Irish Stage Drinkers an Analysis of Irish-American Essay

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Irish Stage Drinkers

An Analysis of Irish-American Drinking in works by O'Neill, Ford, and Others

The Irish have always been a strange contradiction. Lovers of booze, women, and fighting, they have also prided themselves on being representatives of unpretentious humanity, defenders of the Catholic tradition and faith. There are the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, songs like "Foggy Dew," and plays and films like the Quiet Man (wherein fighting, drinking and loving is sportive and celebratory). Yet, the most famous Irish-American playwright, Eugene O'Neill gives a much different and darker perspective on the Irish drinker. O'Neill's Irishman is not the same as Ford's (played by John Wayne). Ford's Sean Thornton (in the 1952 Quiet Man) is a pugilist who has sworn off fighting; he is a moral man, who has returned to his roots in Ireland, still observes the faith, courts according to custom, and drinks the same way. O'Neill's Tyrones (the archetypal lapsed Catholic Irish-American drinkers who drink to escape) have more to do with Edward Albee's drinkers in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than they do with Ford's. By analyzing several films and plays of the '40s and '50s, this paper will show that O'Neill reinforces the negative stereotype of the Irish drinker by removing the Irishman from the fun-loving, religious-practicing atmosphere of his nativity (such as is seen in Ford's Quiet Man) and placing him in the gloomy swamp of religious liberty and Americana.

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Ford's film is a fun-loving, romantic comedy that plays on Irish stereotypes. O'Neill's plays are dark, contemplative works which chronicle the defeat and despair of the Irish-American family uprooted from its native Catholicism, adrift in Americana, buoyed only by their dreadful drink. The Iceman Cometh is one particularly good example of the kind of pathetic wallowing that O'Neill knew so well. A Moon for the Misbegotten is a much lighter, comedic affair (but it still ends pathetically, with Tyrone stumbling off alone).

Essay on Irish Stage Drinkers an Analysis of Irish-American Assignment

The common contemporary vision of Irish drinking is one of typical mirth and good-natured (if quarrelsome) fun, most feverishly seen on the Feast of St. Patrick, celebrated in America by one and all alike (regardless of Irish or Catholic roots). Irish platitudes abound making gentle mockery of the fact that true-blooded Irishmen acknowledge their deserving of Hell, but merrily accept their punishment since all their friends will be there too. Other and more sincere Irish prayers are deeply rooted in faith in Christ, in the Mass, and in a kind of militaristic love for the Church. The contemporary humor associated with Irish drinking reveals the innocence of Ireland, which has much to do with its love of God and truth.

Consequently, Irish-American drinking has two distinct representations: the fun-loving, good-time, harmless pursuit of merriment; and the dark, sinister, depressed despair, looking for answers in the bottom of the glass, finding none, so refilling the glass kind of drinking. John Wayne in Ford's Quiet Man best represents the former. Cornelius Melody in O'Neill's a Touch of the Poet best represents the latter. The difference between the two has much to do with the fact that the ends of their drinking are dissimilar.

The case is best described by Evelyn Waugh's Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited: Charles drinks to enhance the mirth of an evening, but Sebastian drinks with a purpose -- to get drunk and escape from reality. Neither character, of course, is Irish -- but both represent the problem at the core of the Irish drinking stereotype which makes up a good portion of the Irish contradiction: drink can be good, and drink can be bad -- what determines such is the motive. What determines the motive has much to do with the state of the Irishman's soul. The good soul -- such as Cary Grant portrays in the Philadelphia Story (and Katherine Hepburn as well) -- may turn to drink for consolation, but in the end the good-nature of that soul will not succumb to defeatism or despair. O'Neill, on the other hand, portrays the soul that has lost its good nature -- that struggles with its flaws and weaknesses. O'Neill's Irishman is intensely realistic, intensely human, and intensely brutal in its desire to escape the confines of religion (even as it alternately expresses the awareness of religion's salvific nature -- as Tyrone does when he berates his sons in Long Day's Journey into Night for not praying or going to Mass; they in turn observe that he has not been wearing out the knees of his pants none too much).

Part of the reason O'Neill could define the Irish drinker's despair so well likely had to do with the Hays Production Code that Hollywood adopted during the 1920s when that bizarre decade sought to hide the underbelly of America's lawlessness and excess by showing only a moral and innocent veneer. A response to the public scandal that essentially destroyed Fatty Arbuckle's career, the Hays Code promised the American public what the American public (hypocritically) demanded to be shown: not a reflection of itself and its own Gatsby-ish actions, but rather a vision of pious, good-natured partying ala the Philadelphia Story or Bing Crosby's Going My Way. Never mind the fact that Bing Crosby himself suffered from alcoholism or that Cary Grant in reality had as many wives as Henry VIII. The Hays Code was about saving face while serving up to the public as much sex, boozing, and yuks as it could reasonably afford without risk of receiving all kinds of outcries from the moralistic side of society.

Yet, the stage drinker did not have to abide by the same kind of censorship -- nor the writer. Fitzgerald's drinkers perfectly reflect the lawlessness of the twenties. O'Neill's drinkers, likewise, perfectly set upon the stage the side of life that Hollywood refused to acknowledge in film: the unpretty, unfun, unloving side of drink and despair. O'Neill was free to express the darker side of the American dream that Hollywood typically ignored in its celebrated, light-hearted comedies.

The American Dream, that promise of wealth, affluence, importance, power, and meaning, is so often viewed in realistic literature as a trap or an illusion. Steinbeck's of Mice and Men is a prime example of the illusory nature of the Dream. Albee's the American Dream is a satirical play that represents the loss of communication, drive, and identity in modern America, which, nonetheless, perpetuates a kind of shallow, pretentious mindset. O'Neill's Tyrones are, in a sense, victim of the American Dream, just as his Cornelius Melody is a victim of Ireland's past oppression at the hands of the Protestant English. What is at the heart of Tyrone's drinking Irish is the exchange of Catholic identity for American Dream. When the promise of reward fails to materialize, there is nothing left to support the Irishman (since he has abandoned not only his homeland but also his faith). Thus, they sit miserably waiting for the end as they do in Long Day's Journey into Night.

At the same time, they try to rationalize their despair. O'Neill's Tyrones capture the essence of the conflicted Irish-American Catholic family -- worldly, yet supposed to be not of the world. The parents of Jamie and Edmund still have the faith -- despite the fact that they do not practice it. Jamie and Edmund, however, (because Mary and Tyrone do not practice) hardly have it at all; they may have some knowledge of the faith -- but the example has not been given, so they can hardly be expected to believe it.

Concomitantly, they also have no belief in the American Dream. Jamie is a drunkard because he wants to be -- he despises the uselessness of his father's miserliness, for he recognizes it for what it is. His drinking, however, has very much to do with the fact that his mother Mary is not really there to care for him. O'Neill, here, uses the very Catholic name (Mary, the mother of God) to allude to the spiritual defect that spurs the drinking Tyrones on to their dismal fate: their spiritual Mother is not around (symbolized by the fact that Mary, their real mother, is a morphine addict -- herself a victim of the refusal of the American Dream to accept suffering).

Mary is the symbol of real and spiritual maternity in Long Day's Journey into Night, and represents the lack of real spirituality in America. The acknowledgement that John Ford gives his characters in the Quiet Man toward religious truths is almost completely absent in O'Neill's drama. The priest in the Quiet Man is an essential element of life in the town. When John Wayne's character returns to fight his brother-in-law for his wife's dowry, the priest is one of the first to come running (not to stop the fight, but to enjoy it -- a reinforcement of the Catholic belief that life, as St. Augustine said, is a battle). The Catholic belief that views drink as a good and natural fruit (after all, Christ changed wine into His Blood at… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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