Pitiful Creatures: Eugene O’Neill, Irish Fathers, Irish Sons

The stereotype of the drunken Irishman has been buttressed by some scientific research that suggests the Irish have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. Knock me over with a feather, you could.

     One of the fastest growing causes of death in Ireland is chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, of which alcohol is the major
     contributory factor…in 2003, it is estimated that chronic liver diseased killed half a million Irish.
          —Euromonitor International, February, 2006

Eugene O’Neill quit drinking in 1927, aged 39. A.A., the program that would revolutionize thinking about alcoholism and save countless numbers of sufferers, had not yet been formalized. O’Neill quit with the help of a Freudian analyst and, I believe, the grave examples of his own family, rife with substance abuse and its effects. O’Neill knew, with alcoholic prescience, that there would be no more plays if he continued to drink. He gave up his only coping mechanism, which he somehow saw through to the death’s-head beneath, for his art. Still, there is something of the “dry drunk” about O’Neill’s behavior for the rest of his life. After his son Shane was arrested for heroin possession O’Neill never again had contact with him; when his son Eugene Jr., a practicing alcoholic, committed suicide O’Neill did not attend the funeral. With all his enormous artistic success I have run across no accusation of excessive happiness on O’Neill’s part.

My father drank. He was a tough guy, a scholarship football player at St. Bonaventure. Then, an F.B.I. agent, working vice and racketeering in Manhattan. He drank at home, every night, and somehow did not lose control over his life. I admired all this, and from an early time drank with him. Later I joined his business, as a private investigator. The field was full of Irish Americans—Kelly and Ryan and Dunn and O’Malley, etc. Most of them either drank hard or were totally sober. My father never identified, as many of them did, with the sentimental attachment to the auld sod, to some country he’d never seen and knew nothing about. And these were men otherwise disabused of all sentimentality. My father held himself apart—he was self-disciplined, he was the boss. His parents had come to the New World and it was good. There was much to do, to build. I think this refusal to look back contributed to his success in business.

One day he came to the office and his eyes were red and he was having trouble walking without bumping into the corridor walls. What’s with you? I asked. He took me in his office and told me he was in an outpatient program, and they had put him on Valium to withdraw from the booze. The drug was screwing up his balance, he thought.

My father looked a good deal like Lee Marvin. People assumed he was tough, and he was. Women were attracted to him; men wished themselves more like him. After I got sober I realized that all this was true, but I also understood that my father was more complex than his image allowed. I knew his emotional wiring from the inside, and I knew what booze, while it worked, had helped him to overcome. If you are a natural depressive, a man who feels on the inside so jarringly different than he appears to the world—smaller, shyer, quieter, more fearful—then booze can be a means to normality. You can feel the way you look to the world.

     Doctors have identified a drug that can overcome the misery of social phobia suffered by more than one in 10 Irish
     people. Most people call it extreme shyness. According to some experts, up to eleven per cent of people in Ireland suffer
     from it. They prefer to call extreme shyness “social phobia” and they say that people who suffer from it experience
     unimaginable torment and isolation.
          —The Irish Independent, April 26, 2010

After he quit drinking O’Neill’s plays took on an exquisite awareness of delusion, the author standing outside but not above his characters, knowing when they lied and why and how desperately—how the lie became the life, self-perpetuating, savage, hopeless and unbendable. Sober, O’Neill did not lie. At least not in the work.