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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XII, No. 2
Summer-Fall, 1988



Everyone agrees by this time that O'Neill's last plays represent a marked change from his earlier plays, both in their art and in philosophical outlook. And most agree by now, I think, that those last plays are his greatest. What I want to suggest is that the change results from O'Neill's successful shift away from the predominantly melodramatic emphasis of his earlier plays, a shift which I have identified in published and as yet unpublished papers on each of the three final masterpieces, but which I wish to consider now by looking at the three plays together. I do not intend to argue that O'Neill's earlier plays are melodramatic. While some disagreement lingers on that point, I think most today recognize that the power and the popularity of all but a few of those well-known earlier efforts--up to and including Mourning Becomes Electra--result, in part at least, from their being thoughtful and refined melodramas.

A brief definition of melodrama which suits my purposes is that of Robert Heilman in his Tragedy and Melodrama. Heilman, focuses our attention on two salient characteristics: one, that melodrama involves intrigue, a mystery wherein key information is withheld until the final moments of a work as a means of commanding and holding audience attention. This characteristic assumes that events past and present are knowable and comprehendible. The conclusion of the melodrama fills us in on everything we need to know to feel satisfied and have little curiosity about the future. The other important characteristic of melodrama that Heilman cites is the polar opposition of clear conceptions of good and evil: the play's moral perspective is fixed and certain, and the conflicts within it are those between good and evil--rarely about the ambiguity of good and evil. Traditionally, the ending of melodrama involves the triumph of good and the punishment of evil, though Heilman also identifies what he calls a "drama of disaster," in which evil triumphs and good goes unrewarded.

A tragedy, Heilman feels, is a work which transcends melodrama. In learning more and more about the depths and complexities of the central characters, the work's intrigue becomes less central to our interest--it sometimes disappears altogether--and good and evil become increasingly ambiguous conceptions. The better acquainted we become with the major characters in a tragedy, the more inscrutable they become and remain for us. And out of this moral ambiguity and psychological inscrutability comes the phenomenon that a tragedy is ever subject to fuller interpretation.

O'Neill's late plays, in going beyond melodrama, become truer tragedies than any of his earlier plays. O'Neill's means are twofold. One involves the way he structures those later plays, chiefly the way he treats intrigue in them; and the other involves the way in which he treats the past in them. The first is the easier to define, the second the more important in respect to O'Neill's culminating tragic vision. I shall begin with O'Neill's treatment of intrigue in his last plays.


In each of those plays, we are presented with intrigues which seem important and for a time are the chief focus of our attention. But in each case these intrigues disappoint our expectations. Not ultimately central to the plays, they yield gradually or suddenly to what is central. It almost seems as though O'Neill is tricking us, arousing our interest the way he might have in one of his earlier plays, then shifting that interest to something he considers more important.

Since what I am talking about is clearest in A Moon for the Misbegotten, I shall begin with that play, even though it was the last one written. Beginning with a rowdy comic melodrama, O'Neill shifts to the play's chief melodramatic action, the trapping of Jim Tyrone by Phil and Josie Hogan. Employing an old-time Irish version of the American traveling salesman joke, O'Neill builds the suspense crucial to that kind of plot through almost two-thirds of the play. One needs to listen carefully to Jim Tyrone's statements and asides through the first half, to have any clue that this melodrama will become altogether irrelevant to what the play is about. But with Josie's realization that her father has been lying to her about Jim's willingness to sell the farm to Harder, that melodrama suddenly and totally disintegrates; and we are left facing the true issues of the play, the depths of Jim's and Josie's psychological suffering and the means by which each is able to relieve that suffering in the other. The audience is led to expect one kind of play, before being rudely presented with another, far more emotionally demanding kind of play.

While this kind of shift in audience expectations is not so rudely exhibited in Long Day's Journey and The Iceman Cometh, that the same kind of shift does take place makes us recognize that it is perhaps the most important aspect of plot in these plays. In Long Day's Journey, two factors evoke melodramatic curiosity, then suspense, as we move through the early portion of the play: the question of whether Mary has indeed overcome her drug addiction, and the question of whether Edmund has contracted tuberculosis. These are questions the audience naturally wonders about from their first mention in the play and might suppose the chief purpose of the play, as a melodrama, will be to resolve. In both cases, however, that curiosity as the central audience lure is quickly dissipated. The intrigue concerning Mary is soon resolved. By the time Jamie makes explicit his awareness that Mary's nocturnal wandering, her visits to the spare room, and the dilation of her pupils make the fact of her backslide unquestionable, we have in all likelihood already reached the same conclusion, and there is nothing more to be curious about. And by the same token, by the time Edmund visits Doc Hardy to learn his fate, there is no doubt left in our minds what that fate is.

In each case, our curiosity must shift from one concerning facts, to one concerning the effects of facts; from one based on a mystery, to one based on our empathy with the agonies of these people as they realize what is going on. As in Sophocles' Oedipus, where the hero's stage-by-stage discovery of his past, a past which everyone in the audience knows, gives way to the effects of that discovery on the play's central characters, the shift in Long Day's Journey constitutes a shift from melodrama to tragedy. We are no longer curious about whether these characters are indeed ill. We are, instead, increasingly interested in the complexities of response all the family members have to these illnesses and in what their responses tell us about the human condition.

In Iceman, perhaps because it was written the earliest and was thereby the closest to O'Neill's own melodramatic past, the play's central melodrama persists to near the end and is resolved in the fashion of traditional melodrama, but with a starkly different twist. Suspense regarding what Hickey has done is built up throughout the play: by the strangeness of his behavior--his being on the wagon and his attempting to reform the derelicts--and by what the other characters, especially Larry Slade, responding to these changes, say about him. And so his big confession, having been carefully led up to, arouses every expectation that the suspense will be resolved. And it is, of course, resolved in a way, but without producing the satisfaction in us necessary to a melodramatic resolution. The speech leaves us confused and frustrated--as it leaves him. It is a confession of murder, of course, which is fully in the melodramatic tradition; but Hickey's motives seem wildly contradictory. He says he thought he murdered his wife because he loved her, but that in committing the murder he realized that he hated her. Then, in startled new realization of what he has said, he says once again that he loved her. And there is no reason for us to assume that any of his claims are false. Hickey is anything but a hypoctite in this speech.

Whatever these reversals say about Hickey's psychological state, they take us out of the realm of melodrama. Motives must be clear in melodrama: a character must have a single compelling reason for killing his wife, and that reason must allow us to sort out the pros and cons of the play in a neat fashion. We do not want to be left wondering. We know that Hickey has finally been honest with us, and with himself, but that only leaves us more uncertain about the play's meaning. Hickey's denouement has implications the opposite of what we have expected. His own "reformation" through self-knowledge has led him to committing a horrible crime, and we are left in a dilemma about the supposed universal panacea called self-knowledge. Our state at the conclusion of Hickey's confession is like Larry Slade's at the conclusion of the play. Larry is in the pose of "the thinker," trying to resolve the irresolvable dilemmas of existence. Such a posture is not one associated with the conclusion of a melodrama. Having frustrated our melodramatic expectations, the play insists that we consider its enigmatic view of life.

The melodramatic portions of all three plays, like O'Neill's earlier plays, are full of the trappings of melodrama: deceptions, spyings, entrapments, suspicion, and distrust. Phil Hogan plots against Josie and Jim; Josie distrusts Jim and seeks to manipulate him; the Tyrone men all spy on Mary as she watches them watching her; Larry encourages the derelicts to suspect Hickey of some kind of foul play. In all three plays, however, when the melodrama gives way, the traditional trappings are dispelled. In Moon, when the melodrama disappears, when we realize that Josie's efforts to trick Jim are not the chief interest of the play, the spying and the distrust all but disappear. Jim and Josie speak to one another with totally self-revelatory directness. Similarly, in Long Day's Journey, when we realize that Mary's addiction and Edmund's illness are undebatable facts, Edmund and, first, his father, then, his brother, open up to one another as never before.

In Iceman, the melodramatic suspicion and distrust fostered early in the play by Parritt and Hickey are consistently countered by the relationships among the derelicts--relationships which are raucous and violent, Joyous and savage, but not manipulative. Despite the many ways the derelicts feel toward one another, they never really distrust one another--never, that is, until Hickey seeks to reform them and thus removes their self-protective props, their pipe dreams. And it is to the non-melodramatic relationship among the derelicts we experienced at the beginning of the play that we return at the end of the play.


The second and ultimately more important means by which O'Neill transcends melodrama in these plays lies in the way he treats the past--the distant past, but also the more recent past. While it might be argued that concern with a past which is not part of the play's action is thereby concern with something outside the realm of the play, I can only respond that these plays are all made up very largely of responses to a past which is not part of the play's action. If we do not set the perspective on that past each character has, against some kind of evidence about what that past may have consisted of, we cannot really be dealing with these plays at all. And what the past actually consisted of in no case squares with the evidence we get. The characters each put one construction upon the past, while we get impressions of many, contradictory constructions.

In melodrama the past must be knowable, and the resolution of the intrigue has to do with the identification of what happened in the past. Our melodramatic interest may be built up in part by devices which obscure or confuse us about the past; but an accurate revelation of those aspects of the past directly related to what is happening in the play is absolutely essential to a satisfactory solution to the play. Most obvious in melodramatic mysteries based on incorrect assumptions built up in our minds about the past--I am thinking of plays like those of the present-day favorite Ira Levin--the necessity for ultimate certainty and clarity about the past is also essential in some unquestionably more "setious" dramas, among them some of O'Neill's own earlier work.

My recent article on The Iceman Cometh focuses on the unknowability of the past and hence O'Neill's triumph over melodrama in that play. It has within it a full-blown "drama of disaster," one reminiscent of O'Neill's earlier drama--the Don Parritt plot. But for everyone else the play has gone beyond melodrama, because the understanding of the way memory works that the play brings us to, takes it beyond melodrama.

A model for the whole group may be found in the figure of Jimmy Tomorrow. Jimmy tells us that he turned to drink and hence became a derelict because he discovered that his wife was having an affair with another man. He has thus defined his life as a drama of disaster--a melodrama based on a past event. But Larry Slade abruptly points out that Jimmy had had a drinking problem for years and that his wife left him because of it. There is no evidence that Jimmy is lying, however. He may indeed have discovered his wife in the arms of a rival and may have "turned to drink" as a result. Yet Larry's statement has equal validity. Jimmy's wife deserted him because of his drinking. Two equally precise understandings of (melodramas of) the past are presented us, neither more "provable" than the other. Or, stated the other way, a precise understanding of the past in relation to the present is not knowable. Jimmy's drama of disaster is a fiction of his own creation, not something upon which our understanding of his character can be based.

Jimmy's is the clearest example because he talks more about his past than do the other derelicts; but something like Jimmy's story may be understood from what we learn about each of the others. It is quite uncertain whether Pat McGloin took the rap for a corrupt police force or fell independently as a result of his own grossly corrupt nature. Was Joe Mott victimized by the white supremacist attitudes of turn-of-the-century New York officialdom, or was he disgracefully co-opted by that officialdom? Net Wetjoen was either a hero or a coward depending upon very separate but equally valid readings of his past. The version each presents us is the one in which he was the victim of triumphant evil forces, the defeated protagonist in a drama of disaster. Yet each is troubled about, and becomes quite hostile in trying to deny, the opposing melodrama in which he has instead been the antagonist, the one whose "crimes" led justly to his present state. And we, the audience, are thus led to the thought that one cannot tell anything about the past, certainly nothing to base an understanding of that past upon.

It might be argued, of course, that melodrama exists in either case, whether drama of disaster or drama about the defeat of evil. What offsets that conclusion is the all-important present; that is, what we do see in the play. What we see in each derelict, made up of both his protagonistic and antagonistic roles, is a living, functioning human being, one who, while residing at the "End-of-the-Line Café," nevertheless experiences hope and disappointment, joy and sadness, hostility and affection, pretty much as the rest of us do. In other words, the present we see the characters living in, while made up of the often contradictory components of what we have been told about the past, is not clearly related to that past. There is little cause and effect. Instead there is a quite plausible but puzzling human being in front of us, as most human beings are plausible but puzzling. In no way do we draw the final conclusions about these figures which would be the essence of a melodramatic response. Instead, these figures constitute a scenic image of variation and contradiction, of the complexity which is life.

Moving to Long Day's Journey, O'Neill's treatment of the past may be focused in a statement by Mary Tyrone which, from a melodramatic perspective, could be considered the dominant theme of the play, and the play be considered thereby a drama of disaster. In her personal despair about her past--in particular, her drug addiction and its causes--Mary answers James's appeal that she "forget the past" with the cry: "How can I? The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future, too." Mary feels that her addiction has made her what she is, and there is no escape from the fact of her past. She is the antagonist of her personal melodrama, and she is convinced of the triumph her evil.

As if to parallel the structure of Mary's ritual of despair, her husband and sons go through their own such rituals: the repeated shock and sense of defeat, the drink, and the overriding cynicism. Mary's story of lost hope leads the men to assess their own past lives in the same way. Jamie's "They never come back" describes not just Mary's view of the past, but that of all four haunted Tyrones.

But if, in Long Day's Journey, the past is the present, and the future, too--past, present, and future are all made up of such contradictory elements that the apparent solidity of Mary's simple sense of cause and effect gives way to uncertainty. Was the day she "could no longer call [her] soul [her] own" the day she first used morphine to alleviate the pain of childbirth? Or was it any one of a number of days? She had always been withdrawn, given to seeking escapes from pain well before the morphine, as the Mother Superior in the Convent appears to have recognized when she questioned Mary's motives for wanting to be a nun. So, too, can her decision to marry the older James be seen as a desire to withdraw from the world and its pains.

Then there is the question of her desire to become a concert pianist. Did her addiction possibly result from a conflict between her artistic nature and her familial obligations? Is her guilt only focussed on her being a "dope fiend," or is it guilt at having failed to be true to her abilities? Even so seemingly simple a motive force as the guilt so prevalent in O'Neill's plays is subject to conflicting interpretations in this play. And in stating these contradictory forces as alternatives, I of course do not mean them as alternatives. In fact, both alternatives are present simultaneously.

What holds for Mary also holds for her husband and sons. What appears to exist in the past may indeed exist, yet something quite the opposite may also exist. James was and was not a "great Shakespearean actor"; Edmund's sense of alienation was caused by his mother's addiction yet would very likely be what it is for many other reasons. Most important of all, Jamie's past tells us that he has long been both a scoundrel and a saint. Jamie is the most aware of the contradictions which shape his being. His confession regarding the "dead part" of himself in the last act finally and effectively refutes the determinacy of Mary's past, present, and future remark. In telling his brother of that dead part and thus sacrificing his protective shell on his brother's behalf, he is brilliantly revealing a live part of himself which has existed far into the past. In no way can Jamie's past have shaped his present except in the sense that its implied contradictoriness assures us that we can draw no fixed conclusions about what he was or is. Jamie, more than the others, takes us light years away from melodrama in this play.

O'Neill's treatment of the past A Moon for the Misbegotten makes the past as much of an enigma as ever. Following the displacement of the play's melodramatic plot by Josie's realization that Jim has not been lying to her, the play builds powerfully toward Jim's great confession. Along the way, O'Neill concentrates on Josie, whose experience clearly suggests how impossible the past is as an indicator of the present. Her fixed view that she has been unattractive to men has led to her playing the role of a whore while remaining a virgin. Jim explodes that fixed view in an instant, leaving her free for the first time to accept herself in human terms. But his fixed view regarding his own past provides more difficulties.

One of the difficulties is that we can tell almost nothing about Jim's past before his trip to California and his mother's death. But one key reminiscence on Jim's part implies much about the workings of his memory. In his great confession, he says he is sure his mother awoke from her coma just before her death and saw him drunk. And it is on the basis of her awakening that Jim builds his devouring guilt. We have no way of knowing whether she did awake, but Jim bases everything about his subsequent experience on that dubious recollection. Jim, in other words, has built a melodrama, a drama of disaster in which he is the antagonist, on something which may or may not have happened. Based on a guilt unquestionably associated with his alcoholism, Jim's memory negates all the good things he has done in his life, good things of the kind we have just seen him do for Josie.

Like Josie, Jim has a melodramatic view of his past which, he is convinced, must determine his future--that is, his downfall. In fact, his past is just as ambiguous as Josie's. Her forgiveness of him and her giving him her long night's nurture, is thus a declaration that he is more than what he is convinced the past has made him. His nightmares, and nightmares traditionally go with melodrama, are gone the next morning--which might be to say his personal melodrama is over. But the physical effects of alcohol cannot be so easily removed. Jim is and has been a dying man throughout the play. What makes the play a tragedy is that Jim, who like Hickey confesses himself right through and beyond a melodramatic perspective on himself, must indeed die, and die as the tragic hero, fully possessed of the new knowledge the experience of the play has brought him to.

Thus has O'Neill, whose melodramatic perspective on his own past so dominated and shaped his earlier drama, given dramatic form to a new perspective on the past. We are not what the past has made us because we do not know what the past is. All we know are the melodramas we have made of the past, and those melodramas are inevitably countered by contradictory melodramas, contradictory interpretations of the past. Any interpretation we place upon past events must therefore be illusory. The present, on the other hand, is the on-going existence lived by all of the characters in these plays. And it is an existence made up of variations and permutations which shatter the melodramatic perspective and make these plays, in spite of the suffering they abound in, monuments to a belief in life as it is being, and not as it has been, lived.

-- Michael Manheim



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