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The Cycle (continued)


The three remaining plays of the “Four Brothers” sub-group are much less fully sketched than is The Calms of Capricorn. Next in order was Wolfe’s play, “The Earth Is the Limit,” set in San Francisco in 1860, three years after the action of The Calms of Capricorn. Now Sara is in charge of a hotel, the Melody Inn, which she manages with a good business ability. Jonathan has developed his transportation holdings in partnership with Theodore Warren, and Honey takes his first steps toward a political career. Wolfe is the same passive ironist as in the preceding play. He wants nothing and holds no goal to be of benefit. Leda, who was the stake in the last card game aboard The Dream of the West, wants Wolfe as her husband. She reacts to his continued snubs by joining with Elizabeth in hostility to the Harford sons: “Who are they, that they dare deny us?” By the end of the play Elizabeth and Jonathan agree to marry, and Leda turns to Wolfe. Wolfe, however, will not be trapped by her predatoriness. To avoid any entanglement, to avoid being touched, he kills himself. In the play to follow, Sara will defend the suicide of her two older sons. Ethan’s suicide was a payment for life, a demand of honor, but Wolfe’s was differently motivated: “There was a high pride and scorn in him—a high dream in him you couldn’t buy with gold or land—or touch with the love of a woman— he gave his life for it—there was the touch of a poet in him, a poet who couldn’t sing and had to live his poem in silence and darkness.” Wolfe in his freedom-seeking solitude perhaps was intended to resemble the first Jonathan Harford, who left his family for the wilderness in order to live in untrammeled freedom. In a more complex world, where the freedom of a wilderness can no longer be found, death becomes the only way to achieve the peace of total liberty.

Honey’s rise to political power and Jonathan’s pursuit of wealth and financial success form the twin centers of the ninth play, “Nothing Is Lost but Honor.” The play opens in San Francisco at Wolfe’s funeral and progresses into an unspecified time in the early 1870s. Honey, separating from any close alliance with his brother, becomes mayor of San Francisco and later a United States senator. He marries Leda, and they have a strong, healthy child, Cornelius.* Jonathan is the son who lacks the touch of the poet and refuses to dream. “Facts are my dreams,” he asserts and sets out with Elizabeth and her money to gain control of the transcontinental railroad. In a scene laid at Promontory Point, Utah, at the time of the driving of the golden spike, Jonathan’s plan for domination is revealed. He has formed a crooked holding company and plans to create a financial panic by forcing Honey to reveal on the Senate floor the names of those who have accepted bribes in the financial manipulations underwriting the railroad. When the stock prices drop, he plans to buy control. Bending Honey to his will, he succeeds in his plan, and at the play’s end he has become a tycoon like Jay Gould. The comment is made that he will “mortgage America.”

The play sketches a number of sexual encounters—between Honey and Elizabeth, Jonathan and Leda, and Leda and Elizabeth. The child of Jonathan and Elizabeth, Johnie, is sickly and unwanted. Sara has developed a lust for gold which she hopes will buy her “peace and contentment.” She has also turned for solace to alcohol and, in a scene that is reminiscent of that between Mary Tyrone and Cathleen, spends time talking to her maid of an all-but-forgotten dream, the great Melody estate in Ireland.

The tenth play, “The Man on Iron Horseback,” is set in Paris, New York, San Francisco, and Japan between 1876 and 1893. In the course of the play, both Sara and Elizabeth were to die, the latter a suicide. There are now two more children: Beth, Elizabeth’s daughter, pretty, meek and calculating, and Sara, Leda’s second child, a stolid, heavy, ugly girl. The play centers on Jonathan’s financial manipulations, but perhaps its most startling development is his encounter with the Tao. In Japan, in a Buddhist temple, he senses the limits of his power. He considers for a moment matching his will against Eastern philosophy and religion by funding missionaries to convert the Buddhists. O’Neill debated having him kill himself in the temple, but instead caused him to suffer a stroke. He is returned from Japan on his death bed. Something of what O’Neill had in mind in bringing his Napoleonic materialist into contact with Oriental belief is hinted at in a note: “add general theme throughout—tragic battle of opposites—aspects expressed in Latin quote I remember—translated for this purpose—’I know the good way (Tao) and believe it is the Truth but I follow the bad way.’

The final play, “Hair of the Dog,” covered the period 1900-1932 and concerned Lou, the granddaughter of Leda and Honey. In the course of the play, she was to age from eighteen to fifty years and rise as Bessie Bowen had done to a position of great wealth. The play is barely sketched, but notes indicate that O’Neill was planning to show men and women as being lost in a wilderness to which their greed had led them. Faith and truth are dead, and the women are yearning for some ruthless possessor, some Napoleon (O’Neill jotted down the names of Christ, Hitler, Stalin, and Al Capone) to set them free from their own drives by enslaving them and freeing them from the guilt of their greed and the strictures of morality and religion.** The children offer no hope for the future. Lou’s youngest son was to become a “hop head & anarchist idealist” who perhaps would come closer than the rest to the truth of modern life: his hope
is that the race may be destroyed so that the potential few survivors of the holocaust can be reminded by the ruins how badly men have lost their way. With this perspective, perhaps they may start again on the right path. His thought reflects that of the first Jonathan Harford who dreamed of ridding the country of all human inhabitants.

The final words of the cycle were to be spoken by Honey, who has stubbornly lived to be 100. In his last summing up, he equates greed with alcohol. Like alcohol, when greed controls you “there’s a fever comes and a great thirst and a great drinking to kill it, and a grand drunk, and a terrible hangover and headache and remorse of conscience, and a sick empty stomach without greed or appetite. But take a hair of the dog and the sun will rise again for you—and appetite and thirst come back, and you can forget—and begin all over!” On this dark note, prophesying that nothing will change, the cycle was to end.

Enough is left of the plan of the whole to show that the plays of the cycle were to be strongly unified by repeated motifs, parallel actions and similar character traits reappearing through the generations. Each play was connected to the development of transportation, from Con Melody’s mare to Wade’s rockets. Lines of transportation moved throughout the land and across the sea like the fingers of the Sisters clutching power. Despite the great geographical range, the cycle returned to certain sites of basic meaning: Simon’s cabin in the woods which formed his retreat in A Touch of the Poet is seen again in More Stately Mansions and The Calms of Capricorn, and it becomes the location of the great Harford mansion which in Sara’s imagination resembles Melody castle, her father’s estate in Ireland. Similarly, the “Temple of Liberty,” the summer house in the Harford garden, is the place where Evan and Deborah escape into dreams. Their dreams are similar, Deborah’s of an exotic life at the French court of Louis XIV or Napoleon, Evan’s of becoming a power under Robespierre during the French Revolution. These in turn are paralleled by Con Melody’s memories of his service under Wellington against Napoleon in Spain. Both Evan and Con force their dreams into a shadowy reality by wearing their old uniforms.

The plays repeat a central, basic theme: the corruption of an idealistic man by a domineering and grasping woman. In the stories of the Harfords, the destructive results of a dream denied would be reiterated in each generation, and as the stories of Jonathan, Evan, Simon, Ethan, and Con Melody were to show, the denial of the dream led to a kind of madness. That the loss of the dream was occasioned by the action of a possessive and greedy woman linked the actions to the point where each became a parable of sorts expressing O’Neill’s dark view of his country’s past and future, a world gained at the cost of the soul.

To know what the cycle would have been in its entirety is impossible. Its narrative appears to be filled with excess, reaching at times to melodramatic absurdity. Yet the plays were planned when O’Neill’s genius was fully matured and when he was capable of writing The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night. That genius must be trusted in estimating what he might have accomplished with so large-scale and complex an account of eight generations of an American family. Perhaps the best testimony to what might have been are the two plays of the central section, “Sara and Abigail,” or, since he changed “Abigail” to “Deborah,” “Sara and Deborah.” A Touch of the Poet is a completed work; More Stately Mansions exists in a long, semi-final draft version that did not receive its final honing and polishing. It escaped destruction only by accident. The difference in style between the two plays creates a number of problems. A Touch of the Poet is compact, tautly plotted and developed in the best traditions of the realistic theatre. More Stately Mansions is over-long and, although written predominantly in the realistic mode, contains scenes which go back to the soliloquies and asides of O’Neill’s Art Theatre practices. During the writing of Mourning Becomes Electra, O’Neill had drafted a version of his trilogy using masks, asides, and soliloquies. Later, however, he eliminated all such vestiges of what he called “Interludisms,” although he felt that having written them out he had gained new insights into his characters. Nevertheless he counseled himself to avoid the “thought-aside” method unless the characters clearly required such assistance to reveal their complexities.6

Discussing the techniques of characterization for the cycle as a whole, O’Neill wrote in a note dated May 18, 1937:

Double characterization—2 planes of action
Essential character in terms of compulsive thoughts—prejudiced hates, defiant rebellious self-assertions of the uncompromising ego—going back to childhood—all this brought out in soliloquy. Then the planes shifting to realism all this becomes hidden, sly compromising, opportunist, calculating, etc.

Characters introduced in soliloquy first—each alone—relaxed as far as surroundings are concerned—outer calm permitting free expression of soul assertion
on three planes as Curtain rises—darkness—unconscious assertion—the half-light—characters dimly perceived—solil(oquy) of conscious struggle living in part—then full light, realism, play begins in terms of surface life.

The note suggests that O’Neill was planning to write the cycle in a manner he had once called “super-naturalism,”7 a style he had found praiseworthy in describing the “behind life” plays of Strindberg, and which he felt essential to the revelation of the complex drives of the sons of Sara and Simon Harford. Some scenes of the draft follow the method suggested by his note. Deborah, for example, is introduced in a long soliloquy which is her “soul’s assertion.” Other scenes of the play do not attempt the two planes of action, being satisfied to reveal the complexities of character in the same way that the complex nature of Con Melody is revealed, without altering the realistic mode of the play. In the end, the problems the stylistic differences create cannot be resolved, although it may be argued on the basis of his work with Mourning Becomes Electra that, when he got down to cutting the play to compassable length, causing it to conform to the realism of A Touch of the Poet might have proved a ready solution to many difficulties.

* At one time, O’Neill considered making the boy the illegitimate son of Wolfe, but the matter was not resolved.

** The idea of a dominant warrior figure ran through the cycle with Louis XIV, Robespierre, Napoleon, and Aaron Burr at various times serving as the emblem of dominant masculine strength. The concept may have had a bearing on the genesis of one of O’Neill’s last unfinished plays, “The Last Conquest,” a play about the coming of the anti-Christ.


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