In O'Neill, the 1960 biography by Arthur and Barbara Gelb, the husband-and-wife team write of O'Neill's 1943 autobiographical opus--the last piece he finished--as follows: "The play was Jamie's epitaph, and though it was a brutal exposé of his brother, it was far more forgiving than O'Neill could reason himself into being in 1923 [when Jamie O'Neill died]."
The play was, in fact, an imaginative rearrangement of Jamie's last days, arising as much out of penitence on O'Neill's part as out of a desire to vindicate his brother. It was typical of the sort of wish-fulfillment to which O'Neill was often addicted in his work.
The Gelbs have something there, although one might quarrel with O'Neill's giving in to any wish-fulfillment in Long Day's Journey Into Night. An absolving strain, however, does leak through the script of A Moon for the Misbegotten like sap through the bark of an old tree. The action drives--lurches, even--from low comedy to tragedy to lyricism to sentimentality in ways that other O'Neill works steadfastly refuse to. Certainly the conviction that there's no point in holding out hope to humankind for long-lived serenity underlies both Long Days Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh.
So what gives with the gentler Moon for the Misbegotten? The Gelbs make a good case that sibling guilt is the impetus. Longing to expiate himself for a callous response to his alcoholic brother's demise, O'Neill concocted a hale and hard tragifarce for that brother to find expiation--or, at least, momentary relief. In the play--which, incidentally, was a failure when first produced in the late '40s--Jamie Tyrone (Gabriel Byrne), losing his battle with the bottle at an accelerating pace, spends time with Josie Hogan (Cherry Jones), the daughter of pig farmer Phil Hogan (Roy Dotrice). Hogan is a tough old Irishman who rents a patch of O'Neill--er, Tyrone--land, more rock pile than anything else. Josie is meant to be a big-boned girl and is also meant to be Jamie's match in terms of both disillusion and discontent ("You and I belong to the same club," Jamie says to her). She has long taken her brothers' side against their demanding, rapscallion father; one of the brothers is striking out on his own as the play starts. Josie has also long made it plain that she couldn't give two hoots about her reputation as an easy sexual mark.
Strong-willed Josie's weak spot is Jamie. She's in love with him, and that's obvious to both him and the old man. Also as plain as the nose on her plain face are other truths she'd just as soon not own up to about her supposedly loose behavior. It's the three focal characters' ability to see through each other while pretending to hide from themselves that serves as O'Neill's dramatic thrust. Much of it takes the form of good-natured give-and-take that results in more genuine laughs than playgoers might expect from an O'Neill play, Ah, Wilderness! notwithstanding. In particular, when a neighbor with his eye on purchasing the Hogan acres arrives with riding whip in hand, the treatment he receives becomes O'Neill's equivalent of a '20s burlesque sketch.