As some of the dust begins to settle over the controversial reputation of Eugene O’Neill, and our interest shifts from the man to art, it becomes increasingly clear that O’Neill will be primarily remembered for his last plays. The earlier ones are not all without value, though none is thoroughly satisfying.Some contain powerful scenes; some have interesting themes; and some are sustained by the sheer force of the author’s will. Still, the bulk of O’Neill dramatic writings before Ah, Wilderness! are like the groping preparatory sketches of one who had to write badly in order to write well; and in comparison with the late O’Neill even intermittently effective dramas like The Hairy Ape, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and Desire under the Elms are riddled with fakery, incoherence, and clumsy experimental de-vices. No major dramatist, with the possible exception of Shaw, has written so many second-rate plays.
An important task of the O’Neill critic, therefore, is to account for the extraordinary disparity in style and quality between the earlier and later work; and one might well begin by exploring the external conditions in which O’Neill’s talents began to bud. For if the playwright’s early blossoms were sere, the cultural climate which helped to nurture them was (and is) peculiarly uncongenial to the development of a serious artist. O’Neill came to prominence in the second and third decades of the century, when
was just beginning to relinquish its philistinism in order to genuflect before the shrine of Culture. The American culture craze was largely directed towards the outsides of the literature, which is to say towards the personality of the artist rather than the content of his art; and the novelists and poets inducted into this hollow ritual found themselves engaged in an activity more priestly than creative. O’Neill’s role was especially hieratic, however, since he had the misfortune to be the first dramatist with serious aspirations to appear on the national scene. As George Jean Nathan noted, O’Neill “singlehanded waded through the dismal swamp-lands of American drama, bleak, squashy, and oozing sticky goo, and alone and singlehanded bore out the water lily that no American had found there before him.” That the water lily sometimes resembled a cauliflower, Mr. Nathan was occasionally willing to concede. But to a large body of hungry critics and cultural consumers, who were indifferent to the quality of the product so long as it was Big, O’Neill was a homegrown dramatic champion to be enlisted not only against Ibsen, Strindberg, and Shaw, but against Aeschylus, Euripides, and Shakespeare as well. America
In every superficial way, O’Neill certainly looked the role he was expected to fill. A dark, brooding figure with a strain of misfortune in his life, he combined the delicate constitution of a sensitive poet with the robust pugnacity of a barroom Achilles; and his youthful adventures as a seaman, gold prospector, and tramp had a rotogravure appeal to a nation already convinced by the Sunday supplements that an artist needed Vast Experience in order to write about Real Life. O’Neill, in addition, possessed the kind of aspiring mind which F. Scott Fitzgerald assigned to Jay Gatsby; he “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.” Afflicted with the American disease of gigantism, O’Neill developed ambitions which were not only large, they were monstrous; he was determined to be nothing if not a world-historical figure of fantastic proportion. Trying to compress within his own career the whole development of dramatic literature since the Greeks, he set himself to imitate the most ambitious writers who ever lived—and the more epic their scope, the more they stimulated his competitive instinct. The scope of his own intentions is suggested by the growing length of his plays and the presumptuousness of his public utterances. Mourning Becomes Electra, which took three days to perform, he called “an idea and a dramatic conception that has the possibilities of being the biggest thing modern drama has attempted—by far the biggest!” And his unfinished eleven-play “Big Grand Opus,” as he called it, was designed to have “greater scope than any novel I know of . . . something in the style of War and Peace.” At this point in his career, O’Neill, like his public, is attracted to the outsides of literature, and he wrestles with the reputation of another writer in order to boost his own. But to O’Neill’s public, ambitions were almost indistinguishable from achievements; and the playwright was ranked with the world’s greatest dramatists before he had had an opportunity to master his craft or sophisticate his art.
It was inevitable, therefore, that the next generation of critics—Francis Fergusson, Lionel Trilling, Eric Bentley—should harp on O’Neill’s substantial failings as a thinker, artist, and Broadway hero. Subjected to closer scrutiny, the very qualities which had inspired so much enthusiasm in O’Neill’s partisans now seemed the marks of a pretentious writer and a second-rate mind. Pushed about by this critical storm, the winds of literary fashion shifted, and O’Neill’s reputation was blown out to sea. Although the playwright was awarded the Nobel prize in 1936, obscurity had already settled in upon him, and it deepened more and more until his death in 1953. During these dark years, ironically, O’Neill’s real development began. Be-fore, he had prided himself on having “the guts to shoot at something big and risk failure”; now, he had the guts not to bother himself about questions of success and failure at all. Maturing in silence, stimulated only by an obsessive urge to write and a profound artistic honesty, he commenced to create plays which were genuine masterpieces of the modern theatre. Most of these were not published or produced until after his death, some by the playwright’s order. In proscribing Long Day’s Journey into Night, O’Neill was trying to hide his family’s secrets from the public eye; but O’Neill’s desire to keep his works off the stage was undoubtedly influenced, too, by the hostile reception accorded to The Iceman Cometh and A Moon for the Misbegotten, the first of which failed on Broadway, the second, before even reaching New York. The public and the reviewers, having found new idols to worship (the Critic’s prize the year of The Iceman Cometh went to a conventional social protest play by Arthur Miller called All My Sons), began to treat O’Neill with condescension—when they thought of him at all. And he was not to be seriously reconsidered until 1956, when a successful revival of The Iceman Cometh and the first Broadway production of Long Day’s Journey brought him so much posthumous recognition that his inferior work was soon dragged out of storage for some more unthinking praise.
O’Neill’s career, then, can be split into two distinct stages, which are separated not only by his changing position in the official culture, but by changes in style, subject matter, form, and posture as well. The first stage, beginning with the S.S. Glencairn plays (1913-16) and ending with Days without End (1932-33) is of historical rather than artistic interest: I shall discuss these plays [elsewhere] in a general way, as illustrations of O’Neill’s early links with the theatre of revolt. The second stage is preceded by a transitional play, Ah, Wilderness! (1932), and contains A Touch of the Poet (1935–42) the unfinished More Stately Mansions (1935–41), both from the cycle, The Iceman Cometh (1939), Long Day’s Journey into Night (1939–41), and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943). All of these works have artistic interest, but The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s journey are, in my opinion, great works of art; these two I shall examine in some detail, as examples of the highly personal revolt which O’Neill pulled out of his own suffering. By contrasting the two stages in O’Neill’s drama, I hope to illustrate O’Neill’s development from a self-conscious and imitative pseudo-artist into a genuine tragic dramatist with a uniquely probing vision... .
This extraordinary play [The Iceman Cometh, discussed in a section of this essay not reprinted here] is a chronicle of O’Neill’s own spiritual metamorphosis from a messianic into an existential rebel, the shallow yea-saying salvationist of the earlier plays having been transformed into a penetrating analyst of human motive rejecting even the pose of disillusionment. O’Neill’s “denial of any other experience of faith in my plays” has left him alone, at last, with existence itself; and he has looked at it with a courage which only the greatest tragic dramatists have been able to muster. The Iceman Cometh, despite its prosaic language, recreates that existential groan which is heard in Shakespeare’s tragedies and in the third choral poem of Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus, as O’Neill makes reality bearable through the metaphysical consolations of art. O’Neill has rejected Hickey’s brand of salvation as a way to human happiness, but truth has, nevertheless, become the cornerstone of his drama, truth combined with the compassionate understanding of Larry Slade. Expunging everything false and literary from his work, O’Neill has finally reconciled himself to being the man he really is.
This kind of reconciliation could only have come about through penetrating self-analysis; and it is inevitable, therefore, that the process of self‑analysis itself should form the material of one of his plays: Long Day’s Journey into Night (1939–41). Here, combining the retrospective techniques of Ibsen with the exorcistic attack of Strindberg, O’Neill compresses the psychological history of his family into the events of a single day, and the economy of the work, for all its length, is magnificent. Within this classical structure, where O’Neill even observes the unities, the play begins to approach a kind of formal perfection. Like most classical works, Long Day’s Journey is set in the past—the summer of 1912, when O’Neill, then twenty-four, was stricken with tuberculosis, a disease which sent him to the sanatorium where he first decided to become a dramatist. And like most classical works, its impact derives less from physical action (the play has hardly any plot, and only the first act has any suspense) than from psychological revelation, as the characters dredge up their painful memories and half-considered thoughts. O’Neill’s model is probably Ibsen’s Ghosts (even Ibsen’s title is singularly appropriate to the later play), because he employs that technique of exhumation which Ibsen borrowed from Sophocles—inching forward and moving backward simultaneously by means of a highly functional dialogue.
O’Neill, however, is not only the author of the play but also a character in it; like Strindberg, he has Written “a poem of desperation,” composed in rhythms of pain. The author’s relation to his material is poignantly suggested in his dedication of the work to his wife, Carlotta, on the occasion of their twelfth anniversary: “I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play—write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones.” O’Neill includes himself in the general amnesty; he has certainly earned the right. The play, written as he tells us “in tears and blood,” was composed in a cold sweat, sometimes fifteen hours at a stretch: O’Neill, like all his characters, is confronting his most harrowing memories, and putting his ghosts to rest in a memorial reenactment of their mutual suffering and responsibility.
Because his purpose is partially therapeutic, O’Neill has hardly fictionalized this autobiography at all. The O’Neills have become the Tyrones, his mother Ella is now called Mary, and Eugene takes on the name of his dead brother Edmund (the dead child is called Eugene), but his father and brother retain their own Christian names, and all the dramatic events (with a few minor changes) are true, including the story about the pigs of Tyrone’s tenant farmer and the ice pond of the Standard Oil millionaire, an episode to be treated again in A Moon for the Misbegotten.
In view of this fidelity to fact, it is a wonder that O’Neill was able to write the play at all, but he is in astonishing control of his material—the work is a masterpiece. While The Iceman Cometh has fewer arid stretches and deeper implications, Long Day’s Journey contains the finest writing O’Neill ever did—and the fourth act is among the most powerful scenes in all dramatic literature O’Neill has created a personal play which bears on the condition of all mankind; a bourgeois family drama with universal implications. Long Day’s Journey is a study of hereditary guilt which does not even make recourse to arbitrary metaphors, like Ibsen’s use of disease in Ghosts. Edmund’s consumption, unlike Oswald’s syphilis, has a bacterial rather than a symbolic source. It is no longer necessary for O’Neill to invent a modern equivalent of Fate, for now he feels it working in his very bones. Thus, O’Neill’s characters are suffering from spiritual and psychological ailments rather than biological and social ones (society, for O’Neill, hardly seems to exist), but they are just as deeply ravaged as Oswald and Mrs. Alving. O’Neill’s achievement is all the more stunning when we re-member that his previous efforts to write this kind of play were dreadfully bungled. In Mourning Becomes Electra, for example, the sins of the father are also visited on the sons, but this is illustrated through physical transformations—Orin begins to look like Ezra, Lavinia like Christine—a purely mechanical application of the theme. And the same sort of self-conscious contrivance is apparent in Desire under the Elms, where endless argumentation occurs over whether Eben is more like his “Maw” or his “Paw.”
In Long Day’s Journey, O’Neill has dismissed such superficial concerns to concentrate on the deeper implications of his theme: what is visited on the sons is a strain of blank misfortune. Here is a family living in a close symbiotic relationship, a single organism with four branches, where a twitch in one creates a spasm in another. O’Neill was beginning to explore this kind of relationship in The Iceman Cometh, where the derelicts aggravate each other’s agony and hell is other people, but here he has worked out the nightmare of family relations with relentless precision. No individual character trait is revealed which does not have a bearing on the lives of the entire family; the play is nothing but the truth, but there is nothing irrelevant in the play. Thus, the two major characteristics which define James Tyrone, Sr.—his miserliness and his career as an actor—are directly related to the misery of his wife and children. Tyrone’s niggardliness has caused Mary’s addiction, because it was a cut-rate quack doctor who first introduced her to drugs; and Tyrone’s inability to provide her with a proper home, because he was always on the road, has intensified her bitterness and sense of loss. The miser in Tyrone is also the source of Edmund’s resentment, since Tyrone is preparing to send him to a State Farm for treatment instead of to a more expensive rest home. Edmund’s tuberculosis, in turn, partially accounts for Mary’s resumption of her habit, because she cannot face the fact of his bad health; and Edmund’s birth caused the illness which eventually introduced his mother to drugs. Jamie is affected by the very existence of Edmund, since his brother’s literary gifts fill him with envy and a sense of failure; and his mother’s inability to shake her habit has made him lose faith in his own capacity for regeneration. Even the comic touches are structured along causal lines: Tyrone is too cheap to burn the lights in the parlor, so Edmund bangs his knee on a hatstand, and Jamie stumbles on the steps. Every action has a radiating effect, and characters interlock in the manner which evoked the anguished cry from Strindberg: “Earth, earth is hell. . . . in which I cannot move without injuring the happiness of others, in which others cannot remain happy without hurting me.”
The family, in brief, is chained together by resentment, guilt, recrimination; yet, the chains that hold it are those of love as well as hate. Each makes the other suffer through some unwitting act, a breach of love or faith, and reproaches follow furiously in the wake of every revelation. But even at the moment that the truth is being blurted out, an apologetic retraction is being formed. Nobody really desires to hurt. Compassion and understanding alternate with anger and rancor. Even Jamie, who is “forever making sneering fun of somebody” and who calls his mother a “hophead,” hates his own bitterness and mockery, and is filled with self-contempt. The four members of the family react to each other with bewildering ambivalence—exposing illusions and sustaining them, striking a blow and hating the hand that strikes. Every torment is self-inflicted, every angry word reverberating in the conscience of the speaker. It is as if the characters existed only to torture each other, while protecting each other, too, against their own resentful tongue.
There is a curse on the blighted house of the Tyrones, and the origin of the curse lies elsewhere, with existence itself. As Mary says, “None of us can help the things life has done to us.” In tracing down the origin of this curse, O’Neill has returned to the year 1912; but as the play proceeds, he brings us even further into the past. Implicated in the misfortunes of the house are not only the two generations of Tyrones, but a previous generation as well; Edmund’s attempted suicide, before the action begins, is linked to the suicide of Tyrone’s father, and Edmund’s consumption is the disease by which Mary’s father died. Though O’Neill does not mention this, the tainted legacy reaches into the future, too: the playwright’s elder son, Eugene Jr., is also to commit suicide, and his younger son, Shane, is to become, like his grandmother, a narcotics addict. The generations merge, and so does Time. “The past is the present, isn’t it?” cries Mary. “It’s the future too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.
O’Neill, the probing artist, seeks in the past for the origination of guilt and blame; but his characters seek happiness and dreams. All four Tyrones share an intense hatred of the present and its morbid, inescapable reality. All four seek solace from the shocks of life in nostalgic memories, which they reach through different paths. For Mary, the key that turns the lock of the past is morphine. “It kills the pain. You go back until at last you are beyond its reach. Only the past when you were happy is real.” The pain she speaks of is in her crippled hands, the constant reminder of her failed dream to be a concert pianist, but even more it is in her crippled, guilty soul. Mary has betrayed all her hopes and dreams. Even her marriage is a betrayal, since she longed to be a nun, wholly dedicated to her namesake, the Blessed Virgin; but her addiction betrays her religion, family, and home. She cannot pray; she is in a state of despair; and the accusations of her family only aggravate her guilt. Mary is subject to a number of illusions—among them, the belief that she married beneath her—but unlike the derelicts of Iceman, who dream of the future, she only dreams of the past. Throughout the action, she is trying to escape the pain of the present entirely; and at the end, with the aid of drugs, she has finally returned to the purity, innocence, and hope of her girlhood. Although the title of the play suggests a progress, therefore, the work moves always backwards. The long journey is a journey into the past.
O’Neill suggests this in many ways, partly through ambiguous images of light and dark, sun and mist. The play begins at 8:30 in the morning with a trace of fog in the air, and concludes sometime after midnight, with the house fogbound—the mood changing from sunny cheer over Mary’s apparent recovery to gloomy despair over her new descent into hell. The nighttime scenes occur logically at the end of the day; but subjectively, the night precedes the day, for the play closes on a phantasmagoria of past time. Under the influence of Mary’s drugs—and, to some extent, the alcohol of the men—time evaporates and hovers, and disappears: past, present, future become one. Mary drifts blissfully into illusions under cover of the night, which functions like a shroud against the harsh, daylight reality. And so does that fog that Mary loves: “It hides you from the world and the world from you,” she says. “You feel that everything has changed, and nothing is what it seemed to be. No one can find or touch you any more.” Her love for her husband and children neutralized by her terrible sense of guilt, Mary withdraws more and more into herself. And this, in turn, intensifies the unhappiness of the men: The hardest thing to take,” says Edmund “is the blank wall she builds around herself Or it’s more like a bank of fog in which she hides and loses herself. . . . It’s as if, in spite of loving us, she hated us.”
Mary, however, is not alone among the “fog people”—the three men also have their reasons for withdrawing into night. Although less shrouded .in illusion than Mary, each, nevertheless, haunts the past like a ghost, seeking consolation for a wasted life. For Tyrone, his youth was a period of artistic promise when he had the potential to be a great actor instead of a commercial hack; his favorite memory is of Booth’s praising his Othello, words which he has written down and lost. For Jamie, who might have borne the Tyrone name “in honor and dignity, who showed such brilliant promise, the present is without possibility; he is now a hopeless ne’er-do-well, pursuing oblivion in drink and the arms of fat whores while mocking his own failure in bathetic, self-hating accents: “My name is Might-Have Been,” he remarks, quoting from Rossetti, “I am also called No More, Too Late, Farewell.” For Edmund, who is more like his mother than the others, night and fog are a refuge from the curse of living:
The fog was where I wanted to be.... That’s what I wanted—to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself... . It was like walking on the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago. As if I was a ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost.
Reality, truth, and life plague him like a disease. Ashamed of being human, he finds existence itself detestable: “Who wants to see life as it is, if they can help it? It’s the three Gorgons in one. You look in their faces and die. Or it’s Pan. You see him and die—that is, inside you—and have to go on living as a ghost.”
“We are such stuff as manure is made on, so let’s drink up and forget it” —like Strindberg, who developed a similar excremental view of human-kind, the young Edmund has elected to withdraw from Time by whatever means available, and one of these is alcohol. Edmund, whose taste in poetry is usually execrable, finally quotes a good poet, Baudelaire, on the subject of drunkenness: “Be drunken, if you would not be martyred slaves of Time; be drunken continually! With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you will.” And in order to avoid being enslaved by Time, Edmund contemplates other forms of drunkenness as well. In his fine fourth-act speech, he tells of his experiences at sea, when he discovered Nirvana for a moment, pulling out of Time and dissolving into the infinite:
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! To God, if you want to put it that way... . For a second you see—and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! 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 ecstatic vision of wholeness is only momentary, and Edmund, who “would have been more successful as a sea-gull or a fish,” must once again endure the melancholy fate of living in reality: “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!” In love with death since death is the ultimate escape from Time, the total descent into night and fog.
There is a fifth Tyrone involved in the play—the older Eugene O’Neill. And although he has superimposed his later on his earlier self (Edmund, described as a socialist and atheist, has many religious-existential attitudes), the author and the character are really separable. Edmund wishes to deny Time, but O’Neill has elected to return to it once again—reliving the past and mingling with his ghosts—in order to find the secret and meaning of their suffering. For the playwright has discovered another escape besides alcohol, Nirvana, or death from the terrible chaos of life: the escape of art where chaos is ordered and the meaningless made meaningful. The play itself is an act of forgiveness and reconciliation, the artist’s lifelong resentment disintegrated through complete understanding of the past and total self-honesty.
These qualities dominate the last act, which proceeds through a sequence of confessions and revelations to a harrowing climax. Structurally, the act consists of two long colloquies—the first between Tyrone and Edmund, the second between Edmund and Jamie—followed by a long soliloquy from Mary who, indeed, concludes every act. Tyrone’s confession of failure as an actor finally makes him understandable to Edmund who thereupon forgives him all his faults; and Jamie’s confession of his ambivalent feelings towards his brother, and his half-conscious desire to make him fail too, is the deepest psychological moment in the play. But the most honest moment of self-revelation occurs at the end of Edmund’s speech, after he has tried to explain the origin of his bitterness and despair. Tyrone, as usual, finds his son’s musings “morbid,” but he has to admit that Edmund has “the makings of a poet,” Edmund replies:
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... . Well, it will be faithful realism, at least. Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.
In describing his own limitations as a dramatist, O’Neill here rises to real eloquence; speaking the truth has given him a tongue. Having accepted these limitations, and dedicated himself to a “faithful realism” seen through the lens of the “family kodak,” he has turned into a dramatist of the very first rank.
Mary’s last speech is the triumph of his new dramatic method, poetically evoking all the themes of the play; and it is marvelously prepared for. The men are drunk, sleepy, and exhausted after all the wrangling; the lights are very low; the night and fog very thick. Suddenly, a coup de theatre. All the bulbs in the front parlor chandelier are illuminated, and the opening bars of a Chopin waltz are haltingly played, “as if an awkward schoolgirl were practising it for the first time.” The men are shocked into consciousness as Mary enters, absentmindedly trailing her wedding dress. She is so completely in the past that even her features have been transfigured: “the uncanny thing is that her face now appears so youthful.” What follows is a scene remarkably like Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, or, as Jamie cruelly suggests, Ophelia’s mad scene—an audaciously theatrical and, at the same time, profoundly moving expression from the depths of a tormented soul.
While the men look on in horror, Mary reenacts the dreams of her youth, oblivious of her surroundings; and her speeches sum up the utter hopelessness of the entire family. Shy and polite, like a young schoolgirl, astonished at her swollen hands and at the elderly gentleman who gently takes the wedding dress from her grasp, Mary is back in the convent, preparing to become a nun. She is looking for something, “something I need terribly,” something that protected her from loneliness and fear: “I can’t have lost it forever. I would die if I thought that. Because then there would be no hope.” It is her life, and, even more, her faith. She has had a vision of the Blessed Virgin, who had “smiled and blessed me with her consent.” But the Mother Superior has asked her to live like other girls before deciding to take her vows, and she reluctantly has agreed:
I said, of course, I would do anything she suggested, but I knew it was simply a waste of time. After I left her, I felt all mixed up, so I went to the shrine and prayed to the Blessed Virgin and found peace again because I knew she heard my prayer and would always love me and see no harm ever came-to me so long as I never lost my faith in her.
But the faith has turned yellow, like her wedding dress, and harm has indeed come. On the threshold of the later horror, Mary grows uneasy; then puts one foot over into the vacancy which is to come: “That was in the winter of senior year. Then in the springtime something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.”
Her mournful speech, which concludes on the key word of the play, spans the years and breaks them, recapitulating all the blighted hopes, the persistent illusions, the emotional ambivalence, and the sense of imprisonment in the fate of others that the family shares. It leaves the central character enveloped in fog, and the others encased in misery, the night deepening around their shameful secrets. But it signalizes O’Neill’s journey out of the night and into the daylight—into a perception of his true role as a man and an artist—exorcising his ghosts and “facing my dead at last.”
In the plays that follow, O’Neill continues to work the vein he had mined in The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey: examining, through the medium of a faithful realism, the people of the fog and their illusionary lives. And in writing these plays, he stammers no more. In the lilting speech of predominantly Irish-Catholic characters, O’Neill finally discovers a language congenial to him, and he even begins to create a music very much like Synge’s, while his humor bubbles more and more to the surface. Despite effective comic passages, however, O’Neill’s plays remain dark. In A Touch of the Poet, for example, he deals with a nineteenth-century Irish-American tavernkeeper, Con Melody, who deludes himself that he is a heroic Byronic aristocrat, proudly isolated from the Yankee merchants and the democratic mob. Cold and imperious towards his wife but full of dash and style, Melody undergoes a startling change when his illusions are exposed, groveling like a cunning and mean-spirited peasant. Poor but proud before, he will now advance himself through any form of chicanery; but he survives as a spiritually dead man, another of O’Neill’s living corpses.
In A Moon for the Misbegotten, O’Neill follows Jamie O’Neill, the living corpse of Long Day’s Journey, into a later stage of his life, after the death of his mother. Whiskey-logged and lacerated by self-hatred, he confesses to an enormous but kindly girl (a virgin pretending to be promiscuous) how he stayed with a whore on the train carrying his mother’s corpse back East. Sleeping all night on the ample bosom of this symbolic mother, like Jesus in the Pieta, he earns from her the forgiveness and peace that the dead mother can no longer provide.
These two works are minor masterpieces; The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey major ones. And in all four plays, O’Neill concentrates a fierce, bullish power into fables of illusion and reality, shot through with flashes of humor, but pervaded by a sense of melancholy over the condition of being human. Like Strindberg, therefore, O’Neill develops from messianic rebellion into existential rebellion, thus demonstrating that beneath his Nietzschean yea-saying and affirmation of life was a profound discontent with the very nature of existence. O’Neill’s experiments with form, his flirtations with various philosophies and religions, his attitudinizing and fake poeticizing represent the means by which he tried to smother this perception; but it would not be smothered, and when he finally found the courage to face it through realistic probes of his own past experience, he discovered the only artistic role that really fit him. In power and insight, O’Neill remains unsurpassed among American dramatists, and, of course, it is doubtful if, without him, there would have been an American drama at all. But it is for his last plays that he will be remembered—those extra-ordinary dramas of revolt which he pulled out of himself in pain and suffering, a sick and tired man in a shuttered room, unable to bear much light.