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A Moon for the Misbegotten


Long Day’s Journey into Night ended his search for identity. Yet he remained concerned for the man who was so strangely a part of his being—for Jamie, who was condemned to live without love, and without any possibility of a sustaining vision of beatitude. A Moon for the Misbegotten is an act of love, supplying through its romantic fiction a blessing for a damned soul.

The play is set in September, 1923. At that time, Jamie O’Neill was in a sanatorium, where he had been carried in a strait jacket the previous May. After his mother’s death the year before, Jamie had quite literally drunk himself to death. His hair had turned white, he had all but lost his eyesight, and when he died in the sanatorium on November 8, he achieved perhaps the only beatitude he ever knew.23 In the play, Jamie is a dying man, but about his presence there is no suggestion of the physical horror that came to him in the end. O’Neill, while he did not mitigate the agonizing psychological causes of Jamie’s behavior after his mother died, gave him in Josie Hogan a gentler fate. Josie, a metamorphosis of “Fat Violet,” was perhaps inspired by a woman the brothers had known in their days in Greenwich Village, a free, lusty, great-bodied woman named Christine Ell. In her, O’Neill apparently found something of the paradoxes he later set forth in Josie—a shyness of spirit that conflicted with the grossness of her body and which she attempted to mask by rough whorish behavior.24 However, although based lightly on fact, the play is at its core a fiction.

As a theatrical work, A Moon for the Misbegotten is one of O’Neill’s most difficult plays, and its original production by the Theatre Guild in 1947 was not a lucky one. The casting of Josie according to O’Neill’s literal specifications is a virtual impossibility in the professional theatre. Lawrence Langner, discussing the problem of finding the necessary “giantess,” noted that the role calls for “exactly the kind of woman who, when she comes to see you and asks whether she should attempt a career in the theatre—you look embarrassed and reply, ‘Well, I’m afraid you’re rather a big girl—how are we to find a man tall enough to play opposite you?’ “25 Yet, if it is true that Josie and Sara Melody were conceived as roles for the same actress, the physical characteristics become less important than the qualities of personality at the actress’s command, a point O’Neill made in the original casting for the role.26 The play is doomed to failure without superb acting. It is long, totally simplified and stripped of theatrical devices, a lyric drama, concentrated on character more than narrative.

The Theatre Guild opened the play out of town, in Columbus, Ohio, on February 20, 1947, and booked it for a short tour through Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit and St. Louis. The circumstances, unusual for an O’Neill premiere, were, apparently, occasioned by O’Neill’s mistrust of the actors which emerged after he had heard the first reading. O’Neill had some objections to James Dunn, the film actor who was playing Jamie, and theatrical gossip rumored that Rhys Williams was being groomed to replace J. M. Kerrigan as Hogan. Unexpectedly the play shocked the midwestern audiences. In Pittsburgh it was damned by the secretary of the local Chamber of Commerce, and in Detroit it was closed on the night of its second performance by a police censor who considered it an obscene slander on American motherhood, and demanded that the work be rewritten. When Armina Marshall, the Guild’s producer, pointed out that O’Neill had won the Nobel Prize, the censor made a small contribution to the history of American letters by stating flatly, “Lady, I don’t care what kind of prize he’s won, he can’t put on a dirty show in my town.”* Although the play was allowed to continue after eight words were deleted, it closed in St. Louis. Langner attempted to persuade O’Neill to permit it to be reopened with a different cast, but O’Neill’s illness and his disgust with the problems that beset the play on the tour caused him to refuse.27

His refusal may also have reflected an insecurity about the play itself. Mrs. O’Neill had never liked it and by 1952, the year before he died, he stated that he had come to loathe it.** How seriously the comment should be taken is difficult to determine. Something of the same attitude had developed over the years toward “Anna Christie,” another story of a woman in whom prostitution was more apparent than real, but in the later instance, O’Neill could not accuse himself as he did with the earlier play of writing a facile, well-made play. His loathing, perhaps, was born of his illness complicated by a series of substantial personal problems, including a serious marital crisis and his daughter’s marriage to Charles Chaplin, followed by a sequence of tragedies—the suicide of his elder son, the death of his grandchild, and the realization that his younger son had become a dope addict. Quite possibly, when there was nothing left for him but to wait for death, and when the cycle of familial horror of which he had written began again, he came to loathe the attempt he had made to bring the story of his family to a concluding fulfillment. Nature’s refusal to imitate art conceivably can on occasion silence an author with self-doubt.

There is no reason to deny the play’s worth, despite its difficulties, for it is a carefully controlled, potentially rich work for the stage. The comedy of the first act, recapitulating the opening situation between Eben and his brothers in Desire Under the Elms, is developed in the purest tradition of the Abbey Theatre company,*** but the characters are O’Neill’s own. In Phil Hogan there exists more than a little reminder of Con Melody, quarreling with and yet loving his daughter, suggesting and yet not meaning that she trap her man with sex. Like Con, he is an actor, contemptuous of much in the world about him, yet caught by it, through his proprietorship of a worthless piece of real estate. At times, he approximates a bandy-legged parody of James Tyrone, Sr. Yet Hogan is held off-center. O’Neill is writing what is essentially a love story, a thing he has not done since “Anna Christie,” and Hogan, like old Chris, must move aside for the misbegotten lovers.

What O’Neill meant by “misbegotten” cannot be simply defined. The word is used by Larry Slade, who, speaking of the derelicts at Harry Hope’s and perhaps of those in the world at large, says, “The lie of the pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober.” (578) His words suggest a kind of madness that the misbegotten share, together with a spiritual deformity—which in Josie Hogan’s case is also a physical deformity. “Misbegotten” refers to the people at the bottom of society, Rose and Tim in The Web, the Hairy Ape, Erie—men who have no heritage and are outcasts from the world. O’Neill had earlier shown that even with nothing to sustain them it was possible for the misbegotten to belong, at least, to one another—to form, as it were, a society of the damned. The frame of that society was a vision, created from memory and hopeless desire. Such blessing as came to three of the haunted Tyrones grew from their memories that brought them “visions of beatitude”—visions that both caused and assuaged pain. Through their pipe-dreams Erie and Hughes communicate, and, in The Iceman Cometh, the community of dreams provides the only warmth. Earlier, O’Neill had written much of “belonging,” of participating in ecstasy in the life force, the essence of the experience Edmund Tyrone relates to his father. Only by “belonging” could man be really at peace, but so long as he could hope to belong, he would not become alien in his world. But, when hope truly became hopeless, the misbegotten were born, those whose lives occupied O’Neill’s last stage, and who, O’Neill sensed, might be taken as emblematic of the entire world.

In Jamie Tyrone, in Hickey and in Erie whose lives parallel Jamie’s in many particulars, and in Con Melody at the end of A Touch of the Poet, O’Neill had shown that there was a depth lower than that the misbegotten inhabited—a world where man was entirely without the possibility of any sustaining illusion, where he must live in isolation, unable to reach and touch another human being, alone with his pain. However it is to be described, in O’Neill’s imagery or otherwise, it was in fact the depth in which his brother lived, and it was from this that O’Neill attempted to redeem him.

A Moon for the Misbegotten is suffused with an elegiac tone, and like an elegy, the play attempts to mitigate the fact of death, both to assuage the sorrows of the living and to bless him who has died. Beyond that, as is proper with an elegy, the drama attests the value of the life that has been lived. Jamie had lived beyond the possibility of blessing and his life, in any absolute terms, considered as a perpetual source of pain for others as well as himself, could not be said to have had value. Certainly he was incapable of vision or gratifying memory. What remedy, then was possible, except to create the vision in the present? Or rather, to allow it to be created by his fictional brother and Josie Hogan, who is symbolic of all the women his brother slept with and also of the one woman he loved.

On Josie, the whore’s mask sets convincingly. Her grotesque size, her unfeminine strength, her roughness of tongue are convincing reasons that she should play the slut. Equally convincing is the fact that no one has slept with her if for no other reason than that her power is more apparently masculine than feminine and that she has created about her a myth of unquenchable desire no man can satisfy. For a man to sleep casually with Josie would be to sacrifice his masculinity. But it is this fact—that a man must sacrifice himself to her—that makes possible Jamie’s beatitude. He does not sleep with her, but in allowing her to possess him with her love, in opening himself until all that is hidden comes forth, in responding to her power by becoming her lover and her child, he discovers in her not only the woman, the whore, but the purity that is maternal and has the power to grant absolution. As he loves her and gives her himself, she becomes like a legendary Goddess, virgin, whore and mother, all women from Mary Tyrone to Fat Violet to the blonde pig on the train, and what is eternal in woman is called forth from her to absolve him before he dies.

It is vital to see that the Demeter-like creature she becomes is truly evoked. Josie is no arbitrary symbol. She too is misbegotten, and whatever there is of tribute in Jamie’s love creates for her a solace not unlike that which she brings to him. The night is her salvation, as well as his. Together, the two lost ones find a way to belong, to become more than merely misbegotten. In their meeting (pace Rose and Tim), O’Neill shows them finding their way to a love purified of passion, losing themselves, as, earlier, he had sought to “belong” in Dionysian ecstasy to the life force. It is not very different, perhaps from what the Strindbergian couple in Welded had sought in marriage, and certainly it relates to the images of the God the Mother and her lovers in Strange Interlude and The Great God Brown. Yet there is a difference, and it is partly occasioned by the fact that Josie Hogan is not forced into a symbolic dimension, and that she too needs and finds blessing.

It is blessing, not ecstasy. What is “Dionysian” in it is more an illusion than a reality. The moonlight that bathes their scene casts an effective spell as in The Moon of the Caribbees, binding the lovers to one another, and, flatteringly, lending them grace. The dawn, so different from the ones Jamie remembered, gives a kind of promise. Both are illusory, and the lovers know it. In the moonlight, Jamie is at peace, but both know that with the coming of dawn, what they have found will fade. Beyond the night, nothing exists for them. Yet the long night’s journey to dawn is enough. It has been a lifetime.

The love of Josie and Jamie has been fulfilled in the simplest terms. Like Nora’s love for Con Melody, theirs is so humble, so purely selfless, that they can take pride in it, and accept it without pretense. As Jamie leaves, he attempts to betray it with Broadway talk in a scene reminiscent of that between Dion and Cybel in Act II, scene i of The Great God Brown. There as Dion leaves, Cybel bids him goodbye, knowing that he is to die. She sobs, gives him his mask, kisses him gently and says:

CYBEL  . . . Don’t get hurt. Remember, it’s all a game, and after you’re asleep I’ll tuck you in.

DION  (in a choking, heart-broken cry) Mother! (Then he claps on his mask with a terrible effort of will—mockingly) Go to the devil, you sentimental old pig! See you tomorrow! (He goes, whistling, slamming the door.) (288)

A similar motif appears in the scene at the end of A Moon for the Misbegotten, but Jamie is not permitted to make Dion’s mocking exit. He has awakened and remembered what has passed between them in the night. The Broadway mask is clapped on, and he moves casually away from Josie, saying “See you later. . . .” Josie calls after him:

JOSIE  (Strickenly) No! Don’t, Jim! Don’t go like that! You won’t see me later. You’ll never see me again now, and I know that’s best for us both, but I can’t bear to have you ashamed you wanted my love to comfort your sorrow—when I’m so proud I could give it. (Pleadingly) I hoped, for your sake, you wouldn’t remember, but now you do, I want you to remember my love for you gave you peace for awhile.

TYRONE  (Stares at her, fighting with himself. He stammers defensively) I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t remember—

JOSIE  (Sadly) All right, Jim. Neither do I then. Good-bye and God bless you. . . .

TYRONE   . . . Wait, Josie! . . . I'm a liar! I’m a louse! Forgive me, Josie, I do remember! I’m glad I remember! I’ll never forget your love . . . I'll always love you, Josie. . . . Goodbye—and God bless you! (173)

He leaves without looking back, taking with him the pride and peace her love has brought him. Now, for Jamie, the beatitude which sustained the other Tyrones exists in memory until he dies.

Death will be soon. Josie watches him moving away down the road and speaks the play’s curtain line. In it can be read O’Neill’s wish for all the Tyrones:

May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, Jim, darling. May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace. (177)

These were the last words O’Neill was to write for the stage and they express what came in the end to be the consummation of his tragedy. He had written them before in speaking of Ruth Mayo’s sinking “into that spent calm beyond the further troubling of any hope.” (169) Or of the Hairy Ape, who “perhaps” belonged in death—for whom death was the only possible good. For Hickey, by way of obit, all that it is possible to say are Larry’s words, “May the chair bring him peace at last, the poor tortured bastard!” (719) Larry, indeed speaks an epitaph for all human animals when he quotes the final couplet of Heine’s poem to morphine:

Lo, sleep is good; better is death; in sooth
The best of all were never to be born. (591)

More gently, Jamie in A Moon for the Misbegotten has quoted Keats:

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain
In such an ecstasy. (104)

Man’s last hope, the only hope that is not hopeless, is to die.

Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten are companion pieces in more than subject matter. The second Tyrone play, a romantic fiction which provides an act of grace toward Jamie, is a necessary rounding off of the lives of all the Tyrones. Not that Long Day’s Journey into Night is brutal. Its ending, as Mary Tyrone steps softly through the dark room among the men frozen with pain, is gentle, erratic, rocking as a feather falling. It is distillation of sorrow, pure, beyond tears, but it is also agony. The play has cried loudly and convincingly that God is dead. In tragedy, God cannot be dead. Men must reach their fates for reasons that are comprehensible and, in the long contour of time, just. But not here. In no other play has God been so needed. His absence is so palpable that tragedy is created, but in such a way that pity itself becomes like terror. Long Day’s Journey into Night needs the resolution A Moon for the Misbegotten brings as it offers, finally, a pervading relief in the knowledge that death is good, and that in welcoming it, man can find respite from terror, and in love, transcend pity.

It may be, too, that in writing finally only of Jamie, O’Neill in his last play found something of himself. Josie Hogan, like Nora Melody, in her simplicity of love testifies to the presence of a value in life that O’Neill earlier had ignored as he wrote of the distorted, suffering world of the misbegotten. Jamie’s sacrificial confession is a commitment beyond suffering, and one which O’Neill through his fiction may have been making for himself as well as for his fictional brother. The consciousness of the playwright broods over both plays in much the same way as the awareness of Strindberg moves behind A Dream Play. Nathan, years before, had spoken of O’Neill’s “presence” as being one of the most exciting qualities in his dramas. O’Neill, before the mirroring stage, was always his own audience. Perhaps in this lies the reason he shunned performances of his plays before the public, fearing an invasion of the privacy he as spectator required. Who can know? Who can know why he came to loathe A Moon for the Misbegotten? At first, it was an essential work. To speak of Jamie with charity and to invent the giant woman to comfort him was initially an act of pity and of love. It may have come to more than this. Bringing peace to Jamie meant by extension bringing peace to all the haunted Tyrones. The doubles were separated, his own image was suppressed but, even so, O’Neill, knowing that Jamie’s agony was his own, found that Jamie’s peace was also his. It was a necessary consummation.

But then the world broke in, the door in the mind shut and the light drained at last from the mirror.

* Miss Marshall’s account is quoted in The Magic Curtain, 408. The charges of obscenity arose from such sensitivity as the discovery that the words “mother” and “prostitute” were used in the same sentence.

** Cf. Inscriptions, July 22, 1952, and GeIb, 849. The Gelbs quote Mrs. O’Neill as saying that the play was unnecessary after Long Day’s Journey into Night and suggest that part of her distaste for it was to be attributed to the mood of savage despair O’Neill was in as he wrote it.

*** In casting, O’Neill had insisted that no one who was not of Irish blood could be cast in the play. His reason was that only Irish actors could achieve the quick changes of mood and temperament which the roles required. A similar problem of rapid transitions exists for the actors in A Touch of the Poet.


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