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Up From Melodrama


BY Michael Manheim
FROM talk before the Eugene O'Neill section at the Twentieth Century Literature Conference, Louisville, 3/1/2003

The following remarks are indebted to what is for me a classic of O'Neill criticism in the 20th century: Jean Chothia's Forging a Language, an under-appreciated work written almost 25 years ago. What I have to say is essentially a review of Chothia's book, amplified at the end by some of my own related ideas on A Moon for the Misbegotten, a play she all but omits. A Cambridge University scholar, Chothia was the first to describe precisely what it is that makes O'Neill's early and middle period plays less great than the late great plays, and she does so by close analysis of the relationship between language and ideas in a select group of plays from all three periods. Hers is a remarkable work in part because it is written by an Englishwoman, whose familiarity with the American "vernaculars" of the plays seems derived from what she has read about early 20th century American English more than from direct familiarity with varieties of American dialect in the early 20th century. Actually, of course, the dialects in O'Neill's plays seem merely quaint even to us today. With some exceptions, Chothia hears the language of O'Neill's characters accurately. More important, she concentrates on how the characters' ways of speaking are integral (or are not integral) to what is central to the plays in which they appear. The integration of language and idea is her primary concern.

Chothia finds that in his plays of the teens and the early 1920's, O'Neill makes extensive use of a variety of dialects used by characters who find themselves unable to articulate their strong emotions. Her instances are drawn largely from All God's Chillun Got Wings, The Hairy Ape, and Desire Under the Elms. She suggests that O'Neill, always concerned with his inability to be eloquent (a fear Chothia quotes him expressing in letters to Kenneth McGowan and Joseph Wood Krutch), uses the Black dialect of the first play, the New York tough dialect of the second, and the mid-19th century rural New England dialect of the third to convey deep feeling in ways he felt he could not in his own "standard" (i.e., educated) American English. She finds, moreover, that the dialects of the central figures in these plays shift and develop as their personalities shift and develop. She finds that language, in other words, is usually (if clumsily) integral to the larger implications of these works, and this fact enriches the stories the plays dramatize, which otherwise tend to be melodramatic in mood and structure.

Chothia becomes more explicit on the subject of melodrama in discussing the middle period plays, which are, she says, largely a "failure" in language. Determined to find language in which to write high tragedy, O'Neill, she says, in reverting to his own standard, educated speech, too often only came up with the "exclamatory" and the "monotonous." She finds the failure particularly evident in Lazarus Laughed, a play O'Neill at one point thought was "the highest writing I have done" (letter to McGowan, 14 May 1926), but which, for Chothia, is far from that. She contrasts the play's all-important choruses with those in T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, another attempt at 20th century verse drama. "Eliot's massed voices" she says, "give an impression of wild clamour, just as O'Neill's do, because of their sheer volume. . . . But the succession of cry, query, lament (in Eliot), offers the audience different ways of perceiving the emotion and concentrates attention on what the words themselves say whereas in O'Neill's chants . . . it is difficult to hold on to individual words and phrases. (92)"

O'Neill was hardly an Eliot as a poet, of course, but the point is that in Lazarus, he was aspiring to achieve something like what Eliot later did, and his failure there, Chothia suggests, says something about most of his attempts at high language in the middle plays. "In one after another of the plays of these years," she continues, "even those in which there is no versification,. . . (w)hen he seeks to charge the dialogue more highly, to convey intense emotion, we find the same monotonous, exclamatory structure, the same use of abstract nouns to give size to the thought, the same bald repetition. . . . The result is that, where the meaning should be most sharply defined, it is most blurred (94)." And after giving additional examples from The Fountain and Days Without End, she adds: "The exclamatory structure, the cloying use of visual imagery and the absence of foundation for joy in the body of the play, is likely to recall for the audience the language of melodrama, against which O'Neill had turned so determinedly. . . (94)."

In discussing O'Neill's plays of the middle years, Chothia dwells the longest on Mourning Becomes Electra, his Nobel Prize winning attempt to write high tragedy. And here, she feels, he came a little closer to achieving what he set out to achieve. At least, she suggests, there are moments in the language of the trilogy which are both intense and integral to the whole. Orin Mannon's reflections following the murder of Adam Brant are an example, she says, because they compel "the audience to reach back into the play for the sources of the ideas and images which culminate here (108)." And she likes the play's conclusion most of all, when Lavinia prepares to lock herself up in the Mannon mansion forever. "Nothing in Lavinia's (final) speech is redundant, nothing laboured. . . . The idea with which we are presented is at once shocking, familiar and strangely invigorating. (109)"

But for the most part, Chothia says, the language of Mourning Becomes Electra is still both monotonous and exclamatory, leaving it dependent upon action that is "on the level of traditional melodrama (103)." (Her chief instance is the scene involving Christine Mannon's murder of her husband Ezra.) And what she says about the play's failures of language leads the way to her views of the later plays. Those failures, she says, "help us to recognize what dramatic language must do. It must shape our apprehension of individual character, and at the same time convey more to the audience than it communicates between characters. It must present us with a continually developing action as each speech emphasizes, or modifies, or alters our perception of what has gone before. The deeds and the staging must be so related to the dialogue that they become its necessary complement in our experience of the play. (107)" This is quite a prescription, but she obviously feels it is one O'Neill does fill in his later plays. I shall refer to this passage again in my concluding discussion of A Moon for the Misbegotten.

Chothia speculates little on what happened between the writing of Mourning Becomes Electra in the early 1930's and the writing of The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey into Night in the late 1930's, other than to mention the cycle plays and their abandonment. That is too bad, because for me (as well as others), what we have of them, especially More Stately Mansions, represents a major transition. (I discuss the transitional nature of Mansions in my recent Vital Contradictions, Peter Lang, 2002.) But her discussion of those two late great plays—Iceman and Journey—describes O'Neill's mastery of techniques only hinted at earlier. Returning to his use of varying, contrasting dialects in his early plays, O'Neill, she suggests, makes that linguistic variety and contrast integral to the structure of Iceman. No longer is the use of dialect a "dodge" (the word, referring to the early plays, spoken by the playwright himself in an interview in 1940). (See Chothia 130.) Frequently seeming to invite melodramatic response through the play's use of exclamation and hinted at intrigue, O'Neill, she shows, through the careful delineation of an unusually large number of highly differentiated characters, eschews melodrama in favor of his overriding perception of what it is to be human.

"The way in which O'Neill makes time for every voice to be heard in the play," she says, "makes a claim for the individual value of every man, and is one of the major positive statements of the play. (123)" And later she elaborates: "In the first act, each character's habitual mode of speech is established. . . . Changes in that speech, in the second and third acts, convey the spiritual collapse (wrought by Hickey) and, at the end. . .the revival is signaled by a return to the habitual modes. . . . Even more important than any one individual, is how credible and how valuable he makes the community appear. (127)" Her main idea resides in her repeated statement that, sharply differentiated as they are in their dialects and personal responses, the characters "interweave," creating O'Neill's vision of that human community.

Chothia finds a similar over-riding idea expressed in Long Day's Journey into Night. Here, she observes, there are only four major characters rather than seventeen, and they all speak essentially the same dialect, standard American English. But again, she says, O'Neill "develops an idiosyncratic language pattern for each character (146)." James Sr.'s speech mode is typically "robust and straightforward (147)"; Jamie's typically a mixture of the ironic and the boisterous; Mary's typically the voice of maternal concern; and Edmund's typically hopeful and not a little callow. But Chothia finds that their individual "speech modes" shift with their shifting emotions. James voice shifts to the inflections of stage melodrama when he thinks about the past, Jamie's to the forthright and honest when he confesses his complex feelings; and Mary's of course to shrill hysteria when she comes under the influence of her drug. Edmund's changes the least, primarily because he is, she notes, so often the listener rather than the speaker, though, she adds, we often hear him shift to scoffing irony in imitation of his brother.

Of great interest to me, of course, is the attention Chothia calls to a pattern of "empathy and alienation" (168) in the play. She anticipates my "rhythm of kinship" (in Eugene O'Neill's New Language of Kinship) by what she refers to as a "family rhythm," an alternation of support and attack between characters and among them. "These," she says, "are responsible for much of the surface variety of the play and also for its underlying coherence, since they permeate the action, seeming to root the characters together in their shared past (168)." She also notes a shifting between the "melodramatic and the plainspeaking" (151) in James, a characteristic that might be applied to the other characters as well. The play, unlike O'Neill's middle period plays, she suggests, makes "strategic" use of language.

One of the most effective (and affecting) portions of Chothia's discussion, paralleling her discussion of the end of Mourning Becomes Electra, is her commentary on how Jamie's recital of Swinburne's "A Leaving-Taking" in the final scene pulls together all the elements of the intense emotional experience that is the play. As in her later essay "Trying to Write the Family Play" (in The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O'Neill), Chothia is most effective in her treatment of O'Neill's use of quotation in Long Day's Journey. Integral to the action as a whole, quotations, she finds, always focus on the play's deepest concerns.

Which leads me to the final segment of these remarks. As is the case with the other late plays, A Moon for the Misbegotten has been widely misinterpreted. As Iceman has often been seen as a testament to all-out nihilism, and Journey as solely an autobiographical work, Moon is seen by some as a trivial comic melodrama with some "maudlin" moments late in the play. In fact, of course, the so-called maudlin moments are the essence of the play and what the hilarity of its early portions leads up to.

Some years ago I published an article dealing with what Chothia might call the strategic use of melodrama in A Moon for the Misbegotten. (In John Stroupe, ed., Critical Approaches to O'Neill, NY: AMS Press, 1988: 147-159.) In that article, I pointed out that early in the play the audience is exposed to melodrama in various forms, at first to intrigues in the spirit of situation comedy and later to a darker melodrama, one with possibly serious consequences. We first get vaudeville routines in which Jim and Phil Hogan jokingly deal with the issue of Jim's need for a drink and in which Phil and Josie Hogan trick, then humiliate, the Hogans' imperious rich neighbor by pushing him into a pigpen. I call these a form of melodrama because they are essentially intrigues in which a comic victim is exploited by a manipulator. That the manipulator is not a villain and the victim not innocent does not take away from the melodramatic nature of what is going on. In situation comedy, as in melodrama of other kinds, no emotional depths are probed, and there is little interest generated in the complexity of the characters. What the audience is asked to pay attention to primarily is the deception, just as it is invited to pay attention primarily to the deception in Christine Mannon's murder of her husband. The language may be entertaining rather than mystifying, but it is not language thematically integral to the rest of the play.

Then the play moves to its seemingly more serious melodrama. Phil Hogan, again the manipulator, wants to trick his daughter and Jim Hogan into getting married, and he uses one of the oldest tricks in the world, the father's entrapment of a prospective suitor by finding him in bed with his daughter—the shotgun wedding routine. To accomplish this, Phil must convince Josie that Jim is planning the sell their wretched shack, not to Phil as he had promised, but to the rich neighbor, who Phil assures Josie will pay a lot because of the trick Phil and Josie played on him earlier. There are many words spoken in the scenes dealing with Phil's plot, but they are again most of them words dealing with the plot, few of them dealing with the deeper motives of the characters involved, with the complexities and contradictions that motivate and haunt them.

When Jim arrives for his late date with Josie, in which they will "spoon in the moonlight," little changes at the start. Josie is concerned with deceiving Jim, tricking him into going to bed with her, while he, puzzled at her reactions, is divided between his desire to continue drinking (he rarely stops) and trying to control his impulse to confess to her. Since what he wants to confess is not immediately apparent, and she what is doing is trying to deceive him, for some time they speak at cross-purposes. She increasingly uses her "brazen hussy" act to entice him, while he drunkenly appears to give in. But during their prolonged give and take, it becomes apparent to Josie that Phil has been lying, and that Jim, drunk as he is, wants something from her, something other than sex. Finally Jim can no longer resist his need to confess and be forgiven. And we get the long story of his mother's death and his 4-day trip back from California to New York, his mother's body in the baggage car, while he spent each night with a case of whiskey in his drawing room and a blonde "who looked more like a whore than 25 whores," and whose services he purchased for "sixty bucks a night." We then witness Josie's brief revulsion, followed by her unrestrained forgiveness and decision to let him sleep with his head on her breast for the remainder of the night.

These constitute the real issues of the play. The melodramas that constitute the first half of the play are the false issues. They are lures that invite the audience to think it will be reacting to a situation comedy made up of farce and intrigue, to the trivial, to the kind of melodrama that is traditionally the most popular form of dramatic entertainment. Then, without warning really, when we begin to sense that something terrible is haunting Jim, tragedy suddenly springs out at us. The little melodramas are blotted out. And at the end the play finally is a tragedy. Perhaps high tragedy, depending on how we regard Jim Tyrone. This is more than simply the tale of a maudlin drunk, though some of the early critics of the play (Mary McCarthy and Eric Bentley) did not see that. The last act of the play, the next morning, makes us realize two things: 1) that through his confession Jim comes to terms with his ghosts, and 2) that he is going to die shortly. He has in effect already drunk himself to death at the start and has come to Josie to be forgiven. Josie must come to terms with all this, too, and as a woman whose great love must die, she must experience tragedy as well. Rather than as a pieta, as it is often pictured, her holding Jim in her arms all night may be seen as a kind of liebestod.

In conclusion, let me, as Chothia might, call attention to how much language, and variations in language, contribute to the overall effect of the play: the leprechaun-like sounds of Phil's jests and intrigues which give way to Irish sentimentality, Josie's brazen language and tone when she is trying to impress Jim which give way to all-out expressions of love and compassion, but mostly Jim's mixtures of the wise-guy language of the gambler which alternate with compassion and understanding. I leave out here the language of his long confession, though that is another language still, which I have dealt with in several publications. It is the variations in Jim's language before he begins confessing which are also integral to this play. Jim's language of understanding and compassion, in the Chothia's words about another character, "activates our deepest responses," helps to make of his oncoming death an issue of tragic loss.

I shall illustrate this idea with a brief look at a quote. It comes just after Josie suddenly realizes that not Jim but Phil has deceived her.

TYRONE—. . . I'm a fool to let this stuff about Phil get under my skin, but—Why 1 remember telling him tonight I'd even written to my brother and gotten his OK on selling the farm to him. And Phil thanked me. He seemed touched and grateful. You wouldn't think he'd forget that.

JOSIE—. . . I wouldn't, indeed. . . . The damned old schemer. I'll teach him. . . .

TYRONE—You'll get out the old club, eh? What a bluff you are, Josie. . . . You and your lovers, Messalina—when you’ve never—

JOSIE—You're a liar.

TYRONE—"Pride is the sin by which the angels fell." Are you going to keep that up—with me?

JOSIE—. . . You think I’ve never because no one would—because I'm a great ugly cow—

TYRONE—Nuts! You could have had any one of them. You kidded them til you were sure they wanted you. That was all you wanted. And then you slapped them groggy when they tried for more. But you had to keep convincing yourself—

JOSIE—Don't, Jim.

TYRONE—You can take the truth, Josie—from me. Because you and I belong to the same club. We can kid the world but we can't fool ourselves, like most people, no matter what we do—nor escape ourselves no matter where we run away. Whether it's the bottom of a bottle, or a South Sea Island, we'd find our own ghosts there waiting to greet us—"sleepless with pale commemorative eyes," as Rossetti wrote. . . . The old poetic bull, eh? Crap!

(Complete Plays 3. 923)

(I shall always hear the harsh, nasal tones of Jason Robards creating the balance between bitter irony and compassion in Jim's lines. I recently saw the actor Gabriel Byrne doing the role. He was very good, but he was an Irishman doing it, and the thing about Jim is that he is so very much an American—in his slang, his brilliant wit, and his erudition. Robards caught that as perhaps no
one else ever will.)

As quotations from writers ranging from Shakespeare, to Ibsen, to Kipling, and especially to Swinburne and Dowson are brilliantly integrated into the overall structure of Long Day's Journey, so are quotations equally as pointed here. Jim's juxtaposition of the reference to Messalina and the literary quotations from Milton and Rossetti with his barroom slang are the main linguistic effect of the passage quoted above. He has challenged Josie's assertions of her promiscuity all through the play, but here the effect is intensified by the poetry of the quotations. The rudeness of the slang, by contrasting with the quotations so markedly, calls attention to them and makes one feel their connotations more deeply. And that intensity allows Jim to break through Josie's armor of false promiscuity and ultimately prompts her confession that she "a virgin." The force of Jim's sincerity, achieved here in large part by the quotations, brings Josie to acknowledge herself. Of course, in the references to the South Sea Islands, and to Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who James Tyrone, Sr. reminded his sons was a "dope fiend"), we also get resonances that go beyond the present play, to among others Mourning Becomes Electra and Long Day's Journey, not to mention, in Jim's savage irony mixed with deep compassion, the Larry Slade of Iceman.

Let me go back to what Chothia says dramatic language must do and which the language of O'Neill's middle period plays rarely does. "It must shape our apprehension of individual character, and at the same time convey more to the audience than it communicates between characters. It must present us with a continually developing action as each speech emphasizes, or modifies, or alters our perception of what has gone before. The deeds and the staging must be so related to the dialogue that they become its necessary complement in our experience of the play." I have wanted this last in part to suggest that the language of the play has done these things. Certainly the patterns and mixtures of language in the three major characters shape our apprehension of them, and Jim's speech here certainly modifies our perception of what has gone before. Whether or not the staging complements our experience of the play must depend to some measure on what production we are talking about, but certainly the language of the dialogue between Jim and Josie before, during, and after Jim's long confession becomes finally our chief experience of this play.


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