Make You Flinch

I never liked Eugene O’Neill when I was younger. My father taught and lectured on his plays and would come home wild at night full of O’Neill’s words, have a drink, laugh and shout to me and my two brothers: “The farm needs a son!” or “Forget everything and face nothing! It’s a convenient philosophy in life…” My mother would hush him or scold, “Michael, lower your voice!” Something in O’Neill set my father on fire—something there made sense, and something came very close to my mother also. For years I could not read O’Neill, nor stomach seeing his plays. I guess I held onto too many hopes still.

My brothers and I used to play a game: “Make you flinch.” You may know it. We could do anything to one another short of landing a blow. If you succeeded in making another flinch, you’d throw a knuckled fist into the other’s arm. You would either hit your brother hard and not fear reprisal, or, if you had flinched, withstand it and try not to get angry. It is stupid enough of a game to get into an O’Neill play, and I guess for years I flinched every time I encountered O’Neill.

When I was in college, I acted in a few plays, but I did not have the wherewithal to try out for Moon for the Misbegotten. Something cut too close to the bone—the audaciously real heroes were not to be admired. I wanted to see the whole of the moon, not this damaged version. Assigned readings of the plays challenged me and shed light on my own extended family, which had its strife, its early deaths, and recurring arguments. But we did not rival O’Neill’s families, or, doubtless, his own tortured relations. Yet as with millions of Irish-American and other families, the same elements lurked:—drink, anger, secrets, and frustrations, resentments, fantasies about a grander life. What riled me the most, I suppose, were his characters’ sad stretches into a kind of lyricism that always ended up over-exposed or sunken and denuded of vitality. What got me to begin to pay serious attention to his plays also influenced my own writing. O’Neill had the ability to make visible the hidden life, to make it playable, to condense it out of the miasma of hard living.

A few years ago, I sat stunned at the final performance of an extended run of Long Days Journey into Night, acted by Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Robert Sean Leonard. I had never seen the show before, but I knew the nursed fantasies, the bitter clinging to what was lost, and the finality of thirst unrestrained. I was making a long exit from a love relationship and had had my own small sup of bitterness and large gambles by then in life. The familiarity of the play, however, entranced and disconcerted, rather than angered, me.

But I was bowled over, really, as the lights went up—when I saw all of the other people sitting in the theatre rows. I had been so absorbed in the drama that I had forgotten where I was, entirely. My first naked sense asked: who were these people? What were they doing there watching this, in my living room, in my backyard? I felt embarrassed as if the neighbors and strangers had witnessed a bitter family fight—and relished the spectacle. I had awoken with the realization that voyeurs had lain next to me all night, observing and enjoying my fitful dreams.

I realized then what I had always disliked and feared in Eugene O’Neill. He wrote about something too real for the stage, something that belonged to us, ourselves, and us alone. I understood that masses of others have also identified with or been moved by his characters, but what had needled me was how his plays expose something sacredly private—and seems like admissions only made when very drunk or very sober.

Seamus Heaney once wrote that Patrick Kavanagh showed him how to write about his own seemingly unpoetic world. For me, in my own writerly life, O’Neill has done something similar. He has shown me how to exorcise a life from the bad luck and misguided hope that can cloud it. I have more flashes of honesty, more keen anger, more desire to get things right because of Eugene O’Neill. And, indeed, I owe no blows to Eugene O’Neill. I never saw him flinch.