Thomas Albert
PO Box 12246
Berkeley, CA  94712

November 12, 2001

Sea-ing Shakespeare in a New Way:
O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night


“Why can’t you remember your Shakespeare and forget the third-raters. You’ll find what you’re trying to say in him—-as you’ll find everything else worth saying.” (Yale, p. 131)

Thus sprake Tyrone to Edmund. Tyrone the repressive father, the landholder, the possessor. Edmund, the son cursed with the name of a Shakespearean villain who fails to obey the father. From direct ideological statement to character naming to overt references and quotations, Shakespeare pervades Eugene O'Neill's Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1941) like a ghost, or like a ghost within a character who considers himself a ghost. Edmund says,

“That’s what I wanted--to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself. Out beyond the harbor, where the road runs along the beach, I even lost the feeling of being on land. The fog and the sea seemed part of each other. It was like walking on the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago. As if I was a ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost.” (Yale, p. 131)

What anxiety of influence drove Eugene O’Neill, the only United Statesian playwright to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, to cast Shakespeare so centrally in a play set in New England, not Olde England?

Why should Shakespeare matter? Why the Shakespearean echoes? Why this addiction to Shakespeare, as if the Bard were morphine to those dependent upon an escape from an empty culture of meaningless tautological commercialism: “The business of America is business” (Calvin Coolidge).

Because Bardolatry functions as a surrogate religion for those who seek in secular words a replacement for the loss of the sacred Word. This battleground of belief presents itself in the open page of Act One, where “a picture of Shakespeare above” the bookcase contrasts sharply with the ideology of the books within the bookcase, which range from Marx and Engels to Nietzsche, destroyer of religious faith.

Tyrone clings to Shakespeare for the same reason he clings to Irish nationalism, Catholicism, alcoholism, land acquisition, and parsimony: to forget the vicissitudes of history, to escape the perturbations of time, to eternalize possession, to bask in a pristine vision his youthful self as a triumphant actor, such as the victor Othello telling his tale and thereby winning the heart of Desdemona. Shakespeare as magnetic force.

Just the sort of thing a literary masterpiece, safely ensconced on a shelf, might provide. Shakespeare as the first and final speaker. Shakespeare as tool to gag his sons. Shakespeare as instrument of paternalist power. Isn’t this how British colonialism used Shakespeare? An ideological weapon to make the dark-skinned peoples of the African and Indian sub-continents bow to a white demi-god and scoff their own culture as inferior, pre-civilized. Shakespeare, author of the Globe as verbal analogue to the British Navy that conquered and ruled the globe.

Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence examines that dimension of literature in which an author seeks authority by inserting himself (usually it is a masculine self) among the elect predecessors of a literary canon.

For United Statesian literature, this story has a chapter one, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, in which the author, Ahab-like, wrestled with the Leviathan force of the Bard, recasting Elizabethan echoes in a Yankee seascape. Yet however much Melville stretched the genre of the novel, he did choose to battle the Bard at large, at sea, in the loose form of a novel.

“... lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he ... takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; ... There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. By while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip our hold at all; and ... with one half-throttled shriek you drop through the transparent air into summer sea, no more to rise for ever.” [Chapter 35, The Masthead]

In Shakespeare’s Richard III we read the precursor to the Moby Dick’s Masthead passage:

“O momentary grace of mortal men,
Which we more hunt for than the grace of God.
Who builds his hop in air of your good looks
Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,
Ready with every nod to tumble down
Into the fatal bowels of the deep” (Act III, Scene 5)

Yet we must wait until O’Neill to find a playwright willing to take Shakespeare on on his own ground, the theatre, where the conventions force tighter constraints.

Yet even here, on the stage, the sea comes back as O’Neill dramatizes, rather than narrates:

“You’ve just told me some high spots in your memories. [Tyrone’s “The praise Edwin Booth gave my Othello.”] Want to hear mine? They’re all connected with the sea... When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires... The old hooker driving fourteen knots... the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and the singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—-actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and the flying spray! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way. Then another time, on the American Line, when I was lookout on the crows’s nest in the dawn watch. A calm sea, that time. Only a lazy ground swell and a slow drowsy roll of the ship ... Dreaming, not keeping lookout, feeling alone, and above, and apart ... the joy of belonging to a fulfillment beyond men’s lousy, pitiful, greedy fears and hopes and dreams!” (Yale, p. 153)

So O’Neill became the United Statesian Shakespeare. A trans-Atlantic grafting of sea imagery to point to something larger than Shakespeare, to shift from the paternal metaphysics of literary tradition to the immediate physics of Nature. Using the sea to see, nay to feel and vibrate with, Shakespeare in a pragmatic, tangible, New-World way.

  Only by perceiving O’Neill as an artist wrestling with Shakespearean influence can we understand the oddity of play’s structure. Why four acts? Four acts? It’s unheard of. Precisely. Refuse the artificial convention of  Classical three-act plays, of the Greek tradition O’Neill explored in Mourning Becomes Electra.  Refuse, as well, the artificial convention of five-act Elizabethan plays. The fourth act of Long Day’s Journey is the highest point in United States drama in large part because the play refuses the resolution typical of the final act. The final movement is stasis as Mary stares vacantly and the other characters freeze or go nowhere. O’Neill renders incompletion as a new aesthetic, just as his characters only find themselves in acts of escape, just as Edmund’s liberation is to lose himself, just as dissolving into the sea, into the antithesis of Culture, allows this playwright, O’Neill, to overcome the Playwright-icon, Shakespeare, and forge for a nation of European escapees literary recognition of the highest degree.

Final Note: Eugene O'Neill wrote Long Day's Journey Into Night in Danville, California in 1940, and published the work in 1941. 1941 is also the year of F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance : Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, the seminal text that founded "American Studies", establish U.S. literature as equal to that of continental Europe, and indirectly helped justify the patriotic opposition to Nazi Germany. In this light, O'Neill's project of domesticating Shakespeare participates in the same historical sweep: the United States taking its place as a world leader rather than an imitator of world leaders.

Copyright © 2001 by Thomas Albert. All rights reserved. Published at