The Anatomy of An American Melancholy

The Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov began each of his American lectures with a Persian proverb: “A man only needs two pennies to survive: one penny for bread and the other for the flower.” The penny for bread is the penny for life.  The penny for the flower is the penny for joy. So many of us have one but not the other. Much has been written on the man who lacks the penny for bread.  I would like to consider the man without the penny for the flower.

The American playwright Eugene O’Neill considered four such people. With his posthumous play “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” O’Neill gave audiences a new anatomy of American melancholy: a mother, a father and two sons. The Tyrones are truly a poor family. The entire play takes place in their summerhouse living room.  Action does not service the plot. Revelations take its place: alcoholism, morphine addiction and tuberculosis. They have spent all their pennies for bread and flowers on sorrow.  The past haunts, ever present and, as Mary Tyrone surmises, evens out into the future.  In the end, there is no happy ending. The play itself mimics crying; it ebbs and flows.  Catharsis was O’Neill’s motive for writing. The play was an apology to his family and himself.  But this is not a simple family tragedy. Nor is it the American nightmare. 

We are in the American dream. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

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