A Moon for the Misbegotten begins on a hot, clear day at roughly noon at the Hogans’ run-down farm, the house weathered gray and congruous with the parched and barren land that surrounds it. Attached to the house’s left side is a small bedroom, its walls and roof covered with tar paper; three steps lead up to the door of this room, and it is from this door that a very large woman emerges, her feet bare and her body clothed in a sleeveless cotton dress. She is Josie Hogan, and she is obviously anxious about something as she looks around the right corner of the house toward the field and then sighs with relief when she sees Mike Hogan, her younger brother, running toward her. They have planned Mike’s escape from the farm, just as—the audience learns—she did for her other two brothers years earlier.
Because much of the dialogue in act 1 serves as exposition, the audience learns from Mike’s puritanical chiding of his older sister that she has a bad reputation in town for being promiscuous, has never seemed to care about her virtue, and is like her father, Phil Hogan, insofar as she helps him cheat people in various ways. In fact, Mike says, he would not be surprised if Josie and Hogan try to trick their landlord, James Tyrone, out of some of his recent inheritance: Mike imagines Josie will lure Tyrone into her bedroom some night and then, while he is there, have Hogan burst into the room with a shotgun, accuse Tyrone of compromising his daughter, and blackmail him into giving them some restitution. Although she proudly acknowledges her reputation, Josie denies having thought of such a scheme, says she would never take part in such a plot, and—suddenly seeing their father walking toward the house—commands Mike away to his freedom.
After Hogan’s initial rage over Mike’s escape has dissipated, he dismisses the boy as annoyingly prudish, especially considering the way Mike chastised Josie for her putative liaisons with local men. Josie tells Hogan about the scheme Mike accused them of plotting. Hogan seems interested in this idea, saying that Tyrone’s promise not to sell the farm out from under them cannot be trusted, because when he gets drunk he becomes forgetful. Besides running the risk of losing the farm, Hogan says, there is this to think about: Josie and Tyrone are two of a kind, they like each other, and Josie could reform Tyrone and keep him sober. Nevertheless, Josie will have no part in any scheme, and she believes that Tyrone will keep his word about not selling the farm to anyone but Hogan. When Tyrone arrives unexpectedly at the farm, he tells them that T. Stedman Harder, their wealthy neighbor, is coming to complain about their pigs encroaching upon his ice pond. A short time later, Harder arrives but is verbally abused and quickly frightened away by Hogan and Josie. Act 1 ends with Tyrone promising to come back to the farm in the evening to see Josie.
Act 2 opens in darkness illuminated by light from a full moon. Josie sits on the steps leading to her bedroom, her big body clothed in her Sunday dress. She mutters to herself about being stood up by Tyrone; he was supposed to arrive at nine o’clock, and it is now roughly eleven. Her private humiliation is interrupted when her father arrives from the bar in town, where he has left Tyrone and one of Harder’s employees talking about the sale of the farm. Only gradually does he reveal to Josie the...
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cause of his deep anger; as he does so, her humiliation is compounded with a similar anger and sense of betrayal. She does not want to believe that Tyrone would break his promise to them about the farm, but she is already suffering one broken promise. At Hogan’s prompting, therefore, she agrees to take part in the scheme to lure Tyrone into her bed. Once again, Tyrone arrives unexpectedly; Hogan pretends to be drunk and staggers back to town, and the act ends with Josie getting whiskey from the house and Tyrone waiting on the steps outside.
Act 3 begins where the preceding act ended; Josie comes back outside with a bottle of whiskey. Initially, she attempts to affect the brazen demeanor of a hussy, but Tyrone tells her that he is tired of whores and wants her to be herself. Despite his urge to prove that she is a virgin, he says, he wants this night to be different from those he has spent with tarts. Telling her that she is the only woman he loves, he adds that she is beautiful because she is kind, wholesome, and strong. Josie struggles against her desire to be close to Tyrone, until he informs her that he fooled Hogan into thinking he was going to sell the farm. Upon learning that Tyrone intends to keep his promise to Hogan, Josie drops her defenses, tells Tyrone she loves him, and admits to being a virgin—one who, nevertheless, wants to go to bed with him. He would ruin their relationship, he says, like he ruined the one with his mother. Indeed, the guilt he feels for having failed his mother, as well as his need for forgiveness, has compelled him to seek maternal solace from Josie. The third act ends as they sit on the bedroom steps, Tyrone asleep in her arms.
Act 4 opens at dawn the following morning; Josie is awake and still holding the unconscious Tyrone, and Hogan is peering around the corner of the house at them. She acknowledges his presence, tells him that she believes he knew Tyrone was kidding about selling the farm, and vows to leave him for his duplicity. Hogan is apologetic, but Josie orders him into the house until after Tyrone has awakened. Tyrone soon wakes, expresses gratitude and affection to her, and says good-bye. As she watches Tyrone disappear, Hogan begs her to believe that he schemed only to gain happiness for her; she says that she believes him and will stay on the farm.
An autobiographical play about Eugene O’Neill’s alcoholic older brother, A Moon for the Misbegotten is dramatic realism direct in its simplicity and—like the Hogans’ life and farm—stripped of all but what is essential to its integrity.
The play’s set itself is stark: What the audience sees in all four acts is a side view of the Hogans’ small farmhouse; all of it but Josie’s bedroom is a weathered-gray clapboard, and the bedroom itself is covered with tar paper. Before the house and the three steps leading to the door of Josie’s room is a dirt yard in the middle of which is a large, flat-topped boulder that Tyrone uses as a sort of table on which to set his whiskey during act 3. O’Neill calls for the removal of the house’s living room wall for all of act 2. With the wall removed, the audience is allowed to watch Josie rise from the front steps, as the act opens, and stumble around in the living room until she lights a kerosene lantern, revealing the room’s sparse furnishings and, on a bureau, an alarm clock that indicates the time, five minutes past eleven—two hours after Tyrone was supposed to have come to visit her. Clearly O’Neill intends to show that, while the little the Hogans own is old and rudimentary and not worth much, what they themselves bring to it makes it a home. Most important, the playwright intends for the house to be emblematic of Hogan and Josie, insofar as, like them, it is “placed so perfectly in its setting that it appears a harmonious part of the landscape, rooted in the earth.”
Aside from the set, noteworthy are the demands this play imposes upon the actors portraying Josie and Tyrone, for O’Neill requires that the latter deliver a monologue during the third act that extends over several pages, and he requires that the former appear natural and attentive as she listens to it. Furthermore, Tyrone’s monologue about his mother and his guilt, as well as about the hatred he feels toward his dead father and himself, demands an actor of consummate skill to keep the audience’s attention and avoid a maudlin, monotonous tone. As for the actor who portrays Josie, she must be “so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak. . . .” While she “is more powerful than any but an exceptionally strong man,” O’Neill indicates in his directions that “there is no mannish quality about her. She is all woman.” In the course of the play, Josie must appear strong but vulnerable, bawdy but sensitive, lusty but maternal, hard as nails but compassionate. Indeed, Josie Hogan is considered by many to be one of the great heroines of twentieth century drama.
Sources for Further Study
Carpenter, Frederic I. Eugene O’Neill. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1979.
Falk, Doris V. Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension: An Interpretative Study of the Plays. 2d ed. New York: Gordian Press, 1982.
Frank, Glenda. Review of A Moon for the Misbegotten. Theatre Journal 44 (December, 1992): 527-528.
Gassner, John, ed. O’Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964.
Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo. New York: Applause, 2000.
Houchin, John H., ed. The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Miller, Jordan Y., and Winifred L. Frazer. “Eugene O’Neill: From Nobody to the Nobel.” In American Drama Between the Wars: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Raleigh, John Henry. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965.
Ranald, Margaret Loftus. The Eugene O’Neill Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.
Tiusanen, Timo. O’Neill’s Scenic Images. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968.