Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Long Days Journey into Night: Eugene O’Neill

When Eugene O’Neill died in 1953, he left three plays in manuscript, and among them Long Day’s Journey into Night, dated 1940 on the manuscript but first produced in Stockholm in 1956. The play has a haunting effect: the reestablishment, as a living voice, of a dramatist whose main work had belonged to the 1920s and early 1930s; but also, in its power, the adding of a dimension, a necessary dimension, to all that earlier work. What came back into the theatre, in this posthumous play, was not only the voice of O’Neill, now especially intense and convincing. It was also the voice of that fully serious naturalism of the first epoch of modern drama: of Ibsen and of early Strindberg. It might have seemed like a ghost walking, but in all essential respects this was a powerful contemporary voice.

The sense of return, of the revenant, is of course overpowering, but as a direct dramatic experience. O’Neill spoke, in a note to his wife on the manuscript, of “the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last.” It is the voice of late Ibsen, though not in imitation. The paradox of O’Neill’s work, always, had been the strength of his realism, in a vernacular which created the modern American theatre, and his devices of distance, artifice, theatre in quite another sense. There is of course still power in The Hairy Ape and Anna Christie, in Desire under the Elms, The Great God Brown, Strange Interlude and Emperor Jones; but what I think is clear in O’Neill throughout, until these last plays, is a crisis of form which makes him a significant figure. As in Mourning Becomes Electra, there is a sense of an intense expe­rience just behind the play, just beyond what seemed the daring formal or theatrical experiment. Cast into what seemed, at the time, the new explora­tory forms, the intensity in fact stiffened, became awkward: not gauche, which is on every count the wrong thing to say, but often falsely self-conscious, carrying out a literary act, surprising a theatre. There were many dramatists who used these new forms in a direct relation to a struc­ture of feeling which supported them. The paradox of O’Neill was a sense of projection when all the substantial feeling was direct; of formalism, when all the driving emotion was in a different, more immediate voice. My own sense, when I came to Long Day’s Journey into Night, was of release and discovery: that hidden drama, of the earlier work, was at last directly written, and the power flowed, now at last in its authentic channels.
Many voices are heard in this play which was new in the mid-1950s: the Ibsen reckoning, the calling-to-account of a family; the Strindberg intensity, as direct confrontation breaks through the prepared defences; and also, unexpectedly, the experience of that Irish drama, now set in another country, where the persistent tension is between an intense reality and a way of talking, of talking well, to avoid it. It is an autobiographical play: that is one way of describing it. O’Neill faces his dead—the Tyrone family, the O’Neills. But though the correspondences are obvious, it is not the autobiography that makes the play important, it is that what is commonly faced in displaced forms is now faced directly, not as a documentary record but as an imaginative summoning. What comes out elsewhere as a con­clusion—the sense of deadlock, of isolation, of insubstantial and destructive relationships—comes out here as a process: not those static forms drama­tized, as a single act, but their complex formation pressed deeply into a consciousness which is the controlling convention. Much of the drama of the last forty years has been the last act, the last scene, of an earlier phase, presented, with increasing sophistication, as a whole history. Men are lost, frustrated, isolated, in a world of illusion and self-deception, a world they have distorted and is now only distorted: that condition, which is always a consequence, has become an assumption, is where the new conventions start O’Neill, who had made this assumption as powerfully and as conven­tionally as anyone else now goes back behind it, and shows the experience as active. The action takes place in one day—the days experience of the title. But the convention is not of a static situation, or of the last stage of deadlock. It is a calling to account, a facing of facts, inside this family; but not to prove anything, by some retrospective formula. It is a searching of the past, to define the present, but because all the family are speaking, it is not one selected past, but a range of past experiences now relived and altering the present: not memory but recreation, with the possibilities as well as the failures acted out.
This essential and liberating strength can be seen most clearly in the writing of the mother: now drugging herself with morphine against the pain of present and past. The pain and the drugging are directly powerful, but they release—as n different ways in the others—at once the intense confession, the necessary involvement with the pain of what the family has become, and the detachment from it: the ability to find both the truth and the fantasy of the past. Under the drug she is “detached,” but it is a detachment inactive presence, and this is the necessary dramatic means: that she can be the girl before her marriage but also, from her pain now as a
wife and mother, the false idea of that girl—an m voluntary, painful self-deception which has fed into the long destruction. Her-husband, similarly, exists in his several possibilities and self-accounts: coming in poverty from Ireland and still buying land-irrelevant land—against the fear of dying in the poorhouse, in what is at once a substantial experience and a practised excuse ; or as the actor, the man who can play a role—at once his gift, from which they live, and his power to deceive himself and others, in a continual shifting uncertainty. Each mode of the parents appears, disappears, comes back to be seen differently: this is the real-haunting, the live haunting, of the many possibilities out of which a life is made and through which it can be seen: not separate possibilities, but interacting within each person, and crucially, between them, where the weaknesses interlock. The two sons, Jamie and Edmund, can be taken as contrasting characters, and indeed have this immediate substance; but they are also two living possibilities, of re­sponse, shaping and self-shaping to that parental relationship and, just as much, those shifting parental identities. There is the hard cynicism, or the lonely walking in the fog: neither able to realize a self: not mature, or not born, in this unfinished, unresolved parenthood.
In a later dramatic form, the roles would be separated, would be separately played, as conditions What is replayed here, in the rush of the present is the range of modes, in a still active process. It is defined in different ways: through the idea of the theatre, which has made and destroyed this family—so that when Mary comes in, drugged and in pain, in the last scene at midnight, both playing and being the hunted, remembering, day-dreaming girl, Jamie can say the Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!,” and it is both true and false, about the scene and about her. Again, an element of Tyrone’s deception is not only his acting manner—which he briskly resumes after the intervals of pain—but his willed Irish charm, a false consciousness, which can yet be contrasted with the rejection of Ire-land, the rejection of the father, in Jamie––
tyrone. Keep your dirty tongue off Ireland. You’re a fine one to sneer with the map of it on your face.
jamie. Not after I wash my face. (Then before his father can react to this insult to the Old Sod.)
—and with the false consciousness of the cynicism of the new country, as in Edmund’s parody:
They never come back! Everything is in the bag! It’s all a frame-up. We’re all fall guys and suckers and we can’t beat the game!
Each way of speaking is at once the truth of their experience and a way of avoiding the truth, in the conventional patter of one or other dialect.
What is said under drink or drug, or in anger and then in apology, or then soberly and honestly, is made part of the range: the interaction, of all the ways of speaking, is the dramatic truth. The true poetry and the false poetry, the feeling, the pretended feeling, the lie and the white lie, the substance and the performance: this, essentially, is the medium. It is bound to be uneven, but in scenes like that between Tyrone and Edmund at the beginning of the fourth act, which yet does not stand out but is an intensifi­cation of the continuing action, it has a power which reminds us what serious naturalism—the passion for truth, the relentless directness—was and is, as a dramatic movement. What the play relives, in its substance, is not only the history of a family, but of a literature. It is the long crisis of relationships, in a family and in a society, now again enacted directly, in and through a disintegration, while at the edges of this consciousness the forms of a late phase, of the consciousness of midnight after the long day’s journey and pain, stand burning and ready: as if I had drowned long ago.

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