"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Eugene O’Neill–Long Day’s Journey Into Night

I recently wrote a post on the plays of the early O’Neill – Desire Under The Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra – which I described as operatic and overly melodramatic.  They were both a combination of Aida and grand guignol – outrageous characters in hopelessly entangled family relationships complicated by incest, and dissolved by bloody murders. The operatic quality of Desire led Edward Thomas to write an opera (1989) based on it.  I wondered at the end of reading these four plays (Electra is a trilogy), why so much attention has been paid to O’Neill, considered America’s greatest playwright; and wondered whether in the ten ensuing years between Electra (1931) and Long Day’s Journey (1941), he could have evolved from soap opera to serious dramatist.  He did.

Following is an excerpt from a short biography of O’Neill:

But by the time he received the Nobel Prize in 1936--a feat which no other American playwright had been able to accomplish--his career had begun to fizzle. The new generation of critics--Francis Fergusson, Lionel Trilling, Eric Bentley--began to subject O'Neill to a closer scrutiny than their predecessors who had been satisfied simply to find an American playwright of international stature. Pushed about by this critical storm, obscurity began to settle in on the playwright, and it deepened more and more until his death in 1953. Ironically, it was during these dark years that O'Neill's real development began. Maturing in silence and motivated only by his obsessive urge to write, he developed a profound artistic honesty which would result in several genuine masterpieces of the modern theatre including A Touch of the Poet (1935-1942), More Stately Mansions (1935-1941), The Iceman Cometh (1939), A Long Day's Journey into Night (1939-41) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943). Most of these were not published or produced during O'Neill's lifetime.

Then, in 1956, three years after the playwright's death, a successful revival of The Iceman Cometh and the first Broadway production of A Long Day's Journey into Night, returned Eugene O'Neill once again to his rightful place at the forefront of American Drama. As George Jean Nathan noted, O'Neill "singlehandedly waded through the dismal swamplands of American drama, bleak, squashy, and oozing sticky goo, and alone and singlehanded bore out the water lily that no American had found there before him." Today, he is recognized not only as the first great American dramatist, but as one of the great dramatists of all time. (www.imagi-nation.com)

Journey is an autobiographical play, and the drug-addicted mother, itinerant actor father, corrupting elder brother, and consumptive younger brother were modeled after O’Neill’s own family.  The play is so confessional that O’Neill demanded that O’Neill left written instructions that it must not be made public until 25 years after his death.  However, negotiations with his estate allowed the production of it only three years after his death,

In 1940 O'Neill wrote the autobiographical play, Long Day's Journey Into Night. The action takes place during a single day in August 1912 at the summer home of the Tyrone family. The members of the family are the father, an actor, the drug-addicted mother, an alcoholic son and his younger brother suffering from tuberculosis (based on O'Neill himself). (Spartacus Educational).

The play, like Miller’s All My Sons,The Prize, and Death of a Salesman (all recently reviewed in my blog), is about fathers and sons; the demands and expectations set by fathers, and the impossibility of measuring up to them.  Whereas Miller’s characters have a rough, unfinished quality to them – they are prototypically post-Depression era characters pursuing the American dream at all costs – O’Neill’s are more refined, reflective, and introspective.  The father is a classical actor and the boys, schooled by him, are expressively literate.  The stage directions of Act One describe the authors in the family’s bookcases – Hugo, Dumas, Shakespeare, and Gibbon, among others.  Both Jamie and Edmund know a variety of literature so well that they quote Swinburne, Shakespeare, and other writers not only easily, but with accurate and appropriate references to their lives of the moment.  The tragedy of the Miller plays is that this idealistic, romantic, and ultimately flawed vision of America had to end badly. Miller was a Communist adherent in the 40s and his plays reflect a mistrust of American capitalism and its corrosive, destructive power.  The system was as much at fault for the tragedy of the Loman family as the family itself.

Literature provides the context of the drama of the Tyrone’s.  Both boys use it to comment, to wound, and to expose:

Jamie, hurt by his father’s drunken condemnation of him - “A waste! A wreck, a drunken hulk, done with and finished” – replies, quoting Shakespeare: “Clarence is come, false, fleeting, perjured Clarence/That stabbed me in the field by Tewksbury/Seize on him, Furies, take him into torment”; and then quoting from Rossetti: “Look into my face.  My name is Might-Have-Been; I am also called No More, Too Late, Farewell”.  Jamie’s most hurtful, damning, and unforgiveable literary reference is to Hamlet.  Mary, the boys’ mother, has become, finally, and irretrievable insane, and Jamie says “The Mad Scene.  Enter Ophelia!”

Edmund quotes Baudelaire to denigrate his brother who has become, in his eyes, a degenerate wastrel; but in the quote correctly characterizes the fatalistic view of his brother: “I love thee, infamous city! Harlots and/Hunted have pleasures of their own to give/The vulgar herd can never understand”.

This passage, quoted early in Act Four is again quoted, even more cynically when Jamie comes home, drunk from a whorehouse. 

Jamie is a cynical poet/intellectual – he is so obsessed by what he sees as the venality, greed, and indifference of his father, and the weakness of his mother, that he exaggerates the cynical worldviews of poets, using them to justify his refusal to accept the realities and needs of his father, mother, and brother. 

Edmund not only quotes poetry but writes it and thinks poetically, which is his professed way to a clearer vision of reality.  In his long soliloquy, Edmund says:

Yes, she [his mother] moves above and beyond us, a ghost haunting the past, and here we sit pretending to forget, but straining our ears listening for the slightest sound, hearing the fog drip from the eaves like the uneven tick of a rundown, crazy clock – or like the trollop spattering in a puddle of stale beer on a honky-tonk table top!

His father in reply says, “Yes, there’s the making of a poet in you all right”; and then Edmund, somewhat maudlin:

The makings of a poet.  No, I’m afraid I’m like the guy who is always panhandling for a smoke.  He hasn’t even got the makings  He’s got only the habit.  I couldn’t touch what I tried to tell you just now.  I just stammered.  That’s the best I’ll ever do, I mean, if I live. Well, it will be faithful realism at least.  Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.

The play is successful for many reasons, and this use of a literary context is one.  In this exchange, Edmund admits that he is not a poet; but still holds to a poetic convention – faithful realism, he calls it.  He believes in the wisdom of Swinburne or Dowson, and often uses them not to express his own vision, but his critical view of his brother.  Referring to his brother’s night with a prostitute, he quotes derisively but with deep feeling:

“All night upon my heart I felt her warm heart beat/Night long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;/Surely the kisses her bought red mouth were sweet/But I was desolate and sick of an old passion/When I awoke and found the dawn was gray: I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.”

Edmund goes on:

…And Jamie never loved any Cynara, and was never faithful to a woman in his life, even in his fashion!  But he lies there, kidding himself he is superior and enjoys pleasures “the vulgar herd can never understand”!

But Jamie in later retort quotes Oscar Wilde, praising the dissolute life without love:

Then, turning to my love, I said/’The dead are dancing with the dead/The dust is whirling with the dust’/But she – she heard the violin/And left my side and entered in:/Love passed into the house of lust…

This literary context frames the play – it is clearly the rarified world of ideas in which tragedy occurs, in which the Tyrone family comes apart; but they know what is happening to them, they face their demons ‘beautifully’.  In comparison Happy and Biff in Death of a Salesman have no real clue.  They are too circumscribed by their meager life, and have only had the dreams of one man – their father – to give them a view of the outside world, albeit a twisted one.   There is no metaphor in either Biff or Happy, but most definitely in Edmund and Jamie.  The real fog which persists throughout the play becomes the metaphor for the life of the whole family.  Poetry has enabled everyone to penetrate, if only for a while, the fog of illusion and distortion which surrounds them.  Edmund says:

Then the moment of ecstatic freedom came.  The peace, the end of the quest, the last harbor, the joy of belonging to a fulfillment beyond men’s lousy, pitiful, greedy fears and hopes and dreams….Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand.  For a second you see – and seeing the secret, are the secret.  For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!

Another reason why the play is successful is because the life behind the action is revealed slowly and progressively.  The reader knows – as in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – that something is very wrong between George and Martha, and only at the end do we understand why they are they way they are.  We know that something is wrong in the Tyrone family from the beginning of the play, but we are not sure what.  The father and brothers are tip-toeing around their mother, but only later, and after many veiled references do we understand that she is addicted to morphine; and only later do we begin to understand, from her point of view, why.  She has led a miserable life, become the wife of an itinerant actor, far from the genteel upbringings of her own family.  She recounts the endless trips, the cheap hotels, the endless nights of waiting alone for her drunken husband.  Only later, and progressively, do we realize that this conviction has become an obsession.  He will always be cheap, self-centered, and insensitive.  And only near the end of the play do we hear Tyrone’s own story, that of his poor childhood, how his own obsession with money came because of the precarious situation of his family.

At first we see the love-hate relationship between the two brothers.  Jamie does seem to solicitously care for his consumptive younger brother, but is often sharp and resentful.  The brothers compete, and as in the passages cited above, they are strongly critical of each other.  Only near the end of the play do we hear Jamie’s confession – that he always hated his brother, that he corrupted him deliberately so that by comparison he, Jamie, would look good; and along the way Edmund would be destroyed.

At the beginning of the play we feel that the mother is simply in a bad marriage, and that her complaints are well-founded.  Later, and persistently, her complaints become refrains, and she repeats over and over the same perception of her money-grubbing, insensitive husband.  Progressively, she slips into the past, a past of fond memories and happiness.  She is very reminiscent of Blanche, in Streetcar Named Desire, and in the final scenes has completely given herself over to the frail reminiscences of her past.  In a very Tennessee Williams-esque final scene, she emerges from her room:

“Her white hair is braided in two pigtails which hang over her breast.  Over one arm, carried neglectfully, trailing on the floor, as if she had forgotten she held it, is an old-fashioned white satin wedding gown, trimmed with duchesse lace…(from the stage directions at the end of Act Four).

Tyrone, when he sees his wife, says:

Here, let me take it, dear.  You’ll only step on it and tear it and get it dirty dragging it on the floor.  Then you’d be sorry afterwards.  She lets him take it, regarding him from somewhere far away within herself, without recognition, without recognition, without either affection or animosity.

MARY With the shy politeness of a well-bred young girl toward an elderly gentleman who relieves her of a bundle. Thank you.  You are very kind.

The ‘kindness of strangers’.

Finally, the play is successful because certain characters, despite their denials and evasions, finally accept reality.  Jamie confesses that he has hated and manipulated his brother; admits with no contrition his hatred for his father even with Edmund’s explanations.  Edmund admits his lovelorn relationship with his mother, his dependence on her as the baby, the pet.  Tyrone admits his stinginess, but explains why and sees no reason to express guilt.  Only the mother cannot accept reality and becomes totally mad, escaping into her world of fantasy and illusion.

In conclusion, this is a remarkable play, all the more so in comparison to O’Neill’s earlier work.  Long Day’s Journey is measured, balanced (introspection-outward expression; brothers vs. father, mother vs. father, etc.), disciplined, with only a trace of melodrama; eloquent in language and meaning.  Despite the alcohol, the passages between father and sons or between the sons is never maudlin, never sloppy, never outrageously in vino veritas.  It is simply the vehicle for the expressions of the characters.  There is a complexity in all relationships.  That between Jamie and Edmund is not all one-sided, characterized by Jamie’s manipulation.  He cares for Edmund.  He cares for his mother in a way, although he dismisses her.  Tyrone is a complex figure.  He is guilty of a miserliness – he wants to withhold the best treatment for his consumptive son – but we understand the power of his personal history.  He has been more than patient with his wife who should have known better when she married him or at least been strong enough to negotiate a more acceptable life.  The mother is a sympathetic figure, but she too has become a hectoring, pitiless character.

With great expectation, I will now move on to Moon for the Misbegotten and The Iceman Cometh.

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