- Desire beyond the Château d’IfEugene O’Neill and the Fortunes of Monte Cristo
In 1883, after playing the lead for the first time in Monte Cristo, Charles Fechter’s version of Dumas’s novel, James O’Neill bought all the rights of the adaptation, then tuned it in his own style of performance.1 He continued in the role for, by some accounts, about 4,000 performances, to the detriment of his formidable stage talents as he believed. Tyrone, James’s extended character in his son’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, refers to the “big money-maker” that gradually misled him from his path toward stage glory, though “it was a great romantic part,” which he knew he “could play better than anyone.” The regret of a paradise lost (“I could have been a great Shakespearean actor, if I’d kept on. I know that!”) induces in him the desire for a second paradoxical dispossession, which would reinstate him magically in his original role: “I’d be willing to have no home but the poorhouse in my old age if I could look back now on having been the fine artist I might have been.”2 Such an anomaly of stage success and failure, liberation and pain, could not but have had its psychological repercussion on Eugene, who was suffering already in the pre–world war years from tuberculosis and alienation. Eugene would not only react strongly to the genre of French melodrama that Monte Cristo represented, but would inherit its deeper anxieties and literary contradictions within the larger context of his alienation from Catholicism. The story foregrounded the unjust trial of an innocent man in the modern terms of the American stage. O’Neill would replay this tragic theme [End Page 167]
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of “possessors self-dispossessed” in his one-act plays and then throughout his tenure as America’s pioneering playwright.
Discovering a redeeming hidden treasure beyond a passage of tribulations and pain is a parable that features in various religions and beliefs, as the story of Job may testify in the Judeo-Christian context. The main character’s life swings between the extremes of misfortune and fortune, dispossession on the one side and his final possession of the treasures of Monte Cristo, his wife and son, and his reclaimed dignity on the other. A dialectic emerges between the two extremities of pain and pleasure. It is the betrayal of Edmond Dantès by his detractors that ironically triggers a chain of cause and effect, leading through his unjust incarceration in the Château d’If, his befriending the Abbé Faria, his accession to the treasure, and finally his squaring of accounts with the evil three who had willed his absolute extinction. Indeed, at a fundamental level of mid-nineteenth-century European fiction, the journey of Edmond Dantès can be seen in the symbolic light of the initiation mysteries that entail the hero’s descent into the Underworld in order to acquire the necessary knowledge about the final course of life from an elderly, somewhat stoical, living or “dead” father-figure, followed by a return to terra firma to manifest that knowledge in conscious and serious action.3 Odysseus, Aeneas, Coleridge’s ill-fated Wedding Guest, Edmond Dantès himself, even, in a way, Edmund Tyrone, “descend” necessarily to an Underworld of revelatory truths [End Page 168] to confront mythic mentors—Teiresias, Anchises, the Ancient Mariner, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and the Abbé Faria.
Edmond’s unjustified incarceration in the Château d’If, his gradual acquaintance with the old priest who sees him as his own son, his miraculous escape in the disguise of Death in a body-bag, and his return to civil society to fulfill his revenge recall the labyrinthine route that mythic heroes often traverse. After Faria’s death the distraught Dantès uses the imagery of a Virgilian quest; he considers it perhaps suitable for him “to go and ask God to explain the enigma of life, even at the risk...