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

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Melodrama of Eugene O’Neill and Faulkner

I am not sure what I was expecting from Eugene O’Neill.  I have only the vaguest recollections of Jason Robards, Jr. and Colleen Dewhurst in Moon for the Misbegotten and Jason Robards again in Long Day’s Journey into Night; and I remember there was a lot of drinking and a very abusive, tormented family in both.  There was nothing in my reading or viewing that ever made me want to go back to O’Neill. There was something too dark and unremitting in these plays, and I avoided them.  However, I have been immersed in theatre for the past year, and felt I could not complete my review of American theatre without reading O’Neill. 

On my bookshelf was an old copy of Eugene O’Neill’s Greatest Plays which included Desire Under the Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra both among his first plays, done in the 30s, and ten years before the more famous and mature plays referred to above. After I had read them, I realized that I had been far to hard on Arthur Miller, whose View from the Bridge I have recently criticized for operatic melodrama and grand guignol.  These plays of O’Neill are far more baroque. 

At first, Desire under the Elms, perhaps because it is written in New England dialect and based on a family’s roots in land and history, reminded me of Faulkner. The Mannon family of Electra was much like the Sutpens of Absalom, Absalom with their intricate, complex, cross-generational love affairs, reappearing family outliers, a brooding, powerful patriarch, and intra-family gossip, speculation, and plotting.  Here is an excerpt from a plot summary of the Faulkner work and the similarity with Electra is clear:

Henry, possibly because of his own potentially (and mutually) incestuous feelings for his sister, as well as quasi-romantic feelings for Charles himself, is keen to see the two wed (allowing him to imagine himself as surrogate for both). When Sutpen tells Henry that Charles is his half-brother and that Judith must not be allowed to marry him, Henry refuses to believe, repudiates his birthright, and accompanies Charles to his home in New Orleans…During the war, Henry wrestles with his conscience until he presumably resolves to allow the marriage of half-brother and sister; this resolution changes, however, when Sutpen reveals to Henry that Charles is part black. At the conclusion of the war, Henry enacts his father's interdiction of marriage between Charles and Judith, killing Charles at the gates to the mansion and then fleeing into self-exile. (Wikipedia).

Mourning Becomes Electra is as improbable. Christine, Lavinia’s mother, is in love with Adam, who is actually the illegitimate son of her husband’s uncle, long exiled but reappearing in his romantic pursuit of Lavinia – an incestuous pursuit because Adam and Lavinia are first cousins.  Christine has incestuous longings for her son, Orin, psychologically damaged in the Civil War, and long under her influence. 

Lavinia has similarly incestuous longings for her brother, Orin, and she, too has dominated him since they were children. Lavinia’s feelings for her father, the family patriarch are even stronger and more incestuous.  He has been the buffer against what Lavinia sees is the evil predations and ambitions of her mother.

Christine hates her older husband to whom she has been married for many years, and decides with her lover, Adam, to kill him. Lavinia catches the mother in the act with the poison pills, and decides that she must kill her and her lover, Adam.  She enlists her easily manipulated brother, Orin.

Orin and Lavinia set a trap for Adam and murder him; but they don’t have to because she kills herself out of despair.  Orin, feeling so crazed with guilt kills himself.  Lavinia then turns her amorous attentions on Peter, the only sane one of the lot, and in her own increasingly crazed state, operatically cries out:

Listen, Peter! Why must we wait for marriage?  I want a moment of joy – of love – to make up for what’s coming.  I want it now! Can’t you be strong, Peter? Can’t you be simple and pure?  Can’t you forget sin and see that all of love is beautiful (She kisses him with desperate passion).  Kiss me!  Hold me close! Want me! Want me so much that you’d murder anyone to have me! I did that – for you! Take me into this house of the dead and love me.  Our love will drive the dead away! It will shame them back into death.

Peter, of course, runs as fast as he can the other way, and Lavinia in the last scene claims her inheritance and walks back into the ghost-ridden house alone.

This is from America’s most revered playwright?  And more to the point, why do I think that Absalom, Absalom is a great work and Electra a distinctly inferior one?  Most importantly, the tale of the Mannons is pure melodrama – it is plot without depth, action without context, with outrageously caricatured characters, and with only a stereotypical vision of the historical context – the Civil War.  Each of the characters of Absalom is complex, and the seemingly melodramatic evolution of the Sutpens, when framed against the cultural history of the South, its early settlement, the evolution of its traditions of social and racial purity, the violence of war fought on its territory, and the total disruption and destruction of its life, is not melodramatic at all.  In fact, the integration of the characters of Absalom within this social and historical context is perhaps the most brilliant aspect of the novel.  From the very first lines of the book Faulkner we are introduced to the characters, never alone, nor independent of their roots and history:

Her voice would not cease, it would just vanish. There would be the dim coffin-smelling gloom sweet and oversweet with the twice-bloomed wistaria against the outer wall by the savage quiet September sun impacted distilled and hyperdistilled, into which came now and then the loud cloudy flutter of the sparrows like a flat limber stick whipped by an idle boy, and the rank smell of female old flesh long embattled in virginity while the wan haggard face watched him above the faint triangle of lace at wrists and throat from the too tall chair in which she resembled a crucified child; and the voice not ceasing but vanishing into and then out of the long intervals like a stream, a trickle running from patch to patch of dried sand, and the ghost mused with shadowy docility as if it were the voice which he haunted where a more fortunate one would have had a house. Out of quiet thunderclap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize water color, faint sulphur-reek still in hair clothes and beard, with grouped behind him his band of wild niggers like beasts half tamed to walk upright like men, in attitudes wild and reposed, and manacled among them the French architect with his air grim, haggard, and taller-ran. Immobile, bearded, and hand palm lifted the horseman sat; behind him the wild blacks and the captive architect huddled quietly, carrying in bloodless paradox the shovels and picks and axes of peaceful conquest.


And maybe it (the voice, the talking, the incredulous and unbearable amazement) had even been a cry aloud once, Quentin thought, long ago when she was a girl of young and indomitable unregret, of indictment of blind circumstance and savage event; but not now: now only the lonely thwarted old female flesh embattled for forty-three years in the old insult, the old unforgiving outraged and betrayed by the final and complete affront which was Sutpen's death: 'He wasn't a gentleman. He wasn't even a gentleman. He came here with a horse and two pistols and a name which nobody ever heard before, knew for certain was his own any more than the horse was his own or even the pistols, seeking some place to hide himself, and Yoknapatawpha County supplied him with it. He sought the guarantee of reputable men to barricade him from the other and later strangers who might come seeking him in turn, and Jefferson gave him that. Then he needed respectability, the shield of a virtuous woman, to make his position impregnable even against the men who had given him protection on that inevitable day and hour when even they must rise against him in scorn and horror and outrage; and it was mine and Ellen's father who gave him that.

The story is complex, the language intricate, evocative, and powerful.  There is no way not to be drawn into the story – who is Sutpen, where did he come from? – deciphering the story but admiring this man, like many, who came from outside Mississippi and cleared the land, driven by ambition and wealth.  Sutpen is a great man, a patriarch, a vital man, a conqueror and a survivor.

Mannon, by comparison, is a stick figure.  He represents New England gentry, but there is little we learn about him.  Only the stage directions suggest that what we see (the impressive white façade and portico of the house, hiding the grey realism of the interior) is not what we get, and there is something hidden and dark about the family’s past and present.  Faulkner, in a few lines, tell us all about Sutpen’s past and powerful present:

Because he was too young. He was just twenty-five and a man of twenty-five does not voluntarily undertake the hardship and privation of clearing virgin land and establishing a plantation in a new country just for money; not a young man without any past that he apparently cared to discuss, in Mississippi in 1833 with a river full of steamboats loaded with drunken fools covered with diamonds and bent on throwing away their cotton and slaves before the boat reached New Orleans—not with all this just one night's hard ride away and the only handicap or obstacle being the other blackguards or the risk of being put ashore on a sandbar, and at the remotest, a hemp rope. And he was no younger son sent out from some old quiet country like Virginia or Carolina with the surplus Negroes to take up new land, because anyone could look at those Negroes of his and tell that they may have come (and probably did) from a much older country than Virginia or Carolina but it wasn't a quiet one. And anyone could have looked once at his face and known that he would have chosen the river and even the certainty of the hemp rope, to undertaking what he undertook even if he had known that he would find gold buried and waiting for him in the very land which he had bought.

And finally, in a few spare lines, Faulkner introduces the ideas of what is to come:

And he lived out there for almost five years before he had speaking acquaintance with any white woman in the county, just as he had no furniture in his house and for the same reason: he had at the time nothing to exchange for them. Yes. He named Clytie as he named them all, the one before Clytie and Henry and Judith even, with that same robust and sardonic temerity, naming with his own mouth his own ironic fecundity of dragon's teeth. Only I have always liked to believe that he intended to name Clytie, Cassandra, prompted by some pure dramatic economy not only to beget but to designate the presiding augur of his own disaster, and that he just got the name wrong through a mistake natural in a man who must have almost taught himself to read.

I will read O’Neill’s later works, although I really don’t know what to expect.  The major themes of Tennessee Williams’s work were evident in his first plays as were his characterizations, setting, and plot.  Arthur Miller was obsessed by morality and ethics as defining elements of society and transforming elements of individual relationships.  Faulkner is Faulkner from Light in August to The Reivers.  People don’t change, and I suspect playwrights don’t either; but anything is possible.

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