O’Neill’s work . . . goes beyond questions of political idealism and disenchantment. It expresses a profound concern with the impact of capitalism on the American way of life, an impact which has persisted throughout the century despite, and sometimes because of, the vagaries of political opposition.While revolutionary idealism has been volatile and at times perfidious, the system to which it is a response has prevailed permanently in all areas of life. In O’Neill’s mature work this was the guarantor of tragic alienation and its transformation to a full realised tragic strife. But the work was historical within the span of O’Neill’s lifetime since the constancy of his opposition to the American way of life was tempered by the sense of lost promise. The latter gives the vital historical dimension to the former which is both historical and contemporary, a part of time past and time present and also of our own age, time future, when the themes of the play strike a chord of instant recognition through their profoundly prophetic qualities.
This holds equally of Long Day’s Journey into Night which is usually seen as a profoundly personal statement about personal matters because of its immense autobiographical content. The concentration on the nuclear family and the use of the family living-room as the single setting could easily be seen as a relapse into traditional naturalism after the bold experimentation of the earlier plays. But this reversion to the classical Unities, accomplished by O’Neill with a remarkable rigour, expresses with an even greater intensity than Iceman the alienation from bourgeois life so necessary to modern tragedy. Such an alienation could not be created if the audience merely witnessed the personalised disintegration of the bourgeois family. There has to be something more. What this is, remains at first sight difficult to pin down. It is not enough to say the Tyrones are not a typical bourgeois family. There is a more profound sense of displacement at the centre of middle-class life and family life in general which is built up as the drama progresses to the point of tragic climax, where O’Neill shows that there is no real centre to family life at all.
The opening scene starts on a deceptive note of casual domestic happiness. James Tyrone affectionately teases his wife, Mary, about her putting on weight. From the dining room the voices of their two sons Jamie and Edmund can be heard in laughter. But soon the image of domestic contentment has all but evaporated. In its place there is quarrel and recrimination, wounding and suffering, accusation and confession. These are as much the consequence of tragic alienation as its cause, and in themselves do not lead to irreparable breakdown. No one deserts the household, no one is murdered within its walls. The conflict is cyclical and recurrent, an echo of old wounds and grievances and a renewal of them. In modern theatre, this recycled animosity usually derives from the sense of imprisonment it en-genders in the household’s three-walled room. But in O’Neill the house-hold is not a bourgeois prison and recriminations do not achieve pathos by being bounced off the walls. The Tyrone’s house is a rented summer house which they will soon leave, and while the action never leaves it, that action bespeaks a deep rootlessness. The trapped family does not belong there, and never has.
The life of the family has always been based on the theatre, constantly travelling from one town to another, and from one hotel to another, its head an ageing matinee idol whose hour of glory is past. The two sons have inherited the same restlessness. The location provides only a provisional unity, a temporary homecoming, and the domestic setting has no domestic spirit. The mother, who as a typical middle-class woman is expected to provide the aura of domesticity and homeliness, pays ritual homage to her expected role and condemns her family for failing to support her. They have, it is true, all the material possessions—servants, car and chauffeur, and even investments in property. But Mary Tyrone pinpoints the anguished lack in a tirade against her husband:
Oh, I’m so sick and tired of pretending that this is a home! You won’t help me! You won’t put yourself out the least bit! You really don’t know how to act in a home! You don’t really want one! You never have wanted one!—never since the day we were married! You should have remained a bachelor and lived in second-rate hotels and entertained your friends in barrooms! (She adds rather strangely as if she were talking aloud to herself rather than to Tyrone.) Then nothing would ever have happened.
Yet her accusation concluded in the last line is followed by an even more disturbing statement. It then becomes clear, despite her periodic protestations, her concern over Edmund’s health and her bitter attacks on her husband, that she has abdicated from her conventional family role and long ceased trying to create a “home.”
In the dramatic development of the play a remarkable switch takes place. Ostensibly the main plot concerns the fate of Edmund and the con-sequences of his tubercular illness. But as concern with his illness intensifies within the family, so gradually the focus switches to his mother and the deeper illness which has already destroyed her. As her entreaties of “maternal solicitude” toward her son increase, it becomes increasingly clear that her anxiety for his welfare is an attempt to ignore the seriousness of the illness. She wishes no external source of anxiety to impinge upon her. The more she protests her maternal and conjugal caring, the more she tries to wrap herself in a cocoon of her own making, and to seek out protective oblivion. Through her opium addiction she has fled household and family into the interior of her imagination, and she can no longer be called upon as the necessary anchor for family life. The void is terrifying because it underlies the recognisable male vices—the drinking of father and sons alike, the whoring of Jamie, the meanness of James Tyrone, and the introverted agonies of Edmund. All show a greater rootedness in the world than the tragic withdrawals of Mary.
Edmund’s bohemian decadence, his fragile sensibility, and his contempt for bourgeois normality give him all the credentials of a tragic hero, a candidate for death through fatal illness in a family which can neither truly care nor understand. In this respect, Mary’s rebuke to him is like that of an outraged mother to an overgrown child. But when Edmund jokes about the possibility of his death, the outrage turns into panic, revealing in her the malaise she attributes to her son:
mary (suddenly turns to them in a confused panic of frightened anger). I won’t have it! (She stamps her foot.) Do you hear, Edmund! Such morbid nonsense! Saying you’re going to die! It’s the books you read! Nothing but sadness and death! Your father shouldn’t allow you to have them! And some of the poems you’ve written yourself are even worse! You’d think you didn’t want to live! A boy of your age with everything before him! It’s just a pose you get out of books! You’re not really sick at all.
The next minute she will be teasing Edmund affectionately telling him he wants “to be petted and spoiled and made a fuss over.” But the focus has switched in that moment from the iconoclastic poet to the mother who acts out the role of motherhood while rejecting it in its totality, devoutly wishing that it had never happened to her.
The family loyalty which underlies the family conflicts is in some senses remarkable. Jamie and Edmund are both grown men, both old enough to have broken all family ties if such ties should interfere with their personal ambitions. The loyalty cannot just be explained by compassion, which is so often betrayed, nor by conventional forms of dependence. The family stays together because of the connecting links between the different forms of alienation which each of them suffer, forms which also link the two generations, some present at the family’s inception and others developing through its prodigal sons. The dramatic development of the play must therefore move in the direction of the past, of what underlies the present predicament. Here the figure of James Tyrone is significantly different from the Strindbergian patriarch O’Neill created in a number of his earlier plays. He is certainly head of the household, and certainly the most socially conventional member of the family, his investments in property clearly intended as a means of attaining greater wealth and respectability. But his family background and acting career separate him from bourgeois convention in ways which have a lasting and irreversible impact upon the Tyrone family.
The mode of dramatic revelation works toward establishing a truer identity for the respectable head of the household. Tyrone is a combination of his Irish background and its peasant origins and his successful acting career. According to O’Neill’s stage directions he should be “a simple unpretentious man whose inclinations are still close to his humble beginnings and his Irish farmer forebears.” Yet at the same time “the actor shows in all his unconscious habits of speech, movement and gesture. These have the quality of belonging to a studied technique.” The physicality of the man embodies directly the two main aspects of his life, and both belie his middle-class persona even when both at times are used to express the most conventional and moralistic of attitudes. Of key importance here is Mary’s account of her first meeting with Tyrone, as a great matinee idol playing Shakespeare and French melodrama. The description comes in the form of a reverie, recounted to Cathleen the servant girl when the opium begins to take effect:
My father took me to see him at first. It was a play about the French Revolution and the leading part was a nobleman. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I wept when he was thrown into prison—and then was so mad at myself because I was afraid my eyes and nose would be red. My father had said we would go backstage to his dressing room after the play and we did ... And he was handsomer than my wildest dream, in his make-up and his nobleman’s costume that was so becoming to him. He was different from all ordinary men, like someone from another world.
This of course portrays the romantic infatuation of a young girl. But it is more. It is an image held and fixed in Mary’s mind for the rest of her life, and intensified by the resort to opium. In her withdrawn world where as she claims “only the past when you were happy is real,” the image has more power over her than any of the difficulties of her present life. She must make it immune from the meanness of her husband, the drunkenness and whoring of Jamie, and the illness of Edmund. The source of the image is itself of vital social importance. The performance which so captivates her is that of a doomed aristocratic hero. The aura of nobility absent from the drama of American life in O’Neill’s own plays, is captured reflexively through the grand roles from which James Tyrone derived his acting reputation. Only the theatre in
, by importing plays from America Europe, can recreate the aura of nobility which the New World cannot propagate of its own accord. But the theatrical aura of the noble which captures Mary’s heart is far removed from the reality of the actor’s life, the sordid existence of “week after week of one-night stands, in dirty rooms of filthy hotels, eating bad food.” Far from domesticating that aura, marriage and family life take second place to the debilitating means of producing it. There is no stable family life and no fixed abode. The romanticism of living with a famous actor is dissipated with Edmund’s difficult birth and the subsequent addiction to opium, recommended to Mary by a quack doctor to alleviate her pain. As Tyrone aspires from his rigid Catholic standpoint to the wealth and material success promised by the American Dream, Mary Tyrone becomes the victim of the arduous and unconventional means through which alone he has any chance of attaining it.
The theatrical image of the doomed nobleman cannot be reduced to a cosmetic product of Tyrone’s acting ability. The melodrama at which Tyrone was so powerfully adept, and which O’Neill in real life hated so much, drew its strength from another social source which went far beyond theatrical skill. That strength came from the desperation of poverty in a first-generation Irishman who knew the exploitation of his class and race at first hand. That he has to remind Edmund of it, shows how far it can be overlooked within the space of a single generation. But its significance is still with all of them:
There was no damned romance in our poverty. Twice we were evicted from the miserable hovel we call home, with my mother’s few sticks of furniture thrown out into the street, and my mother and sisters crying. I cried, too, though I tried hard not to. At ten years old. There was no more school for me. I worked twelve hours a day in a machine shop learning to make files. A dirty barn of a place where rain dripped through the roof, where you roasted in summer, and there was no stove in winter and your hands got numb with cold, where the only light came through two small filthy windows, so on grey days I’d have to sit bent over with my eyes almost touching the files in order to see! ... It was in those days I learned to be a miser. A dollar was worth so much then. And once you’ve learned a lesson it’s hard to unlearn. You have to look for bargains and if I took this state farm for a bargain you have to forgive me.
His speech is a defence of the attempt to find Edmund a cheap sanatorium and so gravely risk his son’s health. But the emphasis on poverty also strikes an appropriate balance with Mary’s drugged reminiscence, showing the material basis upon which the future matinee idol had managed to survive before his acting career. The dialectic of the noble and the proletarian is thus revealed in the contrast between the acting persona which captivates his female admirers and the grinding poverty of an exploited child immigrant desperately trying to support his fatherless family. It is only when this dual background is in focus that Tyrone’s grotesque maladaptation to the role of man of property makes any sense. Tyrone’s thrift is not that of the Protestant Ethic, and in a strictly capitalistic sense he has never come to realise the value of money at all. At different stages in the life of the family, its two tragic figures, Edmund and Mary have suffered immeasurably from his meanness and miscalculation, not because he is a ruthless capitalist but because he is hardly a capitalist at all.
The intense emphasis on individual and family predicament enabled O’Neill to transcend the Shavian drama of social reform and to make personal affliction universally tragic. Such affliction, though it can be labelled in conventional sociological terms as alcoholism, anomie, drug addiction, etc., is ultimately immune to the ethos of Welfare Statism even though superficially the drama can be misread as a series of connected social problems. For the personal predicament of each family member is too powerful for existing society to alter. Rational enlightenment, concocted as a formula for moral reform of self, has no place. Instead O’Neill creates the most intense figural dimension of loss to be found in modern tragedy. It is conveyed in the memorable words of Mary, lost in drugged reminiscence:
None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realise it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self for ever.
In fact, the dramatic and figural development of the play are inseparable. They both move simultaneously toward a sense of ultimate closure, the closure of darkness and night. The natural coming of darkness is complemented by the withdrawal of Mary Tyrone into the recesses of dream where she dwells on the life she has lost for ever and condemns without exception the life she is obliged to live.
The dual movement is of course also a movement from alienation to climactic strife, and here a crucial mediating element in the composition of the drama’s tragic space interposes itself. This is the enshrouding fog which in act 3, at half-past six in the evening, has rolled in from the Sound like “a white curtain drawn down outside the windows.” The apparent freedom of setting and space is suddenly removed. The vista onto the ocean is blotted out, and the freedom of the
New World which O’Neill had embraced so subversively with polar images of openness and closure, is finally negated. The process of negation is continuous with the earlier work but the openness of dramatic space is finally relinquished. The effect of closure is greater than in The Iceman because in the latter the closure is static, whereas in Long Day’s Journey the effect is progressive. By the beginning of the fourth act, at , the fog appears “denser than ever.” There is no outside source of light, the only sound to be heard that of the foghorn operating in the harbour. The setting and substance of the last act are phantasmagorical. The figural sensibility is integrated with the closure of dramatic space. Edmund, who has walked back drunkenly to the house through the fog, links the imprisoning effect of nature to his spiritual yearning for insubstantiality:
Everything looked and sounded unreal. Nothing was what it is. That’s what I wanted—to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself. Out beyond the harbour where the road runs along the beach, I even lost the feeling of being on land. The fog and the sea seemed part of each other. It was like walking on the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago. As if I was a ghost beckoning to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea.
This feeling of a trapped alienation containing within it a metaphor of the dispersion of self into nothingness, is a prelude to the entry of a real ghost whose insubstantiality is more real. It is fitting that Edmund should use the metaphor because he both understands it and is at the same time its main victim. The real ghost is his mother who in her world of dreams has rejected him. As he and his father listen to her moving upstairs, he puts it explicitly: “She’ll be nothing but a ghost haunting the past by this time. (He pauses—then miserably.) Back before I was born.” The past she haunts is an alternative fate which excludes all of her family, a haunting dream of girlish innocence and chastity in which she can recall her ambition to become a nun in the days before meeting James Tyrone. The alternative figura is realised theatrically with Mary’s momentous entry into the room, one of the most powerful moments in all of O’Neill’s work. With her wedding gown over her arm and trailing on the floor, her girlish innocence appears as “a marble mask.” The entrance is the climax to tragic strife. But the strife is not violent and does not result in death. Her entrance shows her alienation not only from life in general but from her family, and rises above the dissonant chorus of internecine strife in which her menfolk are drunkenly indulging. Jamie sardonically recalls the mad scene with Ophelia. But the reference cannot detract from the emotional intensity of the scene. There is a tragic horror about her remoteness which they and the audience finally recognise. For the father and the two sons, it is a remoteness which annihilates all of them. Mary Tyrone has rolled back the years to a chaste girlhood devoid of the cares of courtship, marriage and child-birth, and only by excluding them from her dream world can she continue to cherish any fragment of human hope.
The contrast with Hedda Gabler and Nora Clitheroe is strong and apt. Whereas Hedda attempts to manipulate the men around her, Mary tries to repudiate their very existence. While Nora’s madness arises fromthe feeling that her husband has deserted her, Mary Tyrone’s madness and addiction arises from the fact of never being able to escape husband and family. Opium replaces the loved one she cannot find in her own family, though under the spell of it she is no longer able to give it a name: “Some- , thing I need terribly. I remember when I had it I was never lonely or afraid. I can’t have lost it for ever. I would die if I thought that. Because then there would be no hope.” The hope continues in the dream of a life she could have led which only opium can sustain and which induces an absolute withdrawal into self. Watching her, her family feel not only pity but at the same time the horror of being liquidated themselves by the process which removes her from them.
With the completion of this play, O’Neill’s major work, there is a movement full circle in modern tragedy to the radical closure of the tragic space within. The darkness is deeper than any other twentieth-century play, and has the intensity of Lear. The glimpse of hope which is necessarily allowed to remain, becomes no more than a transient moment of the life remembered. The lost promise is retained in the haunting memory, but the price of reestablishing it as an imaginary universe is insanity. For the sane, no matter how disaffected, how alienated, it can only be a very brief moment of revelation. Confronted by the madness of his mother, Edmund’s Nietzschean vision of a fusion of soul and cosmos is eloquent and far reaching, but when all is told, merely a fragment. He recalls the experience of sailing on a square rigger bound for
: Buenos Aires
I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moon-light towering above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moon-light and the ship and the dim-starred sky! I belonged without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to life itself!
But each of these moments is transitory:
For a second you see—and seeing the secret, you are the secret. For a second there is meaning! And then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on towards nowhere for no good reason.
The brief moment of hope becomes wider and more universal but the darkness which soon envelops it is also more powerful. Without mentioning it explicitly anywhere, O’Neill among all modern writers has produced the most prophetic vision of human extinction on a scale made possible by nuclear war. The personal darkness is also the darkness of the universe as a whole. It is a darkness more intense and resounding than anything Beckett subsequently created during a period when the possibility became widely known, and it ranges back and forth without constraint from the personal to the social and from the social to the universal. The night of O’Neill’s play is the darkness of the twentieth century fully brought to light. Concentrated in the life of one family, it explodes outwards to embrace the whole of modern civilisation.