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Drugs and Alcohol
There's nothing like the first after-breakfast cigar, if it's a good one, and this new lot have the right mellow flavor. (1.1.9)
Cigars are certainly the least frightening drugs that come up in the play, but still, see how early in the text we're introduced to a drug habit. Not only does James have a cigar at 8:30 in the morning, but it's also his first after-breakfast cigar. That is, he has more than one cigar every morning. Not the end of the world, for sure, but we are being introduced very early on to this family's strong dependence on substances
Suddenly primly virtuous.
I'd never suggest a man or a woman touch drink, Mister Edmund. Sure, didn't it kill an uncle of mine in the old country.
Still, a drop now and then is no harm when you're in low spirits, or have a bad cold.
So, this is the first in a long line of weird rationalizations of drinking. Again and again, the characters speak disparagingly of alcohol abuse, but quickly rationalize their own use – this is classic addictive behavior. Still, it's striking to hear Cathleen advocate drinking alcohol the exact moment after she relates that her uncle was killed by drinking too much.
Listen, Kid. You know me. I've never lectured you, but Doctor Hardy was right when he told you to cut out the redeye. (2.1.27)
In and of itself, this quote isn't particularly interesting. It just shows a caring and thoughtful moment on Jamie's part. But this quote follows two pages of Jamie supporting and encouraging Edmund's drinking. First he laughs about Edmund trying to sneak a drink, putting a hand on his little brother's shoulder affectionately, and then he covers his brother's tracks by topping up the whiskey decanter with water. The problem here is that Jamie has no right to lecture Edmund on drinking, and that the boys' force of habit is strong enough to overcome their common sense.
Did I hear you say, let's all have a drink?
Frowns at him.
Jamie is welcome after his hard morning's work, but I won't invite you. Doctor Hardy –
To hell with Doctor Hardy! One isn't going to kill me. I feel – all in, Papa.
With a worried look at him – putting on a fake heartiness.
Come along, then. It's before a meal and I've always found that good whiskey, taken in moderation as an appetizer, is the best of tonics.
This is a fascinating example of the phenomenon we see in quote two above. Just as Cathleen suggests a small drink immediately after describing her uncle's fatal alcoholism, here James lets his son drink despite specific warnings from a doctor that it would be unhealthy for him to do so. There are at least two possibilities here: 1) James legitimately believes that alcohol is healthy and that Doc Hardy is wrong, or 2) James just doesn't want to deprive his son of something that makes him happy, and so weighs Edmund's happiness over the possible health risks. The first, in particular, gives an interesting angle on James – does he actually believe that Doctor Hardy is a poor doctor, implicitly admitting that his money-hoarding has led the family to consult a sub-par health professional?
Why is that glass there? Did you take a drink? Oh, how can you be such a fool? Don't you know it's the worst thing?
She turns on Tyrone.
You're to blame, James. How could you let him? Do you want to kill him? Don't you remember my father? He wouldn't stop after he was stricken. He said doctors were fools! He thought, like you, that whiskey is a good tonic!
A look of terror comes into her eyes and she stammers.
But, of course, there's no comparison at all. I don't know why I – Forgive me for scolding you, James. One small drink won't hurt Edmund. It might be good for him, if it gives him an appetite. (2.1.116)
Here Mary follows Cathleen and James's leads. It's as if the whole family believes that if they can drink alcohol, then they can be normal, so long as they respect moderation. That is, only an unhealthy family could possibly ban alcohol (what they call "a good man's failing"). To admit that alcohol could be dangerous would be to admit that Edmund isn't a healthy, vital young man. Just like Cathleen, Mary recognizes intellectually (and with reference to a dead relative) that alcohol can be dangerous, but she quickly turns around to make sure neither she nor Edmund thinks that Edmund's in danger of dying.
Well, what's wrong with being drunk? It's what we're after, isn't it? Let's not kid each other, Papa. Not tonight. We know what we're trying to forget.
But let's not talk about it. It's no use now.
No. All we can do is try to be resigned – again.
Or be so drunk you can forget. (4.1.46-48)
Immediately after this passage, Edmund cites a long prose poem by Baudelaire about being drunk all the time if you don't want to be "martyred slaves of Time." And Edmund agrees: the best way to deal with Mary's problem is to be too drunk to remember it. But have you noticed they can't do it? No matter how much the Tyrone boys drink, they can't forget Mary's addiction.
And several other times in my life, when I was swimming far out, or lying alone on a beach, I have had the same experience. Became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide. Like a saint's vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see – and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason! (4.1.148)
Sure, the whole experience of sitting on a sailboat is beautiful, and we're all in favor of the environment, but let's be honest about what's going on here: Edmund's saying that the best high he ever got was from nature. His out-of-body experiences in nature have done all that the Tyrones want their drugs to do and so much more. Instead of just forgetting the present reality, this high demolishes the entire idea of reality, and takes you one step further outside the box of your life. Now that's some potent stuff.
I suppose I can't forgive her – yet. It meant so much. I'd begun to hope, if she'd beaten the game, I could, too. (4.1. 92)
In this tragic moment, right before he breaks down in tears, Jamie admits he has an addiction for the first time in this play. Not only does he admit it, but he also says that he was hoping to quit drinking and womanizing, but now he's without hope. This gives us a sympathetic new angle on Jamie, because he hadn't seemed the type to acknowledge his own problems – especially after the "Fat Violet" episode.
Got to take revenge. On everyone else. Especially you. Oscar Wilde's "Reading Gaol" has the dope twisted. The man was dead and so he had to kill the thing he loved. That's what it ought to be. The dead part of me hopes you won't get well. (4.1. 206)
Cool literary reference here, as Jamie brings up a great poem, Wilde's "Ballad of Reading Gaol." In this poem, Wilde writes about a man threatened to death for killing his wife. He writes: "The man had killed the thing he loved / And so he had to die." Here, Jamie inverts the causality. Instead, once you die on the inside, as Jamie has, you lose control of yourself, and are forced to kill the thing you love (i.e., in Jamie's case, Edmund). In spite of all of his tears, Jamie is still hesitant to attribute total blame to himself in trying to hurt Edmund. Instead, it is a part of him he can't control that contemplates doing evil to his brother.
Jamie pours his and passes the bottle to Edmund, who, in turn, pours one. Tyrone lifts his glass and his sons follow suit mechanically, but before they can drink Mary speaks and they slowly lower their drinks to the table, forgetting them. (4.1.241 SD)
This is one of the most famous moments of the play, and for good reason. As the Tyrone men go through one final, ritual gesture of drinking away their sorrows, they're all suddenly, separately caught up in their love and sadness for Mary. Mary has a power over all of them that no drug (morphine or alcohol) can possibly diminish, and the power of this particular tragedy so far outweighs the retreating power of alcohol that the Tyrones all forget about even trying to drown their sorrows for the first time in the play.
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