Robert. (Pointing to the horizon—dreamily) Supposing I was to tell you that it’s just Beauty that’s calling me, the beauty of the far off and unknown, the mystery and spell of the East which lures me in the books I’ve read, the need of the freedom of the great wide spaces, the joy of wandering on and on—in quest of the secret which is hidden over there, beyond the horizon?
The dream of an impossible beauty beyond the horizon always fascinated Eugene O’Neill, and it distinguished all his early writing. Quite simply and directly it inspired the heroes of his early plays, as in Beyond the Horizon and The Fountain. Then by contrast it emphasized the ugliness of materialstic
, as in The Great God Brown and Marco Millions. Later, the impossibility of realizing the dream caused the frustration and violence of the major tragedies, Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra. But in the center of every drama, no matter how sordid the plot or how common the characters, some scene of idyllic loveliness—some flash of unearthly beauty—appeared. America
Although this beauty has always been the subject of lyric poetry, it has been rare in realistic tragedy. For instance, the Celtic imagination of W. B. Yeats has often dwelt upon “The Land of Heart’s Desire”:
Where nobody gets old and crafty and wise,
Where nobody gets old and godly and grave,
Where beauty has no ebb, decay no flood,
But joy is wisdom, Time an endless song.
But when the modern dramatist has imagined this land of dream, he has necessarily contrasted it with the world of here and now. And the contrast has emphasized the ugliness of modern reality. This ugliness is the reverse of the medal.
All of O’Neill’s power of invention dramatized this contrast between dream and reality Sometimes by means of theatrical lighting, as in the visions of Emperor Jones and Marco Millions; sometimes by means of two planes or of a divided stage, as in Desire Under the Elms and Dynamo; but more often by means of masks, asides, and frank unrealism, he made objective this inner division of the human mind. In his imaginative theater, the dream has been high-lighted and man’s subconscious idealizations made articulate to a degree impossible in life. From this artistry a new drama infinitely rich in perspective and depth resulted.
But if the dream of an impossible beauty has given richness to his writing, it has also caused serious distortion. Not that O’Neill’s dramatic conception has been confused. And not that the dream has lacked universality: all men have imagined some land of heart’s desire, and all Americans especially have hoped to realize it in this “new world.” But here is the distortion: although O’Neill’s characters have 411 imagined an ideal beauty, very few have even hoped to realize it. They have dreamed, that is, not of realization but of escape. “Wandering on and on ... beyond the horizon,” they have become lost. And in their confusion their dreams have turned to nightmares.
Because the romantic dreamers of O’Neill’s plays have all imagined an impossible perfection, they have necessarily despaired of realizing it. But historically the great dreamers of
have imagined a possible perfection and have sought pragmatically to realize it. Imagining only absolute freedom, O’Neill’s romantics have rejected all partial freedoms. And imagining the perfect brotherhood of man, they have rejected actual democracy. In the end, because they have instinctively recognized the impossibility of their romantic absolutes, they have lost faith in the future. And their failure has led them to deny the American faith. America
Eugene O’Neill himself, like the heroes of his own dramas, followed this romantic logic to its inevitable end. First, his imagination gloried in the discovery and affirmation of the beauty of his dream. Next, he denounced in ringing words the ugliness of American reality. Then he described the tragic defeat of the romantic dream in actual life. And, at last, the clear recognition of the dream’s impossibility led him toward resignation and quiescence.
The Romantic Dream
O’Neill’s early plays suggest both the beauty and the impossibility of the romantic dream. From The Long Voyage Home to The Fountain, his heroes imagine the unreal. With tragic inevitability, they suffer defeat. But, nevertheless, all achieve tragic exaltation by remaining true to their dream. Denying the values of the material world, they transmute defeat into victory. Thus they seem to exemplify “the great truth that there is nothing so precious in our lives as our illusions.” “As is true of the great heroes of all tragedies. . . they are destroyed by their virtues.”
But all of these early plays describe the romantic dream in such a manner as to suggest that its very impossibility constitutes its beauty. The heroes seem to idealize it because it can never be realized. They not only exemplify the truth that nothing is so precious to us as our illusions, but they also imply that our illusions are really more precious than the truth: they praise the will to illusion as if it were man’s major virtue. Therefore, the plays, although realistic in dealing with the dream’s inevitable defeat, become unrealistic in implying its immeasurable value. For a dream is truly valuable only when it leads toward the realization of some possible ideal.
The impossibility of the romantic dream which inspires these early heroes is sometimes explicitly stated, and always implied. In terms of the sea, the plays describe its two mutually incompatible forms. In the first, the characters dream of perfect peace and security, freed from all the vicissitudes and hardships of the sea. In the second, they dream of romantic adventure and discovery, freed from all the drabness and routine of the farm. One group of dreamers possesses what the other group idealizes, and each imagines the other to be perfectly happy. Both, therefore, seek escape from reality to an impossible ideal.
In his very first play, Bound East for Cardiff O’Neill described the dream of the dying sailor Yank of “a farm with a house of your own with cows and pigs and chickens. . . . It must be great to have a home of your own.” And O’Neill repeated this theme throughout his early “Plays of the Sea.” And life symbolically became the “Long Voyage Home” toward a security and a peace which could never exist. In Anna Christie this impossible ideal of security found its clearest expression and its surest defeat.
But in his first successful play, Beyond the Horizon, O’Neill had already described the impossibility of the opposite dream of romantic adventure. And his dream of an escape to “the great wide spaces” of the world was to motivate many of his later plays. Whether seeking “ile” in the Arctic, gold in
California, silk in Cathay, or an idyllic love enisled in the South Seas, his heroes were to follow the same rainbow to the same end. Rejecting what security they already possessed, they were all to imagine the romantically impossible and to destroy themselves in their quest for it.
“The beauty of the far off and the unknown, the mystery and spell of the East which lures me in the books I’ve read” became the actual protagonist of The Fountain. In this last and most unrealistic of O’Neill’s early plays, “the fountain of youth” (by definition an impossibility) became an actual presence. At first it was described vaguely:
There is some far country of the East—Cathay,
Cipango, who knows—a spot that nature has set apart from men and blessed with peace. It is a sacred grove where all things live in the old harmony they knew before man came ... and in the center of the grove there is a fountain—beautiful beyond human dreams....
But at the end this fountain appeared visibly: “Oh, Luis, I begin to know eternal youth! I have found my fountain.” At the end the “soldier of iron—and dreamer,” whose two “selves” had clashed in early life, finally became the perfect dreamer and died gloriously with his dream: “God’s will be done in death!”
This romantic philosophy is very beautiful, and O’Neill’s early dramas illustrating it described it beautifully., But is also unreal, and O’Neill’s early dramas suffered from this unrealism. In describing the conflict between dream and reality, the dream was always lovely; the reality, always ugly. In response to the challenge: “There is no profit in staking life for dreams,” his heroes replied: “There is no profit in anything but that!” It was “all or nothing,” and anything less than “all” was nothing.
At first, O’Neill’s heroes concentrated on the dream of absolute beauty and found salvation in dying for it. Their dreams remained pure, and their dramas beautiful. Only in the later plays did O’Neill and his characters begin to question the romantic dream and to wonder if its unreality were really as lovely as it seemed. Therefore, the later plays became more realistic but less beautiful.
The American Reality
In his second group of plays O’Neill turned his attention from the dream of beauty to the ugliness of reality. And by focusing upon the immediate American scene, he achieved greater realism. No longer did he vaguely imagine an impossible ideal. But, in describing present day reality, he did remember the earlier dream and contrast the modern reality with it. Therefore, American “materialism” came to seem excessively ugly) The modern businessman became more than the philistine—he became the very devil’s disciple. And the actual practice of American democracy became something to be excoriated. The remembrance of the romantic dream led to the rejection of the actuality.
Like The Fountain, The Hairy Ape dealt with man’s quest for perfection and peace. But where the first had described the pure, religious quest, the second described its social implications. Now “Yank” (the Hairy Ape) dreamed not of abstract beauty but “belonging.” Acutely aware of his social inferiority, he desired an ideal brotherhood of man. And because he could never find this absolutely ideal democracy, he rejected the partial democracy which
could offer. Therefore he could find peace at last only in death, in the arms of a gorilla. But like Juan Ponce de Leon, he did remain true to his dream, and God’s will was done in death. Through his tragedy, the negative implications of the dream became more explicit. America
Yank— presumably the typical American workingman—did not want a higher standard of living, freedom or equal rights. Rather, he demanded the dream-remembered harmony of the Garden of Eden. And he was very positive about it all:
...Cut out an hour offen de job a day and make me happy! Tree square a day, and cauliflowers in de front yard—ekal rights—a woman and kids—a lousy vote—and I’m all fixed for Jesus, huh? Aw, hell! What does dat get yuh? Dis ting’s in your inside....
Our “lousy” American democracy was not for him, because he envisioned an ideal democracy. For this impossible unreality he denied both the democratic actual and also the democratic possible. With present American reality, he rejected future American possibility. Both were “materialistic” and ugly.
The Great God Brown magnified this American dualism of the materialistic and the romantic to universal proportions. William A. Brown—like his contemporary American, George F. Babbitt—became the “god” of our materialism. But in rejecting this false American “god,” O’Neill’s hero again rejected American democracy: Dion turned away from “the rabble” because “he hated to share with them fountain, flame and fruit.” That is, his romantic idealism became wholly negative. Like other Americans, he even began to worship the devil because God would not grant him his absolute ideal: “When Pan was forbidden the light and warmth of the sun he grew sensitive and self-conscious and proud and revengeful—and became Prince of Darkness.” And so Dion the romantic dreamer turned against the American world in which he lived.
In Marco Millions, O’Neill contrasted the materialism of the workday world more universally with the romantic “mystery and spell of the East.” The modern Marco alias George F. Babbitt, alias the Great God Brown—became the arch-enemy of all things beautiful and spiritual—truly an instrument of evil. And at the end the great Kaan’s voice proclaimed “with pitying scorn: ‘The Word became their flesh, they say. Now all is flesh! And can their flesh become the Word again?’ “
This question goes to the heart of O’Neill’s thought and work. And the answer—which had lain implicit in his earlier plays—became increasingly explicit in the later ones: Man cannot achieve salvation until he renounces all worldly materialism, accepts the defeat which his dream implies, and returns to spiritual faith. In striving for practical goods; man denies the ideal Good. In seeking to improve the Flesh, he forgets the Word. Therefore, according to O’Neill modern man should renounce all belief in materialistic progress and strive only for ideal perfection.
This has always been the logic of absolutism. The ideal world is good, and man instinctively worships it. The material world is bad, but man is unable to perfect it. Therefore, man should renounce the material for the absolute ideal. The early dramas had described the ideal perfection. The later ones denounced the material imperfection. It remained for the major dramas to portray the inner conflict of good and evil leading to the great renunciation.
The Human Tragedy
Lazarus Laughed, Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra form a kind of trilogy. Not only are they among O’Neill’s most successful dramas, but, on different levels of action, they carry forward his romantic logic to its inevitable conclusion. Together, they describe the human tragedy of modern man, in contrast to “The Divine Comedy” of earlier times. In the first, Lazarus realizes the paradisaic beauty of an impossible ideal. In the second, Nina Leeds struggles through a purgatorial com-promise between the ideal and the actual. Finally, Lavinia Mannon recognizes the impossibility of achieving the ideal and symbolically accepts damnation for man’s materialism. Written in this order and moving down these steps of logic, these three dramas describe the tragedy of man who envisions the perfect, struggles vainly to achieve it, and finally accepts inevitable defeat.
Lazarus Laughed is the most ideal of all O’Neill’s works. It was his own favorite.’ It is one of the finest dramas of pure mysticism in the language. Yet it has never been produced professionally. Among the major works of
’s first dramatist, it alone has never become popular. Its beauty remains strangely remote. If the reason for this lies partly in the unpopularity of all mysticism, it also lies in the peculiarly absolute quality of O’Neill’s mysticism. America
The modern Lazarus becomes the archetype of all O’Neill’s unworldly dreamers. Like the hero of Beyond the Horizon, he had always been “impractical” and a “failure in life.” Like the hero of The Fountain, he had been “born a dreamer,” who can realize his ideal only in death. But now Lazarus Laughed actually begins where The Fountain ended—with the death of its hero. The plot follows the life of Lazarus after his resurrection from the grave. In human terms, it seeks to describe the “practical effect” of “the fountain of youth” upon the divine hero and upon his human followers.
The greatness of this drama is that it translates the dream of divine perfection into human terms. Lazarus himself incarnates the perfection, and the various imperfect human beings who come under his influence illustrate various aspects of it. The psychological reactions of these people are convincing, and their physical reactions seem natural, for the most part. The conflict between Roman materialism and Christian idealism is imaginatively realized in both words and acts. Lazarus truly speaks and lives like one who has overcome the human fear of pain and death and has now learned to live life affirmatively—freed from the negative dread of losing his own.
But the weakness of Lazarus Laughed is that this absolutely perfect hero fails to move us. His sorrows and sufferings leave us cold because, if he does not feel pain and fear, neither do we feel them for him. Only the natural reactions of other men toward him truly move us—and, paradoxically, the vestiges of human weakness which this all-to-perfect Lazarus sometimes betrays. When he stretches out his hand to prevent his wife, Miriam, from eating the poisoned peach which the Romans offer her, we feel the thrill of recognition. But, when he himself dies without apparent emotion, we remain unmoved. The tragedy of absolute perfection is not tragic.
And if it be objected that Lazarus merely realizes the ideal of Jesus: “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” the answer is that no man can possibly realize such absolute perfection. Even Jesus cried out in despair on the cross: “My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” And his human cry has echoed down the ages. But O’Neill’s mystical Lazarus does dramatically realize the impossible. And O’Neill, in his other plays, either damns his human protagonists for not also realizing the impossible, or praises them for rejecting the possible in favor of their dream of an impossible perfection—only the impossible is truly good.
Strange Interlude, on the other hand, describes the all-too-human compromises of Nina Leeds in her attempt to realize the ideal life which the death of her fiancé, Gordon Shaw, has denied her. Through subterfuge and deception she moves toward the fulfillment of her human desires. When Lazarus Laughed dramatized perfection, Strange Interlude dramatizes imperfection.
But unlike Lazarus Laughed, which was ideally perfect, Strange Interlude proved deeply moving. In spite of its irregularity and its extreme length, it was translated more often than any of O’Neill’s other plays.’ In its characters human audiences recognized themselves and their own failures to realize their own ideals. This dramatization of the sources of human imperfection seemed more significant than the dramatization of superhuman perfection.
The plot of Strange Interlude is contrived to dramatize the conflicts and compromises of imperfect man. Because Nina’s ideal love cannot be realized, her actual love must be divided among three different men: husband, lover, and father. And the motives underlying these imperfect types of love are made more clear by means of subconscious thoughts spoken by the characters. No early drama of O’Neill’s equals this in subtlety of characterization or sharpness of conflict. Man’s sinful compromises with his ideal are fully realized in terms of character and action.
Yet the plot of Strange Interlude is artificially contrived to make the normal achievement of true love impossible and to make this weak compromise inevitable. Not only is the ideal lover killed before the action begins, but the substitute husband is arbitrarily declared insane. Thus the ideal, which might at least have been partially realized, is denied. And this device of insanity is truly arbitrary and romantic, resembling Jane Eyre and the old Gothic novels rather than modern realistic fiction. It merely declares in dramatic terms the impossibility of the realization of human dreams.
Thus Strange Interlude pointed to the conclusion toward which O’Neill’s thoughts had steadily been moving. Because man’s dream is impossible and because man by nature is materialistic and sinful, his very attempt to realize his dream in this world must lead him into the evil which he seeks to escape. The very nature of his dream dooms him: —Romantic imagination! It has ruined more lives than all the diseases! Other diseases, I should say! It’s a form of insanity!’” That same romantic dream of human perfection, which at first seemed so beautiful, has actually become the source of all evil.
Mourning Becomes Electra carried this logic to its bitter conclusion and ended O’Neill’s long quest of “the secret hidden beyond the horizon.” And because the logic of romantic tragedy has always been perfectly negative, this drama attained a kind of diabolical perfection. Where Lazarus Laughed described an impossible divine perfection and Strange Interlude described a typically human imperfection, Mourning Becomes Electra described an almost perfect human depravity. It reached a dead end of denial.
The exact plotting of this modern Electra story and the subtle psychology by which the old myth is modernized are perhaps less important than the romantic theme of “the Blessed Isles,” which motivates it. Against a somber background of Yankee “materialism,” the characters describe their “dream” of peace in some ideal island of the
South Seas. First Adam Brant, who has actually been there, tells Lavinia of these isles. Then Orin Mannon describes his dreams of them, suggested by reading Melville’s Types: “I read it and reread it until finally those Islands came to mean everything that wasn’t war, everything that was peace and warmth and security. I used to dream I was there … –– the most beautiful island in the world–as beautiful as you mother!”
Then on board the clipper ship, in the central scene of the play, Brant and Christine Mannon plan their actual escape to “the Blessed Isles––Maybe we can still find happiness and forget!” But the avenging furies strike, and the family destroys itself until only Lavinia is left. But she raises the play to greatness by her denial of the romantic dream which has fooled all the others. Her final words seem both literal and symbolic: “ ‘Tell Hannah to throw out all the flowers.’” The old dream of ideal beauty has been discarded.
A Letter from O’Neill
Logically, this negation should be the end: if perfection is impossible and if reality is ugly truth that must grimly be endured, then “the rest is silence.” And for fifteen years after writing Mourning Becomes Electra, O’Neill kept comparatively silent. Once, in Dynamo, he retold the tragedy of American Materalism. Twice he sought to salvage some comfort from despair: Ah, Wilderness! Reaffirmed the beauty of the romantic dream, and Days Without End preached the value of an immaterial faith. But he refused from 1934 to 1946 to allow the publication or production of any new play.
This refusal may have been artistic caution. But more probably his long silence was caused by his failure to find a way out of the iley into which his logic had led. If man’s dream of perfection is impossible and if worldly compromise is ignoble and materialistic, then man is doomed to despair in this world. The alternatives to the old American ideal of progress were the romantic dream of beauty, the romantic reaction of despair, and the other-worldly religion of comfort. O’Neill had explored the beauty beyond the horizon and the wasteland of despair. But he had not found “the secret hidden over there,” nor did it seem in 1945, that he had reconciled himself to the impossibility of finding it.
But from 1939 to 1943 he had been writing the final tragedies which many now believe to be his greatest. And in 1945 he wrote a long letter commenting on my preceding critique of his plays, which had just been published.’ In this letter he fully approved the description of his earlier dramas as romantic, but he also affirmed his belief in the superiority of his final dramas, as yet unpublished.
March 24th 1945
My dear Mr. Carpenter:
I am extremely grateful for your courtesy in sending me a copy of your “The Romantic Tragedy of Eugene O’Neill.” I have read it with the greatest pleasure and satisfaction and I find it a sound piece of critical interpretation. Of course, there is this and that to which I take exception, but what of it. The main thing is that I feel so keenly that you really hit what is below the surface... .
I am particularly grateful for the high place you give “Lazarus Laughed.” I do not rate it as my best now. “Mourning Becomes Electra” is—of all the old plays. “Long Day’s Journey into Night” written in ’40 - ’41 is the best of all, I now think. And “The Iceman Cometh” written in ’39 - ’40 is surely one of the top flight. So I think is “A Moon for the Misbegotten” written in ’41. As for the Cycle of nine plays, (“A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed”), covering a period from 1775-1932, I put that on the shelf in 1939, with three of the plays in first draft and one finished. For the past two years I’ve done nothing at all. My health has had me down, as has been the case more or less frequently since my crack-up in ’36 - ’37–operation, months in hospital, etc....
Again, much gratitude for your article. You will find in “The Iceman Cometh,” which will be the first to be produced when I decide to produce, much that will agree with your last sentence—and much that won’t!
(signed) Eugene O’Neill
This letter is interesting for several reasons. First, O’Neill heartily accepted the description of his early dramas as “romantic,” and he did not object to the explicit criticism of their anti-pragmatic bias. His own interpretation of “American reality” had always been negative, and it remained so. The historic American philosophy, which has defined the ideal in terms of the pragmatically possible, seemed to him merely materialistic. Therefore his own American “heroes,” “the great god Brown” and “Marco Millions,” had merely denied all American idealisms. And his negative logic of romantic absolutism perhaps led him to abandon his projected Cycle of nine plays dealing with the history of an American family (“A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed”). Even the single drama which he salvaged from the Cycle (“A Touch of the Poet”) seemed to him not worth considering among “my best.”
But three of his late dramas, which did not deal with American history (except in personal terms), seemed to him “top flight.” And Long Day’s Journey was “the best of all.” With this opinion of the author, modern critical judgement, from 1946 to the present, has enthusiastically agreed. The three plays, which he wrote after his “crackup” and between the frequent visits to the hospital which signaled the onset of that tragic nervous disorder which finally caused his death, include two of his greatest. Not the five years of good health which followed the writing of Mourning Becomes Electra, therefore, but the years of increasingly ill health which followed them produced his greatest dramas. There can be no physical explanation for this fact. His final dramas merely transcended the romantic logic which had governed his earlier work; they took off into a new dimension.
O’Neill himself hinted obliquely at this new logic: “You will find in The Iceman Cometh,” he wrote, “much that will agree with your last sentence—and much that won’t!” (The “last sentence” had complained: “He has not yet found ‘the secret hidden over there,’ nor has he fully reconciled himself to the impossibility of finding it.”) The Iceman now described dramatically the impossibility of man’s “pipe-dreams” of finding the secret of life; and, in the process of this dramatic description, the play suggested the author’s reconciliation with this tragic impossibility. It is this final reconciliation, perhaps, which enabled O’Neill to transcend the earlier tragedies of his own dramatic creation and to achieve that perfect objectivity which only the greatest writers have ever achieved.
In his final dramas, O’Neill no longer celebrated the romantic dreams of his characters, nor condemned their selfish material-ism, nor even participated emotionally in their human tragedies. Rather, he transcended both the actions and the passions which he described, so that his characters seemed to live out their tragedies without help or hindrance of author. The final dramas ceased to be romantic and became “transcendental.”
But the author’s transcendence of his material and his achievement of objectivity toward it did not diminish the earthy realism or the emotional intensity of the tragedies—rather, the reverse. These final dramas actually seem more real—and they actually are more autobiographical—than the early ones. Their “transcendence” lies not in the subject matter but in the author’s disinvolvement from it. By his own account, O’Neill wrote Long Day’s Journey “with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones.” In these dramas he transcended both his own earlier self and the earlier romantic tragedy that he had produced.
In all the earlier dramas, he had identified himself emotionally with one of his characters, and he had condemned others. In The Great God Brown, for instance, he obviously sympathized with Dion Anthony, the sensitive dreamer, rather than with Billy Brown, the unfeeling materialist. In Desire Under the Elms (which has been described as an “unconscious autobiographical drama”), he identified with the young Eben Cabot’s opposition to his unfeeling father, Ephraim. And in Marco Millions, his identification with “the great Kaan” (a dramatic incarnation of “the mystery and spell of the East which lures me in the books I’ve read”) became complete, as did his condemnation of the materialistic Marco. But in the later plays, O’Neill kept himself aloof. In The Iceman, he no longer identified with the sensitive philosopher, Larry, who suffered from “the wrong kind of pity.” And in Long Day’s Journey, he achieved objectivity even toward his autobiographical self.
The true subject of these final dramas—as of all the earlier ones—is still the romantic dream of beauty, and “the secret which is hidden over there, beyond the horizon.” But whereas the earlier plays had celebrated this dream and whereas Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra had denounced the “disease” of the romantic imagination, the final dramas neither celebrate nor denounce. Just as the later O’Neill held himself aloof from his heroes, and neither sympathized with nor criticized them, so he described their “pipe-dreams” with equal objectivity. Both the petty self-deceptions of the drunken denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon and the major self-delusion of Hickey, the salesman of salvation, seem to exist “beyond good and evil.” But, unlike the early imaginings of the early dramas, they no longer suggest a Nietzschean immoralism. The later plays do not deny the reality of good and evil—they transcend it.
This final transcendence finds its most perfect expression in O’Neill’s most perfect play. Long Day’s Journey Into Night dramatizes the fundamental fact of human evil but never denounces it. The mother’s progressive retreat from reality into the ultimate “pipe-dream” of opium addiction is never described as evil. But its causes in the actions of the father and of society, and its effects upon the sufferings of the father and of his sons, are dramatized with perfect objectivity. The tangled web of self-deception which leads to the final tragedy is laid bare. But the final result is neither sentimental pity, nor moral condemnation, but perfect understanding: “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.”
The “transcendental” tragedy of the later O’Neill achieves a goal much like that of the Oriental religion and philosophy which “lured” O’Neill throughout his life, and which found final expression in “Tao House.” In the final tragedies, the veil of Maya seems to be torn aside and all the illusions of human life laid bare. Romantic dreams are exposed as the delusions they are. And yet, unlike O’Neill’s earlier dramas and unlike all the romantic literature of the modern Occident, these dreams are no longer seen as beautiful, nor are they seen as evil. Rather, they are recognized as the very substance of human life. As Larry remarks in The Iceman: “The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober.” The veil of Maya is the substance of life itself.
But the goal of life, then, is the recognition that all man’s dreams and romantic imaginings are, indeed, illusions. When man accepts the fact that he can never find “the secret hidden over there” and reconciles himself to the impossibility of finding it, he may realize perfect peace. When the veil of Maya is torn aside, he may achieve an approximation of Nirvana. This modern philosophy of tragedy, which sees man’s life as necessarily doomed to defeat, but also suggests that man’s recognition of the necessity of defeat may constitute a kind of victory, arrives at much the same goal as the most important religions of the Orient. But with one significant difference.
Tragedy offers the means of distancing and of rendering acceptable man’s recognition of the necessary defeat of his dreams. In the “temple” of the tragic theater, the artistic ritual of man’s doom is acted out before an actual audience. And this formal tragedy, viewed objectively, can then be recognized as symbolic reality. By dramatizing man’s romantic dreams and acting out their inevitable defeat, O’Neill was able to remove his tragedy from the realm of realistic description to that of transcendent art. Thus distanced, his tragic audience could contemplate with equanimity the illusory nature of their dreams and desires. And the Oriental Nirvana, or the stilling of human desires, could then become the transcendence of these desires and the recognition of their illusory nature.
The Final Tragedies
The final tragedies which O’Neill wrote in his declining years— The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten—also form a kind of trilogy. But, unlike the earlier “trilogy” of Lazarus Laughed, Strange Interlude, and Mourning Becomes Electra, which described in descending other man’s fall from a paradisaic ideal through a purgatorial compromise to a hell of denial and despair, this final trilogy describes the soul’s ascent from the depths. The Iceman dramatizes the coming of “death,” but it suggests that despair may be transcended by the understanding of man’s romantic illusions. Long Day’s Journey describes the purgatorial life of the Tyrone family, who hope that the mother may conquer her dope-addiction but who learn finally to understand the reasons for it. And A Moon suggests the final peace that results from a strange kind of love stripped of all romantic illusions.
This final trilogy may also be described in terms of the symbolic time in which the actions occur. The Iceman develops in the half-light of a dim, alcoholic world, and it ends, symbolically, after midnight: “around 1:30 A.M.” Long Day’s Journey describes the more normal events of daily life, but it also ends after midnight, having explored the dark night of the human soul. Finally, most of the action of A Moon takes place by moonlight, but the last acts ends, symbolically, at daybreak. O’Neill’s final tragedy might have been named “Long Night’s Vigil for the Dawn.” The spiritual death which “the iceman” symbolizes has often been emphasized by the critics, and the dark night in which the “long day’s journey” ends is emphasized by the title; but O’Neill’s own dramatic career ended with this symbolic sunrise. Nevertheless, he greeted this new day sardonically and without illusions at the end of A Moon; for Hogan asks Josie: “Are you going to moon at the sunrise forever?”
If these final tragedies form a sort of trilogy and if their action advances from twilight through night to sunrise, these dramas are as unlike the traditional Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso as can be imagined. Each O’Neill play contains a mixture of rowdy comedy with grim tragedy, and the mood of each remains ironically ambivalent. If The Iceman describes a kind of human hell, in whose lower depths men find their wills paralyzed and their emotions frozen, as Dante’s Satan was frozen in the depths of the Inferno, it also describes a drunken comradeship in which men can at last “belong.” If Long Day’s Journey describes the purgatorial sufferings of the autobiographical hero, it also recalls the exaltation of his mystical experiences at sea, and it suggests his future recovery and final victory. And conversely, if A Moon ends without actual hope and within the shadow of the death of James Tyrone, it still brings the promise of peace and a sort of salvation. Throughout his career O’Neill’s dramatic thought followed a fairly clear, consistent course. First, he celebrated the romantic dream, and his heroes achieved exaltation by means of it. Next, he described the tragedy of an American materialism divorced from all dreams. Then, with Lazarus, he imagined perfection. But progressively he realized the distortions and delusions inherent in the romantic imagination of man. Having lost faith in the dream, he projected a cycle of tragedies to describe the decline of an American family through history. But, having lost faith, he found that he could no longer create successfully. Finally, by facing down the delusions of his own autobiographical past, he transcended his despair. Within these actual delusions—within the drunken fellowship’ of his beachcomber days, the natural violence of his life at sea, and the twisted relationships of his own family—he found the possibility of transcendence. But this possibility no longer lay in a romantic Beauty beyond the horizon. It lay, rather, in Josie Hogan’s pigsty.