"EUGENE O'NEILL--THE LATER YEARS": CONFERENCE REPORT, PART II
[The last issue included recorders' summaries of all but three of the sessions at the May 29 to June 1 O'Neill conference at Suffolk University (pp. 3-23). The three reports that were then unavailable are printed below, and are followed by brief notes from two speakers who wish to correct inaccuracies in the summaries of their presentations. Such inaccuracies are not surprising: memory can deceive, hastily scribbled notes can prove hard to decipher, abridgement can introduce inadvertent distortion, and not all recorders had copies of the papers they were required to summarize. If other speakers wish to offer corrections, their notes will be printed in the next issue. --Ed.]
SESSION E: INFLUENCES AND ANALOGUES.
Going beyond earlier comparisons of The Iceman Cometh and The Wild Duck, Yvonne Shafer focused on three aspects of the plays: setting, theme and architectonic structure. First, she commented on the spatial patterns in both works, noting the parallel contrasting arrangement of the main room and attic in the Ekdal home of The Wild Duck, and the bar and back room of Harry Hope's saloon in Iceman. The main room and the bar are linked with the world outside and its activities; in the attic, as in the back room, however, time seems to have stopped. Moreover, like "the Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller," as Larry calls Hope's place, the attic, a simulation of a forest where the wild duck resides, is associated with "the depths of the sea."
A significant thematic contrast central to the plays is that between what Shafer terms the Conventional Life and the Self-Indulgent Life. Hjalmar, for example, longs to be a successful inventor who can enter the Conventional Life, but doesn't make an attempt to move beyond his fantasy. Like the habitués of Hope's saloon, he is immersed in a pipe dream. In their critique of the Conventional Life, both Ibsen and O'Neill focus on the problematic nature of marriage. The uncertainty regarding the paternity of Hedwig and Parritt is, Shafer points out, "one of the many thorns in the Domestic Life," as it is described by both playwrights.
At the conclusion of her talk, Shafer attempted to dispel "the myth of the grim Norwegian playwright and the somber American playwright" by drawing attention to the comic overtones in the plays. Ibsen had described the comic quality Hjalmar should have, and O'Neill had hopefully referred to the first act of The Iceman Cometh as "hilarious comedy." The parallels Shafer traces in her paper strengthen our sense of the influence of Ibsen's drama on O'Neill.
In his paper, Thomas Adler recalled having originally responded to the film, Through a Glass Darkly, as Ingamar Bergman's Long Day's Journey. The focus of his paper was on the theme of faith in both works, each a play with four main figures: three men shown in relation to each other and to a woman who is central to the drama.
Adler sees a crisis of faith as revealing itself in an anxiety regarding vocation shared by several of the characters. James Tyrone. for example, laments having yielded to the dictates of commercial success as an actor. David, in Bergmans' film, though he is a well-known novelist, is painfully aware that he has failed to realize his genius. As Adler says, David "cannibalizes life for his fiction," making use in an unfeeling way of his daughter's mental illness as material for his art. Both Edmund and Minus are young sons/artists who have begun to express themselves in art. but are as yet in doubt about their talent. Bergman's work, in which David ultimately convinces Minus of the power of love, seems less "deterministic in its outlook" than O'Neill's play.
Adler suggested that both for Karin, the troubled daughter of David, and for Mary Tyrone, "any image of God in which the notion of maleness inheres is suspect." Karen withdraws from her father, and her physician-husband, as well as from her brother Minus, whom she engages in an incestuous act of love, into a dark vision of a spider god who has assaulted her sexually. Mary, "failed by the men in her life," withdraws into a morphine fog from her family and, it would seem, from God, though she waits expectantly for a response from the Virgin Mary at the conclusion of the play.
In the third paper, Marc Maufort revealed that there are "Baudelairean echoes" throughout Long Day's Journey of The Flowers of Evil and Little Poems in Prose, which complement Edmund Tyrone's direct quotations from "Envirez-vous" and "Epilogue." While he did not make a claim for the influence of Baudelaire on O'Neill, Maufort traced patterns of "confluence" in their work and their vision: resemblances and affinities.
Maufort discussed the concern of both O'Neill and Baudelaire with the artist-poet figure who is alternately characterized as dissolute or innocent. Jamie and Edmund Tyrone, for example, represent the two facets of the artist-poet in Long Day's Journey. O'Neill describes Jamie's "habitual expression of cynicism" which "gives his countenance a Mephistophelian cast." Maufort suggested that Edmund, on the other hand, resembles "Baudelaire's innocent poet in 'L'Albatross,' who feels exiled in our bourgeouis materialistic society." The protagonists of both works distance themselves from the God of Catholicism and "revel in the evil pleasures of the city, whether Paris or New York." The women in the lives of these artist-poets tend to be "symbols of prostitution or purity."
Maufort linked O'Neill and Baudelaire further in their treatment of such themes as the horror of and longing for death. Both writers are also equally concerned with man's desire to escape from the world of reality into the realm of dream and the imagination. The sea, a recurrent motif for both artists, is for them, at times, a "dream-like shelter against the corruption of modern civilization." Maufort argued persuasively that O'Neill achieved in Long Day's Journey a "searing vision of American flowers of evil."
SESSION F: FAMILY RELATIONS IN THE LATE PLAYS.
In his analysis of A Touch of the Poet, Professor Bermel suggested that the title's words refer less to the would-be "artist" upstairs, Simon Harford, than to the four major on-stage characters, the three Melodys and Deborah Harford, and that the phrase "denotes a yearning on all their parts to be what they are not. In other words, it just about coincides with what O'Neill would later call a pipe dream." Just about, but not entirely, because of a valuable distinction that Professor Bermel went on to draw between pipe dreams and dreams: "A dream looks to the future, the attainable. A pipe dream ... looks to the past, the irrecoverable. A dream is an ambition; it may or may not come to fruition. A pipe dream is a yearning to go back to an earlier point in one's life for a fresh start, to rebecome oneself, maybe, on a higher plane of achievement and prestige."
Looked at in this light, the elder Melodys and Simon's mother are pipe dreamers. Con "tries in vain to recover his past [castle life and Talavera], which he gilds with nostalgia." Nora's pipe dream, similarly backward-looking and futile. is "to undo her premarital conception of Sara or take her marriage back into a remoter past when she was still a virgin, and so win the tacit approval of God and the Church." And Deborah's pipe dream, the most extreme of the three and one that "verges on a psychosis," is set in "a seventeenth century France in which she did not exist." Con is revealingly compared to Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere's Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Both are snobs ("Snobbery means looking upward with longing rather than downward with disdain") who are lavish with money and language and behave tyrannically toward their families, and both have ambitions. But Monsieur Jourdain, because his ambition is forward-looking and feasible, is a dreamer, unlike pipe dreamer Con, "an arrogant prig who turns pathetic." Con is closer, at the end, to Jean in Strindberg's Miss Julie, "who displays only a few trappings of a gentleman and reverts in the final scene to a state of humility."
Sara and Simon, in contrast, are dreamers rather than pipe dreamers. Simon's goal to become a poet is plausible though unrealized: and Sara's, "to wed Simon and become a great lady, is not merely plausible; it comes true." That both renege on their ideals in the next play, More Stately Mansions, opting for greed and mercenary rapacity, is part of the cautionary side of the parable that O'Neill was constructing for his fellow Americans, as are Con's bullying aggressiveness and the support it receives from a hand-wringing, self-abnegating wife who stifles, except for once, the bitterness and resentment she really feels. Considering more recent events in America's international affairs, Professor Bermel concluded that "A Touch of the Poet has about it more than a touch of the prophet."
Professor Waterstradt's comparison of the father-daughter relationships in A Touch of the Poet and Moon for the Misbegotten showed how two very similar situations can lead to drastically different results because of the nature of the father. In both plays the daughter is in love with a man "outside her own class"; in both a "bed-trick" is suggested or contemplated; in both a volatile Irish father does battle (or mock battle) with a strong-willed daughter; and in both the daughter has an enriching nighttime rendezvous with her beloved. These are the similarities, but they are far outweighed by the differences--differences which suggest that, in O'Neill's eyes, "disaster follows weakening of the family bonds; emotional maturity grows out of the strengthening of those bonds."
"Sara Melody, though seemingly self-sufficient and capable, is, in reality, grasping and immature. Josie Hogan, though apparently scheming and wanton, is, in reality, understanding, forgiving, and loving." And this "psychological difference" Professor Waterstradt attributes to "the role of the father in each daughter's life." Melody. whose Roman name Cornelius suggests imperiousness, is tyrannical, arrogant, self-absorbed and disdainful; and he fails in the traditional paternal roles of protector and provider. Phil Hogan, whose first name means love, is a fatherly provider with a deep love for his daughter, a love that will sustain her after she sends Jim Tyrone off to die. "She does not have to bear her grief alone. A loving father-daughter relationship stands strengthened; and Josie has reached new understanding, new maturity."
Professor Waterstradt surveyed Sara's twenty-two and Josie's twenty-one uses of the word "Father," and found a telling contrast in each's last use of the word. "Sara calls out 'Father' in Con's last angry, desperate moments with her, but he does not stay.... When Josie, however, addresses Phil as 'Father' in her final sad moments, the term reaffirms their relationship. Father and daughter stand together at the end of the play; there is no separation." "This final contrast between daughters Sara and Josie has been made inevitable," Professor Waterstradt concluded, "by the enduring contrasts between fathers Con and Phil."
SESSION I: PATTERNS IN THE DRAMATIC CARPET, I.
The subjects covered in Session I were as diverse as the widely-scattered homelands of the speakers. (Why else would the conference director have devised such a grab-bag title?) But the first and second papers did focus, not only on the same play, but on the brilliance of O'Neill's language, which is still inadequately appreciated; and all three attested to his genius in assimilating diverse elements in his intricate "carpet." Few of the conference sessions were as rich in insight and implication, and few are as difficult to summarize without considerable loss.
Professor Chothia, in her survey of the "linguistic delicacy and complexity" in Long Day's Journey Into Night, suggested that the frequent and unjustified critical attacks on O'Neill's "linguistic clumsiness" may be a result of the critics' excessive attention to the words on the page, rather than to their resonance in performance. "Good dramatic dialogue," she noted, "is written to be heard in a theatre in the context of the ongoing action of a play." Far from being tone-deaf, O'Neill had a marvelous ear, and that ear's "precision" and "subtlety" can only be realized in performance, when sight and sound combine to reveal its rightness.
O'Neill struggled through most of his career to achieve a viable dramatic language. Slang came early, and easy, as did dialect; and the polyphony, the "multitude of various and intercutting voices," of the early sea plays and The Hairy Ape was an apt preparation for The Iceman Cometh, in which "each of the characters ... has a particular idiolect, syntax, lexis, so that, even when imaging torpor, the stage teems with life; and these idiolects are so varied and interwoven that, besides creating character, they contribute at every utterance to the ongoing action of the play." Early attempts at plain, everyday speech and heightened language came harder: "even the most loyal O'Neillian has squirmed before some of the verbal encounters of Welded [and] the exclamatory declarations of The Fountain." But even those works, however flawed themselves, were "important experimental stages in the development toward the seemingly natural but, in reality, artfully composed texture of the mature writing."
The artfulness is clear in Long Day's Journey, which, despite its intimacy and tiny cast, "is also a polyphonic play. The Tyrones speak General American, like O'Neill and his audience, but they also have access to various registers which reveal the play of past experience within present existence." Mary's "gushing girlish speech" when under influence of the drug; Tyrone's sententious quotations from Shakespeare; Jamie's distorted parodies thereof, alternating with moments of melancholia and "coarse Broadway slang"; Edmund's echoing of his father's and brother's verbal patterns and his "attempts to express his mystic experience in poetic prose": these and many other "linguistic elements vary the surface of the play whilst creating a dense texture of implication." But beneath the variegated surface there are also linguistic evidences that they are a family. "O'Neill compels belief in their relationship by giving them a language in common which roots them in a shared past." The meaningful use of "keywords"; the fact that frequently "the intensity of feeling is in direct relation to the sparsity of the words"; even the "communication" conveyed by conspicuous silence; all attest to the linguistic brilliance in O'Neill's greatest play. "Using an unusually extensive range of registers and speech forms, O'Neill has found scenic and linguistic means to explore the themes of alienation, inarticulacy and dispossession, experienced by people striving for something more, which had occupied him since his earliest work." One hopes that American critics will heed the words of this English guest who has listened to O'Neill's words so carefully and so well.
The "triptych" of Edmund Tyrone that Professor Egri discussed in careful and illuminating detail is the three-part reminiscence, for his father, of the "high spots in [his] memories" on page 153 of the Yale edition of Long Day's Journey. The loving and close reading of one page of the play's text was particularly salutary, coming as it did at a time when Broadway boasted a slick, streamlined speed-reading of the work. By breaking several parts of the page into actual poetic lines, and examining the mood, rhythm, alliteration, metaphor, sentence structure and increasingly heightened intensity of Edmund's "poetic experience," his "tripartite epiphany," Professor Egri revealed not only the infusion of the lyric into the very center of O'Neill's dramatic tragedy, but also the considerable poetic gifts that Edmund, like his creator. tended to deny. "The poetic form of Edmund's intuitive insight preserves and eternalizes the proof of his poetic sensibility and along with it the manifestation of his creativity." The paper, which is included in Professor Egri's new book, Chekhov and O'Neill (pp. 143-148), should be required reading for all critics, like those to whom Professor Chothia alluded, who deny the playwright any lyric or linguistic brilliance.
Lowell Swortzell, in a talk illustrated by a set of well chosen slides, discussed the early and late influence of marionettes on O'Neill and the contribution of that influence to such plays as Hughie and The Iceman Cometh. The early influence came from his Provincetown associates, Robert Edmund Jones, Kenneth Macgowan, Alfred Kreymborg (who wrote a number of short plays for marionettes that the Provincetowners performed), and Remo Bufano, the Players' staff puppeteer. O'Neill's renewed interest in the late 1930s was a result of successful marionette productions of his early plays--The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, Marco Millions--by such artists as Ralph Chesse and Jerome Magon. Professor Swortzell showed the ubiquitous presence of marionettes or marionette-like figures throughout O'Neill's career: the formless fears, the fourth-scene gang of Negroes, and the crocodile in The Emperor Jones; the Fifth Avenue crowd and the gorilla ("a living Ubermarionette") in The Hairy Ape; the wedding guests and the albatross in The Ancient Mariner; Loving, the masked alter ego in Days Without End; and onward to Josie in Moon for the Misbegotten, "who may be seen as the Ubermarionette personified." He revealed O'Neill as "the ultimate puppeteer"; and subsequent discussion led to the suggestion that, if it is done in marionette form, there is still hope that Lazarus Laughed will reach the stage during the O'Neill centennial year of 1988!
NOTES FROM CONFERENCE SPEAKERS
1. From Travis Bogard, University of California, Berkeley:
On pages 5 and 8 of the Summer-Fall 1986 Newsletter, Michael Manheim writes that I said "O'Neill turned to Commins to help him try to make a break with Carlotta." O'Neill did no such thing, nor did I say he did. Commins tried to take O'Neill from Carlotta but O'Neill, as soon as he could move from the New York hospital, went back to her. There was never a question of his leaving her except in the minds of his friends whose loyalty exceeded their discretion.
2. From Bette Mandl. Suffolk University:
I want to thank Jean Anne Waterstradt for her summary of my talk, "Wrestling with the Angel in the House: Mary Tyrone's Long Journey" (Summer-Fall 1986 issue, p. 16). I also, however, wish to amend her report of remarks I made during the discussion period. I did not claim that "James is a poor provider," or that "Mary cannot give of herself." Rather, I pointed to these accusations, frequently levelled at the Tyrones, as revealing of cultural expectations regarding gender roles. Such attitudes now invite re-vision.
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