O'Neill and Modern Tragedy
IN THE final analysis O'Neill's plays must be judged in the terms of tragedy. That is exactly what he wanted, for he held that whatever greatness a man may have his ultimate stature is measured in the terms of his ability to experience tragedy in his own life and in the life of man.
Any analysis of the concept of tragedy as it finds expression in modern drama, and in O'Neill in particular, must recognize that Aristotle's famous definition cannot apply, at least not as it has been traditionally interpreted. The full implication of the traditional interpretation as applied to drama from Sophocles to Shakespeare will not serve for O'Neill. But no discussion of tragedy can avoid Aristotle, nor can O'Neill be discussed as a writer of tragedy without reference to Aristotle's definition. That he does belong in the great tradition of tragedy is certain. No matter how far removed he may be from the poetic form of the past, any evaluation of his tragedies invites comparison with the great plays in this genre, because all lesser ones sink into a minor place where contrast and not comparison is implied. The form of his tragedy is different, in subject matter and theme it is the same.
There are two points in Aristotle on which modern drama departs from the classic definition, or at least from the traditional interpretation of that definition. Pertinent to the study of an O'Neill tragedy are character and hamartia, the fall from high station due to some "flaw", human error, or failure in sound judgment. Aristotle's conception of the tragic character holds that he is a man of high station, a king or a leader of his people in some great cause. General Mannon (Mourning Becomes Electra) is the only one in O'Neill's world who in any sense at all measures up to the specific requirements of Aristotle, if he is to be taken in a literal sense. Hamartia is a different problem, but even here Aristotle could not conceive of the fall from greatness as being tragic unless the leading character was victim of some slight flaw, because to have a perfectly good man fall from prosperity into adversity would be "impious" or "merely shocking"; it would in fact, question the goodness of the Gods. This, in its traditional interpretation by critics found expression in the assumption that at the end of a tragedy there was a katharsis, which in turn was interpretated to mean that man was "Brought face to face with universal law" and "The divine plan of the world".
Neither the traditional Aristotelian character, nor the pious belief in a divine order of things has validity in the best of modern tragedy from Ibsen and Strindberg to O'Neill, and of these, it applies least of all to O'Neill. His tragedy, if it has universal appeal, must deal with the fall of man from prosperity into adversity in a manner that is "shocking" and through causes that lie within man himself in relation to the outward forces of his world. He is brought to disaster by forces that are stronger than he is. This attitude toward man has been apparent in O'Neill's plays from the first to the last. The men and women of his world are victims of a cosmic trap, cold and impersonal as steel. Mary, (Long Day's Journey Into Night) who has struggled for years with her inescapable despair, says to Edmund, "It's wrong to blame your brother. He can't help being what the past has made him. Any more than your father can. Or you. Or I". And again later when she knows that there is no escape, she thinks of her happiness as a student in the Convent, "You were much happier", she says to herself "When you prayed to the Blessed Virgin. If I could only find the faith I lost, so I could pray again". But impossible. There is no will that can conquer the forces of life that have imprisoned her. Tyrone asks her to "Forget the past". Her answer is, "How can I? The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future, too. We all try to lie about that, but life won't let us."
All the Tyrones are caught in the same trap. Each character has his flaw, his failure. He is a combination of the inner self, which is the life force, trying to deal with the circumstances of a world he did not make and could not control. The punishment they suffer in spite of all their efforts is out of all proportion to what they deserve, and in the case of Mary, who is the central figure of the tragedy, the suffering is a mockery of a divine plan in the world. The appeal of the play lies not in "order re-established", but in the realization of man's powerlessness to deal with life in any way that would indicate a universal good. He stumbles in the fog, that in this play is the dominant atmosphere, seeking for a pathway that is not there.
Aristotle's man of high estate, who was to him a figure of national importance, is not present in modern tragedy. But the character who falls must still be significant. His importance in an O'Neill play lies then not at all in his station in life, but in his capacity to feel and understand the forces that have brought him from a place of great promise to one where the value of life has lost its charm, all its high promise, where it has no more value that a rag pinned to a clothes line fluttering in the wind. When Lavinia (Mourning Becomes Electra) views the wreckage of everything that once made the House of Mannon, she does not ask for exile, the most fearful punishment that Oedipus could imagine, but she does accept its counterpart. She orders the windows of the Mannon mansion boarded up to shut out every ray of light, all the beauty of the world. She then enters the house to live with the dead. Death was something the Mannons understood.
But still the Mannons had something of the outward
stature of ancient dramatic heroes. In order to realize most fully
the modern tragedy as O'Neill saw it, it is best to turn to The
Iceman Cometh. In time this play may very well come to be
recognized as O'Neill's greatest tragedy. It is easier at the moment
to accept the Long Day's Journey Into Night as superior to
The Iceman Cometh, because it deals with a more familiar world.
Sentiment, sorrow and pathos are there in every character and every
action. It is so poignant that the audience often loses esthetic
distance in identification with the characters. The emotional appeal
of the mother is irresistible, and the condition of Edmund, sick
with tuberculosis, arouses a deep sympathy that verges on pathos.
The saving spirit is Jamie whose bitter uncompromising irony
pervades the whole play and covers his own sorrowful heart. Both he
and his brother in their combined use of poetic quotations help to
keep the theme universal, thus escaping from the particular, which
always tends, when left to itself, to destroy esthetic distance.
In The Iceman Cometh, there is no easy identification with the characters. Gorky Lower Depths is the only play comparable to O'Neill's. It presents a collection of the outcast and the damned more terrifying than the inmates of Harry Hope's Saloon, but Gorky's play tends to give more emphasis to the outward forces that lie in wait for their victims. Some of the characters in this play are in trouble with the law, some could even be saved, rehabilitated through the proper use of legal justice and a decent income. The characters of The Lower Depths were meant by Gorky to be victims of a vicious and unjust social order. Change the order and all those who had not fallen into crime incompatible with organized society could have been saved. It is a tragedy of the failure of a social order.
In The Iceman Cometh the point of no return had been reached for all the characters long before the play opens. Twenty years before the curtain rises Harry Hope crossed the threshold of reality as he turned his back on the ward which bridged his contact with the world. This world of reality he would never see again, except for one brief moment, and when that moment was over, he stood shocked and trembling in his saloon unable to understand why he had ever ventured to go outside the protection of his prison.
On the stage is one of the most remarkable collections of human beings ever assembled in a single play. They represent a wide and rather familiar group, the lost and the damned. Everyone has failed in his own peculiar way to make a normal adjustment to the world. Politician, soldier, remittance man, ward heeler, newspaper reporter, policeman, bar tender, labor organizer, pimps and whores. Central, and major catalytic agent, is the salesman of death in the guise of selling life. Each in his own way has crossed the borderline of so-called normal life, and is now living on the edge of starvation and spiritual death. He dreams of someday recovering the ideals and standards of a social status long since lost. Jimmy Tomorrow, the leader of the Tomorrow Movement symbolizes the ironic strategy for success. Each person has or develops during the play the rationale of his present position and plans for his own personal rehabilitation. To each it is logical, clear and certain. Tomorrow the action that leads to the good life will begin. For some of them this has been the Tomorrow for years. Others have just joined the Tomorrow Movement. Only one includes no Tomorrow in his philosophy. He is Larry, the ex-I.W.W. He had invested all that life holds good: love, honor, social justice, a sense of human value and dignity in The Movement, and when that failed him or he failed it, perhaps both are present in his complex nature, when that moment came he had no values left. He was without knowing it at the time, a member of one of the great Tomorrow societies of the world, the labor movement. The only character lacking in this remarkable collection of characters is a disillusioned preacher, who would have represented the greatest Pipe Dream of all. The nearest to that is the Ole Doc, Ed Mosher tells about, whose devotion to medical science was expressed in the sale of snake oil. He died at the age of eighty from overwork. But he was a great "Gentleman of the old school. I'll bet he's standing on a street corner in hell right now, making suckers of the damned, telling them there's nothing like snake oil for bad burns."
This, then, is the company with which the audience is to identify itself if the drama is to have that universal appeal which is the essence of the tragic experience in the theatre. Also these are the characters which O'Neill has offered as a substitute for the tragic characters required by Aristotle's definition. At first glance it would appear that there is here nothing comparable to the tragic hero of tradition. Larry is the only character whose social status represents a great ideal and whose intellect is of a high order. He serves to give the theme a slightly more dignified quality than the others and he interprets the futility of the Tomorrow Movement, but he also has his pipe dream and it is finally shattered by his intellectual realization of the complete futility of life.
The audience is identified with the characters in Harry Hope's saloon, but its obvious similarity is not established on the basis of social position, income, houses, salaries or any of the hundred standards by which ordinary men live and claim their right to respect and honor. But if one were realistic, he would have to recognize that what he is as an individual, or as a member of a social order, he still is far from being on an equality with Oedipus or Hamlet either. He identifies himself not with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, but with the tortured spirit of Hamlet who would kill himself if "The Everlasting had not fix'd his canon 'gainst self-slaughter!" He is the man who "Could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have had bad dreams."
The individual reading Oedipus is not so absurd as to think he has the proportions and the stature of a king. His identification again in Hamlet lies in the tortured spirit that finds itself betrayed by arbitrary and capricious forces over which it has no control. In sharing this world of the tragic king man meets himself and understands better than he ever understood before the precarious adventure of life and its intimate tragic consequences.
This is what O'Neill understood. He reduced the outer shell of man almost to ultimate negation. Stripped bare as a forked radish all that remained is the Pipe Dream, the great Tomorrow Movement which is imbedded in the hearts of men. It is this abstract ideal of life that gives universality to the tragic character and not social status. It is what Matthew Arnold called an inward condition of spirit, not an outward set of circumstances that measures the meaning of life.
The traditional use of pride as the great flaw which brings about the fall of the tragic hero has little value in the interpretation of modern tragedy as developed by O'Neill, with the one exception of Cornelius Melody , "The embittered Byronic hero" of A Touch of the Poet, and even in this play pride is treated with irony and not as it is supposed to be developed in historic tragedy. The characters in The Iceman Cometh do not fall through pride, but because they wanted from life more than it could in reality give them. They, each in his own way, failed the crucial test. The Pipe Dream which is a universal aspect of the human spirit took possession of their lives; the Siren's voice of the Tomorrow Movement became for them irresistible. Without the dream they cannot live and at this point the salesman of death offers them salvation, which at first they fail to recognize as an invitation to the only peace left for them, death.
Larry is the only one who recognizes that the Pipe Dream is the end of the road. "What's before me is the comforting fact that death is a fine long sleep . . . And it can't come too soon for me." He could resist Hickey who had come to save all of them, but Don Parritt, the man who had betrayed his own mother, forced Larry to face the reality of his life. He must, figuratively, sentence Parritt to death, and he must stand by the window to be sure that the sentence is carried out. He had grasped the full meaning of Hickey's preaching. "Life is too much for me." He hopes for death, and "May that day come soon! Be God I'm the only real convert to death Hickey made here."
The others find comfort in the illusion that because Hickey had murdered his wife, he must be crazy. Being crazy, his whole negation of the Tomorrow Movement was a fearful lie. Unable to face reality they return to the Pipe Dream by which they must die. The irony of life is irresolvable. "To be or not to be" has been stated in modern terms, as The Iceman Cometh ends with Harry Hope calling "Hey there, Larry! Come over and get paralyzed," and the final message from Hugo "'The days grow hot O Babylon! 'Tis cool beneath thy willow trees!'" And so the "Second feast of Belshazzar" came to an end "With Hickey doing the writing on the wall." It is the universality of this theme freed from the too intimate pathos and personal experience of A Long Day's Journey Into Night that may in time rank it as O'Neill's greatest tragedy.
The Iceman Cometh does not stand alone. There is a consistency to all of O'Neill work from Bound East for Cardiff to A Touch of the Poet. All are developed out of an inner conflict of values as this eternal problem finds new depths of meaning in the modern world. Yank in Bound East for Cardiff belongs in the company of the mask-tortured figures in The Great God Brown, of Nina Leeds, the Mannons, the Tyrones, Jim in A Moon for the Misbegotten and the heartstricken Larry. Their tragedies are built out of irresolvable conflicts that are a part of the modern world. It may even be that now with science triumphant, Dynamo may have a deeper meaning than it appeared to have a generation ago. The Dynamo is the new cross on a new Golgotha as it really was to O'Neill. These characters are all wanderers seeking shelter in the Garden of Eden, but knowing that the road is washed out and overgrown with weeds, that the Garden has withered into a barren desert.
O'Neill does not deny that there are moments of insight and peace for man. Paddy in The Hairy Ape has such a vision when he identifies himself with The Absolute. O'Neill many years and plays later comes back to the same vision in A Long Day's Journey Into Night. Here Edmund and Paddy are one and the same. Their visions are O'Neill's dream. Edmund says to his father:
"You've just told me some high spots in your memories. Want to hear mine? . . . When I was on the lookout in the crow's nest in the dawn watch. A calm sea, that time. Only a lazy ground swell and a slow drowsy roll of the ship. The passengers asleep and none of the crew in sight. No sound of man . . . feeling alone, and above, and apart, watching the dawn creep like a painted dream over the sky and sea which slept together. Then the moment of ecstatic freedom came. The peace, and the end of the quest, the last harbor, the joy of belonging to a fulfillment beyond man's lousy, pitiful, greedy fears and hopes and dreams! And several other times in my life . . . I've had the same experience. Became the sun, the hot sand, the green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide. Like a Saint's vision of beatitude . . . For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble towards nowhere, for no good reason . . . It was a great mistake my being born a man . . . A stranger who never feels at home . . . Who must always be a little in love with death."
These moments of mystic insight are but flashes that leave the spirit in greater darkness than it was before they occurred. The same thing happens in the opposite extreme where a conscious awareness of physical reality seems the perfect answer. But it too fades leaving man desolate and alone. Hickey presented that view at the moment when he had "saved" the men and whores in Hope's saloon. He speaks with bitterness:
"By rights you should be contented now, without a single damned hope or lying dream left to torment you! But here you are, acting like a lot of stiffs cheating the undertaker . . . Can't you appreciate what you got, for God's sake ? Don't you know you're free now to be yourselves, without having to feel remorse or guilt, or lie to yourselves about reforming tomorrow? Can't you see there is no tomorrow now. You're rid of it forever."
There is no ending or point of rest, there is no answer to the bite of conscience nor is there a rationale that offers peace. At the end of The Iceman Cometh there is no one left to summarize the story and give it meaning, for the meaning of life has been lost in Pipe Dreams. Kafka's Castle is visible on the hill, but there is no road through the tangled thicket that surrounds its base. This is the meaning of tragedy.
In the last four plays A Touch of the Poet is closely related to The Iceman Cometh, while A Moon for the Misbegotten is a sequel to A Long Day's Journey Into Night. Cornelius Melody is a man who had generated a pipe dream of himself as a true aristocrat. He maintains his ideal in the terms of lofty speech, elegant dress and freedom from toil. He is the master of his estate which in reality is a cheap saloon. He is ashamed of the simple manner and low Irish brogue of his wife, he barely tolerates his daughter, while on the other hand he worships his horse, since it is the symbol of his aristocracy. He always celebrates the anniversary of the great victory at Talavera where he had won honor on the battlefield. The pipe dream has become his reality, even as the inmates of Hope's saloon had each his own pipe dream. Major Melody disregards the fact that he is impoverished, that his wife must beg for credit at the local store, while he struts in his uniform unable to understand why the Yankee scum should not be honored to extend him credit until his pipe dream comes true.
In the end the dream fails. He shoots his beautiful thoroughbred, because by killing her he can kill the Major, for now he speaks in Irish brogue and refers to the Major as another person not his true, low born Irish self.
His daughter Sara asks in astonishment, "But why did you kill her?"
MELODY. Why did the Major, you mean? Be Christ, you're stupider than I thought, if you can't see that. Wasn't she the livin' reminder, so to spake, av all the lyin' boasts and dreams? He meant to kill her first wid one pistol, then himself wid the other. But faix, he saw the shot that killed her finished him, too . . . So he didn't bother shooting himself, because it'd be a mad thing to waste a good bullet on a corpse!"
At the end Major Melody sheds all his glory, his pipe dream dead, he goes through the door into the bar. He is now a member of Harry Hope's saloon, where a new kind of pipe dream can develop.
There is one frame of reference in which Major Melody's dream relates him to O'Neill. Major Melody sustains his idea of himself by accepting the Byronic character as his own. He quotes Byron's poetry on all those occasions when he wanted to establish his superior position in the world. One special quotation is repeated several times and should be quoted here, because it was a favorite with O'Neill. He quoted it with a touch of irony, while at the same time it was also clear that he accepted it on its face value. Major Melody was a long lost brother of O'Neill's youth. They both shared, each in his own way:
"'I have not loved the
World, nor the World me;
The tragedy, The Moon for the Misbegotten, picks up the story of James Tyrone about nine years after the ending of A Long Day's Journey Into Night. It introduces in direct action a scene that was merely reported in A Long Day's Journey Into Night, and in so doing, makes O'Neill guilty of an anacronism, which while it may deserve notice as having a bearing on the way he worked with this autobiographical material, has no other significance.
In this play James has no illusions left. His father and mother are dead. He makes no reference to his brother Eugene, who has obviously moved out of the sphere of James' own life. All that is left for him is an endless series of gray dawns creeping over dirty windows to reveal some fat tart snoring by his side. For him "There is no present or future—only the past happening over and over again." The memory of his mother's death has anchored him to a guilt that nothing will obliterate. She had died in California. He had spent the long train trip home, his mother in the baggage coach, he in his stateroom with a whore, drunk the whole time, so drunk when he arrived that he could not attend his mother's funeral. He is broken in spirit. There are no pipe dreams for him, only death can bring him relief from the burden of his life.
For an instant he catches contentment and rest in Josie's arms. When he awakes he sees once more the beginning of the agony. As he walks clown the road Josie pronounces a benediction. "May you have your wish and die in your sleep Jim, darling . . . May you rest forever in forgiveness and Peace."
This is Eugene O'Neill's final word to the brother
he had loved just this side of idolatry. This whole play must be
interpreted as an elegy. The dramatist forces himself to see all the
faults of the one he immortalizes, and then beneath a thousand
failures, recognizes the great worth of the man betrayed and driven
to disaster by the Fates, relentless in their determination that he
be destroyed. All the outward appearances of callous disregard for
others were but forms to conceal the specters that haunted his
spirit. This was O'Neill's farewell to his
brother, just as A Long Day's Journey Into Night had been his
In Memoriam to his father and mother. The dedication to A Long
Day's journey Into Night applies to A Moon for the
Misbegotten as well. To Carlotta he wrote that he had been able
"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."
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