My Eugene O’Neill Summer

Since that palmy, book-filled summer almost four decades ago, I have been lucky enough to carve out a career in Irish Studies, with a particular focus on Irish America. I truly do admire O’Neill’s literary legacy; today, I could give a long disquisition on how Irish, and for that matter, Catholic tropes, allusions, ways of thinking permeate the canon of his plays.

But I nonetheless think we have to admit that he also fell victim to a peculiarly Irish form of self-delusion: an animating conviction that he was by birth a sensitive genius. I cannot read the early O’Neill—and often, not the late O’Neill either—without thinking that it’s a thin line between what he thought deep thought sounded like and the ponderous cosmicity of all those dopers back in high school. A long toke, and out comes an insight along the lines of the notion that we are all “the slaves of conventions, or of discipline, or of a rigid formula of some sort.” There is more than a grain of truth in the infamous 1948 review of The Iceman Cometh that called his philosophy a "mass of undisciplined emotions and jejune opinions."

The early O’Neill is almost a parody of sententiousness, as in the autobiographical character of Robert Mayo, a twenty-something intellectual perpetually “in quest of the secret which is hidden over there, beyond the horizon.”

That was O’Neill to a T; that was me to a T. He loved the haze of inchoate thought, for which fog was his default metaphor, as early as the Scandinavian sailor in Anna Christie who laments “Fog, fog, fog all bloody time. You can't see vhere you vas going, no…” and as late as Edmund’s over-the-top self analysis in Long Day’s Journey, that “Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.” As Wilfrid Sheed once said archly, and accurately, of another self-important writer, “that sort of stuff can be boiled down to a fortune cookie.” The Celtic Twilight probably has a lot to answer for; if you’re looking for Yeatsian visions without Yeatsian discipline, cf. the “Celtic Spirituality” section of your local library.

One of the brilliant documents of Irish America is Peter Arno’s New Yorker cartoon, around 1932 or so (in other words, not long after Eugene got his honorary doctorate from Yale), wherein a clearly intoxicated, older businessman is sitting pie-eyed over martinis with a young blonde. The younger woman is looking, not at him, but dreamily away (perhaps beyond the horizon). “You’re a mystic, Mr. Ryan,” she says. “All Irishmen are mystics.” Arno’s cartoon gets everything right: the great-thoughts earnestnesss of the drunken Irishman and the gee-but-he-must be-deep cluelessness of the bimbo. And I put it to you that Eugene O’Neill had a lot to do with creating the American notion that there is “a touch of the poet” in every Irishman.

Except, except, except: there is something else that needs to be conceded. O’Neill’s ponderousness is solely a function of words on the page. The miracle of O’Neill is that his plays always perform better than they read. By the end of reading the text of Iceman, you will want to scream when you next hear the phrase “pipe-dream”; but see it performed, or see the magnificent Robert Ryan performance in the 1973 film, and the bothersome writing will glide right past. He was a creature of the theater, not an intellectual. O’Neill chose to write about ideas that were,