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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XII, No. 3
Winter, 1988



José Quintero said that it took a play four and a half hours long to teach him the meaning of precision in drama.1 Study of a dramatist regularly attacked for linguistic clumsiness begins to teach me about subtlety in dramatic language. And about precision too.

No one interested in O'Neill is unfamiliar with the paradoxical description of him as the great dramatist who could not write: "a tone-deaf musician," ranked with Ibsen and Racine for "sheer genius for drama ... however prosaic his work"; "a giant in chains," who "lacked the basic gift of a major playwright--the ability to write dialogue that was both functional and distinctive." Those of us who, like T.S. Eliot, place Long Day's Journey "very high indeed" as "one of the most moving plays" we have ever seen, must address the evident critical contradiction and insist that good criticism, like good directing, must begin not with preconceptions but with listening to the dramatist's text.2

Criticism, even of Shakespeare, has only recently begun to recognize the importance to dramatic dialogue of what George Bernard Shaw described as "audible intelligibility." Neither written prose nor, spontaneous speech, good dramatic dialogue uses one mode to imitate the other. It is written to be heard in a theatre in the context of the developing action of a play. Both ear and extent are crucial. Jonson, Shakespeare and, in his own different way, O'Neill, are great dramatists because they perceive and recreate in stage terms a range and multiplicity of language uses and language users and draw from their audiences an increasingly alert attention to what is said and the way in which it is said. Each has the sine qua non of all drama, the capacity to command belief in the propriety of any given speech to its speaker; what we might label the "naturalness" of the dialogue. Such naturalness is obtained through selection and artifice. We might call it "intuition," or "having an ear," but at an important level it is composed. As Shaw pointed out, a line such as "This my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine" "is such a polysyllabic monstrosity as was never spoken anywhere but on the stage; but it is magnificently effective and perfectly intelligible in the theatre."

O'Neill's skill with dialect was recognized from the outset, and The Iceman Cometh uses a more complex form of the polyphony (the multitude of various and intercutting voices) of the early sea plays and The Hairy Ape. Each character in Hope's Bar has a particular idiolect, so that, even when it images torpor, the stage is verbally lively, whilst the idiolects are so interwoven that, besides creating character, they contribute at every utterance to the developing action of the play.

The problems arise in relation to O'Neill's attempts to use what Ibsen called "the straight-forward plain language spoken in real life." Even the most loyal O'Neillian has squirmed before some of the verbal encounters of Welded or the exclamatory declarations of The Fountain. O'Neill's own familiar commentary is telling ("I'm so straitjacketed by writing in terms of talk ... so fed up with the dodge question of dialect," and "it needed great language to lift it beyond itself") because it acknowledges the risk of lapsing into the banal or the melodramatic: the 19th century inheritance of O'Neill and all the new prose dramatists. Yeats, saying that when modern people are deeply moved they have no expressive language but gaze silently into the fire, looked for a nostalgic answer in verse drama, as did Maxwell Anderson and Eliot. Individual speeches and even whole plays of O'Neill might be misjudged, but they are important experimental stages in the development towards the controlled texture of the mature writing.3

For all its intimacy and its tiny cast, Long Day's Journey, too, is a polyphonic play. The Tyrones speak General American, like O'Neill and his audience, but have access to various registers that reveal the play of past experience within present existence. These color the dialogue but avoid the limitations of stereotyping apparent when a character only has access to dialect.

Mary, under influence of the drug, uses a gushing girlish register ("her eyes look right into your heart," "I was so mad at myself"); she and Tyrone have an Irish lilt when they address each other lovingly; Tyrone quotes Shakespeare sententiously ("the fault dear Brutus is not in our stars..."); Jamie parodies his father, travestying Shakespeare's lines or using fiendishly apposite stage directions (including both the teasing, "The Moor, I know his trumpet" in the opening scene and the terrifying, "The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia," late in the play), quotes melancholic fin de siècle poetry or, more harshly, falls into coarse Broadway slang; whilst Edmund echoes the others' quotation, uses parodic versions of his brother's slang and, occasionally--budding poet--attempts to express his mystic experience in poetic prose, which is always self-consciously placed by him ("I couldn't touch what I tried to tell you just now") so that banality or melodrama belongs to the character, not the dramatist.

Such linguistic elements vary the surface of the play even whilst creating a dense texture of implication. And the shifts between them enable some of the most poignant moments as, for example, when the hurt inflicted by Edmund's mockery of Jamie's slang--

They never come back! Everything is in the bag! It's all a frame-up! We're all fall guys and suckers and we can't beat the game!...Christ, if I felt the way you do-!

--is measured in Jamie's suddenly plain, "I thought you did." Made complicit because we have enjoyed the parody, we respond more sharply to both the implied resentment of one brother and the pain of the other. It is a modern equivalent of the suspension of metaphor in Renaissance drama, of those suddenly bare Shakespearean words which touch us to the quick: Lear's "As I am a man, I do think this lady to be my child Cordelia"; Cleopatra's "No more but e'en a woman" or "Canst thou not see the baby at my breast that sucks the nurse asleep."

Whilst the variant registers contribute to our sense of individual reality, O'Neill compels belief in relationship by giving the Tyrones a language in common which roots them in a shared past. They address each other familiarly, teasing about personal matters--snoring, slimming, digesting. They laugh at the same jokes and the laughter is deflected in evidently habitual reproach (as witness the extended Shaughnessy joke in Act I). Quarrels flare up and as quickly subside; allegiances shift and each character interjects his or her word in a way possible only among people with a history of such interactions.

More obviously, we catch echoes of one character's speech in that of another. Edmund, for example, engaging in reverie, adopts words habitual to his mother's drug-influenced speech--"fog," "alone," "lost," "hide," "ghost"; whilst Jamie, shortly afterwards, comments drunkenly on his own quotation of Wilde's "The Harlot's House"--"not strictly accurate. If my love was with me I didn't notice it. She must have been a ghost." The echo compels the audience to perceive the unconscious irony of Jamie's words and to recognize the part the maternal relationship has played in warping his life. Which is what I meant at the outset when I used the word "subtlety" in relation to O'Neill. There is no need here of Arthur Miller's "Attention, attention must be paid"--our attention is already riveted on these people.

Our attention is demanded, too, by the complexity of the dialogue. The play itself teaches us how to listen to it. Perhaps, most obviously, through Ibsenish keywords. Certain references recur (to Shakespeare, to music, to the Virgin Mary, to the dead baby, to cheap doctors), and we are increasingly responsive to their significance for the characters. But we are also made to hear silences, areas of reticence. They use euphemisms, hiding from Edmund's TB by calling it a "summer cold," referring to morphine as "the poison," "her curse," so that breaking the taboo necessarily raises the dramatic tension. O'Neill, therefore, can shock the audience with Edmund's sudden cry, "Mama it isn't a summer cold, I've got consumption"; then compound the effect when Mary, unlike the audience, fails to respond to the cry; only to disarm our hostility to the unfeeling mother, when, after Edmund has stumbled miserably away, he allows her the bare admission, "Oh, James, I'm so frightened. I know he's going to die."

The intensity of feeling is, again, in direct relation to the scarcity of the words and to their potent ordering. From such tormenting exchanges we recognize more generally that opportunities will always be missed, since the most heartfelt attempts at mutual confidence result in the cruelest denials.

This, then, is language in action, creating relationship by its lively juxtapositions. Attention is continually shifted from facts and events to their emotional significance; and the audience, becoming attuned to the texture of the dialogue, is able to leap the gaps and understand the shared assumptions. At any given moment, one of the four dominates, voicing delight, disappointment, engaging our sympathy, until the same character acts or speaks cruelly or thoughtlessly, and sympathy is alienated, the place at the center of attention taken by another character. We must hold the claims of all four and delay judgment on the accusation and counter-accusation we hear.

The final scene is as deeply familiar and as perennially startling as the endings of other tragic masterpieces, and directors interfere at their peril with the stage picture O'Neill's text demands. 'Mary Tyrone stands right-front and speaks quietly to herself whilst her three men sit in silence, stage center. It is quite true that, taken out of context, her words contain no deep thought, no great poetry. Heard within the linguistic and dramatic structure of the play, however, they are almost unbearably moving.

The effect could only be achieved by a dramatist with an acute sense of what Timo Tiusanen so aptly named the "scenic image," in which the verbal and visual are powerfully interactive. We hear one character but see the others listening silently; tormented, like us, by the words; sensitized by the ongoing action so that a word, a gesture, even a position on the stage activates our memory of other moments that have prepared, and can now extend, the immediate image. Chandelier flashed on, Chopin waltz played, Mary enters, the hair she has continually neatened now let down, and she carries her wedding dress retrieved from the old trunk in the attic. Things which through repeated naming have become emblems of family mythology are now visibly present on the stage. The various speech resources of the character--quotation from Shakespeare, from fin de siècle poetry, Mary's schoolgirl register--are newly present now when the Tyrones are, at last, all together and all apart in the night of the title, to which the whole play has been inexorably moving.

All the linguistic variousness and experience of the play is now available to enable O'Neill to bring this devastating drama to its end. Where he used a haunting creole lament in Moon of the Caribbees, or patterned singing of "Shenandoah" in Mourning Becomes Electra, here he appeals to the auditory imagination with verse whose rhyme and meter cause it to linger in the mind. As the three stanzas of Swinburne's "A Leavetaking," spoken by Jamie, are interwoven with dialogue in which each man, in turn, makes a brief and futile attempt to impinge on Mary's reverie, the poem, at once sonorous, impersonal and dreadfully appropriate, offers the minimal comfort of artistic formality: an elegy, spoken by the son for whom the least comfort is possible. The impact of Jamie's quotation, "there is no help for all these things are so," set against the naive trusting words of Mary's final monologue, "I know she heard my prayer and would always love me and see no harm ever came to me," are hardly less bearable by the stage listeners than by the audience watching them; particularly so because, as Mary's present tenses indicate, she has retreated into the world of the past whilst we share the perspective of the on-stage listeners. In the beautifully poised final lines, the quiet ending of her speech and of the play, we meet another example of O'Neill's precision: the verb tenses change treacherously, past and present now inescapably bound together, so that Mary again looks back to the past from the present from which there is no escape for any of the four Tyrones:

That was in the winter of senior year. Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.

There is no finality in such a play. Life continues without solutions, not purged of suffering. 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--themes which had occupied him since his earliest work.

There is much more to be said about this linguistic delicacy and complexity; but, instead, let me end by noting O'Neill's ironic humor and a brief example of dense texture in dramatic writing. A mark of O'Neill's mastery--of the functional and distinctive quality of his dramatic imagination and dramatic language--is that, in Edmund's monologue, precisely where clumsy expression of emotion might in the past have embarrassed author and audience, O'Neill includes an acknowledgment of both his long struggle and his achievement, in words which, like Prospero's at the end of The Tempest, carry the frisson of private reference even whilst striking a chord of recognition in each of us who has ever found that our speech has failed to match our experience, but which, even so, remain sardonically in character for the onstage speaker:

I couldn't touch what I tried to tell you just now. I just stammered. That's the best I'll ever do. I mean if I live. Well it will be faithful realism at least. Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.

-- Jean Chothia


1"Postscript to a Journey," Theatre Arts, 41 (April 1957), p. 27.

2The sources of the quotations in this paragraph are, in this order, the following. Mary McCarthy, "Dry Ice," Sights and Spectacles (London 1959), p. 80; R. Peacock, The Poet in the Theatre (London 1946), p. 5; John Henry Raleigh, The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Carbondale: S. Illinois U. Press, 1965), p. 209; Ruby Cohn, Dialogue in the American Drama (Indiana 1971), p. 66; T. S. Eliot, note accompanying the reprinting of a 1926 review of All God's Chillun, in O'Neill and His Plays, ed. O. Cargill et al. (1966).

3The sources of the quotations in this paragraph are, in this order, the following. Henrik Ibsen, letter (May 1883) to Lucie Wolf (in Letters, p. 218); Eugene O'Neill, 1929 letter to Joseph Wood Krutch, quoted in Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (1962), p. 698; O'Neill, letter to Arthur Hobson Quinn (1932), quoted in Quinn, A History of the American Drama, rev. ed. (1936), p. 258; W. B. Yeats, "The Play of Modern Manners," in Vol. VIII of Collected Works (London 1908), 20.



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