Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Prodigal Son: The Catholicism of Eugene O’Neill

Playwright Eugene O'Neill

A few years ago, filmmaker Ric Burns released a documentary on Eugene O’Neill for PBS that featured several notable screen actors performing excerpts from the playwright’s works. Among them was Christopher Plummer, who confesses to Burns onscreen that he hadn’t always had a passion for the writer. “I felt,” he explains, “that he enjoyed being indulgent – there’s a great indulgence in him.” Plummer felt drawn to the British playwrights instead, preferring their understated approach to O’Neill’s sturm und drang. But the latter bled Irish blood, and while the English may button down their emotions and their prose, the Irish are the people who throw back a Jameson, break into ebullient reels, and then slay you with a tragic ballad. Weighed down with collective psychic baggage accrued over centuries of suffering, they let alcohol uncork their pent up agony into an aesthetic emotional flood they’d readily drown in. Plummer’s observation is right on one level, and O’Neill did in part cultivate and relish his image as a tortured artist. But this truth, as Plummer himself admits, misses the bigger point: that O’Neill’s indulgence inevitably bowls you over, the way Plummer’s performance of James Tyrone from Long Day’s Journey into Night does over the documentary’s next few minutes, or Jason Robard’s ones, or Vanessa Redgrave’s. O’Neill plumbed the depths of his haunted soul with a naked vulnerability that demands respect – it may be shameless, but it’s remarkably ambitious in its insistence to be heard. He single-handedly took American theater from the basement to the rafters, and grabs you by the throat in the process. When you listen to it, his language becomes, as Plummer put it, “uncannily one’s own.”

Dorothy Day
And his anguish was real, after all. Scarred by his mother’s morphine addiction, he, like the other men in his family, struggled with severe alcoholism. Tuberculosis nearly killed him and he took to the seas to escape his inner demons. As a young man carousing about the bars of the Lower East Side, he would regale his friend and sometime-sweetheart Dorothy Day with drunken recitations of Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.” He “would sit there, black and dour,” she recalls in her autobiography The Long Loneliness, “his head sunk as he intoned, ‘And now my heart is as a broken fount, wherein tear drippings stagnate.’” The poem’s theme – of God’s ceaseless pursuit of the fleeing sinner – fascinated the (at the time) agnostic woman. Elsewhere she describes holding him in bed as he shivered into intoxicated sleep. He, in turn, urged her to read St. Augustine’s Confessions. The effect it had on her was undoubtedly more than he imagined – Day, of course, had a major conversion to Catholicism and became famous as the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Her communal life of prayer and works of mercy with the poor of New York – and the national movement it sparked – led historian David O’Brien to dub her “the most influential, interesting, and significant figure in the history of American Catholicism,” and the Vatican to open her cause for canonization.

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
At the outset, then, Hickey functions as a Christ figure. The image of Harry’s birthday party at the end of Act Two – with Hickey sermonizing on his feet before twelve confused followers – replicates the Last Supper scene. “I wouldn’t say this unless I knew, Brothers and Sisters,” he exhorts. “This peace is real! It’s a fact! I know! Because I’ve got it! Here! Now!” But the truth, and O’Neill’s harsh joke, is that Hickey is really an anti-Christ – in literary terms, a demonic parody of Jesus. Rather than bringing life, he has “the touch of death on him,” Larry Slade whispers. When, under Hickey’s insistence, the denizens of Harry’s bar do face their pipe dreams, far from finding new joy, they turn into zombies. Sinking into a dull, affectless stupor, they can’t even get drunk anymore. Like a fuse swiftly burning down, the play circles round until it hits the dynamite at bottom. Act Four explodes in Hickey’s epic monologue: He murdered his wife, he confesses, out of loathing for her constant forgiving his infidelity and drinking. Then, in an instant, he retracts, horrified by the truth that he hated her. O’Neill follows the lead of Marx and Nietzsche – man lives in illusion – and then offers his own gloss: man needs that illusion as a bulwark against the meaninglessness of existence. Religion isn’t the opiate of the masses here, precisely the opposite. It’s no coincidence that Hickey’s father was a preacher and that he acts like one himself. But rather than liberating man to attain union with God, the attempt to purge him of his opium breeds only despair. The pipe dreams we tell ourselves are all we can live for, O’Neill insists. Beyond them lies...nothing.

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  

Edmund listens to all of this from his brother in Act Four, like a priest with a penitent. There’s an irony here, for, like his brother and to his father’s dismay, he’s turned his back on organized religion. “You’ve both flouted the faith you were born and brought up in,” Tyrone barks at the boys, “the one true faith of the Catholic Church – and your denial has brought nothing but self-destruction!” When he declares that he’s prayed years for Mary’s deliverance, Edmund – O’Neill’s mouthpiece – turns it into bitter apostasy: “Then Nietzsche must be right. ‘God is dead: of His pity for man hath God died.” Jamie, in turn, mocks the Church for insisting on having a monopoly on salvation while sitting atop enormous wealth. “Slip a piece of change to the Judge and be saved,” he blasphemes, “but if you’re broke you can go to hell!” Even Mary, who wanted to be a nun in her youth and had a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother, doubts the efficacy of the faith. She sneers at herself after starting the “Hail Mary”: “You expect the Blessed Virgin to be fooled by a lying dope fiend reciting words! You can’t hide from her!”

Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Tyrone
The Catholic Church offers confession as a sacrament in which people can experience God’s merciful grace. O’Neill’s not doubting the possibility of forgiveness from the sins against ourselves and others here, nor the existence of God. In Act Four, Edmund recounts a mystical experience to his father that he describes as a feeling of belonging, “to the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way.” But the playwright relocates the arena of that salvation from some metaphysical ether to the messy world of the everyday. Again, if the family is the Church in miniature, then those in it have to seek forgiveness from the flesh and blood people right in front of them. They’re the real ones we should confess to, for they’re the only ones who could make forgiveness tangible: they are the face of God. Edmund hears out both his father and brother in Act Four, even when the latter confesses to hating Edmund’s guts. He staggers under Jamie’s brutally honest howling, but the effect on the latter is healing. “That’s all,” Jamie sighs when he’s done. “Feel better now. Gone to confession. Know you absolve me, don’t you, Kid? You understand.” But Edmund can’t save his mother – none of them can. She descends from the attic at the end, glassy eyes leaking tears onto her drug-ravaged face, to haunt them like a ghost. Like God in Exodus, whose face Moses must hide from lest it strike him dead, the ending of Long Day’s Journey manifests a truth too awful to behold.

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.

In Moon, the Jamie character from Long Day’s Journey appears as the full-fledged James Tyrone, and we see the extent of his psychic distortion: he’s unable to have a normal female relationship. There’s only one woman now, for him – the whore – and all he can do is sleep with her. To love a woman, he’d have to find a virgin and then she’d be totally unapproachable in his eyes. Precisely this happens when he encounters Josie Hogan, the daughter of his farmer tenant. “And how’s my Virgin Queen of Ireland?” he exclaims when he first sees her in Act One, and he showers her with idealized praise. He loves her, and she him, but he refuses to let her take him to bed. He hates himself so much that, in his eyes, every sexual act on his part profanes love rather than consummating it. “There’s always the aftermath that poisons you,” he warns her. “And I don’t want you to be poisoned…And I don’t want to be poisoned myself – not again – not with you.” At first she doesn’t understand, but her eyes are opened when they try to make love. In a flash, he goes Jekyll and Hyde on her, treating her like the whores he’s been with. She’s disturbed, but more hurt to see how he rakes himself over the coals for debasing her in his eyes. His self-loathing goes deep; he verbally lashes himself like some medieval flagellate. She understands that, for his sake, she must stay on the pedestal he’s erected for her – having a chaste relationship with her is the only way he’ll lighten up on himself.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I like this piece very much, and your description of the Irish: "the Irish are the people who throw back a Jameson, break into ebullient reels, and then slay you with a tragic ballad. Weighed down with collective psychic baggage accrued over centuries of suffering, they let alcohol uncork their pent up agony into an aesthetic emotional flood they’d readily drown in. " Oh, yes.

    I landed here because Eugene O'Neill is being inducted into the Poets Corner at St. John the Divine, in NYC. I was curious about his Catholicism, now that he will be enshrined in the great Episcopoal cathedral.