play is full of conflict. One kind of conflict is the correction of one
character's statement by another. Most such corrections have expository
functions for a play: as part of a welter of recriminations, the
corrections serve to call up past events in a way that lets members of
an audience decipher what is at stake in the ostensible present, what
happened in the past to bring matters to this pass, and, in addition,
feel good about themselves for having the wit to figure it all out.
like other writers, made use of this technique, though he displays in
three ways his own signature as a playwright in the kinds of corrections
that he has one character make of another.
the beginning of "Moon of the Caribees," all the sailors shout
at Cocky, telling him to stop talking. In the last scene of A
Moon for the Misbegotten Josie and Phil Hogan, and Jim Tyrone, all
tell each other, more than once, to stop talking. In all the plays in
between the same imperative appears as characters tell each other to
stop talking. In Anna Christie, throughout the climactic scenes in the last two acts,
characters tell each other not to tell. Chris tries to obstruct the
relationship between Anna and Matt by demanding, "You tal him you
don't vant for hear him talk, Anna!"(123). A few moments later,
Anna says to Chris, "Shut up, can't you?" After Anna has
confessed her past life, "I was in a house..the kind that you and
Matt goes to in port," O'Neill has Chris whimper, "It's lie!
It's lie!"(133) in a useless attempt to blot out Anna's words. Yank
in "The Hairy Ape"
tells Paddy, tells Long, tells almost everyone in the play, to shut up.
And almost everyone in the play tells Yank to "stop"
something, as scene after scene ends with images of violent control
placed upon him.
Cabot has convinced Eben that Abbie plans to use her child to displace
him as Cabot's heir to the farm so central to Desire
Under the Elms, Eben and Abbie quarrel. Several times O'Neill has
Eben anticipate that Abbie will lie. "Believe a lyin' thief!
Ha!" and "Tain't no use lyin' no more"(49). Nina in Strange
Interlude, Act I, twice corrects her father, "Don't lie any
more," and "It's too late for lies!"(75) within the same
minute of playing time. O'Neill matches that with a scene involving
Gordon, Nina, and Darrell in Act IX. Nina corrects her son, "I
think you've said enough, Gordon!" and Gordon turns on Darrell,
"Shut up, you! Don't take that tone with me or I'll forget your
age--and give you a spanking!"(216)
Mourning Becomes Electra,
O'Neill often has characters in the heat of passion tell each other to
stop talking. Christine tells Lavinia that she hates Ezra.
"Don't," says the daughter. "Don't say that!...I won't
listen!"(249). Mannon returns and Christine interrupts his talk
with "Don't talk, Ezra." Mannon speaks of the "wall
hiding us from each other," and she claims not to understand him.
His response is "Don't lie, Christine." (269) Near the end of
the play, Lavinia and Orin quarrel about her off-stage relationship with
a man on a Pacific Island. Orin snaps, "Don't lie!"(355).
O'Neill has her admit some connection to the man, then immediately deny
it, climaxing the passage with "Don't talk about it!...Stop harping
on that! Stop torturing me...For God's sake, won't you be quiet!"
Ah, Wilderness!, Act II, scene
1, the bar scene, O'Neill has Richard say to Belle, "You oughtn't
to lead this kind of life...Why don't you reform?" O'Neill then
provides Belle with the response that the sappy suggestion deserves:
"Nix on that lines of talk! You can do a lot with me for five
dollars--but you can't reform me, see. Mind your own business, Kid, and
don't butt in where you're not wanted!"(70)
pattern then, of a correction of one character by another that also
implies an imperative to stop talking, often involving an injunction to
stop lying, appears now and then in all the plays of O'Neill's writing
career before his "silence" in the middle 'thirties. In the
plays of the final part of his career, that correction is not merely an
occasional verbal quirk. In A
Touch of the Poet, and in The
Iceman Cometh, these occur with obsessive frequency.
has Sara call on Melody to stop believing, saying, doing something on
every page of the script of their scenes together. Melody often says
similar things to her and to Nora. The request to "stop"
appears even more often in The
Iceman Cometh. Each character in that huge cast asks almost every
other character in the play at least once to "stop" something.
Now and then, one character even tells another to stop telling a third
to stop. Larry, to pick an example at random, growls as Hickey tries to
get Hugo to stop dreaming, "Leave Hugo be!...He's earned his
The pattern appears with even more intensity in Long Day's Journey Into Night. At first it appears only subtly. Tyrone begins speeches with phrases like, "None of that..." or "I wouldn't say that..." and Mary starts hers with "Nonsense!"(14-17). When the sons are on stage, the tension is more obvious. O'Neill gives Tyrone lines like, "Never mind the Socialist gabble," or "Keep your damned anarchist remarks to yourself," or "Keep your damned Socialist sentiments out of my affairs!"(23-25), while Jamie groans "What's all the fuss about? Let's forget it"(21), and Edmund snaps "Oh, for God's sake, Papa! If you're starting that stuff again, I'll beat it!"(26) while Mary puts in, "Now, James, don't lose your temper,"(26) and "You mustn't be so silly, James!"(28) O'Neill put every one of these remarks in contexts which make them function as attempts by the speaker, "speech-acts" as some like to call them, to criticize the speech of another character on stage.
accusations for lying aimed at Mary are slightly more indirect. In Act
II, scene one, Jamie asks rhetorically, "Do you think you can
fool me, Mama?" and adds, "Take a look at your eyes in the
mirror!"(63) Tyrone at the end of that scene says that he was a
damned fool for believing her, and that he does not want to listen to
opens A Moon for the Misbegotten with that old-fashioned expository scene
between two people, one of who will not figure at all in the action
again, with dialogue which sketches in the intrigue that will form the
main overt action the play to follow. A quarrelsome scene, it gives as
Josie's second line to Mike an injunction to stop talking about their
father, "Keep your tongue off him"(302). Before Mike leaves,
she threatens him several more times for saying things she does not
want to hear. "One more word out of you--"(305) No sooner
does her father enter than she says to Phil, "Don't be callin' me
names..." Moments later he yells at her, "Will you stop your
so it goes through the rest of the play. Near the end, with the
sleeping Jim Tyrone in her arms, she says to Phil, "Shut
up!" and accuses him of lying and scheming(399). But in nearly
her last line of the play, she says, with a show of better humor,
"Don't be threatening me, you bad-tempered old tick"(409).
In between, as in most of the other plays late in O'Neill's career,
the character incessantly call on each other to stop talking, and
often couple those imperatives with demands to stop the blarney, the
scheming, the lying.
That's a Lie! You're Crazy!
in O'Neill's plays throughout his career accuse each other of lying.
Ruby Cohn's chapter on O'Neill in her Dialogue
in American Drama points out that in A
Long Day's Journey Into Night "all of the characters
lie," with repetition that "is muted by the syntactical
variety and by the everyday normalcy of the word, 'lie.'"(56)
playwrights contemporary with O'Neill, even leftists like Rice or
Lawson, or tough guys like Odets, make their characters very careful
about actually accusing anyone of lying. When I was a boy in the
'thirties, "That's a lie!" was a deadly insult, an
invitation to enmity. But in the universe of O'Neill's plays, it
rarely evokes that reaction. Part of the reason is that often in
O'Neill's dialogue, the speaker who complains about another's lie
refers to no "fact," verifiable by an audience as true or
untrue. The speaker instead means that someone else has not truly
reported what he or she truly "feels."
the early plays, Welded is disfigured by an overcharge of such examples, but Anna
Christie is more commonly "done," and examples are just
as easy to find there. In Act III and IV, O'Neill puts Anna and Matt
Burke in a debate on what the other truly feels now and felt in past
sexual associations. These scenes, from before opening night to very
recent criticism, have excited very different kinds of reactions. Some
feel that they are wonderfully effective, providing great moments for
the players. Others regard them as forced, false. The word,
"melodramatic" is often used.
relationship of O'Neill's work to "melodrama," to the kind
of theatre represented by his father's work in The
Count of Monte Cristo, has always been suggestive to O'Neill
scholars. Raleigh's classic essay on the writer's "Escape from
the Chateau d'If" implies that the father's play was a
"dungeon" from which the playwright escaped only in his
later career, beginning with The
Iceman Cometh. Robert B. Heilman in his Tragedy
and Melodrama argues that O'Neill never go out of that dungeon.
Michael Manheim in two essays, "O'Neill's Transcendence of
Melodrama in A Touch of the Poet
and A Moon for the Misbegotten,"
and "Transcendence of Melodrama in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh," argues that O'Neill transformed the dungeon
to his own purposes.
terms, "melodrama" and "melodramatic" need some
demonstration here. O'Neill in the early play, Anna
Christie, has given the players in the last two acts the task of
convincing an audience that these persons can convince each other of
their "love." That word, "love," implies, among
other ideas, duration. "Love," if it is "true,"
lasts. But a play does not. One can in a play provide an ostensible
elapsed time of many years with which to demonstrate the truth of the
passion. But O'Neill only provides an interval of two days to be
supposed to elapse between Acts III and IV. Two days is not a
plays identified by modern criticism with the genre
"melodrama" frequently had fifteen or more scenes in the
course of two hours' playing time, with ten to a dozen individually
identifiable characters. The average scene lasted some nine minutes,
and introduced five or six people on the stage. Characterization under
such conditions had to be quick, not deep. A costume or a quirk
substituted for any analysis of the character's motives. Such a
dramaturgy commanded not complex motives but simple, indeed,
conventionalized ones. To demonstrate "love" in such
rapid-fire presentation most writers simply had the player assert it.
Audiences learned to accept the assertion of "love" as a
conventional substitute for the proof of it. Readers today will
testify that the convention is so strong that it works off-stage as
O'Neill found himself facing an audience so trained. His own father
had helped train it. Anna and Burke, however, are elements in what
then was still a relatively new genre of ash-can realism in American
drama. O'Neill set himself the task of convincing people in an
audience that they should care deeply about the passion of an Irish
tough and a Swedish whore. He has these two try, on filthy coal barge,
to swear to noble emotions, ones equally appropriate to the theatre of
Dumas or Hugo. Audiences prepared to accept those assertions for the
deed, and O'Neill is among their number, will find the scenes
who aren't, won't. Most of us have been de-trained from melodrama to
demand other conventions, those of the so-called "realistic
theatre." Even within the realistic convention it is easy to cite
examples where patriotic, religious, political, or personal
allegiances, like "love," are not demonstrated but simply
asserted, with little or no objection from critics.
point of this excursion into "love" and
"melodrama" is to provide some background to the observation
that a large number of corrections of one character by another in
O'Neill's plays, even those that charge a "lie," are not
directed at questions of fact at all, but at emotional states. One
character doubts the "truth" of another character's oath of
love. In Act III of Anna
Christie, O'Neill provides Anna and Burke with a debate on whether
Anna loves him or not. Her father laughs, saying, "She make big
fool of you," and Burke replies, "That's a lie in your
throat"(116), but they are both talking about something neither
of them can know, the inside of another person's mind.
Act IV, after all of Anna's past has been confessed, Burke leaves,
pausing at the doorway to say, "And I suppose 'tis the same lies
you told them all before that you told me?" O'Neill has Anna
react strongly. "That's a lie! I never did!" (153) No issue
of any verifiable "fact" can be at stake here but only a
question of what Anna "felt" in the past. The same kind of
issue appears in other plays by O'Neill before the middle 'thirties.
Desire Under the Elms, Abbie
swears to Eben that if their son kills their love, then she hates the
child. "Lies!" says Eben. "Ye love him. He'll steal the
farm fur ye!"(49) Again, O'Neill has Eben is talking here about
no verifiable fact, but about the state of Abbie's feelings.
and then, the charge of a lie is connected to a fact. Brutus Jones
suggests that Smithers has served time in prison. When Smithers shoots
back, "It's lie!" Jones is not impressed. He does not need,
he says, to verify it. "Dey's some tings I ain't got to be tole.
I can see 'em in folks eyes"(11). Jones here reminds us of Hickey
looking over Parrit, and, seeing something there that tells him that
Parrit and he are "members of the same lodge--in some
way."(84) In both cases, an audience will believe that there are
facts, somewhere, that can prove or disprove the assertion.
not every audience will believe that feelings will admit that kind of
proof. In Mourning Becomes
Electra, characters correct each other, often charging a lie in
the process, on the quality of someone's emotional commitment, the
same pattern as in Anna Christie,
and in Desire Under the Elms.
In Mourning Becomes Electra
Lavinia and Brant have such a debate(243-44), and later Lavinia and
Christine(251). The topic runs through all three to the scene between
Lavinia and Orin(355-56) and on to the one between Lavinia and Hazel
near the end(371).
exactly the same kind of debate is used for comic purposes in Act IV,
scene 2 of Ah, Wilderness!
between Richard and Muriel on the "truth" of their loves.
Richard claims that he did not kiss Belle; she kissed him. "Tell
it to the Marines!" says Muriel in one of the rare displays of
spunk that O'Neill allows her. He gives to Richard only the weak and
manipulative reply, "If you're going to call me liar every word I
say--" to cue Muriel's concession, "I didn't call you a
liar. I only meant--it sounds fishy" (116-17).
the middle 'thirties, characters in O'Neill's plays still challenge
the feelings of others, with the marked difference that the issue
becomes, not the truth or duration of those feelings, but their
falsity and brevity. An audience can sense, with no study of
philosophic logic, that the lasting quality of true religion,
patriotism, love, or whatever, is unprovable in the two hours' traffic
of the stage. But they will accept without demur the converse
proposition that a proof can exist of a feeling failed. In some ways
it is merely a matter of emphasis, but in the dialogue of a play, it
can be the difference between mere romance and severe realism.
promise made or offered by the characters of
The Iceman Cometh has failed. Each of them is the prisoner of a
pipe-dream, and O'Neill has them all concede they know it. When Hickey
comes to teach them his "truth about yourself," O'Neill puts
Hickey in a position of preaching to the converted. Only the cynic
Larry is naive enough to learn anything from him. O'Neill has any
assertions of "true" feelings immediately mocked by another
character, and O'Neill designs the action of the play to make Hickey
demonstrate how any assertions of love or loyalty, including Hickey's
own, are false.
Touch of the Poet is filled with two different kinds of correction
of others' feelings. O'Neill generates one kind as he puts Nora and
Sara together at least once in each of the four acts and has them
analyze their feelings for Melody and for Simon, a part of the
variation on references to pride and shame that he develops in all the
dialogue of this script. Both women correct each other for feeling too
little or too much pride or shame, and usually answer the corrections
with corrections of their own, usually self-justifying. In these
scenes neither calls the other a liar, and both concede the sincerity
of the other's statements.
generates another kind of correction as he puts Melody and Sara
together with truths so insulting that he hardly needs for either to
charge a lie to generate the necessary dramatic tension. In these
scenes he often has Sara interrupt her correction of Melody to concede
that perhaps he actually believes what he has been saying. Melody
sometimes does the same in his corrections of her. Both of them
suggest, not that the other is lying, but instead "deluded,"
or "crazy," "half-mad," "insane."
in several places the characters do charge a lie--or that's what the
lines say. Near the end of Act II, Sara tells Melody that Deborah
Harford has left the tavern. "Gone?" cries Melody, stunned,
freshly decked out in his British uniform. "You're lying, damn
you!"(195) That is, he charges Sara with maliciously trying to
provoke him by saying Deborah has gone when in fact she has not.
in Act III, O'Neill has Melody take a supercilious attitude toward
Deborah. "Naturally the lady was a bit discomposed when she heard
you and your mother coming, after she had just allowed me to kiss her.
She had to pretend--" O'Neill gives Sara a line to interrupt, a
comment on Melody's still incomplete phrase, "She let you kiss
her?" Next O'Neill gives her a further thought, "It's a lie,
but I don't doubt you've made yourself think it's the truth by
now"(206). What statement is a lie? Evidently Melody's statement
and Sara's emphasis of it, that Deborah allowed herself to be kissed.
in Act II, O'Neill provides an exchange in which Melody speaks of
Simon as Sara's helpless victim. "Faith, the poor young devil
hasn't a chance to escape with you two scheming peasants laying snares
to trap him!" Sara has the response, "That's a lie!"
Close analysis makes it difficult to state which of the terms in
Melody's speech is supposed to be the lie that Sara refers to. A
sketchy glance, the only kind allowed an audience in the theatre,
makes it seem that the idea of "scheming" is the one that
Sara ostensibly resents.
in the same act, O'Neill gives Melody again a summary of Sara's
motives. "Well, to be brutally frank, my dear, all I can see in
you is a common, greedy, scheming, cunning peasant girl, whose only
thought is money and who has shamelessly thrown herself at a young
man's head because his family happens to possess a little wealth and
position." O'Neill has Sara at first respond with some control,
but after three lines, she bursts out, "It's a lie! I love Simon
or I'd never--" and Melody interrupts her sentence (210-211). If
the actress in the role of Sara asked her director what the character
of Sara was to mean here by "a lie," what could the director
answer? Too many different--and contradictory--ways for Sara to finish
the clause, "or I'd never--" offer themselves. A director
would forced to a interpretative commitment here to decide on how to
pick which statement by Melody is to be labelled a lie by Sara. On the
basis of the similarity of this exchange in Act III with those between
Sara and Melody in Act II, one might suggest that the actress should
term as a "lie" Melody's whole description of Sara as a
cunning peasant who thinks only of money. Those of use who
"do" the play in the study, of course, have a luxury of
delaying that decision that is not available to players getting it
ready to "do" it on a stage.
the end of Act III, after Gadsby has been expelled, Sara tries to keep
Melody from going to the Harford house to demand satisfaction. She
says he will ruin her chances to marry Simon. Melody forbids her to
consider such a marriage. "If you dare defy me--" Sara
interrupts with, "You lie!" But everything Melody had said
(221), until Sara interrupted, was in the conditional, an
"if-clause," so that no statement, so far, exists to be
in this script there is no ambiguity at all in the accusation of a
lie. Jamie Creegan brings Melody home in Act IV and grouses at Sara,
"Don't put on lady's airs about fighting when you're the whole
cause of it!" O'Neill has Sara say immediately, "It's a lie!
You know I tried to stop..." (240) Sara clearly means here to
belie Creegan's statement that she was the cause of the fight.
usually, the charge of a lie is ambiguous. Nora, after the off-stage
shot in Act IV, uses the word, "lie," in a correction.
O'Neill has Sara say she knows and does not want to know for whom the
shot was intended, that it was not Jamie Creegan. "Someone is in
the yard at the door," Sara says. "It'll be Jamie coming to
tell us--" And Nora interrupts, "It's a lie! He'd nivir!
He'd nivir!" (245) What statement was the lie? We can offer the
actress a little help here this time. O'Neill depends on his audience
to guess that Sara thinks that her father committed suicide, without
every using the word. He has Nora respond as if the word had been
some of these instances, one can foresee problems in getting immediate
comprehension from the audience. But simply to say, "Well, it's
bad writing; even O'Neill sometimes nods," no matter how apt, is
shirking our duty in commentaries of this kind. Anyone in the position
of "doing" the play needs more help than that. It is also
necessary to admit that players in these cases often sense that an
audience will not have the leisure to enquire too deeply into which
earlier sentence the charge of a lie was supposed to apply. The
audience, the players assure us, will be content to take the phrase,
"That's a lie!" as simply a striking interrupter.
has characters charge a lie in contexts where the word can clearly
apply in Long Day's Journey Into
Night and in A Moon for the
Misbegotten. In the latter, the word, "lie," is often
applied to the reported statements of an absent character. In Act II,
Hogan reports to Josie that Tyrone had said, "You had great
beauty in you," to which Josie's response is "You're
lying!" Before and after that, similar reports from Hogan cue
accusations, not against Hogan, but again the absent Tyrone, "Och!
The liar!" and, "The dirty liar!" (354)
in Act I of Long Day's Journey Into Night O'Neill has Mary leave Jamie and his
father alone on stage after Jamie mentioned Edmund's "cold."
Tyrone turns on Jamie to correct him. "You're a fine lunkhead!...The
one thing to avoid saying is anything that would get her more upset
over Edmund." Jamie tries to correct his father. "I think
it's wrong to let Mama go on kidding herself." This leads to an
argument about Hardy and thence to money and what Tyrone can offer.
Jamie sneers, "if Edmund was a lousy acre of land you wanted, the
sky would be the limit!"
a lie!" Tyrone responds. "And your sneers against Doc Hardy
are lies!" The attack on Jamie goes on for some minutes until the
father finally says, "The less you say about Edmund's sickness,
the better for your conscience! You're more responsible than
anyone!" Jamie, stung, responds, "That's a lie! I won't
stand for that, Papa!" His father, however, keeps on. "It's
the truth! You've been the worst influence on him!" (29-34)
phrase charging a lie in these two late plays, then, is clearly cued
by a preceding statement. In Long Day's Journey Into Night a further observation presents itself.
Often the speaker charging a lie does not in fact deny the truth of
the phrase he has just denounced, but instead confirms it. Tyrone has
already invested in land money that might have been spent on Mary or
on Edmund. Jamie, in turn, has indeed been a rotten influence. "I
did put Edmund wise to things...so he'd learn...if you can't be good
you can at least be careful(34-35)." In O'Neill's dialogue here,
the phrase, "That's a lie!" sometimes signals, not the
falsity of another character's statement, but the pain of its truth.
another pattern of corrections in O'Neill's later plays: he has
characters complain, not so much of the facts of another's utterance,
but of its style. Inasmuch as the words, "fact," and
"style" admit of no clear definition, it is pointless to try
to count up how many corrections are this and how many that, as if the
two were mutually exclusive terms. It is useful, however, to remark
that, at least in Long Day's
Journey Into Night, and even more strikingly in A
Moon for the Misbegotten, corrections frequently call attention as
much to the way characters phrase their talk as to the content.
the former of the two plays, the many of the imperatives to stop
talking are paired with a justification based on the other's style of
speaking, "You always exaggerate," "Don't be so
touchy," "How you can live with a mind that sees nothing but
the worst motives behind everything is beyond me!" "Don't
call your father the Old Man. You should have more respect," and
"Don't take it that way, Mamma!" are only few examples from
Act I. By the end of Act IV, O'Neill has Edmund strike Jamie for the
way the older one talks about their mother and has their father
congratulate Edmund for the blow. The tendency to refer to the style
of the other's speech is roughly constant throughout the script.
the first three minutes or A
Moon for the Misbegotten, Mike comments, "You've a tongue as
dirty as the Old Man's," and Josie answers, "Don't start
preaching." (304) Corrections throughout this script too fall
into the pattern of complaining how the other one talks, most
obviously in the exchanges between Jose and Jim Tyrone.
patch of such examples appears in Act III:
further complexity to the pattern of corrections in O'Neill's dialogue
can complete this outline of the writers' characteristic style.
I Didn't Mean That!
striking of all among the patterns of correction in O'Neill's dialogue
is the way characters correct themselves. That a character in a play
corrects a speech just uttered is an oddity. We all correct ourselves,
of course, in normal conversation, fumbling for the way to express
feelings that we have previously only dimly articulated. Or for a mode
of expression best calculated to impress or move our listeners. Or
because, though we have a glib grasp of some patter that will achieve
the desired effect, we fear that it may sound insincere, and so
ornament our discourse with an artificial, indeed, a cynically
conceived verbal dance of halts and hesitations.
in his normal discourse also corrected himself. In his letters to
Kenneth Macgowan reprinted in Jackson Bryer's edition of them, The
Theatre We Worked For, such phrases as "what I've written
doesn't express my thoughts," (21) or "which I misexpressed,"
(30) appear now and then. At one point O'Neill breaks off with a
written exclamation, "Oh, balls, those aren't the words. I'll
tell you later. I haven't one quarter said it(149)."
those phrases mark a cynical desire to decorate discourse of which he
is really confident or mark sincere doubts about his own prose--in
O'Neill's case, probably the latter--is not important here. Those
phrases offer in either case a contrast to the normal practice of any
playwright who can edit speech before it is uttered. Players can then
speak lines that state what a character ostensibly means. But in
O'Neill's plays, just as he does himself in his letters, characters
do it rarely in the plays before the middle 'thirties. Anna and Burke
in Anna Christie apologize
to each other. Anna has knocked Burke down, and then taken his head on
her lap. "Forget it," she says finally. "I'm sorry it
happened." Burke finds out that she is the daughter of the
captain of the barge and says, "I didn't mean a word of what I
said or did."(100) Neither is really an example of a character
trying to call back words the moment they are spoken. There is a
certain amount of hysterical self-abnegation in All
God's Chillun Got Wings, especially in the scenes where Jim or
Ella have the on-stage focus largely to themselves. Characters in Strange
Interlude, when speaking their soliloquies to themselves, reverse
their opinions constantly. When speaking "aloud" to other
characters, O'Neill gives them instead an assured consistency of
attitude. The contrast seems to have been a source of some comedy in
the New York production of 1985 with Glenda Jackson in the lead. In
general, the impression that characters in an O'Neill play constantly
take back or scold themselves for earlier statements is much less
striking in these earlier plays than in, say, A Touch of the Poet and after.
several times apologizes for his cruel talk, "Forgive me, Nora.
That was unpardonable (157)," and "Forgive me, Nora. Forget
I said that(161)." Twice in Act III he uses another pattern to
excuse himself to his daughter, "Forgive me, Sara. I didn't
mean--it was the whiskey talking(207)," and "There are
things I said which I regret--even now. I--I trust you will
overlook--As your mother knows, it's the liquor talking(212)."
gives Nora a long speech to a silent Sara while they wait in Act IV
for news of Melody's trip to the city. She corrects herself
immediately after a statement: "Let got of me darlin'...I'd
rather stay alone. No. Don't leave me. Sit down. darlin'..." and
"His pride, indade! What is it but a lie? What's in his
veins...but the blood of thievin' auld Ned Melody who kept dirty
shebeen? No! I won't say it! I've niver!...I'm the only one in the
world he knows niver sneers at his dreams!(228)"
near the end of the play has her moments of self-correction too.
O'Neill has her refer to Simon's mother, "I've beaten her and
I'll sneer last! God forgive me, what a way to think of--I must be
crazy too(243)." Later she hears that her father has taken the
duelling pistols outside. "Then he's not beaten!" she cries.
O'Neill next has her change her mind. "Merciful God, what am I
thinking? As if he hadn't done enough(244)." And she apparently
then wishes him dead, which O'Neill signals by her reaction to the
off-stage shot. She screams "I didn't mean it!" several
pattern of self-correction in A
Touch of the Poet is the speech that interrupts itself with the
question, "What's the use?" or words to similar despairing
effect. Sara says it constantly of Melody, that it is useless to
suppose that he can tell his own fictions from fact. Melody in turn
comments that he has tried to make a lady of her, but to no avail.
pattern appears now and then in the plays before the middle 'thirties,
but not often. Anna near the end of Anna
Christie despairs of convincing Burke that she never loved any of
the men in her life: "Oh, what's the use? What's the use of me
talking? What's the use of anything?(153)" But she keeps on
talking, keeps trying.
resigned acceptance of life's futility is not a typical reaction of
O'Neill characters in these earlier plays. Quite the contrary, the
energy in these dramas derives from scripts that allow the audience to
sense an increasingly frantic effort to displace or suppress that
despair. After the middle 'thirties, however, despair--that is, a
relief from the necessity of hoping--becomes, not the seductive abyss
to be shunned, but a comfort that ironically still cannot be accepted.
shift in basic philosophical orientation is reflected in many ways in The
Iceman Cometh. O'Neill does not often have the characters in this
play correct themselves. Many of them concede to corrections by
others, and under threats or promises, "decide" to change
attitudes or behavior, but few of them are presented by O'Neill as
doing so spontaneously in the middle of a speech. One of those few is
Hugo, who does so often, the habitual verbal tic assigned to him as
one of O'Neill's handy if technically superficial methods of
in his last big speech, when O'Neill has him admit out loud his own
hatred for his wife, tries to take back the admission immediately,
insisting that he must have been mad to say it(242). Hickey also calls
back his own words in his first speeches, when he says he is
dissatisfied with the lack of reaction to his missionary efforts, and
then complains, "Hell, this begins to sound like a damned sermon
on the way to lead a good life. Forget that part of it(81)."
the end of the play, O'Neill puts Larry in strong focus, just before
the singing of those songs get started, and gives him a line that is a
further example of this kind of self-correction: "Ah the damned
pity--the wrong kind, as Hickey said!...I'm the only real convert to
death Hickey made here(258)." Otherwise, the number of
self-corrections in this play is not particularly striking.
Long Day's Journey Into Night
these self-corrections are noticeably more frequent, and in A
Moon for the Misbegotten the number of them is impressive, not to
say obsessive. In the former play, O'Neill has all four main
characters interrupt some chain of discourse with the comment that it
is a waste. Mary most commonly makes the observation, "I know
it's a waste of breath trying to convince you that you're not a
cunning real estate speculator(15)," or implies that discussion
of certain topics is a waste of time, "Let's not talk of old
things that couldn't be helped(102)." Jamie says to his father,
"I'm a fool to argue. You can't change a leopard's
spots(31)." Tyrone complains to Edmund of the light bulbs,
"It's having them on, one here and one there, that makes the
Electric Light Company rich. But I'm a fool to talk reason with
you(117)." Later yet in the night, Edmund says to his father,
"Let's not kid each other, Papa. Not tonight. We know what we're
trying to forget. But let's not talk about it. It's no use
commonly someone withdraws a remark as soon as it is made. In Act I,
Jamie says to his father, "I could see that line coming! God how
many times--! All right, Papa, I'm a bum. Anything you like, so long
as it stops the argument(33)." A couple minutes later, Jamie
turns his sarcasm on Edmund's career. "He's always come home
broke, hasn't he? And what did his going away get him? Look at him
now! Christ, that's a lousy thing to say. I didn't mean
that(35)." But he continues his satire in a speech that flips
from a positive to a negative assessment of Edmund and back again:
in the last act with Edmund growls, "Put out that light or...I'll
give you a thrashing that'll teach--! Forgive me lad. I forgot--You
shouldn't goad me into losing my temper." A few lines later
O'Neill has him orating, "Laugh at the old fool! The poor old
ham! But the final curtain will be in the poorhouse just the same, and
that's not comedy! Well, well, let's not argue(128)." Edmund
later in the same scene has nearly the same kind of self-correction:
"Poor old Dowson. Booze and consumption got him. Perhaps it would
be tactful of me to change the subject." He says it again moments
later, this time correcting his father, not himself. "Your dirty
Zola," roars Tyrone. "And your Dante Gabriel Rossetti who
was a dope fiend!" Edmund here quietly puts in, "Perhaps it
would be wiser to change the subject(135)."
self-corrections that withdraw remarks are, in the presence of others,
quite gentle. "But I always seem to be picking on you," she
says to Edmund, "telling you don't do this and don't do that.
Forgive me, dear(58-59)." "I know," O'Neill has her say
to her husband, "you can't help thinking that it's a home,"
and then add, "I'm sorry dear. I don't mean to be bitter. It's
not your fault(75)."
the remarkable solo passage for which most of Act II, scene 2 prepares
the audience, she is rougher. She describes to Cathleen her first
meeting with Tyrone. As soon as Cathleen is off stage, O'Neill's first
line for Mary is, "You're a sentimental fool." O'Neill moves
her from that to a longing for her faith and has her try to pray, only
have her interrupt herself again. "You expect the Blessed Virgin
to be fooled by a lying dope fiend reciting words!(170)" As soon
as she hears the men returning, she says, "Why are they coming
back? They don't want to. And I'd much rather be alone. Oh, I'm so
glad they've come! I've been so horribly lonely! (108)"
achieves a similar effect in Jamie's "drunk scene" near the
end of the play. The moment opens with a comic turn about Jamie's
future as "the lover of the fat woman in the Barnum and Bailey
circus!" Then Jamie turns on himself. "Pah! Imagine me sunk
to the fat girl in a hick town hooker shop! (160)" Jamie quotes
some Kipling, about "the 'appy roads that take you o'er the
world," and immediately comments on this lines, "No so apt.
Happy roads is bunk. Weary roads is right." This cues Edmund's
comment on Jamie's growing sentimentality. Jamie's response begins,
"Don't get too damn fresh," then abruptly concedes,
"But you're right. To hell with repining(161)."
intense passages of confession that follow display the rage of Jamie's
internal tensions, his self-hate, his love-hate relationship toward
everyone else in the family, now and then reflected, among other ways,
in more abrupt self-corrections. "You let hick town boobs flatter
you with bunk about your future--Hell, Kid, forget it...You know I
don't mean it. No one is prouder you've started to make
quality of Jamie's character, monitoring with cynicism everything he
says himself, O'Neill makes even more obvious in
A Moon for the Misbegotten. Typical is a brief exchange near the
end of Act II. O'Neill has Jamie say to Josie that she has, not too
little pride, but too much. She asks him what he means.
"Nothing," is Jamie's answer. "Forget it." He goes
on to apologize for being late to their rendezvous. "Haven't any
excuse. Can't think up a lie. Or, now that I think of it, I had a
damned good honorable excuse, but--Nuts. Forget it (363)."
O'Neill makes the Jim Tyrone in this play sound suspicious of
everything he himself says. Much of the tension of Act III is
generated by this character's inability to make a statement without
immediately withdrawing it as soon as, or even before he finishes it.
pattern is a little more relaxed in the last moments of the play, but
one short passage is worth citing here. He starts to tell Josie that
he feels renewed, "as if all my sins had been forgiven--Nuts with
that sin bunk, but you know what I mean." In the very next
speech, he says, "Don't spoil this dawn!" following that
with a crack calculated to spoil it, "I like Belasco better. Rise
of curtain, Act Four stuff," and then reverses himself again,
"God damn! Why do I have to pull that lousy stuff? (405)"
The character who listens to himself seems to parallel a playwright
who recites his characters' lines to himself, critically complaining
about any errors in taste, tone, or verisimilitude.
sheer quantity of corrections of one character by another is one of
the marks of a dialogue written by O'Neill. The corrections are
further marked as O'Neill's in three additional ways: the imperatives
to stop talking; the accusations of lying; and the self-corrections,
as the writer makes characters turn upon themselves, deny the
effectiveness or propriety of the very words O'Neill has written for
them to say.
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