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Ella, James, and Jamie O'Neill
"My Name Is Might-Have-Been"

Prologue     I. Ella     II. James     III. Jamie     Appendix


BY Edward L. Shaughnessy
FROM The Eugene O’Neill Review, Suffolk University, 1991


Histories of families, like the chronicles of nations and ages, inevitably fascinate us. No elaborate theory is needed to explain this phenomenon. Home and family provide both the soul's growth zone and the ground whereon will be waged our most intense and lifelong conflicts. Thus it should not surprise us that literature, especially the drama, reports again and again from the home front. Every age must experience anew the triumph and tragedy of the family: Oedipus the King, Antigone, Agamemnon; Hamlet, Lear, The Duchess of Malfi; The Father, Riders to the Sea, Death of a Salesman, Long Day's Journey Into Night.

In such representative works are registered the extremes of happiness and pain, of charity and ambivalence. The drama tends, it seems almost by some law of nature, to examine these most elemental tissues, both sacred and befouled. It is at home that we initiate the search for ourselves, the claims for dominance, and the debate about the meaning of existence. The family stores the record of identifiable human experience: the House of Atreus, the holy family of Nazareth, the sagas of Tudors. and Mannons.

The tragic history of "the four haunted Tyrones" appears to hinge on the matter of interlocking fate. "Here is a family living in a close symbiotic relationship, a single organism with four branches, where a twitch in one creates a spasm in another. (They are) chained together by resentment, guilt, recrimination; yet, the chains that hold (them) are those of love as well as hate" (Brustein 350-51). Long Day's Journey examines these dynamics in considerable depth, but the full terror and ongoing nature of the O'Neills' calamity may never be known. Like all great personal and familial catastrophes, their "curse" transcends a mere recitation of occasions and events. Still, certain historical moments appear to have had staggering impact. It is clear, for example, that the famines which devastated Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century constituted one such event. These plagues intensified the agony of a ravaged nation whose history was even then bitter beyond bearing. For herewith were introduced massive death and disease, extirpation and emigration. This cruel history of dislocation projected onto the American scene a poverty-racked legion of immigrants that included the Quinlans and O'Neills.

Because all history ultimately becomes personal, however, it is difficult to study the O'Neills without sentimentalizing them. Critics who begin to speak of the playwright's parents and brother as their own have already become proprietary and compromised professional judgment: "Eugene felt deeply the pain of losing Mama and Jamie before he had had a chance to recover from the loss of Papa" (Alexander 289). O'Neill had put it more decorously in a letter to his Irish nurse at the tuberculosis hospital: "I have lost my Father, Mother and only brother within the past four years" (Gelbs 533). In time he found that the best solution was to place his family undisguisedly into the one world he could control, that of the play. There he could observe the rules of classic form and thereby subvert any inclination to turn tragedy into a private melodrama. If in the end the work proved to be a drama of universally recognized power, that fact would be registered in the response of the actors and directors (both in number and stature) who sought to be involved with it. (Here are some who have: performers Bibi Andersson, Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Siobhan McKenna; Vincent Dowling, Anew McMaster, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, Jr.; directors Arvin Brown, Miss Fitzgerald, Ingmar Bergman, José Quintero, et al.)

*        *        *

What has once been perfectly rendered deserves to be elevated into the Pantheon and left untarnished by lesser attempts. Louis Sheaffer's two-volume biography of Eugene O'Neill has made an unrivaled claim to completeness and integrity. A very model of investigative technique and exhaustive research, Sheaffer's work ranks along with Richard Ellmann's portrait of James Joyce. Yet a paradox attends this very completeness, since the study encourages others to push forward in the search. For, in giving O'Neill's own story such high visibility, the biographer has placed many other figures on the main stage. These, too, demand our notice.

Take Sheaffer's account of James O'Neill, Jr., whose baleful impact on Eugene is rendered with admirable fidelity. The account is grounded in the sort of detail that can give biography itself a literary significance. Here is a "character" brought to life by scrupulous attention to such matters as the son's on-stage pranks that-so embarrassed "the old man." Elsewhere Sheaffer brings to the surface a particularly scalding illustration of Jamie's capacity for outrageous behavior (II, 107). In the company of Harold and Helen DePolo, he made a public spectacle of himself during a performance of Anna Christie in Stamford, Connecticut (a harrowing episode that occurred in 1923, the year of his death). Yet, distressing as such events may have been in themselves, their vivid reconstruction in O'Neill, Son and Playwright and O'Neill, Son and Artist points up the thoroughness of the biographer's research. (All of this, of course, merely intensifies our curiosity about this talented but reckless human being.) In following Eugene's path to greatness, Sheaffer had to chronicle a series of family defeats almost too grim and unrelieved to be believed.

The tragedy of the O'Neills is most often a tale of lost opportunities. And the sons' lifetime of pain must be seen in the light of their parents' suffering. This condition has been well enough understood in the case of Eugene; indeed, he himself dramatized this personal history. But the dynamic impact of James and Ella's lives on his older brother has been less fully examined (even if biographers like Sheaffer have given considerable attention to him). The critics, understandably, have looked at the older brother in terms of his impact upon Eugene O'Neill. And the play sequence itself (Long Day's Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten) gives James, Jr., dramatic value for the ages. Even so, there can be no sufficient appreciation of Jamie's high promise nor understanding of his plunge into futility without insight into his relations with James and Ella. These dynamics are at the heart of the matter. In all of dramatic history few families have flogged themselves so mercilessly yet simultaneously sought to repair the scar tissue as did the O'Neills.

Not everything in their lives was painful, however: not at first. Ella Quinlan's youth and years in the convent academy may have been her happiest. (One is reminded here of Willa Cather's invocation of Virgil: "Optima dies ... prima fugit" (the best days are the first to flee).) Again, if Jamie O'Neill's story is a retelling of the parable of "that talent which is death to hide," we may see in his father's achievement a vindication of the American-dream myth. For the life of James O'Neill, Sr., shaped by famine and poverty, reads like a rags-to-riches scenario. Nor was James quite the ogre and miser his son portrayed in endless variations: James Mayo, Captains Bartlett and Keeney, Jim Harris, Ephraim Cabot, and others. It might be argued, moreover, that the most sympathetic character in Long Day's Journey is James Tyrone himself, endlessly belittled by his pitiable wife and his two ungrateful sons.

Was anyone truly culpable? We know that Ella O'Neill was victimized by a life she could not possibly have invented: her virginal soul suffered an insult she never truly fathomed. And the consumptive and melancholy Edmund speaks in his sickness for Eugene O'Neill and all other spiritual waifs: "I would have been more successful as a seagull or a fish" (LDJ 153). How we are reminded of Prufrock: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas." Each poet receives our pity.

It is less easy, however, to turn with compassion toward Jamie, who comes quickly to seem an incorrigible boor. Apparently the most blameworthy of the haunted, he may strike some as a mere fool who squandered his inheritance. We have been given to suppose that Jamie left behind nothing, neither achievement nor issue. His aberrations and selfishness, monstrous by any index, seem to have had no limits. Where is recorded his single act of heroism or deed born of charity? His cynicism can be explained only in terms of his "Mephistophelean" personality and philosophy. Bereft of hope and crushed by self-hatred, Jamie Tyrone was forced in the end to echo Rossetti's maudlin bitterness:

Look in my face. My name is Might-Have-Been;
I am also called No More, Too Late, Farewell. (LDJ 168)

Was there anything left to honor? That question becomes the central issue further along in this study.



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