Abstract

In his late plays Eugene O'Neill attends to forms of inheritance he received from growing up in a family of Irish origin. In 1946 he wrote that Irish heritage is the “thing that explains more than anything about me,” and the odd syntax is telling. A Touch of the Poet has been interpreted as O'Neill's take on his Irish émigré father James O'Neill, an actor in the romantic tradition whose overcoming of class limitations required the devices of dramatic fiction and theatrical aggrandizement, but it also reveals the influence of a novel the young O'Neill seems to have enjoyed along with his father. Confessions of Con Cregan, the Irish Gil Blas is an 1849 picaresque novel by Charles Lever, who centered his light-hearted novels on Irish characters. It contains features of characterization and plot that match elements in O'Neill's play, suggesting direct influence. The self-reflective project of O'Neill's late work reads differently in light of this intertextuality, which leads to the idea that he might have conceived his Irish identification not as a return home but ironically in terms of displacement into the transnational—an appropriate distancing given that he wrote these intimate plays far from home in the isolation of California. The pseudo-confessional aspect of Lever's novel suggests “other” ways of reading O'Neill's sly sincerity.

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