Analysis of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night

The simplicity of the play’s dramatic form; the complexity of its four major characters and the progressive unfolding of their psychological richness; the directness of their presentation without gimmickry or sentimentality; the absorbing emotional rhythm of their interactions; the intensity of their quest for meaning; the natural yet expressive quality of their dialogue; their insights concerning guilt, vulnerability, and the need for family connection—these are among the qualities that have gained the play its status as a world classic. Long Day’s Journey into Night simultaneously marks the pinnacle of O’Neill’s career and the coming of age of American drama.

—Michael Hinden, Long Day’s Journey into Night : Native Eloquence

Long Day’s Journey into Night —the greatest American play by the United States’s greatest playwright—is a harrowing work of personal memory universalized into the great American family tragedy. At the end of a remarkable career that produced more than 50 plays and after a seemingly inexhaustible series of theatrical experimentations that established the baseline and boundaries for a vital new American drama, Eugene O’Neill finally returned to simplicity itself: autobiography and a day-in-the-life repossession of his own family history as a summary statement of his long journey toward self-understanding and self-expression. The urgency and utility of O’Neill’s dramatic version of Remembrance of Things Past (Marcel Proust’s seven-volume epic autobiographical novel) is announced significantly and succinctly by Mary Tyrone, who early on in the play states: “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future too.” O’Neill’s entire past is prelude and preparation for the tragic recognition that animates his masterpiece. Again, it is Mary Tyrone who summarizes the tragic sensibility that informs O’Neill’s plays and finds its best expression in Long Day’s Journey: “None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”

Born in 1888 in a hotel room in the heart of New York’s theatrical district, O’Neill was the son of matinee idol and onetime distinguished Shakespearean actor, James O’Neill, who made his reputation and fortune by continually touring in a melodrama based on Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. The commercial theater of the day, in which his father squandered his considerable acting talent, consisted of gratifying public taste with the lowest popular denominator. Eugene O’Neill, his disappointed father, his drug-addicted mother, and his alcoholic elder brother were all in various ways products of the theater of the day. O’Neill’s transient childhood was spent touring the United States with his parents and attending boarding schools. He was suspended from Princeton after a year for a college prank and introduced to the bohemian world by his actor-brother, James. O’Neill’s aimless and dissipated youth is succinctly summarized by critic Jordan Y. Miller:

At twenty, almost on a dare, he had married a girl he hardly knew, fathered a child he never saw until nearly twelve years later, went gold prospecting in Honduras, contracted malaria, and was divorced before he was twenty-two. He failed as a newspaper reporter, became intimate with all the more famous New York and Connecticut bordellos, to which he was guided by his brother James; evidence all of fast becoming a hopeless alcoholic; and, after attempting suicide, contracted a severe lung infection to place him in a Connecticut tuberculosis sanitarium at the age of twenty-four.

During his convalescence from 1912 to 1913, O’Neill read widely and decided to become a playwright. His first dramatic work was done for the Province-town Players, of Cape Cod and in New York City’s Greenwich Village, the most influential company in the “little theater” movement. His first stage production, Bound East for Cardiff, based on his experience as a seaman, was followed by Beyond the Horizon and The Emperor Jones, both in 1920, which established O’Neill as a powerful new force in the American theater. For the next 15 years, O’Neill would display an extraordinary range in his restless search for an expressive form that virtually catalogs the various methods of modern drama. As he stated in a 1923 interview, “I intend to use whatever I can make my own, to write about anything under the sun in any manner that fits the subject. And I shall never be influenced by any consideration but one: Is it the truth as I know it—or, better still, feel it?”

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To arrive at truth in the face of a breakdown of traditional beliefs and its crippling effect on the psyche, O’Neill experimented with symbolism, masks, interior monologues, choruses, and realistic and expressionistic styles. His early plays were “slice of life” dramas, focusing on the delusions and obsessions of marginalized characters—seamen, laborers, roust-abouts, prostitutes, and derelicts—who had never before been depicted on the American stage. Most are adrift and deeply divided from their identities and the traditional sources of sustaining values. Increasingly, his plays would dramatize a tragic vision in naturalistic plays such as Anna Christie (1921) and Desire Under the Elms (1924), and a series of expressionistic plays, including The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape (1920), and The Great God Brown (1926). In Strange Interlude (1928) O’Neill began dissecting character through interior monologue, never before attempted on stage on such a scale. His work in the 1930s included the monumental Mourning Becomes Electra, in which Aeschylus’s drama of the house of Atreus is transferred to post–Civil War New England. His single comedy, Ah, Wilderness! (1933), is based on his happiest memories summering at his family’s New London, Connecticut, home, the same setting he would use for his darkest tragic drama, Long Day’s Journey. In 1934 the failure of his play Days without Endbegan a 12-year period in which no new O’Neill plays were staged and initiated a final creative explosion prompted by O’Neill’s commitment to write “plays primarily as literature to be read.” In 1936 O’Neill became the second American (and to date the only American dramatist) to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. The first American Nobel laureate, Sinclair Lewis, praised the playwright as follows:

Mr. Eugene O’Neill, who has done nothing much in American drama save to transform it utterly, in ten or twelve years, from a false world of neat and competent trickery to a world of splendor and fear and greatness . . . has seen life as not to be arranged in the study of a scholar but as a terrifying, magnificent, and often horrible thing akin to the tornado, the earthquake, the devastating fire.

The “horrible thing” that Lewis equates with a natural disaster continually threatens the Tyrone family in Long Day’s Journey, just below the surface of their seemingly placid summer holiday routine in August 1912, at their Connecticut seaside home. O’Neill began work on Long Day’s Journey in the summer of 1939 as war in Europe threatened and his own health was in significant decline from a debilitating nerve disorder. Feeling “fed up and stale” after nearly five years’ work on an immense cycle of plays reflecting American history from the perspective of an Irish-American family, O’Neill decided to turn to private subjects, sketching the outline of two plays that “appeal most.” One was based on his time spent in a bar on the Bowery in New York, which became The Iceman Cometh; the other, a laceratingly honest portrait of his past, that he identified as the “N[ew]. L[ondon]. family” play, and later called “a play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood”: Long Day’s Journey into Night . Completing work on Iceman first, O’Neill spent most of 1940 on Long Day’s Journey. His wife, Carlotta, recalled:

When he started Long Day’s Journey it was a most strange experience to watch that man being tortured every day by his own writing. He would come out of his study at the end of the day gaunt and sometimes weeping. His eyes would be all red and he looked ten years older than when he went in in the morning. I think he felt freer when he got it out of his system. It was his way of making peace with his family—and himself.

Completing the second draft by his 52nd birthday, in October 1940, O’Neill made the final cuts to the typescript that Carlotta had prepared by the end of March 1941, recording in his diary: “Like this play better than any I have ever written—does the most with the least—a quiet play!—and a great one, I believe.” Due to its autobiographical content, O’Neill stipulated that his play neither be published nor performed until at least 25 years after his death. However, after he died in 1953, Carlotta, claiming that her husband had orally withdrawn his prohibition shortly before his death, allowed the play to be staged by the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre in February 1956, to coincide with its American publication. The English-language premiere of the play occurred on Broadway in November 1956 to great acclaim. Reviewer John Chapman called it “O’Neill’s most beautiful play . . . and . . . one of the great dramas of any time,” while critic Brooks Atkinson declared that with Long Day’s Journey “American theater acquires stature and size.” The play has gone on to be recognized as O’Neill’s greatest achievement and a triumph both for U.S. and world theater.

Its power derives from its relentless honesty linked to the simplicity of its dramatic form. The action is compressed to the events of a single day that progressively reveal the psychological complexity and tragic mutual dependency of the play’s four major characters—James and Mary Tyrone and their sons Jamie and Edmund—along with the secrets that define and doom their family. It is Edmund’s ill health, which his mother insists is only a summer cold but his doctor diagnoses as tuberculosis, that serves as a catalyst for the play’s pounding series of revelations and recognitions. James, Jamie, and Edmund alternately accept and reject their suspicion that Mary has relapsed in her morphine addiction, while each family member is forced to face their guilt and responsibility for the past that haunts the family. Mary, who had abandoned her vocation to become a nun or a concert pianist to marry the handsome actor James Tyrone, ultimately blames her husband and sons for her addiction: specifically, Jamie for the accidental death of another son, significantly named Eugene; Edmund for his difficult birth that required medical care; and James for his stinginess that led to employing a second-rate doctor who started her on morphine. The others, in turn, confront their own complicity in the family’s self-destruction, while each is given an aria of insight into the truth of their situation.

The patriarch, James Tyrone, reviews his acting career in which he exchanged seemingly unlimited artistic promise for financial security, fueled by his early lower-class Irish impoverishment. He confesses:

That God-damned play I bought for a song, and made such a great success in—a great money success—it ruined me with its promise of an easy fortune. . . . It was a great romantic part I knew I could play better than anyone. But it was a great box office success from the start—and then life had me where it wanted me—at from thirty-five to forty thousand net profit a season! A fortune in those days—or even in these. What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder, that was worth—Well, no matter. It’s a late day for regrets.

Edmund, understanding for the first time the cost of his father’s success and the origins of his miserliness, reciprocates his father’s honesty with his own confession in one of the most moving and lyrical passages O’Neill ever wrote. Recalling his time at sea, Edmund admits to a moment of supreme transcendence:

I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you to put it that way. . . . For a second you see—and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hands let the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!

Edmund’s ecstasy of affirmation gives way to a deeply tragic self- and existential awareness: “It was a great mistake, my being born a man. I would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish. As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death!”

The play concludes with Jamie’s confession of his resentment of his brother and his secret delight in his family’s destruction that grants him the consoling role of damned and powerless victim: “The dead part of me hopes you won’t get well. Maybe he’s even glad the game has got Mama again! He wants company, he doesn’t want to be the only corpse around the house!” Jamie’s warning to his brother that he actually desires Edmund’s and the family’s destruction, that he secretly hates them all and himself, is ironically one of the great testaments of love and loyalty in the play. “Greater love hath no man than this,” Jamie declares, “that he saveth his brother from himself.”

These family revelations reach a crescendo with the appearance of Mary, carrying her wedding gown—in the bitter words of Jamie, “The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!” Completing the family tableau and individual monologues that probe the causes and costs of the family’s dilemmas, Mary has retreated with the assistance of morphine into the fog that has threatened throughout the day. Escaping from reality, she has reverted to an earlier existence, before the consequences of marriage and motherhood, and ends the play heart-breakingly with her memories as a convent schoolgirl and her intention to become a nun:

But Mother Elizabeth told me I must be more sure than that, even, that I must prove it wasn’t simply my imagination. She said, if I was so sure, then I wouldn’t mind putting myself to a test by going home after I graduated, and living as other girls lived, going out to parties and dances and enjoying myself; and then if after a year or two I still felt sure, I could come back to see her and we would talk it over again. . . . That was in the winter of senior year. Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.

Love here is balanced with loss, youthful hopes with crushing disappointment, completing the process by which each of the Tyrones is forced to come to terms with all that is intractable in one’s self, one’s family, one’s existence. The play reaches a terminal point in which there seems no possibility of consolation or regeneration, signaled by O’Neill’s final stage direction: “She stares before her in a sad dream. Tyrone stirs in his chair. Edmund and Jamie remain motionless.”

The play’s final tragic awareness is that we are who we are, condemned by family and history to forever seek transcendence and fail to find it. Yet the play’s title metaphor of a journey toward closure, toward the dark recognition of frustration, disappointment, and mortality also implies a dawn of sorts, if only in the shattering illumination of naked truths.

Long Day’s Journey into Night Ebook PDF (3 MB)

Analysis of Eugene O’Neill’s Plays



Categories: American Literature, Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literature

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