President and Sabina Higgins address the Eugene O’Neill Society Gala Dinner

Fri 21st Jul, 2017 | 18:00
location: NUIG, Co. Galway

‘Reflecting on the Irishness of Eugene O’Neill’ - Speech at the Eugene O'Neill Society Gala Dinner

National University of Ireland, Galway, Friday, 21 July 2017

He has left us a legacy of work that continues to inspire those who work in theatre, those scholars who seek to locate such work and practice in a literary context.

A dhaoiní chóir,

Tá an-áthas orm bheith i bhur láthair ar an ocáid seo. Tá me buíoch dibh as an cuireadh agus an fáilte forchaoin a chur sibh romham.

I am delighted to be your guest of honour at this gathering of scholars to celebrate a true giant of literature. I am not so sure as to what the response of the ghost of Eugene O’Neill might be to the idea that a gathering of eminent scholars had spent four days in the west of Ireland discussing the content, production, and legacy of his work. Perhaps he would see it, I would like to think as a belated recognition in the setting of the descendants of the common ancestors. So mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, as President of Ireland, I want to thank all of you for coming here, for your scholarship, and for the significance that you accord to a writer that, I believe, should always be regarded as part of the Irish canon.

I have spoken of this connection of Eugene O’Neill with Irish history and literature before – on one occasion when I was giving the Third Thomas Flanagan Lecture in New York in May 2012, and more recently when I had the privilege of speaking at the launch of Robert Dowling’s magnificent biography of Eugene O’Neill in April 2016 at UCD.

Eugene O’Neill has been so well-served by that biography of Robert Dowling. All of us can be grateful for it. I have been re-reading it and what I have to say this evening is by way of a further reflection on it suggested to me by the life of O’Neill as accounted in Robert Dowling’s work.

I have, of course, as I was preparing to come here, also been scanning the titles of the papers that have been given over the last three days and those that will be delivered tomorrow, at what is a magnificent gathering of good scholarship drawn from experience and of course eclectic themes and new insights.

I thus concluded that for my pre-prandial remarks this evening that something by way of personal reflection, rather than any engagement with what is such a wide scholarship, might be most appropriate. You will also have had the benefit of context, by hearing from Declan Kiberd, my friend of so many years and the author of such good research on Irish writing in English and the Irish language.

A quotation that occurs again and again in the work of those who have engaged in research on Eugene O’Neill is a heartfelt tribute he offered to Irish playwrights whose work he had read, and production of some of whose work he had seen on stage, during the tumultuous but very relevatory visit of the Irish Players to the United States in 1911. The effect on him of what he saw on stage was profound. In contradiction of his declared antipathy to memberships and accolades he wrote:

“I was asked to be a member of the Irish Academy being organized by Shaw & Yeats & Robinson, etc. – and accepted. Of course, I’m ‘associate’ because not Irish born. But this I regard as an honour, whereas other Academies don’t mean much to me. Anything with Yeats, Shaw, A.E., O’Casey, O’Flaherty, Robinson in it is good enough for me … At any rate, I’m pleased about all this.”

O’Neill would go on to say much later, in just a few short years before his death in a conversation with Eugene Jr.: 

“The one thing that explains more than anything about me is the fact that I’m Irish”

That O’Neill was proud of, and attached importance to his Irishness is not in question.

It is interesting, I suggest, to speculate on which side Eugene O’Neill fell on the choice that Paula M. Kane summarised as deciding whether in their production of John Millington Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” the Irish players were “staging a lie” or revealing an inadmissible “naked truth”.

The Irish catholics in many of the cities where the productions took place in 1911 were anxious that no ammunition be given to a cultural elite who were aggressively defending a declining hegemony in cultural matters.  

Paula M. Kane was writing in that wonderful series on the Irish migrations, edited by Patrick O’Sullivan. In the “Religion and Identity” volume he drew on Doris Goodwin’s, “The Fitzgeralds and The Kennedys” to describe the ambivalence of Irish Americans in Boston to the production in the Plymouth Theatre of John M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World”. She wrote of the reaction of the twenty-one year old daughter of the Mayor, Rose, daughter of Joseph Kennedy:

“Just those qualities of poverty, dirt and sloth which the Yankees had always accused the Irish of having and there they were depicted as characters of the Old Country – unvarnished and naked to the eye”

Seeking to analyse what that Irishness offered on stage and which impressed O’Neill really meant, what influenced it, what price was paid for it, what it released and with what consequence will, no doubt, continue to be a matter for continuing scholarship. It is very much worth the effort and I believe important not just for Irish American studies but also for migration theory, literary studies and the neglected concept of transience in the social studies.

That scholarship has to deal, not only with the genius of O’Neill, but the diverse and complex sources of his vulnerability. It is a vulnerability that is located certainly in his alcoholism, in his anger – an anger that, without doubt did lead, on occasion, to violence. These outbursts are expressions of frustration, from proximate and personal experience, the regular loss of control of an impulse never addressed, was and should not ever be, excusable. Neither can it be allocated to some feature of culture. The stereotyping of some cultures as being inherently prone to violence, is familiar to me If I may offer an example, I recall hearing from the highest diplomatic level during my early visits in the 1980s to El Salvador the suggestion that the Salvadorean people were inherently violent. Some critics of O’Neill’s work, perhaps allowed themselves to come too close to those lazy constructions of such behaviour as being in any essential sense inherently Irish.

There are, however, deep sources of vulnerability that flow, I believe, from the migratory experience of families such as that of O’Neill’s. The response to the transience that is at the heart of the migratory experience, and the use, and abuse, of memory in interpreting what influences based on the source of the migratory experience are important.

A constructed, communal memory to be invoked as material not just for art, but for life, is central to O’Neill, as it was to his father, and as it would be to his children.

In fact, I would like to suggest, that part of the legacy of Eugene O’Neill to theatre, not only in the United States but in the world, has been the new ground he carved out for the use of memory as not being ever simply an invocation of anything shared for the purposes of establishing a setting, but also as a scalpel, an instrument that in different forms could become available for the psychic destruction of a protagonist. This would impact, not only on his own life but on the lives of others with whom he shared communal, but also contrived mythic sources for memory as contested spaces, temporary or permanent, and its reach involved a period of time not confined to any present circumstance. It invoked the ancestors. In present circumstances it functions as a ‘de profundis’, from below, that claims discursive space for souls in bodies, a space that might be spiritual, where rituals had become insufficient.

Then too, I found myself on re-reading Robert Dowling’s work, returning to a consideration of something very old, near eternal, the father-son relationship. This is a theme that goes beyond any Irishness and can be attributed to O’Neill’s respect for classical Greek sources.

In the Irish migratory experience, it has a particular meaning in terms of a response to dispossession. The devalued father of the dispossessed is the father who has not been able to redress a great wrong or achieve excellence in the new conditions, the new destinations, to which the family of the dispossessed has fled or migrated.

The concessions made by first generation parents  to the opportunities offered at the point of destination of the migrant, that constitute the father’s achievement are far short of either what has been lost, but what the myth demanded as a birth-right to be recovered, or that which should have been attempted and which would have achieved greatness again, albeit in a new setting.

Returning to O’Neill’s Irishness it is important to understand, I believe, the powerful mythic force of the remembered Irish Famine from which his grandparents had fled. If the Irish Times had attributed the Irish Famine of 1845-47 to an Act of God or the inherent backwardness of the Irish peasantry, it had also been moved to acknowledge in an editorial two decades after the famine, with its millions of deaths and great exodus across the Atlantic, to say in an editorial “we have made a great mistake. They have gone to what will be one of the most powerful nations in the world and they will never let us forget”.

It was thus for the Irish in O’Neill’s circumstances in the United States. In their accounts they drew, not only on personal and family experience, but also on the literary and competing ideological versions of the Irish Famine of 1847 that were available to them. John Mitchell’s Jail Journal, claimed to be read in every Irish house, was important. Mitchell’s work is part of a long contemplation on the Irish Famine. If his account is purposefully ideological, the relatively recent “The Graves are Walking” of John Kelly is a work of fine and balanced scholarship.

The Irish in North America drew on such memories as the material for a founding myth for their migration. It was real, but in doing so they did not confine themselves to the events of the middle of the 19th Century. They pushed their historical analysis back through centuries of dispossession, a culture consciously crushed, despised. Regarded as inferior, a language forbidden to be used. They invoked a mythical Ireland of Kings and Chiefs – a form of nobility in striking contrast to the circumstances with which they struggled. The attraction Seán O’Faoláin’s The Great O’Neill had for Eugene O’Neill is not accidental. It fits.

Robert Dowling quotes from a draft of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hair of the Dog”:

“That’s right! A hair of the dog that bit you’…….

And they’re all the same dog, and his name is Greed of Living

And when he bites there is a fever comes and a great thirst and a great drinking to kill it, and a grand drunk and a terrible hangover and a headache and remorse of conscience – and a sick empty stomach without greed or appetite. But take a hair of the dog and the sun will rise again for you – and the appetite and the thirst will come back, and you can forget – and begin all over!”

What a powerful metaphor for late nineteenth and early twentieth century capitalism.

There is, I believe, in what Synge sought perhaps the cossets approximation to O’Neill. A multitude of interpretations are available for what Synge sought to achieve in “The Playboy of the Western World.” Years ago I quoted his letter on what he called “the ungodly ruck of fat-faced sweaty headed swine” which he suggested were in Dublin and in Kingstown and also in all country towns.

This past of dispossession and humiliation which served as palliative to the present is in the background, I suggest, of so much of O’Neill’s work. It constitutes a fragile structure. The lash, when I think of Long Day’s Journey into Night, falls on the most proximate, equally but differently vulnerable, and the scalpel falling on the personal histories but also on the particular constructions of a past that had been placed on top of the common, shared myth of dispossession. The dramatic force increases when it is not only the personal identity and esteem of the character on stage that is destroyed in the violence of the discourse, but the previously shared mythic source and its structure itself. The tragedy will not be relieved by any sentimental reconciliation or resolution. The conclusion is stark, and this may have created a problem for O’Neill in terms of his audiences who may have wished the tragedy relieved by some form of reconciliation but that would have of course contradicted both the realist intention of the author and the classical form from which he drew. It might also not be expected from a migrant population invoking the name of a peasantry but who are members of what was little less than a new urban underclass from which they were intent on escaping and for which they would make whatever changes are necessary, including changes in the definition of what was religion and nationalism.

What is truly astonishing is the sheer range and depth of O’Neill’s work. Looking back at it the prism of Genet and Beckett suggests itself. Play after play appears and the voices of the excluded are heard, voices from below, from settings where there is an intensity of experience, of sensual excess, of what is ephemeral, but yet, for all that, deeply and profoundly human. It is less the case of the playwright falling into such circumstance rather it is the case of such experiences being brought into the light of an audience’s experience. The exercise cannot ever, as O’Neill warned, be propaganda, but yet it is intended to be revelatory and in being so it is potentially a contribution that is profoundly emancipatory.

I see in the work of Tom Murphy some parallels with Eugene O’Neill’s work. I think of ‘Whistle in the Dark’. If O’Neill had the Melodys, Murphy has the Carneys – ‘Champions of the World’. The early production of Tom Murphy’s plays in London had a similar experience to what greeted some of O’Neill’s work such as The Hairy Ape or All God’s Chillun. Not only were conservative sensibilities offended but the conventions of the theatre itself were perceived as being challenged.

In the case of the early London productions of Tom Murphy’s plays there was a similar response. Audiences thankfully, change.

While Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan were horrified in the 1960s, with one stating that he would not like to meet Mr. Murphy after dark, and the other stating that if any Irish man was left in London at the weekend, the Home Secretary would not have done his job, just a few years ago, the production of Murphy’s cycle of plays received several ovations. It is a source of hope that time honours the brave in literature. Speaking of time, and O’Neill’s work was criticised for its sheer length and the long monologues, Tom Murphy also experienced the suggestion from critics that he might shorten such works as The Gigli Concert.

I find in O’Neill’s work a wrestling with contradictions. There is the price paid for the loss of certainty, a certainty that had been provided in a simple version of faith, replete with reassuring rituals reflected in a great sense of loss. It is a faith that cannot be recovered and neither sensory indulgence from below or consumption of any shallow social experience in its modernising context, are proving to be an inadequate substitute.

The objective experience of these Irish migrants on whom O’Neill drew was not a passive one in their new settings or indeed as the moving from one generation to another. New values had emerged, had become dominant in Ireland, and new values were being forged in the United States. Both were highly individualistic. And these changes affected religions, nationalism and cultural communities. From the flux Eugene O’Neill, and later in Ireland Tom Murphy, wrote.

Irish historiography in recent times is coming to terms with the shift on values, with the significance of the post-Famine adjustment in terms of the heightened importance that became attached to land, property and respectability. Those who starved, but survived, and could stay would come to value possession and chase respectability, the respectability of property ownership. Indeed there is a primitive violence associated with land ownership. An aggressive view of the world is suggested as necessary. In Liam O’Flaherty’s “Two Lovely Beasts” the old mother can say in criticism of her son “A man must have a greed for the world in him”.

The Irish migrant experience was not immune from this and while Eugene O’Neill’s work exposes the falsity of an insatiable consumption, and the society that is based upon it, much of the lived life of his varying partners and family members includes a search for the security of property. The contradiction of communal and individualistic values had crossed the Atlantic. The search for respectability, assisted by property aggrandisement, will fit neatly with an authoritarian clericalism, and upward mobility has been defined.

In Ireland, the old country, the Irish society of the last years of the 19th Century and early 20th Century was one that had transitioned from a society of landlords and tenants to one of smallholders. A rural grazier class had also consolidated its position, a native predator would prove less easy to dislodge as it invoked both faith and nationalism. In such a way, radicalism could easily depart both politics, society and spirituality.

Eugene O’Neill’s middle name, we should not forget, Gladstone, invokes the British parliamentarian who is associated with the Land Acts and acceptance of the need for a modicum of Irish self-rule.

When I gave the Thomas Flanagan Lecture in New York we were on the eve of a decade of commemorations. I gave as the title of my lecture ‘Remembering and Imagining Irishness’. I was preparing at that time, a number of papers on the ethics of memory. It is a challenging field. I was conscious, for example, of the need to dispose of any bogus amnesia in relation to the sources of conflict in Irish history. I sought to acknowledge the new scholarship on the complex sources of conflict. I was conscious of the danger of a bland version of historical change that was not amenable to any critique of empire dominating the period of commemoration.

As I look back on the use I made of Ricoeur. Arendt and others I saw that even through the task of an open and real revision was difficult, it was essential. Critiquely, the imperialist work is the slowest work. In some respects, it has hardly begun.

On that occasion, I said, and I have had no reason to change my mind since -

“I want to take advantage of this opportunity to consider how Ireland has been - and must now again be – renewed through memory and imagination. Renewing Ireland and with it our sense of what it means to be Irish is one of the most urgent challenges facing us at present. It is a challenge which encompasses and underpins economic renewal but also which goes beyond it.” 

It is an exercise of empowerment in constructing an ethical relationship with others and it can be emancipatory in our contemporary condition in freeing us from models of economy and society which are not only failing but which are disastrous in their social consequences.

I went on to suggest that: -

“This is neither a new exercise or a new challenge for Irish people. I suggest that the Irish have repeatedly mined the past to meet the needs of its present. We have done so, not as sentimentalists but as modernisers. Contrary to the caricature often drawn of us, we are among the greatest of modernisers – innovative and adaptive to a rare degree. This is an insight which is perhaps better preserved among the Irish disapora than in Ireland itself.”

What remembering and imagining have in comon is mythmaking: the one, remembering, is often initiated so as to achieve a healing; find a rationalisation; construe an event in such a way as to be both a warm cloak for the self and a dagger for the threatening other; the other imagining, needs myth to retain belief, not merely as assurance or reassurance, but as a mechanism for the retention of hope in the unrealised possibilities of being human, truly free, in emancipatory, celebratory, joyous co-existence with, and through, others on this vulnerable planet on which we share life.

Mythmaking is not confined, as practice or admission, to us Irish. But I think we can immodestly claim to have excelled at it in our different ways, in different times, and from different sentinel outposts, and so often the consequence of having invented instruments invoked for defence, that ended up being destructive not only for those we opposed but for ourselves. It is in literature that we Irish have perhaps laid bare the full creative potential of mythmaking, and the price that attends it.

That achievement is not divorced however from historical context. It carries the burden of history but flies from it, making something new.

This can happen, will happen, again and again. This is the stuff of hope, which is so much more than any optimism.

James Joyce, for example, draws on so much of what there is in the memory baggage of his people yet he did not seek to place it, or surrender it, to what he inherited as the form of the novel as it prevailed in his time. The excellence of imitation that was available to him within the prevailing genre was not chosen. Rather he, in his novel Ulysses, brought something entirely new into the world.

An ancient myth transacted in oral tradition, soiled, reworked and reworn became a frame for something contemporary and mould-breaking. It became a vehicle for what silences had sought to cover, for intimacies forbidden, racisms thinly disguised and faiths no longer trusted but then not easily discarded and never forgotten.

All of this creates a more challenging context for a writer such as Eugene O’Neill working in the flux of an exciting urbanism. The song that prevailed was now a song of the city, with all its layers of humanity. One thinks of Simmel’s “The Metropolis and Mental Life” an industrial system of material form replete with winners and losers in a wild capitalism that would open new wounds, psychic social and racial.

In their mythmaking, Irish people have had to be modernisers again and again in different circumstances of adversity at home and abroad and in truth circumstance has given them rewards from both its necessity and its promise. It is in transcending the challenges of transience of migration that Irish people have through famine, migration, exile and colonisation been forced to be modernisers again and again.

I could argue that, faced with new forms of financialised global speculative capital, that it is not only the migrants of our time, but the structures of thought that pull them into a set of vulnerabilities must change.

A migrant sensibility is a valuable sensibility. It enables structure to be seen. It is at its best when that capacity is exercised rather than any dalliance with the vagueness produced by a collapse into postmodernism, that is nihilistic in its outcome.

That informal, vigourous ‘Irishness’ that is being frustrated is the Irishness discernible in so mch of Eugene O’Neill’s work. This is what I believe served as background to the often-feverish mind of Eugene O’Neill – a modernising instinct that saw, in the modernism that had arrived in social form, something deeply unsatisfactory. This, I think, for example, is what leads him to suggest, after a long 12-year silence, in an interview given when he was very frail, where he states that the American Dream was not anything other than an opportunity lost.

That set of suffering souls and drying out bodies, that set of communities of loss of which he wrote was peopled by characters from below, characters drawn, too, from dysfunctional forms of the family too where the lash could fall with most vicious effect, they would fill his plays. Migrants can never forget, they are continually modernising. Even after the second generation they are transacting again, as they reach the subsoil and, in their recoil, encounter, the previously sustaining myths of previous generations, and find them insufficient and thus they set about the revision of old and the construction of new, myths that can both sustain and destroy.  

So then, if Eugene O’Neill provides an example of a vulnerable human being overwhelmed by forces of background, economy, social form, repression and loss. But if this be so we must never forget that he also has left us a legacy of work that continues to inspire those who work in theatre, those scholars who seek to locate such work and practice in a literary context.

He took the risks from which we all benefit, and his work has provided inspiration for so many brilliant dramatists, such as Arthur Miller and so many others.

While his name may be sometimes recalled in the media as a Nobel Laureate, or in terms of his Pulitizer Prizes, we in Ireland are honoured that you have come to discuss his work a great Irish-American literary giant, and at a time when he is at last being recognised as a significant part of the Irish canon.

Would Eugene O’Neill be pleased?

May I leave you with this quote from Carol Bird of Theatre Magazine, who said of O'Neill in 1924:

"Interviewing Eugene O'Neill is like extracting testimony from a reluctant witness. In fact, to use the word "interview" in connection with him is to employ almost a misnomer.

Certainly, it is an inapplicable designation. An interview presupposes a colloquy. A flow of words between two persons. Nothing more erroneous could be circulated about [him]. ... Silence. Silence. More questions, probings, attempts to secure opinions, statements, anything but monosyllables.

Futility! Suddenly, I am overcome with a sense of the ridiculous. Here are two people whose very careers oppose this sort of conduct. A playwright who deals in words. A writer who juggles them daily. Sitting across from each other in silence, apparently overcome with shyness.”

May I wish you all every success in your work and your silences.

Míle buíochas.