Eugene O’Neill and the Great Silence

Here was the dear old Erin of the nineteenth-century music hall: a little bit of heaven and a total fabrication. James O’Neill was born in 1845, not 1847, in the village of Tinneranny, not Kilkenny. Precisely two days after his birth, the local constabulary reported the swift and devastating arrival of the potato blight. The iridescent skies of October 1847 bore witness, not to the birth of James O’Neill, but to the devastating effects of the government’s decision to close the soup kitchens.

An eastern county, Kilkenny didn’t suffer the same level of chronic deprivation as counties in the west and south. Yet, even before the famine, conditions for many were often severe. Writing in 1835, a foreign tourist passing through Kilkenny watched as a mother gathered gooseberry skins that had been spat on the ground and fed them to her child.

During the famine decade, the population of Kilkenny—the same county my great-grandparents left in the late 1840s and about which they passed on not a single story, memory or so much as a village name—went from about 200,000 to 124,000, a decline of nearly 40%. The estimated number of excess deaths estimated for that period was 27,000.

In 1851, the O’Neills did what so many ached to do—what my own forebears were able to do thanks to money sent by relatives who’d preceded them to America—and left. They got on with the business of survival. The famine was put out of mind, left behind, an embarrassment, a record of powerlessness, failure and abnegation. Better to preserve the memory of what had never existed, that carefree childhood by the mossy moat in “dear old Erin.”

James’s son, Eugene, was at first willing to maintain the family secrets. His initial plays avoid any mention of family or personal history. They’re about the human condition. In this, O’Toole writes, O’Neill reversed the usual course of playwrights, who move from the particular to the universal, from family to society. Eugene slouched his way to the sadness and pain of his own family, not a sun-filled fairy tale of opal skies but a long day’s journey of impoverished immigrants beneath a misbegotten moon.

Gradually, as O’Toole tells it, what the playwright grapples with, “at the deepest psychological level, is not his own experience, but his father’s. His subject is not the twentieth century but the nineteenth, not the mentality of a man born in American luxury (his own story) but that of one born in Irish degradation.”

Eugene O’Neill felt the pain and truth of Long Day’s Journey into Night so deeply and directly, he stipulated to his publisher that it wasn’t to be published until 25 years after his death and “never produced as a play.”

The apocalyptic unwinding of rural Irish society in the 1840s, O’Neill discovered, hadn’t taken place in some dim, distant time, a passing moment in history forever severed and separated from the present. Instead, though out of sight it was always present. As he listens to his drug-addled mother pace about in the bedroom above, Edmund Tyrone (Eugene’s fictionalized version of himself in the play) observes, “Yes, she moves above and beyond us, a ghost haunting the past, and here we sit pretending to forget…”

Eugene O’Neill wouldn’t pretend. He wouldn’t forget. He wouldn’t settle for old lies and comforting falsehoods. He peered through the soft hues sometimes used to color the Celtic Twilight and confronted the still-suppurating psychic wounds of loss, emigration, denial. He broke the silence. He was a great truth teller as well as a great artist.