I thought I was giving myself a break when I decided to fulfill my Nobel Prize-winner category for the 2015 Classics Challenge by choosing a play. They’re short, I told myself. I can generally get through one in a solid night of reading.
Don’t I know myself better than that?
Eugene O’Neill, America’s greatest playwright (yeah, yeah, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee), is never an easy read. With all the raw emotion, the self-delusion and self-destruction, it’s hard to watch his work, especially knowing that it is drawn almost completely from his own sad and sorry life. It (almost) never fails to captivate me.
O’Neill writes of real people in real situations, their stories compelling and, as a bonus, O’Neill’s language is always accessible.
There are so many to choose from, but I chose a later work—mostly because some of his earliest pieces are overly melodramatic and experimental and I wanted to be engulfed by a work by a mature artist. “A Moon for the Misbegotten” is widely believed to be his last completed work. It was not produced while he was alive. Neither was “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” a painfully bleak autobiographical work to which “Moon” is a sequel.
Quickly: “Journey” is about one day in the death of the Tyrone family. There’s the dad, a touring actor in the last stages of his career; the mother Mary, who’s succumbing, again, to drug addiction; Jamie, the bitter older son; and Edmund, the youngest, an idealist who is dying of consumption.
(Just to put a real fine point on this, O’Neill was born in a hotel room to a traveling actor and his devoted, drug-addled wife. He had an older brother, James, who was a sad alcoholic who adored his mother.)
In case you haven’t guessed, it’s NOT the feel-good play of the year. Anyway, accusations and blame are spread liberally as they all pick at each other the way only families can. When done well, it’s so compelling it flies by and, as an audience member, you hate then love then pity the characters in turn. Then you want to slap them. Then, you leave the theatre re-examining your own family relationships and wonder whether they would withstand the type of beatings the Tyrones give to each other in the course of this long day.
Now, onto “Moon.” It’s 1923, 11 years after the long journey that introduced the Tyrone family; the only one still standing is the lovable drunk Jamie. He’s lonely, pathetic and determinedly drinking himself to death. He’s made friends with the Hogan family, which rents land Jamie inherited when his father died. He gets along with the tenant farmer, Phil, mostly because he is a big drinker, too.
But Jamie loves the farmer’s daughter, Josie, who’s described as “so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak—five feet eleven in her stockings and weighs around one hundred and eighty.” Jamie, on the other hand, is 15-20 years older than she is and “around five feet nine…his naturally fine physique has become soft and soggy from dissipation, but his face is still good-looking despite its unhealthy puffiness and the bags under the eyes.”
Josie is the county slut and her father doesn’t pull any punches in reminding her of that constantly. You wonder where people get the nerve to talk to each other like Josie does to her father, but then you remember there’s lot of liquor involved. And it’s not much different from how the Tyrones talk to each other, except the Tyrones quote great poets and playwrights in their arguments. Phil is after Jamie to sell him the land and Jamie has said he would, mostly because it would benefit Josie. But there’s an evil man who owns the land adjacent to the farm and wants this land because he hates Phil.
The play opens was a hilarious scene in which Phil and Josie, egged on by Jamie, take on the evil landowner. But the play is no comedy and it goes quickly into many dark places.
The centerpiece of the show is a long scene in which Jamie and Josie, under a sad moon and inspired by liquor, bare their souls to each other. Josie confesses she is still a virgin, (no spoiler, you can pretty much figure that out early on) and Jamie tells of an awful thing he did while accompanying his mother’s body back from the west coast for burial in the east.
You don’t need an English teacher to point out the conflict: An innocent who presents herself as a whore goes head to head with a lovable man whose most despicable acts are known only to him. Often in fiction a reader or audience wonders what two such opposing forces could possibly see in each other. Here, it seems obvious: Jamie is Josie’s only chance for love and Josie is the only person to whom Jamie can fully open himself.
Nor do you need an English teacher to point out Jamie’s fascination with Josie’s weighty breasts: She is a surrogate mother, just as she has been to three brothers she helped escape from their bleak life with their father.
So, why (if you can remember back to the beginning of this long blog’s journey into O’Neill) was I wrong that choosing O’Neill was a bad move? Well, I thought I was going to get away with a quick read—there are still two categories, but only 10 days left in the year. But reading “Moon” made me go back to “Journey” and that led me to other work until I had to force myself to move on.
That’s the sign of a great writer: You always want more. And there’s plenty more of O’Neill to read.
If you want to learn more about O’Neill and even watch a (fairly weak) version of “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” visit eoneill.com. Just don’t get as lost as I did, you may never resurface.