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What Haunted Eugene O’Neill?

Collected Shorter Plays

by Eugene O’Neill, with an introduction by Robert Brustein
Yale University Press, 306 pp., $15.95 (paper)

It was almost obligatory for a matinee idol to lie about his age, but in the case of James O’Neill, father of Eugene O’Neill, the falsehood was rooted in something more than vanity. “It was in Kilkenny—smiling Kilkenny…,” he told the readers of Theater Magazine in 1917, “where I was born one opal-tinted day in October 1847.”1 The place, the year, and especially the opal tint were all deliberate distortions of an intolerable truth. By changing his place of birth from the little rural village of Tinneranny to the nearby city of Kilkenny, he was imbuing his origins with a baroque romance. Two decades earlier, in a book called Famous American Actors of Today, the opal tinting was laid on thick, and a rich shade of immemorial antiquity glossed over the brute facts of history:

It was in Kilkenny that he first saw the light. Beneath the shadows of its gray cathedral, and its immemorial round tower, and among its monastic ruins, his careless childhood was spent. He played in the mossy moat of Strongbow’s ancient castle….2

By changing the date on which that idyllically careless childhood commenced from 1845 to 1847, he was also implying that his first years had been spent toward the end, and not at the start, of the worst period of Irish history. Two days after his birth, the Kilkenny constabulary reported of the potatoes that were the staple diet of poor tenant farmers like the O’Neills: “Crop more or less diseased throughout the district: on some farms nearly half quite rotten.”3 A famine which became proportionally the most deadly in world history had begun. In 1841, the population of County Kilkenny was 202,400. In 1861 it was 124,500. Between 1845 and 1850—the first five years of James O’Neill’s life—there were 27,000 deaths in the county. Those who survived usually did so by emigrating, as the O’Neill family did in 1851, bringing with them memories that could not be well expressed in the American artistic world that James O’Neill would inhabit as a leading actor and his son Eugene as the virtual inventor of its serious drama.

In late 1846, the minor poet John Keegan wrote The Dying Mother’s Lament, based on the report in a Kilkenny newspaper of an inquest on the bodies of a woman and three children found partly eaten on the road:

To see my ghastly babies—my babies so meek and fair—

To see them huddled in the ditch like wild beasts in their lair;

Like wild beasts! No! the vixen cubs that sport on yonder hill

Lie warm this hour, and, I’ll engage, of food they’ve had their fill.4

It is bad poetry, but no other kind could reflect the horrors of the time. Some realities, and the emotions they evoke, may be too raw, too excessive, to be reflected in high art. James O’Neill, according to his son Eugene, did not “go in for much reminiscing about the past” and when he did, he lied about it. But perhaps he found in the emotional extravagance of the melodramas in which he starred, like The Mother’s Secret, The Two Orphans, and The Miner’s Daughter, a way of expressing feelings that could not be otherwise acknowledged. Perhaps the stories of suffering, death, and resurrection that he enacted so effectively when he played Jesus Christ in The Passion or—in the role to which he sacrificed his talent for material security—Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo had some thread of inchoate meaning for him. And perhaps, with time and distance, his son could recover something of the emotional truth behind those grand gestures.

In Eugene O’Neill’s late play A Touch of the Poet, the acid-tongued daughter Sara punctures the pretensions of Con Melody, who has left his rough origins behind him in Ireland: “It’s the dirty hut in which your father was born and raised you’re remembering, isn’t it?” O’Neill remembered for his father the origins he had tried to forget, often cruelly, but, in the end, with tenderness. We know that the image of people dying for want of basic sustenance was with him from the start, because his first play, Thirst, is about a group of sophisticates dying on a life raft, stripped down to their animal instincts.5 But Thirst can be seen as an abstract reflection on the human condition, and it took O’Neill almost forty years to bring its theme back to its intimate origins. In a play he intended to be a posthumously told secret, to be released into the world in 1978, when most of the witnesses to his background would have been dead, he allowed his father to acknowledge at last the fear of starvation that haunted him. At the culmination of Long Day’s Journey into Night, James O’Neill, sparsely disguised as James Tyrone, scrapes the opal tint from his past and talks of the experiences of famine times—eviction, death in the poorhouse, and the reduction of all hope to the desire for food:

Well I remember one Thanksgiving, or maybe it was Christmas, when some Yank in whose house mother had been scrubbing gave her a dollar extra for a present, and on the way home she spent it all on food. I can remember her hugging and kissing us and saying with tears of joy running down her tired face: “Glory be to God, for once in our lives we’ll have enough for each of us!”6

The strange thing about Eugene O’Neill is that, for a man who had spent much of his youth on the fringes of radical politics, and for a writer who was inventing a national drama, his plays seem oddly disengaged from contemporary America. Here, after all, is a dramatist who, in the end, had so little interest in his own time and place that he left his greatest play in a sealed package, with instructions that it be opened twenty-five years after his death. The air of anachronism that hangs around his work and gives it, indeed, its distinctive character arises from the fact that what he is grappling with at the deepest psychological level is not his own experience, but his father’s. His subject is not the twentieth century but the nineteenth, not the mentality of a man born in American luxury but that of one born in Irish degradation. His great theme is the emotional and spiritual consequence of conditions that reduce the human spirit to the exigencies of mere survival and make people ready to sacrifice everything for material security.

Eugene O’Neill’s artistic career moves backward. The normal trajectory of a writer is from the particular to the general, from family to society, from the autobiographical to the impersonal, from more or less unmediated realism to experiments in form. O’Neill travels in the opposite direction. He starts with the human condition and ends with his own. He starts with the social and ends up with the familial. When he finds his voice as playwright it is self-consciously theatrical, highly wrought, expressed through masks and formal contrivances. But when he thinks of the work that will appear in the unknown future, after his death, he moves into a plain, almost primitive naturalism. After Days Without End in 1933, he gave up the use of masks and turned thereafter to something like realism. The suicides and murders, the incestuous and illicit desires of the early plays give way to the minutiae of daily life. This shift away from overt theatricality was not just an exercise in form. As he burrowed beneath the high emotional pitch of his father’s melodrama, he was honing in on the hard reality of his father’s life.

This reverse order of O’Neill’s career mirrors his journey toward the past. As Zander Brietzke has put it, “He adopted a traditional form in his final plays but the action became entirely retrospective and time, in a novel way, became the definitive and tragic subject at last.”7 Con Melody in A Touch of the Poet says of himself that he has “no future but the past” and Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey says that “the past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too.” The past is all-embracing because O’Neill also reversed another historic flow, the great outward thrust of migration. For Irish migrants like his father, Ireland was the desperate past, America the hopeful future. But for O’Neill himself, the American future is a hollow promise and the great journey is the voyage back into a relentless, inescapable history.

As late as 1946, it was possible for a critic as estimable as Eric Bentley to dismiss O’Neill as “increasingly indifferent to the stuff of life, of society, of history.”8 If, to us, that judgment, especially in relation to history, seems bizarre, it could be made because the great late plays—A Touch of the Poet, More Stately Mansions, Long Day’s Journey, and A Moon for the Misbegotten—were then unknown. Nor was it clear that the history whose psychic legacy O’Neill was exploring was not the grand American narrative of freedom and opportunity, but the darker story of a strange, anachronistic European island. In the living room of Long Day’s Journey, the bookcase has “several histories of Ireland” that have been “read and reread.”

Having begun as an American playwright, O’Neill had become, in the end, an Irish one. In 1940, when he wrote to his son Eugene Jr. that “the Battle of Britain I can take more philosophically. Of course, if Ireland is invaded, I shall probably volunteer at once,” he was only half joking.9 But his was no sentimental return to the old sod: the nearest he ever got to Ireland was passing it on a transatlantic liner when he was a sailor. The physical Ireland was of as little interest to him as the physical America. (Not for nothing are most of his early plays set on the sea, somewhere between the two places, or in waterfront bars that serve as the sea’s honorary consulates on land. Not for nothing does his own avatar Edmund in Long Day’s Journey wish that he had been born “as a seagull or a fish.”)

The Ireland he moved toward was not a place but a face. It was a fact not of geography, but of biology. In his last plays, he twice used the image of the island transformed into a feature of personal physiognomy, as inescapable and as personal as a nose or mouth. Of Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten, O’Neill’s stage directions note: “The map of Ireland is stamped on her face.” In Long Day’s Journey, James Tyrone admonishes his son Jamie: “And keep your dirty tongue off Ireland! You’re a fine one to sneer, with the map of it on your face!” Jamie replies, “Not after I’ve washed my face,” but this is one stain that cannot be washed away. It is compounded of fear and horror, of shame and degradation.

  1. 1

    Quoted in Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo (Applause, 2000), p. 35.

  2. 2

    Famous American Actors of Today, edited by Charles Edgar Lewis Wingate and Frederic Edward McKay Thomas (Crowell, 1896), p. 300.

  3. 3

    Colm Tóibìn and Diarmaid Ferriter, The Irish Famine: A Documentary (London: Profile, 2001), p. 45.

  4. 4

    Quoted in Melissa Fegan, Literature and the Irish Famine, 1845–1919 (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 176.

  5. 5

    Thirst is included in the Collected Shorter Plays under review, along with Bound East for Cardiff, Fog, The Long Voyage Home, Ile, The Moon of the Caribbees, In the Zone, The Hairy Ape, and Hughie.

  6. 6

    All quotations are from The Collected Plays of Eugene O’Neill (London: Jonathan Cape, 1988).

  7. 7

    The Aesthetics of Failure: Dynamic Structure in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill (McFarland, 2001), p. 19.

  8. 8

    The Playwright as Thinker: A Study of Drama in Modern Times (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1946), p. 68.

  9. 9

    Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill, edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer (Yale University Press, 1988), p. 509.

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