“A Long Day’s Journey into Night”

Last night I saw Eugene O’Neill’s play “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” starring William Hurt and Robyn Nevin, in Artists Repertory Theatre here in Portland.  It is an amazing play–3 1/2 hours of family angst–and the production was outstanding, with Hurt and actors from the Sydney Theatre Company, the premier theatre company in Australia.  The play’s characters come right out of O’Neill’s family.

It was an excruciating play to witness.  I watched the family disintegrate–in spite of their wanting to do better, wanting to be better persons, they seemed caught in their family history, unable to escape their fate, unable to make a way for the next generation.

I believe Hurt was quoted somewhere as saying that he wanted to do this play because it was about “transformation.”  But I saw little transformation in the play itself.  O’Neill’s character was the younger son, who is stricken with tuberculosis.  He is the poet, the young seer, the “truth teller” in the family–but nobody can really listen.  The mother has been so wounded by being dragged from one dirty hotel room to another her whole married life, never having a home and never feeling loved by her husband, that she has succumbed to mental illness and drug addiction.  The father grew up desperately poor; as an adult, he became a well-to-do actor, but remained a miser with his wife and children.  He turned to drink after selling out, by doing one lucrative but unchallenging role for most of his career.  The older son is a n’er do well and an alcoholic. 

All the characters have a love/hate relationship with all the other characters.  They say hurtful things, followed by “I love you!”  They push away in anger, only seconds later to hug warmly.  Over and over again the mother voices what I must believe is the deterministic philosophy of O’Neill: “We can’t help being the way we are; what has happened to us has made us this way.” 

Is this true?  To what extent are we forced by life’s exigencies into patterns that we cannot change?  I think we are far more determined by environmental influences and by genetic disposition than most of us believe we are.  We come out of the womb with certain personality traits hard-wired in, and a certain amount of brain power.  And then how this vulnerable child is raised either opens the way to growth or closes off possibilities–generally some of both.  In O’Neill’s play, you see negative family influences ravaging human beings.  Because O’Neill’s play is a supremely American one, you also get some sense of how an undue focus on money (an American passion) can lead people off course–and the father’s story of poverty tells poignantly of class issues.

But there is more to the human story than what we are given in this life–there is also what we choose.  How much choice is possible, I would not venture to say, but I believe that all of us have some measure of choice, and that makes all the difference.  We can choose to say “no.”  We can leave.  We can bring nurturing people into our lives.  We can speak our grievances out loud, and break the silence, as the stand-in for O’Neill does, in the play.  The most tragic figure, to my way of thinking, is the mother.  In the early 20th century, women’s roles were so circumscribed that only the very strongest could break through into another way–O’Neill’s mother was not strong; she loved a man who could not love and care for her; and the culture of the period gave her little option but to hunker down and make the best of it.

The one character who is redemptive in the play is the son who takes the part of O’Neill.  The redemption is the play itself.  He becomes a poet and a playwright and shines a light on what has been hidden.  When art is done with great integrity, it is redemptive.  The truth, as always, will set us free.  What we know, what we can name, we can choose or reject.  And therein lies the redemption.

 

Excerpt: “Roughneck: a Daughter’s Story,” My Sister’s Memoir

    

Marilyn, Jimmy, and I were snatched from our home in Cincinnati and taken to the South after our mother beccame ill and couldn’t care for us. We grew up there with our father and our paternal grandparents, Big Papa and Granny. The following excerpt is written in my voice at age seven or eight:

     “The backyard down the steep steps is my favorite place to play when I’m home alone. The back is for gathering eggs, feeding the rabbits, picking green apples, gathering figs for preserves before the birds peck them apart or playing a game of ‘horse’ on the dusty basketball court. A couple times a year Big Papa shows up with one of Mr. Blanton’s horses to plow the garden to plant tomatoes, musk melons, beans, peas, and squash.

     Unless it’s killing day.  On that day my kind grandmother turns executioner to fill the freezer with hens and fryers.

     Some of the chickens are my pets, dyed bitties colored blue, green and pink I get for Easter.  They have names, but I don’t know which ones are mine after the colors wear off.

     When the water gets to boiling real fast under the wood fire, Granny goes out to the hen house to catch a squawking chicken.  After she runs one down with her apron blowing up to her waist, she sits by the fig tree and throws its neck ’round and ’round while that chicken flaps and claws and yells, blood flying everywhere.  When it gets good and still, she hangs the dead chicken on the clothes line, then one at a time sticks them in boiling water so the feathers are soft and easy to pull out.  “Donna, get your old clothes on and come help me pluck these chickens.”

     “Are you through with the killing?”

     “Yes, Baby.  I’ll put the step stool here so you can reach the clothes line.  Now grab me one of those fryers.”  Scalding chicken feathers is a smell you never forget.

     I view my granny different after that first killing in the backyard.

    

 

 

       

 

“Scars Upon the Self Disappear . . . “

Several people have asked for the quotation which appears on the paper taped to the top of my desk in the scene of “Raw Faith,” where I am packing up to leave the church.  I saved that piece of paper when I moved to our new home, and so will take the opportunity now to quote those words, which sustained me each day in my work and in my life:

“Markings in dry clay disappear

Only when the clay is soft again.

Scars upon the self disappear

Only when one becomes soft within.”

                                   –Deng Ming-Dao

I find that I must guard against hardness, which comes of course from not acknowledging the more tender feelings of sadness, grief, and fear.  I think we feel vulnerable when we permit this inner softening, but in this world we need to bend, to be pliable, and we begin to see that rigidity of person is not helpful, either in affairs of the world or in affairs of the heart. 

 

Excerpts from Thomas Merton’s “Contempletive Prayer”

During my meditation time, I’ve been experimenting with contempletive prayer.  The basic idea is to sit quietly, remaining open to God’s presence and leading.  Today I thought I would share with you some of Thomas Merton’s guidance about this spiritual discipline:

“What is the purpose of meditation in the sense of the ‘prayer of the heart’?  We seek . . . to gain a direct grasp, a personal experience of the deepest truths of life and faith, finding ourselves in God’s truth.”

“We return to simplicity and sincerity of heart.”

“We wish to lose ourselves in <God’s> love and rest <in God.>” (Note that I have changed the masculine pronouns referring to God to the noun “God.”)

“We wish to hear <God’s> word and respond to it with our whole being.”

“We aim at purity of heart, an unconditional and totally humble surrender to God, a total acceptance of ourselves and our situation.”

“<We renounce> all deluded images of ourselves, all exaggerated estimates of our own capacities.”

“What am I?  I am myself a word spoken by God.  Can God speak a word that does not have meaning?”

“Does God impose a meaning on my life from the outside, through event, custom, routine, law, system, impact with others in society?  Or am I called to create from within, with <God>, with <God’s> grace, a meaning which reflects <God’s> truth and makes me <God’s> word?”

“We wish to embrace God’s will in its naked, often unpenetrable mystery.  I cannot discover my “meaning” if I try to evade the dread which comes from first experiencing my meaninglessness.”

“. . . my life and aims tend to be artificial, inauthentic, as long as I am simply trying to adjust my actions to certain exterior norms of conduct that will enable me to play an approved part in the society in which I live.”

“. . . we should let ourselves be brought naked and defenseless into the center of that dread where we stand alone before God in our nothingness, without explanation, without theories, completely dependent upon <God’s> providential care, in dire need of the gift of grace, mercy, and the light of faith.”

“When we seem to possess and use our being and natural faculties in a completely autonomous manner, as if our individual ego were the pure source and end of our own acts, then we are in illusion and our acts, however spontaneous they may seem to be, lack spiritual meaning and authenticity.”

“Meditation implies . . . a permanent disposition to humility, attention to reality, receptivity, pliability.”

“If our hearts remain apparently indifferent and cold, we should at least realize that this coldness is itself a sign of our need and of our helplessness.  We should take it as a motive for prayer.  The waiting .. . itself will be for us a school of humility.”