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…

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