Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Complexities of Subject Positioning Played Out in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night

The Tyrone family, of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), has got to be one of the most relentlessly dysfunctional families in all of 20th-century American drama. The play’s four long acts portray the seemingly endless histrionics of the four members of the family, who all go out of their way to bait and bully—either directly or passive-aggressively—each of the other three main characters, so that the play seems to do little more than stage every possible configuration of confrontation between the members of the family. Mary blames her husband, James, and later their son, Edmund, for her morphine addiction. James transfers the blame for Mary’s condition onto the other son, Jamie, who he perceives as a philanderer and drunk. Jamie, in turn, sees Edmund’s birth as the root cause of the family’s troubles. And, to varying degrees, all of the men—alcoholics themselves, mind you—hold Mary responsible for the ultimate disintegration of their family unit and home life. Indeed, given the incessant accusations made by and against all of the Tyrone family members, it is difficult to sort out the true origins of the family’s unhappiness. I would argue, though, that the circular blaming that occurs in this play demonstrates O’Neill’s complex understanding—far ahead of his time—of individual subjectivity as comprised of overlapping identities. Because of the multiple subject positions that each of the characters occupy, none of them are simply oppressed or oppressor; instead, all are both. Even the Tyrone mother, powerless and pathetic as she appears throughout most of the play, is presented as simultaneously victim and victimizer.

Coming from a background in motherhood studies, my first inclination is, of course, to see Mary as a casualty of an uncompromisingly patriarchal family structure that positions her as mere (m)other. And to some extent, she is. The Tyrone men clearly construct Mary as an “other,” representative of that they are not. While they see Mary’s addiction as a sign of feminine weakness, for instance, they perceive their own alcoholism as a natural masculine trait, “a good man’s failing.” Besides, as they believe, they don’t drink because they are drunks; they drink to dull the pain that Mary inflicts on them by popping pills. In this way, they attribute all that is wrong with their lives to Mary—they blame the mother. Also, in many ways, the three male Tyrones exercise more control over Mary’s life than she does herself. As the patriarch of the family, James in particular determines where Mary will live, when she will eat, and even how many light bulbs she can have on in the house at one time. In a painkiller-induced state during the final scene, Mary articulates the loss of her subjectivity by embarking on a household search for “something [she] need[s] terribly.” Indeed, through Mary’s various conversations with her sons and husband that lead up to this pitiful moment, we learn that, over time, Mary has gradually experienced the deterioration of all of her dreams. She abandoned her goal of becoming either a concert pianist or a nun when she married James Tyrone. She submitted to the demands of James’s acting career and accepted his frequent drunkenness. Later, she devoted herself to the needs of her children. The birth of her youngest son Edmund sent her into a depression, which the family doctor medicated with morphine, thus setting the stage for Mary’s all-consuming addiction. In her older years, Mary lives in shabby hotel rooms and a run-down summer home, in accordance with James’s aversion to spending money on anything he perceives as frivolity. In these ways, Mary is oppressed by a particular set of restraints imposed on her as a middle-class wife and a mother in the early twentieth century; her life is circumscribed by her position as adjunct to and nurturer of her husband and sons.

But Mary is certainly not blameless in the development of the Tyrone family pathology. Besides choosing marriage over the nunnery in the first place, refusing James’s continued efforts to draw her out of her insular home life, and ignoring Edmund’s efforts to help her stay sober, Mary purposefully uses the class position of her family of origin to assert authority over both the Tyrone servants and her own husband. She attributes the perceived misbehavior of her maid and cook to their working-class Irish roots. More importantly to my point, Mary takes every opportunity to remind James of the discrepancy between her own pampered upbringing and his childhood as a poor Irish immigrant. She points out in one scene, for example, that James probably predisposed their sons for alcoholism by giving them shots of whiskey to treat their minor childhood illnesses, and she is quick to blame parental shortcomings of this type on James’s Irishness, impoverished childhood, and lack of education. In this way, Mary maintains an attitude of class superiority and reinforces James’s sense of shame regarding his working-class immigrant heritage. She contributes, then, to his self-doubt and self-hate, which almost certainly manifest themselves in his stinginess and bullying of his sons, not to mention his own addiction.

In a current review of Long Day’s Journey into Night at St. Louis’s Muddy Waters Theatre Company (running through November 21, 2010), Judith Newmark summarizes the plot of the play: “four deeply unhappy people spend a hot, miserable day in August 1912 succumbing to their addictions and unloading on one another.” She goes on to comment, “Superficially, it seems strange that we'd choose to share this experience with them instead of fleeing.” Indeed, the unrelenting nature of the blame-game played out in this dramatic text makes it a bit tiresome. But the blaming contributes directly to O’Neill’s portrayal of the complexities of subject positioning. Mary is both woman and middle-class, and although she may be victimized by the constraints imposed on her as a female—and, more specifically, a mother—she certainly uses her class status to victimize others, and, sadly, her claim of class superiority over her husband contributes to his oppression of her as a woman.

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