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In their works, William Inge and Eugene O’Neill pay a special attention to the theme of darkness, desperation, anxiety and human weaknesses. In both worlds, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Long day’s Journey into Night, characters inhabit a very complex world. They unveil a gap between the individual and the world, a gap which the authors and their characters sought to close through holistic schemata, through religion and politics. Thesis In both works, the theme of darkness is used as a background.
Both authors present similar ideas of darkness as a state of degradation and desperation. In Inge’s work, the protagonist, Rubin, is perplexed at the rapid economic and social change that has taken place in his life. Because of this circumstance, he feels fearful of and alienated from that new world and is, consequently, alienated from the family for which he feels he can no longer provide the security he himself lacks. His feelings, however, are complicated by his relationship to his wife, from whom he is separated most of the time and with whom he seems unable to communicate. Cora says to Rubin: “Rubin, I worry about them.
Rennie is so shy of people” (Inge 227). In his work, O’Neill depicts the theme of darkness as drug addiction, alcoholism and stinginess. What the morphine brings to the surface in Mary Tyrone is awareness of the isolation that is both her need and her terror. The dependence of the men on her is marked, and not only in their concern for her health. “What strikes one immediately is her extreme nervousness” (O’Neil 12). Using these examples, O’Neil gives some hits to readers about the dark side of the family history and relations.
Both authors use similar images of ‘darkness’ based on an opposition between light and dark. In the plays, there is also a succession of references in word and gesture to fog and clarity, darkness and light which not only communicates Jamie’s hostility to his absent father but recalls the long scene between Edmund and Tyrone and contributes to the symbolic undercurrent of the play. O’Neil uses the following images to depict the darkness: “a lighthouse out there”; “the hell is this”, Kabul river in the dark!…” (101, 104).
The natural coming of darkness is complemented by the withdrawal of Mary Tyrone into the recesses of dream where she dwells on the life she has lost forever and condemns without exception the life she is obliged to live. O’Neil uses the fog which in act 3, at half-past six in the evening, has rolled in from the Sound like “a white curtain drawn down outside the windows” (100). For instance, in Act II, Scene 1 Inge portrays that Sonny is afraid to go up the stairs into the darkness, and his mother goes to help him. Cora says: Corny, boy, We go up together. (They start up the stairs to face the darkness” (Inge 301). This episode symbolizes a feeling of a trapped alienation containing within it a metaphor of the dispersion of self into nothingness. But the reference cannot detract from the emotional intensity of the scene.
The main difference between the works is representation and meaning of darkness for the main characters. For the character in Long day’s Journey into Night, darkness means escape form the troubles and problems of a modern life. This essential and liberating strength can be seen most clearly in the writing of the mother: now drugging herself with morphine against the pain of present and past. Mary explains: “It hides you from the world and the world from you,” she explains to Cathleen.
“You feel that everything has changed, and nothing is what it seemed to be. No one can find or touch you any more…. It’s the foghorn I hate” (O’Neil 100).The pain and the drugging are directly powerful, but they release at once the intense confession, the necessary involvement with the pain of what the family has become, and the detachment from it: the ability to find both the truth and the fantasy of the past. In contrast, in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs the characters fall into ‘darkness’ unpurposely influenced by life circumstances and economic crisis.
For instance, both Sonny and Reenie have become dependent on their mother to such an extent that Sonny fears his distant father and retreats to his scrapbook of movie stars rather than deal with the real world of the taunting bully-boys outside. Rennie says” “why don’t you go outdoor and play the ball instead of staying in the house all time” (Inge 238).
The darkness is that the characters cannot cope with fears, uncertainty and anxiety that all feel at those moments when reality must be faced head-on and the confusion of real-life dealt with. In Long day’s Journey into Night, for the father and the two sons, it is a remoteness which annihilates all of them. In Act 2 Mary says: she can “no longer call my soul my own” (O’Neil 65). Mary Tyrone has rolled back the years to a chaste girlhood devoid of the cares of courtship, marriage and childbirth, and only by excluding them from her dream world can she continue to cherish any fragment of human hope.
In sum, using the theme of darkness, both authors show the dark areas of misunderstanding that lie between people who assume that they understand each other. The works are to demonstrate that each man is isolated in his own moods and problems knowing little about others. The hope which is necessarily allowed to remain becomes no more than a transient moment of the life remembered. The lost promise is retained in the haunting memory, but the price of reestablishing it as an imaginary universe is insanity.
- Inge, William. Four Plays- ‘The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Grove Press New York, 1958, pp. 221-318.
- O’Neill, Eugene Long day’s Journey into Night. 2nd ed. Yale Nota Bene, 2002.