Around the time of the writing of Mourning, O’Neill also conceived and began to develop a nine—and then eleven—play cycle tracking the fortunes of a New England family over the course of three centuries, The [A] Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed. These plays would range from the pre-Revolutionary War period to the present, from the sea to the shore to both coasts, from the colonial to the imperial, from the pastoral to the urban to the despoliation of nature and the collapse of industry. One strand of the family, the Melodys, would be late-eighteenth-century arrivals from Ireland, an Irish family like that of O’Neill’s maternal lineage, the Quinlans, Irish people with a pedigree, with relatively extensive roots in America, not mid-to-late-nineteenth-century Great Hunger peasant refugees like the far less fortunate and prosperous O’Neills. Of the cycle, only one completed play remains, the post-Revolutionary War installment, A Touch of the Poet; and what would have been the next installment, the unfinished, mad and awe-inspiring More Stately Mansions—at 277 pages in its Library of America edition, much longer even than Strange Interlude (189 pages). Other cycle plays may have been finished in rough draft, but these were destroyed near the end of O’Neill’s life, in a manuscript-burning episode before a hotel room fireplace that seems to have been part of a late reconciliation with his slightly disturbed third wife, Carlotta Monterey. More Stately Mansions may have frightened O’Neill away from further work on the cycle, or the immensity of the whole project may have frightened him. Mansions reveals the cycle’s true nature; it is an illimitable, encyclopedic work, a monstrous invention—like The Divine Comedy, Faust Part Two, The Human Comedy, In Search of Lost Time, The Man Without Qualities—that can only be abandoned, never completed, an omnivorous fiction that devours its creator.
Or perhaps it was simply that the undiagnosed ataxia that had afflicted him since early adulthood with shaking hands and limbs (possibly Parkinson’s disease) was worsening. O’Neill had worn himself out, writing practically without cessation day and night for years, suffering each play intensely, feeling he was not writing if he wasn’t suffering; resting only when his body collapsed, weakened as it had been by malaria, tuberculosis, and gastritis. Death surrounded him; his father, his mother and his brother had died, close friends had died, and the Second World War had begun. It might be that mortality, an invalid’s inward turning, redirected O’Neill, away from his mighty national epic towards another, internal horizon and a resurrectional encounter with the dead. Or it might be that health had little to do with it, and he simply saw a fork in the road and abandoned the path he was walking for one more promising. In Mansions, a ferocious tension can be discerned, between O’Neill’s historical, political ambitions and an irresistible longing to roam as far as he could into the labyrinth of the Unconscious, exploring ambivalence and its consequences, which had emerged as one of his great themes. This is in fact the central dilemma facing Simon Harford, the play’s protagonist, and Mansions destroys itself in the most spectacular and oddly satisfying manner, trying to come to some resolution of this antinomy. The resolution may have been the abandonment of the cycle, its possessor self-dispossessing.
O’Neill wrote The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Hughie and A Moon for the Misbegotten. He is the only American playwright, indeed one of the few writers ever to have concluded his writing life with his greatest work. He dramatized the derelict bar in which he had, at 23, attempted suicide, and whence he emerged to become a writer. He dramatized the inevitability of ambivalence, and its cost, in a play set again in New England, no longer a drama of origin and possession, but rather of immigrants, of not having, of not belonging; he wrote a tragedy, in which something majestic and irreplaceable is destroyed, from the annihilation of which something new is created. And, as many have pointed out, he buried his brother, for whom he composed a requiem mass. His brother, having revealed an unbearable truth to him, may have been the hardest to lose and the hardest to forgive.
After Moon, O’Neill was done. He couldn’t hold a pen. He lived through his own kind of Calvary—and it is impossible to write about him without mentioning Christ, the playwright more or less insists on it. A writer usually ends up caught in his own fictional version of the world, and O’Neill practically wrote himself into the role of Jesus (his father, decades earlier, had possibly suggested this by actually playing Jesus, and doing it well). “Most modern plays are interested in the relationship between man and man, but that does not interest me at all. I am only interested in the relationship between man and God,” he wrote. One of his sons died of drink. The other, the one he loved most, his namesake, committed suicide. He treated his daughter harshly, disinheriting her and refusing to speak to her after she married Chaplin. Maybe, unable to bear waiting for her actual death, he needed to find a way to kill Oona; she was, after all, almost the only relative who didn’t predecease him. As Stephen A. Black points out in Eugene O ‘Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy (1999), the playwright was in a state of mourning nearly all his adult life, beset by loss. His reputation fell to its nadir. Seduced back into production by financial anxiety, with Iceman and Moon he lived long enough to see himself treated with incomprehension and condescension, his work—not just Iceman but his life’s work—dismissed. He fell silent, isolated himself, withered and died. And rose again, almost immediately!—the consequence of Jose Quintero’s revival production of Iceman with Jason Robards Jr., Carlotta breaking the terms of her husband’s will, and Long Day’s Journey appearing, first in Sweden, and then elsewhere, throughout the world, incessantly.
“To audiences accustomed to the oily virtuosity of George Kaufman, George Abbott, Lillian Hellman, Odets, Saroyan,” wrote Mary McCarthy of O’Neill on the opening of Iceman on Broadway, in 1946, “the return of a playwright who—to be frank—cannot write is a solemn and sentimental occasion.” In her review of Moon, McCarthy identifies “[the] tone of barbershop harmony in all of O’Neill’s work,” and alas, one knows what she is talking about. Mean as she was, McCarthy produced the finest devil’s advocate’s brief in the case against O’Neill:
O’Neill belongs to that group of American authors, which includes Farrell and Dreiser, whose choice of vocation was a kind of triumphant catastrophe; none of these men possessed the slightest ear for the word, the sentence, the speech, the paragraph; all of them, however, have, so to speak, enforced the career they decreed for themselves by a relentless policing of their beat. What they produce is hard to praise or to condemn; how is one to judge the great, logical symphony of a tone-deaf musician?
Pulpy in detail, their work has nevertheless a fine solidity of structure; they drive an idea or a theme step by step to its brutal conclusion with the same terrible force they have brought to bear on their profession. They are among the few contemporary American writers who know how to exhaust a subject; that is, alas, their trouble. Their logical, graceless works can find no reason for stopping, but go on and on, like elephants pacing in a zoo. In their last acts and chapters, they arrive not at despair but at a strange, blank nihilism. Their heroes are all searchers; like so many non-verbal, inarticulate people, they are looking for the final Word that will explain everything. These writers are, naturally, masters of suspense.
One hopes O’Neill never read this. Mary McCarthy’s judgement is lethal because it is absolutely true. For every great writer a great critic must emerge, born to fill the negative space delineated by that writer’s profile; it must be one mark of being great that a writer goads a critic to such heights of nettled perception. And every great achievement rings more splendidly the closer it comes to debacle; some such achievements incorporate their debacles. If the shared ambition of all art is salvation and resurrection, all art fails; the dead stay dead; Hermione is only almost convincing, and if Hickey fails, well, so did Orpheus.
Although McCarthy indicted the plays perfectly, she completely failed to understand them. What she mistakes as quaint in O’Neill’s dialogue is, in my opinion, a stage poetry that jangles and snaps and jitters and abrades.
Here’s a sampling from the earliest play to the last:
She don’t wear cheap truck like that.
See what that crimpin son of a crimp will have.
If you could see your ugly face, with the big red nose of ya all screwed up in a knot, you’d never shed a tear the rest of your life.
Queer things, memories. I ain’t never been bothered much by ’em.
It was all-wool-and-a-yard-wide-Hell.
He went west with a bullet through his heart.
Close your trap, old prunejuice, or I’ll hand yuh a punch in the puss that’ll knock yuh dead, get me?
Absinthe? It’s doped. You’ll go off your chump, froggy.
And that’s where she gives me a pain, the stuck-up thing! She thinks she’s the whole cheese.
There is advice to actors: “Stop acting. I hate ham fats.” And my own favorite: “You may be lucky, but you get nicked in the end. I picked up a nail from a tart in Altoona.” (A “nail” is syphilis.) Even the stage directions, unrelenting, annoying to actors and directors, the byproduct both of O’Neill’s distrust of actors and directors and also of the extent to which he wanted his plays to be read, are frequently brilliant: “His face must have been brutal and greedy, but time and whiskey have melted it down into a good-humored, parasite’s characterlessness.” There is self-mockery, the playwright’s sending up his inherited addiction to spouting poetry, in which mockery can be read as an affectionate and consternated pondering of America’s vexed relationship to the English language. This, from Ah, Wilderness!:
Your girlfriend doesn’t appreciate poetry. She’s a lowbrow. But I’m the kid that eats it up. My middle name is Kelly and Sheets! Give us some more of the same! Do you know “The Lobster and the Wise Guy”? No kidding, that’s a peacherino. I heard a guy recite it at Poli’s. Maybe this nut knows it. Do you, kid?!
And there is lyrical poetry, too, especially when the playwright has a character recollect time spent on the sea. This is from The Hairy Ape; the speaker is Paddy, once a sailor, now a stoker in the inferno in the belly of a luxury steamship:
Oh to be scudding south again wid the power of the Trade Winds driving her on steady through the nights and the days! Full sail on her, nights and days! Nights when the flame of the wake would be flaming wid fire, when the sky’d be blazing and winking wid stars. Or the full of the moon maybe. Then you’d see her driving through the grey night, her sails stretching aloft all silver and white, not a sound on the deck, the lot of us dreaming dreams, till you’d believe ’twas no real ship at all you was on but a ghost ship like the Flying Dutchman they say does be roaming the seas forever more widout touching a port. And there was the days, too. A warm sun on clean decks. Sun warming the blood of you, and wind over the miles of shiny green ocean like strong drink to your lungs. Work—aye, hard work—but who’d mind that at all? Sure, you worked under the sky and t’was work wid skill and daring to it. And wid the day done, in the dog watch, smoking me pipe at ease, the lookout would be raising land maybe, and we’d see the mountains of South Americy wid the red fire of the setting sun painting their white tops and the clouds floating by them! Yerra, what’s the use of talking? ‘Tis a dead man’s whisper.
If you aren’t Mary McCarthy, who sacrificed generosity and sensual delight in the interests of a sharply honed prosecution, if you read this passage aloud, or listen to it read aloud, you will hear its raw and rhythmic power. I can make no claim for O’Neill as one of the great writers, only as one of the greatest playwrights; for these two things, writing and playwriting, are not the same, and O’Neill’s work makes that clearer than any other’s. As writing, his plays are an embarrassment of the coarse, the corny, and the outlandishly repetitious. (Brecht in his journals wrote, “America’s plays are written for people on the move by people who are lost.”)
O’Neill wrote his own defense, and outlined the nature of his work, better than anyone else, in one of the best-known passages from Long Day’s Journey. The play is about actors, about the theatre, it is a theatrical manifesto as much as it is a gravestone or a resurrection or the definitive family drama or an indictment of the marketplace or a definitive drama of American immigrant life, or anything else. Edmund, who is Eugene O’Neill—“Edmund” is a Lear reference and also the name of O’Neill’s dead infant brother—is speaking to his father, who keeps asking the all-important question, as they take turns distractedly playing their hands in a card game: “Whose play is it?”
EDMUND—(He grins wryly.) It was a great mistake, my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a seagull or a fish. As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death!
TYRONE—(stares at him—impressed) Yes there’s the makings of a poet in you alright, (then protesting uneasily) But that’s morbid craziness about not being wanted and loving death.
EDMUND—(sardonically) 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.
Much earlier, in a play called Fog, O’Neill wrote a stage direction which could be used now to describe Eugene O’Neill’s centrality in American drama, his inescapable presence in our national theatrical imagination, earned by virtue of his identification of our “native eloquence”: “. . . the genius of the fog . . . broods over everything.”
Tony Kushner is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angels in America and is currently working on a musical about the death O’Neill with his Caroline, or Change writing partner, Jeanine Tesori.
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