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

Friday, October 11, 2013

Mad Women–Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill

Madness is as common in literature as it is in life, and it is no surprise that two of America’s greatest playwrights have dealt with the theme.  Perhaps the best-known of all Williams’ characters – Blanche Dubois – is mad; or more accurately, completes her descent into madness in the course of Streetcar Named Desire.  In Williams’s poetic vision her descent might not have been so final if she had she not met Stanley.  Sex with him was a final acceptance of the brutality and ugliness of the life she had tried so hard to ignore.  Blanche was very much like Ann Neville who finally gave in to the wishes of Richard III and married him despite the fact that he had murdered her husband and father-in-law.  Living with Richard was a perverse confirmation not only of his own evil brutality, but that of the world. Ophelia went mad not only because she could not accept the murder of her father and the vicious and dismissive treatment of Hamlet, but because the world itself was cruel, indifferent, and cold.

Mary Tyrone, the principal character of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night also goes mad in the course of the play, although like Blanche, the origins of her madness are far in the past. She unravels before us, finally giving in to morphine and madness and retreating to a childlike faith in the Virgin Mary. She escapes the painful world around her – what she sees as a miserly, selfish husband, one worthless, drunkard son, and one, dying of consumption, who should never have been born.

The two women couldn’t be more different.  Blanche is a sympathetic character, one whose madness was simply a result of her sensitivity and poetic vision.  It was a cruel irony that she, a delicate woman with poetic sensitivities, had to be born into a world harshly insensitive and indifferent to beauty.  Blanche, despite her image as a fading violet, was nothing of the sort.  She was a strong woman who fought against what she saw were the assaults of ugliness and deformity. She failed – a tragic hero whose fight was doomed from the start.

Alma, the main character in Williams’ Eccentricities of a Nightingale, retreats from the real world and into madness much like Blanche, Ophelia, or Mary Tyrone. The brutish, unromantic life outside her own is simply too much for Alma, and in a final rejection of the puritanical world of her father and the romantic myopia of her intended lover, she gives in to her sexual nature and raw, repressed impulses, and becomes a prostitute.

Laura in The Glass Menagerie, is also mad.  She is an emotionally frail woman who can only live within the fantasy world of her glass figures.  She is afraid of the world outside her perfect, miniature family; but like Blanche and Alma makes an effort to join it.  Her Gentleman Caller is not at all what she expected, or rather dreamed, and she retreats into her unreal world of fantasy forever.

These Tennessee Williams women are all sympathetic characters because of their vision and their strength.  We all wish the world were not so ugly and severe and had more room for beauty and grace.  We do not criticize or blame Alma or Laura for their inability to join our world because we know that they are essential to it.  Without them and the sublimity of their poetic ideals, the world would be even more brutish.  We admire them because they never give up in trying to survive and are tragic heroes for doing so against all odds.  We know that anyone like the emotionally frail and innocent Laura can never meet a man she will love, like, or even accept; or that the eccentric Alma can ever possibly be a match for her doctor friend or any other man.  We know that Blanche’s Belle Rive never existed in the way she imagined it.  It was never the Old South and the idle and easy life of the plantation; but as rough and raw as New Orleans.  Blanche was, in her sexually explicit ways, more like the New Orleans she hated than genteel Belle Rive where she was cast out for her profligate ways.

Mary Tyrone is not a sympathetic character.  She is ugly, self-centered, and destructive.  It is not her miserly, actor husband but she who is  behind the dissolution of Jamie, the weak-willed defeatism of Edmund, or the destruction of the home she said she always wanted.  She is cruel to her husband, blaming him for the degenerate ways of his sons and for her addiction.  She is unfeeling towards her older son, Jamie, and dismisses him as a miserable drunkard and failure.  She is as perversely attracted to her younger son, Edmund as Tennessee Williams’ Mrs. Venable who had an incestuous love for Sebastian and who consumed him with love and jealousy. 

Mary Tyrone, however, blames Edmund for her morphine addiction.  If she hadn’t had him after the death of their second child, she says, she would never had suffered the physical and emotional pain that drove her to drugs. She never wanted another child, and was forced to have one because of her husband.  He never understood the depth of her guilt for the death of the baby, Eugene, who was infected with measles by Jamie when she had neglectfully left Eugene alone. 

Mary Tyrone is a nervous, hysterical knot of conflicting emotions, none of them positive or good. Because of her love-hate relationship with her younger son, Edmund, she has created a jealous monster in Jamie. “I always hated you”, Jamie says to Edmund at the end of the play.  “You were always Mother’s darling and Father’s pet”.  In her guilt-ridden obsession with the consumptive Edmund she has created a spineless momma’s boy who wallows in negativism.  In her unremittingly harsh rejection of her husband – the only decent character in the play – she dismisses the only person who truly loves her.

Perhaps worst of all, Mary, in her self-absorbed pity, dominates the family with her eccentric madness.  She demands loyalty, love, and support; but acts in a way which encourages just the opposite.  She is the mad queen.  Tyrone, Jamie, and Edmund tiptoe around the house when Mary is upstairs. They all try to be on their best behavior in an attempt to encourage her to stop taking drugs and to rejoin the family.  She realizes that she exerts a powerful control over all the men in her life and likes it that way.  She is a self-indulgent monarch who cares little for anyone else.

We like Blanche, Alma, and Laura for their otherworldliness and admire them for their tragic strength; but we have no affection or admiration for Mary Tyrone.  She is a destroyer – an egotistical tyrant who deserves no affection. If O’Neill wanted to tempt us out of our intense dislike for Mary in the last scene of the play when she talks to the Virgin Mary, safe once again in the arms of the mother of Jesus, he has failed.  Her  evocation of her adolescent vision and her retreat into a maudlin reverie are silly and unattractive.  He has created a destructive, evil woman, and there is no retreating from this awful character.

One could argue that O’Neill is in fact sympathetic to Mary.  After all, he has given her center stage and more lines than anyone.  She dominates the action whether she is onstage or off. The play is about Mary and her madness and self-destruction, so perhaps O’Neill expects us to be saddened by her dependency and her undoing.  Perhaps he does blame Tyrone who is in many ways like his own itinerant actor father.  Tyrone should have been more sensitive to his wife’s needs, more understanding of the isolating loneliness of touring, and the stifling of a poetic spirit in the dress of a housewife. He perhaps should not have set such a bad example for Jamie and Edmund, encouraging their drinking and whoring, and should have set more judicious standards of decency and propriety.

Yet, it is the shrill, incessant virulence and nasty pettiness of Mary which dominates the play.  She takes every possible moment to criticize, blame, and admonish Tyrone and her sons.  She has not an iota of sympathy for her husband who grew up poor and whose parsimony came naturally; nor a scintilla of respect for her sons as individuals who are what they are because of themselves, for better or worse.

The play is such an intense tragedy – everyone suffers and no one ends up well – that it is hard to disaggregate emotions, to assign cause and effect, or to assess responsibility.  Tyrone is truly loving, but obtuse.  Jamie is an angry, frustrated, and totally unattractive man who, like his mother, is sobbing misunderstanding.  Edmund has no will or moral authority.  Mary is despicable.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a mature play and removed from O’Neill’s earlier melodramatic grand guignol plays like Mourning Becomes Electra and Desire Under the Elms; but the Tyrone family is just as dysfunctional and emotionally twisted as those in the other plays.  The intensity is unremitting, and although it is rewarding to see a play of such depth of character and insight, it is a depressing.

I have never felt depressed after watching any of Tennessee Williams’ plays. There is a nobility in all his characters, never any defeatism or morose self-absorption.  Their pain and suffering is tolerable because of their struggle to escape and because of the lyrical beauty of their vision.  The world of the Tyrone family is ugly, negative, and unredeemable.

I go back and forth in the very academic discussion over who is America’s greatest playwright – Williams or O’Neill – and on some days when I watch the fireworks of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, I am convinced that no one can match O’Neill for compelling, dramatic theatre.  On others, I see nothing but melodrama without any of the grace, elegance, and optimism of Williams. 

I have just finished watching the 1962 movie version of Long Day’s Journey with Katherine Hepburn, Jason Robards, Ralph Richardson, and Dean Stockwell; and more than ever cannot make up my mind. All I know is that I feel a lot better after watching a Tennessee Williams play, and that counts for something.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic article. Seriously. Very insightful. I think you're a bit hard on Mary Tyrone and dismiss James Tyrone's complicity in her addiction, though. =) Your praise for Tennessee Williams is welcome, and I agree, the nobility, struggle, and desire to escape--the will to live, in all of his characters--is magical and powerful. Enjoyed your article very much.

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