Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Long Days Journey into Night: “Life in Terms of Lives”

O’Neill’s primary concern was never the depiction of men and women but the depiction of forces at work within men and women. This is what he indicated, when he told Mollan in 1922, that it was just life “as a thing in itself” that interested him, and when he wrote Quinn a few years later, that he was “always trying to interpret Life in terms of lives, never just lives in terms of character.”
What mattered most to him was not whether indi­vidual characters were depicted in a truthful or engaging way, although this was certainly important, but whether the plays evoked a sense of beauty, truth, fate and mystery, whether they constituted “a poetical inter­pretation and symbolical celebration of life,” s he stated in January, 1933. About one of his characters O’Neill once said, that her tragedy consisted in the fact that she could not see the “Oneness of Mankind”; in this she differed from her creator, who constantly stresses the essential oneness of the human race.
This oneness is suggested in two different ways. First, there is the oneness between characters and audience. As we have noted earlier, O’Neill strove to make us feel our “ennobling identity with the tragic figures on the stage.” To this end he created characters who on the surface are flesh-and-blood individuals found in their specific situations (for we cannot iden­tify ourselves with abstractions suspended in a void) but whose problems at closer inspection have universal application. Hence, underneath the stoker Yank, the playwright Cape, and the architect Brown we discover Man.
The second aspect will concern us in this chapter: the oneness between the characters themselves. The struggle between opposing desires, O’Neill sought to show, is fought within most human beings, and the same impulses can be detected in seemingly utterly different characters. Practically. this means that the characters are closely related to one another either because they share similar characteristics, in which case we shall speak of parallel characters, or because they find themselves in similar circumstances, in which case we shall speak of parallel situations. The two are naturally closely inter-related and cannot be wholly kept apart.
Blatant or disguised antitheses can be found in any play, and critics have usually paid much attention to the polar aspect and what it enfolds. But whereas contrast, pure and simple, belongs to the black-and-white world of melodrama, higher forms of drama prefer to have it operate in close conjunction with parallelism. This is perhaps most apparent in the Shakespearean subplot, which both contrasts with and parallels and main action. Just as, in this case, the contrast is immediately recognizable and represents a surface level, whereas the parallel holds true on a much deeper level, never discovered, we may rest assured, by the multitude of Shake­speare’s audience, so, with O’Neill, the parallels tend to operate on a deeper, more obscure level than the contrasts... .
Parallel Characters
In a tightly composed, structurally conventional play like [Long Day’s Journey into Night] we find several parallel characters appearing only in the dialogue. Thus, during the long talk between Edmund and Tyrone in the final act both cannot help drawing attention to painful parallel cases. “Booze and consumption” killed Dowson and Mary’s father—as it may Edmund. And Dante Gabriel Rossetti “was a dope fiend”—like Mary. The very things that should not be mentioned are mentioned, because the char­acters cannot get away from themselves; even when talking about other things, they keep thinking about their own fate; and the slips are illustra­tions of their spiritual isolation; in a minor figure they parallel the more serious blows the Tyrones deal to one another, for rightly considered these too are slips, illustrative of their inability to transcend their isolation and their past. These parallels, together with others (the suicide of Tyrone’s father as compared to the suicide attempts of Edmund and Mary; Cathleen’s uncle, who drank himself to death as Jamie doubtless will do), provide a dark, fateful backdrop for the drama of the Tyrones and widen its scope; they turn, as it were, the domestic drama into a universal tragedy.
Other parallels, more amply dealt with in the play, have meanings beyond this basic one. Here again we are confronted with figures symbolizing tendencies within the pivotal character, Mary Tyrone. There is, for example, the somewhat surprising resemblance between Mary and Fat Violet, the prostitute at whose breast Jamie seeks consolation. The obvious and glaring contrast between Violet and Mary, the whore and the “virgin,” the woman of all men and the woman of no man (for this is what Mary’s name and dream of becoming a nun amount to), is levelled out by a more basic similarity. Thus, in her first speech Mary points out that she has “gotten too fat,” and it is pointed out that Jamie likes fat women but that he finds Violet too fat. Both women play the piano. Violet has been “on drunks” lately, as Mary has relapsed into morphinism; and Jamie brings the two together in his remark that before he discovered his mother’s addiction, he could not imagine “that any women but whores took dope”; in a sense, his mother thus appears as a whore to him; by not loving him enough, by hiding in her dope world, she betrays him, makes him forever hunger for love. Yet Mary too hungers for love; and so does Violet. Both feel lonely, unpopular; Mary lacks friends; customers do not fall for Vi. Both hope to be loved despite their deformities, Violet despite her fatness, Mary despite her deficiencies as a wife and mother. As soon as Jamie knows that the beloved mother has left him forever, he goes to sleep with Violet. He believes that he selects her out of consideration for a fellow bum. What he does not see is that his concern for Violet is motivated by her resemblance to Mary, that she functions as an admittedly unsuccessful mother substitute. Thus Jamie’s visit to Mamie Burns’ brothel becomes a pathetic illustration of his inability to get away from the mother; his love will follow her still.
Even closer is the parallel between Mary and Bridget, the cook. The fog affects Bridget’s rheumatism as it does Mary’s. And she appears to be as much of a whiskey addict as Mary is a “dope fiend.” Their desperation, made acute—or rather symbolized—by their bodily pain, stems, as in the case of Violet, from an intense feeling of loneliness. In act 1 Bridget, who needs company, keeps Mary in the kitchen for a long while with “lies about her relations.” In act 2 Mary keeps Cathleen in the living room with memories of her own happy past which, according to Tyrone, must be taken “with a grain of salt.” She too needs a listener.
Cathleen describes Bridget as little better than a maniac, who cannot stand being left alone:
She’s like a raging divil. She’ll bite my head off.
If she don’t get something to quiet her temper, she’ll be after me with a cleaver.
If we are reminded here of Ella Harris in Chillun, the association is apt, for Ella, like Mary, seems modelled to a great extent on O’Neill’s mother. Hence Bridget, being another Ella, is seen to be another Mary. Never appearing but always (since we are constantly reminded of her presence in the dialogue and in the exits to the kitchen) lurking in the background, she comes to personify the reckless, destructive impulse within Mary, which finally “kills” her three men. Mary says:
It’s no use finding fault with Bridget. She doesn’t listen. I can’t threaten her, or she’d threaten she’d leave. And she does do her best at times. It’s too bad they seem to be just the times you’re sure to be late, James. Well, there’s this consolation: it’s difficult to tell from her cooking whether she’s doing her best or her worst.
This is no doubt a disguised self-portrait and a speech of defense. In her marriage Mary claims to have “done the best [she] could—under the cir­cumstances.” She is no more suited for it than Bridget is for cooking. And besides, Tyrone has never given her much of a chance; he has never really understood that just as you cannot expect the food to taste good if you are late for it, so you can’t expect a woman to be a good wife unless you give her a proper environment, which she can delight in. Such is Mary’s defen­sive view; hidden beneath it is her other, more deeply felt view that she is herself to blame. It is precisely because she feels so guilty that Mary cannot accept any blame; she refutes it, like Bridget, by not listening and by eventually “leaving” her family.
Parallel Situations
In Journey O’Neill has inserted what to a casual observer may seem a digression out of tune with the serious mood of the play and completely unrelated to it. I refer to the Harker-Shaughnessy episode, which fasci­nated O’Neill to the extent that he used it again and more extensively in Misbegotten.
Shaughnessy is a poor Irish tenant on a farm owned by Tyrone. This farm borders on the estate belonging to Harker, a Yankee Standard Oil millionaire. Edmund has just met Shaughnessy and he is reporting what the tenant has told him:
(Grins at his father provocatively.) Well, you remember, Papa, the ice pond on Harker’s estate is right next to the farm, and you remember Shaughnessy keeps pigs. Well, it seems there’s a break in the fence and the pigs have been bathing in the millionaire’s ice pond, and Harker’s foreman told him he was sure Shaughnessy had broken the fence on purpose to give his pigs a free wallow.
But when Harker came to rebuke Shaughnessy, the Irishman
accused Harker of making his foreman break down the fence to entice the pigs into the ice pond in order to destroy them. The poor pigs, Shaughnessy yelled, had caught their death of cold. Many of them were dying of pneumonia, and several others had been taken down with cholera from drinking the poisoned water.
This anecdote obviously helps to characterize the Tyrones in the sense that their reactions to it reveal something about their natures. Tyrone’s reaction is especially illuminating; while he spontaneously sides with Shaughnessy, he gives some half-hearted support to Harker. But the story is also, I would suggest, the story of the Tyrone family in disguise. Thus the poor farm bordering on the rich estate illustrates Tyrone’s transition from poverty to wealth. It is clear that he shares characteristics with both com­batants—hence his divided sympathies. He is of humble Irish origin like Shaughnessy, who nevertheless claims that he would be a “King of Ireland,” if he had his rights, a claim that would not be foreign to Tyrone, judging by his name and pride in the old country. Like Harker, he is a well-to-do “businessman” and landowner; Harker is ironically referred to as a “king of America,” and Tyrone has acquired a similar position as a nation-wide matinee idol. While accumulating his wealth and rising in society Tyrone has declined from “King” to “king,” from Ireland to America, from Shake­speare to Monte Cristo, from artist to businessman. Like the pigs, he has run away from the poor farm to the rich estate, but in the process he has fatally poisoned himself. Mary too has moved outside her fenced-in, inno­cent childhood environment with the same result. Both of them find that they can no longer call their souls their own.
Many of the pigs, we learn, die of pneumonia after they have caught cold. Edmund is, for a long time, thought to suffer from a summer cold—until it is disclosed that he is affected by a far more fatal disease: consump­tion. Other pigs die from drinking the poisoned ice water. Tyrone’s father died by, perhaps deliberately, mistaking “rat poison for flour.” Tyrone himself early began poisoning his sons by giving them whiskey as medicine, thereby laying a foundation for future alcoholism. During the long day we actually see the three men “wallow” in whiskey and ice water to make life bearable and short. Mary was poisoned by the quack who first gave her morphine; Tyrone constantly refers to the morphine as “the poison.” Jamie jealously poisoned” Eugene with measles (from which the baby died) and Edmund with “worldly wisdom”—hard drinking and Broadway tarts—when he was merely a boy.
Although it is never made completely clear, it is strongly implied that it was Shaughnessy who broke down the fence. Poor as he is, he wants to give his pigs “a free wallow” at the expense of the hated Yankee mil­lionaire; thus we may construe his motives. But the cheap bath has, as we have seen, consequences unforeseen by the tenant. In the same way Tyrone, unable to unlearn his childhood lesson of “the value of a dollar,” tries to get everything second hand and as a result works destruction on his family. It was the cheap quack he sent Mary to that got her started on morphine. And it is a cheap sanatorium, “endowed by a group of millionaire factory owners, for the benefit of their workers,” to which he finally decides to send Edmund; and the son evidently stands as slim a chance of survival there as do the pigs in Harker’s ice pond. The choice the-poor-Irish-boy-in-Tyrone makes is the choice Shaughnessy would have made; it is moti­vated not merely by an excessive money consciousness but also by a wish to benefit, for once, from the plutocrats, who had treated Tyrone and his family as little better than slaves; Tyrone’s sanatorium plan is thus in a sense another battle fought against the Yankees.
Shaughnessy’s violent attack on Harker, blaming him for what he himself has most likely done, may be seen as a grotesque and simplified version of the way each of the Tyrones react with regard to the major “crimes” committed in the past. It is precisely when they feel most guilty that they blame others, applying Shaughnessy’s technique of attacking be-fore being attacked; he who evokes their guilt-feelings immediately turns into an enemy against whom they must defend themselves; their attacks thus stem primarily from a need to relieve themselves from an acute self-hatred.
Yet the fact that the question “Who broke down the fence that opened the way for the pigs’ destruction?” is not unequivocally answered is of some significance. No doubt O’Neill was unwilling to provide a clear answer because he was aware that the question foreshadows the much larger one we ask ourselves at the end of the play: “Who is to blame for the destruction of the Tyrone family?” The whole play, in a sense, is devoted to answering this question. The web of guilt is so complex, is distributed to so many hands and stretches so far back in time that, although we realize that all the Tyrones have their share in it, and Tyrone perhaps most of all, we are ultimately left with Mary’s philosophy that life, rather than any one of them, must carry the heaviest responsibility.
Structurally, the pig story springs naturally from the form chosen by O’Neill for his play. The technique of gradual revelation strictly adhered to in Journey prevents overt references to the family fate in the early acts; the play structure itself is designed as a long journey into the dark interior of the family and its individual members. The dramatist is obviously presented with a problem here. For the sake of dramatic suspense he is forced to make his characters withhold important information, while for the sake of structural unity he is forced to make them deliver it. He must therefore make the dialogue in the early acts function on (at least) two levels. Even if we do not—and, in fact, often cannot—grasp its more profound meaning at a first reading / hearing, we frequently sense that what the characters are saying is of a greater significance than it appears to be at the moment when it is presented; and we axiomatically assume that some of it will be made clear in the process of the play. This awareness of as of yet unintelligible levels creates a feeling of suspense, which piques our interest before it has been stirred by the human drama before us.
The parallel includes a marked contrast in tone between the anecdote and the ensuing action, which illustrates its meaning. The Tyrones can laugh at the Shaughnessy episode precisely because they do not realize that it is their own story in disguise. Had it been told at the end of the long day they—and we—would doubtless view it differently. Thus, by changing the perspective, O’Neill illustrates how life, depending on our degree of involvement, can be seen either as a farce or as a tragedy.
The pigs-in-the-ice-pond episode appears again—and more emphati­cally—in Misbegotten, where Phil Hogan plays the same trick on Harder that Shaughnessy does on Harker in Journey. Phil and Josie, as their surname indicates, are not unlike their pigs. When the play opens Hogan is down by the pigpen—“where he belongs, the old hog,” his hostile son comments, and Phil’s appearance bears him out:
He has a thick neck, lumpy, sloping shoulders, a barrel-like trunk, stumpy legs, and big feet. His arms are short and muscular, with large hairy hands. His head is round with thinning sandy hair. His face is fat with a snub nose, long upper lip, big mouth, and little blue eyes with bleached lashes and eyebrows that remind one of a white pig’s.
Josie’s outward appearance—she weighs “around one hundred and eighty”—and her boast that she has slept with every man in the neighborhood make her seemingly a “pig” of a woman. When Phil proudly calls his pigs “fine ambitious American-born pigs,” which “don’t miss any opportunities,” lie is actually describing himself and his daughter, “two of a kind,” constantly scheming against the Yankees. As they doctor up a sick pig “to look good for a day or two”—long enough to be sold at a good price—so they are in the habit of dressing Josie up to look good to soften the landlord, when he comes around to demand his rent. And as Phil helps his pigs to stroll into the millionaire’s grounds, where they can “wallow happily along the shores of the ice pond,” so he also attempts to help Josie exchange the “lousy farm” for Jim Tyrone’s estate, where she could live “in ease and comfort.”
Josie at one point—the early part of act 3—attempts to perform the action of the pigs. Believing that Jim has been treacherous and intends to sell the farm to the hated neighbor, she is prepared to defend her home and blackmail Jim by offering him her body and then to force him to marry her and in this manner “enter” his estate. But it is clear from the beginning that the role does not fit her: the low scheme is not hers but her “virtuous” brother’s; she has the best excuse possible for prostituting herself at this point: not only is it a matter of saving her own and her father’s home and of taking revenge on one who has not kept his word; apart from and despite all this, Josie is in love with Jim—hence, sleeping with him is her heart’s desire. The scheming role is repugnant to her, and it is significant that she cannot force herself to kiss Jim “passionately until this role has been dropped and love alone motivates her actions. Thus Josie, even when attempting the “pig” role, is shown to fail miserably in adopting it. For a brief, blissful moment she believes that she and Jim can find love and happiness together. Then she discovers that he is “dead,” that the little part of him that is still living is haunted by the memory of the mother and of the sin he has committed against her. She gives him the night of tender, innocent, mater­nal love he asks for, a self-sacrificing love, “the greatest of all,” she remarks, “because it costs so much.” Josie thus runs the gamut from (partly) calcu­lating, prostitute-like love through genuine passion to spiritualized love and servitude. Her pig-like characteristics, it turns out, are merely the outward “mask” protecting her romantic, virginal soul. The moment Jim admits his genuine love for her, she drops this “mask.” Never acting like a “pig,” her fate is quite the opposite of that of the animals. When dawn comes she is still a virgin, still unpoisoned, facing a new day of hard work on the poor farm rather than the deathly “ease and comfort” of the rich estate. Phil, too, is capable of a tender, unselfish love beneath his rough, materialistic surface. His true reason for bringing Jim and Josie together is not so much land hunger as a desire to see his daughter happily married to a man he likes; as Phil expresses it: “I’m not a pig that has no other thought but eating!”
The true counterpart of the pigs is the prostitute Jim slept with on the train carrying his mother’s corpse eastwards; he significantly always refers to her as the “pig”; finds her come-on smile “as cold as a polar bear’s feet”—a simile that relates her to the ice pond; and gets “a bad taste” in his mouth, when he thinks of his experience with her a year earlier, just as Harder is said to deplore “the taste of pig in next summer’s ice water.” The pigs, which stroll into the estate, happily wallow along the shores of the ice pond, and then die of cold or cholera from the “dirty water,” have their human parallel in this “fat blonde pig” who, wallowing in bed with Jim Tyrone, heir to an estate, “for fifty bucks a night,” is already frozen and poisoned to death by a life devoid of love. Outwardly resembling Josie, she is actually her antithesis: as Josie incarnates the life force, so the prostitute represents death-in-life. Unable to feel anything for the dead mother, Jim concluded that he too had “died,” the inference being that he could not survive the loss of maternal love. He logically proceeds to seek the com­pany of someone who is as damned and “dead” as he is, a whore with “parlor house written all over her” and “a face like an overgrown doll’s” —heavily made up, that is, and artificially young-looking like the dead mother. In the prostitute he seeks at once a mother substitute and revenge on the mother for deserting him, both love and “the suicide of love” to use Michael Cape’s definition of the prostitute in Welded, both life and death.

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