Tag Archives: Long Day’s Journey into Night

Eugene O’Neill, in 41 points.

28 Jan

(Reading and writing and reading and writing and not doing enough for the blog. But I’m pushing ahead on other things and I’m submitting as much as possible. Here’s a quickie on Eugene O’Neill. Why not? He’s only been dead for 60 plus years. You can always rely on me to be timely.)

 

  1. Eugene O’Neill. One of my heroes.
  2. Hero isn’t the right word here. One of my favorite writers?
  3. That isn’t quite right, either. Somewhere between hero and writer. Anyway.
  4. His life, Jesus.
  5. Born in a hotel. Alcoholic father. Alcoholic brother. Drug-addicted mother.
  6. His father was a struggling actor who died from intestinal cancer in 1920. His father’s last words: “Life is . . . rotten.”
  7. His mother died less than two years later from a stroke, and his brother, Jamie, had to travel with the body, on a train, across the U.S. Jamie drank and drank during the five-day journey, and he was eventually robbed by a prostitute.
  8. (O’Neill wrote a play about this, his last:A Moon for the Misbegotten.)
  9. Jamie didn’t last much longer. In 1923, after a life of whoring and boozing, the life of a vagabond and rake, Jamie drank himself to death.
  10. His entire family eradicated. In just three years.
  11. Think on that, when you’re having a rough week.
  12. The grim parade isn’t over. His oldest son, Eugene, 27 years later, drank a bottle of whiskey, sliced open his veins in a drunken stupor and then wandered around the house, bleeding to death. His suicide note: “Never let it be said of O’Neill that he failed to empty a bottle.”
  13. His younger son, Shane, after 58 years of abject failure, jumped out of a window.
  14. And his daughter, Oona, married Charles Chaplin when she was just eighteen (he was 54), and O’Neill disowned her. They didn’t speak again.
  15. (So, not one of my heroes then.)
  16. O’Neill spent just a few weeks each writing his early plays, includingThe Hairy Apeand The Great God Brown.
  17. His early work: American settings, Greek themes. Infanticide, patricide, matricide, murder, revenge, fate, suffering.
  18. His early work: patches of brilliance with moments of leaden dialogue.
  19. His early work: rich, complex roles for black actors! O’Neill helped start the career of Paul Robeson.
  20. O’Neill loved drinking, and knocked around the bowery and basement bars of the lower east side. He cavorted with hustlers, card sharks, drunks, hoboes, shitbirds and losers. Even after he had children, he would disappear on benders for weeks at a time.
  21. When he drank, he raged, punching out his wives and smashing furniture, threatening his friends and shrieking at the moon.
  22. He suffered from an undiagnosed degenerative condition that caused his hands to shake. He thought it was DTs, and combated the shakes with more drink. His first drink in the morning required a couple of towels to keep him from spilling whiskey all over his shirt. He went through this routine every morning. Imagine.
  23. He and his brother, Jamie—before he died—would embark on epic drinking bouts, one time spendingone entire weekin a hotel room, guzzling liquors, arguing, talking about when they were going to leave. There’s a play in there, somewhere.
  24. He was friends with Hart Crane, another boozer extraordinaire. Imagine their nights out together. (Malcolm Cowley often accompanied them.) There’s a great play in there, somewhere, too.
  25. Those early plays. Many of them aren’t produced anymore. Many of them are forgotten. Who performs “Marco Millions” anymore? Who remembers “The Dreamy Kid”?
  26. After a horrifying bender in Singapore, where he almost lost his fiancé, O’Neill got on the wagon and stopped drinking. He stayed sober.
  27. Sobriety suited him. It is his late work, undertaken after close to 20 years of non-drinking, that regale. He spent years on a cycle of plays on a fictional family. Near the end, he destroyed almost all of them.
  28. Now that’s gangster. Or insane. Or something.
  29. He wrote “The Iceman Cometh” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night”at the same time. Two of the greatest plays ever written.
  30. “Iceman” follows a group of bottomed out rummies in a dive bar, the kind of characters he caroused with in his youth: losers, hustlers, gamblers, addicts. The play begins with drunks scattered about a bar, slowly regaining consciousness and beginning the hard drinking once again. They’re waiting for their friend and life of the party, Hickey. The language is ribald, furious, poetic, self-lacerating, repetitive, and explosive, mimicking the cadences of the down and out drunk. The characters are self-loathing, self-sabotaging hypocrites, each hauling around—and finding meaning in—delusions and excuses. Their delusions are what keep them going.
  31. There’s nothing like it. It’s a goddamn four-hour miracle.
  32. Hickey appears and begins puncturing the delusions, berating and destroying his former friends. Why he does this is part of the play’s magic. But the last third is a punishing odyssey, a series of bleak epiphanies, grimness and the void. It remains one of the most powerful plays I’ve ever seen. (Full disclosure: I’ve only seen movie versions.)
  33. “Long Day’s Journey into Night” is the better play, O’Neill’s autobiography. The dad is a retired actor and boozer; the brother is a weak-willed rummy (named Jamie) with terminal tuberculosis; the other brother, Edmund, is a booze-addled rake; and the mother, Mary, is a drug fiend, sneaking off throughout the play for her fix. The play is set in a single day, where the family’s ghosts, demons, failures, recriminations and regrets douse each character in a torrential flood. As the day turns to night, the outbursts grow more and more violent, and the tension increases.
  34. It’s an astonishing work, personal, mythic, poetic, dirty, timeless and heart-breaking. O’Neill didn’t want it published or performed until25 years!after his death, and made accommodations to that effect. (His wife interceded.)
  35. About the wife, Carlotta, the same fiancé he almost lost in Singapore. She saved O’Neill from his drinking, that’s indisputable. But they both eventually became addicted to sleeping pills and painkillers, and their relationship suffered, turned vicious and sour. One time he fell outside in the snow, breaking his leg. She mocked him from the front door and left him there to die. (He was saved by a random passerby.)
  36. Of course, during the boozy years, he slapped her at least once in front of a large party of people, and punched her at another. There’s that hero thing again.
  37. Here’s O’Neill on the characters in “Long Day’s Journey”: “At the final curtain, there they still are, trapped within each other by the past, each guilty and at the same time innocent, scorning, loving, pitying each other, understanding and yet not understanding at all, forgiving but still doomed never to be able to forget.”
  38. Doomed never to be able to forget. The perfect mantra for the doomed man.
  39. O’Neill’s life the stuff of enormous tragedy: spiraling addictions, abuse, suicide, disease and death. And a discernible pattern, a kind of dramatist’s flair for plot, irony and just desserts.
  40. His final days were spent in a hotel room. He knew he was dying. His last words: “I knew it! I knew it! Born in a goddamn hotel and dying in a hotel room!”
  41. A dramatist ’til the end.