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

Friday, October 18, 2013

Alcohol– The Uninvited Guest In The Plays of O’Neill, Albee, And Tennessee Williams

I have just finished watching Jason Robards, Jr. and Colleen Dewhurst in O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten, one of four of his later plays –this one plus Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh, and A Touch of the Poet – in which alcohol is so prominent it should almost be considered a protagonist. The playwright has not only depicted alcoholics in realistic detail, but alcohol itself is prominent and inescapable.

The significance of alcoholism and the symptoms of intoxication and withdrawal, as central features of O'Neill's mature dramaturgy, has been overlooked by most commentators. What needs noting is that, beyond the rich characterizations, O'Neill has integrated the "idea" of alcoholism into both his method and his vision in these late plays. It is the evolving image of the alcoholic that contributes to the cumulative effect of the four plays, which is decidedly bleak. O'Neill finally captures the despairing paradox of the human condition, as he sees it, in the contrast between the romantic myth of intoxication and the realistic symptoms and effects of alcoholism (The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter, Spring 1984).

In Moon for the Misbegotten, Jim Tyrone is the landlord of the Hogan farm, a friend to the tenant, Hogan, and an admirer of Josie Hogan, his daughter.  Josie has complex feelings for Jim – love and sexual longing (despite her studied persona as a loose woman she is a virgin), and dependency.  Unless Tyrone sells the farm to the Hogans they will be forced out by another buyer.  Hogan understands this and schemes to prostitute his daughter to protect his interests.  Tyrone is the same Jamie Tyrone of Long Day’s Journey, and in Moon he reveals his guilt over his unfulfilled relationship with his mother, and his longing for her. Because of this guilt, he drinks to forget, to pass into an oblivion without remorse or feeling.

                  Jason Robards, Jr. and Colleen Dewhurst

There is enough in this play without drink to convey the bleakness of the lives of Josie and Tyrone.  Josie Hogan is near 50 and yet we know very little of her life.  She has stayed with her father while her brothers, unable to live under his yoke, have left; but her relationship with him, as we see it during the timeframe of the play, is one of affectionate Irish brawling. Father and daughter are antagonistic, but congenially settled with each other. He understands her charade of virginity, and she flaunts it with aggressive and unattractive protests; but we never understand why she has remained a virgin or how she developed such a conflicted and repressed sexuality.  Nor can we understand her love for Tyrone who is a bleak, unattractive, and beaten man.  We learn nothing about the disappointed and unfulfilled relationship he had with his mother, why he was so consumed with grief, or why he is drawn to Josie.

The play revolves around Tyrone and Hogan’s drinking. It is their excuse for forgetting, acting poorly, or dealing with guilt and disappointment; and yet they both act sober.  Tyrone is eloquent and convincing in his expressions of guilt and remorse; and if it were not for a slurring of his speech and his constant swigging from the bottle, the audience would never know he was drunk.  In short, the drinking is not necessary.  It is an unwelcome artifact, and says more about O’Neill’s own problems with drink than it does about Tyrone.  It gets in the way.

In Long Day’s Journey into Night, the drinking is not so persistent and crude, and has more relevance.  It is a sign of Jamie’s gradual dissolution as much as his dependency on if not addiction to prostitutes.  Jamie is sometimes seen drunk in the play, but alcohol is a metaphor for his decline, alienation, and degradation and thus makes sense.  Jamie’s mother often makes reference to how his father drank with him, gave it legitimacy, and made it an integral part of what was becoming a dysfunctional family.  Edmund, the consumptive youngest son, drinks only because his older brother and father do, but he never takes to it; and his drinking is more related to belonging than need.  He is as psychologically damaged as his brother, but he does not seek out alcohol to dull the pain.

             Katherine Hepburn as Mary Tyrone

Neither the elder Tyrone, Jamie, or Hogan – nor their women - are sympathetic characters. Tyrone is a miser and antipathetic character despite his believable stories of the hardships of growing up poor.  He loves his drug-addicted wife of many decades, but cannot control, deal with, or truly love her in any other than an idealistic, romantic way.  Jamie has deep psychological problems – brutal antagonisms against his father, conflicted love-hate feelings for his mother, and a protective-competitive relationship with his brother. In both plays – Long Day’s Journey and Moon – he resides in his own world, desperate but ugly and angry.

Mary Tyrone is a self-indulgent dope addict and Josie Hogan insecure, uncertain, and raw.  There is no way that we can like this falsely aggressive, crude, and duplicitous woman.

Alcohol simply makes matters worse – not in the real world sense of abuse and addiction, but in theatrical terms.  Both plays would have been explorations of potentially complex characters even if alcohol had not played a role.  It is a distraction.

We are meant to sympathize with Jim Tyrone in the last scenes of Moon as he drunkenly falls asleep in the arms of Josie.  He is near dead, Josie admits, and her caring caresses for one night is all she can do to ease his final distress.  Yet it is hard to do do.  He has given us nothing to like or love from the beginning of the play.  He is getting what he deserves; and since O’Neill never explains his grief nor explores the nature of it, we are left cold and indifferent. O’Neill might have presented a painfully accurate picture of an alcoholic destroying himself; and that may be his own agenda, but within the context of the family drama, it is irrelevant.

The character of Brick in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – an alcoholic – is similarly unsympathetic. Like Jim Tyrone, he drinks continuously throughout the play but also like Tyrone, to no effect.  Brick often waits for the ‘click’ that never comes.  Tyrone points to the middle of his forehead indicating the spot where release comes from.  Brick is morose, defeated, and guilty over his betrayal of his friend Skipper who committed suicide.  Brick could have helped him, but so afraid of his own sexual feelings, hangs up on his homosexual friend.  Brick drinks to forget his lack of moral courage and honesty.  All through the play he complains that the world is dishonest, duplicitous, and ‘mendacious’; but in fact it is he who is the dishonest coward.

             Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor

Brick’s constant thumping over to the liquor cabinet on his crutches, pouring himself drink after drink, is just as distracting as Jamie Tyrone’s compulsive drinking in Moon. We want both men to get on with their lives and face their demons.  While we understand how alcohol is the means to temporarily suspend guilt and grief; we wish that the weaknesses and failings of Brick and Tyrone could be expressed and dealt with in a more substantial way.

Brick is the only Williams character with an alcohol problem, and the playwright deals with the same issues of guilt, remorse, and depression without it.  The character most similar to Jamie Tyrone is the Reverend Shannon, the defrocked priest who is lost, alone, dispirited, and adrift.  His addiction is young girls, but he is as dependent as Tyrone on easy pleasure and solace.

Alcohol is central to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee; but like the plays of Williams and O’Neill discussed above, it is not necessary.  Neither George nor Martha become inebriated.  They both always make sense, even – or especially – in the final scenes after a night of drinking. Are we to assume that George, Martha, and Nick would not have acted so outrageously without alcohol?  That Martha would not have lured Nick to her bedroom only to humiliate him; or that George would not have been so cruel and merciless in his games? We are not.  George and Martha are characters who are always in control of themselves and others, and it is this powerful dynamic which is the central point of the play.  They need each other desperately.

              Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

The only character who is actually drunk in the play is Honey, Nick’s wife, who spends much of the action throwing up in the bathroom; but she is a ditzy airhead anyway, and she is never missed.  As in the case of Moon and Cat, all the characters drink but never lose their coherence or eloquence.  Alcohol, once again, is a distraction.

This dismissal of alcohol as a prop may be unfair in one respect.  The social culture of the 40s, 50s, and 60’s when these plays took place was linked to alcohol. These times were far from the abstemiousness of today.  Drinking is what one did, drunkenness was tolerated, and the drunk was often characterized as a harmless burlesque clown.  Only in the past few years has alcoholism been characterized as a disease and a social malignancy.  Today, alcohol in a play can never be a distraction.  If it is there, it has potent meaning.   Not so in the days of Albee, Williams, and O’Neill who wrote in a less censorious time.

Arthur Miller is perhaps the closest any modern American playwright comes to bare-bones playwriting.  Alcohol, nor any props for that matter, are needed in his brutally honest plays about morality and ethics.  The dynamics between Willie Loman and his two sons are without artifice – he is the dreaming idealist who deceives his family and pursues the American Dream only to be caught and convicted as a failure.  He is not a drunk nor dissolute the way Jamie Tyrone was.  He was just a victim of his own weakness, a failing which infected his sons.

Of all these playwrights, I prefer Williams, for he combines lyricism, symbolism, and poetic yet strong characters.  His props are symbolic – the fire escape in Glass Menagerie, the streetcar named Desire, the birds of Suddenly Last Summer – and they are relevant to the romantic yet real scenes of his plays.  He is neither spare, nor unforgiving; and for that, satisfying.

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