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Eugene O'Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedyby Stephen A. Black
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Stricken with guilt and grief when his father, mother, and brother died in quick succession, young playwright Eugene O'Neill mourned deeply for two decades. This enlightening critical biography presents a remarkable new understanding of the playwright's life, work, and slow grieving. Stephen A. Black argues that O'Neill's writing was a form of self-psychoanalysis and that his plays reflect his psychological and artistic growth. Selected by Choice as an outstanding academic title for 2000
Author Biography: Stephen A. Black was born in Los Angeles and educated there and in Seattle. He studied psychoanalysis in Seattle and is emeritus professor of English at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia.
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LS 1: Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Playwright (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968).
LS2: Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973).
Except as otherwise indicated, citations to the Sheaffer biography in Chapters 1 through 12 refer to the first (1968) volume (LS1); those in Chapters 13 and after refer to the second (1973) volume (LS2).
LS papers: documents in the Louis Sheaffer-Eugene O'Neill Collection at the Charles E. Shain Library, Connecticut College.
Poems: Eugene O'Neill, Poems, 1912-1944, Donald Gallup, ed. (New Haven, Conn.: Ticknor and Fields, 1980).
SL: Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill, Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer, eds. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988).
WD: Eugene O'Neill, Work Diary, 1924-1943, preliminary ed. Transcribed by Donald Gallup (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Library, 1981).
Quotations from O'Neill's plays are based on examination of manuscript material where that is available, of various printed editions, especially those whose publication was supervised by O'Neill himself, and of typeset proofs containing the author's corrections and alterations. For the convenience of the reader, I have given the pages in which the quoted material can be found in the widely available three-volume set issued by the Library of America:
CP1 Eugene O'Neill, Complete Plays, 1913-1920 (NewYork: Library of America, 1988).
CP2 Eugene O'Neill, Complete Plays, 1920-1931 (New York: Library of America, 1988).
CP3 Eugene O'Neill, Complete Plays, 1932-1943 (New York: Library of America, 1988).
James and Ella
EUGENE GLADSTONE O'NEILL WAS BORN in New York City in the twelfth year of his parents' marriage, on October 16, 1888, in the Barrett House, a residential hotel at Forty-third Street and Broadway. Mary Ellen Quinlan O'Neill had turned thirty-one in August. Ella, as she was called, had been not yet twenty when she married Eugene's father, James O'Neill, a celebrated actor, on June 14, 1877, in St. Ann's Catholic Church in New York City. Bride and groom were both Irish, but they had little else in common at the time of their marriage.
Born in New Haven on August 13, 1857, Ella grew up in Cleveland, where her parents moved while she was still an infant. Thomas Joseph Quinlan, a prosperous entrepreneur and an indulgent father, provided his daughter with a classical education at a fine boarding school; and when she showed a talent for music, he bought her a grand piano.
Ella grew up in privilege, James in slums. Several searches, most recently by Edward Shaughnessy, have revealed no birth information. James O'Neill celebrated his birthday on October 14; he gave his birthplace as Kilkenny, Ireland, and said variously that he had been born in 1844, in 1845, and in 1846. He was the son of Edward and Mary O'Neil (as the family name was then spelled). On his death certificate in 1920 Ella, the official informant, gave the year of his birth as 1845 (Shaughnessy 1991, 20).
James was the third son and sixth child in a family of three sons and six daughters. Fleeing famine, the O'Neils came to a Buffalo slum from Ireland about 1850. Edward O'Neil worked on the docks and drank heavily, and his wife "scrubbed for the Yanks," as her grandson wrote much later, in Long Day's Journey into Night. About 1856, Edward had a premonition that he was nearing death, and he decided he wanted to end his days in Ireland. He returned to Kilkenny, where he did die, after someone mistook rat poison for biscuit flour. So went the odd story told afterward by James, who claimed to remember his father only with contempt. The story may have been meant simply to conceal a suicide. Something about the story, perhaps its hint of mysticism and tragic inevitability, led James's son to repeat it in Long Day's Journey into Night.
After Edward left, the eldest daughter, Josephine, who had married a saloonkeeper, sent from Cincinnati for her mother, James, and some of the sisters. James, who was about eleven, became an apprentice file maker in a Cincinnati machine shop, and his mother worked in the homes of the well-to-do. But even with fewer children to feed, there was seldom enough to eat. James later remembered that they had twice been evicted from the hovels they were living in. About 1859 or 1860, James went to Norfolk, Virginia, with Josephine and her husband. During the Civil War, he worked in an enterprise that supplied uniforms to the rebels. He may have received some tutoring at that time. He was highly intelligent, a voracious reader all his life. But he was probably his own most constant tutor.
After the war, James returned to Cincinnati with his sister and brother-in-law. As he often told it, a chance event about 1865 led him to be given a role as a supernumerary in a performance at the National Theatre. James took to theatrical life with single-minded dedication and quickly emerged from the ranks. A year after he first walked onstage, he listed himself in the city directory as "actor." By the late 1860s he was playing major roles. Eventually he would be famous throughout the land for a single role, that of Edmond Dantes in a dramatization of The Count of Monte Cristo; he played it more than four thousand times over a period of thirty years.
A man of average height and strong build, remarkably handsome, James had modest, warm, and charming manners. He worked hard to train his most noted asset, his beautiful voice. He got rid of his brogue and studied diligently enough that by 1871 he counted fifty roles in his repertoire. He was soon playing with the most prominent actors in the country and attracting their respect.
In the operatic theater of the mid-nineteenth century, voice was nearly everything. People in cities and towns showed up year after year to hear Edwin Forrest or Charlotte Cushman or Junius Brutus Booth (father of Edwin and John Wilkes) rattle the walls, with voices that were compared to trumpets. Local actors stood about the stage in arrangements determined by the visiting idol; otherwise the play had no director and little rehearsal. Sustained interaction between the characters was as ritualized as in Italian opera. Audiences attended to vocal nuance with the same aural sophistication they brought to the opera house. The origins of the theater in bardic storytelling were still perceptible, even if the repertoire ran to melodrama, sentimental fluff, and bowdlerized plays from Shakespeare.
In this world the young James O'Neill caught the notice of visiting actors. Joseph Jefferson, with whom James played in Boucicault's Rip Van Winkle, coached him in comedy. The formidable Charlotte Cushman taught him to play Macbeth. He performed Virginius with Edwin Forrest. Rheumatic, bitter, and scandal-ridden at the age of sixty, Forrest paid few compliments, but he rumbled to someone that if James O'Neill would get rid of his brogue and work hard he could be an excellent actor. Anecdotes like these told by the Gelbs (23-25) imply that the young James had an unmistakable talent as an actor and that he could charm prominent people and persuade them to take him seriously.
Throughout his long career, James was liked and admired by his colleagues and noted for his kindness to young actors. He helped other actors make the most of their parts, advised them about career decisions, and was lavishly generous with drinks and money. No biographer has found evidence that James was ever otherwise in his professional life. As the Gelbs concluded: "Not an actor, manager or agent ever had anything but glowing praise for his character and generosity, which was remarkable in a profession where petty jealousies and vindictive gossip are so prevalent" (Gelbs, 44). He had everything he needed to earn his rapid rise.
In 1870, the twenty-four-year-old James was hired by John Ellsler to play first or second leads at the Academy of Music in Cleveland. It was a respected theater, and the move was momentous for James in several respects. In Cleveland he played with Forrest, Jefferson, Jean Davenport Lander, and others, and studied Shakespearean roles.
In Cleveland James also met two women who greatly affected his life. The first was a professional actress, Nettie Walsh, with whom James began to live in 1871. The second was Mary Ellen Quinlan, his future wife, then fourteen. Nettie Walsh was said to be fifteen when she and James became lovers, and he was twenty-three. Later, when they were no longer friendly, James swore that he had by no means been Nettie's first or only lover and added that both had known other lovers during their affair.
In 1872 James moved to McVicker's Theatre in Chicago, the leading theater west of New York, where he remained through 1874. It was at McVicker's that James played alongside Edwin Booth in circumstances made famous by James's son Eugene in Long Day's Journey into Night (1941). Drawing on conversations with his father in 1919-1920, Eugene showed the character James Tyrone looking back to his youth, when he and Booth alternated in the leading roles, night after night, in Julius Caesar and Othello; above all, James recalled the artistic idealism that had once guided him. Eugene believed that playing Shakespeare with Booth was the high point of his father's career. In writing Long Day's Journey into Night, he has James Tyrone tell his son Edmund:
I loved Shakespeare. I would have acted in any of his plays for nothing, for the joy of being alive in his great poetry. And I acted well in him. I felt inspired by him. I could have been a great Shakespearean actor, if I'd kept on. I know that! In 1874 when Edwin Booth came to the theatre in Chicago where I was leading man, I played Cassius to his Brutus one night, Brutus to his Cassius the next, Othello to his Iago, and so on. The first night I played Othello, he said to our manager, "That young man is playing Othello better than I ever did!" ... A few years later my good bad luck made me find the big money-maker.... And then life had me where it wanted me.... [Bitterly.] What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder, that was worthWell, no matter. It's a late day for regrets. [CP3, 809-10]
For James Tyrone as for James O'Neill, Booth's praise had represented the apex of the younger actor's career. In his old age, James seemed to feel that within a few years of that point he had slid into successful mediocrity.
James had in his youth kept his eye on prosperity, it is true, but in 1874 the main chance involved no obvious artistic compromise. After James O'Neill's success with McVicker's, Richard Hooley, J. H. McVicker's chief competitor in Chicago, offered James the chance to form a Shakespearean repertory company that would play in Hooley's Opera House and would also tour. In 1875, when Hooley's company went to San Francisco, James went with them. James's star was still rising, and it continued to do so for several years.
When James moved to Chicago in 1872, Nettie Walsh remained in Cleveland, but she visited James from time to time. In the meantime, James was becoming romantically involved with a respected married actress, Louise Hawthorne, who was noted for performances of great intensity and for a disfiguring scar that marked one side of her face from chin to temple. The scar was popularly believed to intensify the depth of her performances. James brought Louise into the repertory company he formed for Hooley and took her to San Francisco with him.
Before the move west, Nettie Walsh visited James in Chicago for a stormy reunion. As James became involved with Louise Hawthorne, and as his celebrity increased, his patience with Nettie diminished. Problems came to a head in 1874 when she demanded support for her son, whom she called Alfred Hamilton O'Neill. According to Alexander (1962, 7-8) James offered to raise the child himself, if it was his, but on the condition that Nettie renounce any claim to the boy or to him. She refused, and James must have hoped it was the last he would hear of her. She returned to Cleveland, where she was living with a man called Alfred Seaman. At some point she began calling herself Mrs. James O'Neill. In letters she pressed James for money.
In 1875 Louise Hawthorne went to San Francisco with James and the Hooley Shakespearean players, and she remained with him over the next winter. In San Francisco and on tours, James's fame continued to spread; he was now known widely as a leader among his generation of actors. Early in 1876 James was offered the chance to move, in October, to New York, to join A. H. Palmer's respected stock company, which performed at the Union Square Theatre. James's feelings for Louise Hawthorne were apparently cooling, although she remained ardent. She returned to Chicago, while James remained in San Francisco; when James returned to Chicago, she watched him perform on June 27. James, who was staying at the same hotel as Louise, the Tremont House, said later that he had visited Louise in her room that night. He was apparently the last person to see her alive. It has been assumed that at their last meeting he confirmed what she already knew, that he wanted their affair to end. She fell that night from the window of her sixth-floor room, and although her death was ruled accidental, rumor thereafter held that she had killed herself for love of James O'Neill.
Louise Hawthorne's death must have greatly shaken James. Everything we know about him suggests that guilt was for James as deep and inescapable as fear of the poorhouse, and guilt and dread were intertwined: nemesis and retribution. His sense of metaphysical justice told him that Fortune's wheel would reclaim all it had allowed him to gain and would return him to the slums.
Throughout his life, in adversity or public conflict James would deny all and put the best face on things, whether in conversation with intimates or in interviews with the public press. But denial solved a problem only for the moment. James brooded ever after in private. He hid his guilt from others, whether he felt it for real misdeeds or injurious wishes; but he could never rid himself of old remorse. If he could explain to himself that Louise Hawthorne's death was consistent with the pattern of her life, he could probably never fully convince himself.
So it must have been also with Nettie Walsh's demands. Knowing of her other lovers, he would have believed it foolish to acknowledge the boy she said was his. Yet his offer to raise the child implies that he could not feel much conviction in denying her claim. As with most things throughout his offstage life, he did a bit of this and a bit of the other, shifting from remorse to denial to self-justification before finally half doing something impulsive and kind.
In Chicago and San Francisco, James in his late twenties must have felt himself the envy of men: the lover of a celebrated married actress who traveled with him across the continent; pursued by another mistress, who traveled from Cleveland to Chicago for a touch of his hand. Other conquests may have lingered in his memory and fantasies. He was idolized by schoolgirls all over the country; brought from convents to see him perform, the girls waited afterward to hear a word or catch a smile. But he could never escape the sense that nemesis and retribution awaited. With Louise Hawthorne's death Fortune's wheel turned a little.
Such were apparently James's state of mind and circumstances when, in October 1876, he moved to begin his New York engagement at Palmer's Union Square Theatre.
During the time James had lived in Cleveland, he had become friendly with Thomas Quinlan, one of whose enterprises was a tobacco and liquor shop that attracted a theatrical trade. Thomas was about twelve years older than the twenty-four-year-old actor, but both were immigrant Irish and self-made men. James could only admire Thomas as an example of the success he himself sought. Thomas, for his part, liked the young actor well enough to bring him to his home. In the Quinlan household, the children enjoyed a prolonged dependency, a luxury neither Thomas nor James could fully understand, even though each created such conditions for his own children.
If Thomas knew that James was living with a very young actress, probably no hint would have been given to the Quinlan children. James's manners and charm were all that the Quinlan children needed to know of him. They were sheltered but they were not uninformed. They knew that James was an actor, and no further caution would have been needed. Thomas must have prided himself that the prosperity and position he had worked for had brought his family safety and sophistication.
When the Quinlans arrived in Cleveland, they lived over a store on Ontario Street, where Thomas sold books, stationer's supplies, magazines and newspapers, baked goods, and sweets. Bridget Lundigan Quinlan seems to have been several years older than her husband, and an executor of discipline and common sense in the household. William Joseph Dominick Quinlan, Ella's younger brother, was born in 1858, probably after the move to Cleveland. In 1868 Thomas became manager of circulation for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The position, and the profit from his other enterprises, allowed him to move his family into a fine house at 208 Woodland Avenue and furnish it with luxuries that included a library and the piano. In the boom that followed the Civil War he made lucky investments in real estate, and he and a partner opened Quinlan and Spirnaugle, the liquor and tobacco shop through which he met James O'Neill. An open, accessible man who didn't drink at all but enjoyed being with friends who did, Quinlan was popular with church and commercial leaders. He read widely and liked to talk about the books he read. He made friends with many of his customers, and he and the young James O'Neill must have felt they had many things in common. Like Thomas, James was clearly on the path to success. It must have pleased Thomas to bring the unassuming and charming young man to meet the Quinlan family, to see the fine home a hard-working immigrant could make in a baker's dozen of years. The visits probably began in the fall of 1871, because Mary Ellen was apparently fourteen when she first met James; late that fall she went to South Bend to boarding school.
James must have noticed the young Quinlan daughter. A school friend, Lillie West, later remembered her as "a tall, superb creature with a kind of burnt-gold hair in profusion and deep brown eyes" (Alexander 1962, 5). A photograph taken about the time of her marriage shows a slim girl who looks much younger than her age. She has the dark eyes and abundant hair that Lillie West mentioned. Something unsettled in the line of the mouth suggests shyness and the mobile features of one who has not learned to pose or to hide her feelings. Her face is oval; she has a long brow and straight nose, high cheekbones, and a short upper lip. The picture hints at an innocent flirtation with the photographer. In Long Day's Journey, Mary Tyrone's husband recalled his wife as a schoolgirl as "a bit of a rogue and a coquette."
Above all, the picture shows girlishness and immaturity. Lillie West said that "Ella Quinlan ... was almost a child when she married O'Neill" (Alexander 1962, 9). Biographers have found nothing to contradict the impression. The Gelbs wrote of the young Mary Ellen: "No trace of the rugged adaptability that had brought her parents from Ireland could be found in her pliant personality or in her delicate features" (13). Even more than her beauty, James would have seen and been touched by an innocence that betokened her upbringing in a gentle world in which the young were not thrust into workhouses but sheltered, a world to which he, like Thomas, could aspire as a newcomer. The innocence also implied a lack of internal resources, which made frustrations hard to bear and would leave her vulnerable, years later, to recurring morphine addiction. But the dangers of her immaturity would not have been evident to James in 1877 when he married her.
He would have seen in her a child who was incomparably less worldly than Nettie Walsh. From James's point of view, Ella knew nothing of "reality"and so much the better! To James, reality was hardship and the threat of returning to the slums.
For her part, Ella might have said that James knew nothing of reality. That was the force of Ella's repeated complaints throughout her marriage that her husband would not buy the home she wanted and indeed had no idea what a home was. Her manners and sense of society referred to a world of family, school, and friends, a reality that pushed James's to the margins. Ella's middle-class manners and sheltered self-assurance would not have permitted her to show that she knew James did not understand her world, if she indeed did know it. James surely respected the middle class and aspired to join it, and yet he must simultaneously have thought its assumptions about reality to be those of an inspirational tale for children.
Neither James's nor Ella's version of reality was adequate for living in a time of change; nor was any better theory of the world available to them. The conflicting visions of reality of Mary Ellen Quinlan and James O'Neill came close to typifying the split views of the world that resulted in the political, social, and philosophical revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their cosmological incompatibility made for an anxious marriage. At the level of dramatic art, their youngest son would make the marriage stand, in Long Day's Journey into Night, for the most intense crises of the Age of Anxiety. That was all in the future, however. Meanwhile, James, a guest in the Cleveland home of Thomas Quinlan, gently won Ella with the same charm and kindly condescension that had conquered the theater-going public.
When they first met, Ella lived in her father's house and had not yet begun boarding school. James may have been a frequent visitor in the Quinlan home, but he probably did not see Ella often or converse with her intimately, and he would have been unlikely to consider himself her suitor. Ella would have been an unusual schoolgirl if she had not developed a crush on James, a safe enough attachment, given that he was her father's friend. Not long after the first meeting, Thomas sent Ella to boarding school in South Bend, Indiana, half a day's train trip west of Cleveland.
The renowned St. Mary's Academy was one of the finest convent schools in the Middle West. Not yet accredited as a college, St. Mary's offered higher education for young women when it was still uncommon. Non-Catholic as well as Catholic families, including the parents of Ella's friend Ella Nirdlinger, sent their daughters to South Bend. Ella Nirdlinger's son George Jean Nathan became an important theater critic, one of Eugene O'Neill's first advocates and a lifelong friend, as his mother had been to Ella Quinlan O'Neill. J. H. McVicker had sent his daughter Mary there to school a few years earlier (she would later marry Edwin Booth, go mad, and die young). Lillie West, Ella's seatmate and confidante at Saint Mary's, went on to become, under the pen name of Amy Leslie, a respected theater reviewer for a Chicago newspaper. Ella Quinlan maintained until her death epistolary friendships with Ella Nirdlinger, Lillie West, and several other women she had met at St. Mary's. Although she was not so friendless as Mary Tyrone complains she is in Long Day's Journey into Night, Ella O'Neill must often have felt very lonely.
Students at St. Mary's in Ella's time received a broad Catholic education ranging from catechism to general history, mental philosophy, trigonometry, French, geology, and astronomy. Ella had a special talent for music (a gift that her son Eugene would inherit), and her father arranged for piano lessons, over and above her regular studies at the conservatory of music. She studied with Mother Elizabeth Lilly, a descendant of George Arnold, who was organist to Elizabeth I. A cultivated and sophisticated English widow, she had converted and come to America, where she founded an instructional program in music that continued at St. Mary's for a century.
Inspired by Mother Elizabeth, Lillie West imagined going on the stage in light opera; Ella Quinlan decided that she would become either a nun or a concert pianist. From the standpoint of talent, Ella's aspiration may not have been unrealistic, for she graduated with the gold medal in music and played a Chopin polonaise at commencement. But her aspiration to be a nun or a professional musician raised other questions, which also intrigued her son.
Throughout Long Days' Journey into Night Mary Tyrone speaks with adoration of Mother Elizabeth. Late in act 4 O'Neill has her say, "It may be sinful of me but I love her better than my own mother." Long Day's Journey gives us an exceptionally full and complex interpretation of Ella O'Neill, but one of the most striking aspects of the portrait is that it shows Mary Tyrone almost entirely ignoring her mother. If a usual thing is absent, the absence may have meaning. Assuming that O'Neill's representation is accurate, a possible explanation is that Ella had never made a significant differentiation from her mother but remained psychologically identified, herself in a dependent role. The wish to be either a concert pianist or a nun implies that Ella made an adoring identification with Mother Elizabeth. She seems to have abandoned her music after she graduated, and it seems clear that she lacked the single-minded drive and commitment required for a career as a professional musician.
The identification with Mother Elizabeth also implies something unsettled in her feelings toward her own mother, a reluctance to be like her mother, which at the time meant making her own home and having and rearing children. Discomfort at the thought of following in her mother's footsteps implies a struggle to find her own identity. To find it, she would have to separate her self-image from her internal image of her mother and abandon or at least come to terms with a wish never to have to leave the protected state of childhood. It was a change she would have to make in order to become the protector of her own children. The struggle to find oneself is a nearly universal problem for adolescents who have enjoyed a prolonged dependency. The dependency and lack of separation from her mother might eventually have been outgrown in the ordinary course of things. But circumstance interfered with the ordinary.
Ella went to St. Mary's in the fall of 1872 and returned each fall until she graduated in June 1875; she spent summers and holidays at home in Cleveland. Circumstances were not the same when she returned in June 1873. Her father, previously a teetotaler, had begun drinking, and his health had taken a turn for the worse. By the summer or fall of 1873 he probably already had a rapidly developing case of consumption. Ella returned to St. Mary's in September, and on the following May 25, her father, aged forty, suddenly died. She never recovered from the loss.
Ella went home to Cleveland for the funeral and did not return to the convent until fall. Like many a young person overwhelmed by a loss, Ella probably did not often show grief, but there must have been times when denial failed and she felt lost or angry or overwhelmed or all of these at once. School friends may have felt uncomfortable about her loss and confused about how to act with her. Judging by patterns of the next two years, Ella and her mother spent a good deal of money; shopping was a specific against sorrow. A few days after the funeral, the family heard Thomas's will.
Thomas Quinlan had made his will in autumn 1872, just after Ella went off to college. To his son he left his books, and to his daughter the piano. The rest, money and property, was to be his wife's, unless and until she remarried, at which point it would be divided between his children. The will stipulated that the children should have every chance to finish their education, and the wish was observed. In autumn, Ella returned to South Bend for her final year at St. Mary's.
Quinlan added a final statement to his will which indicated his awareness that his children were far less prepared for life than he had been at their ages. He admonished them "that they each of them shall use the talents which they possess and the education which they may acquire to earn for themselves when they arrive at an age proper for them to do so an honest, honorable and independent livelihood, not relying upon their mother nor upon such share of the property as may descend to each after her demise nor before then" (Gelbs, 15). Thomas need not have worried about his son Joseph, who eventually prospered; at his death in 1911 he left his sister a sizable estate.
As for Ella, Thomas may have been so smitten with her musical gifts that he believed she might support herself with a career in music, but it is hard to guess what career she might actually have made. Perhaps he thought she might become a teacher, like Mother Elizabeth, and conceivably one aspect of Ella's wish to be a nun was a desire to teach music. If so, none of her son Eugene's portraits of his mother suggest that she might have expressed such a thought. As for her becoming a concert pianist, Thomas Quinlan, the friend of traveling actors, knew well how rough that life was, and how little his daughter was prepared for so strenuous a career.
Ella must have felt lost indeed when she thought about her father's death. Living without her father's love at the center of her emotional life must have been unimaginable, even without the injunction that she become self-supporting. Among the reactions that were psychologically possible for her, one we might consider was presented dramatically much later by her son in several characters whom biographers and critics believe are based on his mother. Characters such as Emma Crosby in Diff'rent, Ella Downey in All God's Chillun Got Wings, and Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night evince a striking ability to alter what they perceive as real when reality is unbearable.
A brief scene in Long Day's Journey shows Mary refusing to accept that her son Edmund is seriously ill, and creating alternate realities for herself, changing from moment to moment, to escape what the others consider real. Late in act 2, scene 1, Mary notices a drinking glass near Edmund and asks him sharply:
Why is that glass there? Did you take a drink? Oh, how can you be such a fool? Don't you know it's the worst thing? (She turns to Tyrone.) You're to blame, James. How could you let him? Do you want to kill him? Don't you remember my father? He wouldn't stop after he was stricken. He said doctors were fools! He thought, like you, that whisky is a good tonic. (A look of terror comes into her eyes and she stammers.) But, of course, there's no comparison at all. I don't know why IForgive me for scolding you, James. One small drink won't hurt Edmund. It might be good for him, if it gives him an appetite. (She pats Edmund's cheek playfully, the strange detachment again in her manner. He jerks his head away. She seems not to notice, but she moves instinctively away.)
The behavior attributed to Mary seems so improbable, so self-contradictory, and so specific, that it is hard not to take it seriously as an attempt to represent something the author believed he had seen. It also makes sense, considered psychologically. In this brief episode Mary tries to balance her dread that her youngest son Edmund might have tuberculosis against the need to deny that T.B. killed her father, and more importantly, to deny that her father is dead at all. Such episodes occur throughout the play. Near the end of act 3 Edmund tries to tell his mother that the doctor has confirmed that he does indeed have consumption. Mary rails against doctors, claims that they make you an addict and then force you to beg for the drug or go crazy, and finally scolds Edmund for being melodramaticall in the service of not letting him say aloud what all the Tyrones already know. In despair he tries to make her listen to him: "People do die of it. Your own father" Mary interrupts him: "Why do you mention him? There's no comparison at all with you. He had consumption."
It is a shocking moment; in performances, the remark usually stops everything, onstage or in the audience. Nothing that we ever learn about Mary Tyrone or Ella O'Neill suggests that either would consciously or deliberately be so cruel. Mary is certainly not lying or deliberately falsifying. The only remaining explanation is that for the instant she has no idea at all how such a remark might affect Edmund. Apparently, she has no other resource for protecting herself against pain than denial, and because it does not work very well, it forces her to evacuate the world she finds herself in and move to one less painful. When she thinks of her father, she no longer recalls the world in which Edmund can be hurt by casual cruelty.
It does not seem far-fetched to assume that what was the case for the adult was also true when Ella was seventeen. She would not have been unusual for an adolescent if she met painful circumstances with her gift to re-create the world; not merely to deny pain and its cause, but to abolish the whole world in which it existed and substitute a more pleasant one in its place.
In the fall Ella returned to St. Mary's, and her friends record no striking change in her personality such as might reflect a loss she would never get over. She seems to have denied the loss of her father altogether. She graduated with honors the next June, received the gold medal for music, and performed her polonaise. So ended the portion of her life that would ever after be the world to which she retired when the here and now became unbearable.
Little is known of the summer and fall that Ella spent after she returned to Cleveland from the convent. After Thomas died, Bridget Quinlan no longer cared to remain in Cleveland. Ella, away from the ordered life at the convent and separated from the order her father represented, must have felt at loose ends. Up until then her life had been organized around gaining the readily available approval of her father and Mother Elizabeth.
Ella probably continued with her music, but there was no one in particular left to please, and nothing indicates that she sought a teacher who might have prepared her for the concert stage. Unable then as later to set goals of her own, and lacking direction or any real ambition to take up a career, her life would have seemed empty. The family had relatives in the Eastin New Haven, New London, and New York. In the fall Bridget and Ella decided to move to New York, and there they went early in 1876. The Gelbs report a series of large checks drawn on the Quinlan estate that testify to the style in which Bridget and Ella established themselves (Gelbs, 16). Bridget now controlled a sizable fortune.
Biographers have written that Ella persuaded her mother to move to New York because James O'Neill had gone there; but in fact, she and her mother were already there when James, who was working in San Francisco, was offered his position with Palmer's repertory company. If they had heard anything of James, it would have been scandalous rumors of the suicide of Louise Hawthorne, or the accusations of Nettie Walsh. In all likelihood they heard nothing at all, occupied as they were by their personal losses and the bustle of settling affairs in Cleveland and moving.
When James arrived the following autumn, Ella remembered him and arranged for someone to take her to his play. Afterward, she had herself escorted to his dressing room, and the two renewed their acquaintance; the former schoolgirl was now a "tall, superb creature," and the former provincial leading man was thirty and a leading man on a New York stage. By all accounts, they fell in love at once and were soon engaged.
The vast differences between the actor and the convent girl were obscured at the renewal of their acquaintance. Circumstances had put each of them in a prime situation to be drawn toward marriage with the other. Ella saw a man handsome, charming, and successful, the idol of a million schoolgirls, and her father's friend. Like her father, James adored her. By marrying James, she could sidestep mourning; she could avoid acknowledging that her father was permanently lost to her, and she could expect to restore to her life the structure and order she had felt in her father's home and then the convent.
James had reasons as compelling as Ella's to be drawn toward marriage now. Strongly sexual and needing more than prostitutes or casual flings, dreading loss and abandonment himself, he had chosen women who were decidedly clinging. Nettie Walsh could not let their affair end but pursued him shamelessly and caused a scandal; and Louise met a terrible death after James ended their affair. James had found women damaged by fate; to his conscience, it must have seemed that though he had not abused them, he had seized the opportunity to play at marriage with them while trying to avoid the full consequences; and he had come away from his ventures full of guilt and chagrin.
To remorse new worries were now added. The New York theater critics did not find him an effective actor. His beauty and voice did not impress them, and they complained that he did not match his style to the parts he played. If he thought he had mastered the art of acting, he had to think again. It was a warning never to take success for granted, and it fit with the need he felt to change the way he lived his life. Ella, daughter of the prosperous and successful Thomas, knew advantages of background unimaginable to Nettie or Louise, which showed in her charming self-assurance. James must have assumed she had inherited the strength and resilience that had carried her parents to success. He must have been certain that marrying Ella would bring him the middle-class stability he envied. He surely expected that with her musical gift and her Irish blood, she could respect his art and survive the rigors of being an actor's wife. In marrying Ella, he must have felt he was bringing his personal life into harmony with the success he was reaching for in his career. With his decision to marry, James prepared himself to enter his prime.
On the whole, Long Day's Journey into Night is accurate in matters of fact about the author's parents' lives. Eugene apparently intended to work from the facts as he knew them to discover whatever understanding might emerge from unconscious thoughts and feelings as a consequence of re-creating habitual family patterns. There is, however, a cluster of interesting inconsistencies between facts about the senior O'Neills and dramatic facts about the Tyrones. In act 3 Mary Tyrone tells the servant, Cathleen, of her meeting with James Tyrone. As Mary describes it, she was at the convent when her father wrote to say that he had met the famous James Tyrone, whom all the other girls at the convent used to rave about, and that when she came home from school, her father would take her to meet him. And he did; he took her to a play about the French Revolution; she cried and was afraid her eyes would be red when her father took her backstage to meet the actor.
As we know from a private autobiographical document that O'Neill wrote for his own psychotherapeutic use about 1926, Eugene believed that his mother's father was still alive in the early years of the marriage. Eugene continued in this belief in 1940, when he wrote Long Day's Journey, and he apparently never learned that his grandfather had actually died in 1874.
The error is interesting, because until the end of his life Eugene was known for having nearly total recall. One must infer that he frequently heard his mother speak of her father as still alive at the time she married, and never heard any other information about his grandfather's death. The mistaken fact implied an important psychological reality for his mother: that her father had not died before she married but in fact had introduced her to her husband and bought her wedding dress.
Late in act 3 Mary reminds her husband about the wedding and her dress. "My father told me to buy anything I wanted and never mind what it cost. The best is none too good, he said. I'm afraid he spoiled me dreadfully."
Thomas Quinlan might well have indulged his daughter had he still been alive, but it was Bridget Quinlan who wrote a check for a thousand dollars for Ella's trousseau (Gelbs, 38), a sum that in 1877 would have bought a good house. Assuming that Eugene recorded what he had heard, many questions arise, including this one: Did Ella recall the details accurately and yet deliberately tailor them to reflect her adoration of her father and condescension toward her mother? Or did she rearrange unconsciously? Perhaps there was a bit of each. Following this hypothetical line of reasoning, let us assume that, if pressed, Ella could probably have forced herself to remember that her father had actually died three years before she married James O'Neill. But in a certain way, Ella's distortion tells the real truth of her world: that her father never did die, that if her mother wrote the check, it was still her father who had wanted nothing but the best for her and who had earned the money that bought the dress. By marrying James O'Neill, Ella kept Thomas Quinlan eternally alive and postponed forever acknowledging her loss.
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( Margaret Loftus Ranald, president, Eugene O'Neill Society)
Meet the Author
Stephen A. Black is professor of English at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, and a trained psychoanalytic therapist.
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