarium. The play in one sense was a belated offering, two decades later, of redemption for his brother and expiation for O'Neill's own guilty lack of compassion at the time. The ''Moon'' O'Neill conjured was, in effect, a Mass for the long-dead brother he had once dearly loved but had come to resent.
The true story that drives ''A Moon for the Misbegotten'' is that of the final illness, in 1922, of Jim's (and Eugene's) mother, Ella. After their father's death in 1920, Jim had at last given up drinking for his mother's sake. Sober for a year and a half, he accompanied her to California to look into one of his father's real estate investments, and there she fell ill with an incurable brain tumor. Awaiting her death in terror, Jim began drinking again as she lay in a coma. He became convinced that she awakened long enough to be aware of his condition and to die in despair.
Even worse, on the train bearing his mother's coffin home he picked up a prostitute and locked himself with her into his compartment, arriving in New York too drunk and debauched to attend to the disposition of his mother's body. All this soon became known to his appalled brother.
That much of the story is accurately told in ''A Moon for the Misbegotten,'' in the searing Act III monologue delivered by Jim (portrayed in the current production by Mr. Byrne). The play's physical setting is also drawn from life -- a ramshackle property near New London that had been owned by O'Neill's father and leased to a disreputable pig farmer, John (Dirty) Dolan, his name in the play changed to Phil Hogan (Mr. Dotrice).
What O'Neill wove out of whole cloth was a device to give his brother the forgiveness denied him in real life. He invented Josie Hogan (Cherry Jones), the pig farmer's daughter, a bigger-than-life Mother Earth who, beneath a mock-bawdy exterior, possesses a saintly gentleness and compassion. O'Neill described her as ''so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak -- 5 feet 11 in her stockings and weighs around 180.''
O'Neill knew, of course, that casting an actress of those dimensions would be virtually impossible, but he wanted whoever played the role to convey a quality of supernatural power. He wished Josie to be seen as Jim's savior, the one person to whom he could confess his betrayal of his mother and be given absolution in his mother's name. ''A Moon for the Misbegotten'' is, essentially, a religious play, deeply rooted in the Roman Catholic heritage that O'Neill could never entirely leave behind.
From the play, we learn little about Jim except for this sorry episode, and it is helpful to recall that he is the same Jim who, in ''Long Day's Journey,'' was provided by O'Neill (albeit somewhat sketchily) with a background of childhood tragedy. And while ''A Moon for the Misbegotten'' surely stands on its own as a play of profound insight and humanity, its link to ''Long Day's Journey'' enriches it and helps explain Jim's ultimate disintegration.
The true story began in the winter of 1885, when Jim, known in the family bosom as Jamie, was 7. His mother left him and his brother, Edmund, not quite 2, in their grandmother's care in New York while she went off to join her husband, the matinee idol James O'Neill, on his Western theatrical tour.
Jamie had traveled from infancy with his parents, living in the closest intimacy with them in hotel rooms across the country. Deprived of companions his own age, he was preternaturally attached to and dependent on his mother and was acutely jealous and resentful of his baby brother's intrusion into their lives.
During his mother's absence, Jamie contracted measles and, despite warnings to stay away, went into Edmund's room and infected him. Before his mother could return, Edmund died. This became the defining event of the O'Neill family tragedy, brooded upon and ever present to all the O'Neills, even to Eugene, who was not born until three years later. The circumstance of the baby's death was of particularly excruciating pain to Jamie because his beloved mother, in her grief and shock, accused him of having deliberately transmitted his illness to the baby.
In notes to himself years later, Eugene O'Neill attempted to understand the frenzied aftershock of Edmund's death. He wondered if Jamie had indeed ''unconsciously'' killed Edmund. Later, in a preliminary draft of ''Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' he wrote a speech for Jamie who, under the influence of alcohol, makes the shocking confession that he ''hated'' the baby and purposely went into his room, hoping to give him measles.
''I was glad when he died,'' Jamie Tyrone blurts out. Whether or not Jamie O'Neill really did utter these words, O'Neill deleted them in the play's final version, evidently believing they placed his brother in too villainous a light. In any case, the real Jamie, though he apparently repressed his misery for a time, was ultimately destroyed by the guilty conviction that the mother he worshiped believed he had killed his baby brother and could not forgive him.
JAMIE'S misery was compounded when, shortly after his brother's death, he was banished to a Roman Catholic boarding school in Indiana, where he was to spend the next nine years. Doubtless trying to redeem himself, Jamie at first strove to be an exemplary student, earning high grades and winning one award after another in such subjects as rhetoric, elocution, oratory and Christian doctrine.
At 10, he appeared to accept with good grace the arrival of another brother, Eugene. In this instance it was a little easier to suppress his jealously, for he now had a life and friends apart from his parents and no longer felt compelled to vie for his mother's daily attention, although he did yearn for her visits at school.
If O'Neill's early scenario for ''A Moon for the Misbegotten'' may be taken literally, Jamie drew profound solace from the religious belief in which he had been brought up. ''There was once a boy who loved . . . purity and God with a great quiet passion inside him,'' reads a line in the scenario describing Jim Tyrone; indeed, wrote O'Neill, Jim had actually contemplated giving up ''self & the world to worship of God.''
Popular with his fellow students, as well as something of a teacher's pet, Jamie appeared in dramatic productions and played shortstop on the baseball team. No one who knew this bright, ingratiating, high-achieving boy would have predicted anything but the rosiest of futures for him.
His behavior turned erratic in his early teens when, during a school vacation, he stumbled on his mother giving herself a morphine injection. ''Christ, I'd never dreamed before that any women but whores took dope!'' Jim tells his younger brother in ''Long Day's Journey Into Night.''
Beginning with his return to school in 1892, he began his spiral downward. Although still capable of bursts of exemplary scholarship and literary achievement, he appears from that point on to have lost heart. He began to blame his father for his mother's condition and, for the first time, displayed an open disrespect that was to ripen into ever-increasing nastiness.
James O'Neill voiced his concern in a letter to the president of his son's school, saying he had sternly lectured his son. ''If he can be kept well in hand for the next two years I am sure he will make a good man,'' wrote James, presciently adding: ''On the other hand there is a possible chance of his going to the dogs. During my conversation with him in Chicago I found I was no longer talking to a child. He has some very old ideas of Life and not the best by any means. . . . I shall watch his progress anxiously. During the next few years I shall write him often, doing all I can to keep him at his work and in the right path.''
James's fatherly concern proved futile. Jamie left his boarding school shortly before his 16th birthday and, in quick succession, attended two other schools, performing with sporadic brilliance but often misbehaving.
Less than two months into his senior year at St. John's College (on the Bronx site that later became Fordham University), Jamie was already in the decline from which he never sprang back. On a bet, six months before graduation (as accurately recounted in ''A Moon for the Misbegotten''), Jamie brought a prostitute to the campus and tried to pass her off to the Jesuit faculty as his sister. He was promptly expelled.
He halfheartedly tried various occupations and at last, grudgingly, allowed his father to start him on an acting career. And since he was good-looking, with his father's voice and his Irish wit and charm, the stage did, at first, seem to suit him.
But Jamie made little effort to grow as an actor. He was often drunk onstage, justifying his behavior by insisting his father had ''forced'' him into the theater.
On tour, Jamie would invite the town prostitutes to sit in the boxes and cheer him on. Dressed in buckskin tights, he struck lascivious poses at the stage apron, flagrant enough to elicit the critics' ridicule. Himself always the perfectionist, James found his son's flouting of standards galling.
By 1914, when Jamie was 36, he had come perilously close to wrecking his father's career. Although still being given small roles in James's company, he and his father were barely on speaking terms.
''Look at him,'' James was apt to jeer, ''a $35,000 education and a $35-a-week earning capacity.''
Jamie's drinking finally put an end to his career at 38. With no occupation, he devoted himself to his mother. Jim ''hasn't had a drink in almost a year and a half now!'' O'Neill wrote to a friend in January 1923. ''Fact, I swear to you! My mother got him to go off the wagon and stick -- and he has stuck.''
O'Neill was in the midst of rehearsals for ''The Hairy Ape'' later that year when Jamie wired from California that their mother was dying. Drinking without stop after her death on Feb. 28, Jamie was forcibly removed to the New Jersey sanitarium in May. On July 18, a friend of Jamie's who visited him regularly wrote to Eugene: ''He is very thin, pale, trembles a great deal and of course very weak. He cannot read or write so he asked me to write for him. . . . He expressed a great desire to see you.''
In the last scene of ''A Moon for the Misbegotten,'' Jim Tyrone, blessed by Josie's forgiving love, takes his final leave of her. Josie, ''her face sad, tender and pitying,'' gazes after him. ''May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, Jim darling,'' she says, ''may you rest forever in forgiveness and peace.''
By the end of October 1923 (a month after the time of the play's action) a cousin of the O'Neills who had kept in touch with the sanitarium reported to his wife, ''Jim was out of his mind and getting weaker every day.'' He died on Nov. 8, his life without doubt the most cruelly blighted of the four tragic O'Neills.
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com