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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. I, No. 1
May, 1977


“BEHIND LIFE” FORCES IN EUGENE O’NEILL. Summary of papers presented at the December, 1976 MLA session on the Irish Catholic, New England Puritan and Humanistic Aspects in the plays of Eugene O’Neill.

There have been numerous requests for copies of the papers presented at last December’s MLA discussion of the topic described above. My original intention in attempting to explore the “behind life” forces that predominate in O’Neill and his work was to examine the playwright’s Irish Catholicism and Puritanism, but the scope was broadened to include his mysticism and humanism. O’Neill was a religious playwright. His concern was not the relation between man and man but the relation between God and man and, it should be added, between man and his divided soul, searching, as was the playwright himself, for a faith to make it whole.

O’Neill felt that God had failed him somehow because his mother failed him, his father failed him, and so he turns to man, knowing, however, that man is not enough. O’Neill’s Celtic temperament led him to think in symbols and, in his search for greater meaning, to mysticism. Using intuition coupled with philosophical inquiry in the search for truth, Catholicism takes, for example, the Oedipus complex and gives it concrete form and universal figures: the Mother and Son, the Virgin versus Christ. The Oedipus complex raises Mary to a deity. In so many of his plays, O’Neill sought the perfect woman, the saving figure, and usually found it, or a close approximation of it, in the virgin-mother figure.

In the early Puritan play, Desire Under the Elms, the Oedipal complex makes its first obvious appearance within the context of Freudianism. Eben can make love to Abbie only when she assumes the mother role. In his last, and significantly most Irish play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, O’Neill clothes the basic Oedipal relationship with all the trappings of Christianity. When the guilt-ridden Jim Tyrone seeks forgiveness for desecrating his mother’s memory, he turns to Josie who holds him in her arms throughout the long night in a manner suggesting the Pieta. The would-be mistress makes what is for her the supreme sacrifice and accepts the role of priestess-mother. Jim Tyrone finds salvation not through nineteenth century Catholicism, God the Father, but through a blend of humanism and Christianity, God the Mother. God, sin, and regeneration are the essentials of any Catholic and Puritan point of view.

Perhaps in A Moon for the Misbegotten, more than in any of his other plays, O’Neill combines four aspects discussed at this MLA session: Irish Catholicism, Puritanism, Humanism, and Mysticism. O’Neill stated that he wanted to see the “transfiguring nobility of tragedy in seemingly the most ignoble, debased lives,” adding that “here is where I am a most confirmed mystic, for I am always trying to interpret life in terms of lives, never just in terms of character. I am always acutely conscious of the force behind--fate, God, our biological past creating our present, whatever one calls it--mystery certainly.” And just here is where O’Neill’s Irishness asserts itself, for the Irish are always seeking answers to the mystery of life.

In his paper, “Irish Catholicism in O’Neill’s Later Plays,” John Henry Raleigh shows how profoundly O’Neill’s early Catholic indoctrination affected his most autobiographical work--the later plays. The result of the emphasis on sin and redemption in Catholicism is the arousal of strong guilt feelings and the need to confess and be forgiven. Yet “O’Neill in his darkest moods thought that nobody, even God, could be forgiven, that there can be no forgiveness and that guilt is an infinite regression into which one sinks and sinks.”

The gallery of sinners who inhabit the guilt-ridden world O’Neill creates for them often reveal a strong urge to confess, “and occasionally they are accorded a kind of secular absolution.” This occurs even in early plays like All God’s Chillun Got Wings, Mourning Becomes Electra, and Strange Interlude. “But it is in the last plays that a secular version of the confessional--contrition, confession, and a hoped-for absolution--appears more clearly and pervasively.”

Professor Raleigh notes that in the last act of The Iceman Cometh there are “two simultaneous, contrapuntal confessions going on: Hickey’s and Parritt’s; the one public, the other private.” There is almost the equivalent to the history of the development of the confessional itself in these two confessions, as the “archaic echoes in Hickey’s public confession” relate to a time in the early days of the Catholic Church before confidentiality was enjoined, when the notion prevailed that “the sins of one member infect the whole body and that society itself must deal with the transgressor and his transgressions. One could say that Hickey’s public confession disinfects the congregation at Harry Hope’s saloon which he had infected in act one of the play. Hickey’s confession deals with two of the sins that the early Church thought so abominable that it would not grant absolution for them: adultery and murder. Hickey’s confession embodies the three principal means that the word ‘confession’ has historically encompassed. First, it is a confession in the legal sense: that is, an admission of a crime and with two policemen listening to it. Second, it is a confession in the more philosophical sense of that word la St. Augustine and Rousseau: that is, a confession of a belief of some kind. In Hickey’s case the belief is a series of negatives: the fallacy of pipe dreams, the inability of humans to endure endless guilt, and finally, and most terribly, his sudden revelation to himself at the end of his confession that he really hated his wife. Third, it is a confession in the moral or Catholic sense, detailing the wrongs over a great number of years he had done to his wife; all of his mortal sins served up in a rush and capped by a homicide.”

Parritt’s brief, oracular confession to Slade, “who will observe the seal of the confessional and never reveal to anyone else what Parritt had told him,” is viewed as counterpointing Hickey’s. Like Hickey, Parritt’s “supposed love for his mother was only a mask for hatred. He demands from his secular confessor penance equal to, or worse than, that of Hickey, who is going to the electric chair. Slade finally awards him the most terrible sentence of all: suicide. There is even a curious ancient reverberation in this grim demise of Parritt, for in the early days of public penance the penances exacted were sometimes so severe that some penitents committed suicide to escape those exactions.”

Professor Raleigh states that Long Day’s Journey into Night was “O’Neill’s own act of confession.” He finds, in that play, “one ardent Catholic, Mary Tyrone; one conventional believer, James Tyrone; one skeptic, Edmund; and one nihilist, Jamie. The psychology of the confessional appears only at the extremes of the spectrum--in the believer and the nihilist. The only confession is delivered by Jamie when he tells his brother of a secret and lethal desire to make his brother a failure like himself.”

As Professor Raleigh notes, Mary Tyrone’s dilemma is that of “the true believer. She cannot make an act of perfect contrition because she knows it would be a lie.” Mary Tyrone never prays to God but makes several futile attempts to pray to the Blessed Virgin who of all the saints “had the greatest intercessory power with the Lord. By a strange and happy irony, so rare in the world of the O’Neills, the mythical Virgin Mary did finally intercede for the real Mary-Ella O’Neill, who did overcome her morphine addiction by a self-imposed sojourn in a convent.”

It is in O’Neill’s last play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, that Professor Raleigh finds the “purest example of the confessional mold,” because it is devoted to a “vicarious absolution of a dead person who was the greatest, as well as the most guilt-ridden, sinner O’Neill had known, his brother Jamie. Moreover, the central action of the play constitutes a main confession which would have been accorded some sanction by the Church itself.”

There is a historical tradition in the Catholic Church that, under certain circumstances, a confession such as Jim Tyrone’s to Josie, a lay person, would be regarded as efficacious. “While a layman cannot absolve, this defect is supplied by God.” Josie assumes the role of priestess to the penitent Jim Tyrone, “who confesses his deepest guilt. In the morning both feel that a genuine confession has been effected. To her father she gives an explicitly theological version of this miracle in the night. ‘It was a damned soul coming to me in the moonlight to confess and be forgiven and find peace for a night.’ Jim Tyrone feels ‘sort of at peace’ with himself as if all his ‘sins had been forgiven.”

Jim Tyrone’s confession would have to be considered “devotional” rather than. “sacramental.” However, “if St. Thomas Aquinas were correct, God Himself would have intervened and granted absolution finally to the most turbulent of the turbulent O’Neills, to the one who must have been the most unquiet in his grave, but who, because of his brother’s act of forgiveness, would now stir no more.” In closing, Professor Raleigh suggests that a more appropriate title for O’Neill’s last play might be The Last Confession.

In his paper, “‘Stones Atop O’ Stones’: The Pressure of Puritanism in O’Neill’s New England Plays,” Frederick Wilkins traces the decline of the original ideals of the seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay colonists, and the effects of that decline as they are dramatized by O’Neill. In his opening remarks, Professor Wilkins discusses the early ideals fostered by Governor John Winthrop who “stressed the Puritans’ covenant with God in 1630 and their positive mission to establish a new Israel, a community founded on love, humility, cooperation, and absolute fidelity and devotion to God above self.” The Governor’s warning was “echoed repeatedly in the next thirty years, suggesting how fearful colony leaders were of a descent into the forbidden lust for physical pleasures and material rewards.” But the warnings went unheeded. “Matter accumulated: witness the wealth of the Harford and Mannon dynasties. And as materialism grew and spirit evaporated, the latter was replaced by a rigid, cold code of standardized, repressive behavior--which may have been exaggerated by popularizers of history since then, but the actuality was there.”

Professor Wilkins cites examples from O’Neill’s plays that demonstrate how the ideals mentioned in Governor Winthrop’s sermon had been violated. “Humility had turned to pride: witness Captain Keeney in Ile. Love had turned to hate or lust: witness Ephraim Cabot or Lavinia’s hate for Christine. Selflessness had turned to fevered, selfish acquisitiveness: witness the Harford enterprise in More Stately Mansions. Cooperation had turned to contentiousness: witness the family dissolution of the Mannons. Piety had turned to morality, which was really a prudery stultifying to life and feeling and sensibility: witness Emma Crosby in Diff’rent.” It is not the ideals of early seventeenth century Puritans that O’Neill attacks in his plays but “the distorted moral and social dictates that replaced those ideals when Puritan theology was abandoned and was reduced to the hypocritical curses of stony patriarchs like Ephraim Cabot. O’Neill’s real enemy was small ‘p’ puritanism--all the anti-Dionysian elements that were there in posse from the start but grew obsessively large later.”

Examples are given to illustrate O’Neill’s attempt to trace the decline of Puritanism. It is there in his early play Diff’rent, which Kenneth Macgowan considered “a vigorous and healthful attack upon the Puritanism that eats away so much of the creative happiness of life.” Even if Emma Crosby is “not motivated theologically, by some desire to wed one of the ‘elect,’ her obvious loathing of sex, and the resultant rejection of Caleb Williams, does seem to be a small ‘p’ puritanical aversion, a fear of life, that O’Neill in his working notes for Mourning Becomes Electra called ‘the Puritan sense of guilt turning love to lust.’”

O’Neill’s New England Puritans and their descendants, Reuben Light, Ephraim Cabot, and Deborah Harford, all display obsession, fanaticism and even, in some cases, madness. As Professor Wilkins points out, Dynamo, which O’Neill called “a study of the sickness of today,” illustrates that much of the sickness is the result of Puritanism having reached a dead end. Reverend Light’s harsh Calvinistic fundamentalism has not only failed to offer any positive, life-enhancing values to his son Reuben, but is also something he himself can no longer fully believe in. For all his dogmatic assertiveness, Light is an interesting study of the latter day Puritans’ decline of assurance in the faith of their fathers.”

Professor Wilkins compares the “stone father versus rebellious son antagonism” in Desire Under the Elms to the father-son relationship of Rev. Light, “who projects a God in his own hard image,” and Reuben, “who outgrows his father’s fundamentalism and searches, though unsuccessfully, for a substitute.” Desire Under the Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra are “the two documents for an understanding of O’Neill’s attitudes towards the Puritan heritage in New England, a dying, love-denying, hard and icy heritage.... Death ‘becomes’ the Mannons, rich, exclusive scions of Anglo-Protestant ascendancy, because their faith is love- and therefore life-denying. The Mannons are bound--that key word in ‘Shenandoah’--bound as if in the hands of an angry God whose covenant with their ancestors had been perverted. We can feel sorry for the last of the Mannons, Lavinia and Orin, but Lavinia sheds her Puritan inhibitions too late, and both seem compelled to act out again the sins of the fathers and mothers. The Mannons, no longer capable of productive love, are death-obsessed.”

Like O’Neill, Professor Wilkins uses stone imagery to convey the hardness of heart of the New England Puritans. He sees in Ephraim Cabot a rocky man created by the rocky New England soil and creating, in turn, a rocky God and life. Ephraim “claims to have grown hard in the service of a hard God, but actually he had projected his own hardness onto his conception of the deity. His hypocrisy is the result of an attempted denial of the very potent life force within himself. He is not a God-fearing Calvinist but a lecher and a miser with a Biblical footnote to defend his every misdeed....

“There are two uses of stones: (1) to build--a church upon a rock, or a farm wall, or a stone mansion like the Mannons; and (2) to crush. The tragedy of Puritanism in America, as O’Neill portrays it, is that the first use was replaced by the second. While the first Massachusetts Bay Puritans took the stones of the wilderness to build God’s model community, their descendants used a stony, constricting morality to crush the natural instincts of themselves and their successors.” The tragic effects of Puritanism are illustrated in the last scene of Desire Under the Elms in the doomed Abbie and Eben, “victims of puritanical repression, who free themselves from their sordid surroundings and from the Puritans’ conception of sin,” and in Ephraim, “left lonesomer than ever in his life of solitariness and sterility, unaware to the end of the great guilt that is his. As in every O’Neill play where Puritanism is dominant, the only hope seems to lie in rejecting it, and that hope is dim indeed.” In her paper, “O’Neill the Humanist,”

Esther M. Jackson, Professor of Theatre and Drama at the University of Wisconsin, Madison focuses on another aspect of O’Neill’s search for a basis for religious faith: his interest in a “humanism” appropriate to the interpretation of his search for meaning in modern American life. (Professor Jackson’s paper will appear in the next issue, so a summary is omitted in this report. Ed.)

O’Neill stated: “Where I feel myself most neglected is just where I set most store by myself--as a bit of a poet who has labored with the spoken word to evolve original rhythms of beauty where beauty apparently isn’t.” Albert Bermel, in his paper, “Theatre Poetry and Mysticism in O’Neill,” discusses two kinds of non-verbal poetry in Long Day’s Journey into Night. First, there is the “aligning of the characters singly and together for a mystical union of sorts, and second, the influence of the setting on the characters and the audience.” He says that the mystical yearnings of O’Neill’s characters “appear more obtrusive in certain earlier plays such as The Hairy Ape, but most obviously in the plays that are considered inferior and are often critically dismissed, such as Welded, The First Man, The Fountain, Lazarus Laughed and Days Without End.”

Professor Bermel defines two kinds of mystical unity or oneness: “the first comes from perceiving everything--the universe, matter, and non-matter--as a great unity; the second comes from meditating on the self and finding there the core of the mystical sensation, viewing the self as macrocosm and as microcosm.” He finds such a “longing for a mystical union, for a oneness with whatever lies beyond the self,” in each of the characters in Long Day’s Journey into Night and in Yank, who in The Hairy Ape tries “in his inarticulate fashion to define this yearning when he sensed that in some indefinable way he did not belong. At first he felt that he was part of the machine that fed the ship and part of the machine that was the city, but gradually he came to see himself as an outcast, unwanted and scorned by the passersby on Fifth Avenue, by the IWW, by his fellow workers, even finally by the animal kingdom.” At the end of the play, after Yank has died in the gorilla’s cage, the stage directions indicate that “perhaps at last the hairy ape belongs.” He “can belong only by being dead.”

The retreat of the four Tyrones to a world of “hard liquor and drugs, the two traditional American mind-freezers,” is viewed by Professor Bermel as a quest for mystical unity and “the next best thing to a mystical experience.” He describes Mary’s yearning as a nostalgic escape into “a past that never quite was, when she had the love of her parents, or at least her father’s, a sheltering home, the convent, her music. She still longs for a home in which she will belong, as opposed to this temporary one where she is only a summer visitor.... Morphine gives her that sense of belonging. It wipes out not only the pain of the present, but the present itself. Her nostalgic retreat is merely a substitute for a mystical experience. When Mary comes out of it, she will know, not the mystic’s exaltation, but a terrible psychic hangover.”

Edmund seeks a release from the pain of the present and the fear of the future through alcohol, but he had experienced “a state of mystical oneness with nature when he was at sea.” Professor Bermel says that, “unlike the great religious mystics, Edmund recounts his visions in images of nature--the waves, the spray, the sky, the gulls, whereas the mystics speak of the wholeness in emptiness, a fulfillment in the void, a totally abstract realization. Edmund may have run off to sea seeking such a oneness. Back in Connecticut, he has a similar experience while walking in the fog.”

Like his wife and son, James Tyrone seeks oblivion from the present. “He drinks in order to escape, and he escapes from Mary and the house in order to drink, but he speaks little of his other mystical adventures as an actor. For him the theatre proved a refuge from penury. In it, playing great heroes, he became one with his audience. Tyrone is two of O’Neill’s favorite characters types blended: the artist and the businessman. The theatre enabled him to insulate himself doubly from the past. Away from the theatre, he too, like his wife, feels an irrevocable loss.”

Jamie, perhaps the most doomed and tragic of the four Tyrones, “has no refuge on the order of his parents and brother. He drinks to obliterate his awareness of himself as a child murderer and a worthless, hopeless human being. He rises, if he is lucky and gets really ‘blotto,’ into the stratosphere of other men’s poetry as a defense of his own unhappiness and pessimism. He feels trapped like the inhabitants of the saloon in The Iceman Cometh.”

Professor Bermel sees the three Tyrone men in the last act of the play tending towards some kind of family reconciliation brought about by mutual understanding, honesty, and forgiveness. Mary, however, is still a point of contention that separates them. “O’Neill walks right away from anything like a conventional ending by destroying the truce, let alone the hope of sleep or of a drunken, oblivious mutuality, when he brings her down among them and plunges them into despair.”

Setting is the second main poetic element in the play. Although the living room is just an ordinary room, Professor Bermel sees it altered during the action of the play by the “incidents of life from without and within, by the gradual darkening outside, and then the encroachment of the fog.” The fog, drifting in through cracks and doors, forming little indoor clouds, “turns the land into something like a seascape.” The summer house is compared to a fog-bound ship, and the Tyrones are described as drifting “on the surface waters of this night and the undertow of all their yesterdays. They are at the mercy of their collective fate which lies many fathoms deep in the remote past.” The image of the household as a ship “suggests four people who from time to time drift into their private mystical reveries. They are separated by lighting or by barriers of darkness. They try to form a group, but their preoccupations keep them apart from one another.”

In his closing remarks, Professor Bermel suggests that the four Tyrones could be viewed as “four larger figures: Mary the Mother, God the Father, Christ the Son, and Judas the unfortunate; or as Adam, Eve, Abel, and Cain; or even Zeus, Hera, Apollo and Dionysus. The setting and atmosphere could be assisted by masks and other devices, depending on the courage or recklessness of the director. Two sets of four masks or makeup designs, one based on Mary’s features, the other on Tyrone’s, very much like the makeup bequeathed from Mourning Becomes Electra, would provoke a series of fresh responses from the audience. So would unnatural, dreamlike or trancelike gestures or motions which tell of the alternating impulses of attraction and repulsion among the four characters. Perhaps someone has further stylistic suggestions; the more the better, for the sake of O’Neill’s future.”

Discussants for the session were Louis Sheaffer and Leonard Chabrowe. After his evaluation of the papers presented, Mr. Chabrowe discussed the religious characteristics in O’Neill’s work, stating that he was first and foremost a playwright rather than a philosopher. According to Mr. Chabrowe, O’Neill “used philosophical content and religious questions as material the way an artist does to create a special kind of experience in the theatre for the audience. He was a religious playwright not merely because he was interested in religious questions, but also because he wanted to provide the audience with the experience of communion. That is where the intense need for communion that has been associated with him as a boy is revealed in his work. He wants the audience to have that same experience of communion. He orders his material to lead to a specific dramatic climax. He uses all kinds of theatrical devices--rhythmic devices in his dialogue, sound effects, visual effects--all aimed at bringing the audience to a certain state of feeling. All the philosophical and esthetic questions that come up in a discussion of O’Neill’s work are there because he felt they were necessary for this one, single, devouring esthetic purpose that he had from the very beginning. O’Neill has such appeal because he touches upon the same religious need in all of us.”

The quest that O’Neill pursued, that so many of his characters pursued, was a religious one, for some “behind life” force that would give life meaning. Like most of O’Neill’s characters, all men are isolated outcasts of one kind or another, gathered in Harry Hope’s saloon, clinging to that final dream down there at the bottom of the bottle. O’Neill stated that “only through the unattainable does man achieve a hope worth living and dying for and so attain himself. He with a spiritual guerdon of a hope in hopelessness is nearest to the stars and the rainbow’s foot.” O’Neill’s plays provide us with the hope that the final dream may be realized. Like his protagonist in Lazarus Laughed, O’Neill in his work brings the world a message from beyond: “There is no death, only God’s eternal laughter.” And even the non-believer can enjoy that.

--Virginia Floyd



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