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'Written in Tears And Blood...'

BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, March 4, 1973

There is a relentless logic in the fact that Eugene O'Neill, America's greatest tragic playwright, ended his career with the writing of a starkly autobiographical play. "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is the story of the four O'Neills—called the Tyrones in the play—at a moment of anguished crisis in the summer of 1912. The play's names and events are so thinly disguised that there is no disputing the literal nature of its revelations.

Like James and Mary Tyrone of "Long Day's. Journey," James and Ella O'Neill fought an endless, losing battle to adjust to each other's totally dissimilar natures. Ella came from an emigrant Irish family that had attained middle-class respectability by the time she was growing up. James's own emigrant family never made it up from poverty, and James struggled desperately to attain success—though not respectability—as a leading actor of his day. Actors were not, in the 1870's, quite socially acceptable. But they could achieve a kind of raffish glamour, and the sheltered, delicately bred Ella became infatuated with the handsome young matinee idol.

The glamour soon rubbed off, under the stress of years of touring back and forth across the country, which provided James with his chief income. By the time Ella realized that she was miserable in her life as an actor's wife, she also realized that she and James were bound to each other by a helpless love that was stronger than any disaffection for their mode of living. Shortly after the birth of her younger son she became a morphine addict. The O'Neills' unsettled life and Ella's drugged acceptance of it had a predictable effect on their sons, James Jr. (Jamie) and Eugene.

At the time in which "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is set, James and Ella had settled fatalistically for the cycle of love-hate, guilt and forgiveness, depicted in the play. Their son Jamie, at 33, had become a cynical, alcoholic has-been, his chief  preoccupation to goad his long-suffering father, whom he blamed for his mother's illness. And Eugene (called Edmund in the play) was, indeed, at 23, on the verge of a severe breakdown in health, brought about by the derelict life he had led since dropping out of college at 18.

While "Long Day's Journey" is the final, naked revelation of O'Neill's "truth" about his family, it is by no means O'Neill's only significantly autobiographical play.

But it was not until the publication of the play in 1956, three years after O'Neill's death, and the recognition of its autobiographical content, that it became possible to discern how very autobiographical many of his earlier plays had been. It then was apparent that such plays as "All God's Chillun Got Wings," "Desire Under the Elms," "The Great God Brown," "Mourning Becomes Electra," "A Touch of the Poet" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten" (written just after "Long Day's Journey," but published in O'Neill's lifetime) had been symbolically disguised portraits of the members of O'Neill's family, locked in various stages of conflict with each other and God. A number of other O'Neill plays, notably "Beyond the Horizon," "Anna Christie," "The Iceman Cometh" and O'Neill's only comedy, "Ah, Wilderness!" contain subtler autobiographical references, But it is the plays dealing with the husband-wife, parent-child relationships that suggest O'Neill had been testing, and steeling himself for, the ultimate soul-baring of "Long Day's Journey."

"All God's Chillun Got Wings," written in 1923, is the first play in which O'Neill portrayed his parents in conflict. In this undeservedly neglected work, O'Neill, not bothering to disguise his parents' given names, called his two protagonists Jim Harris and Ella Downey. He did not deem it necessary to disguise the names because Jim was black and the play, extremely daring for its time, seemed, on the surface, to be a study of miscegenation. He correctly assumed that it would be impossible for anyone to identify the Jim and Ella of the play with his father and mother.

But with "Long Day's Journey" as a key, it becomes obvious that Jim and Ella Harris symbolically represent James and Ella O'Neill, just as James and Mary Tyrone represent them literally.

James and Mary Tyrone are shown to be at once deeply in love and irrevocably embattled; Mary dwells on the fact that she has, out of helpless passion, married beneath her. She indulges in self-pitying monologues. She has tried to understand James's ambition, and his terror at being unable to rise to, and stay at, the top, but she cannot excuse the effect it has had on her. James cannot reach her through the fog of morphine into which she withdraws.

James, for his part, adores her, but writhes under her withdrawal and contempt. Ella perceives herself as having been driven to addiction by James. He feels that her weakness has ruined his life. He has had to resign himself to caring for her as one would a child.

Similarly, Ella and Jim, in "All God's Chillun Got Wings," marry out of desperation. Each needs and clings to the other, though they cannot give each other happiness or even peace. Ella, who is poor but white, considers herself Jim's superior. Jim, who cannot overcome his sense of inferiority as a black, swallows this humiliation. Ella resents Jim's unrelenting fight to overcome the disadvantages of his background. She is furious at being dependent on him, and incapable of accepting his self-sacrifice and devotion to her. Jim cannot follow her behind the locked door of her disillusionment.

Jim and Ella drive each other to the brink of madness, but they do not let go. In the end, Jim's hope of rising above the petty cruelties that life has imposed on him is crushed, and he resigns himself to being Ella's nurse.

In "Desire Under the Elms," written a year after "All God's Chillun Got Wings," O'Neill pushed beyond the marital conflict of his black-white play to express an even more agonized concept of his victimized mother and almost equally victimized self. In this play the mother is dead, but her presence is palpable and insistent.

The father is neither an actor, as is accurately portrayed in "Long Day's Journey," nor the symbolic black man of "All God's Chillun Got Wings," but domineering, hard-bitten, frugal Yankee farmer named Ephraim Cabot, who clawed a living from a rockbound New England farm, crushing his fragile wife in the process, and inspiring in his sensitive younger son an Oedipal complex to warm the cockles of any Freudian heart.

"I have always loved Ephraim much!," O'Neill once wrote to a close friend. "He's so autobiographical!"

Ephraim's theme, "God's hard, not easy!," echoes the dying words of James O'Neill to his son, that life was damned hard billet to chew." O'Neill's portrait of Ephraim Cabot exposes the same mixture of sympathy and hostility, love and hatred, as his portrait of James Tyrone—an accurate revelation of O'Neill's conflicting emotions toward his father.

The family relationships of "The Great God Brown," written a year later, can also be seen as having their inspiration in the life of the embattled O'Neills, though it is an intricately mystical, often confusing play of masks. In the play the protagonist, Dion Anthony, modeled on O'Neill, speaks of his mother as "a sweet, strange girl, with affectionate, bewildered eyes as if God had locked her in a dark closet without an explanation." Of his father, Dion says, "What aliens we were to each other. When he lay dead, his face looked so familiar that I wondered where I had met that man before. Only at the second of my conception. After that, we grew hostile with concealed shame."

Continuing to unravel the complexities of his family under various guises, O'Neill proceeded, in 1929, to "Mourning Becomes Electra." Ostensibly a modern retelling of the Greek legend, set in a New England town at the end of the Civil War, "Mourning Becomes Electra" sticks close to the emotional core of O'Neill's life. Here, again, the conflict between husband and wife is expressed in terms of the conflict between Ella and James O'Neill. And the bitter, blaming, guilty relationships between the parents and their two children, though heightened melodramatically for theatrical effect, are the same basic relationships of the O'Neill family.

O'Neill, speaking through the character of Lavinia Marmon (Electra), ends the play with a line that is part despair, part masochistic gloating: "I'm the last Mannon." O'Neill used precisely that phrase after the death, in rapid succession, of his parents and brother. He wrote to a friend, "I'm the last O'Neill."

In his dedication to his third wife, Carlotta Monterey, of "Long Day's Journey" in 1941, O'Neill wrote: "I give you this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood . . . You will understand I mean it as a tribute to your love . . .that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play—write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones"

Expressing a less sympathetic attitude toward his family and himself ten years earlier, through Lavinia in "Mourning Becomes Electra," O'Neill wrote:

"I'll live alone here with the dead, and keep their secrets, and let them hound me until the curse is paid out .. . It takes the Mannons to punish themselves for being born."

"A Touch of the Poet," one of O'Neill's last plays, on which he worked, on and off, for seven years, picks up many of the same threads that spin the tangled emotional web of the earlier plays. It is, primarily, a scathing portrait of his father—this time disguised as an innkeeper in a village near Boston in 1828.

The innkeeper, Cornelius Melody, is "broad-shouldered, deep-chested." (James Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey" is also "broad-shouldered and deep chested.") Melody has "impervious strength, a tough peasant vitality." (Tyrone has "a lot of solid, earthy peasant in him.") Melody's manner "is that of the polished gentleman. Too much so. He overdoes it and one soon feels that he is overplaying a role which has become more real than his real self for him." ("The stamp of his profession is unmistakably on Tyrone . . . The actor shows in all his unconscious habits of speech, movement and gesture.")

That O'Neill was very consciously thinking of his father when he created Cornelius Melody is apparent from a remark he made to his friend, the critic, George Jean Nathan.

"What ["A Touch of the Poet"] needs is an actor like Maurice Barrymore or my old man," O'Neill said. "One of those big-chested, chiseled-mug, romantic old boys who could walk onto a stage with all the aplomb and regal splendor with which they walked into the old Hoffman House bar, drunk or sober."

Lacking a Barrymore or a James O'Neill, the Theatre Guild, which planned to produce the play, was considering Laurence Olivier. That was in 1947, and Olivier, though he was a highly regarded actor, had not achieved the stature that, today, might possibly have met O'Neill's exacting and usually quite unrealistic standards. The play finally had to be postponed because of O'Neill's failing health, and was not produced on Broadway until five years after O'Neill's death—without Olivier. There is some sort of ironic moral to be drawn from the fact that Olivier is finally playing, not Melody, the mock James Tyrone O'Neill, but the original.

With "A Moon for the Misbegotten," the last play O'Neill was able to complete, he achieved a blending of literal autobiography and poetic fantasy that lifts it, in some ways, above even the powerful "Long Day's Journey Into Night." It has been given several very good productions both here and abroad, but it has yet to be universally acknowledged as the soaring masterpiece it is.

The play describes the last, bitter days in the life of Jamie O'Neill, here called, as in "Long Day's Journey," Jamie Tyrone. At the time of its writing Eugene O'Neill was seriously ill with the nervous disorder that shortly would end his career, and both because of his illness and the play's painful content, he suffered even more over its writing than he had over "Long Day's Journey."

Most tormenting of all—perhaps even more so than facing, again, as he did in "Long Day's Journey," his mother's drug addiction—was reliving his mother's death.

Ella O'Neill did not, in the end, succumb to her morphine habit, as is implied by Mary Tyrone's final scene in "Long Day's Journey." After her husband's death in 1920, she made a final successful effort to overcome the habit, and lived a fairly serene life until 1923, when she died in California of a brain tumor. Jamie had given up drinking for her sake, and made her care his responsibility.

The appalling details of Ella's death and Jamie's journey from California to New York with her body, as recounted by Jamie Tyrone, form the climax of "A Moon for the Misbegotten." Jamie's impending deaththe play is set in 1923, two months before the death of the real Jamiesounds the final note of doom for the four haunted Tyrones.

It was almost as though O'Neill feared that the Tyrones of "Long Day's Journey" might have been construed still to have some life in them. And so he polished off Jamie and repeated one more blazing epitaph for his family.

It was in 1923 that he became "the last O'Neill." It was in 1943, the year "A Moon for the Misbegotten" was written, that illness ended O'Neill's career. He lived on another 10 years, much of that time a helpless invalid, dying in November, 1953, of pneumonia.

In justice to O'Neill, it should be noted that h requested that "Long Day's Journey" be withheld from publication until 25 years after his death.  His widow, for her own reasons, decided to release the play. If O'Neill's wish had been honored, the play's secrets would still be unrevealed, the secrets of his family's tragedy perhaps forever unidentified.

To O'Neill, the whole thing might have appeared to be just one more monstrous irony. He was a man who could say and mean it: "Life is a tragedy. Hurrah!"


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