I would say that Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) is the greatest of all American playwrights in both quantity and depth. I can’t say just why it was that I decided to read all his plays I could get my hands on when in high school, except to say I found them compelling. I’d have to go back and reread them to find out why, I think.
But reading Travis Bogard’s Contour in Time reminded me of those plays, and two plays I saw, but didn’t read. Bogard analyzes all the plays, and relates them, especially the last plays, to O’Neill’s life, which I found fascinating.
O’Neill began writing around 1912. This was during or just after a stay in a tuberculosis sanitorium. Still only 24, he had worked as a seaman, seen a fair amount of the world, been married and had fathered a child. At about this time he divorced his wife, and didn’t see his son again for a number of years.
He began by writing one-act plays, few of which are well-remembered, suggesting that he served a fairly long apprenticeship before beginning to write the plays for which he is famous. His fame began with Beyond the Horizon, which brought him a Pulitzer Prize.
The 1920s were a prolific and experimental time for him, when he produced a great many of the plays for which he’s still known: The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, Desire Under the Elms and Strange Interlude, and others. In some of these he experimented with music, in some with masks, in one with asides, with the action stopped, so the actor could say what he or she was really feeling outside the lines of the play.
In time, however, he abandoned such experiments in favor of allowing the actors to express what he wanted. Instead of such experiments, he began writing from a level within himself so that his plays no longer portrayed a naive poet suffering in a crassly materialistic world, but of a much more sophisticated emotional depth. He was unusual as an artist in almost continuously improving his art. Such a thing isn’t unknown, but i’s also not unusual for an artist to do his or her best work when relatively young, and then hit a plateau. O’Neill seems to have had some psychological dynamic pushing him to continual improvement. He had something specific to express, and was never quite satisfied he had done so.
He was most specific about this in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which was about himself and his family. The names were changed, but the roles each person played were not. His father had been a well-known actor, but had made a lot of money from playing The Count of Monte Christo, a second-rate play at best. O’Neill despised him for debasing his artistic talent for financial security and social acceptance, the latter being unlikely at the time, when the Irish were still discriminated against.
His mother had also been an actor, working with his father, but had betrayed her own dream of being a nun. When O’Neill, the youngest of the two children was born, it had been a difficult birth, and had led to his mother becoming addicted to morphine. Hers seems to have been an emotionally as well as physically painful life, as she seems not to have liked sex, since it seemed to her to conflict with her religious feelings, so addiction served a purpose for her.
Jamie O’Neill, Eugene’s older brother, had Oedipal feelings for their mother, and never accomplished anything in life besides getting drunk and sleeping with prostitutes, with a single exception: he inspired his younger brother to write.
Jamie O’Neill’s feelings about his younger brother were mixed. On the one hand he hated Eugene for having caused their mother the pain that led to her addiction. On the other, he introduced his brother to both alcohol and prostitutes. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night he says to Eugene that in some sense he created his brother, the writer. He’s saying that he and Eugene are in some ways doubles, or doppelgangers. The idea behind this is that each of us has someone in the world to whom we are identical. In stories, when the doppelganger appears it’s bad news: the doppelganger appropriates the good things we’ve earned, while leaving us to be punished for things we haven’t done.
Bogard quotes Otto Rank as saying that stories about the doppelganger seem to be about sibling rivalry, and about neither sibling knowing just where their own boundaries stop, and the other’s begins. That suggests that O’Neill felt he might have stolen his success from the brother who had contributed to it by encouraging him to write. This made his final plays most painful to write, but also his best work. His family’s pathology was also his inspiration.
A Moon for the Misbegotten was O’Neill’s last play. It was about his brother, and evidently meant to exorcise his family’s torment. Following their father’s death, their mother had stopped taking morphine, and managed to keep away from it for the rest of her life. But with her death, Jamie O’Neill entirely lost control. Traveling by train with her coffin to where she was to be buried, he got drunk and had sex with a prostitute on top of the coffin, a very symbolic act, which also seems to have been factual.
There are only three characters in the play, and one of them is secondary. The other, besides Jamie, is a woman (possibly based on someone both brothers knew in New York City) who is large, raucous, and whom most probably think to be indecent, if not a prostitute. In fact, she’s a virgin, and a sensitive soul, who has had a rough life. In the course of their long interaction, Jamie confesses the incident on the train to her. I saw a production of this play on TV many years ago, and one of the few things I remember is the difficulty of his confession, how it almost literally stuck in his throat until he was able to bring it to the surface. Josie, the other character, is one of the few pwople who can understand Jamie, since she’s also one of the misbegotten. Bogard points out that such people can understand each other better than can the more fortunate. Giving her his confession is something of a gift; he needs absolution from her, he needs her motherly acceptance, and no one else has ever wanted her for anything that would give her value. By giving him forgiveness, she enables him to lay his burden down, though only for one night.
Bogard makes it clear that Jamie O’Neill never had the good fortune to encounter anyone like Josie, who could ease his pain. After his mother died he drank himself to death, dying in a mental hospital in the 1920s, too physically and mentally debilitated to care for himself. O’Neill wrote this play then, out of kindness and forgiveness toward his brother for any harm he had tried to inflict, and to at last heal and lay to rest his family’s problems.
I see what O’Neill did as trying to perform a sort of magic that was well-intentioned, but didn’t work out. He went into a deep depression while writing it (which probably explains why his wife hated it) and Bogard reports that his days of writing were also days of crying. The feelings must have been nearly unbearable.
The production also went poorly, running into censorship problems, and closing before it could reach Broadway. By this time O’Neill may have been too discouraged to try to fix what may have seemed to be wrong with it. Besides any technical problems with the script, his family had been in crisis for some time. His daughter Oona had married Charlie Chaplin, a man some 40 years older than she (the significance should be psychologically obvious), his oldest son (by his first wife) had committed suicide, while his younger son had become a drug addict. All his children seem to have felt unloved, just as had the older O’Neills. Instead of exorcising his family’s problems, it must have seemed that his play had only reawaknened them. Ghosts of past suffering had taken on solid flesh, and repeated the same mistakes.
Eugene O’Neill’s creativity had allowed him to partially escape from his family’s suffering and make something positive of his life, which gave him fame and wealth. The record seems to show that it never made him happy, though, and the obsessiveness with which he wrote cut him off from his own children. He was a successful artist, but not a successful human being. He was unable to ever fully escape the trap his family had been entangled in, let alone help his own children to escape it.
Physical problems may have influenced his relative lack of writing in the last decade or so of his life. His hands trembled, so he couldn’t write in lonhand as he was accustomed to, he was unable to use a typewriter, and dictating to a stenographer didn’t seem to work either.
But maybe the primary problem was the sort of magic he had tried to work in the writing of his last plays. Some may wish to call the process he embarked on something else. Call it confession, if you like. That is also a powerful process that is known to facilitate healing. But that wasn’t enough in itself. He was working on the wrong level to solve his family’s problems and prevent their transmission to the next generation. He had dedicated his life to a solution that didn’t work. Add that to his physical problems, and trying to write again probably seemed too risky, and he probably felt too old and unwell to attack his problems in any other way.
So, it seems, he waited to die.