Autobiographical Features in O’Neill’s Plays

June 5, 2018 Psychology

O’Neill’s life and plays offer a source of abundant material about the relation of autobiographical features and his writings. Dramatizing the family unit is the heart of his writings. The mothers and fathers of his plays are a choice originating from his own needs made to explain his mother’s and father’s behavior. Sons’ relationships are variations based on the structure of his own relationship with his parents as well as his children’s relationship with him. Moreover, the feminine figure plays a principal role. Most characters of his plays are similar or even identical to his family members.

In November 1924, after a short period of sorrow, O’Neill made the production of his play Desire Under the Elms. More powerful than Anna Kristie and Beyond the Horizon, it included all the typical features of O’Neill’s talent reflecting his anxiety about the human passionate nature and his inevitable fate. The play was O’Neill’s personal mourning for the loss of his family depicting the love and hate relations between father and son, couple and brothers. In this play, the son is in constant conflict with the father while the mother is the lovable and caring ally of the son.

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O’Neill, in this play, while making the portrait of Abbie’s feminine character, presented the opposing powers reflecting his mother’s character. Gelb characterizes the play Desire Under the Elms as “a non-conscious autobiography” while the play Long Day’s Journey into Night is characterized as a conscious one. “The Desire is the tragedy of the possessive and lamentable human desire to build his own paradise on the earth by satisfying his sense of power by possessing land, people, money and especially other people’s land and lives.

It’s the creative desire of a non creative spirit, that never manages anything rather than seizing temporarily the equally temporary reality” . The description of this family served for the writer’s exploring his feelings of guilt, abandonment and love that haunted his family. James and Ella O’Neill find their place in this play and the three sons, Jamie, dead Edmond and Eugene are portrayed by the characters of the sons Simon, Peter and Eben Cabot. The play Desire Under the Elms has impressive similarities with the O’Neill family.

Ephraim Cabot resembles to O’Neil’s father, since both had the same desire for goods especially land and both were in constant conflict with their sons. What is more important here is that Ephraim himself could be considered as one of the writer’s portraits: a demanding husband and a desperate father. Nevertheless, Eben reveals O’Neil’s obsession and emotional addiction to his mother as well as the corresponding hatred towards his father. O’Neil liked Ephraim Cabot very much: “I always liked Ephraim so much… He is so autobiographical! ” .

In Desire Under the Elms O’Neil described the primitive family: Ephraim incarnates the tough father, Abbie is the personification of tenderness and destructive motherhood, and Eben, like O’Neill, the victim of mother’s deprivation. Moreover, Eben is the first son-character in O’Neill’s plays who suffers a neurotic sorrow for his mother’s death. His emotional state is a result of the feeling of deprivation. Emotionally destroyed, Eben “attacked” Abbie when she adhered to the Cabot household, because she represented the femininity and motherly love he always desired. O’Neill used Abbie’s character to present the instinctive and spiritual world.

Autobiographically it may be considered as a combination of his mother, Ella O’Neill, and his second wife, Agnes Bulton. Abbie represents the well-meant but destructive power of Ella O’Neill. Simon and Peter, on the other hand, represent the combined picture of his brother, Jamie. Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night has been rightly praised as his finest play (and tragedy) as well as perhaps the finest play (and tragedy) ever written on this continent (O’Neill, A Collection of Critical Essays, p. 124). O’Neill’s severest critics consider the Long Day’s Journey into Night as his most powerful play.

This power comes, first of all, from the autobiographical sources, as he tells us in the preface, the “old, sorrow, written in tears and blood”, and the final strength and courage “to face my dead at last and write this play”. For certainly even a most superficial knowledge of the O’Neill family and of the facts of Eugene O’Neill’s early life show that the play is very close to being straight autobiography. In another sense it does not matter how close to, or how far from, are the facts of O’Neill’s life to the facts of the play, for Long Day’s Journey is more impressive as a cultural document than it is as an autobiographical document.

Furthermore, its distinctive qualities are given, not so much by family, as by culture, or by family-culture, since the two cannot be separated. The culture is, of course, New England Irish-Catholicism, and it is this that provides the folkways and mores, the character types, the interrelationships between characters, the whole attitude toward life that informs Long Day’s Journey and gives its meaning (O’Neill, A Collection of Critical Essays, p. 125).

The posthumous production of Long Day’s Journey into Night, in manuscript form edited 20 years after his death, brought to light an agonizingly autobiographical play, one of O’Neill’s greatest. O’Neill had been physically and mentally tormented while writing the Long Day’s Journey into Night since he was anxious to live again and present his painful past and make the accurate portraits of the four O’Neill. In this play, O’Neill focused on the details that led to the divorce with his family and its tragic effects on his life.

O’Neill underlined the acceptance that the right of living with one’s family and being happy was doubtful and that each time he had this right, this did not last long (?????????? , ???. 51). Nevertheless, the play offered his tormented heart serenity and relief as well, as he himself admitted. This play is straightforward in style but shattering in its depiction of the agonized relations between father, mother, and the two sons. Spanning one day in the life of a family, the play strips away layer after layer from ach of the four central figures, revealing the mother as defeated drug addict, the father as a man frustrated in his career and failed as a husband and father, the older son as a bitter alcoholic, and the younger son as a tubercular, disillusioned youth with only the slenderest chance for physical and spiritual survival. Autobiographical features appear almost throughout the whole play. The characters of the play are, first of all, the portraits of the four O’Neill. The character of James Tyrone was modeled on author O’Neill’s father.

Tyrone was a skilled actor but never realized his full potential because he was content to play the same roles again and again. Tyrone has a fondness for Shakespeare and whiskey. James O’Neill was a traveling actor who performed Shakespeare but spent most of his time playing the lead role in The Count of Monte Christo. James O’Neill earned a great deal of money as an actor but, like his fictional counterpart, was reluctant to spend money because of a gnawing fear that he might suffer a ruinous financial reversal.

Mary Cavan Tyrone was modeled on author O’Neill’s mother, Ella Quinlan O’Neill, who frequently accompanied her husband during his road tours. Like Mary Tyrone, she became a morphine addict while giving birth. O’Neill presents Mary in two ways: as she was in the past and the person her husband and sons want to be at present. Mary Tyrone ends up losing control of her feelings. Like all O’Neill’s feminine characters, Mary combines the life-giver as well as the destructive feature in the family, features that prevail in comparison with the male characters who complement them.

The play Long Day’s Journey into Night not only is the presentation by the author of the parents-children relationship, but also the sincere presentation of his problematic relationship with his own brother. This reveals the important key-role that Jamie Tyrone/O’Neill played in the facts that later influenced the author’s psychology. In this play O’Neill not only did he present in detail the fragile relationship he had with his brother, but he also mourned for its loss. Like many brothers, Jamie and Edmund shared a love and hate relationship with many tender and caring moments as well.

Both brothers tried to become autonomous in their family but were obliged to adopt a passive behavior and submission to their parents. O’Neill admitted that he had been violently deprived from his brother’s tenderness when he died. The O’Neill brothers shared, at first, the same desire to free themselves from the oppression of their family and from their family’s rules and their will to belong to an environment where their needs would be satisfied. Apart from the family characters, O’Neill also used other features of his real life in this play.

The character of the prostitute for example springs from his experience he had as a regular client of bars and prostitutes. Another feature of O’Neill’s real life that appears in the play is the Tyrone’s summer home which is an exact replica of their cottage house in New London, Connecticut, where some of the most crucial event occurred: the mother’s suicide attempt, his discovery of her addiction and his subsequent break with Catholicism, the family’s ostracism by wealthy Yankee New Londoners.


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