Prodigal Son: The Catholicism of Eugene O'Neill
This essay was originally written for Critics at Large in 2012.
About ten years ago, filmmaker Ric Burns released a documentary on Eugene O’Neill for PBS that features several notable screen actors performing excerpts from the playwright’s works. Among them is Christopher Plummer, who confesses to Burns on camera 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 was 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 feelings and their prose, the Irish are the people who throw back a Jameson, break into ebullient reels, and then destroy you with a tragic ballad. Weighed down with collective psychic baggage accrued over centuries of suffering (much of it at the hands of the English), they let alcohol uncork their pent up agony into an aesthetic emotional flood they’d masochistically drown in. Plummer makes a fair observation on one level, and O’Neill did in part cultivate and relish his image as a brooding 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 Robards’s ones do, or Katharine Hepburn’s. O’Neill plumbed the depths of his haunted soul with a raw nakedness that demands respect—it may be shameless, but it’s remarkably ambitious it its insistence to be heard. He singlehandedly took American theater from the basement to the rafters, and grabbed the rest of us by the throat in the process. The greatness of his plays stems more from their forcefulness of thought than their poetry of style. Nevertheless, when you listen to them, his dramatic voices, as Plummer puts it, “uncannily become your own.”
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. He burned through several marriages, took to the seas to escape his inner demons, and nearly died from tuberculosis. As a young man carousing about the bars of the Lower East Side, he’d 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—God’s ceaseless pursuit of the fleeing sinner—fascinated the agnostic woman. Elsewhere she describes holding him in bed as he shivered into intoxicated sleep. He urged her to read St. Augustine’s Confessions, which affected her more than he ever could’ve guessed—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 New York poor—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 didn’t reach Day’s sanctified heights, though she prayed for him even after he died. Indeed, he definitively rejected doctrinal Catholicism. But like the wayward soul in Thompson’s poem, he never lost touch with the faith’s imagination. In their themes, language, and imagery, his great plays betray a Christian sensibility that makes O’Neill the father not just of American theater, but of all American Catholic dramatists (including filmmakers like Scorsese and Coppola).
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 the presence of 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, tarts, and bums. They stand for all humanity, enabling each other’s pipe dreams with booze and pacts of mutually-assured deception. Into this pathetic scene invades Hickey, a traveling salesman whose annual bender at the bar the others eagerly await. 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. “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, was his wife’s murder, which woke him up to the truth of his dissipation.
At the outset, then, Hickey functions as a Christ figure, descending from beyond to save the enslaved soul. 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 them, like a barnstorming tent revivalist. “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’s really an anti-Christ—a demonic parody of Jesus in literary typology. Rather than bringing life, he’s got “the touch of death on him,” Larry Slade whispers. When, under his 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 slowly burning fuse, the play circles down until it hits the dynamite at base. Act Four explodes with Hickey’s epic monologue: He murdered his wife, he confesses, out of loathing for her constantly forgiving his infidelity and drunks. Then, in an instant, he retracts, horrified by the truth that he hated her. O’Neill follows Marx and Nietzsche’s lead—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—or become the Übermensch or build a communist utopia—purging him of his opium only breeds 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 his family’s life, during which his mother relapses into dope and he—as the character Edmund—learns he has T.B.. The family is the domestic church in Catholic parlance—if so, the Tyrones are the church in schism, riven 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 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 deeper 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.”
Edmund listens to all of this from his brother in Act Four, like a priest with a penitent. The Catholic Church offers reconciliation as a sacrament in which people experience God’s merciful grace. There’s an irony at work here, then, for like his brother and to his father’s dismay, Edmund’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, questions 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!”
O’Neill’s not doubting the possibility of clemency for the iniquities against ourselves and others here, nor ruling out 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 redemption from some metaphysical ether to life’s quotidian milieu. While he doubted whether man could ever encounter God, his characters became stand-ins for that absent deity. Christ may have won the victory on a cosmic plane, but man can share in it only by slugging through the battles of the messy everyday. He must work out his salvation in fear and trembling, as St. Paul says, with those right before his eyes. Again, if the family is the church in miniature, then those in it have to seek forgiveness from the flesh and blood people in front of them. They’re the real ones we should confess to, for they’re the only ones who could make divine love tangible: the face of the other is the face of God. Edmund hears out both his father and brother in Act Four, even when the latter cops to hating Edmund’s guts. He staggers under Jamie’s brutally honest howling, but it heals the tortured elder brother. “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 cheeks, to haunt them like a ghost. Like God in Exodus, who must hide his face from Moses lest it strike the prophet dead, the play’s ending manifests a truth too awful to behold.
If in 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 works, it begins as a well-made play and then turns into much more. In the process it expands on the themes of sin and redemption, crafting them into a lyrical tale in which confession finally brings true forgiveness—of oneself. Jamie’s perception of his mother in Long Day’s Journey introduced the Madonna-whore dichotomy into the world of O’Neill. Church theologians have long identified the Virgin Mary as the new Eve—whereas the latter brought death to man through disobedience, the former bequeaths eternal life by bearing the Son of God. Popular Catholicism ended up emphasizing Mary’s virginity as a physical fact, rather than a literary metaphor for her openness to God. It then merged this notion with the idea, based on a misreading of Genesis, that sex constituted Adam and Eve’s original sin. According to Freud (who heavily influenced O’Neill) such views can lead to a dichotomous 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 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, too.
In Moon, the Jamie character from Long Day’s Journey appears as the full-fledged Jim Tyrone, and we see the extent of his psychic distortion: he’s unable to have a normal female relationship. There’s only one woman for him now—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 adult daughter of his farmer tenant. “And how’s my Virgin Queen of Ireland?” he exclaims when he first sees her in Act One, showering her with encomiums. 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, snapping at her like just another whore. 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 is the only way he’ll lighten up on himself. 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 screwed a hooker nightly on the 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 all in one, and thus only she can forgive him. In what is O’Neill’s most tender moment, she rests his head on 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 through the night in the image of Michelangelo’s Pieta (just the way Day held O’Neill in real life). He’s a true Jesus figure: the crucified Christ, slain by sin. O’Neill underscores the metaphor 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 from his death-like slumber, he initially can’t recall what transpired in the night, but 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, able to appreciate it for a change, and it momentarily moves him to transcendent wonder. “God seems to be putting on a quite a display,” he remarks. He’s more than reawakened—he’s resurrected, given a fresh experience of life. He thanks Josie profoundly when he eventually remembers the night’s events, and reaffirms his love. As he meanders away, she pronounces a final benediction upon him, upon O’Neill, upon all of us: “May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace.”
In Long Day’s Journey, Edmund’s father tells him he’s got the makings of a poet. “No,” the son replies, “I’m afraid I’m like the guy who is always panhandling for a smoke. 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 way of life, but its habits of the heart and mind held fast. His is a Christianity for a post-religious age. The human condition of sinfulness remains, and man must still pass through the cross 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 manner, O’Neill provides a guide for his Irish cousins. Once the pearl in the crown of European Catholicism, the church in Ireland has totally collapsed in recent years. If they’re like O’Neill, the Irish 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.