Eugene O'Neill Festival
Haunted by the Holy GhostEugene O'Neill and Catholicism
By Ben Verschoor
“I felt all mixed up, so I went to the shrine and prayed to the Blessed Virgin and found peace again because I knew she heard my prayer and would always love me and see no harm ever came to me so long as I never lost my faith in her.” – Mary Tyrone, in Long Day’s Journey into Night
The sad morphine dream of a charmed Catholic woman that ends Eugene O’Neill’s posthumous masterpiece could be scarcely more appropriate as a final artistic statement. His mother’s addiction and his early break from Catholicism that resulted, was the fact of his life. He never considered his apostasy a spiritual liberation. It was a wilderness, the tangled travels of which he documented in his career as a playwright again and again.
O’Neill was born and baptized into a family of old world Irish Catholics. Growing up, he shared in the faith of his parents and older brother, Jamie, whom he idolized. It was an optimistic faith, described in barely veiled autobiography in his late play Days Without End:
[His parents’] God was One of Infinite Love – not a stern, self-righteous Being Who condemned sinners to torment, but a very human, lovable God Who became man for love of men and gave His life that they might be saved from themselves.
In an irony no doubt not lost on him, it was Eugene’s parents and brother who catalyzed his loss of faith. Jamie abandoned his beliefs after learning of their mother’s morphine addiction, for which he blamed himself and the death of their baby brother, Edmund. As a result, Jamie descended into alcoholism in his 20s and lost his piety.
Eugene learned of his mother’s morphine habit when he found her giving herself an injection, and he too began to doubt the existence of God. He prayed that his mother would be healed, in a cosmic dare for the Divine to prove his existence, and threw himself into religious studies, in denial of the erosion of his faith. At last, O’Neill decided he would no longer attend church. He left the Catholic De La Salle Institute and enrolled in the nonsectarian Betts Academy when he was 14.
Far from rejoicing his atheism, however, O’Neill was merely painfully resigned to it. A favorite poem of his was Francis Thompson’s rumination on the absence of faith, “The Hound of Heaven,” which O’Neill had committed to memory and would regularly recite:
I fled him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled him, down the arches of the years;
I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him …
“The Hound of Heaven,” read by Richard Burton
This ambivalence over his break from the Church – and modern man’s severance from God more generally – was rehearsed, indirectly, only after several years into O’Neill’s playwriting career. The Hairy Ape, for instance, was a study of a broad alienation, an impossibility of fitting into today’s world, but it was not about religion as such. The first of his plays to deal with belief and the lack thereof was The Fountain, written in 1921. It concerns a Spanish explorer searching for glory, who dies unsuccessful but with a newfound religious belief that he will join with the Fountain of Youth, that “death is no more … all things dissolve, flow on eternally!” The work is generally considered a failure, not the least by O’Neill himself.
This problem of tragic circumstances resolving in last-minute religious ecstasy would continue to vex O’Neill and audiences. Because he never returned to the Church, his depictions of faith renewed frequently rang false, either for being tacked on or unimaginatively conveyed. Two plays that soon followed The Fountain both end with whiplash exaltation. All God’s Chillun’ Got Wings places jubilance literally in the last minute, while the final moments of Welded see two troubled lovers embracing in the shape of a cross.
O’Neill had greater success in depicting religious themes in Desire Under the Elms. The play, which mingles Greek and Biblical symbolism, subtly operates on one level as Edenic allegory, with a hard patriarch God-figure obsessed with producing an heir for his farm. The ending, in which the son and his mother-lover are expelled and joined together for a willingly shared crime, depicts not an impossible transcendence as the previous religious plays but an earthy sense of sometimes crushing responsibility.
The old bad habit of exaltation would return to O’Neill’s writing, however. The Great God Brown, a complex and often baffling work laden in symbolism, makes his protagonist into an almost Christ-like figure whose apotheosis recalls the earlier plays’ epiphanies:
I know! I have found Him! I hear Him speak! “Blessed are they that weep, for they shall laugh!” Only he that has wept can laugh! The laughter of Heaven sows earth with a rain of tears, and out of Earth’s transfigured birth-pain the laughter of Man returns to bless and play again in innumerable dancing gales of flame upon the knees of God!
More boldly would O’Neill illustrate his dissatisfaction with atheism in Dynamo, in which a young man leaves the bigoted Protestantism of his father for the “god” of philosophical materialism and electricity, eventually worshipping a dynamo as a mother-figure and destroying those he loves in its name. Critical reaction was cool due to the play’s many long-winded monologues and unsubtle treatment of its theme.
O’Neill would follow this approach yet, laying bare the tormented nature of his relationship with his lost Catholicism in Days Without End,his most explicit take on the subject and also one of his greatest critical and artistic failures.
Days Without End deals with an unfaithful husband who must reconcile his believing and cynical halves and pray for his sick wife’s recovery from illness. It was conceived as follow-up to Dynamo, as a “soul’s sickness” play, a “modern miracle play” that “reveals a man’s search for truth amid the conflicting doctrines of the modern world and his return to his old religious faith.” Its ending, like O’Neill’s previous attempts to broach the subject of faith, founders on the rocks of artless earnestness: “Love lives forever! Death is dead!” cries protagonist John Loving. “Life laughs with God’s love again! Life laughs with love!”
The play did not imply, O’Neill insisted, “that I have gone back to Catholicism. I haven’t. But I would be a liar if I didn’t admit that, for the sake of my soul’s peace, I have often wished I could.” O’Neill had struggled over the ending and his faith for months. Notably, the original ending had Loving committing suicide at an altar but, dissuaded by a group of Jesuit priests, O’Neill opted for optimism. He later came to hate the ending and himself for writing it.
Never thereafter did O’Neill tackle the subject of Catholicism and spiritual wandering head-on. But neither did he need to. His late work, though containing some of his bleakest depictions of human wreckage, paradoxically shows the greatest Catholic influence. The tension is palpable in O’Neill’s comments regarding The Iceman Cometh, that it “is a denial of any other experience of faith in my plays” and that “in all my plays sin is punished and redemption takes place.”
Iceman reflects this tension, as it is about a Christ-figure salesman with 12 “disciples” and ultimately concerned with the pipe-dreams people need to give life meaning. A Moon for the Misbegotten shows an obvious Catholic influence in its protagonist’s painful yearning for forgiveness from an innocent girl in whose lap he rests his head, pieta-like. And Long Day’s Journey into Night is positively saturated in Catholicism, with its focus on sin and forgiveness, its discursions on Shakespeare’s Catholicism and Nietzsche, and ending with Mary Tyrone’s morphine-fueled transport. That this theme sits so comfortably within the play suggests O’Neill had made some final peace with his break from the Church.
When he was nearing death, Eugene O’Neill was terse in his instructions for what should follow: “Get me quietly and simply buried. And don’t bring a priest. If there is a God and I meet Him, we’ll talk things over, personally, man to man.” For all the ink he had spilled wrestling over his lost faith, he seemed now able to say much by saying little. To the question of whether he had rejoined the Catholic Church, his answer was simply: “Unfortunately, no.”
Ben Verschoor is a graduate from College of Idaho. Since graduation, he worked with Seven Devils Playwrights Conference. Ben has been a literary volunteer for Arena Stage since fall 2010.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.