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The Irish writer as chronicler of the human condition

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On this St. Patrick’s Day, pick up a copy of O’Neill, Synge, or Joyce and retreat to a self-contained world marked by human self-deception and tragic loss, and maybe a laugh or two.

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We may live in benighted times, but consider the world of just over a hundred years ago. Recurrent cultural or political shock, and often premature or violent death, was quite familiar to the generation emerging in the early years of the 20th century. It sometimes seems almost surprising that anyone got out of the so-called Golden Age in one piece. In the space of less than a decade, the world staggered from the Russo-Japanese War to the bloody and sustained upheaval in Morocco, from revolts in Bosnia, and both internal and external revolution in Mexico, to a wholesale crisis in the Balkans, and then the unprecedented trauma of the First World War and the global flu pandemic that followed. And those were just the set-piece conflicts. The sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 was only one, if the most vividly reported, of the individual human tragedies of the era. There was also the continuing bloodletting of the American “Red Scare,” with its sundry bombings, assassination attempts, and mass roundups owing to the Palmer raids, and the seeds of racial and sexual ferment whose fruit we reap today.

Certain artistic works, too, quickened the pulses of the average ticket-buying customer both at home and abroad. Perhaps the most notorious of these came in May 1913 with the Paris debut of Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du printemps. The composer himself later attributed the riot that ensued to the work’s disturbing prelude played on a bassoon at the very top of its register. Those six reedily evocative notes, rising up like the waking cry of a forest animal, were revolution superbly controlled. In the resulting frenzy, there were reports of actual fistfights both among the audience and between the audience and the police, and one well-dressed patron is said to have climbed a safety rope and thence swung, ape-like, from the rigging. The accounts are as various and confused as the scenes they claim to describe, and the only certainty is that following the premiere Stravinsky took to bed in a rest home for six weeks, and that on his reappearance he found himself to be the most notorious young composer in the world.

Or a few years later there was the uproar on the streets of Paris that greeted the exhibition of nudes by the painter Amedeo Modigliani, a cornucopia of rounded female bodies presented against dark backgrounds, with little darting smudges of pink and orange, arrestingly attached to heads that seemed to have been modelled on the elongated shapes of primitive African masks. The show was closed by police on its opening day on the grounds of indecency, amid churning protests and counterprotests on the street, and resumed only after the gallery’s owners had removed several of the paintings on display in the front window. One of the offending works, with the self-explanatory title Nu Couché, was thrown into the basement as a result and emerged to be sold at auction for $170 million some 98 years later.

For sheer drama, however, none of these presentations could hold a candle to the events surrounding the premiere of John Millington Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on January 26, 1907. Admittedly the work itself invited a certain degree of polarization among its first-night audience. Distilled to its essence, Synge gives us a tale in which the village loon splits his father’s head open with a shovel, runs away, shouts out to people he’s “killed his da,” and is acclaimed as a hero by excitable women and drunken men. Not exactly the stuff of the slyly subversive fables of O’Casey, nor of Shaw’s moralistic soufflés, nor for that matter of Yeats’s elegant retellings of native folklore that might all be said to represent the so-called Irish Literary Revival of the early part of the 20th century. Rage in the hall soon turned to riot when Synge’s protagonist voiced his love for a young woman with what might seem to us an almost ludicrously decorous allusion to ladies’ underclothes: “It’s Pegeen I’m seeking only and what’d I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts?” Synge wrote.

It was left to the dramatist Isabella Augusta to telegraph her friend Yeats with a review of the occasion. “Play generally a success,” she observed, before adding almost as an afterthought: “Audience broke up in disorder at the word shift. Rest of the performance continued as a dumbshow.”

Of course there was more to the audience reaction to Synge’s allegory than mere squeamishness at the taboo reference to women’s unmentionables. Some critics thought it bordering on sacrilegious to stage a play at Ireland’s national theater written in English, the language of the colonial oppressor. Others seem to have been troubled by the author’s less-than-uplifting depiction of the human spirit as a whole. The correspondent of the Irish Times perhaps spoke for many when he wrote: “It is as if a mirror were held up to our faces and we found ourselves hideous. We fear to face the thing. We scream.”

Delusions of Tragic Grandeur

It seems only a logical, chronological progression to link Synge with the man who was in many ways his artistic successor, the Irish American playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953). O’Neill’s works, prominent among them Strange Interlude (1928), 1946’s The Iceman Cometh, and the posthumously staged A Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Touch of the Poet, deal for the most part in themes of drunkenness, prostitution, revenge, repressed desire, and tortured family relationships. Taken as a whole, these aren’t plays destined to leave the average audience member walking home whistling the chorus of “What a Wonderful World.” Addiction is everywhere in O’Neill’s work, frequently accompanied by its real-life companions of deceit and betrayal. Perhaps it could hardly have been otherwise for a man whose mother was a junkie, whose father died painfully of cancer, and whose elder brother drank himself to death at the age of 45, another brother having died as an infant from measles. Life to O’Neill was a Sisyphean endeavor in which we constantly struggle to come to terms with the ineluctable fact of human suffering. A young artist exposed to the spectacle of pain-racked loved ones and human degradation doesn’t have the same instincts as one weaned on the products of Walt Disney. As O’Neill once put it, his plays aimed to “convey the quality of understanding that is born only in pain and rises to perception to reach the truths of human passion. For life to be felt as noble, it must be seen as tragic.”

The observable throughline to these various works is surely that of deception. These are plays in which the balance of power is constantly shifting as the lies and postures the characters adopt to make life tolerable for themselves are one by one exposed. Experiencing them can be like sitting on the shoulder of an acutely intelligent, world-weary traveler as he guides us through one fractured domestic landscape after another. O’Neill had not only his own family members’ collectively tragic flaws and mutual illusions to feed his drama but a fair number of his own as well. It has to be said that he consistently demonstrated self-destructive skills of a high order. O’Neill would struggle with depression and illness throughout his adolescence and adult life, suffused as they were by alcohol, narcotics, and prostitutes. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1936, it had to be brought to him in his hospital bed. Both of O’Neill’s sons would commit suicide; his daughter Oona, disowned by her father when as a teenager she married the serial monogamist Charlie Chaplin, succumbed to alcoholism later in life and died at the age of 66.

Of course, we, the audience, are also among the deceived by the likes of Synge and O’Neill. Like almost anything of any value in the arts, their best plays, full of warning, and irrepressibly somber, operate on both the superficial and symbolic levels. You can enjoyably read The Playboy as a searing indictment of Edwardian morals or as a kind of floorplan for the cast’s successive comic turns. The characters in Strange Interlude or The Iceman Cometh, or for that matter Long Day’s Journey or Mourning Becomes Electra, can be seen as cynical, dissipated individuals estranged from polite society and trapped in abusive love-hate relationships with their own family. Or there’s the nigh-occult dimension to them, in their author’s lyrical preoccupation with myths, ghosts and folklore, surely among the sustaining ingredients of a peculiarly Irish sense of drama. A communal shudder, midway between joy and foreboding, almost palpably spreads through the audience when the curtain rises at the start of a Playboy or Deirdre of the Sorrows, or an Iceman or A Touch of the Poet. On some fundamental level, we need to be deceived. Most of our relationships with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, and perhaps above all with family members, require some degree or another of mutual blindness to what we’re all thinking and feeling. Conveying this essential truth of the human condition in hard, unflinching prose is at the heart of O’Neill’s work, which also contains the pathos of the disillusioned idealist. “I’m going on the theory that the United States, instead of being the most successful country in the world, is the greatest failure,” he remarked in a 1946 interview considered scandalous at the time but strangely prescient now. “It was given everything, more than any other country. Through moving as rapidly as it has, it hasn’t acquired any real roots. Its main idea is that everlasting game of trying to possess your soul by the possession of something outside of it, thereby losing your own soul and the thing outside of it, too.”

These lines, or some suitably abridged version, should surely be etched in stone in every public square in the United States today.

He Who Must Be Named

It’s of course impossible to leave any discussion of the Irish literature of the first half of the 20th century without mentioning James Joyce, who looms over the whole genre like a male version of the Statue of Liberty. This happens to be the centenary year of the first appearance of Ulysses in book form. Whatever one makes of the nearly 300,000-word, joyously deranged text that broadly shadows the episodes in Homer’s Odyssey, it’s surely a tribute to the enduring appeal of Joyce’s absurdist soap opera that each June 16, the date of the book’s action, if it can fairly be called that, tens of thousands of people around the world dress up as their favorite Ulysses figures and attempt to speak in their voices and re-create their movements around Dublin or whatever location they happen to find themselves in. There may be no other fictional characters in Western literature, not excluding those of P.G. Wodehouse, who continue to excite such fanatical and, at times, slightly dotty devotion. I leave it to others to debate whether Ulysses can best be read as a religious tract or as a perhaps more practical guide to matters such as how to tell a joke to best effect, how to be frank about death, how to walk and think at the same time, or how to purge love of possessiveness, but I can offer the tentative conclusion that much of the book’s enduring appeal a century after its original publication lies in the fact that it presents us with a fantasy universe that may well be a more attractive one to inhabit than our own.

And that, finally, is what lies at the heart of our continuing affection for Synge, O’Neill, and some of the others noted above. Their imaginative worlds, at once whimsical and at times hallucinatory, but also plausible and fully recognizable, can never stale. Each of these authors has created a self-contained reality for us to live and engage in. All their plays or books can be picked up, read, and enjoyed by virtually anybody without scholarly guides, theories, and intricate explanations, which is surely the fundamental definition of a work of durable genius. Can we recognize the general truths within the most harrowing individual scenes of Synge or O’Neill? Might we glimpse in Joyce the essential universality of all human relationships? Those are the tests. They’re the rare artists who make us complicit in our own deception, drawing us down the kind of escapist vistas we yearn for in good writing. You could do much worse than to pick up one of them to celebrate this St. Patrick’s Day.

Christopher Sandford

Christopher Sandford is a British-born writer who now makes his home in the Pacific Northwest. He's the author of many books, including Union Jack, a bestselling account of John F. Kennedy's special relationship with the United Kingdom.