BY Michael Manheim
A Moon for the Misbegotten is a play about finding peace—not the peace at the bottom of a whiskey bottle found by Harry Hope and company, but peace rooted in human kinship of the closest kind. It is a play about forgiveness and self-forgiveness, both of which seemed so hard to come by in the earlier O’Neill. And it is a play about the close of life, though no one dies in it and there is no violence whatsoever in its conclusion. It feels like an autumnal play, a play which looks toward death without fear or bitterness. It may be more than happenstance that O’Neill set The Iceman Cometh in July, Long Day’s Journey in August, and A Moon for the Misbegotten in September. The first two are far more full of anguish and the torrid heat of summer, the last of “mellow fruitfulness.” That O'Neill was in a Keatsian mood when he wrote the play is suggested by quotations from that poet in it; and they are quotations which emphasize death as a natural, inevitable process. Nothing could be further from the tone of this play than the panic associated with Parritt’s suicide. This play is tragedy concluding in a tone of reconciliation and lyrical sadness.1
The problems posed by the play in the context of this study are so varied that a somewhat rigorous organization needs to be imposed on my discussion. I shall attempt to make the many observations I wish to make in three stages: the first dealing with its plots, the second with Josie Hogan, and the third with kinship. The first section will concentrate on humorous Irish anecdotes centering on an Irish tenant farmer and his daughter, the second on the generation of the most remarkable woman O’Neill ever created, and the third on the equally remarkable love brought into being between that figure and the play’s hero, James Tyrone, Jr. Of autobiographical motifs as such there is finally little to say.2 Based on recollections of O’Neill’s long-dead brother, on his personality rather than necessarily on actual situations, the play goes beyond the facts of O’Neill’s life in communicating what it does about the nature of close human relationships. With A Moon for the Misbegotten, O’Neill has completely transcended his personal past (at least insofar as his plays are concerned).
Plots and Plottings
The “plots” of this play, the story of James Tyrone, Jr. excepted, are the work of Phil Hogan.3 Phil is more than the last in the long line of O’Neill stage Irishmen stretching back to the volatile Driscoll. He is a stage leprechaun, an incorrigible meddler and practical joker. But he is also a wise and loving father to his daughter, the only one of his children who is a match for him. His sons obviously have not been. In other words, while we ultimately realize that he is a deep and complex character in his own right, his primary function throughout most of the play is that of comic plotter and manipulator. A descendant of the clever servants in earlier drama, who engineer most of what actually happens in the plays in which they appear, Phil engineers most of what actually happens in A Moon for the Misbegotten. The events of the play are built around two comic actions, both involving Phil’s comic manipulations. The first manipulation is the humiliation of Harder, the Standard Oil millionaire. Though Jim Tyrone actually lays the groundwork for this action, it is Phil’s show throughout. True to his Irish peasant tradition, Phil loves humiliating the rich and the proud; and he achieves his end here in comedy which is probably the lowest and surely the most farcical of any in the O’Neill canon. O’Neill’s version of the proud lord’s downfall shows the rich man actually wallowing in a pigsty to the accompaniment of Phil’s crudest sarcasm.
Phil’s second manipulation, which he does not pull off successfully, is intended to get his daughter married to the “wealthy” James Tyrone, Jr. This second trick is as old as the first. It is known throughout folklore in countless variants on the theme of “how to catch a rich husband,” though it may be better known in popular American culture under the guise of stories about traveling salesmen, farmers’ daughters, and shotgun weddings. In these legends, the father must either conspire with his daughter, or he must manipulate her into giving up her supposed virginity in return for a lifetime of financial security. The fun for centuries of audiences and readers has been that of watching the suitor, himself involved in a deception of both girl and father, getting his “just rewards.” Phil’s situation fits the traditional one at the start. He both conspires with and manipulates his daughter; and that daughter is, as we are surprised to learn late in the play, indeed a virgin.
But Phil’s second manipulation never reaches its anticipated conclusion. Jim and Josie are never “discovered” in bed together, and Phil’s attempt to manipulate his daughter into a profitable marriage is broken off by developments Phil has no way of anticipating. This failure is the point of the play. Despite its seeming emphasis on traditional low comic intrigues, we, like the eavesdropping Phil, are startled to learn about two-thirds of the way through that such intrigues have nothing whatever to do with what this play is really about. We are startled to learn that the play’s deeper subject has little to do with plottings and deceptions, with tricks and intrigues of any sort—only with confessions of the most hidden secrets and the baring of the deepest guilts. The play is not, after all, a situation comedy, and America’s most serious playwright is still at his most serious.
To understand what O’Neill is doing in this play, we must again, as we did in considering A Touch of the Poet, call attention to O’Neill’s use of deception and intrigue in earlier plays. Having recognized at some point along the line that the plottings and deceptions of his middle period resulted largely from his compulsion both to reveal and disguise his personal suffering, O’Neill in the thirties began to employ comic rather than serious intrigue. The melodrama of Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra gave way in the main to the manipulations of Con Melody, who is surely Phil Hogan’s ancestor in his Irishness and his trickery regarding his daughter. O’Neill no longer felt the need to be melodramatic. His sense of intrigue could be treated in a lighter vein. No longer quite so much ruled by his fears and guilts, he could take plots and intrigues less seriously. He could become more open to life without deceptions and more accepting of it. That acceptance is finally evidenced by O’Neill’s total subordination of intrigue in A Moon for the Misbegotten—even comic intrigue, which, having taken up so large a part of the play, is summarily dismissed once Jim and Josie begin really to communicate with each other.
It had of course been an early twentieth-century commonplace that without intrigue there was no drama, but turn-of-the century dramatists well before O’Neill had questioned that commonplace. Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov—all of whom were, like O’Neill, products of a tradition which demanded deception and intrigue as central to drama serious or comic—yearned to get away from that demand in their efforts to probe more deeply into life. And O’Neill acknowledged two of those playwrights as his chief creative models.4 It is then as a commentary upon the theatrical heritage he is rejecting as well as upon his own shift in personal psychological perspective that O’Neill in this play knowingly tricks his audience. Out of a Phil Hogan streak in his own nature, O’Neill carefully manufactures a mood for his audience suitable to Phil’s Irish comic intrigues, and then pulls the rug out from under that audience. The suitor who appears is no stock character to be used in the manipulations that fill out the standard comic plot, but a tortured introvert who becomes the one bona fide tragic hero of all O’Neill’s later drama. Shortly after the middle of the play, comic intrigue—all intrigue—gives way to psychological exploration through strong, utterly open emotional interchange and confession which probes more deeply into the human spirit than O’Neill had ever gone before.
Early in the play, Jim Tyrone comes to the Hogan home to be entertained—there is no doubt of that. One small part leprechaun himself, he comes expecting to find tricks and verbal games to pass the long hours until the tavern opens. And he finds them. Even before the action involving Harder, he and Phil engage in a series of set comic exchanges which, while they cover a broad variety of subjects, are in form taken directly from the American music hall stage. Josie recognizes the ritual when she laughingly refers to their dialogue as “that old game between you.” But the Tyrone we see in Act One is but the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Less than one-tenth of his being is giving itself to the repartee and the by-play—even as he stifles his laughter while secretly witnessing the discomfiting of millionaire Harder. Always, the large mass of him below the surface—and never far below it—is fixed unwaveringly upon his pain, his guilt, his fear. With all his efforts to escape into the kind of entertainment Phil provides, Jim never escapes, nor does he ever for an instant deceive himself. Even as he is audience to and participator in a pair of comic intrigues, he is living through a personal hell; and it is this hell which ultimately sweeps aside the intrigues and everything associated with them.
The details of Jim’s story, divorced from their emotional implications, seem baldly simple when compared with the complexity of detail in Phil’s scheming. The mother of a middle-aged man dies of a stroke while the two are visiting California. The man feigns great emotion while drowning himself in drink, and on the way home to New York with his mother’s body he nightly hires the services of a prostitute. He arrives home too drunk to walk off the train or even attend the funeral. No manipulations, no intrigues—no suspense really, except that about when Jim will finally blurt out his tale. But the impact of the emotional pain that underlies the story obliterates all that has gone before—as O’Neill seems to have intended his later drama to obliterate his earlier. The impact transforms Josie Hogan, as even her own confession does not, from hypersensitive self-pitier into the most unselfish of givers. It finally even shames the leprechaun Phil into open revelation of his own unspoken fears and guilts. And it brings these changes without being maudlin.
Before going into Jim’s great confession, however, and its larger implications, we must first more closely consider the unusual character to whom it is spoken. I refer, of course, to Josie Hogan—who is described so precisely at the beginning of the play, who is brought to life so brilliantly in the play, and who is so important to the play’s final vision of human kinship.
Josie Hogan lives on stage with all the complexity and authenticity of O’Neill’s most affecting characters, yet it is uncertain how O’Neill came to create her in the detail and with the understanding that he did. Not that the O’Neill brothers in their youthful days were unacquainted with buxom Irish colleens, but they probably knew so many and their identities would be so obscure that any attempt at specific identification would be pointless—as well as quite foreign to the purposes of this study. Josie’s power and uniqueness must be explored from sources other than O’Neill’s biography.
The way to approach Josie Hogan is to consider her in contrast to earlier characters who grow out of the same impulses she does. There is nothing new about O’Neill’s desire to create his “Mother Earth” or about his custom of seeing that figure as a virginal (or at least temporarily chaste) whore. What he sought was the all-out, volatile frankness of whores he had known without what was to him the complicating sexuality that went with the frankness. But he had never been able to create such a figure both movingly and convincingly. Josie’s most obvious predecessor in the 1920s was the whore Cybel in The Great God Brown.5 But Cybel is a marionette whose contradictory responses are only that—contradictory. She emerges (partly as a result of O’Neill’s use of masks in the play) not as a complex human being but as a being wooden and undeveloped in both her artificially separated phases. Far more convincing as Earth Mother is Cybel’s predecessor, the whorish Abbie Cabot with her “horrible mixture of lust and mother love” in Desire Under the Elms. But Abbie is only an Earth Mother so long as she and Eben yearn for one another. Once that yearning is satisfied, she begins to reenact the crimes and terrors of O’Neill’s real mother, and her Earth Mother function all but disappears.
His failure to successfully represent his Earth Mother in Cybel or Abbie made O’Neill turn away from the whore, important as the qualities associated with that word continued to be for him, and concentrate for some time on purely maternal figures. But here his failure was greater still. Miriam in Lazarus Laughed is more a marionette even than Cybel; Charlie Marsden in Strange Interlude is quite unconvincing as a maternal protector; and Mrs. Fife in Dynamo indicates O’Neill’s own recognition of the grotesqueness of his demands. He could tell about a Marie Brantome in Mourning Becomes Electra as the once fetching (whorish) nursemaid become long-suffering provider, but he could not bring such a figure to dramatic life. Similarly, Nora Melody, like Marie Brantome partially rooted in O’Neill’s highly vague impressions of his paternal grandmother, is dramatically realized only in part. Long-suffering she is, and troubled by an earlier sexual wrong-doing—but she manifests none of the real conflict between the sexual and the maternal O’Neill began with in Abbie and Cybel, and seemed determined to return to.
The best earlier sketch for Josie Hogan is Sara Harford in More Stately Mansions. She is one of O’Neill’s most genuinely arousing figures sexually, her maternal qualities are adequately developed, and she is genuinely confused about the implicit contradictions between these two facets of her nature. But in the end, More Stately Mansions is not a play about Sara. Not only is her confusion suddenly dropped in the play’s final scene, but the entire thrust of that scene is toward the complex involvement of son and mother. Sara is reduced to being another marionette, a source of comfort with no personality of her own. Josie, in contrast, not only possesses a personality of her own from the start, but comes in the last act of A Moon for the Misbegotten to understand that personality.
Having put his Earth Mother on the shelf, as it were, while he traversed his personal hell in The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey, O’Neill still sought her as the one woman who could be loved, and could love, without fear or guilt. He sought a woman who would express feeling free of modesty or a sense of propriety, as a whore might, yet also free of the coldness and disgust he associated with coarse sexuality. An image of such a woman appears fleetingly in Long Day’s Journey—not Jamie’s “fat Violet,” who is the gross and vacuous real-life version of O’Neill’s renewed dream (another Mrs. Fife in “her fashion,” poor Vi)—but in the enormous trull” of Edmund’s quotations from Baudelaire: the giant harlot who was for Baudelaire mistress, mother figure, and goddess.6 In the same volume out of which Edmund does most of his quoting from Baudelaire is another poem, “La Geante,” which precisely fits the image O’Neill wants to create in Josie. Baudelaire’s “giantess,” in the Arthur Symons translation O’Neill apparently knew by heart, is pictured as a great passive “Queen” about whom the author lives “like a voluptuous cat.” The ultimate notion of the peace she brings him is figured in his culminating desire not for sexual union (which by that time unquestionably bored him) but: “To sleep listlessly in the shadow of her superb breasts, / Like a hamlet that slumbers at the foot of a mountain.”7
These lines suggest better than anything else the kind of comfort provided by O’Neill’s Josie Hogan. Josie is “so oversize,” says O’Neill, “that she is almost a freak.” Her “sloping shoulders are broad, her chest deep with large, firm breasts, her waist wide but slender by contrast with her hips and thighs.” Yet she possesses no quality whatsoever of the “mannish” for all her physical strength. And it is in the shadow of “her superb breasts” that Jim Tyrone spends the first peaceful night he has known in a long time. Through the image reminiscent of Baudelaire, O’Neill seeks to suggest the immense instincts of such a woman—a nurturing capacity great enough to restore life, however briefly, to a mortally wounded hero. Josie is O’Neill’s “all-woman.” Her greatness resides in her ability (1) to take and to return in kind all that the interior horrors of those who love her may prompt them to throw at her, (2) to maintain her individuality at all times, (3) to love in dimensions comparable to her physical size,8 and (4) to love deeply only someone as strong as herself. All these qualities constitute O’Neill’s final Earth Mother.
But Josie is more than solely an Earth Mother. She comes across as someone a good deal more immediate than a goddess, and therein lies the real genius of her characterization. She is possessed of terribly mundane fears and illusions which are far more familiar and convincing than those of her predecessors. That her physical dimensions symbolize her great emotional and moral strength does not take away from the fact that her size has been the cause of great emotional suffering to her, and the source of her illusions. Her unusual build is accompanied by a fear born of that characteristic—a universal fear, shared by men and women alike, that such a physical idiosyncrasy might deprive her of love. As a result, Josie, who does everything large-scale, must compensate for her gargantuan size by enticing men in the fashion of a whore; but once sure of their desire, she must cast them off, both because she is herself offended by offhand sexual encounters and because she is quite naturally waiting for someone to love. The only thing really unusual about Josie is that her physical strength makes the casting off so convincing to its recipients and so comical.
Finally, with Jim’s help, Josie transcends her fears. She is able to enter into the kind of relationship with him which dictates that she can no longer hide from herself. That relationship of course involves anger, nearly violent at times, and it involves great resistance—emotions expressed on a scale only Josie can provide. But once Josie has mastered her gargantuan weakness, she is able to help Jim through his much fiercer struggle. Her strength in listening to Jim’s confession and giving him the love he needs following it is, like all things about her, also gargantuan. It is in the long midnight interchange between Josie Hogan and Jim Tyrone that O’Neill’s culminating image of human kinship emerges.
The Language of Kinship
As in Long Day’s Journey, the language of kinship in A Moon for the Misbegotten roughly falls into two general categories: the kinship of everyday conversation, and the deeper kinship which comes to exist between characters who are under great emotional stress. We get variations of the everyday kinship early in the play in dialogue first briefly between Josie and her brother Mike, then between Josie and Phil, then between Phil and Jim; and we get the deeper kinship in the dialogue between Jim and Josie late in the play. The early, everyday kinship is not unlike that emanating from the rituals of family conversation early in Long Day’s Journey. Phil and Josie reveal their closeness in their highly explosive attacks upon one another in Acts One and Two, attacks which are of course invariably followed by explanations, apologies, and forgiveness. But though this kinship is genuine, it is not complete. Through these exchanges we come to know that Phil is trying to manipulate Josie and that Josie is protecting herself with her brazen pose. The emotional rhythms of their dialogue, the anger and forgiveness, keep bringing them together, but at the same time their mutual deceptions keep separating them, as deception has separated people throughout O’Neill. Thus, while we know that Phil and Josie are close, we are not satisfied that their relationship is secure.
With Jim’s entrance, we encounter another ritual of everyday kinship: a corollary to much we heard in The Iceman Cometh and Hughie, though the characters involved here are far more self-knowing. Phil and Jim begin their “old game,” their exchanges that come directly out of early twentieth-century vaudevillian two-man comedy routines:
There seems to be the most blatant deception in this kind of ritual, but it is mock deception, as their insults are mock insults. This is a ritual rooted in pure humor. It provides a convenient vent for the hostilities of the participants without ever causing us to doubt in the slightest the authenticity of their good will. It is also vastly entertaining. In their quickness and self-awareness, Jim and Phil are, here as well as in other situations described in the play, “the cause of wit in others.” Like Shakespeare’s Falstaff, they create kinship through the wide-open satire implicit in their mock battles. In mimicking real conflict and real deception, they give listener and audience alike a release from their pettinesses and outrages, and draw them closer together in shared appreciation, laughter, and finally participation.
In the father-daughter kinship of Phil and Josie, then, and in the man-to-man kinship of Phil and Jim, the earlier portions of this play create an ambience of well-being in spite of life’s difficulties. This sense of well-being disappears, however, first in the plottings and deceptions of Phil Hogan, however well meant, then in the dark cloud of Jim Tyrone’s agony. And to recover it a deeper kind of kinship is called for, a kinship which develops in the relationship of the play’s gargantuan lovers.
James Tyrone, Jr. is the hero of this play—its chief sufferer and its chief provider of kinship. The first thing that must strike us is that his name is not Jamie. He is known only as James Tyrone, Jr., or Jim Tyrone. Having written the play before he expected the Tyrone family to be identified, O’Neill may have been attempting to conceal his brother’s identity by the change, but anyone at all familiar with the O’Neill family would easily know whom Jim Tyrone represented. There seems something more to the change than the effort to disguise. In Jim Tyrone, O’Neill has created another character out of the well-known characteristics of his brother—the brilliant wit, the Broadway cynicism, the extraordinary intelligence, the compulsive gambling, the devastating alcoholism—but here the figure created has somehow gone beyond that brother’s earlier manifestations. In dropping the diminutive ”ie,” O’Neill may be suggesting that, unlike his predecessors, the James Tyrone, Jr., of A Moon for the Misbegotten has become a full-fledged hero. He now has greater capacity to suffer, greater capacity to grow, and greater courage in the face of death.
It is in part his special grace with words that makes Jim Tyrone such a winning figure. He reveals his strength in a seamless blend of American dialects which run a gamut from racetrack to vaudeville stage to remembered poetry:
Jim’s lines are rapid-fire, charged with poetry and song; they change key and direction without warning; they sound slightly inebriated even when he is not (though he usually is). His poetic quotations are often extremely resonant. For the play’s central figure to enter with a mock-heroic statement in Latin on the subject of the barrenness of Phil’s farm is brilliant wit, pure and simple. For him to call to mind Rossetti’s “pale, commemorative eyes” in bringing Josie to face herself is to evoke all the ghosts of O’Neill’s imagination from the terror-stricken mothers of the early twenties to the already hinted-at haunting mother of this play. And the Broadway cynicism of his inevitable follow-up—‘The old poetic bull, eh? Crap!”—is the mark of the hostility which is essential in the language of kinship.
The deepest kinship in the play, in O’Neill, emerges from the dialogue of Jim Tyrone and Josie Hogan; and in this case that kinship has been noted before, though never so labeled. The Swiss critic Rolf Scheibler recognizes the essential movement of the dialogue throughout Jim’s and Josie’s long night’s emotional journey. He identifies five episodes, or “scenes,” of conversation between them:
Scheibler also observes the sources of both the affection and the hostility which constitute the “rising and falling rhythm” he so accurately identifies. Jim and Josie are drawn to one another because both are large, courageous, and articulate people. The amount of love they have to give is outsize, and so too is the amount they need. But the hostility is, as it must be, of the same proportions. Josie’s grows not only out of Phil’s deception but out of her deeper fear that Jim, like the others, has no real love for her—only sexual desire—while Jim must see Josie as he sees all women he is attracted to, as a sex object, and all sex objects for him resolve themselves into the “whore on the train."
The special nature of Jim’s feelings about Josie in this regard needs to be explored further. Having been unable before to create so powerful an image of human kinship where sexual attraction was involved, O’Neill finally confronts the necessity of including this complicating component. Earlier he had tried to deal with the problem in the relationships between Abbie and Eben Cabot and between Sara and Simon Harford, but could only concentrate with fierce intensity upon the awesome contradictions implicit in their sexuality. He could not get beyond that “horrible mixture of lust and mother love.” Here, without begging the question, he acknowledges the impossibility of the mixture when the characters are in the grip of their deepest fears. There can be no doubt of the authenticity of Jim’s and Josie’s sexual attraction to one another; but sex has become so inseparably bound to the essentially non-sexual terrors and guilts of both that it cannot flow freely, especially in a context which finds each jolted into sudden release of those terrors and guilts. Jim’s attraction to Josie gets immediately confused by his association of sex with all his earlier revengeful debaucheries, especially his use of sex with the “blonde pig” as a means of seeking such dreadful revenge upon his mother for dying. Josie’s gets confused with her comparable attempts to use her sexuality to humiliate men who refuse to want her for herself—masking from herself the damage she has been doing to the sensibilities of her frustrated suitors, her father, and herself in the process. Therefore, their sexuality—in terms which obviously grow out of O’Neill’s experience—instead of becoming a means by which they express their affection, becomes rather a means by which they express their hostility.
But that it does so finally does not matter. O’Neill here transforms his old theme of distorted sexuality into the basis of that hostility which is one pole of human kinship. Not sexual desire itself, but the large-scale corruption of that desire becomes one facet of the “dead part” of Jim Tyrone which alternates with his equally large live part to make him a human being of more than human proportions. It is tempting for some, seeing the play purely in psychological terms, to see disturbed sexuality as central to it.11 This attitude does as much harm to it as did the Detroit police chief who in 1947 insisted on “moral” grounds that certain words and phrases be deleted.12 In fact, both Jim’s and Josie’s problems about sex represent magnified versions of universal distortions of the sex drive in human beings, and in the play these distortions are a part of what tends to isolate these humans from one another. What brings them together is their love, and that includes in generous measure their undistorted sexual attraction.
What Scheibler does not stress sufficiently is what in their kinship Jim and Josie give to one another. In The Iceman Cometh, Hickey brought a truth which had to be made a falsehood because the majority of men could not live with it. The men and women at Harry Hope’s had to protect their pipe dreams even while they knew them for what they were. In Long Day’s Journey, Jamie acknowledges a truth about himself which must test to the limit his relationship with a brother who is all he has left; and the full impact can be felt only when it is recalled that in real life that brother did betray the real Jamie’s trust. Jamie thus could “save his brother from himself,” but could not save himself from his brother. In neither The Iceman Cometh nor Long Day’s Journey is the Jamie figure entirely successful in saving those he wants to save. In A Moon for the Misbegotten, Jim Tyrone saves Josie. What he does for her should not be underestimated. Although it takes up less stage time than Josie’s gift to Jim, its implications for the future are greater, since Josie will live on. Jim’s physical condition makes him beyond hope of rehabilitation, but Josie has a long life before her, and Jim brings her into permanent contact with that life.
To briefly review Jim’s treatment of Josie, it must be recalled that Josie has the well-established habit of defending her shyness and modesty by seeming loose, hard, and bitter—a front which is not uncommon in modern society. Jim, seeing through the “bluff” from the start, insists that she talk to him as the frightened but immensely sensitive person she really is. Her responses toward him are complicated, of course, by Phil’s intrigue; but basically and instinctively she is relieved at not having to “play the tart” with Jim—especially because she feels so genuinely drawn to him.
But Jim’s insistence and his admonitions about her hard language do not penetrate far enough. Because he needs her, and because her defenses continue to prevent him from reaching her entirely, he must eventually present her with a vision of herself that she can accept. True to form, he does this with rough but deeply sympathetic directness:
Since Jim speaks out of love, which he also tells her of as directly as he here reports the facts about her behavior, Josie is able to make her confession. Her behavior has been intended only to perpetuate the illusion that she is attractive to men. She is a virgin.
The main fact about Josie is that all she needed was to have someone come along to help her, and someone did. Her kind of ailment is common. It cripples only when allowed to go unrelieved too long. Where Jim is concerned, however, the important fact is that once freed of her own ghost, Josie is able to help him confront his; and his is much more terrible. It is axiomatic that Jim was critically damaged long before the episode surrounding his mother’s death ever took place. To be convinced of that, one need only consider why a 44-year-old alcoholic would be on-the-wagon and so dependent upon his mother in the first place. Eschewing any talk of dope fiends or madness, O’Neill leaves us in no doubt that Jim’s troubles go way back. He makes us sense, without ever saying so directly, that Jim’s earlier deprivation of his mother’s love and deep, gnawing guilt about some earlier treatment of her made his behavior at her death only the tip of the iceberg. So great has been the deprivation, and so deep the guilt, that the resultant wounds in Jim have gone beyond hope of recovery. As the alcohol has killed him physically, the past has killed him emotionally. He cannot live. But he can be forgiven, and it is forgiveness of a very large order that he seeks.13
Jim Tyrone’s confession gets about as close to the heart of psychological suffering in an individual sane enough and strong enough to endure such suffering at its worst as any I know in modern drama and film.14 Jim begins, like the Jamie of Long Day’s Journey, by acknowledging the “poison” which seems to him at the root of his nature, both in his alcoholism and his revengeful determination to debase women through sexual encounter: “Believe me, Kid, when I poison them, they stay poisoned!” But he goes farther. Through the story of his mother’s death, he rehearses as never before all the stages of his—and O’Neill’s—personal agony. It is Jamie’s story but certainly O’Neill’s feeling throughout. Jim tells of refusing to face the pain of his mother’s death by refusing to “feel” it—of only pretending an emotional response. Then he tells how the real feelings emerged on the train, feelings which are in part panic but in greater part rage—the temper tantrum rage of a small child who insists he will get revenge on his parents for some real or imagined desertion. It is revenge he seeks through his fifty-dollar-a-night whore “with a come-on smile as cold as a polar bear’s feet.” (Jamie’s inimitable diction is in high gear throughout his confession.) But with the revenge, of course, comes the guilt, more devastating than ever, the guilt for which he has taken the alcoholic revenge on himself which is already fatal.
Jim Tyrone’s confession takes us deeper than any of the earlier confessions of O’Neill’s heroes. His “ha’nts” take us down through those layers of psychological protection O’Neill sought to penetrate many years before in The Emperor Jones. Beyond even More Stately Mansions, O’Neill here drives his hero’s confession back to the earliest breakdowns of affiliation between mother and child, past experience which is unique to the “haunted Tyrones,” back to the infant scream of separation. Jim’s confession leads finally to one of the most terrifying metaphors in literature for birth itself, a metaphor that makes this play comparable to Sophocles’ Oedipus in its probing of the sources of human pain and anxiety:
Josie does not “want to hear” because the story of the baby and the song of the baby and the mother who “will not hear” are not just figures in O’Neill’s personal myth but resonate that wordless tale of violent emotional deprivation in the lives of so many human beings. Through the song and the sense of endless repetition created by the click-clacking rhythm of the train along the tracks, O’Neill catches the panic that many build a lifetime fortress around. Like all true tragedy, this play successfully fuses the details of a hero’s personal suffering with that of a large portion of its audience—that large portion in this case for whom separation from maternal tenderness and sustenance was traumatic, be that separation in adulthood, adolescence, childhood, infancy, or at the instant of birth itself. The dark, helpless terror that is suggested by the image of the shrieking baby and the dead mother has had great impact in recent productions—in an age when, for many, science and reason have destroyed that confidence in myths of God and Heaven which for previous ages allayed the sense of isolation which is the legacy of man born of woman.
Josie, in response to Jim’s tale and on behalf of the rest of us, does two things in rapid succession. First, she recoils from him, and second she embraces him: the two halves of a full and genuine kinship response. First, the resentment, the denial, the hatred of him not only for having desecrated the memory of his mother but for having revealed that deepest of all human terrors—second, the empathy and the compassion. The first without the second would be the height of coldness, but the second without the first would be the height of hypocrisy.
Then follows their Pieta-like union, which has been the center of a good deal of disagreement concerning this play. To some, it represents the moment at which Josie acquires the status in modern terms of the Virgin Mary herself.15 To others, it is a tawdry representation of O’Neill’s still-unresolved Oedipus complex, a “rather immature comment on the meaning of love.”16 I will not speak to the former, but to the latter I shall speak. I do not consider Jim’s responses in this situation O’Neill’s immature comment on the meaning of love. O’Neill asserts the child at the mother’s breast as the sole still-unquestionable model of authentic human love, without which the universe seems endless and terrifying indeed. The mother-infant image is to O’Neill the greatest image of life-sustaining love because it combines the physical and the emotional. If we are cut off from either, we die: physically if we don’t receive the nourishment, emotionally if we don’t receive the tenderness. The Pieta-image which Josie provides is a scenic image of that nourishment and tenderness expressed in a fashion which also signals total and final forgiveness.
Unlike The Great God Brown, A Moon for the Misbegotten does not conclude with its Pieta image. The play goes beyond kinship into the facing of ultimate separation. It is finally a play which attempts to confront death. Many O’Neill plays make that attempt, but they usually end only in violence, dejection, or bitterness. In this play, O’Neill treats death precisely as he treats life. As with kinship, which is the center of life for O’Neill, so with death: there are both negative and positive charges. There is, as it were, a “dead part” of the idea of death as there is a live part. There is the death that Jim Tyrone associates with his guilt, his degeneracy, and his hostility—Jamie’s “the dead part of me” in Long Day’s Journey. This death is also identified in various ways throughout O’Neill with isolation and despair—the abandonment of, and the desire to destroy everyone and everything, culminating with one’s own destruction. Obviously, this death is identified with suicide.
The idea of death in A Moon for the Misbegotten is finally just the opposite. Far from being associated with guilt, degeneracy, and hostility, this other death is associated with the transcendence of those qualities and the acceptance of both life and death. To achieve a sense of this other death, O’Neill once more resorts to the language of great poetry—this time Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” Quite early in their conversation, Jim’s mind turns to the lines which state what his mortally damaged being most longs for, and the mood of the lines clings to the remainder of the play—especially its last act.
But it is pain Jim cannot escape, and it might well have provided him with the first kind of terrible death, like that experienced by Don Parritt in The Iceman Cometh, had he been unable genuinely to encounter Josie Hogan. Josie in her long night of nurture becomes Jim’s nightingale. Following his great confession and the sustenance taken at her breast, Jim can die in peace—which is all, O’Neill is telling us, a man really needs, whether his death be near or far.
Following Josie’s giving herself to Jim in a manner far more profound than she earlier thought was his goal, she must in love accept the immediate inevitability of his death. She must accept it in the same way she earlier yearned for a permanent affiliation with him in life. It is Josie rather than Jim this play’s final act concentrates on. Josie knows early with her mind that Jim is in poor condition, but it is only in knowing with her body how ill he really is that her acceptance of his death can come. It is after the several hours of holding Jim’s head against her breast and then his body between her legs, restoring in some small measure the love that he has been so long separated from, that Josie realizes she has borne “a dead child in the night.” Jim Tyrone has been damaged emotionally by his deprivation of love as a man would be damaged physically whose brain slowly, over a long period of time, had been denied adequate supplies of oxygen. Josie’s holding Jim in the two positions she does throughout the night represents birth—in this case, rebirth. But Jim’s deprivation has been too long and too great. Though here reborn, he is in fact all but dead from his drinking. Thus, both the joy of birth and the desolation of death have been part of Josie’s long night—life and death in seemingly unending juxtaposition, like the two opposing halves of feeling central to kinship itself.
Because Jim has brought her to accept herself—has in fact given her life—the Josie we see in the final scenes is able to accept others, to breathe into them the life that Jim has breathed into her. Her first task is to transform a leprechaun into a deeply feeling human being. Knowing Josie’s joy and pain, Phil for the first time expresses his feeling without comic posturing. His games and deceptions, as far as Josie is concerned, are over. The unexpected high note on which the play ends is a burst of unalloyed love between father and daughter, a note which directly counters the cold, if comic, scheming which began the play. The kinship between father and daughter which ends this play is the kinship which O’Neill sought for but could not yet allow himself completely in A Touch of the Poet. Whether Josie will marry or not is really pretty insignificant in the light of her feelings toward her father, and his toward her, at the end of the play—feelings that are the essence of O’Neill’s language of kinship:
Jim Tyrone has done what he lived to do—to give life to others and to create the conditions in which he might die in peace. Like many tragic heroes before him, he arrives at the start of the play beyond hope of rehabilitation. His emotional tissues, like those in his throat, can no longer be restored, a fact which Josie comes to realize from the wordless contact of their bodies. To her own surprise she can finally wish him, without bitterness on her part or the evoking of bitterness on ours, the peaceful death in his sleep which is her benediction following her final exchange with Phil. Jim’s death has brought life to others, as a hero’s death should. He has grown in self-knowledge through the courageous gesture of his confession; and in gaining that knowledge, just before his unavoidable death, he becomes a light to those who follow.
1. On the play’s “elegiac” tone, see Bogard, Contour in Time, pp. 449-53.
2. See Bogard’s quotation and discussion of O’Neill’s deletion from the play of a fairly long speech made by Jim Tyrone about his “brother” (pp. 432-33). This deletion suggests now O’Neill’s desire not to disguise autobiography but to transcend it.
3. Sheaffer in Son and Artist, p. 329, alludes to “John (Dirty’) Dolan—a onetime tenant of James O’Neill—as a possible model for Phil Hogan and to his daughter Josie, who is almost ‘freakish’ in size.” See also Sheaffer, Son and Playwright, pp. 259-62. But Sheaffer says nothing to suggest any real similarity of personality between these people and the characters in O’Neill’s play, certainly nothing to parallel the similarities between the Tyrones and the O’Neills.
4. On Ibsen and O’Neill, see Tornqvist, “Ibsen and O’Neill.” On Strindberg and O’Neill, see S. K. Winther, “Strindberg and O’Neill: A Study in Influence,” Scandinavian Studies 31 (1959):103-20; Murray Hartman, “Strindberg and O’Neill,” Educational Theatre Journal 18 (October1966): 216-23; and Thomas C. Dawber, “Strindberg and O’Neill,” Players 45 (1970): 183-85; as well as other studies going back to 1928. At the meetings of the Modem Language Association in New York in December, 1981, I presented a paper on Chekhov and the late O’Neill. This paper was not so much of influence as of similarity in dialogue, especially that between mothers and sons.
5. See Carpenter. Eugene ONeill, p. 162; Falk, Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension, p. 177; and others.
6. See Edmund’s quotation of Baudelaire’s “Epilogue,” Long Day’s Journey, Act Four, Yale edition, pp. 133-4. In this poem, Baudelaire directly links his love for his “enormous trull” to his love for the city of Paris. O’Neill, of course, used the highly influential translations (adaptations really) by Arthur Symons. For “Epilogue,” see Baudelaire, Prose and Poetry, translated by Arthur Symons (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1926), pp.86-7.
7. See Baudelaire, Prose and Poetry, p. 117.
8. Josie is included by Rudolph Stamm among several women characters who “prove that O’Neill has a knowledge of a kind of love that cannot be explained as a life-giving illusion . . . ,“in The Shaping Powers at Work (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1967). p. 270.
9. For complete reference to The Late Plays of Eugene O’Neill, see Chapter 9, note 2.
10. The Late Plays of Eugene O’Neill, pp. 71-2.
11. This viewpoint was clearly articulated by Dan Isaac in a paper he delivered at a section on O’Neill’s later plays held at the Modern Language Association convention in Chicago, December 1977.
12. See Sheaffer, Son and Artist, pp. 595-6.
13. John J. Fitzgerald, “Guilt and Redemption in O’Neill’s Last Play,” Texas Quarterly 9 (Spring 1966): 146-58, is a systematic, if not altogether clear, analysis of the play’s construction in terms that Fitzgerald’s title implies. James R. Scrimgeour, “From Loving to the Misbegotten: Despair in the Drama of Eugene O’Neill,” Modern Drama 20 (March 1977): 37-53, on the other hand, sees Jim Tyrone’s great confession as an exorcism which “invites us to share in the experience of despair” (p. 49).
14. Ingmar Bergman’s 1978 film Autumn Sonata is the most compelling example—a film which may well have been influenced by O’Neill’s later plays, given their well-known popularity and availability in contemporary Sweden.
15. See Scheibler, The Late Plays, pp. 98-9. Carpenter, Eugene O’Neill, p. 162, and Tiusanen, O’Neill’s Scenic Images, pp. 311-13, praise the scenic image of the pieta in the play but are more cautious about assigning religious implications to it.
16. Falk, Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension, pp. 177-8. For another negative response to the pieta image so important to this play, see Eric Bentley, “Eugene O’Neill’s Pieta,” in The Dramatic Event (New York: Horizon Press, 1954), pp. 30-3.
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