Reading New England: Three plays by Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night (1941)
Eugene O’Neill, Ah, Wilderness! (1933)
Eugene O’Neill, A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943)

oneillplaysBefore I embarked on the Reading New England challenge, I had no awareness of Eugene O’Neill as a Connecticut author. My experience of his plays was limited to a reading of Mourning Becomes Electra in high school, which involved heavy emphasis on the symbolism and parallels to classical drama, rather than on O’Neill’s own life.

In fact, as the son of a touring actor, though O’Neill was born and went to school in New York, he spent summers at the family cottage in New London, Connecticut. He attended Harvard briefly, did a stint at sea, and became involved with the Provincetown (Massachusetts) Players, a collective of artists, writers, and theater enthusiasts that produced some of his early works before they moved on to Broadway. With fame and increased wealth came sojourns in exotic places — the Loire Valley, the Georgia Sea Islands, Bermuda — but he died in a Boston hotel. (Born in a hotel room, died in a hotel room, he quipped near the end.)

O’Neill (right) with his family on Cape Cod, 1922

The first O’Neill work I read for its Connecticut connection was Long Day’s Journey into Night, a searing fictional portrayal of his own tortured family that is set in the New London cottage — which is open as a museum today, decorated as described in the play. He gave orders for it not to be published until 25 years after his death and never performed, but his widow, as literary executor, ignored both instructions and the American theater gained an instant classic.

With his minute rendering of the painful relationships within a family riven by alcoholism, money problems, addiction, and illness, O’Neill displays great psychological insight and dramatic skill. Hoping against hope that there will be change for the better, the characters yet inexorably slide into old habits of sloth, cowardice, and denial. As their intimate dialogue plays out before us, over the course of a single day and past the midnight hour, they evoke pity and horror at the nightmare that life has become for them.

“The fog was where I wanted to be. Halfway down the path you can’t see this house. You’d never know it was here. Or any of the other places down the avenue. I couldn’t see but a few feet ahead. I didn’t meet a soul. Everything looked and sounded unreal. Nothing was what it is. That’s what I wanted — to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself. Out beyond the harbor, where the road runs along the beach, I even lost the feeling of being on land. The fog and the sea seemed part of each other. It was like walking on the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago. As if I was a ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost.”

O’Neill put these words into the mouth of the character representing himself, and to me they captured the feeling of the play as a whole — I was reading of people whose souls had died long ago, but who were doomed to replay their tormented lives into infinity. The only way they could rest was to lose themselves in oblivion.

O’Neill’s gravestone

Most of O’Neill’s plays are tragic, if not all quite this tragic. However, he could also write in a different vein, as shown by his earlier comedy Ah, Wilderness! — also set in Connecticut, but in a nostalgic, idealized small-town setting at the turn of the twentieth century. Its coming-of-age story of a boy who rebels mildly against his warm, loving family, but ultimately returns to their wholesome ideals, is generally described as O’Neill’s vision of the childhood he wished he had had.

Perhaps because I had just read Long Day’s Journey, though, it seemed to me that there were seeds of trouble within the harmony. An alcoholic uncle is played as a source of fun, but I couldn’t help thinking that the characters were blinding themselves to the true horrors of his condition. And the ending, in which the boy and his girlfriend naively pledge themselves to one another, appeared to me a recipe for disaster. What would happen when the boy outgrew his rather bland and stupid first love? These questions are blithely ignored in the play itself, but are the kind of subjects that O’Neill explored so thoroughly elsewhere.

Poster from the 2000 revival of Moon

A more mature and nuanced love story is the subject of A Moon for the Misbegotten, a third and as far as I know final play set in Connecticut. Here, we visit a dilapidated, hardscrabble farm tenanted by an Irishman and his long-suffering daughter (his sons have been driven away by his tyrannical ways). O’Neill returns to some of the characters and motifs, and even some bits of dialogue of Long Day’s Journey — which, of course, he never expected to be produced — and gives them a slightly more hopeful trajectory.

Centering on the characters representing O’Neill’s alcoholic older brother, and the outwardly rough but inwardly tender woman who hopelessly loves him, it takes us through another long night of suffering into a dawn that brings a strangely poignant redemption. Though their brokenness is too deep for them ever to be truly whole, the fact that they can yet see and acknowledge the human essence in one another brings a touch of grace, of salvation.

Following the utter darkness of Long Day’s Journey into Night, and the artificial brightness of Ah, Wilderness!, I was glad to finish this dramatic journey with the benign, soothing shimmer of moonlight. All three plays, though, are certainly worth your attention. If you’ve ever seen any memorable productions, I would love to hear about them, too.

Classics Club list #19


2 thoughts on “Reading New England: Three plays by Eugene O’Neill

  1. I love tragic stories, and this would be an especially good thing for me to pick up, as I haven’t read a play in ages and wanted to include some in my reading this coming year.


    1. Long Day’s Journey into Night will provide you with plenty of tragic material to chew on. As usual after reading a play, now I’d really love to see it with some great actors — it wouldn’t be so easy to do well, I think.


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