Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Retreat Behind Language

O’Neill maintains an ambiguous response to the mode in which he writes. His characters are forever quoting—usually from poets, on occasion from playwrights. In doing so they are attempting an ironic distancing from themselves.
Apt or not, the words they speak are not their own. They are retreating behind language, a language which has already been shaped by other consciousnesses. Art itself thus becomes a kind of mask, another protective device. And this was the paradox of his art. The touch of the poet, which is the mark of so many of his characters, betrays a desire to reshape the world which is equally the origin of that evasion of the real which is at times the essence of their self-betrayal. The writer, as in The Arabian Nights, is in effect staving off death. The story becomes life giving or at least death defeating. O’Neill’s characters are poets manqués. Lan­guage is the essence of their resistance.
Greek and Shakespearean tragedy assumed the existence of a moral universe in which justice would eventually exert its supremacy. It took for granted that man was a part of an homogeneous world and that to place oneself in opposition to that world was to invite destruction. O’Neill’s characters inhabit a very different world. For him there was a fundamental gulf between the individual and the world, a gulf which he and his charac­ters sought to close through holistic schemata, through religion, politics or a Nietzschean assertion of pagan continuities.
In the synopsis which he wrote at Le Plessis and which is dated June 1939, O’Neill tried out various titles for his new play. Two of these were The Long Day’s Retirement and The Long Day’s Retreat. Both titles identify a basic theme of the play and, indeed, of O’Neill’s work. For the play is patterned around the various strategies of retreat adopted by the tortured Tyrone family, while, again like so much of his work, the rhetorical method of the play is patterned on statements made and then retracted, sentences which are withdrawn before they are completed, cruelties interdicted by compassion, kindnesses unmade by bitterness. Theirs is a world of incom­pleted gestures, needs never satisfied, longings never realised.
The whole Tyrone family is in retreat. They live in a house set back from the harbour road on the fringe of the town (O’Neill’s sketch for the house is an almost exact reproduction of his family’s New London home). They seem to have no real friends. Their isolation is underlined by the fog that swirls in from the sea, separating them more completely and acting as an image of that progressive withdrawal from the world which is in some ways the subject of the play and which is embodied most directly in the figure of Mary Tyrone, originally to have been called Stella. Her gradual eclipse lies at the centre of Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Her retreat had begun long before. On the death of her first child, a death for which she blamed herself and her husband since she had left the baby to join him on tour, she had conceived James Jr as a way of blotting out the fact of that death and denying that guilt. Thus, ironically, James’s birth had been the first stage in a progressive retirement from self-knowledge, from personal responsibility and from the meaning of death. And when a quack doctor gives her morphine to relieve the pain of that birth he opens another avenue of escape.
When the play begins, having successfully withdrawn from her addic­tion for several months, she has just returned to her dependency, frightened by Edmund’s illness. But the drug only provides the most tangible evidence of her retreat. Her most obvious resource is a retreat into language. Her family’s bitterness and suspicion make them unavailable for consolation, so that she staves off self-awareness with a nervous loquacity as her hands flutter with an equally aimless movement. “I know it’s useless to talk,” she admits, “but sometimes I feel so lonely.” Her solipsism, however, is merely an intense form of an isolation which is more generally applicable. As O’Neill indicates in his scenario for the play, she and her husband “stare helplessly at each other, the helpless stare of a man and woman who have known each other and never known each other.” O’Neill’s, like Tennessee Williams’s characters, are sentenced to solitary confinement inside their own skins for life.
The intensification of isolation is given concrete form in Mary’s retreat into the spare room, always a sign of the detachment, and will for detach­ment, which comes from her resort to morphine. And this movement is intensified by the fog which stands as an image of her withdrawal. Indeed in his notes O’Neill outlines what he called the “weather progression” of the play. The action begins on a fine morning. The fog is clearing. In the second act, as his notes indicate, the sunshine dims and with it Tyrone’s optimism. In the third act the first distant sound of a fog horn acts as an ominous sign which Tyrone still resists, hoping that the fog will stay out at sea. But in the fourth act it finally arrives and encloses them. For Mary and for Edmund it is welcome, for the former because it makes concealment possible, for the latter because it destroys the distinction between the real and the illusory.
But if her retreat is described in terms of present reality, a kind of horizontal schema, it also has a vertical dimension. Unable to face a future consisting of her own addiction and guilt and her son’s illness, she retreats into the past. The dead son becomes the only son she had loved because he represents the unambiguous. Beyond that she recalls the days of her court-ship and trails her wedding-dress behind her, finding a lyricism in her description of its simple beauty which has disappeared from her own life. And behind that she turns to a religious faith which is the last possible retreat, to the Virgin Mary who conceived without sin and who thus was free of a guilt which in some ways is inseparable from sexual knowledge. What she yearns for, in other words, is innocence, as do all the Tyrones. And in order to assert that innocence they are ready to accuse one another.
The shifting alliances which they form were very much a part of the original plan for the play. Relationships resolve themselves into “battles” (O’Neill’s word in the notes for what he called his “New London Play”), and O’Neill reminded himself, in his notes, to ensure that the movement of the play would correspond to these shifting alliances. But this hostility does continuous battle with an ambiguous love, ambiguous because it is both the source of consolation and of pain and as such is an expression of a basic paradox of existence. Hence it is James Tyrone’s love for his wife which leads him to want her with him on tour. Yet it is that presence which leads to the death of her child. It is a paradox which baffles and bewilders her and which O’Neill planned that she should only perceive clearly in the final act. His notes for what was to have been a fifth act (he eventually divided the second act into two scenes) read: “just before end, she snaps [partly illegible] into awareness again—the trouble is all love each other—so easy to leave if indifferent, or could just hate—but no, we have to love each other —even you, Jamie—when you say wish father would die—oh, I know you mean that at times—I have meant it, too—but you know very well you love and respect, too.” It is a realisation which she is not permitted in the final version, a journey towards self-perception and clarity of thought which would have been inconsistent with her clouded mind, her retreat into the past and the pervasive imagery of fog. But it is a perception which still lies at the heart of the play. As it is, the irony is caught more delicately in the final reverie about her youth and her observation that “in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.” The ironic implications of a blighted spring, of life turned against itself, were familiar enough. There seems a clear echo of the concluding sentence of The Sun Also Rises. But the final image of the play is reminiscent of the stasis of a Beckett play and, indeed, the final moments of The Iceman Cometh. For after the emotional turmoil and the unnerving articulateness of the play we are left with silence and immobility. Mary “stares before her in a sad dream. Tyrone stirs in his chair; Edmund and Jamie remain motionless.” And there is a sense in which they are involved in an endlessly repeated ritual. Though the play is specifi­cally located in 1912, the characters are in a sense merely re-enacting an archetypal experience. Edmund’s attempted suicide had its parallel in the suicide of Tyrone’s father while Edmund’s tuberculosis reflects that of Mary’s mother.
His notion of character remains much as it had been in the earlier plays. It is reactive. It bears the imprint of heredity and environment, though his concern is less naturalistic than metaphysical. And clearly in the context of this family, in which the baby Eugene had died, Edmund has been arbitrarily struck down by illness, and his mother saddled with an addiction which controlled her before she was aware of it, there is a validity granted to Mary’s lament that “None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.” Except, of course, that the true self has no existence outside the ironies generated by the collision between platonic form and reality. Jamie’s cynicism, parodied by Edmund—“Everything’s in the bag! It’s all a frame-up! We’re all fall guys and suckers and we can’t beat the game”—is inadequate because it pre­sumes no resistant impulse, because it fails to take account of the imperfect but constantly asserted compassion which is in part generated by that sense of shared victimisation. The Catholic faith is seen as purely a retreat from truth, but love, though implicated in the deterministic drive, is not simply anodyne. It operates even in the face of a full knowledge of the real. Nor does it ever become a simple piety, as it does, for example, in the work of fames Baldwin, or Tennessee Williams at their weakest. It may be invoked, as it is by Mary, as an excuse for not facing the truth about herself but she is right in refusing to grant her addiction as constituting an adequate defini­tion of her life. As she says to her husband, “We’ve loved each other! We always will! Let’s remember only that, and not try to understand what we cannot understand, or help things that cannot be helped—the things life has done to us we cannot excuse or explain.” And it is true that, though love and happiness have not proved synonymous, love does still operate.
And though Mary is the principal focus for the theme of blunted aspirations (the girl who wanted to be a concert pianist and now has crip­pled hands; who wanted to be a nun and married an actor), the other characters stand as variations on that theme. Tyrone is sensible of having thrown away his chance to be a great actor by settling for material rewards; James is jealous of his brother’s talents and has become a pathetic drunk; Edmund’s poetic sensibility has been deflected into a self-pitying admiration for other writers, literature itself becoming a retreat. And so the Tyrones cling together, afraid of the future and unable to face the past because that is to remind themselves of a promise which was in part blighted by their own wilfulness as well as by the operation of something they wish to dignify with the name of fate. For the truth is that they all allow absolute authority to the past. As Mary says, “The past is the present, isn’t it. It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.” They, like her, accept the present as itself only as illusion. O’Neill’s description of Mary’s state could apply equally well to the rest of the family. For they, like her, have “found refuge and release in a dream where present reality is but an appearance to be accepted and dismissed unfeelingly—even with a hard cynicism—or entirely ignored.” The only refuge is the past, the world of childhood innocence. Indeed Mary even suggests that it would have been better had Edmund died, for then he would have been spared suffering. Thus life is suffering which can only be avoided by death.
And Edmund himself is attracted by this oblivion—seeing the fog as blotting out the real, removing him from the social context which is the source of his pain. “I didn’t meet a soul. Everything looked and sounded unreal. Nothing was what it is. That’s what I wanted—to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself.” In other words only by destroying the other can he destroy pain, but by destroying the other he denies himself not only consolation but identity itself. And the logical extension of this is death, literal or figurative. “I even lost the feeling of being on land. The fog and the sea seemed part of each other. It was like walking on the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago.” Alcohol and morphine are simply ways to approximate this death, attempts to annihilate time which is the source of all ironies, for it is that which turns spring into autumn, childhood into adulthood, hope into the frustrated dream.
Man’s fate, as O’Neill sees it, is to glimpse order and unity and live with disorder and chaos. As Edmund remarks, “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.” This is the absurdist vision against which the individual can only pitch compassion and a poetic sense, a creative reshaping of the world which creates a pro-visional beauty. They all possess a touch of the poet. For them, as for O’Neill, this is the source of meaning, and Edmund’s comment on his own talent is essentially O’Neill’s description of his own position as a playwright. “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. I mean, if I live. Well, it will be a faithful realism at least. Stammering is the native eloquence for us fog people.” The gap between language and experience is akin to the gap between aspiration and fulfilment.
This stands, paradoxically, as O’Neill’s most eloquent statement of his own achievement. Having looked for an adequate response to existence he found it in the end in the love with which he was able to approach his wife and his family and in the art with which he faithfully rendered the imper­fections and ironies of the life which had given him such pain (a pain now literally undermining his ability to write), but which had also given him a glimpse of meaning, a sense, finally, of belonging to the world from which he had felt so alienated. For through his art he achieved a loss of self which was transcendence rather than death, a denial of time which was not eva­sion but recognition of higher values.
I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, be-came beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and
the dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself. [And this is] the end of the quest, the last harbour, the joy of belonging to a fulfilment beyond men’s lousy, pitiful, greedy fears and hopes and dreams.

And yet they do move closer to truth, admitting to their own failings, to the jealousies, the unrealised dreams which had made them turn against others in preference to facing the guilt which can be located nowhere but in their own hearts.

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