Fintan O’Toole, ‘What Haunted Eugene O’Neill?’, in New York Review of Books (8 Nov. 2007), pp.47-49

[Source: Cutting of Christina Mahony (Washingon, D.C., March 2008).]

In late 1846, the minor poet John Keegan wrote “The Dying Mother’s Lament” based on the report in a Kilkenny newspaper of an inquest on the bodies of a woman and three children found partly eaten on the road:

‘To see my ghastly babies - my babies so meek
    and fair -
To see them huddled in the ditch like wild beasts
    in their lair;
Like wild beasts! No! the vixen cubs that sport
    on yonder hill
Lie warm this hour, and, I’ll engage, of food they’ve
    had their fill.’

—quoted in Melissa Fegan, Literature and the Irish Famine, 1845-1919, OUP 2002, p.176.)

It is bad poetry, but no other kind could reflect the horrors of the time. Some realities, and the emotions they evoke, may be too raw, too excessive, to be reflected in high art.

The strange thing about Eugene O’Neill is hat, for a man who had spent much of his youth in the fringes of radical politics, and for a writer who was inventing a national drama, his plays seem oddly disengaged from contemporary America. [...] Eugene O’Neill’s artistic career moves backwards. The normal trajectory of a writer is from the particular to the general, from family to society, from the autobiographical to the impersonal, from more or less unmediated realism to experiments in form. O’Neill travels in the opposite direction. He starts with the human condition and ends with his own. He starts with the social and ends up with the familial. When he finds his voice as playwright it is self-consciously theatrical, highly wrought, expressed through masks and formal contrivances. But when he thinks of the work that will appear in the unknown future, after his death, he moves into a plain, almost primitive naturalism. After Days Without End in 1933, he gave up the use of masks and turned thereafter to something like realism. The suicides and murders, the incestuous and illicit desires of the early plays give way to the minutiae of daily life. This shift away from overt theatricality was not just an exercise in form. As he burrowed beneath the high emotional pitch of his father’s melodrama, he was honing in on the hard reality of his father’s life.

This reverse order of O’Neill’s career mirrors his journey toward the past. As Zander Brietzke has put it, “He adopted a traditional form in his final plays but the action became entirely retrospective and time, in a novel way, became the definitive and tragic subject at last.” (Aesthetics of Failure: Dynamic Structure in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill, McFarland 2001, p.19.)

[... &c; p.47.]

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