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.

In the early scenario The Reckoning, written by O’Neill in Provincetown in 1917, a woman who has risen in the world, Mrs C., is haunted by the reappearance of her half-mad stepfather, an old Irishman, Donohue:

Mrs C. shudders with fear and horror and tries to get done with him and get him out of the way as soon as possible. What does he want to do? What can he do, he asks, growing calm again, a poor, broken old man? If only he had the money for passage he’d realize a dream he’d always had to go back to Ireland again and end his days in peace. Mrs. C. jumps at this chance. It opens up a way for her to get rid of this living evidence of the lie on which she had built her life.10

The lie of which the old Irishman is the living evidence is America’s promise of escape into safe prosperity. The American narrative is that of the New World, but O’Neill knows that no world is new. American optimism suggests that the pain of the past can be replaced by the pursuit of happiness through material acquisition, but as John Patrick Diggins argues in his incisive and persuasive analysis of the critique of American democracy implicit in the plays, “coming from an Irish immigrant background, O’Neill was more interested in recording what the search for material satisfaction had done to a people trying to escape material deprivation.”

Diggins’s great achievement is to demolish once and for all the view of O’Neill summed up by Eric Bentley when he dismissed him as “no thinker” and claimed that he “has yet to show us he has a mind.”11 He gives us an O’Neill who is involved in a constant dialectic with Tocqueville and Bakunin, with Emerson and Nietzsche, with Thoreau and William James. Most importantly, however, he understands that a playwright thinks through his characters. Where the philosophers he read thought about ways to escape into a higher future, O’Neill’s people can only rattle the cages of the past. They are, as Diggins puts it, “too weak to practice Emerson’s doctrine of self-reliance…and the few who are strong act only for reasons of power and manipulation.” They cannot find James’s “will to believe” because they have “no free will to set belief in motion, and experience, that is, memories of what has happened, were so painful that the characters could barely face the future.”

Diggins’s book, indeed, turns the O’Neill question on its head. We need to look not at how a writer allegedly without intellect produced great plays, but at how a writer so weighed down by philosophical baggage managed to be so utterly theatrical. He succeeded because his engagement with his father’s fate gave his philosophical pessimism a connection with intimate psychological experience and with the vividly vulgar nature of popular theater as well. If O’Neill seems close, especially in his early plays, to melodrama, it is because he brings the gothic imagination of nineteenth-century Irish literature to bear on twentieth-century America.

O’Neill’s America, like Edgar Allan Poe’s, is a haunted house, in which fear of the past, of savagery, of the buried aspects of the civilized self suddenly erupts in pale apparitions. Con Melody describes himself as “but a ghost haunting a ruin.” Deborah Harford in the same play is “the pale bitch, as he calls her, like she was a ghost, haunting and scorning him.” The Emperor Jones is haunted by “formless creatures” and by the dead—a man he killed in an argument over a dice game and the prison guard whose skull he crushed with a shovel. In Long Day’s Journey, Edmund, hearing his drug-addled mother pacing around upstairs, says, “Yes, she moves above and beyond us, a ghost haunting the past, and here we sit pretending to forget….” Of the rich young woman in The Hairy Ape whose horrified glance makes him lose his self-possession, the stoker Yank says, “I tought she was a ghost, see? She was all in white like dey wrap around stiffs.”

These apparitions emanate from within. The fear and horror they express is the dread of regression. In the new, upwardly mobile world of America, mankind is supposed to be evolving into a clean, white civilization of wealth and cultivation. But O’Neill’s people are haunted by the fear that inside their civilized selves, the hairy ape of crude, animal instinct may be lurking. This inner creature is both a biological and a spiritual entity, a strange compound of Darwin and the Catholic doctrine of original sin. But it is also bound up with both the Irish past of poverty and famine and with that most psychotic of white anxieties: the fear of being black. The question that O’Neill’s Emperor Jones asks himself—“Is you civilized, or is you like dese ign’rent black niggers heah?”—is one that hangs over his probings of the relationship between the Irish past and American present.

Two of O’Neill’s most extraordinary plays, The Hairy Ape and A Touch of the Poet, enact quite explicitly the process of regression. Both do so through Irish characters, though in keeping with the movement of O’Neill’s work from the general to the particular, A Touch, written between 1935 and 1942 and not performed until 1958, does this more directly than The Hairy Ape, written in 1921. Both explore the psychosis of an internalized racist stereotype: the fear that to be Irish is to be black and to be black is to be subhuman.

Yank in The Hairy Ape is an Irish immigrant “dragged up” on the Brooklyn waterfront, but he is based on an Irish stoker called Driscoll, whom O’Neill befriended in his seafaring days and who appears in all four of the short plays about the crew of the SS Glencairn (Bound East for Cardiff, The Moon of the Caribbees, The Long Voyage Home, and In the Zone) under his own name or that of Yank, or, indeed, as both. In The Hairy Ape, Yank’s self-confident exultation in his own brute strength is shattered when he witnesses the revulsion toward him of the rich, delicate, and haughty Mildred. She is, for him, a mirror, in which he sees his own image as it appears to civilized people—the image not of a man but of “a great hairy ape escaped from the Zoo!” The realization sends him on a doomed quest for revenge that ends when he accepts his status. He climbs into the cage of a gorilla in the zoo and dies as a result of its embrace, calling on the public to come and see “de one and only—one and original—Hairy Ape from the wilds—“

This apeman shambles around the verbal landscape of O’Neill’s plays before The Hairy Ape, almost always associated with Irish characters. The Englishman Cocky in The Moon of the Caribbees tells Paddy, an Irish fellow sailor, “A ‘airy ape, I calls yer.” Paddy reappears in The Hairy Ape and tells Yank that respectable people see in their likes “a queerer kind of baboon than ever you’d find in darkest Africy.” Mat Burke in Anna Christie, another version of Driscoll, appears half-naked “in the full power of his heavy-muscled, immense strength” and announces to Anna, “‘Tis a clumsy ape I am.” Later, O’Neill describes Mat’s “impotent animal rage, baffled by its own abject misery.” The slur is also thrown back—Burke calls Chris “ye old ape” and “ye old babboon” and Driscoll in The Long Voyage Home calls Ivan a “Rooshan baboon” and tells the Englishman Cocky to “Shut up, ye ape…”—but this is merely the defensive repetition of an insult that has been so often received.

The image of the apeman is drawn from Darwinism and from anthropology (the stokers at the start of The Hairy Ape should, according to the stage directions, “resemble those pictures in which the appearance of Neanderthal Man is guessed at”) but it is also situated in Irish-American history. When Mildred utters her fateful cry of “Take me away! Oh, the filthy beast!” her horror is in response not simply to the sight of Yank but to a speech of his to which she has just “listened, paralyzed with horror…by the terrific impact of this unknown, abysmal brutality, naked and shameless.” The rant that so terrifies her is not just any sailor’s foul tirade. It is a specific emanation from the sectarian rage of old Ireland, a Catholic’s abuse of a Protestant:

Come down outa dere, yuh yellow, brass-buttoned Belfast scut, yuh! Come down and I’ll knock yer brains out! Yuh lousy, stinkin’ yellow mut of a Catholic-moiderin’ bastard! Come down and I’ll moider yuh!… I’ll crash yer skull in! I’ll drive yer teet’ down yer troat! I’ll slam yer nose trou de back of yer head!12

This speech evokes the violence of the Orange riots in New York in the 1870s, when Catholics and Protestants fought each other on the streets of the city and, in response, the image of the simian Irishman came to the surface of American culture. In magazines like Harper’s Weekly, Puck, and Judge, Thomas Nast and the other leading New York cartoonists of the 1870s and 1880s did not, as L. Perry Curtis noted, “refrain from simianizing Irish-American Paddies who epitomized the tens of thousands of working-class immigrants and their children caught up in urban poverty and slum conditions after their flight from rural poverty and famine in Ireland.”13 When Nast drew an Irish-American man, Curtis notes, “he invariably produced a lusus naturae or cross between a professional boxer and an orangutan.”

Yet though it was directed primarily at poor immigrants, the simian analogy took on such a powerful life that it could attach itself even to the most sophisticated, outwardly civilized Irishman. In 1882, when Oscar Wilde visited the US, he was greeted by a cartoon in The Washington Post. Beneath the heading “Mr Wild of Borneo,” it placed a drawing of an apeman holding a coconut beside one of Wilde, in the same pose, holding a flower, asking the question “How far is it from this to this?”14 Artistic fame and material wealth of the kind that the O’Neills themselves achieved could not entirely ward off the threat of being configured as an ape.

That threat was all the more keenly felt because it is intimately linked in the warped logic of so-called scientific racism to the notion that the Irish were not white, but black, and therefore barely above the apes on the supposed evolutionary scale. For all his courage in putting black characters on stage, O’Neill himself was not immune to the racist impulse. Lem in The Emperor Jones is “a heavy-set, ape-faced old savage of the extreme African type” and the flight back into the jungle of the title character in that play is enacted, in part, as a regression to the primitive conditions from which he is assumed to have come. What makes it more complex, however, is that Jones occupies the place in O’Neill’s work that is usually held by an Irish character and that O’Neill is, in his own sly, strange way, embracing the racist connection between Irish and African. In an extraordinary scene in The Moon of the Caribbees, O’Neill has a drunken Driscoll dance grotesquely on board ship with a black West Indian woman, Bella. He grabs her and urges, “Dance wid me, me cannibal quane,” thus enacting an old theatrical satire.

In William Macready’s mid-nineteenth-century comedy The Irishman in London, popular on the New York stage, the climax came, as Dale T. Knobel puts it, when “Murtoch Delaney fell hopelessly in love with his perfect match, the humanoid ‘grinning Cuba.’ The African and the Irishman were made for one another.”15 The Emperor Jones plays a similar kind of game by making Jones, in effect, an Irishman in blackface. In the stripping away of his outward trappings of civilization and in his reversion to the wild, Jones is linked to Yank, and more specifically to O’Neill’s cruellest version of his own father, Con Melody in A Touch of the Poet.

The link between the plays is visual as well as dramatic. Regression in O’Neill is signaled by the loss of clothing. In Thirst, we see a gentleman in evening dress that has been “reduced to the mere caricature of such a garment” and a dancer in “baggy and wrinkled stockings” and “swollen and misshapen” shoes. Later, in her madness, the dancer will strip herself to the waist. The gradual stripping away of the protagonist’s fine uniform to little more than a loincloth in The Emperor Jones is repeated in A Touch of the Poet, where Con Melody’s scarlet uniform of the Duke of Wellington’s army, worn with distinction, as he repeatedly boasts, at the Battle of Talavera, is, in the last scene, “filthy and torn and pulled awry.”

The naked man who remains when the uniform is gone is, like James O’Neill, a romantic actor stripped of his role. “Ain’t he the lunatic,” asks one of his cronies behind his back, “sittin’ like a play-actor in his red coat, lyin’ about his battles with the French!” It is the role of a Yankee gentleman, born in an Irish castle, and considering “the few Irish around here to be scum beneath his notice.” In fact, as his daughter and his cronies know, his origins are much meaner:

His father wasn’t one of the quality of Galway like he makes out, but a thievin’ shebeen keeper who got rich by moneylendin’ and squeezin’ tenants and every manner of trick.

His pretense at being an evolved American collapses when he is humiliated by his social betters and receives, in the process, a knock on the head. His inner Irishman emerges; he loses his refined accent and speaks in “the broadest brogue, his voice coarse and harsh.” He shoots the fine horse that was the symbol of his pretensions to gentility and embraces his true nature as a drunken peasant. Con Melody at the end is a hairy ape too, “his movements…shambling and clumsy, his big hairy hands dangling at his sides.” The simian Irishman has come out from behind the fancy play-actor. And in that stripping bare, O’Neill confronted his father, allowing him to write, in Long Day’s Journey, the play in which he will become not an ape, but a human being.

Before that, in More Stately Mansions, the play that was to follow A Touch of the Poet in his aborted eleven-play history cycle, O’Neill gave another twist to this strange story of racial doom. Melody’s daughter Sara marries no less a paragon of American civilization than Henry David Thoreau, whose disguise as Simon Harford is even thinner than James O’Neill’s as James Tyrone. O’Neill must have noticed, in Walden, Thoreau’s patronizing contempt for his Irish neighbor with his “inherited Irish poverty,” his “boggy ways” and “webbed bog-trotting feet,” and taken some glee in making Con Melody that neighbor. He has Simon leave his hut by the pond and fall in love with Sara, who uses marriage to him to escape from her desperate Irish past. She then molds the dreamer into a “Napoleon of finance” and their sons into a great capitalist dynasty. The apeman’s ultimate legacy is American acquisitiveness. “There’s nothing,” says Sara, “like hunger to make you greedy.” The literal hunger that stripped the Irish down to their basic instincts becomes, in O’Neill’s telling, the voracious American desire to own and control. When John Patrick Diggins writes that a study of “O’Neill’s wrestling with the deceits of desire” could help to explain the invasion of Iraq, his claim is not as outrageous as it might seem.

This Issue

November 8, 2007