Poetic Injustice

O'Neill's tragedy of self-delusion gets only intermittent touches of the poet's spirit

Fakery, in a sense, is what Eugene O'Neill's 1940 play A Touch of the Poet (first produced in 1957) is all about. Its hero is a mellifluous phony; his name, Con Melody, is a handy summation of his character. The son of an Irish parvenu gone bust, Con has had a gentleman's upbringing and served with distinction as an officer in the British Army; he can spout stanzas of Byron from memory. But it's all a sham: Left penniless by his father and cashiered from the army, Con feels equally out of place among peasants and the genteel alike. Joining the thousands of hopeful emigrants to America, he has tried to make a new life as an innkeeper outside Boston. Here he lords it over the Irish riffraff, who loathe him for his English airs, while being shunned by the Yankee gentry. The year is 1828, and there is nobody Con Melody despises more than the would-be presidential candidate Andrew Jackson, whose election will spearhead a new and less elitist (albeit more corrupt) American democracy. Con's great pride, annually, is to dress up in his redcoat uniform on the anniversary of the Battle of Talavera, where Wellington commended his bravery, and ride round the town on his thoroughbred mare, which is eating him out of house and home. Meanwhile, he tyrannizes his adoring, peasant-class wife and his daughter, Sara, whose rebellious instinct reveals a conflicted nature much like his own.

The play was to be part of O'Neill's projected cycle A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed, and Con, no exception, supplies his own comeuppance. Having been publicly humiliated for his arrogance, he commits a sort of ritual death by destroying, offstage, the most precious thing he owns. His wife thinks he has shot himself, and in a sense he has: Con Melody lives on, but the fake identity he has accrued over decades as "Major Cornelius Melody" is gone. When he comes back onstage, he speaks in his father's brogue. His daughter, whose desire to escape from Con's house of illusions through marriage has precipitated Con's humiliation, is the only one who weeps for his dead pride; Con himself laughs. An ironic subplot tells us that Con's self-destruction has been pointless: While he has been out foolishly attempting to avenge an alleged insult to Sara's honor, that honor has been lost, upstairs, to the ineffectual rich boy—a poetic type like Con himself—whom Sara will marry despite his parents' disapproval. Her successful finagling will get its own comeuppance in the next play of the cycle, More Stately Mansions.

That latter play was O'Neill's comeuppance too: The structure he had been working out, fine enough in A Touch of the Poet, was too ornate to sustain the 11-play cycle he envisioned, with ironies upon ironies and one generation's moral burdens piled on the next. It all came crashing down: More Stately Mansions survives as a massive rough draft from which directors have carved various unsuccessful condensations; the rest of the cycle O'Neill burned, an act not unlike Con Melody's sacrificial gesture. The uncompleted struggle freed him to write the two masterpieces about his own family's harrowing self-dispossession, Long Day's Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten, which have many affinities with the surviving cycle plays: When Con Melody recites Byron into the mirror over the bar, it's hard not to think of Edmund Tyrone chanting the raffish poetry of the Decadents he idolizes in the alcoholic haze of Long Day's Journey's last act.

Unhinged Melody: Byrne and Bergl
photo: Joan Marcus
Unhinged Melody: Byrne and Bergl

But in contrast to the personal plays, with their instantaneous grip, performing A Touch of the Poet is fearsomely difficult. The action nearly all takes place offstage. What we see is a series of psychological confrontations, in which Sara and Melody's wife, Nora, hammer in their differing ways at the delusion in which he is entrapped, both admiring it almost as much as they resent it. The climax, which depends wholly on the lead actor's ability to create convincingly the internal collapse that Con is undergoing, is hampered by a thick brogue that makes the subtle event a double challenge for audience ears. Hickey's final monologue in The Iceman Cometh is a picnic by comparison.

Gabriel Byrne, an actor both handsome and accomplished, has chosen the worst of all ways to approach this toboggan ride of a role: He makes clear from the start that Melody knows himself to be a con, crisply blunt when alone and putting on lavishly for anyone who strolls in. Result: Nothing is built up, and the climactic crash looks like just another put-on, with peals of painfully fake laughter and the begorra-me-bhoys accent to seal the deal. This is disheartening, because Byrne not only has the panache for the role, but shows flashes of understanding it throughout, particularly in his second-act confrontation with Emily Bergl's Sara. Like Byrne, Bergl doesn't hit her stride until this scene, and it may simply be that the metaphysical track on which O'Neill's thinking travels has simply eluded everyone involved. In a society hooked, like ours, on the fraud of materialism, a play that addresses the state of the spirit would inevitably be hard to realize. Which is why O'Neill once called America "the greatest failure in the world."

 
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