Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Week 09, O'Neill

Eugene O’Neill. Long Day’s Journey into Night (1340-1417).

General Notes on Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1340-1417).

It’s worth considering O’Neill’s drama in light of Aristotelian dramatic theory. In The Poetics, Aristotle describes tragedy as follows: plot (the arrangement of incidents) is the soul of tragedy; so important is it that the revelation of character is secondary. The plot must be arranged logically and each event should be connected to what follows; everything in a good tragedy should seem both probable and necessary—the best plays contain no improbable nonsense to offend our sensibilities or insult our intelligence. What have come to be called the “unities of time and place” are also quite helpful, in Aristotle’s view, although he’s not nearly as rigid about them as his neoclassical followers: the dramatist should make the events cover a believably short period of time (perhaps one day), and the location should be believably compact, too. A well-constructed plot that more or less adheres to the unities will generate the right emotions in the audience—pity and fear, and the rousing of these emotions, says Aristotle, will lead the audience to an emotional resolution or catharsis. In the best plays, such as Oedipus Rex, the moment the protagonist recognizes his error combines with the play’s “reversal”—the beginning of the hero’s downfall. The spectators see what happens and empathize, realizing that they, too, might do the same thing in the same circumstances. The spectators’ pity and dread upon beholding the play’s dénouement (its resolution or, literally “untying of the knot”) leads to a cathartic reaction. This term had a medical connotation—it meant something like “trepanning” or slicing a vein to purify the blood of harmful elements. So we might interpret catharsis as “purgation or purification.” A common addition to the medical sense these days is that catharsis consists in the attainment of intellectual clarification—as the tragedy unfolds, the spectators learn something about themselves, the necessity of suffering, and their place in the cosmos.

To what extent does O’Neill follow Aristotle? Well, we might say that O’Neill adheres strictly enough to the unities of time and place to satisfy even an eighteenth-century neoclassicist: Long Day’s Journey into Night takes up only one day, and is mostly located in the Tyrone’s home. We begin to see major differences when we consider plot unity. It’s easy to grasp that O’Neill’s plot, while logical enough, is far more sprawling than anything we would expect in a classical drama. Greek plays generally weren’t over-filled with action-hero incidents, either—in a Greek play, one or two “big things” happen, and for the most part the play consists in the characters taking up attitudes towards what has happened. (Dialogue—the confrontation of attitudes and ideas—is a key part of the “action” for the Greeks.) The drawn-out quality of O’Neill’s play betrays a significant departure from ancient theory: like many other moderns, O’Neill is mostly concerned with character—for him, plot is for the sake of character, and not the other way around. So the temporal and spatial tightness of the play, as we might term it, is for the sake of tracing and revealing the emotional histories of the play’s main people: Jamie, Edmund, Mary, and father James Tyrone. In this sense and as we might expect, O’Neill is closer to Freud than to older theories about the nature and purpose of drama—as the plot unfolds, whatever is closest to the main characters (their fundamental drives, anxieties, and desires) will come out, just as surely as “murder will out” in Hamlet. The emphasis is on the doleful economy of the psyche—on, as Edgar Poe might say, “the mournful and never-ending remembrance” to which the characters are chained by personality and circumstance, in spite of their many attempts to forget the past. Each family member is placed in confrontation with the others, and that is how they and we arrive at the most worthwhile insights about their history and current predicament. Edmund confronts Jamie, father James Tyrone confronts Edmund, and so forth. What, then, do they or we learn? If there is “recognition,” what is it?

Well, it’s probably true, as Tolstoy says at the beginning of Anna Karenina, that “every happy family is the same; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But there’s something typical about the Tyrones as an unhappy family unit—their problems are their own, we might say, but at a deeper level, they’re our problems, too. I mean that these four characters are chained together as a family unit in spite of their efforts to break away. Moreover, they’re all actors donning masks and playing a part. They have obviously poured enormous psychic energy into this “family production,” but their creation has brought them no genuine happiness. Wilde said in speaking of Greek tragedy that if you give someone a mask, you’ll get the truth—i.e. that a mask provides cover and facilitates the revelation of character. I suppose we do learn the truth about the four main characters in O’Neill’s play, but learning the truth, unmasking the illusions, doesn’t bring happiness or lend the play a happy ending. Generating and maintaining the illusions by which we live may be necessary—a point we can find in Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and Freud, among others—but it doesn’t bring us comfort. Neither does stripping away those illusions to confront the bare truth. Either way, it seems, we lose. I think that is what O’Neill’s play dramatizes for us; it’s what we “recognize” about the characters and ourselves. Amongst the characters in the play, I suppose it’s Edmund who arrives at much the same recognition. But I don’t see that it is “cathartic” in any Aristotelian way. The family’s competing, incompatible illusions, desires, and cross-purposes have generated a huge trap for them, and they can’t get out of the trap that is constituted by the unhealthy domestic scene they inhabit. The play ends in alienation and isolation (as student Jacob Plsek pointed out in class). As Freud explains, in the psychic economy nothing is wasted; past traumas don’t just evaporate. Rather, what has been repressed, screened, masked, distorted and so forth, returns. By what were the main characters’ lives structured? James Tyrone, a flawed product of his impoverished past, sought security and a chance to cheat fate; Jamie and Edmund rebelled against the father and sought not security but the insight (or oblivion) to be had from the pursuit of decadent aestheticist extremes; Mary sought purity in the home and independence for herself. Nobody gets any of these things in a satisfying way. In the end, Mary becomes entirely detached, and the three men confront one another about what has happened to her and their own complicity in the return of her mental instability. They remain stuck in the family predicament, and seem doomed to keep repeating it until death parts them. This family is riven by irresolvable conflicts, and there may be no way out.

Page-by-Page Notes on Act 4 of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1340-1417).

1394-96. Mary’s poison is morphine, James’ is whiskey and “morbid” literature and gloomy philosophy. The literary works he reads lend perspective—Dowson and Baudelaire in particular provide an aesthetic symbolist pose on which Jamie and Edmund have patterned their lives. Shakespeare the bourgeois gentleman was good enough for their father, “the old bog-trotter,” but not for them.

1397. We keep getting sordid revisions of the past—Mary’s illusions about her father in this case, and her dream of being a nun or a concert pianist.

1398-1401. Edmund and Tyrone could use a session with Dr. Phil, it seems. Well, no permanent reconciliations for them are in the works. Here the focus is on the injustice James’ miserly behavior has done Mary and is doing Edmund. The latter has tried to double back and relive his father’s life, the better to understand him. But in O’Neill, apparently, repetition always involves difference. Similar events or actions produce different results. In addition, one can’t really live somebody else’s life. The experiences don’t form Edmund as they did James.

1404-05. Just after the father cites Cassius about the “fault” being “not in our stars . . . but in ourselves,” we see that Edmund rejects such heroism and rejects his father’s need for security. Edmund rejects his father’s brand of heroism and clawing one’s way to success; he seeks self-annihilation, wants to become a sea gull or merge with the landscape. But that’s perhaps already a desire scripted by his father, and it isn’t an aspiration a person could really live. Edmund takes as his goal in life the attainment of brief epiphanies surrounded by darkness, gloom, and irony.

1407. What had impressed Edmund about his father’s revelation, Jamie has heard before and finds contemptible, a “sob story” recited over and over again by a ham actor. So much for any ideas we might have had about Aristotelian recognition scenes—Jamie undermines his father’s epiphany.

1408-10. Jamie sympathizes with unambiguous losers like Fat Violet. His star is hitched to his mother since her cure would be his, too. But this affinity creates a trap because failure feeds more failure. He becomes cruel and hateful—he quotes Wilde’s line from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” “Each man kills the thing he loves,” and interprets this to mean that those who are dead inside must make everything else equal to their own spiritual deadness. So he will do his best to drag his brother and indeed the whole family down with him.

Edition: Baym, Nina et al. (eds.) The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vols. C, D, E. 6th ed. New York: Norton, 2002. ISBN 0393977943.


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