The Misbegotten

It was a strategy wildly unlike that of Mr. Dondiego who declaimed his judgment ex cathedra to a room full of fourteen-year olds. My Cambridge-educated professor in graduate school had likewise asserted his judgment, forthrightly ex cathedra, to a seminar of would-be professors.

Still, I could not help sensing somehow that what remained unacknowledged in the room was my professor’s rejection of O’Neill’s ethnic illegitimacy—the playwright’s Irish-American-ness, his condition of being neither one thing nor the other, of having neither the badge of an indigenous Irishness to provide the initial stamp of literary value, nor an entirely settled sense of American identity. Maybe, given his unsettled early life, it isn’t surprising that O’Neill took to the sea before becoming a writer. Among his earliest published work are poems that appeared in the New London Telegraph. Nor is it surprising that in one of those early poems from 1912 he sounds awfully like one of the “fleas” Yeats calls his imitators:

                    A singer was born in a land of gold,
                    In a time of the long ago
                    And the good fairies gathered from heath and wold
                    With gracious gifts to bestow.

It is impossible not to hear the young Irish-American would-be poet seeking, desperately, a model both for his art and his lost Irishness in these lines. It is impossible not to hear also—beyond any political or historical implications—O’Neill’s brutal and stealthy self-assertion in the following lines from his poem “Submarine,” written five years later and appearing in The Masses:

                    My soul is a submarine.
                    My aspirations are torpedoes.
                    I will hide unseen
                    Beneath the surface of life…

O’Neill’s affirmation of his cunning here reveals something of a Stephen Daedalus submerged. Likewise, I would venture, one also senses the submerged fury of O’Neill’s self-disdain, one of the products of his inbred insecurity, in the desperate often outsized characters of his plays. Some of those characters, like the Emperor Jones, are tellingly African-American—as though he were exploring through them his own alienation and rage. Yet, O’Neill’s is a career that evolves from the submergence of such violent regard toward the light of self-exposure. It is a long journey continuing still against the at times blunt rebuttal of critical prejudice and disregard.

It is good O’Neill turned away from poetry, good he took up confronting the fierce human wreckage of his plays. Theater appears to have been the logical imaginative means to wrestle with the haunted inheritance of his family life, its theatrics rooted as much in a lost Irishness as in the routing of that identity into the errancy of diaspora in America—an entire culture largely built, if we are willing to admit it, on the experience of being misbegotten. For this reason alone—whether or not he was Irish-American, or perhaps because he knew so thoroughly the fraught psychic and social crossroads of that place—there is no avoiding Eugene O’Neill.