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Substance Abuse

johnny addicts life father

Although numerous drug addicts and drinkers appear in plays by pioneering modern dramatists Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, in the first half of the twentieth century few playwrights chose to consider such a potentially explosive topic as substance abuse in their work. It is an issue filled with pitfalls, given the public tendency to shun such topics for fear that any discussion of them may promote, or seem to condone, the taking of drugs or alcohol. But by the 1950s, attitudes had relaxed sufficiently to allow for a frank, yet sympathetic, presentation of the effects of alcohol and drugs on people’s lives, although playwrights approached the question of addiction from differing perspectives. While O’Neill shows us drinkers and dope addicts desiring but unable to change, Jack Gelber presents addicts content with their addiction, and Michael Gazzo suggests both the desire and possibility of “kicking the habit.”

The most common portrayals of drinkers or drug addicts in modern drama show people who drink or get high as a refuge from a world that they feel has somehow betrayed them. They opt to set themselves apart from others and their personal pain or demons by creating a protective cushion of alcohol or drugs. We see this in O’Neill’s largely autobiographical Long Day’s Journey Into Night . The characters, with their addictions, fears, and failings, are closely based on his own parents and elder brother; the character of Edmund is based on himself. Such personal experience allows O’Neill to present detailed and realistic psychological portrayals. He depicts a father and two sons who constantly drink to avoid feelings of inadequacy, guilt, disappointment, or fear, while the mother injects morphine as both solace and escape.

While we may sympathize with O’Neill’s characters, we see their addiction mostly caused by their own weak will and inability to cope with whatever life has dealt them, and we see little hope for any cure; Gazzo’s Hatful of Rain , by   contrast, offers an alternative view. The play introduces us to a wider range of drug addicts, including a dealer, and centers on the troubled figure of Johnny Pope, who has been betrayed less by himself than by others. Johnny is not an addict by choice; he has a loving wife and a baby on the way. The play’s impetus lies in his father and his wife discovering his addiction, then offering the support he needs in order to beat it.

Gelber is less concerned with excuses as to why someone takes drugs; for him the drug culture is more an unavoidable fact of life than a sad response to personal or social wrongs. In other plays dealing with the drug culture, the playwrights are concerned with offering sympathetic excuses for the addict. But Gelber suggests, controversially, that some people become addicted because they desire an alternative life to the materialistic nine-to-five grind of the rest of society, not because they need to heal some major rift in their life. The lives of Gelber’s addicts are not necessarily happy but, unlike the addicts that populate O’Neill’s and Gazzo’s plays, they display no desire to change how they live. The Connection is as experimental in its style as it is in its subject matter: it neatly blurs the line between drama and reality in an effort to convey a sense that this is a true depiction of how addicts live.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night recounts a bleak day in the life of the Tyrone family in which all their fears and guilts bubble to the surface and are swiftly reburied. As they alternately blame themselves and each other for the sad state of their lives, the men, James Tyrone and his sons Jamie and Edmund, drink to excess, and Mary, the mother, gradually recedes into a morphine-induced haze. We learn of Tyrone’s lost career and penny-pinching ways, Jamie’s wasted life and predilection for brothels, Edmund’s experiences at sea and current ill health, and Mary’s disappointments and addiction.

Mary refers to them all as victims of a past they cannot change. Her addiction grew out of a difficult birth with Edmund, and a doctor overzealous in prescribing morphine to soothe her pain. The Tyrones try to forget their pasts to improve their present, but it is a futile exercise, since the past keeps intruding. If they could only face what has happened, they might be freed of it and move forward, but they can only view it when under the soothing influence of drugs or alcohol, which does not allow them to deal with it honestly. They cannot come to terms with what they have collectively done or not done, so they allow their memories, or the memories of others, to destroy them, or enrage them to destroy each other. Although each one tries to blame the others, every Tyrone is partly responsible for his or her own destruction.

Mary prefers to live in an imaginary past. Although she begins the play drug free, as it proceeds, she keeps taking morphine to help her to slip into this past and avoid the unpleasantness of her present-day reality—currently the harsh fact of Edmund’s life-threatening consumption. Even though it is clear by her occasional outburst that she knows the truth, she tries to believe that Edmund only has a cold, thus freeing herself from any need to worry or act.   The morphine assists her in this self-deception and offers her a life free of psychological pain, where she can blot out her unhappy marriage, her selfish husband, the death of her baby Eugene, and even her own addiction. As she explains: “It kills the pain. You go back until at last you are beyond its reach. Only the past when you were happy is real” (104). Her idealized past as an innocent convent girl from a happy home, tricked into a disastrous marriage, is a complete fabrication, but the morphine helps her avoid the reality of even that, as it totally fogs her mind. Mary ends the play in a narcotic dream in which she relives her past as if it were physically occurring in the present, and it seems like a dream to which she is destined to keep returning.

O’Neill depicts the Tyrones being gradually encompassed in darkness, as night closes in and their home becomes fog-bound. The fog is symbolic of the way in which each of them has become isolated and insulated—from each other and the outside world. They separate themselves off through embarrassment or disgust, then complain about their loneliness. Each is both victimizer and victim in an endless round of recrimination. The darkness at the close of the play is both external and internal; given their fears and insecurities, these people have no means of escape. Mary and Edmund both welcome the fog, grateful for the opportunity it gives for them to lose themselves; its opacity may be restrictive, but they see it as safe. Edmund’s visions of the sea are as ethereal as Mary’s drug-induced visions, and no more real. Edmund is very sick, but hides from this truth, as it rightly scares him, and his excessive drinking only exacerbates his condition.

No one in this family expects to be happy because all are consumed by real or imagined guilts. Tyrone feels guilt over Mary, because he has given her a shabby life and hired the cheap doctor who got her hooked on morphine. He feels more guilt over trying to send Edmund to a cheap sanatorium. These guilts stem from his miserliness, a habit he cannot break. Mary feels guilt over Eugene’s death, since she had not been there to stop Jamie from infecting him with the measles, which killed him. She also feels guilty just for giving birth to Edmund who seems so unhappy. Also, her addiction makes her feel guilty because she knows how much they all want her to stop, and, unable to break her addiction, she feels inadequate as a wife and mother. Jamie feels guilt over his own failure in life, and for causing Eugene’s death. He even feels guilt over Edmund’s ill health, believing that his attempts to corrupt Edmund to make himself look better caused the consumption. Edmund feels the least guilt, but still sees his life as a waste.

Tyrone’s actions are equally driven by his past, especially his lost chance at becoming a great actor due to his financial insecurity. Instead of extending his repertoire, he kept playing one popular role until he became so typecast that no one wanted him to play anything else. Tyrone pushes his sons to make something of their lives, but usually in the wrong direction, exploiting rather than assisting them. Also a chauvinist, he has always put himself and his career ahead of Mary. He loves her, and depends on her for emotional support, but has never really considered her feelings. He has had a hard life, having to support his mother and siblings from an early age after his father walked out on them, and it is this that has made him so penny-pinching. He tries to break free of this habit, agreeing to let Edmund pick his own sanatorium and promising to pay for it, but he cannot resist insisting “within reason.”

Jamie’s life of dissipation, with its prostitutes and alcohol, is born of a need for the guiding hand of a mother, having lost Mary to her morphine habit, and his own guilt at possibly having caused Eugene’s death. Being the most drunk, he is also the one most aware of the truth, though it is a truth from which he desperately wishes he could hide. Pressured by his father, Jamie became an actor, but it is a profession he despises. He has no idea what he would do in its place, but takes out his frustration and dissatisfaction with life on himself. Jamie is an empty shell of man, a lost soul with no sense of selfhood. His lifestyle reflects his desperation—for love, direction, and happiness—all of which are precluded by such a lifestyle. Alcohol acts as a lubricant for confessions from Tyrone, Edmund, and Jamie, but the trouble is that they can do nothing to rectify their lives, so their only recourse is to drink some more until nothing matters anymore.

Hatful of Rain tells the story of Johnny Pope, who became addicted to morphine from his time in a veterans’ hospital, in recovery from being tortured by his captors during the Korean War. He has tried to quit, but could not stay clean, and has started using again, which causes him to lose a string of jobs, give up attending night school, and get in debt to a local dealer called “Mother.” Mother pressures Johnny for his money, giving him a gun and demanding that he rob someone, but Johnny’s intrinsic morality prevents him from doing this. His brother, Polo, who has helped him in the past, sells his car to pay Mother, and Johnny’s whole family helps to get him into rehabilitation.

The small apartment setting, with windows facing a brick building, conveys a sense of entrapment, visually depicting the way an unwilling addict must feel about his addiction. Johnny had gone into rehabilitation before with Polo’s help, but when he returned to morphine, Polo had given him the money to pay for the morphine rather than see Johnny go through the pain of withdrawal again. Polo just wants to help his brother, but, as Celia explains, “When you love you have to be responsible to what you love” (381), and giving Johnny the money had not been in Johnny’s best interest. Celia suggests that it would have been better to try to understand what caused the pain, and learn why he is using in the first place.

The cause of Johnny’s addiction is complex. His father admires him for his innocence and his ability to believe in people, but these are qualities Johnny has had stripped away. His life has been a series of betrayals, from his father placing him and his brother in an orphanage soon after their mother’s death, to his sergeant abandoning him to torture during his tour of duty in Korea, and the doctors and nurses pumping him full of drugs to keep him quiet while   he was in the hospital. Johnny rightly feels betrayed by society as a whole, which has effectively caused him to become an addict against his will.

Although Johnny is reunited with his father, the father’s unremitting favoritism toward Johnny annoys Johnny, since it is Polo who most desires the father’s approval. While Johnny has not forgiven his father for abandoning them, Polo keeps all their father’s letters and saves money to help him start a business. When Johnny and his father speak honestly, we see a breakthrough in their relationship, in which even the irresponsible father finally offers his support, and it is this, alongside the support he gets from Polo and Celia, that spurs Johnny to change.

Polo loves his brother, but he is angry at him for his weakness. He also worries about his own motivation in giving Johnny the money to buy more dope; might he have been trying to destroy Johnny because of his feelings for Celia? Knowing he can never have Celia, Polo initially refuses to supply any more cash, but does so in the end to save Johnny’s life. Polo alone got Johnny through his last rehabilitation, but he does not have the strength to do it alone again. Fortunately, he does not have to, as both their father and Celia are ready to help this time around, and Johnny, managing to overcome his sense of shame, is willing to allow them.

Celia loves Johnny, but has found the way he has distanced himself from her since his return from Korea increasingly troubling. Knowing that his brother Polo desires her, she nearly turns to him for comfort, but both realize the mistake of that before anything happens. Even though she is pregnant, she declares her intention to leave, thinking that Johnny’s neglect of her stems from his having lost interest in her and taken a mistress. When Johnny speaks honestly to her, sharing his feelings openly and admitting his addiction, their relationship takes on a new strength, just as his relationship with his father became stronger once Johnny opened up to him. Celia does not hesitate in her support once she knows that Johnny still loves her, and it is she who, with Johnny’s consent, calls the police to have him taken in to get cleaned out. She emphasizes her married name when making this call to ensure that we know she will stick by him.

The play’s title refers to a story from Johnny’s childhood, in which he is told that people are rewarded for hard work, so he digs a hole while it rains and ends with only a hatful of rain for his trouble. This illustrates how Johnny’s innocent faith in social rules betrays him—in a corrupt society, sometimes it takes more than faith in the system to survive. Johnny never betrayed his sergeant, even under torture, and it pains him to know that his sergeant betrayed him. Yet without some kind of faith, survival is equally impossible. Gazzo’s answer is a belief in the power of community: when people help each other, rather than selfishly work alone, then progress is possible.

Johnny’s problem is partly caused by having to live in what his father calls “the age of the vacuum” (321), in which people no longer believe in anything. Gazzo suggests that people without faith or hope are those most prone to   becoming drug addicts. He underlines this by his depiction of other addicts in the play. The group who break into Johnny’s apartment, sent by Mother to beat him up, are particularly vacuous. Doped up, they act selfishly, unable to trust each other, with no sense of time or purpose; they even keep forgetting why they are there. There is a sense of aimlessness as they talk, occasionally squabble, and try to decide where to go next.

The dealer Mother is an utterly immoral force who manipulates those who depend on him for drugs. Abusive and violent, he represents everything bad about the drug world. When Johnny cannot pay, he cuts off his supply, forcing him into painful withdrawal, and threatens his life if he cannot find the money. He has put Willy De Carlo in the hospital for nonpayment, and even threatens Polo. Were it not for Polo selling his car to raise the cash, Johnny would be dead. Mother fails in his attempt to force Johnny to commit armed robbery, but he got another addict, Church, to murder his own mother for her cash—less than $4—and then beat up his dog. But the strength of Johnny’s family behind him is more than a match for Mother.

The Connection takes place in the apartment of Leach, a heroin addict who allows other addicts to use his place and connects them to dealers in exchange for a portion of their score. A group of addicts wait for their “connection,” a dealer named Cowboy, and pass the time playing music, telling stories, and discussing various facets of their lives. They are supposedly improvising on themes provided by Jaybird, who has been living among addicts to see how they live. He was hired to do this by Jim Dunn, a television producer, who wants to cash in on the current interest in drugs by filming this group in action. The media depicts drugs as exotic and even erotic, but this will not be what we see here, to the disappointment of Jim and Jaybird, as they see themselves losing control. Jaybird and one of the cameramen are persuaded to try shooting up, there is the threat of a police raid, and Leach overdoses, nearly killing himself.

The Connection , coming five years after Hatful of Rain , is an open attempt to enter the world of the addict rather than simply to vilify it. Gelber humanizes his addicts; they take center stage and their lives and dependencies are the play’s subject. With Jim trying to direct the action, we get a sense that we are watching the real thing; Gelber even has Leach shoot up on stage. The group of addicts we meet are predominantly passive, living for their next “fix” that will allow them to briefly feel alive. They do not see themselves as victims, just people who have opted out of everyday life. They do not hate society, they just do not wish to be part of it. One of the addicts, Sam, points out that what they do is not that different from what people do in regular society, suggesting that everyone is an addict in some sense—to work, money, clothes, vitamins—the only difference being that he is addicted to something illegal. They do not consider themselves better than “regular” people, but neither do they consider themselves worse, and we become increasingly sympathetic to that view.

Gelber’s addicts are drawn to drug use for different reasons, and they are shown to be as varied as the rest of society, crossing boundaries of race and class, with Solly the intellectual; Sam the companionable storyteller; Ernie the misanthropic, self-deluded musician; and Leach the busy opportunist. None of them have any intention of quitting, and we do not expect them to. Gelber is careful not to paint them as heroes: what they do is not heroic, it is simply how they live. Every society contains addicts: this type is just more prone to crime and early death, but it is a life they choose. They are neither mentally unbalanced nor traumatized by events in their lives. As we watch these men wait and hope, we come to see them not only as addicts, but as representative of the whole human condition.

Solly lists contradictory reasons why addicts get high: for hope, to forget, to remember, to feel happy, or to feel sad, but they all do it by choice. He asserts, “You are your own connection” (37), invoking the play’s title, to suggest that everyone chooses his or her own life and beliefs. A junkie’s life exists in a delicate balance between life and death, and Solly’s suggestion that most addicts shoot up in search of transcendence rather than escape hits a nerve in the ambiguous conversation the men have with the Salvation Army sister. Cowboy brings in Sister Salvation, with whom he is pretending to have found religion, to escape detection by the police. Naively, she is unaware that these men are drug addicts; while she thinks they are talking about religion, they are talking about drugs. Thus emerges another “connection,” this time between drug use and religion, both being described as sources of salvation and joy.

While Jaybird had hoped for heroic figures warring against social expectations, and Jim for a freak show to market, both are disappointed; what they see are fellow human beings. Though men like Ernie seem more desperate and out for themselves, Sam, Solly, and Cowboy all stick by Leach when he is in trouble. These men have a community of sorts, with certain rules of conduct by which they mostly abide, and though Jim refuses to see this, suggesting that they should all die to give him a neat ending, Jaybird accepts the essential ordinariness of what they are doing: “No doctors, no heroes, no martyrs, no Christs … It’s all yours now” (96). Throughout the play, Gelber constantly breaks the “fourth wall” by having characters speak directly to the audience and vice versa. By this he hopes to draw his audience into the play to the point where they see no real difference between themselves and the performers, and so make the addicts’ experience an intensely personal one for every spectator.

Suddenly, Love [next] [back] Sturtevant, Alfred Henry

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