Eugene O'Neill's America: Desire under Democracy

Eugene O'Neill's America: Desire under Democracy

by John Patrick Diggins


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In the face of seemingly relentless American optimism, Eugene O’Neill's plays reveal an America many would like to ignore, a place of seething resentments, aching desires, and family tragedy, where failure and disappointment are the norm and the American dream a chimera. Though derided by critics during his lifetime, his works resonated with audiences, won him the Nobel Prize and four Pulitzer, and continue to grip theatergoers today. Now noted historian John Patrick Diggins offers a masterly biography that both traces O’Neill’s tumultuous life and explains the forceful ideas that form the heart of his unflinching works.

Diggins paints a richly detailed portrait of the playwright’s life, from his Irish roots and his early years at sea to his relationships with his troubled mother and brother. Here we see O’Neill as a young Greenwich Village radical, a ravenous autodidact who attempted to understand the disjunction between the sunny public face of American life and the rage that he knew was simmering beneath. According to Diggins, O’Neill mined this disjunction like no other American writer. His characters burn with longing for an idealized future composed of equal parts material success and individual freedom, but repeatedly they fall back to earth, pulled by the tendrils of family and the insatiability of desire. Drawing on thinkers from Emerson to Nietzsche, O’Neill viewed this endlessly frustrated desire as the problematic core of American democracy, simultaneously driving and undermining American ideals of progress, success, and individual freedom.

Melding a penetrating assessment of O’Neill’s works and thought with a sensitive re-creation of his life, Eugene O’Neill’s America offers a striking new view of America’s greatest playwright—and a new picture of American democracy itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226148809
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/28/2007
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

John Patrick Diggins is Distinguished Professor in the PhD Program at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Meaning of History.

Read an Excerpt

By John Patrick Diggins
The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-14880-9

Chapter One The Misery of the Misbegotten


The story of Eugene O'Neill's ancestry and that of his immediate family suggests how the emotion of desire could arise from the experience of desolation. The Irish came to America determined not to talk about the conditions that drove them from their home country. Family members knew that the past left an unspoken trauma on their lives, and when O'Neill's father James for once tried to break through and talk about the awful ordeals faced by his mother, the story of grief might almost have served as the beginning of healing. It was not to be. The O'Neill family carried the "curse of the misbegotten" to the grave. Reflecting on his decision to give up Shakespeare to earn a fortune acting in the popular theater, James continually asked himself, "What was it I wanted?" Material success proved inadequate to satisfy a deeper spiritual longing. Each O'Neill family member knew, in different ways, the meaning of unfulfilled desire, and each knew that in a competitive democracy frustrated desire only "harasses and wearies the mind" (Tocqueville).

* * *

"The critics have missed the most important thing about me and my work," Eugene O'Neill remarked to his son, Eugene Jr., in 1946: "the fact that I am Irish." The playwright took pride in his Irish ancestry and often would remind friends that in Gaelic the name O'Neill meant "champion." He suggested to the novelist James T. Farrell that he read Sean O'Faolain's The Great O'Neill, a historical biography of Hugh O'Neill, the legendary Gaelic chief who ruled northern Ulster in the Elizabethan age.

A far different matter troubled Eugene Jr. Why had his younger stepbrother, Shane O'Neill, become so alienated from their father, the eminent playwright? Was Shane following in the father's footsteps, as though the O'Neill family carried a genetic curse? Responding to his son's concern, O'Neill denied any such pattern:

There was no other influence pulling me away from my father. My family's quarrels and tragedy were within. To the outer world we maintained an indomitably united front and lied and lied for each other. A typical pure Irish family. The same loyalty occurs, of course, in all kinds of families, but there is, I think, among Irish still close to, or born in Ireland, a strange mixture of fight and hate and forgive, a clannish pride before the world, that is particularly its own.

O'Neill went on to blame Shane's difficulties on his ex-wife Agnes Boulton, who allegedly used the substantial alimony she received from O'Neill to spoil the son. Shane the dropout and drifter was an embarrassment to O'Neill, and he explained to Eugene Jr. that his stepbrother had none of the "clannish pride" of the Irish:

There is nothing like that in Shane's past. He has a background all torn apart, without inner or outer decency, the Boulton background-a laziness, a grafting, in which nothing is ever finished, a slow decay, spite, unscrupulousness, envy, ridiculous social aspirations, a hatred of anyone who succeeds. Bohemianism at its nasty silliest.

To attribute fault and blame, such would be the hell that was the O'Neill family, a "strange mixture of fight and hate and forgive." Shane would go from alcohol to marijuana to morphine to heroin, and when not arrested as a junkie, was in and out of mental hospitals. Shane's plight brought back memories of O'Neill's own mother and her addiction years earlier. The other son, Eugene Jr., would start drinking heavily in the late forties, lose his professorship at Princeton, show up to a television show disheveled and incoherent, and commit suicide in 1950, a dreaded destiny that also awaited son Shane. The fate of the sons could not help but remind O'Neill of his old friend Terry Carlin, the Greenwich Village anarchist and mystic who, hoping to initiate O'Neill into Eastern religion, urged him to read The Path to the Light and absorb the advice "Desire only that which is in you. Desire only that which is beyond you. Desire only that which is unattainable." Carlin, too, represented "Bohemianism at its nasty silliest," the Dionysian figure wild and furious rebelling against all reason and limitation. At one time handsome, talented, and witty, Carlin wasted his life away and ended up the model for one of the derelicts in The Iceman Cometh. So many people in O'Neill's life, consumed by desires that could be put out of mind only by drink or drugs, allowed their memory to destroy them. Only the human species permits itself to be tortured by the past, Nietzsche observed in The Genealogy of Morals. "A thing is branded on the memory to make it stay there; only what goes on hurting will stick."

O'Neill's Irish background carried as much pain as pride. As with many Irish immigrants of the nineteenth century, the older O'Neill family was haunted by memories of the potato famine of the 1840s, and like other Irish Americans, the father James O'Neill saw the Irish as victims of British policy and all but defeated and dispossessed by history. The Irish immigrant experience is portrayed in all its poignant truth in O'Neill's autobiographical Long Day's Journey into Night. In recounting his childhood to his son Edmund, father Tyrone recalls:

My mother was left, a stranger in a strange land, with four small children, me and a sister a little older and two younger than me. My two older brothers had moved to other parts. They couldn't help. They were hard put to keep themselves alive. There was no damned romance in our poverty. Twice we were evicted from the miserable hovel we called home, with my mother's few sticks of furniture thrown out in the street, and my mother and sisters crying. I cried, too, though I tried hard not to, because I was the man of the family. At ten years old! There was no more school for me. I worked twelve hours a day in a machine shop, learning to make files. A dirty barn of a place where rain dripped through the roof, where you roasted in summer, and there was no stove in winter, and your hands got numb with cold, where only the light came through two small filthy windows, so on grey days I'd have to sit bent over with my eyes almost touching the files in order to see! You talk of work! And what do you think I got for it? Fifty cents a week! ... And my poor mother washed and scrubbed for the Yanks by the day, and my sister sewed.... We never had clothes enough to wear, nor enough food to eat. Well I remember one Thanksgiving, or maybe it was Christmas, when some Yank in whose house mother had been scrubbing gave her a dollar extra for a present, and on the way home she spent it all on food. I can remember her hugging and kissing us and saying with tears of joy running down her tired face: "Glory be to God, for once in our lives we'll have enough for each of us!" (He wipes tears from his eyes.) A fine, brave, sweet woman. There never was a braver or finer.

Edmund agrees with his father that his mother was a rare miracle. After the father continues to recall his hardships-forever keeping the wolf from the door, investing in land rather than in unreliable banks, giving up a promising acting career in high culture out of fear of ending up back in the poorhouse-the son replies, "I'm glad you've told me this, Papa. I know you a lot better now."

Occasionally young O'Neill himself could feel such compassion toward his father. But in the autobiographical play, the father, named James Tyrone, comes off as a tightwad. The audience sees him standing on a chair unscrewing a lightbulb to save on the electricity bill, yet his stinginess seems understandable in view of the deprivations of his childhood. For the most part, however, the son remained unforgiving toward the father. James O'Neill behaved badly when he seemed reluctant to find the best medical care for his wife, and he also preferred to send his son to a state sanitarium to be treated for tuberculosis rather than to a private hospital. Above all, the father seemed to have embodied something that went wrong with America itself. Having to eke out an existence of brute struggle and bare sustenance, the father somehow managed to study acting, and when he rose to fame in the American theater in the 1870s, he played alongside Edwin Booth and alternated the roles of Brutus and Cassius, Iago and Othello. But from young Eugene's point of view, the fall from grace came in the following decade, when O'Neill senior made the momentous decision to forsake becoming America's most important Shakespearean actor in order to take on the lead role in The Count of Monte Cristo. The father, tall and handsome, performed almost nightly in that role for a quarter-century, making a fortune and at the same time sacrificing a reputation. He knew what he had done to himself. "I lost the talent I once had through years of easy repetition."

A matinee idol, James performed Monte Cristo thousands of times throughout the country, often taking his family on the road. Occasionally young O'Neill and his brother would play minor characters or work the props, and the budding playwright would come to hate the swashbuckling grandiloquence of the theater of that era. Yet some of that tradition would turn up in several of O'Neill's early plays, stagy with their histrionic characters, hyperbolic speech, and mannered affectations.

The family affected the playwright in many ways. Fear of poverty led O'Neill's father to seek financial security. To young O'Neill, however, the father's behavior could only be lamented for preferring fortune to fame. Hence the family, particularly as headed by his father James O'Neill, becomes much like the story of American history itself. The father's "selling out" could be seen as symptomatic of the country's own yielding of its convictions for the sake of comfort. The study of the family bears many similarities to the study of history. We are born into our family, and we have no choice of who or what our parents are. History, the weight of the past, is inherited without the consent of the inheritors, and a country that once started out with the youthful high hopes of the colonial era continues to succumb to the compromises of maturity based upon old fears of scarcity. O'Neill's father made decisions based on felt needs, and the country too would see itself responding to need, as though the realm of necessity could never pass over into the realm of freedom. And freedom seems to express itself, to use Santayana's formulation, in wanting what we want rather than in being who we are. O'Neill sees America as a study in declension. The emotion of desire may have once had the potential for having a romantic or even a spiritual object, but historically it becomes lost to economics and the idolization of wealth. The father O'Neill only knew he wanted to make money, but he could not remember why or what he wanted to do with it.

The idea of tragedy in O'Neill is Hegelian as well as classical, not simply a fatal flaw of character or right against wrong but the conflict of right against right. Abraham Lincoln knew well the meaning of this form of tragedy during the Civil War, when saving the Union could have entailed sacrificing the cause of black emancipation. It was right that the Union be preserved and right that black Americans be freed. In the case of O'Neill's father, and of American history itself, the forsaking of earlier ideals to achieve material well-being could be justified as a rags-to-riches success story that helped bring the country into the world of modernity. But young O'Neill felt justified in protesting a country too willing to settle for less than the imagination demanded of history. One recalls the romantic imagination evoked in the conclusion of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. We are asked to ponder what America might have been like when the Dutch sailed up the Hudson River and saw the "fresh green breast of the New World," and "for a transitory and enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." Fitzgerald's American Dream lived on in the remote past, perhaps more imagined than real. To O'Neill, the promise of American life had been compromised from the very beginning, with the first landing of Spaniards, who spoke of God while searching for gold. He would hardly be enchanted by Fitzgerald's Dutch sailors. O'Neill's seventeenth-century explorers to the New World brought the sins of the Old World with them. On the playwright's stage prowled the specter of corruption.


O'Neill's troubled emotions remained with him almost from birth to death, as though he entered the world as a crime and left it with a curse. And his struggles with his self took place in the family before O'Neill perceived the tragic character of American history. Leo Tolstoi instructed us to look not to the normalcy of everyday life, where all happy families are the same, but to the sad spectacle of unhappy families, where each family is uniquely unhappy in its own way. Democracy may offer the possibility of freedom, but domesticity is often the setting for what an O'Neill character called "the idealistic fallacy," the commandment to be good even if it meant the suffocation of the self.

Why did O'Neill feel that the most important fact about himself was his Irish nationality and ethnic identity? The immigration experience seemed to have remained in his genes. James O'Neill was born in County Kilkenny in Ireland, and in 1849, at the age of five, he came to America. Many of his people who arrived in the nineteenth century saw themselves as exiles, and one historian has described the Irish as "the most homesick of all the immigrants." Longing for the old country, the Irish looked upon America as the country in which they could reach levels of achievement but only at the cost of betraying their original identity. After several generations many Irish exiles surmounted poverty and prejudice to achieve status and respectability and even assimilation. But for some Americanization seemed the result of compulsion rather than decision, and the Irish-American mentality remained torn between pride and self-pity. As late as 1900, Irish-American Catholic neighborhoods were still marked by what a historian has called a "self-indulgent community morbidity." The journals of immigrants sag with anguish and insecurity, and fathers would remind sons of what O'Neill senior called "the value of the dollar and the fear of the poorhouse." Success seldom brought ease and confidence, and the Irish character was often "ravaged by an alcoholism born of crippling self-doubt."

Eugene O'Neill, skeptical that there would be any place he truly belonged, bore the burden of the Irish immigrant experience in yet more personal terms. To Yankee Americans the availability of land represented the great promise of American life, and private property became synonymous with political liberty. Yet in O'Neill's plays, property becomes either a matter of deprivation or desperation, a plot of land from which a family is about to be evicted (Moon for the Misbegotten) or a farm that the sons cannot wait to seize from the father (Desire Under the Elms). Doubts that one could ever enjoy property accompanied the arriving Irish immigrants, driven off the land in the old country.


Excerpted from Eugene O'Neill's America by John Patrick Diggins Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgements

Introduction: Knowers Unknown to Ourselves

1.  The Misery of the Misbegotten
2.  The Playwright as Thinker
3.  Anarchism: The Politics of the "Long Lonliness"
4.  Beginnings of American History
5.  "Lust for Possession"
6.  Possessed and Self-dispossessed
7.  "Is You a Nigger, Nigger?"
8.  "The Merest Sham": Women and Marriage
9.  Religion and the Death of Death
10. "The Greek Dream in Tragedy Is the Noblest Ever"
11. Waiting for Hickey

Conclusion: The Theater as Temple


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