In our secular culture, those who profess religious faith must look for signals of transcendence wherever they can find them. And one of the best places to discover pointers toward the divine is, strangely, in films and plays created either by avowed atheists or by Catholics who claim to have lost the faith.
This accounts in part for my 50-year love affair with the films of their author/director Ingmar Bergman and my longtime ardent admiration for the work of the author/director Woody Allen. One reason I find their work so provocative is that they see the importance of questions about God. When Bergman died in 2007, a silly op-ed appeared on the op-ed page of The New York Times in which the writer claimed that the Swedish genius was passé and that his films were no longer seriously studied in film courses. If that is true, it says more about contemporary film courses than it does about Bergman. Asked at the time of Bergman’s death to assess the master’s work, Allen correctly observed that because Bergman dealt with existential themes like religious hopes and mortality, the films would have “eternal relevance.”
The preoccupation of some artists with God’s absence has been on my mind since seeing an excellent revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Emperor Jones” last fall in New York. O’Neill, a lapsed Catholic, took loss of faith seriously. Perhaps the greatest of American playwrights, O’Neill spent his adult life trying to find a substitute for the God who was once the center of his Catholic faith. In one of the most touching letters I have ever read, O’Neill responded to a friend, a Dominican nun, who said that she had been praying for him. He indicated that there was nothing he would not give to have her faith and suggested that his lifelong search must have some meaning even if he searched in vain. “The Jesus who said, ‘Why hast Thou forsaken me?’ must surely understand them—and love them a little, I think, and forgive them if no Savior comes today to make these blind to see who may not cure themselves,” wrote O’Neill.
His play “Emperor Jones” dramatizes the plight of a black man, Brutus Jones, who tries to pass himself off in the West Indies as a god. Ultimately he is betrayed by his finitude: even Brutus cannot believe in his divine disguise. The play goes beyond depicting a racial problem or how whites view blacks. In O’Neill’s drama, all gods fail him, even the one he created in his own image and likeness. That failure is the heart of the drama.
Shortly after seeing the play, I reread “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold’s prophetic portrait of a world without faith. It perfectly described O’Neill’s world. Though it can appear beautiful, a world without faith, Arnold wrote, “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/ Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”
My two favorite O’Neill plays are his masterpieces, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” autobiographical works in which the Tyrone family stands in for the O’Neills. In “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” four people—a husband, wife and their two sons—try to touch one another salvifically. The family tries to love in a way that heals rather than hurts, that brings peace rather than pain. At the end of their 24-hour journey, O’Neill shows four hopeless, isolated individuals whose future cannot transcend their past. They have arrived at a kind of hell on earth, a hell that without a loving divine presence turns out to be one another.
In “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” James Tyrone is crippled with guilt over two sins he had committed in relation to his mother. The first is a broken promise to her that he would give up alcohol. James was drunk while she was near death, and he knows that she knew it. The second is that while accompanying his mother’s body in a train en route to her burial, he had several liaisons with a prostitute. Fearing that these two failures can never be forgiven and discovering that alcohol will not wash away his guilt, James seeks a kind of absolution from Josie Hogan, the daughter of a tenant farmer on the Tyrone estate, who loves him. If Josie can forgive him, he hopes, perhaps his mother could also. During their long night he rests his head on Josie’s lap and hopes for forgiveness. The scene is often staged to look like a Pietà.
After Josie conquers, through her love, a revulsion over James’s confession of his sins, Josie becomes not only a mother figure, a virtual stand-in for his mother, but a kind of Christ-figure in the play. She says, “I understand now Jim, darling, and I’m proud you came to me as the one in the world you know loves you enough to understand and forgive—and I do forgive!... As she forgives, do you hear me! As she loves and understands and forgives!”
Josie suggests they wait together for the dawn that “will wake in the sky like a promise of God’s peace in the soul’s dark sadness.” When the play ends it is clear that James’s salvation and redemption through Josie will be momentary rather than eternal. Still, she has provided a moment of grace, a taste of God’s forgiveness.
If it is true that in order to accept God’s invitation to an intimate loving relationship, we must first recognize our radical need for God, then the plays of a Eugene O’Neill, a lapsed Catholic, might serve as spiritual reading.