Both The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night are set in 1912, and present a group of people isolated together from the world. But they are antithetical in several ways. One takes place in aThe four characters belong to a nuclear family and O’Neill explores the nature of their bondage to it and to each other. For all its breadth, The Iceman Cometh is the less complex of the two plays in construction and emotional effect. The images it projects disturb the audience and make them sharply aware of contradictions normally thrust aside in the activity of daily living. Those of Long Day’s Journey into Night take the audience into their very selves. In both plays, the audience are made conscious that chaos and isolation lie threateningly behind the action but, whereas in The Iceman Cometh the character who perceives this most fully is continually moved to the periphery of the action, all four characters in Long Day’s Journey into Night move steadily closer to articulation of such knowledge.
bar, the other in a family home in a New York City New England small town. In the one play, a large group of men of widely different backgrounds are met in a society constructed by them to meet their needs and O’Neill explores their relationship to each other and to that society, letting us glimpse more intimate personal relationships through the eyes of only one of the participants. In the other play, the scale of the action is narrowed to just such intimate relationships.
The multiplicity of The Iceman Cometh, the impression we have of there being many changes and happenings to take into account, the theatrical zest of the piece, derive from the astonishing range of character projected. In Long Day’s Journey into Night, there are four major characters, where in the earlier play there were seventeen. Whatever variety or intensity, sadness or humour the play has must come from the dialogue and gesture of these four. My purpose [here] is to consider how it does so.
The language offers an immediate measure of the change in focus between The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night. The bold range of national and class dialect of the earlier play is not found in the later, where all four characters speak Standard American English. Their speech is no less clearly differentiated than in the earlier play but the process of recognition here is a slower one. The audience gradually becomes attuned, through shifts in the syntactic and lexical arrangement of the dialogue and through recurrent topics of conversation, to the various registers which exist within the speech of each character. The smaller number of characters and the more gradual method of projecting them, allow O’Neill to probe behind the idiosyncratic surface and explore the varying and even conflicting elements of individual identity. The method is similar to that used in presenting Larry Slade but is developed in a more intensive way. Whereas the old anarchist sat alone at the edge of the stage, the characters here are all fully embroiled in the action and continually interact with each other. When new information causes us to alter our assumptions about a character then our idea of his relationship with each of the other characters is altered, too.
The conventions associated with drama help to shape the audience’s acceptance of the illusion of the reality of the stage world. Compared with people in life, the characters of The Iceman Cometh are caricatures and yet, as we have seen, they have an extraordinary vitality during the play. In his essay on Tourneur, Eliot pointed out the necessity of characters being “real in relation to each other” if the conventions are to operate and said:
[Tourneur’s characters] may be distortions, grotesques, almost childish caricatures of humanity, but they are all distorted to scale. Hence the whole action, from their appearance to their ending, “no common action” indeed, has its own self-subsistent reality.
Having noted the importance of internal consistency, we must also ac-knowledge that there are plays whose action and emotion seem more searingly close to ourselves than is usual, whose characters, as Eliot says elsewhere of Shakespeare’s figures, “represent a more complex tissue of feelings and desires as well as a more supple, a more susceptible temperament” than we normally find in plays. In the common shorthand, such figures are labelled “fully rounded” or “three dimensional”. But whilst such characters have been readily enough identified, there have been few attempts to discover how they are created in the dialogue.
Many commentators, attributing the roundedness of the characters of Long Day’s Journey into Night to the autobiographical origins of the play, have been concerned to describe O’Neill’s private relationships in the period in which the play is set. But this is to slide away from the crucial questions about how the play works, since autobiographical writing is not, per se, binding on its audience. Although the personal nature of the material may well quicken the writer’s imagination, it can only speak to the audience when it has been shaped by that imagination into an artistic form with its own unity, apart from the life.
If the play is an emotionally harrowing experience, it is so because of the stage characters and the stage action. However lifelike they seem, characters have their existence only in relation to the stage action, and exist in their particular form because of the way the writer has selected and organized words and gestures. The dramatist writes dialogue, not speech, and presents not the O’Neills, who are people, but the Tyrones, who are characters.
In the wake of the various psychological and sociological descriptions of personality of the last hundred years, have come a succession of attacks on the idea of richly delineated, autonomous characters in fiction by writers who claim that these belie reality with their false coherence. In the preface to Lady Julie, in one of the earliest of such statements, Strindberg argued that if the dramatist is to reveal ourselves to ourselves he must do so through figures that are characterless since, far from being the self-consistent wholes generally portrayed on the stage, people are unpredictable, “vacillating,” “riven asunder.” His own characters he described as being:
conglomerations from past and present stages of civilization; they are excerpts from books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, pieces torn from festive garments which have become rags—just as the soul itself is a piece of patchwork. Besides this, I have provided a little evolutionary history in making the weaker repeat phrases stolen from the stronger, and in making my souls borrow “ideas”—suggestions, as they are called, from one another.
(trans. C. D. Locock, International Modern Plays [Everyman])
But such is the force of the convention that we assimilate and order the fragmentary information and create for ourselves a clear idea of the three individuals, Julie, Jean and Kristen, who appear on the stage. The audience draws from the text the kind of characterization that the pattern of set, plot and coherent dialogue leads it to expect. It is only when Strindberg robs us of these expectations by positing the play as a dream and not a mimesis of life, in the Chamber plays and To Damascus, that the audience finds itself unable to naturalize the text in this way.
O’Neill seems to have shared Strindberg’s theory of human personality but, in writing the play, takes the audience’s ordering impulse as his starting point. He develops an idiosyncratic language pattern for each character, thus differentiating them and giving each an identity. He then proceeds to vary and occasionally break these patterns so that each speaks with several different and even conflicting voices. Each appears many-faceted, an unpredictable amalgam and yet, at any given moment, still himself, distinct from any other figure on the stage.
The method of Long Day’s Journey into Night, like that of The Iceman Cometh was prefigured in a less complex way in the early plays. As we saw [earlier], Jim Harris’s low-colloquial speech, in All God’s Chillun Got Wings, was modified towards Standard by stages throughout the play. At the realistic level, his growing articulacy indicated his educational progress and marked the passing of time whilst, at the symbolic level, it signalled his spiritual growth. In Desire under the Elms, O’Neill attempted something rather more complicated. Ephraim’s
New England low-colloquial was coloured by an idiosyncratic use of biblical vocabulary and syntax which became more evident when he was roused by anger or lust. Filtered into the speech of other characters, particularly at moments when they sought to defy Ephraim, such religious language revealed the influence of the old man on them. So, James Tyrone’s speech mode in Long Day’s Journey into Night varies according to his emotional state and, at times, both sons echo his manner. Mary Tyrone’s utterance is closer to the model of Jim Harris in that her speech changes under the influence of the drug she takes and is actually different from act to act. Changes in her speech serve to mark the passage of time too although, here, the movement is not from present to future, but from present to remembered past. Jamie uses two distinct and conflicting registers, one of which is usually consciously adopted but some-times seems to take demonic possession, whilst Edmund, still a young man with several paths open to him, has a range of voices some directly imitative of Jamie or of the writers he admires, but none so distinct as those of the other members of the family... .
One of the more firmly fixed dramatic conventions is that there should be a hero, a central figure. Much of the emotional intensity of this play derives from O’Neill’s deliberate breaking of the convention. The audience’s impulse to identify with one character is continually satisfied and then frustrated. At any given moment, one of the four dominates the action revealing his thought in such a way that our sympathy is engaged but, immediately, his words and gestures alienate that sympathy and his place is taken by another. The resulting tension binds the audience to the action by insisting that they hold the claims of all four characters in mind and delay judgement on what they see. Even as one figure expresses his spiritual isolation, we find ourselves relating his words to each of the other three and, by extension, to all human experience. The relationship between the four characters, from which none can wholly separate himself, is as much O’Neill’s subject as is the quest of each for individual meaning. As the play proceeds, we recognize that each character is both supported and crippled by the relationship and that these elements are tightly enmeshed. O’Neill uses particular linguistic devices to create what might be called a “family rhythm.” These are responsible for much of the surface variety of the play and also for its underlying coherence, since they permeate the action, seeming to root the characters together in their shared past.
Most obviously, but nevertheless importantly for the tone of the play, the characters address each other familiarly. They tease each other about little personal matters, snoring, reducing, digesting. They laugh at the same jokes. The Shaughnessy joke, for example, told by Edmund in act 1, is humorous in itself, but is used by O’Neill as a surface event behind whose cover he can demonstrate the patterns of grievance and affection which coexist between the characters. The family comes together to share the joke but breaks apart immediately when father turns the laughter into an attack on son, and the story itself is repeatedly interrupted by the tangential comments of the listeners which reveal their private attitudes and indicate their habitual positions. Quarrels, too, flair out of nothing and are quickly deflated, allegiances shift and each character puts in his word in a manner possible only amongst people with a history of such interactions. O’Neill is confronting the audience with the pattern of its own familiar conversations and asking them to leap its gaps and understand its shared assumptions. Something of this can be seen in a fairly lighthearted exchange early in act 1: Edmund breaks into a conversation about other matters with a reference back to Mary’s earlier complaint about Tyrone’s snoring:
edmund. I’ll back you up about Papa’s snoring. Gosh, what a racket!
jamie. I heard him, too. (He quotes, putting on a ham-actor manner.) “The Moor, I know his trumpet.” (His mother and brother laugh.)
tyrone (scathingly). If it takes my snoring to make you remember Shakespeare instead of the dope sheet on the ponies, I hope I’ll keep on with it.
mary. Now, James! You mustn’t be so touchy. (Jamie shrugs his shoulders and sits down in the chair on her right.)
edmund (irritably). Yes, for Pete’s sake, Papa! The first thing after breakfast! Give it a rest, can’t you? (He slumps down in the chair at left of table next to his brother. His father ignores him.)
mary (reprovingly). Your father wasn’t finding fault with you. You don’t have to always take Jamie’s part. You’d think you were the one ten years older.
Jamie caps Edmund’s words, Edmund Mary’s and the dialogue flows quickly from statement to reaction, the alternation of second and first person pronouns helping the movement of the sequence. Each utterance endorses, contradicts or extends the preceding one. The startling personal attack by father on son and the speed with which the other two characters intervene, suggest that there is knowledge involved which predates the play and alert us to meanings beyond the common core of the words spoken. Using the predisposition of the audience to seek out significance, O’Neill embeds his exposition of situation and character into the flow of the dialogue. There is no narration in this play of the kind spoken by Larry to Parritt at the opening of The Iceman Cometh. There are only fragments which the audience must piece together. The use, here, of the continuous form of the verb, and of adverbs of time, such as Mary’s “always,” suggest that we are witnessing a habitual response, and this impression will be reinforced when these two features recur, as they frequently do, in expressions of irritation between the characters (“Papa, if you’re starting that stuff again!”; “You always imagine things”; “I could see that line coming! God, how many thousand times”). We gather specific information, too, about Jamie’s wastrel life, the relative ages of the two brothers, Tyrone’s respect for Shakespeare, and we can deduce that both brothers must have been awake during the night although the significance of this will only become apparent with the accumulation of several such hints. Similarly, we hear a comic distortion of a quotation and an irritable response to it—the first piece of a pattern which will be elaborated during the play.
The open method of exposition is particularly appropriate to this play. What the audience learns about the past might be detailed, but it can never be fixed because it is refracted through the consciousness of one or other of the characters and, far from endorsing any one account, O’Neill lets each contradict the others. Whilst some details are allowed to seem fairly stable, other topics—homes, doctors, the electric light, the fog, alcohol—are raised, dropped and taken up again by each character, each new reference modifying the audience’s viewpoint until, by the end of the play, each topic is fraught with suggestion. To take one small example: we have seen that there are numerous references to the electric light which gradually becomes a symbol of Tyrone’s financial anxiety, the cause of much of the family suffering and bitterness. When Jamie enters drunk in act 4 we seem to be being presented with the traditional stage comedy of the drunken man. All the elements are here, the slurred speech and lurching movement; the recourse to tired, moralistic proverbs and the attribution of human intentions to the objects with which he collides, but there is also a succession of references in word and gesture to fog and clarity, darkness and light (“Ought to be a lighthouse out there”; “What the hell is this, the morgue?”; “Lesh have some light on sibject”; “Ford o’ Kabul river in the dark! …”; “Can’t expect us to live in the Black Hole of Calcutta”) which not only communicates Jamie’s hostility to his absent father but recalls the long scene between Edmund and Tyrone and contributes to the symbolic under-current of the play.
We catch echoes of one character’s speech in that of another. The Speech of both Tyrone and Mary has an Irish shape much like that of Larry. Slade which appears most noticeably when they tease each other affectionately or dream of the past. This helps to suggest the warmth of their feeling at such moments and also marks the experiential gap between parent and child. The brogue itself is not used but a cluster of references makes the idea of
into a signal of the insecurity of the uprooted man. The American-born sons can cut deep with scornful references to the ancient homeland. Tyrone’s tale of self-help follows the classical American immigrant pattern of rejection of origins coupled with staunch loyalty to them. He has rid himself of his brogue but has surrounded himself with his own tribe in the shape of tenant, housemaid, drinking companions. Elsewhere, shared language can mark the deep, unacknowledged bond between parent and child. Edmund’s speech in act 4 which begins, “The fog was where I wanted to be,” is a moving example of this. Although he, as much as the others, has resented his mother’s retreat into herself, Edmund, here, not only echoes her longing to withdraw but, in doing so, takes over the words which recur in her speech and in descriptions of her: “fog,” “alone,” “lost,” “hide” and “ghost.” Soon after this, Jamie comments drunkenly on his own quotation of Wilde’s “The Harlot’s House,” saying, “Not strictly accurate. If my love was with me I didn’t notice it. She must have been a ghost.” The uncanny impression of Mary’s presence, created by the collocation in Edmund’s speech of words normally associated with her, is likely to make the audience sensitive to the word “ghost” when it occurs again in Jamie’s speech. Without making anything explicit, O’Neill allows the audience to perceive the unconscious irony of Jamie’s words and to recognize the part his relationship with his mother has played in warping his life. We might contrast, here, the explicitness of the Freudian statements O’Neill used in the middle plays, particularly Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra, about the relationships between parents and children. By using associations established in the earlier scenes of the play as the material for the dramatic metaphors of the later scenes, the dramatist binds the play into a whole. Ireland
Denials and barriers of silence occur frequently. They are as telling as the shared language in revealing what the characters have in common and, as they accumulate, we become aware of their thematic significance. Certain truths are avoided by the Tyrones as firmly as others were in Hope’s bar. Things are implied but not stated, a topic is suddenly changed, a speaker falls silent in mid-sentence and the listener forbears to comment. During the first act, for example, we observe the men’s concern for Mary, we hear her demands that they trust her and their eager reassurances and we also piece together a grimly comic picture of all three men simulating sleep on the night before the action of the play whilst listening intently to Mary’s restless moving about. When any of the men attempts to discuss this the others deny having been conscious of anything extraordinary. The audience’s curiosity is aroused. In the second act, the anxiety and shirked confidences of the men are recalled, just before Mary’s entrance, in the pause which occurs during this brief exchange:
edmund. She didn’t get much sleep last night.
jamie. I know she didn’t. (A pause. The brothers avoid looking at each other.)
edmund. That damned foghorn kept me awake, too.
The admissions which flood into such silences arc more marked because they are spoken only in the minds of the audience. They are ominous because they draw attention to but do not solve the mystery already sensed. Euphemisms are used in the play, with similar effect. Tyrone refers to the drug as “the poison,” “her curse,” and the other characters avoid naming it. All use the euphemism “summer cold” to disguise their fear of Edmund’s illness from themselves and each other. If, in his anxiety, one character forgets the tacit agreement, the others quickly remind him and the pattern of reticence and uneasy collusion is reinforced. For example:
mary. You mustn’t mind Edmund, James. Remember he isn’t well. (Edmund can be heard coughing as he goes upstairs.) (She adds nervously.) A summer cold makes anyone irritable.
jamie (genuinely concerned). It’s not just a cold he’s got. The Kid is damned sick. (His father gives him a sharp warning look but he doesn’t see it.)
mary (turns on him resentfully). Why do you say that? It is just a cold! Anyone can tell that! You always imagine things!
tyrone (with another warning glance at Jamie—easily). All Jamie meant was Edmund might have a touch of something else, too, which makes his cold worse.
jamie. Sure, Mama. That’s all I meant.
tyrone. Doctor Hardy thinks it might be a bit of malarial fever he caught when he was in the tropics. If it is, quinine will soon cure it.
Such passages help to show the guilt and panic underlying the relationship. The soothing words, which infiltrate the speech of all the characters, as my italicizing in the extract demonstrates, represent a shrinking from the deeper reassurances and admissions for which all long. The euphemisms make us sensitive to the family’s private taboos, and it is the effect of a taboo being broken as much as the sudden coarse slang which makes Jamie’s bitter attacks on Mary so shocking, or Edmund’s cry, “Mama, it isn’t a summer cold! I’ve got consumption,” so piercing and Mary’s refusal to respond so final.
Throughout the play such denials occur, shifting attention from facts and events to their emotional effect, and infiltrating our consciousness with the looming despair of the Tyrones. We are made painfully aware that the time will never be ripe, that opportunities will always be missed, because O’Neill juxtaposes some of the cruellest denials with moments of brief sympathy, frustrating the expectations of change which are beginning to be shaped. So, in act 1, Jamie and Tyrone break apart with mutual recriminations after their brief understanding. And, when one character tries to break through to another by crying out an appeal, the other retreats in confusion or resentment, as Tyrone does from Mary in act 2 and she from him in the following act. Such withdrawal, as we have seen, becomes a dominant pattern in Mary’s speech.
A similar pattern of accretion underlies our impression that the relationship also has its positive aspect. This is most immediately apparent in the confessions of act 4, in which, one after another, each character reveals his trust by attempting to expose his deepest thought. But it is apparent too in much slighter devices. Tyrone, for example, usually avoids Jamie’s Christian name. This emphasizes his resentment much as did Larry Slade’s avoidance of Parritt’s name in The Iceman Cometh. But here the pattern is occasionally and significantly broken. In the early part of the play, Tyrone uses the name when there is brief but unambiguous sympathy between the two men, when they discuss Mary or worry about Edmund’s sickness. Each expression of affection, although minimal in itself, is strengthened by being linked with others through the recurrent use of the name. The current of feeling so created is a small but persistent one, so that when we hear the name being used by Tyrone in his final utterance, “Pass me that bottle Jamie. And stop reciting that damned morbid poetry. I won’t have it in my house,” ambiguity creeps in and the audience are reminded of the under-lying affection as well as of the habitual irritation. O’Neill’s originality, indeed, derives from his capacity to make both the closeness and the resentment within a whole web of relationships—between parent and child, husband and wife, brother and brother—apparent, by intertwining the negative and positive elements. In this, his material differs from Strindberg’s in The Father and The Dance of Death, with which his plays have often been compared, and from Edward Albee’s, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was probably influenced by O’Neill. Perhaps of all the forerunners, only Ibsen creates quite the same kind of tension: in the relationship of the two sisters in John Gabriel Borkman, for example.
Our sense of the necessity of the family unit to each member, despite all the horrors it holds for them, is established in part by the image we are given of the Tyrones keeping face before the outside world and revealing their fragmented, uncertain selves only to each other. When Tyrone, in act 3, quiets Mary with the words, “Hush now! Here comes Cathleen. You don’t want her to see you crying,” he bears witness to the existence of an intimacy which does allow her to cry before him. O’Neill presents the difference dramatically by introducing the fifth character, Cathleen. She represents onstage the world beyond the walls of the house. When she is present, and it is only in the central acts, not in the concentrated final section of the play, nor in any of the tauter sequences, the audience briefly see the characters as they would present themselves to the outside world, the world of the pub and the club and the theatre, the whorehouse and the small town. Cathleen is not developed in the way the other characters are, nor is she given the Dickensian individuality of Hope’s roomers. Her speech is marked by complacent generalization (“Everybody healthy snores,” “It’s a good man’s failing,” “He’s a fine gentleman and you’re a lucky woman,”) and stage-Irish dialect (“Sure, didn’t it kill an uncle of mine in the old country,” “I’d think you’d a drop taken,”). Her words rarely offer more than their surface meaning and her utterances are short, except when O’Neill needs a contrast with Mary’s words when the other three Tyrones are off-stage. Then, he is able to emphasize the seriousness and strangely distant innocence of the mistress’s words by means of a painfully humorous contrast with Cathleen’s vacuous chatter. A brief extract will demonstrate the effect:
cathleen. Give him half a chance and he’s pinching me on the leg or you-know-where —asking your pardon, Ma’am, but it’s true.
mary (dreamily). It wasn’t the fog I minded, Cathleen. I really love fog.
cathleen. They say it’s good for the complexion.
mary. It hides you from the world and the world from you. You feel that everything has changed, and nothing is what it seemed to be. No one can find or touch you any more.
cathleen. I wouldn’t care so much if Smythe was a fine, hand-some man like some chauffeurs I’ve seen—I mean, if it was all in fun, for I’m a decent girl. But for a shriveled runt like Smythe —! I’ve told him.
Cathleen is, in essence, the conventional comic servant of the nineteenth-century theatre. Because conventional, she is neutral and, so, acceptable as a minor character. She has not sufficient intrinsic interest to intrude on our impression of the family’s isolation and, by the same token, can serve as the mirror in which the public face of each is reflected. In her eye, the sons are carefree men about town, Tyrone a good husband and generous gentleman, Mary a considerate mistress and loving mother. The audience is made conscious of the contrast between ordered image and confused reality, without any of the clumsy paraphernalia of masks and scenic devices which were so distracting in the middle plays.
Quotation is a major structural element in Long Day’s Journey into Night, A Touch of the Poet and A Moon for the Misbegotten. In the early plays, there were echoes and half-quotations from other writers, the implications of which were often inappropriate to O’Neill’s meaning. I suggested [else-where] that these were often unconscious intrusions but that when O’Neill wrote Ah, Wilderness! he had become sufficiently self aware to use his feeling for particular literary works as a key element in characterizing the hero of the play. As with O’Neill’s other experiments, when the use of quotation appears in the later plays, it is developed with greater complexity.
Three of the characters quote frequently in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Their choice of writer and the way in which his words are used show the individual minds engaging with life. All three Tyrone men quote from Shakespeare. Tyrone’s quotations seem spontaneous because he interrupts himself to utter them:
There’s nothing wrong with life. It’s we who—(He quotes.) “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.”
The old actor rejoices in the very sound and shape of words and, fittingly, his quotations are all from famous speeches in better-known plays––Julius Caesar, King Lear, The Tempest (twice). His Shakespeare is the creator, par excellence, of aphorisms and, as such, is recommended: “You’ll find it nobly said in Shakespeare”; “You’ll find everything you’re trying to say in him—as you’ll find everything else worth saying,” and, in exasperation, “That damned library of yours . . . When I’ve three good sets of Shakespeare you could read.” In Tyrone, O’Neill presents the enigma of the man for whom issues must be clear cut and who, despite his own experience, accepts that the universe has a fixed moral law, the quotation enables the dramatist to do this without didacticism. The cruelty of Tyrone’s position is brought sharply before us in act 4 when we realize that the writer with whom we have come to associate him is the symbol of the youthful dream that was betrayed and not of the lifetime’s work. Indeed, no-one in the family quotes from the “god-damned play” which is not even graced with a name. The only direct reference to any melodrama is Jamie’s laboured Old Gaspard joke, and the linking of that with The Bells is inaccurate.
Like the attitudes to
, quotation is a means of projecting the father-son relationship. Tyrone quotes Shakespeare straight. His sons deliberately distort although, in much the same way as in Desire under the Elms, O’Neill can quietly demonstrate the influence of the old man on the young rebels through the very fact of their familiarity with Shakespeare and the relish with which they quote. Edmund’s distortion of Shakespeare is gauche, as we have seen. Jamie’s is impressive. He quotes stage directions and asides and, when he quotes from the text itself, he has spied out another meaning for the accurately quoted words. Early in the play his jokes are mild; Othello’s trumpet, for example, stands for Tyrone’s snoring; but they darken as the play proceeds, culminating in the terrifying flippancy imposed on the normally neutral stage direction, “The mad scene. Enter Ophelia” with which Jamie breaks the silence at Mary’s final entrance. The audience must accommodate both the inhumanity of the distortion and the haunting aptness. For the association Jamie makes brings with it a strange, unspoken resonance, best indicated through this description of Ophelia’s speech given by the gentleman in Shakespeare’s play: Ireland
her speech is nothing,
Yet the unshaped use of it doth move,
The hearers to collection; they aim at it,
And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts;
Which, as her winks, and nods, and gestures yield them,
Indeed would make one think there might be thought,
Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.
The second current of quotation—of fin de siècle poetry—is not shared by Tyrone, which in itself is revealing. More subtly, the literary consciousness of the two brothers, though similar, does not entirely coincide. O’Neill uses the difference to show the younger supplanting the elder. Jamie, we are told, wanted to become a writer but Edmund has actually become one, however flawed. The difference is made real in Jamie’s only direct personal attack on his brother, which is couched in literary terms:
Your poetry isn’t very cheery. Nor the stuff you read and claim you admire. (He indicates the smart bookcase at rear.) Your pet with the unpronounceable name, for example.
edmund. Nietzsche. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You haven’t read him.
jamie. Enough to know it’s a lot of bunk!
It is one of the rare instances when Edmund’s words are stronger than his brother’s, and it prepares the audience for Jamie’s subsequent boast and Edmund’s calm acceptance of it:
And who steered you onto reading poetry first? Swinburne, for example? I did! And because I once wanted to write, I planted it in your mind that someday you’d write! Hell, you’re more than my brother. I made you! You’re my Frankenstein!
edmund. All right, I’m your Frankenstein. So let’s have a drink. (He laughs.) You crazy nut.
It prepares the audience, too, for the terrible warning that follows. The areas of overlap in the brothers’ literary consciousness are used as effectively. Jamie quotes self-indulgently, identifying himself with the poet’s persona in justification of his wastrel life. But for all their statements about futility, the writers he quotes did set down their thoughts for publication, did image deeds in words, whereas even Jamie’s words are borrowed. The audience’s response to both the poetry and the man who quotes it is made more ambivalent by Edmund, who seems to use other men’s words to stimulate his own. He quotes Dowson’s “Days of Wine and Roses” before exploring the experience of his walk in the fog and Baudelaire’s “Epilogue,” as an introduction to his description of Jamie. We might say that whereas Jamie adopts the role implied by the poetry, Edmund uses it to seek out and comprehend his own experience of the world. Jamie, who takes over the attitude of these poems most completely, is most damaged by the family situation; Edmund, whose response is more ambiguous, seems to have some beliefs which reach beyond the private turmoil and Tyrone, who most determinedly avoids looking closely at his situation, dismisses these poets angrily, as “morbid” purveyors of “filth, despair and pessimism” but is the one who makes their thematic relevance apparent when he says, in unthinking fury, “Don’t compare [Shakespeare] with the pack you’ve got there. . . . Your dirty Zola! And your Dante Gabriel Rossetti who was a dope fiend. (He starts and looks guilty.)” The quotation thus helps to make even the very individual afflictions of this family signify a more general pattern of human suffering and mischance.
George Steiner has written of O’Neill’s use of quotation:
Interspersed in the sodden morass of Long Day’s Journey into Night there are passages from Swinburne. The lines are flamboyant, romantic verbiage. They are meant to show up the adolescent inadequacies of those who recite them. But, in fact, when the play is performed, the contrary occurs. The energy and glitter of Swinburne’s language burn a hole in the surrounding fabric. They elevate the action above its paltry level and instead of showing up the character show up the playwright. Modern writers rarely quote their authors with impunity.
(Language and Silence [Penguin edition])
Although, as we have seen, the role of quotation is rather more complex in this play than Steiner suggests, he is half-way towards the truth. Prose cannot speak to the auditory imagination in quite the way that verse does, lingering in the mind when no longer heard, and O’Neill needed this quality of sound, particularly towards the end of the play. In Moon of the Carribbees, O’Neill used the sound of a haunting creole lament; in The Emperor Jones, the beat of African drums; in Dynamo, the hum of the electric generator, and he wrote to the Theatre Guild directors before the production of Dynamo, stressing the importance to him of sound in the theatre and saying, “It must be realized that these are not incidental noises but significant dramatic overtones that are an integral part of the composition in the theatre which is the whole play.” The foghorn, which sounds during the last act of Long Day’s Journey into Night, is a sound effect of this kind but the important sound pattern is, appropriately in this play in which language is so deftly structured, a verbal one. The quotations O’Neill uses are unusually melodious and the actors are directed to deliver them sonorously. Swinburne’s words do burn and nowhere more so than in the final sequence of the play, which is the one Steiner seems to have had in mind. Here, three stanzas of Swinburne’s poem “A Leave-taking” are interwoven with the dialogue of the play. What Steiner does not admit is that the words burn because of the context O’Neill has created for them. A comment of Eliot’s about the poet is enlightening. “Swinburne’s words,” he writes, “are all suggestion and no denotation; if they suggest nothing it is because they suggest too much.” O’Neill gives direction to their suggestiveness and so makes the denotation possible. He achieves the kind of recreation that we found lacking in the references to Nietzsche in Lazarus Laughed.
Because the dialogue is shaped around the poem, Swinburne’s words are at once impersonal and dreadfully appropriate: more dreadful because impersonal, set apart from the idiosyncratic prose of the appeals spoken, in turn, by the men. Originally, O’Neill included some commentary on the poem in the dialogue and Edmund’s voice alternated with Jamie’s. In the final draft, the quotation is not absorbed into the dialogue in this way. The links between the poem and the dialogue are many but they must be made by the audience:
She will not know.
She will not hear.
She will not see.
You know something in her does it deliberately—to get beyond our reach, to be rid of us, to forget we’re alive!
She too, remembering days and words that were,
It’s as if in spite of loving us, she hated us.
Will turn a little toward us, .. .
You must not try to touch me.
Let us go seaward as the great winds go,
You must not try to hold me.
Full of blown sand and foam.
The fog was where I wanted to be ... to be alone with myself . . . Out beyond the harbour, where the road runs along the beach .. .
The intervening dialogue, with its single words and brief sentences, has its own pattern—three times Mary speaks to herself, three times one of the men attempts to penetrate her consciousness and Jamie says the attempt is futile—but, with its rhythm and rhyme and internal verbal echoes, the poem has a more formal pattern which establishes continuity between the stanzas even though they are separated by dialogue, so that Jamie’s voice, speaking it, appears to bind the whole sequence and the four individual voices together. Throughout the play we have been made aware of the part verbal deception and self-deception play in the relationships and we have seen human beings deriving comfort from the very structuring of the words spoken. Now, at the end of the play, when we have comprehended the desolation of the Tyrones, O’Neill permits to characters and to audience the comfort that artistic ordering of experience can give: the minimal comfort of an elegy. An elegy fittingly spoken by the character for whom, of all the Tyrones, there is the least comfort possible.
The Mysterious Effectiveness of The Final Scene of The Play
I have suggested that the ending of Mourning Becomes Electra was one of the most convincing signs of the imaginative control which O’Neill would achieve in the late plays. It was in many ways a tour de force imposing order on the play. The unfolding action of Long Day’s Journey into Night has a greater coherence and the dialogue is more absorbingly complex than that of the earlier play. The ending, when it comes, comes as the culmination of the meanings, the undertones and overtones we have absorbed during the play, and it is couched in words and images made potent by their use within the play. In concluding this discussion of the language of the play, it is important to look at the final sequence which, in its quiet and stillness, is so different from that of The Iceman Cometh. The sequence has been praised repeatedly: the method of this study should enable us to put into words some, at least, of the reasons for its extraordinary power.
O’Neill altered act 4 in its second draft to keep Mary off-stage until the last few minutes of the play. In doing so, he increased the suspense of the act and the subsequent impact of Mary’s appearance. Throughout the act her entrance is anticipated, by the listening attitude of the men, by their comments on her restless pacing above them and by their very presence on the stage, since we recognize that their vigil must continue until she has become still. If we catch it, the reference to Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman is an appropriate one with its memory of that other familial relationship, its tortured, listening women and its intimacy and destructiveness. The under-lying pattern of the action demands Mary’s presence for its completion. Edmund and Tyrone have moved three times from hostility to understanding, reaching a deeper level of mutual confidence at each stage. Then, the relationship between the two brothers has been presented with comparable intensification as Jamie has moved from bonhomie to threat, to self-revelation. Each of the three men having in turn exposed his secret thought to one of the others, there is a hiatus. Exhausted, they drowse. The balance in which the characters have been held until now makes Mary’s entrance inevitable. But it is also startling because of the way in which it takes place. There is a moment of silence and then Edmund jerks up, listening intently. A burst of light at the back of the stage, when all five bulbs of the chandelier flash on, is followed by a burst of sound, when a Chopin waltz is played on the piano. When Mary appears in the doorway, her hair is long and braided girlishly, she wears a sky blue night gown, and carries a wed-ding dress. O’Neill succeeds in creating a poetry of theatre here where he failed in Dynamo, for all the elaborate machinery of that play, because each visual and aural impression arouses in the audience some memory of the dialogue. Things which through repeated naming have become emblems of the private mythology of the family are suddenly present before us in solid form. Jamie’s words, which break the silence, have the force of words which should not have been spoken but, having been, cannot be expunged from the mind and Mary’s failure to react to them signifies how dissociated from the present she has become. When she speaks she uses the school-girlish register entirely, “I play so badly now. I’m all out of practice. Sister Theresa will give me a dreadful scolding.” She is no longer speaking in the present and looking back to the past but, as the verb tenses show, has moved into that past time which has become her present. There follows the highly patterned passage containing the poem after which Mary speaks her final monologue.
Here, as throughout the play, the verbal and visual level are integrated with each other; so that when words leave off the stage image speaks. Once we have absorbed the impact of Mary’s final entrance, the stage picture has significance not because, like that, it is startling or spectacular, but because of the way it complements the dialogue. Watching the final moments of the play, we are scarcely aware of how carefully movement and gesture have been organized and how much they contribute to the feeling of the scene. As can be seen from O’Neill’s sketch of this sequence [not reproduced here], the men remain still so that our eyes follow Mary as she crosses from the door to the front of the stage. Mary’s seemingly aimless movement, in fact takes her past each of the men in turn, taking our attention with her from one to the other of them. In the single other movement, shortly after Mary’s entrance, Tyrone approaches Mary who carries her wedding dress that has lain in the old trunk in the attic and that, described with delight by Mary earlier in the play, had become an emblem of her lost girlhood and her reproach to Tyrone. Because we have experienced this, Tyrone’s simple gesture of taking the dress from her and holding it protectively is remarkably moving. When Mary comes to rest it is, as the sketch shows, at the front left corner of the stage which leaves the silent characters at the focal point in the centre. This divides the audience’s attention during Mary’s final speech and so acts as preparation for the last line of the play.
Whilst Mary speaks her monologue, the audience, listening to her words, observe the speaking silence of the listening men and hear, perhaps, the lingering echo of the poem, “There is no help for all these things are so.” They recognize that Mary has given herself over to the past, obliterating her men-folk with her colloquialisms, her girlish intensifiers, her manner of discussing the interview as if it had just taken place. Her naive and trusting words, “I knew She heard my prayer and would always love me and see no harm ever came to me as long as I never lost my faith in her,” are almost unbearable for the stage listeners, and for the audience observing the stage listeners and knowing that their perspective is from a different point in time from hers.
The overwhelming effect of the last four lines of the play comes, I think, because, just when it appears that the play has drawn to its conclusion and has reached some kind of resting place, however dismal, the sentence, “That was in the winter of senior year,” pushes the interview back into the distant past and returns Mary to the present and the family, from which there can be, after all, no escape for any of the four Tyrones. The quiet ending of the play is not a conclusion but another relentless beginning:
That was in the winter of senior year. Then in the spring some-thing happened to me. Yes, I remember, I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.