an essay on Long Day's Journey Into Night, Stephen Bloom raises some interesting
speculations for any actor considering the role of Jamie Tyrone
("Empty Bottles, Empty Dreams." 155-177). He suggests that
Jamie's drunkenness on his entrance in Act IV be played as an
"act," as unauthentic, that Jamie should be seem a man who is
"desperately attempting to conceal his despondency and sustain his
performance, but he ultimately cannot endure"(173). Such a
suggestion does not offer a player insuperable difficulties, but on the
contrary, an interesting tension to the character, more subtle than an
mere comic "drunk-act."
an element is not novel but typical of characterizations in an O'Neill
play. O'Neill repeatedly has his characters insist the characters are
monitoring their own performance as if they were players, with anxious
concern for any sign of falsity in it. They often detect such falsity,
and say so. When O'Neill does not have the characters themselves call
attention to the falsity, he puts others else on stage to supply the
characters are often "divided," but such a judgment is true of
those in almost any play. One could argue that Quirt in What
Price Glory? is divided between his lust for Charmaine and his sense
of camaraderie with the other Marines. Of course, such a division is, by
comparison with those in O'Neill's characters, rather shallow. Still,
characters in plays by Sidney Howard, George Kelly, Philip Barry, Elmer
Rice, or Clifford Odets can all be analyzed for two or more contrary
internal drives pulling them against themselves. Thus merely pointing
out such a division in O'Neill's characters is not much help in
distinguishing his technique of characterization from that of other
some O'Neill criticism, the task has been seen as identifying character
"types" who appear in many of his plays, such as the
"sensitive poet," embodied in Eben in
Desire Under the Elms or in Edmund in Long
Day's Journey into Night. Or the heartless paternal figure as Cabot
in Desire Under the Elms or
Con Melody in A Touch of the Poet.
Or the insensitive clod, like Marco in Marco
Millions, who may desire to be an artist but cannot, like Evans in Strange
Interlude or the Brown/Anthony complex in Great God Brown.
Manheim proposes a pattern in his Eugene
O'Neill's New Language of Kinship which links every major character
in O'Neill's play with one of four archetypal personalities which he
identifies with the four principal characters of Long
Day's Journey Into Night. This kind of analysis, however useful,
seems a rather literary judgment. The present task is to stay with more
theatrically technical ones.
in plays that held the stage during O'Neill's youth was more often a
matter of costume than anything else. I do not exaggerate to say that
many viewers of the early cinema depended on stereotypes earlier
established for them in stage plays when they expected the black hat to
be worn by the villain, the white one by the hero, the girl with the bow
in her hair to be the ingenue. Both media cast by type. A villain needs
black hair and a thin mustache, the hero a big chin, chest and biceps,
the ingenue, big eyes and a "cute" walk. The theatre of course
was not silent. The cinema picked up the vocal stereotypes as soon as it
could: the villain an abrasive voice, the hero a deep one, and the
ingenue had to be able to make her lines understood even while squeaking
away in her highest soprano register. Altos, at first, were vamps.
displays a technique in characterization in his first plays that is a
step beyond that, but sometimes only one step. Characterization in the
one-act sea plays is largely a matter of stage-dialect. Jean Chothia's Forging
a Language shows how close to stage convention these dialects were
in O'Neill's plays. Few of the players in "Moon of the Caribees"
receive much more to go on from O'Neill in creating their roles beyond a
dialect and a physical description. The rest of the interior life of the
character O'Neill leaves to the player to imagine--or not. The play
requires very little subtlety of them.
roles do offer more. Cocky is a liar. The other characters treat him
with contempt. And he is capable of murder. He knifes Paddy. The way
others relate to Cocky, and the way he relates to them, offer additional
coloration to a character that otherwise depends entirely on his small
size and his Bow-bells accent.
display of this web of mutual relationships is a basic element of all
characterization in all plays everywhere, and varies in complexity
during O'Neill's career from the simple few strokes that distinguish
Cocky from the rest of the cast to the elaborate layers of love,
contempt, trust and suspicion between Jamie Tyrone and other characters
in the two late plays in which the character appears.
A bolder, and much simpler method of characterization which O'Neill used, indeed overused, throughout his career, is simply to have the character provide an autobiographical description. Smitty in the "Moon of the Caribees" offers an analysis of himself couched in a rather hammy and Byronic mode. Of course, it is not simply addressed to the theatrical audience. He offers it to another character on stage, Donk, and the reactions O'Neill provides for Donk, among them the comments about Donk's own experience, lead the players in both parts to develop Smitty as a young man over-dramatizing his own psychic pain. This pattern is further emphasized by a contrast with Cocky's attempts to tell his own life story. O'Neill has Cocky's tales of what happened in New Guinea shouted down by the rest of the crew. But O’Neill gives Smitty a moment of relative isolation in which to talk about himself, with only Donk to provide the element of skepticism.
Jones not only brags about himself but concedes that Smithers may be
right about his past. Yank too brags, but in a style of speech
contrived to absolve him of any suggestion of covert motive or
duplicity. Cabot has a speech alone to Abbie in which he tries to pour
out the essence of his beliefs. Abbie and Eben are given speeches to
each other in an ambience which obviates any temptation for the
audience to doubt their sincerity. Mannon, Christine, Orin, and
Lavinia too, all are given autobiographical speeches.
the later plays, however, O'Neill undercuts any player's confidence
about the sincerity of such speeches. How much is a player in The
Iceman Cometh to suppose that the character she or he plays
"really believes" those tales they tell? The question is at
the root of the issue that Hickey brings to them. To what extent
should the player of Con Melody act as if the character believed in
his own aristocratic claims? Or disbelieved them? Should the player of
Sara let the audience think she is really in love with Simon? Or that
she has just the plans of which Con accuses her, those of a scheming,
greedy, peasant slut? Or both? Or neither? Or something in between?
Where in between? These are not baroque speculations. Any players
"doing" A Touch of the
Poet have to commit themselves to one among such choices.
characterization in any play, then, is partly the result of the way
members of an audience note and judge mutual reactions among
characters. Even autobiographical statements by characters depend upon
the way these statements are received, explicitly or implicitly, by
the other characters in the play. These mutual interactions confirm or
modify the judgments in the characters' self-descriptions.
in "Moon of the Caribees" treats Smitty's speech as a
performance. Simeon and Peter react to Eben as if they thought Eben's
speech were a performance, contradicting the over import of his speech
to say that Eben is just like their father. Richard Miller's father in
Ah, Wilderness! also treats
his son's explanations of himself as if they were performances.
Everyone in The Iceman Cometh
treats everyone else as if their stories were mere self-justifying
fictions. O'Neill spreads out behind Con Melody's posturing a spectrum
of differentiated responses to him, from Sara's overt contempt, to
Deborah's tempered disgust, Creegan's testimonies of past glory, all
the way to Nora's uncritical support. Sara's explanations of how much
she is in love are almost all addressed to her mother. The supportive
lines that O'Neill provides for Nora encourages an audience to label
Sara's commitment to Simon as sincere, in spite of any other evidence
to the contrary in the script.
audience is encouraged to note these mutual relationships by a host of
devices, from the most obvious to the cunning and subtle. Among the
obvious ones is blocking. It is not necessary here to run through the
whole of the O'Neill canon to demonstrate this kind of
characterization. A glance at the blocking of characters in "Moon
of the Caribees" will suffice. There are comparatively few clear
requirements for blocking of individual characters in this play, but
the among few that exist are several that make Smitty relate to the
rest of the cast as "among them but not of them," to quote
one of Con Melody's favorite authors.
has Smitty sit on a different and higher part of the deck, has him
stay on that higher level when other characters leave it, has him go
below when others stay above, come up on deck when the others go
below. At one moment O'Neill gives him a line and then directs that
the rest of the cast interrupt their action to turn and stare at him.
devices for isolating some characters in order to maintain a focus of
audience attention are easy to spot through all the rest of O'Neill's
plays. None of these devices, of course, are unique to O'Neill. They
are the part of every playwright's arsenal.
handling of these techniques are distinguished from the work of other
writers by his own apparent problems with sincerity. Most other
playwrights are content to put forward a character with an
autobiographical statement and leave it at that, as ostensibly true,
or as a plainly cynical attempt to manipulate other characters.
O'Neill has his characters make such autobiographical statements, just
as every other playwright. He almost never has characters use such
speeches as mere devices to move other characters’ judgements. But
he often has characters worry that their statements might be so taken.
And often the reactions he provides from other characters suggest that
O'Neill worried about it too. And took steps to anticipate such
judgments in an audience.
character, Donk, has almost no function in "Moon of the Caribees"
except as a sounding board for Smitty. O'Neill directs him to assume a
relaxed posture and smoke a pipe, patterns that puts a psychic
distance greater than the physical one between his attitudes and those
of Smitty. Donk's reaction to Smitty's lines suggest that Donk thinks
that Smitty's suffering is as much performance as fact. O'Neill puts
the actors in a position here to focus on the question of Smitty's
persuasive abilities--and not on O'Neill's. One cannot know, of
course, how consciously O'Neill played this defensive game, but it is
not a surprise to find a young writer doing it.
and Peter relate to Eben's autobiographical protestations in Desire
Under the Elms in roughly the same way as Donk's to Smitty's.
Although he was a much more polished writer by that time, O'Neill
apparently still worried about the audience's judgment, not of Eben's
sincerity, but of the writer's ability.
Eben is through insisting that he is connected only to his Maw and not
to old Cabot at all, Simeon and Peter agree with each other that Eben
is very much like Cabot. Thus the audience can now look to see which
judgment is the more accurate, and is directed away from deciding
anything about O'Neill's powers of judgment.
long autobiographical statement in the bedroom is arranged to be
spoken to another character who is hardly listening. Cabot concludes
with disgust that Abbie had not understood one word. The audience can
see that the manipulative power of the speech had failed. And so they
are liberated from the necessity of judging its power at all. And
O'Neill is freed from their judgment.
in O'Neill's plays share O'Neill's problem. Only subliminally at
first, and more and more overtly in the later plays, they doubt their
own sincerity. Jamie in the last scenes of Long Day's Journey Into Night or Mary in the long scene with
Cathleen and then alone in Act III are roles that provide players with
the task of speaking lines which are simultaneously
"sincere" and disbelieved by the very characters who speak
them. So stated it sounds difficult if not impossible.
O'Neill offers both actors all the tools they need in the pattern of
reactions from other characters to channel the judgment of the
audience toward the questions O'Neill wants taken up--and perhaps away
from those he fears, such as judgments of his own abilities as a
writer. In addition, he sometimes gives characters lines which put
them in the position of listeners to their own lines. Mary's lines
alone on stage in Act III are an especially overt example. She calls
herself a lying a dope-fiend that the Virgin could never believe. Such
moments and such characters very often correct themselves, contradict
themselves, in very much the same way characters commonly correct
other characters. Such is the topic of the next essay.
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com