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Doing O'Neill
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Any 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.

O'Neill, 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.

Stop Talking!

Near 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.

After 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)

In 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!" (356)

In 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)

A 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.

O'Neill 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 dream!"(115)

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. 


Later in the play these patterns become more obvious still. Time and again the sons anticipate delusions from the parents, though O'Neill allows them the word "lie" when he has them talking to the father. The question of what Doc Hardy said and what kind of a sanatarium they have decided on for Edmund is repeatedly the topic of injunctions like, "Don't lie, Papa!"(144). O'Neill makes it clear that the sons know that while their father is crying poor about the sanatarium, he is also buying land. "We met McGuire in the hotel bar after he left you," is Edmund's line. "Jamie kidded him about hooking you, and he winked and laughed." Tyrone has a line, "He's liar if--" interrupted by Edmund's "Don't lie about it!"(145).

The 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 her excuses(69).

O'Neill 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 lying!"(307)

And 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!

Characters 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)

Yet 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."

Among 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.

The 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.

The 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 lifetime.

Nineteenth-century 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 well.

Eugene 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 effective.

Those 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.

The 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.

In 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.

In 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.

Now 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.

But 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).

Almost 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).

After 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.

Every 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.

A 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.

O'Neill 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."

But 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.

Later, 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.

Earlier, 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.

Later 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.

At 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 belied.

Sometimes 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.

But 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 spoken aloud.

For 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.

O'Neill 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)

Early 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!"

"That's 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)

The 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.

Still 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.

In 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.

In 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.

A patch of such examples appears in Act III:

TYRONE: For Christ Sake, quit the smut stuff, can't you!"

JOSIE: Listen to me, Jim! Drunk or not, don't talk that way to me or--"

TYRONE: How about your not talking the old smut stuff to me? (378)

One 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!

Most 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.

O'Neill 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)."

Whether 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 correct themselves.

They 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.

Melody 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)."

O'Neill 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)"

Sara 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 times(245).

Another 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.

The 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.

A 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.

That 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 characterization.

Hickey 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)."

At 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.

In 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 now(132)."

More 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:

...they tell me he's a pretty bum reporter. If he wasn't your son--No, that's not true! They're glad to have him...Some of the poems and parodies he's written are pretty good...Not that they'd ever get him anywhere on the big time. But he's certainly made a damned good start. (36)

Tyrone 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)."

Mary's 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)."

In 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)"

O'Neill 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)."

The 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 good(164)."

This 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.

The 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.

The 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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