It was Moss Hart, not Eugene O’Neill, who made me want to be a playwright. The theatrical eccentricities of the mad family in You Can’t Take It With You bore little resemblance to my own doggedly genteel, determinedly reserved Irish American clan, but there was enough metaphorical affinity between the literal fireworks being assembled in the basement in the Hart/Kaufman play and the pyrotechnic potential of all that went unsaid at my own family gatherings to suggest to me, early on, that family life was best captured on the stage. It should be madcap, comical, wry.
What I knew of Eugene O’Neill I knew mostly from Groucho’s take on Strange Interlude in Animal Crackers—funny stuff.
And then, as a dutiful English major, I went to see Long Days Journey. Of course I recognized certain traits: the fragile gentility, the easy recrimination, the incendiary nature of the long unspoken when it is doused with alcohol. Yet the play also opened my eyes to what I—in the modern way, and with my own genetic bias against too much high-toney emotion—had already resolved to resist. Here was an acknowledgement of the terribleness of family love, of the awful burden of parental, filial, fraternal love. But the play was also, in all its seriousness, its yearning, its grim poetry, a paean to the dignity of that suffering.
O’Neill understood the depth of our longing to love those to whom we are “in tears and blood” forever bound. He understood the inevitability of our failure to do so. The awkwardness of this—the missteps and missed connections, the slammed doors and startling explosions—is the stuff of comedy. But the pain of it is written on the bone. O’Neill knew this. In Long Days Journey he elevated that pain, made it finer, nobler, certainly more eloquent, than it ever appears to be in real, hapless, family life.
It was a transformation that struck me as a miracle of sorts, back then: all those familiar Irish American traits made heartbreaking, and new.
It strikes me the same way still.