Hooray for the Summer of 1912! For that summer gave us two of the greatest tragedies written in English: The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night, both by Eugene O’Neill. That said, O’Neill wrote neither play in 1912, nor was either produced in that year.
Long Day’s Journey into Night wasn’t produced until 1956, three years after O’Neill’s death. O’Neill had requested that there be no staging of the play until he had been dead 25 years, but his wife had other ideas, and so the play opened on Broadway 22 years earlier than O’Neill had expected.
But what’s all this about 1912? The dramatic date of both plays is 1912 (Iceman is set sometime in that summer and Journey more specifically in August of that year). And that year is significant for O’Neill himself, for in the first half of ‘12, O’Neill hit bottom in a dive very much like the setting of The Iceman Cometh, and later that year, as he vacationed with his parents and elder brother in Connecticut, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and entered a sanatorium, which is exactly what happens to Edmund Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey.
So we have two plays, set in the same year, that reflect what happened to O’Neill himself in that year. It was while O’Neill was in the sanatorium that he turned to writing plays, so the terrible year of 1912 was also the year of O’Neill the playwright’s birth. O’Neill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936, but these later works are easily the best thing O’Neill ever did.
Of the two plays, Iceman is easily the darker play – it may be the darkest play in the American theater. For the community at Harry Hope’s Bar is basically a community of strangers, each desperately trying to hold on to his dream – when those dreams are shattered, each man stands alone to face his despair, and the effect on the reader or audience is terrifying. Journey, too strips away the comforting illusions of the members of the Tyrone family, but, at play’s end, the family remains together. And therein lies some hope, and some comfort, little though it may be.
If you have read neither play, start with Journey. Iceman is tough, and it offers no real hope – I once read some scholar discussing Iceman, noting that O’Neill, more than any other American author, had the courage to look straight into the abyss and to take us there too.
Journey has four main characters: James Tyrone Sr., his wife, Mary, his eldest son, James Jr., and his youngest son, Edmund. The story of the Tyrones follows that of the O’Neill’s. The father is a matinee idol to thousands for his portrayal, year after year, of the Count of Monte Cristo. But it is empty fame, as he gave up on his dream of being the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation. He has fame and fortune, but he knows he sold out.
Mary, like O’Neill’s mother, Ella, fell into a severe depression when her youngest child, Eugene, died from measles contracted from Edmund (just as, in reality, baby Edmund O’Neill died from exposure to his older brother, Eugene, when Eugene had the measles), and she became dependent on morphine. James Jr. is an alcoholic layabout, and, in following his older brother’s example, Edmund has ruined his health.
Like the Greek tragedies it is modeled on, the action of the play takes place on one day, beginning at breakfast, and ending some time after midnight, when Mary reenters the scene after a long absence. O’Neill does a masterful job of preparing us for something shocking when Mary does make her final entrance – hints are dropped throughout the play – and that final scene is amazing and devastating.
I’m holding back from revealing the ending, for it should have its full impact – I first read the play when I was 16 and the ending brought me near to tears, and every time I read the play, or see a production (and I’ve read or seen the play a dozen times or so), that scene still knocks me out. I don’t want to deprive you of that experience. So no more about that.
Reading O’Neill is rewarding, but seeing a production of O’Neill is even more rewarding. And the library does have DVDs or VHS tapes of some very nice productions of these works. Look for Long Day’s Journey into Night with Ralph Richardson, Katherine Hepburn and Jason Robards (DVD) or Laurence Olivier, Constance Cummings, and Dennis Quilley (VHS). There is also a DVD version with Jack Lemmon, Bethel Leslie and Kevin Spacey that’s quite excellent, though our library system does not have a copy.
For Iceman, the library has a DVD of the production with Lee Marvin as the traveling salesman, Hickey. The library does not have, unfortunately, an excellent DVD of an early television production which features Jason Robards in the role of Hickey.
I can’t say that reading (or watching) O’Neill is fun, but I can think of no other American dramas that deserve to share the limelight with the tragedies of Ancient Greece. In other words, read ‘em and weep.
About the Author
Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.