BY Michael Manheim
In talking about Long Day’s Journey, as in talking about The Iceman Cometh, one must begin, not end, with its despair. This play grows not out of O’Neill’s autobiographical agony, but out of his triumph over that agony, a triumph which is obvious in the very fact of the play’s searing explicitness—especially regarding Mary Tyrone. The whole point about her addiction is that in this play it is no longer seen as the most shameful of horrors. Mary’s affliction and her accompanying guilt are treated here with a detachment made all the more effective by being anything but clinical. But O’Neill’s objectivity has come at a price, the price paid by Larry Slade in his great struggle and victory. The price is the loss of all illusions and the inevitable sense of universal emptiness that accompanies such a loss. The “night” that this play, and O’Neill’s entire creative career, has been a “long journey into” is one of now-uncynical disbelief in everything. At the end of the play there are no rights and wrongs, goods or evils, ups or downs, panics or manias — only the image of four beings linked together around a faintly lit electric light in an illimitable ocean of darkness.
There are, as in The Iceman Cometh, two stages in the despair of this play. First there is the cynicism born in both sons by the deprivation of motherly affection when it was crucially needed. That their mother is a “dope fiend,” a. “hop head,” is only their adult shame. The real failure has been Mary’s withdrawals themselves, quite apart from the social stigma attached to her addiction. And the play’s most poignant utterance of this fact is Jamie’s in his quotation from Swinburne’s ‘A Leave-Taking” near the end: “Yea, though we sang as angels in her ear, She would not hear.” The needed love withheld, the sons have come to know feelings of intense bitterness which are expressed typically in their cynical humor. Jamie observes that he has been made a “cynical bastard” by his mother’s repeated “leave-takings.” He reveals through his reference to her addiction as “a game” the real source of his renowned iconoclasm. His gambling and drink are simply extensions of her narcotic. Still more explicitly does Edmund see his mother’s condition as the source of his despair. Learning of her addiction, he says, “made everything seem rotten.” The psychologist O’Neill has learned, of his brother and himself, that their negative feelings about life resulted quite simply from a very early, critical deprivation of mother-love—a deprivation which was followed in their adolescence by rational disillusionment with their addicted mother and by shame before society at the evidences of her condition.
But the “night” of the play’s ending goes beyond despair—as do all O’Neill’s last plays. Jamie’s evoking of Swinburne also speaks of a state of despondency “without fear”:
It is the acceptance of fact that is so important about this quotation. It is O’Neill’s acceptance of his, and man’s, incapacity to direct his life by moral ideals. Whatever life is, it is—and man’s only means of survival is to live it. We move away from moral decision-making, away from hope, away from disappointment, away even from the irony which is tied to the failure of ideals—and we move toward an acceptance of life rooted in its processes. And the main process associated with that acceptance is the relating of humans to one another, a process which it has been Mary’s sole real failure to have been so little a part of. This play is primarily about human isolation, seen mostly through Mary, and human kinship, seen mostly through the men. It is a play which sees in human kinship man’s sole means of survival in the vast night that both man’s reason and his ideals have led him to.
There is not a single scene or episode in which the basic rhythm of kinship is not heard or felt in this play.2 Even in the frenzied second and third acts—where we see the characters pulling away from one another in torrents of deception, suspicion, and recrimination there are recurrent outbursts of the most genuine if anguished love. The love exists in and may be expressed by any of the three men, but it must come first from Mary, who turns the flows of kinship on and off in these acts as her fears and affections dictate. When she is haltingly and desperately able to admit her awareness of her condition, or Edmund’s, the feelings of kinship are immediately apparent. But such admissions by Mary are invariably followed by panic and withdrawal. Nothing is more isolating for the men than her persistent “stubborn denials” of the facts regarding her affliction and her son’s illness. The alternation of these denials with Mary’s outbursts of affection and appeals for sympathy constitute the basic rhythm of kinship in the middle acts of this play, but as those outbursts and appeals are highly repressed and increasingly hopeless because of Mary’s progress into her narcotic state, so the sense of isolation in these acts is the most intense in the play. The rhythm of kinship is always present, but in these most desperate scenes of the play, it is overwhelmed by the bitterness of deception and hurt.
Kinship in this play largely derives from what we see and hear not in its middle acts but in its opening and closing acts. And it is now more a true language rather than merely a recurrent rhythm of kinship we are talking about since O’Neill seems so consciously and primarily concerned with the emotional ups and downs his dialogue traces. In the opening act we hear a language of everyday kinship, while in the last we hear the language of a far deeper kinship elicited by severe emotional pressure. It is that opening language I wish to examine first, and to examine in a way I have not heretofore employed.
In discussing O’Neill’s dialogue, I have followed the customary procedure of making interpretive observations and supplementing them with appropriate illustrations aimed at suggesting the rhythm. So many emotional variations are packed into the dialogue of these later plays, however, that the number of illustrations which might really be needed to show the complexities is precluded by the amount of time and space available. Nevertheless, to do justice to O’Neill’s art, I believe that in one instance an extended passage should be included which might, regardless of length, more fully suggest the emotional shifts and changes typical of the dialogue generally in these plays. I would like therefore to examine two episodes from Act One from the point of view of the emotional interactions and variations they contain. The first is the family scene in which Edmund tells the anecdote about Shaughnessy’s pigs—that anecdote which is enlarged and made central to the first half of A Moon for the Misbegotten—and the second is the extended exchange which follows between Jamie and James. I shall not discuss these episodes in the abstract but shall instead seek to annotate them with indications of the sharply varying emotions underlying their dialogue. Both episodes evoke a sense of the close kinship which exists among these people—the second, in the sharpness of its anger and the bitterness of its recriminations no less revealing of the closeness than the first, with its mutually enjoyed joke. In fact, the hostile scene may be more revealing of that closeness because the subjects discussed are critical to the family’s survival.
To begin the first of the two episodes in Long Day’s Journey then, Jamie and Edmund enter laughing from the dining room to interrupt James’s and Mary’s opening conversation:
Mary’s concern for her hair is the first overt evidence of her return to her addiction.
Jamie, in fear and suspicion, reveals his feeling with his eyes, but uncharacteristically he disguises his fear.
James puts up his usual “front.”
Jamie parodies his father.
James, hurt, counterattacks.
Edmund, hurt on behalf of Jamie, overreacts. This is typical of the brothers’ relationship with their parents.
Mary in this scene consistently demonstrates her mastery of the maternal art of peacemaking, one of the many admirable qualities her addiction denies her.
Edmund’s and Jamie’s mutual delight in this tale is very much part of the emotional ambience of their closeness, as is Mary’s motherly care.
James’s attack on Shaughnessy is born in part of the hostility he still feels toward Jamie and in part on his Con Melody-like aristocratic pretensions. In his heart James admires the Irishman and shares his contempt for the arrogant rich.
James’s carping reactions here form a counterpoint to the family’s enjoyment—and their kinship.
Mary, “shocked and amused,” is contributing to a harmony they will shortly lose.
James’s sense of identity with Shaughnessy breaks out, but he quickly stifles it. The positive response represents his instinct toward kinship with his family.
Edmund’s rendition of the story’s detail suggests both his joy and ability in conveying its quality as well as reporting its facts. The story is a good deal simpler than Edmund’s sophistication in the telling of it.
The two are briefly brought together by their mutual concern for Edmund,
But the subject of doctors quickly separates them.
As James’s attacks on Jamie center on Jamie’s failures, Jamie’s on his father center on the older man’s supposed miserliness, especially concerning health care, and on his real estate speculations.
These attacks, like most attacks in O’Neill, build in intensity until something happens to stop them. Someone may turn violent, as Edmund does later and Jamie and James both almost do on several occasions. Someone may get hurt sufficiently to weep or in some other way appeal to the other’s sympathy. Or some subject may get introduced which appeals to the sympathy of both. In each case, the hostility is broken and feelings of good will are set free. The pattern of kinship is thus completed. What follows reveals both the breakdown of hostility through the appeal for sympathy by the more vulnerable character in a particular exchange and the breakdown of hostility through mutual affection for another individual, Edmund or Mary.
James’s hostility subsides, replaced first by self-pity,
Then by self-pity on Jamie’s part.
But James quickly renews the hostilities.
Another brief break in the hostilities,
but James will not desist.
In persistently defending the Doctor, James is really defending himself. His tone here anticipates his long confession of Act Four.
Jamie is on the defensive again. While both are still on the attack, they actually, and not very subtly appealing for sympathy—which will be forthcoming.
Jamie’s truculence completely gives way, replaced by self-pity, then by affection for Edmund.
Mutual feelings of concern and love for Edmund are expressed,
But the Broadway theme sets off new explosions.
Jamie’s precise zig-zagging of emotion in these four utterances is a paradigm of the feelings of both characters throughout the exchange: from (1) attack to (2) sympathy, to (3) attack again, and (4) back again to sympathy. All the feelings are genuine, none pretended.
The two segments quoted are obviously quite different in mood. The Shaughnessy episode is comic, the James-Jamie exchange serious. The tone of the first segment suggests the “everyday” kinship I spoke of earlier; the second, prompted by emotions under increasing stress, foreshadows the dialogue of the last act. But the progression of feeling in both episodes is of the same order. Hurts and frustrations of long standing breed hurtful comments until a full-scale pattern of attack and counterattack ensues. Then, at some point, the deep sympathies among these people emerge to reassert the basic kinship among them. Though the hostility may give rise to responses approaching violence, the hostility itself never destroys the kinship so long as it is part of this all-important rhythm, as it is throughout all the scenes of this play in which more than a single member of the family is present.
What destroys the kinship is never hostility but withdrawal. Edmund withdraws toward the end of the first episode in a miniscule version of his mother’s withdrawals. That withdrawal relieves the pressure on him for the moment, but for the long run it is the harbinger of the loneliness that all O’Neill’s characters find the greatest of all terrors. Significantly, it is implicit in these episodes that while Jamie is alienated from his mother and has withdrawn from her in response to her withdrawals from him, he never withdraws from his father, no matter how virulent the attacks become. His kinship with his father is secure. On the other hand, Edmund’s responses suggest a habit of withdrawing from his father when the going gets rough, while he stays in touch with his mother up to the very edge of her ‘leave-taking.” Thus, Edmund is in closer kinship with his mother than are the other members of the family; but since Mary ultimately denies kinship with everyone, Edmund is the one most left out in the cold. Ultimately, he must establish genuine ties with his father, which he does in the final act.
Before turning to the all-important last act, however, let me examine the middle acts in greater detail. The emotional pattern of Edmund’s conversations with his mother must be looked at because they describe the way in which kinship is destroyed in the play, and thus make the kinship the men are able to establish in the last act the more significant. These mother-son conversations are spaced at regular intervals, the first coming late in Act One, the second late in Act Two, and the third late in Act Three. The first takes place just as Mary’s relapse is beginning to become apparent, the second constitutes a kind of eleventh hour appeal by Edmund spoken on behalf of all three men, and the third is made up chiefly of Edmund’s report that his illness is indeed consumption. In each confrontation, Edmund tries to get his mother to face a fact: in the first, the fact that her affliction has embarrassed the family socially; in the second, the fact that the affliction has recurred; and in the third, the fact of his illness. In each instance, Mary struggles to accept, but then she rejects—totally and uncompromisingly. This pattern constitutes the basic rhythm of their conversation—the movement between her acceptance of the fact, which creates a tentative bond between them, and her cold rejection of the fact, and concomitantly of Edmund. Edmund meanwhile encourages and supports her as she struggles to accept the facts—then hurts her, first by innuendo, later by outright assault, as she coldly denies them.
The second-act encounter between Edmund and Mary is the most frustrating for both because it is here that he tries hardest to get through to her and she comes closest to accepting herself— that is, of reasserting her kinship with him and with the others:
In lines following these, Mary ties that acceptance closely to her religion, which, to O’Neill, in spite of his nihilism, is clearly more acceptable than the morphine. Mary’s religion may be thought of as an illusion, but all O’Neill seeks, in this play as in The Iceman Cometh and Hughie, is the illusion which will permit the two people to remain in touch with one another, and religion would more than adequately fulfill this function. But Mary’s illusions when she is under the influence of her drug deny rather than in any way perpetuate her relationships with others. Despite her impassioned pleas and her half-acknowledgments, in the end there is always the “blank denial”: “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” And Edmund must feel for the thousandth time the loneliness of the small child deserted by his parents followed by the bitterness of the adolescent who is reacting against that desertion. Despite the clamorous sounds of battle between James and Jamie, their kinship is always there; whereas the deep affection between Edmund and Mary, which is so penetrating when it comes through, always ends by being stamped out — by a withdrawal in words first and then in fact. By the third act, the desertion which is the effect of Mary’s denials becomes so pronounced and Edmund becomes so frustrated that he turns from innuendo to direct attack, and he utters the killing phrase which has been one chief source of O’Neill’s many matricide fantasies in his earlier plays:
At this point, all contact ceases. Mary cannot accept Edmund’s attempts to right things with his ensuing apologies.
The middle acts of Long Day’s Journey, which quite possibly by intent are the closest in feeling to the plays of O’Neill’s middle period, are melodramatic. In addition to the Edmund-Mary exchanges we have just looked at, we also see the men spying on Mary, Mary deceiving and evading, and all the characters wearing a variety of masks. Jamie “discovers” for his crestfallen brother and father the “truth” about Mary’s backsliding, and Mary grows increasingly suspicious about what the men suspect. Even the dialogue between Edmund and Jamie now concentrates on themes of suspicion and intrigue. But the melodrama is really a facade. It is not action seriously intended to grip us with its suspense. We are never in any doubt that Edmund is actually ill or that Mary has returned to her morphine, and we are never in any doubt that son and mother will both have to be hospitalized. What we are really seeing is all the members of the family acting melodramatic in the face of unalterable facts and damaging their kinship in the process. Individuals start to abuse, exploit, and gang up on one another, as they do in the middle acts of The Iceman Cometh, rather than confront one another in whole human terms. Mary and James use Edmund’s illness in attacking each other, the sons gang up on their father, James’s increased bully and bluster hide his deepening pain.
It is in the later stages of these middle acts that Mary makes her histrionic progression, or retrogression, from nervous mother to hardened addict. But here we must be extremely careful to recognize the effect O’Neill wishes to achieve. What we see on stage in Act Three is melodrama, yes, but not the kind of frightening melodrama we witnessed in Strange Interlude, when Mrs. Evans spoke vaguely and mysteriously of a mad sister wasting away in an upstairs room. There O’Neill was in the full grip of his fears concerning his mother. Here, having triumphed over those fears, he wishes to elicit understanding and compassion; and the scene which is most important to that understanding and compassion is the one in which Mary, increasingly drugged, makes her long, rambling speech to Cathleen the tipsy servant girl. In this speech Mary, like James an act later, develops the motifs relating to her past, and we come to understand her as Edmund later comes to understand his father. These motifs have to do with her lost dreams: of becoming a nun, of becoming a concert pianist, of marrying a swashbuckling hero. They creep into her conversation early in the play, she keeps returning to them in her increasingly rambling monologues, and she withdraws into them as the drug takes possession of her. But what is most important about her Act Three “confession” to Cathleen and her “mad scene” late in Act Four is that the effect has been reduced to size. Mary is only an ill, troubled woman drifting away from reality, not the central figure of a nightmare, as are so many earlier characters who represent O’Neill’s mother. We are asked to have perspective on her illness, not be absorbed by it. That is as far as O’Neill goes with the memory of his mother in this play. He will not in this play, as he has so often in the past, seek to reestablish a kinship with his mother which he never reestablished in his life. But he can present his mother honestly and objectively, plead for our compassion, and go on to other matters.
By the end of the play, of course, Mary has totally withdrawn, but even then the effect is hardly intended to horrify. She appears in pigtails, like a young girl, and Jamie quite aptly compares her to Ophelia, whose “mad scene” should elicit extreme compassion but never the horror which accompanies other mad scenes in literature. The feelings which accompany Mary’s appearance in the final scene of this play are finally not those terrified ones underlying the scenes in earlier plays which anticipate that appearance, scenes such as Mrs. Keeney wildly playing the organ in Ile or Ella Downey attacking her husband with a knife in All God’s Chillun. Mary in Act Four is an extremely sensitive woman whose fear and loneliness have become intensified by a drug. In Act Four, as in Act Three, we feel sorry for her and we feel sorry about the fear and dismay she creates for her husband and children; but in no way do we feel drawn into the web of her “madness,” as Simon Harford feels drawn into his mother’s “little Temple.” We need no longer identify with a character representing O’Neill’s mother, as O’Neill no longer needs to identify with her. The figure created to represent his mother here is in fact finally lost to him. The long guilt has subsided; this play is not primarily associated with O’Neill’s mother. It is the men, not the woman or even the memory of a woman, who finally create the full impact of this work. It is the men who in their kinship of Act Four keep the light burning in the night that this has been a long day’s journey into night.
As I observed earlier, at no point during this play does the basic rhythm of kinship entirely disappear. Even at their most acrimonious and duplicitous in Acts Two and Three, the characters periodically burst into expressions of undeniably authentic affection. But these portions of the play provide little hope of survival. Mary’s denials and the mutual distrust are too intense for the expressions of love to complete the kinship. There is always a desperation, even in the affection, which portends a calamitous conclusion of the sort we have known in most other O’Neill plays. The last act comes, then, as a change of pace for O’Neill, anticipated only in the small-scale Hughie. The Iceman Cometh enacts much of the same triumph over the past that this play does and dwells extensively on the rhythms and sounds of human kinship, but Iceman still contains a suicide and a murder. O’Neill there must still make actual violence a metaphor for his psychological state. In Long Day’s Journey, O’Neill abandons such metaphors. Its ending is hardly a happy one, certainly not in the sense of sentimentality or escape. But that ending is also far from being the all-out denial of life that some would have it. The overall tone of the last act becomes quite different from that in Acts Two and Three—and even from that in Act One. It is a tone suggestive of man’s capacity to survive under the worst emotional circumstances.
Opening the last act, a drunken Edmund confronts a drunken James, taking over, as O’Neill did in real life, his brother Jamie’s various postures and attitudes. With biting, cynical wit, Edmund attacks his father for his miserliness and for his treatment of Mary over the years. James in turn counterattacks, criticizing Edmund’s cynicism, his avant-garde tastes, and his own undeniable but hardly avoidable complicity in bringing about Mary’s condition through his birth. But the bond between father and son is stronger than the antipathy. There is no impulse toward withdrawal on Edmund’s part here. The flow of their affection begins with their mutual awareness of the perilousness of Edmund’s condition and becomes stronger with their mutual anxiety over Mary as she paces back and forth in her spare room above their heads. Finally, their bond comes to be expressed in poetic terms. Though James disparages what he considers to be the “morbid” sentiments of Edmund’s quotations from Dowson and Baudelaire, he is obviously moved by what he hears—the blend in these poets of philosophic pessimism with a confidence in the value of human contact. Concomitantly, James’s allusions to Shakespeare suggest to Edmund the essential similarity of much in Shakespeare to the sentiments of his favorite poets.
Edmund’s attacks on his father early in this scene are more vitriolic than any attacks made in the play—even Jamie’s. James’s desire to economize on Edmund’s hospital costs provokes Edmund to say that his father’s attitudes make him “want to puke”; and he ends by calling James a “stinking old miser,” directly paralleling his calling his mother a “dope fiend” a few hours earlier. But the difference is that whereas following that earlier attack, Edmund flung himself out into the night and the fog asserting his right to the isolation that ultimately kills, here he remains with his father, ready to give as good as he gets; and as a result Edmund finds a kinship with James greater than any he has previously known. Edmund’s virulent attacks lead James into the long autobiographical statement out of which Edmund comes to understand his father better.
Edmund has heard all the facts in James’s long account before, the facts of James’s poverty-stricken childhood and of the ups and downs of the old actor’s career; but he has never felt about them the way he is brought to feel this night, when his sensibilities have been intensified by his advancing illness, his drink, and his mother’s deteriorating condition. I suggested earlier that James’s “confession” is not basically different from Mary’s in Act Three. Like Mary, James dwells on experiences of his childhood and adolescence in sincere if exaggerated terms; and he similarly dwells longingly on his frustrated ambitions—notably to have been “a great Shakespearean actor.” But unlike Mary, James makes his confession to someone, with the clear understanding on his part that that person is listening —which is hardly Mary’s state in regard to Cathleen. James speaks as powerfully and sincerely as he can in order to bring the perspective of someone close to him into focus with his own, and he achieves that purpose. James’s drunkenness is thus not the equivalent of Mary’s narcotic state, as some have felt it to be, because he is always aware of the communal nature of what he says. Like his sons, James is always conscious of the presence of a listener, a consciousness which is heightened by his inebriation rather than reduced. Like the pipe dreamers at Harry Hope’s, James is carried away by what he is saying, but at the same time is bound emotionally to the person he is saying it to, in this case the close friend and alter ego who happens to be his son. If James is ever the old actor in his long oration, he nevertheless speaks out of love for his son and out of need for love in return.
Edmund feels the love and the need to return it. He feels he should make a statement of his own dreams and aspirations which will assure his father of the similarity in their feelings. O’Neill here is in the position of having to determine what he would have said in frankness to someone close to him at the age of twenty-four and put it in a play written when he was over fifty, a play which was itself a much deeper and larger “confession” than any Edmund might here deliver. He solves his problem by refitting Paddy’s oft-varied speech from The Hairy Ape, that lyrical description of the beauties and harmonies of the sea which obviously grew out of O’Neill’s own experience on shipboard. Accurately simulating the romanticism of his young adulthood, O’Neill here allows the speech to culminate in the great Emersonian mystery. Recalling the beauty of nights at sea, Edmund says: “For a second you see, and seeing the secret, are the secret.” O’Neill thus makes the yearning for unity between man and nature the sum and substance of Edmund’s “confession.” He is saying through Edmund’s speech that the experiences of his young adulthood had taught him to feel things powerfully and authentically. But O’Neill has gone past the romanticism of his youth. The kind of experience that James talks about in his confession, that Jamie will shortly talk about, and that Eugene O’Neill in his early fifties has come to know constitutes truer experience in this play. O’Neill has not altogether forsaken the old romanticism of Edmund’s confession, but he treats it in this play more in terms of man’s need for authentic human contact than in terms of vague, if powerful, yearnings about the mysteries of nature.
Having established the kinship between Edmund and his father in what is the longest single scene in any published O’Neill play, O’Neill turns finally to the kinship, deeper still, between Edmund and his brother.3 The relationship between Edmund and Jamie conveys both a detailed sense of the nature of close human relationships and of the penalties such relationships must involve. The key figure here is Jamie—who becomes the chief focus of O’Neill’s vision in all his final works. Jamie’s massive contradictions are central both to his character here and to the way O’Neill comprehends life in these plays. Jamie is a hardened alcoholic, but his drunkenness never leaves him out of touch with reality. His drunken weeping, O’Neill observes, always “appears sober.” He fornicates, but he treats whores with genuine grace and compassion. He is the cause of wit in others, yet he alone possesses a genius for getting others to think seriously about their lives. He cynically insists that money is the only thing worth having, yet he is utterly indifferent to financial gain. His language is blasphemous and at times vulgar, yet he best of any character expresses the joy of existence. He loudly announces his contempt for mankind, yet his commitments to anyone he is close to, and some he is not so close to, are authentic and uncompromising. He is indolent, yet in emotional terms, no one works harder. As a material provider, especially for himself, he is a total failure, yet as an emotional provider, he is a total success. He is, in short, the means by which O’Neill is finally able to honestly celebrate man.
It is clear that the brothers have the kind of understanding most brothers who are very close have. They speak in a kind of code, and they seem to read responses as much in each other’s eyes as from what they hear each other say. They are always more together than apart, even when hostilities approaching violence break out between them; and the very subjects which excite those hostilities are the subjects which draw them closest together. Their father is always the first subject of their discontent, yet they share an instinctive love for “the Governor” which parallels that of the pipe dreamers for Harry Hope. They suspect and resent one another to the point of Jamie’s letting slip that he just might like his sick brother out of his way, yet their mutual compassion and Jamie’s concern about “the Kid’s” illness are extreme. Their most intense feelings are about Mary. They quarrel most violently about her, yet it is their mutual concern for her that makes them most interdependent in their love. Theirs is a relationship which O’Neill sees as one involving the closest human kinship.
One of the means by which the brothers express their kinship in this play is the poetry they mutually love and quote. Again, O’Neill turns to his favorite nineteenth-century poets, this time emphasizing Kipling, Wilde, and Swinburne. The importance of the poetic quotations in this play cannot be over-stressed. O’Neill cites these poets in a time (the early 1940s) when their popularity was in decline, when the mode of the moderns (Pound and Eliot) was just cresting, when pain and joy were feelings to be intellectualized by means of tonal complexity and obscure symbolism. O’Neill instinctively could not intellectualize his feelings, and his was a pessimism communicated not through images of dessication, of “wastelands,” but through direct, raucous outbursts of rage and disillusion. Kipling suits Jamie because his poetry approaches life’s disappointments with bitterness that is directly and boldly stated. Wilde and Dowson write poems about people who actively engage in life, are desperately vulnerable and show their feelings freely —people who in Jamie’s quoted Kipling “‘ave tried ‘em all.” The very least that can be said of this poetry is that it is vital, and it is to vitality that O’Neill, sick with his “old passion,” made his primary commitment throughout his canon. Thus, vitality is the most important word to be associated with the Jamie who becomes O’Neill’s keystone in his final plays.
Jamie, breaking into verse as easily as he downs his drinks, concentrates mostly on familiar topics with Edmund in their midnight conversation: booze and women, of course; their father; their mother; Edmund’s illness; and finally Jamie himself, a subject less familiar as a topic of conversation. They begin with the usual comments about their father, Jamie launching the familiar attack on his miserliness, with the now genuinely forgiving Edmund in the unusual role of the old man’s defender. Since Jamie knows that James is on the porch overhearing their conversation, much of Jamie’s drunken vitriol is really meant to directly insult his father. But James is not really the chief subject on Jamie’s mind. He turns quickly to his evening’s activities—booze, of course; then women. Jamie’s tale of his experience at Mamie Burns’s bordello is the most important element in this scene, up until his great confession, because it reveals much about Jamie which is never otherwise revealed in this play. It tells of his relationship with someone other than a member of his family, someone he is not close to, and subtly prepares us for what we will later see of his relationship with someone he is close to, his brother. What we see in both cases is Jamie’s unique version of what constitutes authentic human giving.
Beginning in the spirit of sniggering cynicism young men universally and meaninglessly reserve for their discussions of sex, the story blossoms into a parable of Christian love—resist that phrase as Jamie might, It is a story that is brief enough to allow Jamie to recount it in his own words:
Not only Mamie Burns but a large section of his audience might also assume that Jamie had “gone bughouse,” but that bughouse is the essence of Jamie Tyrone. It constitutes altruism in the most earthy terms O’Neill can conceive, and which he repeats, with considerable variation, in A Moon for the Misbegotten. In that play, Jamie really does love Josie Hogan, of course, but who is to say that what he does for Fat Violet here is not also one kind of human love? Jamie is certainly no do-gooder. He has simply experienced a genuine feeling for his obese companion, an uncomplicated desire to make her happy which has resulted in satisfaction quite different from the satisfaction he went to Mamie’s seeking. And even that earlier satisfaction was not sexual only, because he has already told us that he went to find a “motherly bosom” to weep on. Having gone to find motherly affection and sexual release, he attained more than either by giving love—both in sexual and non-sexual terms. The story of Fat Violet is a story of the essential Jamie, and to understand that it is created out of the same impulses that led O’Neill to create the character of Lazarus is to begin to understand O’Neill’s vision of his brother.
In keeping with the rhythm, of course, Jamie turns cynical once more and talks about being the lover of the fat lady at the circus. The harmony between the brothers is then broken as Jamie issues his virulent attack upon their mother and Edmund physically assaults him. This action is followed in turn by the inevitable regrets and apologies, and they in turn by new grounds for attack and counterattack. This time, all Jamie’s old resentment of Edmund for being the favored son comes out, and Edmund is brought even to the point of suspecting that his brother might really wish his death. But always, there follow the reversals: the mutual remorse, the apologies, and the peacemaking in drink. The feelings of both brothers fluctuate wildly in this scene—the attacks increasing in intensity, the reconciliations becoming ever more profound. Finally, the reality of Edmund’s possible death becomes too much for Jamie, and he feels the need, as he calls it later, to go “to confession.” He must purge himself of all his accumulated guilt toward his brother, and in so doing give “all he has to his Brother.”
Jamie’s confession is the only genuine confession in this play because it deals with life as it is more than with life as it was—which so possessed both Mary and James in their confessions. Though Jamie’s confession alludes to the past, its world is the present, and the play is a play about the present. The theme of Jamie’s statement is that envy has always made him a corrupting influence on his brother. He might, he says, one day do his brother real harm—but despite this he not only loves his brother but regards him as “all I’ve got left!” There is nothing that has not already been touched on in Jamie’s statement, but, like James, he lives his feelings out so vividly that Edmund feels them fully and most painfully:
Jamie relives each of his earlier emotions precisely as Hickey did, but Jamie is ahead of Hickey in knowing his own nature as Hickey did not until the very end of his confession. What Jamie knows, of course, is that there are two sides of his nature and always will be—one “dead” and therefore murderous, the other alive, and therefore capable and in need of both giving and receiving love. This division has been evident in every character throughout the play, but in being as explicit and as emotional as he is here, Jamie gives the idea new meaning.’
The special qualities of Jamie’s speech are the intensity of his feelings and the diction he uses to communicate them. When Mary McCarthy said some years ago of The Iceman Cometh that you “cannot write platonic dialogue in the language of Casey at the Bat,”5 she was saying something quite important about the later O’Neill. She was wrong, of course—you can write platonic dialogue in any language at all—but by associating O’Neill’s language with the lingo of American baseball she did identify an important ambience of the language used by the Jamie-figures in all these plays. (She might have come still closer with horse-racing.) It is a wide-open, early twentieth-century urban slang which when tied to the intelligence, the extremely acute sensibilities, and the education of a character like Jamie Tyrone produces sounds and images of a uniquely American hero:
It is the juxtaposition of Oscar Wilde and the racetrack dope sheet, the identification of his mother’s affliction as a deadly “game,” that so characterizes Jamie. This is a man who can quote Latin in sentences which are otherwise spoken in the diction of the “Broadway sport,” who can mock Shakespeare even as he is intensely sensitive to the very lines he is mocking, who is “all show biz” even as he pours out the deepest pain of his soul.
Jamie’s confession reveals man at both his gut-level worst and transfigured best—unsentimentalized and unadorned, yet capable of giving as much as it is possible to give to another person. And that is a great deal. Jamie warns of his certain propensity to harm his brother even if that warning loses him the one thing in life which makes him capable of going on—his brother’s love. The warning reveals love which risks the sacrifice of one’s own emotional life support system. Jamie gains great dignity his confession, a dignity often lacking in the central figures of modern drama while essential to the heroes of ancient drama, heroes who had to face terrible truths about themselves which others had not the stature to face. It is a dignity which grows out of the strength to be completely self-knowing and the strength to admit that self-knowledge to others. Created out of the same antiphony of brashness and guilt, blasphemy and penitence, mockery and self-condemnation which is the voice of Jamie in all O’Neill’s later plays, Jamie Tyrone transcends that everlasting rhythm of hate and love by recognizing it, comprehending it, and taking the risk of passing his comprehension on to his brother—even if the message be misunderstood and earn him his brother’s permanent distrust. Jamie’s legacy is O’Neill’s legacy: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he saveth his brother from himself” (Yale edition, p. 167).
Thus has this play transcended the unashamed autobiographical statement it set out to make. It is more than simply the story of the “four haunted Tyrones.” It is a story of how past fear and disappointment become so crushing a part of the present. It is a story of the massively destructive effects of prolonged self-imposed isolation. And it is a story of man’s potential for redemption in kinship. The play does not end with Jamie’s great paraphrase of the line from the Mass, probably because O’Neill was determined to the end to eschew Messianic conclusions. The concluding statement of the play is instead a scenic image: a tableau of family disintegration and family unity in one—the men assembled in awe around the unhearing Mary, with Jamie reciting Swinburne and Mary delving ever deeper into the “little Temple” of her memories. No easy conclusions, positive or negative, are to be drawn from this tableau, but Jamie has already said what is to be said. The larger vision of the play frees man to ‘live in that it frees him to love and reciprocate love—in the way men and women do those things, by attacking and defending, appealing and succoring. Only the fears associated with the past destroy kinship—and those fears are what father and son, brother and brother, clear away briefly in their deep encounters late in this play. Long Day’s Journey is the most far-reaching of O’Neill’s dramatic explorations of what it is to be a human living among humans.6
1. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press, 1955).
2. See Judith E. Barlow, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night: From Early Notes to Finished Play,” Modern Drama 22 (1979): 19-28. Barlow has discovered in the typescript of the play far more hostility and recrimination than appears in the published version. She suspects that O’Neill may have gained in compassion as he re-worked the play. Under any circumstances, however, and using a different metaphor from mine, she recognizes what I have been calling the language of kinship. Of both earlier and later versions of the play, she says: ‘The warp and woof of Journey are the inextricably woven threads of love and hatred in the family” (p. 28). See also Chothia, Forging a Language, pp. 168-81, a section she entitles “Empathy and Alienation: O’Neill’s Structuring of the Play.”
3. Carpenter, Eugene O’Neill, p. 161, finds in the confrontation of Jamie and Edmund in Act Four, and in Jamie’s confession, the “true climax of the play.” Jamie’s description of the existence and nature of their conflict “provides the final moment of illumination, and of tragic catharsis.” Waith, on the other hand, finds only that Jamie reveals all the hate which resides under his “guise of love,” in “Eugene O’Neill: An Exercise in Unmasking,” pp. 190-91. Similarly, Robert B. Heilman sees the “love-hate paradox” implicit in Jamie’s confession as a “dividedness” which “deepens into a permanent malady,” in The Iceman, the Arsonist, and the Troubled Agent: Tragedy and Melodrama on the Modern Stage (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973), p. 107.
4. Bogard, Contour in Time, p. 438, notes the similarity between Fat Violet and Josie Hogan.
5. Mary McCarthy, “Dry Ice” (review of the original production of The Iceman Cometh), Partisan Review 13 (November-December 1946): 577-79. The acerbic Mary McCarthy later tempered her opinion of O’Neill, thanks to Long Day’s Journey, which in 1961 she described as “the great play of his old age,” suggesting that it “achieves in fact a peculiar poetry.” See On the Contrary (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1961) pp. 306-7.
6. Joseph Golden praises the play in terms which may serve as a corollary to what I have said. The following comes from The Death of Tinker Bell: The American Theatre in the Twentieth Century (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1967), pp. 44-45: “Long Day’s Journey will remain perhaps the most singular triumph of his entire career and one of the legitimate glories of the American drama. Tempered by twenty years of bravado, of ghost-hunting, of personal anguish that bordered, at times, on suicidal impulses, he was ready to face himself, somewhat more wary of the extravagances of the past. And the result was remarkable. Here is a play that derives its ultimate power not from plot—which is at best a crude mechanical ‘system’— but from a process of character revelation that is awesome in its grinding inevitability; not from the usual sordid probes into the subterranean streams of humans compulsively tearing away from one another, but from a compassionate insight into profoundly lost humans groping blindly, sometimes viciously, often pathetically, toward one another; not by melodramatic swirls and eruptions, but by a tightly compressed, well-controlled development of human interrelationships.”
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