It wouldn’t be a stretch to call O’Neill the most influential, interesting, and significant figure in the history of American theater. He never reached Day’s sanctified heights; indeed, he definitively rejected doctrinal Catholicism. But like the wayward soul in Thompson’s poem, he never entirely lost touch with the faith’s imagination. In their themes, language, and imagery, his great plays manifest a Christian sensibility that makes O’Neill the father not just of American theater, but of all American Catholic dramatists. It forms the very structure of The Iceman Cometh, an architectonic thesis play with every line a brick that buttresses the central idea. Catholicism holds as its core doctrine that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection liberate man from sin and restore him to fullness of life with God. O’Neill applies this paradigm in his play, then totally subverts it. He creates a phenomenological life world onstage – Harry Hope’s skid row saloon in Manhattan – complete unto itself, and populates it with barflies, whores, and bums. They stand for all humanity, enabling each other’s pipe dreams with booze and mutually affirmed lying pacts. Into this pathetic scene invades Hickey, a traveling salesman whose annual bender at the bar the others eagerly anticipate. But this time he arrives changed, sobered up and preaching a Gospel of inner peace through a confrontation with the pipe dreams the rest cling to. His own experience has taught him that “they’re the things that really poison and ruin a guy’s life and keep him from finding any peace,” he explains to them. “And the cure for them is so damned simple, once you have the nerve...Just stop lying about yourself and kidding yourself about tomorrows.” The cause of his conversion, he reveals, is the murder of his wife, which woke him up to the truth of his dissipated life.
|Jason Robards as Hickey in Iceman|
Something does lie beyond them, though, in Long Day’s Journey, and it’s the face of the other. An autobiographical play that shows the origins of O’Neill’s misery, it depicts one day in the life of his family, over the course of which he – as the character Edmund – is diagnosed with T.B. and his mother relapses into dope. The family is the domestic church in Catholic parlance – if so, the Tyrones are the church in crisis, beset by accusation, backbiting, and toxic suspicion. The theme of illusion reappears, but O’Neill shifts the tone toward it. Here he looks upon the failure to overcome one’s mental and physical addictions as what kills the soul, not the attempt to see through them. Each of the four Tyrones seeks freedom from life’s pain, but Mary tries to do so by plunging herself deeper into the fog of morphine, leaving the others – her husband James and their adult sons Jamie and Edmund – stricken. This is particularly true of Jamie, forever traumatized from catching her shooting up when he was a child. “Christ, I’d never dreamed before that any women but whores took dope!” he moans to his brother. Turning to the bottle and prostitutes as coping mechanisms, he sinks further into his own addictions at Mary’s lead, sobering up only when she does. He binds his identity, his fate, totally to hers. “It meant so much,” he says of her brief rehabilitation. “I’d begun to hope, if she’d beaten the game, I could too.”
|Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Vanessa Redgrave & Robert Sean Leonard in Long Day's Journey|
|Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Tyrone|
If in Iceman and Long Day’s Journey O’Neill opens up his wounds, with A Moon for the Misbegotten he provides the balm. The last of his completed plays, it delves into themes of self-hatred and redemption, crafting them into a beautiful story in which confession finally brings true forgiveness – of oneself. Jamie’s perception of his mother in Long Day’s Journey introduced the Madonna-whore theme into the world of O’Neill. Church theologians, beginning with St. Paul, identify the Virgin Mary as the new Eve – whereas the latter brought sin to all humanity, the former brings salvation by bearing the Son of God into the world. This notion merged in popular Catholicism with the idea, based on a misreading of Genesis, that sex constituted Adam and Eve’s original sin. The result is a dualistic psychological portrait of women: either idealized as sexless (and thus holy) beings, or objectified as dirty (read sexual) whores. This bifurcated world got all screwed up, however, in the young Jamie because of his mother’s drug addiction. As we heard him tell Edmund earlier, he associated dope with prostitutes, so seeing his mother – a stand-in for the Blessed Mother – high on the stuff collapsed the Madonna into the whore. He lost not only his mother, but his means of salvation.
|Jason Robards & Colleen Dewhurst in Moon|
And it’s the only way he can find the forgiveness he desperately comes to her for. Like Edmund in Long Day’s Journey, she’s his confessor, and the sin he unloads on her is hard: distraught over his mother’s death, he went on a drinking binge and slept with a hooker every night on the same train that bore Mary’s coffin home. At this point, Josie fully sees what she means to Jim: she’s his mother and the Blessed Mother wrapped in one, and thus only she can forgive him. In what is O’Neill’s most tender moment, she rests his head in her lap and gives him absolution. “As she loves and understands and forgives!” she implores him, in reference to his mother. “I feel her in the moonlight, her soul wrapped in it like a silver mantle, and I know she understands and forgives me, too, and her blessing lies in me.” Jim cries himself to sleep in her arms and she cradles his limp body in her lap through the night in the image of Michelangelo’s Pieta. O’Neill underscores the point in the next act, as Josie tells her father that he’s looking upon a miracle. “What miracle?” he inquires. “A virgin who bears a dead child in the night, and the dawn finds her still a virgin,” she replies. “If that isn’t a miracle, what is?” When Jim awakes, he initially can’t recall what transpired the previous night, but he admits to feeling different: “Sort of at peace with myself and this lousy life – as if all my sins had been forgiven.” He admires the sunrise, actually able to appreciate it for a change, and it momentarily moves him to divine wonder. “God seems to be putting on a quite a display,” he remarks. When he finally remembers the night’s events, he thanks her profoundly and professes his love. She in turn pronounces a benediction upon him, upon O’Neill, upon all of us: “May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace.”
In Long Day’s Journey, Tyrone tells Edmund that he has the makings of a poet. “No, I’m afraid I’m like the guy who is always panhandling for a smoke,” the son replies. “He hasn’t even got the makings. He’s only got the habit.” The same could be said about O’Neill’s Catholicism. He turned his back on it as a creed and practice, but its habits of mind and thought stayed with him. His is a Christianity for a post-religious age. The human condition of sinfulness still applies, and man must still pass through the cross if he hopes to reach the resurrection. But the road to that paradise lies beyond the Church, for him, even beyond God in some respects. It must be hoed on the secular pilgrimage of life. In this respect, O’Neill provides a guide for his Irish brethren. Once the pearl in the crown of European Catholicism, the Church in the Emerald Isle has totally collapsed in recent years. If they’re like O’Neill, the Irish people won’t lose their Catholicity any time soon, even if they’ve lost their practice. And when they do, his plays will be there to keep their habits up.
– Nick Coccoma is a Master of Divinity candidate at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. He holds an M.A. in philosophy from Boston College, and a B.A. in theatre from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he also taught religion at the Nativity Preparatory School, a tuition-free, Jesuit middle school serving boys from low-income families in Boston.