“A Moon for the Misbegotten” by Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O’Neill was a strange one. Long Day’s Journey into Night strikes me as a supremely great dramatic masterpiece, and continues to affect me profoundly; yet nothing else he has written – not even the undeniably powerful The Iceman Cometh – seems to come close to that achievement. 

A Moon for the Misbegotten was written shortly after Long Day’s Journey into Night, and, like the earlier play, again features the character Jamie Tyrone, a depiction of O’Neill’s own brother who had drunk himself to death. Here again we see the tortured, guilt-ridden alcoholic, haunted by the past, and attempting vainly to mask his emotional vulnerability and self-loathing under a veneer of nastiness and cynicism. But A Moon for the Misbegotten cannot really be seen – and nor was intended to be seen – as a sequel to the earlier play. The chronology is all wrong for a start. Clearly, the action of this play takes place after Long Day’s Journey, as the parents depicted in that play are both dead when the curtain rises on this one; however, the first act of this play ends with a scene that had been narrated as an anecdote in the earlier play, so it becomes impossible to perform the two works as a Part One and Part Two of the same saga. Also, the earlier play was so personal for O’Neill that he had forbidden either publication or performance during his own lifetime, whereas not only did he permit both performance and publication of this work, he apparently lost interest in it to such an extent that he couldn’t even summon up the energy to make the revisions to it that he knew it required. 

A Moon for the Misbegotten is clearly not up to the standards of Long Day’s Journey into Night, although many of the elements that had made the earlier work so hypnotically powerful are present here also. But it doesn’t quite seem to work here. In the earlier play, the various repetitions had a cumulative effect: they conveyed a sense of these characters probing and picking at the same wounds over and over again because they could not do otherwise; but here, the repetitions merely end up becoming tiresome. I think the reason for this difference is that Long Day’s Journey into Night had explored why the characters were as they were, whereas here, we are simply expected to accept these characters as they are, without delving into whys and hows. There is no explanation given, for instance, for James Tyrone’s hatred of his now-deceasad father, or for the reasons he had taken to drink in the first place: we know these things from Long Day’s Journey into Night, of course, but since these pieces of the jigsaw are withheld here, we don’t really see much more to James here than a pathetic, self-pitying drunk. And the drunken confessional that had seemed so raw and painful in the earlier play here runs the risk of appearing merely maudlin. It’s hard to see why a dramatist with the experience of Eugene O’Neill should write it like this: perhaps his own emotional investment in the play blinded him to its shortcomings. One can but speculate. But the long drunken confessional scene in Act Three of this play does not quite have the raw power that perhaps it should have had. 

James in not the only “misbegotten” character here. There is also Josie, described in the stage directions in the most unflattering of terms: 

Josie is twenty-eight. She is so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak – five feet eleven in her stockings, and weighs around one hundred and eighty. Her sloping shoulders are broad, her chest deep and large, firm breasts, her waist wide but slender by contrast with her hips and thighs. She has long arms, immensely strong, although no muscles show. The same is true of her legs. 

She is more powerful than any but an exceptionally strong man, able to do the manual labour of two ordinary men. But there is no mannish quality about her. She is all woman. 

The map of Ireland is stamped on her face, with its long lip and small nose, thick black eyebrows, black hair as coarse as a horse’s mane, freckled, sun-burned fair skin, high cheekbones and heavy jaw. It is not a pretty face, but her large dark-blue eyes give it a note of beauty, and her smile, revealing white teeth, give it charm. 

Hmmm. I wonder how easy it is to find an actress answering to such a description, or, for that matter, how any actress must feel to imagine herself suited for such a role. However, this role has been successfully played on stage by actresses who are nothing like the “almost a freak” of O’Neill’s description; and the fact that O’Neill had described her in such impossible terms in his stage directions seems to me to imply that he had an ideal performance in his head, rather than something to be performed on an actual stage by an actual cast. This seems consistent with Christine Dymkowsky’s introduction to my edition, in which she writes: 

[O’Neill] could not really regard theatre as the collaborative activity it so patently is. Time and again, O’Neill lamented the process of staging his plays, complaining that the ideal play he had in his head never existed in production. Whereas playwrights generally welcome the new life that actors bring to their work, O’Neill saw it as a betrayal. So strongly did he feel this that he virtually never went to any productions of his plays, only attending rehearsals in order to advise and to cut when necessary. 

Josie too is “misbegotten”: like James, she too is lonely and emotionally vulnerable, but masks her vulnerability under a harsh and bitter jokeyness. The climactic confessional scene can, I imagine, be very effective, but O’Neill surely takes too long to get there, and the change of mood between the broad comedy of the long first act and the more serious tonality that follows is surely too abrupt a gear-shift. 

The other principal character is Josie’s father, Phil Hogan, a wily tenant farmer who is absent from the more heartfelt scenes, and appears to be present only to provide a bit of broad stage-Oirishness. Given the length of his role, this is hardly what one would expect from an experienced dramatist at the peak of his career. 

But despite all this, this play cannot be dismissed: there is something there, something that is heartfelt and raw. When Josie offers James the forgiveness he had so desperately sought, there is, despite everything, something very moving about it. But it’s difficult to consider any of this outside an autobiographical context: Josie’s forgiveness is surely what O’Neill himself wanted to say to his now dead brother. O’Neill is clearly exorcising his own ghosts here, and, like his literary idol Strindberg, was using the most public of art forms for the most private of purpose. However, one can’t help wondering whether there would be anything moving at all about any of this had we not known James Tyrone from Long Day’s Journey into Night

Was Eugene O’Neill a great dramatist? It’s hard to say. If I knew only this play and no other, I wouldn’t have thought so. But whether or not O’Neill was a great dramatist, Long Day’s Journey into Night remains a very great drama: there, everything came together just right. Perhaps O’Neill knew this himself. And perhaps it was for this reason that this, of all his plays, was the one he did not wish published or performed in his own lifetime. But when one knows that earlier play, something of its greatness seems to rub off on this one also.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sue Gedge (Klara Z) on May 25, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    I think this is a play that can be very powerful in performance. I’ve seen it twice—at the Riverside Studio in 1983, with Ian Bannen and Francis de la Tour, and then more recently at the Old Vic with Kevin Spacey and Eve Best. Much as I admire Kevin Spavey, I think the 1983 production was the definitive one, esp. with Francis de la Tour, who has the right physical qualities for Josie. I remember the wonderful way the moon was evoked on stage in that first production that I saw, and the amazing atmosphere.


    • Hello Klara, I haven’t seen the play in performance, but I can imagine that the long nocturnal scene would be wonderfully atmospheric and poetic. And Ian Bannen and Frances de la Tour are wonderful actors – but surely Frances de la Tour looks nothing like the very strange creature O’Neill describes in the stage directions! But, for all my many reservations about it, it is not a play to be dismissed: it may not be of the quality of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but it remains a fine work all the same, and I’d love to see it in performance.


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