Academic journal article Comparative Drama

O'Neill and Jamie: A Survivor's Tale

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

O'Neill and Jamie: A Survivor's Tale

Article excerpt

"No, my brother is not alive," O'Neill wrote to a correspondent in the 1930s. "Booze got him in the end. It was a shame. He and I were terribly close to each other, but after my mother's death in 1922 he gave up all hold on life and simply wanted to die as soon as possible. He had never found his place. He had never belonged. I hope like my `Hairy Ape' he does now." (1) The figure of O'Neill's older brother, James O'Neill Jr. ("Jamie"), haunts the playwright's work. O'Neill's interpreters have speculated that Jamie served as the inspiration for several of the playwright's tortured characters, and O'Neill's biographers have traced the self-destructive course of Jamie's life. But little has been written about O'Neill's conflicted attitude toward his brother or his assessment of their relationship in the years after Jamie's death. In this essay I explore how O'Neill's struggle to free himself from his brother's influence--and his feelings about having done so--provided a rich vein of material for his writing.

"Of all his boyhood attitudes," writes Stephen Black, "Eugene's idealization of Jamie would prove one of the most durable and one of the most troublesome for him." (2) While Jamie was still alive, O'Neill recorded the germ of an idea to write a play about himself and his brother that would trace the elder's influence on the younger. (3) O'Neill did sketch the lineaments of Jamie in a number of plays before Long Day's Journey: Eben Cabot in Desire Under the Elms, Dion Anthony in The Great God Brown, Orin Manon in Mourning Becomes Electra, and even the alcoholic uncle Sid in Ah, Wilderness! Jamie may have served as the psychological model for Hickey in The Iceman Cometh as well. However, in Long Day's Journey into Night, Jamie appears in the thinnest of disguises, and the relationship between that play and A Moon for the Misbegotten permits us to ask how the dramatic function of Jamie as a character illuminates O'Neill's use of autobiographical materials. It is clear that O'Neill was memorializing his brother in these plays and providing a kind of absolution for Jamie's wasted life. But there also are grounds to suggest that in these later plays O'Neill may have been trying to come to terms with his own guilt for having abandoned his dissolute brother.

In Long Day's Journey into Night, Jamie, who is a menace to his siblings, takes perverse pride in the fact that he has had more to do with Edmund's upbringing than anyone else in the family. Edmund has always looked to his older brother as a model, and, indeed, Jamie has shaped his attitudes toward sex, alcohol, and even literature. "Hell, you're more than my brother," Jamie tells him. "I made you! You're my Frankensteint!" (4) The danger is that whatever Jamie touches he destroys. Cynical, alcoholic, unmarried, having failed at work and school, he is the bane of the family, and his parents never let Edmund forget it. "Beware of that brother of yours," Tyrone tells him, "or he'll poison life for you with his damned sneering serpent's tongue!" (109). The metaphor of poisoning implies that Jamie, if unchecked, will infect Edmund with moral decay just as he infected his baby brother with measles when, as a child, he defied a warning to stay away from the infant's room. That act of jealous defiance, we are told in the play, led to the death of baby Eugene. Had Eugene lived, Edmund might not have been conceived. (In O'Neill's real family, the baby who died was named Edmund--and why Eugene traded names in Long Day's Journey with the brother he never knew is an interesting question, to which I will return.)

The circumstances surrounding the "real" Jamie's role in the death of his baby brother are fairly close to those depicted in the play. In February 1885, Ella O'Neill left her two sons, James Jr., age seven, and Edmund, not yet two years old, in the care of her mother in a New York flat while she traveled with her husband, who was playing a road tour of The Count of Monte Cristo. …

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