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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

O'Neill: Archaeologist of family life

There’s a poll on the PBS American Experience Web site that asks if family turmoil should be revealed for the sake of art. Overwhelmingly, respondents have said, “No!” But I think the framing of this question is wrong. Because what we look for in art is ourselves, is some truth and beauty that speaks to our individual experience. And I think most people who have ever been moved by words or images or music or a painting have experienced something that touched them deep within.

I’ve never had the privilege of seeing Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” but after watching Ric Burns’ documentary on American Experience I must see this play before I leave this world.

Certainly he was a tortured writer and the documentary reveals the emotional and physical toll that writing this autobiographical play took on him. I think that’s why so few writers take the plunge to those emotional depths and surface intact.

Putting words to the human condition in all its faults and failings and insecurities and neuroses and joys and loves and resentments and wounds that puncture the soul is frightening because of what we must tap to call forth those experiences. In doing so, we reveal our own failures and losses and wounds that can be unbearable to face.

O’Neill led the way for American literature to find itself, to delve into its past and reveal the universality of the human condition. Here's Ric Burns' take.

What did O'Neill accomplish with Long Day's Journey Into Night?

When things are complicated, and deep, and hard to get to -- hopes and fears and wounds and resentments and the inability to forget... Well, the truth of that can be very hard to get to. How do you really grasp the truth of the meaning of one's person experience? Of two people in a relationship? Multiply that number to four -- a mother, a father, their sons -- the complexity of the love and fear and pain is almost astronomically complex and deep. O'Neill simply strove to find out what those things were. How were people bound together and torn apart by their feelings and the wounds they inflicted on each other? He was the archaeologist of family life, more than psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in a sense. He went into the heart of the American family.

I’ve spent my morning searching online for the words to Edmund’s speech in Act Four of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” In the absence of finding it intact, I’ve cobbled together bits of it from Robert Sean Leonard’s performance on the program, and from The Electronic Eugene O’Neill Archive.

For anyone who has ever felt outside, who has a pressing desire be in even as they recognize the value of observing from afar, for one who has never felt truly at home, this speech is so hauntingly beautiful and painful that it feels as if the words are pressing in on your chest, squeezing whatever has been sealed inside to burst forth.

When the words won’t come, the tears will…

I was on the Squarehead square rigger bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail, white in the moonlight, towering high above me....


I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself - actually lost my life. I was set free!


I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky!


I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way.


Jill said...

I'm sorry I keep being the first to comment. :)

I saw Long Day's Journey into Night at the Yale Rep in the 1980s with Jason Robards. I remember everything about the experience, where I sat, what the set looked like etc.

I agree with everything you say about O'Neill and art.

I've not seen that poll and I can't believe that respondents overwhelming say no to revealing family turmoil for the sake of art. How many artists - in whatever genre - would tell you that their expressions saved them? That their expressions released them, relieved them and reinvigorated them?

I've seen the pain in my children's faces when they're unable to figure out how to express emotions that are bigger than they are. Thank goodness for all forms of art - including the spoken and written word - that lets people find a way to express turmoil that otherwise would be bottled up and retread in perhaps dangerous ways.

Greta Garbo said...

Today I feel compelled to comment, though I only vaguely remember the particulars of reading O'Neill's play my senior year in high school. I do remember it's emotional power. I also remember later getting into an argument with someone on which is better: O'Neill's LDJIN or Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. (I was the Miller fan, but it appears he only won a Pulitzer next to O'Neill's Nobel.)

A teacher friend saw LDJIN at Stratford in the 90's and declared it an "A+", so I hope you do get around to seeing it. I haven't (though I did see Miller's Salesman there; I remember wanting to scream during one of the final scenes, and then not being able to sleep that night.)

Point is, I do agree with you regarding art and its necessity. I also suspect you're right about the "framing" of the question. Most people likely do not want to "air their laundry", so to speak.

It's also quite likely that really good, true art is rare. There is more exploitation than art. But I do hope society as a whole continues to recognize value when they see (or hear) it.

(As I side, you touch on a drama, but I'm beginning to think some people speak "truthier" via the guise of "just being funny.")

--Debbie now in MI

Wendy Hoke said...

Hi Debbie,
Hope you and your family are getting settled in Michigan. Thank you for stopping by and for the thoughtful comments. I was incredibly moved by Death of Salesman -- particularly the "Attention must be paid" line. Such desperation in that line...

There is a fair amount of exploitation and I think that's why the survey is getting the response it has.

But I do think that good art draws from humanity and it is a wondrous thing when discovered.

Thank you for staying in touch.

Jeff Hess said...

Shalom Wendy,

Just as all politics are local; all stories are familial.



Wendy Hoke said...

Good point, Jeff.