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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XI, No. 1
Spring, 1987



5. "O'NEILL IN MOURNING" RECAP: a letter from Stephen A. Black.

Allow me to offer the following abstract of the paper I gave at the 1986 conference (all in one sentence!)

Following the deaths in a 39 month period of all the other members of his parental family, Eugene O'Neill entered a period of prolonged mourning which lasted the rest of his working life and which determined the forms and meanings of the plays he wrote between 1920 and 1943; to which mourning he responded by compulsively repeating, in his dramatic characters and situations, fragmented or otherwise distorted perceptions of his father, mother and brother, and the relations he perceived he had had with them; and which repeating gave way, beginning in the late 1920s, and culminating in the late 1930s, to remembering, more fully and with less distortion, his parents and brother and his relations with them, and to representing as dramatic characters his new, less distorted understanding of his parents and brother; and which remembering enabled him to begin working through both the old losses, and the even earlier deficiencies which had made the losses so intolerable that their mourning occupied most of O'Neill's adult life; and which working through he represented dramatically in his last completed play within the character of Josie Hogan; and which working through of mourning enabled O'Neill to realize in the late plays the tragic potential that had appeared in such early plays as Beyond the Horizon, The Hairy Ape, and Desire Under the Elms.

6. Stephen A. Black, "Letting the Dead Be Dead: A Reinterpretation of A Moon for the Misbegotten." Modern Drama, 29 (December 1986), 544-555.

The play is about loss and mourning from beginning to end. O'Neill contrasts Jim Tyrone's unending mourning for his mother to Josie's mourning for her lost idealization and love of Jim. Jim's inability to accept the loss of his mother leaves him helpless to do anything but drink himself to death. Josie, who has also lost her mother, must now mourn Jim, whom she has idealized and loved since childhood. She must let herself accept that rather than being the lovable and reformable drunk he seems to her, Jim is "dead"---as he repeatedly tells her. Unlike Jim, and unlike any previous O'Neill character, Josie can mourn and allow grief to run its course to a resolution. In Jim, loss and grief are fatal processes that. inexorably lead him to his own death. So it seemed to O'Neill himself, who spent twenty years trying to complete his mourning for his father, mother and brother, who all died between 1920 and 1923. But in A Moon for the Misbegotten, O'Neill, for the first time, can imagine a character who can survive and even grow from the experience of loss. In Josie, the process of mourning leads to marked change and growth. The play's tragedy works itself out, like that in Oedipus the King, through a character's resistance to becoming aware of something well known but unconsciously known. Josie repeatedly uses words or images referring to the dead to describe Jim, yet, until the end of Act Three, she consciously means them only as figures of speech: "If I was his wife, I'd cure him of drinking himself to death if 1 had to kill him," she tells her father. By the end of Act Three she knows him to be a different person than she had previously believed and can accept him for himself. Josie, not .Jim, is the central figure in the play. She is O'Neill. Through her, the playwright completes the mourning for his brother begun with Jamie O'Neill's actual death in 1923, two decades before O'Neill completed his final play.          --S.A.B.]

7. Stephen A. Black, "O'Neill's Dramatic Process," American Literature (March 1987), pp. 58-70.

The author distinguishes between the "process," rhetoric and content of a dramatic work and claims that O'Neill achieves "poetic" or "musical" qualities by expressing his most important meanings through the process rather than through either rhetoric or content. Taking a quiet moment from the opening scene of Long Day's Journey, he shows how the dramatic process expresses meanings not otherwise emphasized in the play, In the chosen example several changes occur in alliances among the Tyrones (e.g., Mary invites Jamie and Edmund to support her complaint against Tyrone's snoring, but even before that alliance is formed she excludes Jamie; but Jamie finds a way to bind himself to his mother, excluding Edmund and Tyrone.) At least half a dozen such changes occur in the two-page fragment examined. One meaning arising from the process is that the Tyrones cannot tolerate stable alliances among each other. The intolerance of alliances implies the magnitude and intensity of the dread all of them feel about the loss, abandonment and rejection that threaten to overwhelm all of them, especially in moments of gentle intimacy. So intense is the dread that they prefer the constancy of terrible quarreling to changes which might lead to separations. --S.A.B.]



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