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

Eugene O’Neill’s full-length masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night is widely considered the finest play in American theater history. Perhaps the most startling facet of O’Neill’s greatest achievement is the ghostly presence of its author, a revelation to audience members attending its American premiere at the Helen Hayes Theatre, New York City, in 1956, three years after his death. The play’s action takes place over a single day in August 1912 in the sitting room of O’Neill’s family home, Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, Connecticut. The Tyrone family of the play is based on the O’Neills—his father, James O’Neill; mother, Mary Ellen “Ella” O’Neill; older brother, James O’Neill, Jr. (Jamie); and himself. Much of what O’Neill describes in Long Day’s Journey is true to his life, including his bout with tuberculosis, his mother, Ella’s addiction to morphine, and his brother, Jamie’s debilitating alcoholism. Two O’Neill plays follow chronologically from Long Day’s Journey: The Straw, which depicts O’Neill’s stay at the Gaylord Farm Sanatorium in 1912–13, and A Moon for the Misbegotten, about Jamie’s last months before drinking himself to death.

A diary entry made by O’Neill’s wife Carlotta Monterey O’Neill on June 21, 1939, is the earliest known mention of the play. O’Neill himself first noted the idea in his Work Diary on June 25, 1939. After outlining its structure and themes, he shelved the play to complete The Iceman Cometh, whose artistic merit closely rivals Long Day’s Journey. He resumed after finishing Iceman and completed Long Day’s Journey on April 1, 1941, at his home, Tao House, in Danville, California. But even then few people knew of its existence, and the public would not see it until its world premiere at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden, on February 2, 1956, several months before its debut at the Helen Hayes on November 7. Carlotta famously recalled O’Neill’s mood during the writing process: “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 a 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” (quoted in Berlin 88).

Only a select few read the script of Long Day’s Journey during O’Neill’s lifetime. According to O’Neill biographer Louis Sheaffer, these included his wife Carlotta; his son, Eugene O’Neill, Jr.; his friends the playwright Russel Crouse; screenwriter Dudley Nichols; and the O’Neill scholar Sophus Winther and his wife, Eline. Winther later recalled his time as a house-guest at Tao House in 1943, when he read the script: Stunned by the revelations the play contained and by the power of O’Neill’s tragic presentation, he met the playwright in the living room and recalled that O’Neill stared out the picture window at Mount Diablo and recited Mary Tyrone’s, and the play’s, final lines: “That was 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.” After a pause, O’Neill said, “I think that is the greatest scene I have ever written” (Sheaffer 1973, 517).

John Gallagher Jr. and Jessica Lange as Jim Tyrone Jr. and Mary Tyrone/American Airlines Theatre

Scholars to this day still piece together the facts, often sordid, of Long Day’s Journey’s first production. The drama behind the drama revolves around O’Neill’s submission of the completed manuscript to his publisher, Bennett Cerf at Random House, on November 29, 1945, which included a stipulation by the author that the play be stored in a vault and “publication shall not take place until twenty-five (25) years after my death . . . but never produced as a play” (quoted in Alexander 2005, 149). O’Neill died on November 27, 1953, leaving Carlotta O’Neill as his literary executor. Three years later, she wrenched control of the publishing rights from Cerf, who had read it at her behest and, instantly realizing the motive behind O’Neill’s stipulation, refuses to publish it. She then allowed the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm to produce  it soon after assuring its publication by Yale University Press, where O’Neill’s papers reside, on February 10, 1956. Months later, Carlotta summoned José Quintero—the master director who revived Iceman so successfully—and offered him and his production team the opportunity to produce Long Day’s Journey’s American premiere at the Helen Hayes in New York.

Carlotta O’Neill told the press that her husband only wanted to protect the reputation of his son, Eugene O’Neill, Jr. But Eugene, Jr., we now know, had written to O’Neill after having read it, praising the play and telling his father how “much  moved” he had been by the facts revealed (Alexander 150); in addition, Eugene, Jr., committed suicide in September 1950, several months before O’Neill wrote Cerf to remind him of their compact (June 15, 1951). George Jean Nathan, O’Neill’s longtime friend and producer, remembered that “O’Neill had confided to me, personally, that regard for his family’s feelings—chiefly his brother’s and mother’s—had influenced him to insist upon the  play’s delay” (quoted in Alexander 152). In a letter to Anna Crouse on November 11, 1953, nearing her husband’s death, Carlotta swore that she had “but one reason to live & that is to carry out Gene’s wishes . . . the ‘twenty-five year box’ is the most interesting part of it—all personal except Long Day’s Journey into Night—& not intended to be opened until twenty-five years after Gene’s death” (quoted in Murphy 4). Three years later, the story of a “deathbed request” broke in the news, a story released to the press by Carlotta. She insisted that a few weeks before O’Neill died, he had expressed his desire for the Swedish theater to produce the play (Murphy 6).

Whatever the case, Long Day’s Journey was instantly hailed as a masterpiece and Quintero’s production as brilliant. The Daily News raved that the tragic play “exploded like a dazzling sky-rocket over the humdrum of Broadway theatricals”  (quoted in Murphy 45). The New York production alone, before the national tour, ran for 65 weeks, a total of 390 performances, and won O’Neill a Drama Critics Circle Award, an Outer Circle Award, a Tony Award, and his fourth Pulitzer Prize. In 1962, Long Day’s Journey was adapted for feature film by the director Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon). Generally considered the finest film adaptation of any play by O’Neill, the film starred Katharine Hepburn as Mary Tyrone, Sir Ralph Richardson as James, Dean Stockwell as Edmund, and Jason Robards as Jamie.


Act 1

Around 8:30 on an August morning in 1912 in the living room of the Tyrone family’s summer home  in New London, Connecticut (Monte Cristo Cottage). Two double doorways with portieres (curtains) are at the rear, the one on the left leading to a dark, unused parlor that leads in turn to the dining room; the door on the right opens to the front parlor, the staircase, and the front door. Sunshine comes brightly through three windows on the right wall that look out on the waterfront (the mouth of the Thames River) and the road below (Pequot Avenue); a screen door at the rear of the right wall leads out onto a porch that wraps halfway around the house. On the left wall are more windows that look out at the backyard, with a couch below them. A round table is at center with a green-shaded lamp hanging down from the ceiling, and four chairs, three wicker armchairs, and one oak rocker are positioned around the table. Against the back wall, a small bookcase contains books by such modern masters and radical philosophers as Balzac, Zola, Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, August Strindberg, Oscar Wilde, and others. Another bookcase on the left rear wall holds more conventional fare—William Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas, along with histories of England, Ireland, and the Roman Empire. “The astonishing thing about these sets,” O’Neill specifies in his stage directions, “is that all the volumes have the look of having been read and reread” (3:717). The Tyrones—Mary, James, and their two sons, Jamie and Edmund—have just finished breakfast.

Mary and James enter from the back parlor. Mary is 54, with white hair, dark eyes, and a face that is “distinctly Irish in type”; when she feels happy, her voice has a “touch of Irish lilt in it.” She appears extremely nervous, and her hands “have an ugly, crippled look” from rheumatism, which makes her extremely self-conscious as well. “Her most appealing quality is the simple, unaffected charm of a shy  convent-girl youthfulness she has never lost—an innate unworldly innocence.” James Tyrone is 65, though his robust form and handsome looks make him appear more like his wife’s age. “He is by nature and preference a simple, unpretentious man, whose inclinations are still close to his humble beginnings and his Irish farmer forebears” (3:718). A professional actor for the whole of his adult life, Tyrone carries himself with almost military comportment, and his voice is “remarkably fine, resonant and flexible” (3:719). For a few intimate moments of lighthearted scolding, they discuss Mary’s vulnerable health and James’s incessant snoring, along with a blind tendency to involve  himself in risky real estate ventures. They express concern over the health of their youngest son, Edmund. Mary claims he has merely contracted a summer cold. James intimates that she is recovering from an ailment as well, one that willpower might control. Jamie and Edmund’s voices can be heard offstage in the dining room, then a burst of laughter. James assumes it is the older son, Jamie—whom James considers a drunken loafer—making some sneering comment about “the Old Man” (3:721).

Jamie and Edmund enter, smiling and chuckling in mutual appreciation of a shared joke. Thirty- three years old, with his father’s good looks and stout build, Jamie Tyrone has a “habitual expression of cynicism” that gives his face a “Mephistophelian cast”; at the same time, his personality “possesses the remnant of a humorous, romantic, irresponsible Irish charm—that of the beguiling ne’er-do-well, with a strain of the sentimentally poetic, attractive to women and popular with men” (3:722). Ten years younger than Jamie, tall and thin with a “long, narrow Irish face,” Edmund Tyrone more noticeably resembles his mother than his father, particularly the “quality of extreme nervous sensibility” (3:723). He is too thin, his face is drawn and sallow, and he appears genuinely ill. James attacks Jamie straight away, though the assault only bores his older son. Mary scolds James for his bad temper and asks to hear what made the brothers laugh.

Edmund recounts that he ran into James’s tenant farmer, Shaughnessy, at the local inn, where Shaughnessy had told him of his triumph over Harker, a Standard Oil millionaire. Harker had accused Shaughnessy of deliberately tearing down the fence that separates their land in order for the farmer’s pigs to bathe in his ice pond. Shaughnessy retorted that it was Harker tampering with the fence, thus exposing his pigs to pneumonia and cholera. Edmund relates Shaughnessy’s verbal attack on Harker: “He was King of Ireland, if he had his rights, and scum was scum to him no matter how much money he had stolen from the poor.”  Shaughnessy then ordered the millionaire off his land and threatened legal action for his lost pigs. James affects outrage that Shaughnessy—“The dirty blackguard!”—would provoke such trouble from the town’s leading citizen and condemns his son’s “damned Socialist anarchist sentiments” against Standard Oil; but the other three know James is inwardly, as Edmund phrases it, “tickled to death over the great Irish victory” (3:726).

James resumes his attack on Jamie, which makes Edmund go upstairs in disgust over the constant bickering. His coughs can be heard by the others in the living room, and Jamie, who should be more sensitive about his mother’s anxiety, lets slip that “It’s not just a cold he’s got. The Kid is damned sick” (3:727). James pacifies Mary and shoots Jamie a “warning glance.” Jamie instantly regrets what he said and tries to calm Mary by remarking that Doctor Hardy, Edmund’s physician, said that along with a cold, he might have contracted a minor case of malaria while “in the tropics” (3:727). “Doctor Hardy!” she exclaims, “I wouldn’t believe a thing he said, if he swore on a stack of Bibles! I know what doctors are. They’re all alike. Anything, they don’t care what, to keep you coming to them” (3:727–728). Her outburst makes her visibly self-conscious, and the men force themselves to cheer up and flatter her to calm her nerves. Leaving the men instructions not to allow Edmund to exert himself, she exits to see their cook, Bridget, about dinner.

Once Mary Tyrone is out of earshot, James rails into Jamie for carelessly revealing Edmund’s probable diagnosis to his mother. But Jamie feels it is wrong to hide the truth. “I was with Edmund when he went to Doc Hardy on Monday. I heard him pull that touch of malaria stuff. He was stalling” (3:729). Jamie voices what the others refuse to admit—that Edmund has consumption (tuberculosis); and he,  like the other three, blames James’s tightfistedness. Had his father hired a specialist, they might have caught the disease earlier. “If Edmund was a lousy acre of land you wanted,” Jamie accuses him, “the sky would be the limit!” (3:730). James denies this and swiftly turns to Jamie’s failings: He knows nothing of the worth of a dollar and expresses little if any gratitude for the financial support his father provides. Jamie sneers at everyone but himself, James venomously responds. “That’s not true, Papa,” he sardonically mutters, “You can’t hear me talking to myself, that’s all” (3:731). James blames Jamie’s odious influence “playing the Broadway sport” for exacting a terrible effect on Edmund, since “he’s always been a bundle of nerves like his mother” (3:732). Jamie insinuates that James’s terror of consumption, born of his upbringing in Irish peasant society, makes him assume that Edmund’s condition is incurable. James again accuses Jamie of warping Edmund’s worldview: “You made him old before his time, pumping him full of what you consider worldly wisdom, when he was too young to see that your mind was so poisoned by your own failure in life, you wanted to believe every man was a knave with his soul for sale, and every woman who wasn’t a whore was a fool!” (3:732).

Edmund does what he wants to do anyway, Jamie asserts; he exposits on his brother’s last few years, in which Edmund traveled the world in the merchant marine, inhabited “filthy dives,” and slept on beaches in South America. Since then he has worked as a reporter (not a very good one) and written some very fine “poems and parodies” for a local paper (3:733). The rage runs out of both men, who appear conscious of the fact, if they do not say so out loud, that they love Edmund but that their respective faults have proven harmful to him, perhaps even fatal.

The conversation turns to Mary Tyrone. Each intimates that the scare with Edmund’s health may have an equally deleterious effect on her. Jamie admits that he heard her late at night “moving around in the spare room” (3:735). “I couldn’t help remembering,” he continues, “that when she starts sleeping alone in there, it has always been a sign” (3:735). This admittance infuriates James at first, but he pauses and remarks superstitiously that her “long sickness” resulted from Edmund’s birth. This in turn infuriates Jamie, who accuses his father of  blaming Edmund’s birth for his mother’s still-undisclosed ailment, and he rails against him for having  hired “another cheap quack like Hardy” to care for her in childbirth. Then he abruptly silences them both upon hearing his mother’s return.

Mary enters, inquiring about the cause of their argument. Jamie says it was about Doctor Hardy; she knows he is lying but changes the subject. Mary complains that Bridget talks too much, then predicts that the fog will return, considering her rheumatism a “weather prophet” (3:736). She urges them to go outside and begin their yard work, which James does. Before Jamie leaves, he tells her how proud they are of her and that she should be careful not to worry too much over Edmund’s illness. She defensively retorts that she does not know what he is talking about, and Jamie, upset and exasperated, goes out to join his father.

Edmund descends the staircase, holding a book. At the bottom, he has a coughing fit. He had waited for James and Jamie to leave, feeling “too rotten . . . to mix up in arguments” (3:737). His mother fusses over him, but he wants her to take care of herself, not him. Mary looks out the window and notices Jamie hiding behind the hedge as a respectable local family—the Chatfields—drive by.  Jamie plainly exhibits embarrassment over performing menial work in public while James bows with dignity to the passing car. This sparks a discussion about the town and its inhabitants. Mary openly hates it and has never felt at home there; Edmund likes it “well enough. I suppose because it’s the only home we’ve had” (3:738). Mary goes on that she might feel proud enough to have guests if James had spent “the money to make it right.” She adds that all three of the men only “hobnob with the men at the Club or in a barroom,” but that Edmund is “not to blame,” as he never had a chance to meet “decent people” in the town. By this time, the Tyrone men’s reputations have been so disgraced, she offhandedly comments, “no respectable parents will let their daughters be seen with you” (3:739).

Edmund again warns her not to upset herself, and she demands to know why he acts so suspicious. He admits that he, like Jamie, heard her moving about in the spare room the night before. “Oh, I can’t bear it, Edmund, when even you—!” she blurts out, then her tone turns spiteful: “It would serve all of you right if it was true!” Edmund, now terrified, begs her to stop. Her voice settles back to a “resigned helplessness,” which upsets Edmund further (3:741). But she cajoles him into going outside to read in the fresh air and sunlight, insinuating that he does not want to leave her alone. He obeys her and exits. Mary sinks into a wicker chair and, once settled, nervously drums her fingers on its arm.

Act 2, Scene 1

Same as act 1 at around 12:45 in the afternoon. Sunlight no longer streams through the windows, and the heat has become sultry. Edmund is discovered in a wicker chair, attempting to read but visibly distracted. Cathleen appears from the back parlor to announce lunch and deliver a bottle of bourbon with a pitcher of ice water for the men. Edmund treats her curtly, then appreciates her joke that Jamie has undoubtedly checked his watch—more for the prospect of whiskey than lunch. She goes on that Edmund probably wants her to go outside and make the announcement anyway, as he could then sneak a drink. When Edmund suggests she call his mother as well, Cathleen reports that her mistress is lying down with a headache. Edmund tenses up at this news.

Cathleen goes out on the porch and bellows to the men that it is time for lunch. Edmund curses her, perhaps knowing that the maid understands full well the significance of his mother’s prostration and pours himself a drink. Jamie enters, pours himself a drink, and then hides the evidence by adding water to the bottle. He warns his brother to follow Hardy’s instructions not to drink, but Edmund shrugs this off. “Oh, I’m going to after he hands me the bad news this afternoon” (3:745). Jamie inquires about the whereabouts of their mother, a topic that leads to backhanded accusations. They both suspect that she has relapsed, and Jamie scolds Edmund for leaving her alone all morning. Edmund sustains a state of denial about their mother, but Jamie asserts he has more experience dealing with her affliction than he. Edmund continues to reject the truth and falls into another coughing fit, and Jamie backs off, contritely regarding his brother “with worried pity” (3:747).

Mary enters with “a peculiar detachment in her voice and manner, as if she were a little withdrawn from her words and actions.” She wraps her arms around Edmund and voices concern over his health. Her maternal affection allows Edmund to suppress in his mind what he knows to be true, but “Jamie knows after one probing look at her that his suspicions are justified. . . . [H]is face sets in an expression of embittered, defensive cynicism” (3:747). Mary quickly senses Jamie’s mood but agrees with Edmund that “the only way” to handle Jamie “is to make yourself not care” (3:748). However, when Jamie sarcastically blames his father for delaying lunch by showing off his “famous Beautiful Voice” to a neighbor, Mary snaps at him fiercely and accuses him, as his father had, of ingratitude and for disrespecting a man who “made his way up from ignorance and poverty to the top of his profession” (3:748–749). But then, as with the entire scene, she reverts back to her “detached, impersonal tone” and muses, “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” (3:749).

Jamie and Edmund try to ignore this, and she continues on about their house being occupied by “lazy greenhorns” as servants and the fact that her husband, used to second-rate hotels as he is, “doesn’t understand a home” (3:749).  Cathleen enters to announce lunch, and Mary sends her back to the kitchen to inform Bridget that they will wait for James. Edmund goes out to the porch to call his father inside. Jamie informs Mary that he can deduce her state from both her distracted manner and her bright eyes. Edmund returns and curses Jamie for directly accusing their mother. “It’s wrong to blame your brother,” she says, again in the tone of “strange detachment,” “He can’t help being what the past has made him. Any more than your father can. Or you. Or I” (3:751). Edmund still calls Jamie a liar, “hoping against hope” (3:751). Mary exits to tell Bridget they are ready for lunch, and James enters soon after. James dislikes the idea of Edmund drinking whiskey, but he convinces himself that whiskey is “the best of tonics” (3:752). He senses the tension in the room but nervously changes the subject when Jamie tells him, “You won’t be singing a song yourself soon” (3:752).

Mary reenters, excitable now. She scolds James for being late; then her agitation turns to fury: “Oh, I’m so sick and tired of pretending this is a home! You won’t help me! You won’t put yourself out the least bit! You don’t know how to act in a home! You don’t really want one! You never have wanted one—never since the day we were married! You should have remained a bachelor and lived in second-rate hotels and entertained your friends in barrooms!” (3:752–753). Once again, she reverts to the detached tone—“Then nothing would ever have happened.” The stage directions indicate that “Tyrone knows now” (3:753). Mary continues on, fussing over Edmund, and the men’s expressions reveal defeat. Averting their eyes, Jamie and Edmund head in to the dining room. Tyrone voices a profound mixture of anger and sadness; although Mary begs him to realize how difficult it is to stop, she finally denies his accusations. James mutters, “Never mind. It’s no use now” (3:754). They walk side-by-side into the dining room.

Act 2, Scene 2

About half an hour later. The whiskey has been taken away, and the family are just returning from their meal. Mary enters first, with James behind her, then the two brothers. James looks older, and he regards his wife with “an old weary, helpless resignation” (3:755). Jamie has masked himself in “defensive cynicism,” and although Edmund tries to emulate him, his sensitivity exposes real fear. Mary appears “terribly nervous” while at the same time showing “more of that strange aloofness,” while consoling herself about Bridget and Cathleen’s lack- luster service. “It’s unreasonable to expect Bridget or Cathleen to act as if this was a home.” “In a real home one is never lonely,” Mary continues; then she fusses again over Edmund’s health (3:756).

The phone rings, and James goes to answer it. It is Doctor Hardy. By the tone of James’s reply, Edmund can hear that the diagnosis is bad. James returns to inform Edmund he has an appointment with the doctor at four o’clock. Mary rails once more at Hardy’s incompetence, but this time brings her own experience to bear: “He deliberately humiliates you! He makes you beg and plead! He treats you like a criminal! He understands nothing! And yet it was exactly the same kind of cheap quack who first gave you the medicine—and you never knew what it was until it was too late!” (3:757). Edmund and James silence her. She apologizes and excuses herself to fix her hair, but the men know different. “This isn’t a prison,” James says, and Mary backhandedly retorts, “No. I know you can’t help thinking it’s a home” (3:758). Again, she apologizes, saying the fault does not lie with him, and goes upstairs.

“Another shot in the arm!” Jamie scoffs.  Edmund and James reproach him for his insensitivity. Edmund angrily parodies his brother’s Broadway lingo: “They never come back! Everything is in the bag! It’s all a frame-up! We’re all fall guys and suckers and we can’t beat the game!” (3:758). Pointing at the smaller bookcase, Jamie retorts that neither Edmund’s poetry nor the philosophy he reads are exactly sunny. James berates them both, blaming their lack of faith in Catholicism for their dissipated ways. He admits that he rarely goes to mass, but he still prays for Mary to overcome her addiction. “‘God is dead,’” Edmund quotes from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, “‘of His pity for man hath God died’” (3:759). Edmund vows to try to talk Mary into stopping, but Jamie and James agree that once started, she is no longer capable of listening to reason.

Edmund heads upstairs to dress, making plenty of noise so his mother does not think he is spying on her. James informs Jamie that Edmund has consumption. Jamie immediately demands that his father place him in a good sanatorium. “What I’m afraid of is, with your Irish bog-trotter idea that consumption is fatal, you’ll figure it would be a waste of money to spend any more than you can help.” James responds defensively: “I have every hope Edmund will be cured. And keep your dirty tongue off Ireland! You’re a fine one to sneer, with the map of it on your face!” (3:761). Jamie snidely retorts that he will wash it, then announces his  plan to accompany Edmund uptown to the doc- tor’s. That satisfies James, but he warns not to get him drunk. Jamie bitterly asks what he would use for money.

Mary enters, and Jamie rushes upstairs to avoid her. “Her eyes look brighter, and her manner more detached. This change becomes more marked as the scene goes on” (3:761). Mary tells James not to blame Jamie for his actions, since “if he’d been brought up in a real home, I’m sure he would have been different.” James ignores this and remarks that contrary to what he had predicted earlier, there will be fog again tonight. She is no longer concerned about the fog, not to his surprise. He begins heading upstairs to change for a “meeting” at the club, but Mary grabs him desperately and begs him not to leave yet. They throw blame at each other back and forth, but without the volatility of earlier scenes—Mary high on morphine and backhandedly critical, James resigned to get drunk. When James turns to go again, Mary asks him to stay since he will be leaving her for the night. “It’s you who are leaving us, Mary,” he responds “with bitter sadness” (3:763).

James attempts to persuade Mary to take a ride in the automobile he bought explicitly to amuse her after her release from a mental sanatorium. But she only uses this as an excuse to chide him for stinginess, hiring a cheap chauffeur with no experience and buying an out-of-date car. Tyrone impulsively hugs her and pleads with her to stop using the drug. She tells him not to try to understand what cannot  be understood, then exposits on her life after meeting him: She was either snubbed or pitied by her  friends and family for marrying an actor, especially one whose mistress sued him and caused a scandal. The more morphine she takes, the farther back into the past her mind takes her. He knows her retreat into the past is a sure sign of her condition but is shocked that she has gone that far into the past so early in the day.

Mary thinks back to Edmund’s birth and the quack that caused her addiction by prescribing morphine. James begs her again to stop, but she says, “Why? How can I? The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us” (3:765). She goes back further in her mind’s eye to the death of their son Eugene. She openly blames Jamie for his death, as he exposed the baby to his measles when he was seven years old, and she believes he purposefully killed Eugene out of jealousy. After that, she swore never to have another child, but then, pressured by James, she bore Edmund. She regrets bringing her younger son into this life, if only because she believes he will never attain happiness. James stops her as Edmund comes down the stairs: “For God’s sake try to be yourself—at least until he goes! You can do that much for him!” (3:766).

Edmund enters dressed in a blue suit for the doctor’s appointment. James says that he is proud of him for having worked so hard before getting sick and gives him a 10-dollar bill to spend as he likes. Edmund is at once sincerely grateful and suspicious that the doctor told his father his condition is fatal. At this, Mary again loses control and screams that Edmund’s books put such morbid thoughts into his head. Holding fast to a “hopeless hope,” James suggests Edmund might try to ask Mary what he had suggested earlier and heads upstairs to change.

Edmund attempts to broach the topic of her quitting the morphine, but she tells him not to speak and mothers him in an extravagant but detached way. “You—you’re only just started,” he blurts out. “You can still stop. You’ve got the will power!” (3:769). She begs him not to talk about things he cannot comprehend, then blames him for upsetting her over his sickness when she needed peace and rest to recover. She recants this, however, and begs him to believe she puts no blame on him. “What else can I believe?” he responds wearily.  She goes on that the day will come when her sons are “healthy and happy and successful,” and only then will the Virgin Mary forgive her and cease the torment. But her voice becomes defensively casual, and she tells him of her need to go to the drugstore on an errand. Edmund pleads with her not to, but clearly she is lost to him. He hears Jamie call from the hallway and joins him and James. They say perfunctory goodbyes and head off for town. At first Mary feels lonesome, but then she admits to being happier alone. “Their contempt and disgust aren’t pleasant company,” she says out loud. “Then Mother of God, why do I feel so lonely?” (3:771).

Act 3

The same, around 6:30 in the evening. Fog whitens the view from the windows and intensifies the dusk. A foghorn can be heard in the distance “moaning like a mournful whale in labor,” and the boats in the harbor chime their bells to sound their presence (3:772). Mary and Cathleen are discovered. The tray with whiskey and ice water is on the table, and Cathleen has evidently been drinking. Mary is now extremely high on morphine. Her dress, which she had put on for her trip to town, looks unkempt, and her hair “has a slightly disheveled, lopsided look.”  O’Neill writes: “The strange detachment in her manner has intensified. She has hidden deeper within herself  and found refuge and release in a dream where present reality is but an appearance to be accepted and  dismissed unfeelingly—even with a hard cynicism—or entirely ignored” (3:772). She is glad Cathleen has joined her but takes no interest in what she has to say. Commenting on the fog while at the same time implicitly describing her own drugged state, Mary says, “It hides you from the world and the world from you. You feel that everything has changed, and nothing is what it seemed to be. No one can find you or touch you any more” (3:773).

For her part, Cathleen is bantering on about the chauffeur, Smythe, who has been making passes at her, though she considers him a “monkey” (3:773) in contrast to the dashing James Tyrone. When Mary complains about James’s miserliness, fear of poverty, and drinking habits, Cathleen responds that he is “a fine, handsome, kind gentleman” who obviously adores Mary. But Mary is lost in thoughts of life before James, when she lived in a “respect- able home” and was schooled at the “best convent in the Middle West” (3:775). Cathleen, who accompanied Mary on her errand to the drugstore, grumbles about how the pharmacist responded to filling Mary’s prescription: He treated her like a “thief” until she haughtily explained that the prescription was for Mrs. Tyrone. Mary takes the news lightly, telling Cathleen that the medicine is for her hands, that it takes away the pain, “all the pain” (3:776). She nostalgically recalls two dreams of her girlhood—to become either a nun or a concert pianist: “To be a nun, that was the more beautiful one.” But her dreams vanished after marrying James; she tried to keep up her music, she  says, “But it was hopeless. One-night stands, cheap hotels, dirty trains, leaving children, never having a home—.” Cathleen remarks with confusion that the medicine makes her sound as if she had been drinking, to which Mary disaffectedly replies again, “It kills the pain. You go back until at last you are beyond reach. Only the past when you were happy is real” (3:777). She renews her dreamy recollections, this time the night she first met James, the great matinee idol whom her father had befriended. She went backstage after a show to meet him, and they fell instantly in love. Not once in the 36 years that followed has he ever cheated on her or caused a scandal, a fact that has allowed her to “forgive so many other things” (3:778).

Cathleen exits to instruct Bridget about dinner, and Mary “settles back in relaxed dreaminess, staring fixedly at nothing.” There is “a pause of dead quiet,” and then the mournful foghorn sounds, and the bells on the ships anchored in the harbor all chime in chorus. Mary’s girlish demeanor transforms into one of an “aging, cynically sad, embittered woman.” She curses herself for being a “sentimental fool”;  then she tries praying but recognizes that the Virgin Mary would never be “fooled by a lying dope  fiend reciting words” (3:779). She moves to take more morphine upstairs but hears voices outside approaching the house. At first, she resents their return, but then abruptly welcomes it.

Edmund and James enter. “What they see fulfills their worst expectations” (3:780). Mary expresses gratitude for their returning home rather than going straight to the bar, then asks where Jamie is. Answering her own question—at the bar—she goes on, “He’s jealous because Edmund has always been the baby—just as he used to be of Eugene. He’ll never be content until he makes Edmund as hopeless a failure as he is” (3:780–781). She contrasts Jamie’s robust ability to accept the “one-night stands and filthy trains and cheap hotels and  bad food” with Edmund’s extreme sensitivity. James  tells Edmund not to take anything she says personally, but Mary goes on to place the blame squarely  on James’s drinking habits. He quickly retorts, “When you have the poison in you, you want to blame everyone but yourself!” (3:782).

Edmund takes a drink of whiskey and balks at the watered-down taste. Mary reverts back to her convent-girl persona and brings up their first meeting, deeply moving James, who passionately responds by expressing his undying love for her. But she grows more detached and informs him, as if he is not present, that she never would have married him had she known how much he drank, recalling nights when she would wait for him for hours, then he would be deposited on their doorway by drinking buddies. James becomes increasingly defensive and guilt-ridden. Edmund turns on his father in disgust  but controls himself and asks about dinner. Ignoring this, Mary discusses their wedding—her mother  had disapproved of her marrying an actor—and then wonders where she hid her wedding dress. James tries to act casual and has a drink. After a taste, he fumes over the watered-down whiskey. Not even Jamie would be that careless. He turns on his wife: “I hope to God you haven’t taken to drink on top of—” (3:785; the combination of alcohol and opiates can, in fact, be lethal). She admits she  offered it to Cathleen as thanks for accompanying her to the drugstore. This admittance outrages  Edmund, who knows Cathleen is a gossip and that in no time the word of his mother’s addiction will spread through the town. James exits for a fresh bottle of whiskey.

Edmund accuses Mary of not caring about his  diagnosis, then he informs her that he has been diagnosed with consumption and must be treated at a  sanatorium. Mary fiercely condemns Doctor Hardy for his faulty, unwanted advice, again bringing it around to her own situation and blaming Hardy for distancing her from her sons. When Edmund adds that consumption can be fatal, that her own father died of it, she forbids him to make the comparison. “It’s pretty hard to take at times,” Edmund shouts, “having a dope fiend for a mother!” (3:788). He instantly regrets his words and begs for forgiveness. She absentmindedly changes the subject to the fog horn—“Why is it fog makes everything sound so  sad and lost, I wonder?” (3:789). The “blank, far-off quality” of her voice makes Edmund sadly exit.  She again considers going upstairs, vaguely hoping that someday she might overdose. But her religion forbids suicide.

Tyrone returns with his bottle, bitterly denouncing Jamie for trying to break his padlock to the basement, where he stores his whiskey. When he asks  for Edmund, Mary replies that he must have gone uptown to join Jamie. At first she speaks with her “vague far-away air,” then she explodes into tears and throws herself at James—“Oh, James, I’m so frightened! . . . I know he’s going to die!” (3:789). James tells her that a specialist Hardy called assured him Edmund would recover in six months. She responds that had Edmund never been born, “he wouldn’t have had to know his mother was a dope fiend—and hate her!” (3:790). James reassures her that Edmund loves her dearly.

Cathleen comes in to announce dinner. She is obviously drunk, and when James looks at her with an air of disapproval, she informs him that Mary invited her to the whiskey and exits with overdramatic hauteur. Mary informs him that she is no longer hungry and will go upstairs to bed. He knows what this means: “You’ll be like a mad ghost before the night’s over!” (3:790). She again pretends not to understand and heads upstairs. James stands frozen in the living room, then moves to the dining room, “a sad, bewildered, broken old man” (3:791).

Act 4

The same, around midnight. The foghorn wails in the distance, followed again by the bells from the ships in the harbor. The fog outside appears thicker. James Tyrone is discovered at the table wearing pincenez and playing solitaire. He is  drunk, and a bottle of whiskey, two-thirds emptied, stands on the table with another full bottle beside it. Regardless of the amount he has drunk, “he has not escaped, and looks as he appeared at the close of the preceding act, a sad, defeated old man, possessed by hopeless resignation.” As the curtain rises, he scoops  up the deck of cards and begins shuffling drunkenly. Edmund enters, also drunk; like his father,  he holds it well. Only his eyes and a “chip-on-the- shoulder aggressiveness in his manner” indicate his  drunken state (3:792).

James welcomes him warmly, sincerely glad for  his younger son’s company. He demands, however, that Edmund turn out the light in the front  hall to conserve energy, which causes a brief argument over his miserliness and his dismissal of  facts—that a bulb burning all day costs less than one drink, or his insistence that “Shakespeare was an Irish Catholic” (3:793). When Edmund refuses  to turn out the light, James threatens him physically, then backs off—remembering the doctor’s  prognosis—and begins turning on all the lights with an exaggerated devil-may-care attitude. Jamie is still out, and they assume, correctly, he is at a brothel. James offers Edmund a drink, though he knows the doctors have warned Edmund to abstain. They drink, and Edmund tells him that  he went out walking in the fog before returning home. James scolds him for his lack of sense,  but Edmund explains how therapeutic the experience was. He quotes from Ernest Dowson, ending with the lines, “‘They are not long, the days  of wine and roses: / Out of a misty dream / Our path emerges for a while, then closes / Within a dream.’” Wandering alone through the fog, Edmund felt as if he were walking at the bottom of the sea—“As if I was a ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost” (3:796).

James disapproves of this morbid thinking, but Edmund retorts, “Who wants to see life as it is, if they can help it?” James blames Edmund’s dark worldview on the poets he reads. “Why can’t you  remember your Shakespeare and forget the third-raters. You’ll find everything you’re trying to  say in him—as you’ll find everything else worth saying.” He then matches Dowson with a quote from The Tempest: “‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with sleep.’” Edmund admits to the beauty of the lines, then sardonically adds, “But I wasn’t trying to say that. We are such stuff as manure is made on, so let’s drink up and forget it” (3:796). They continue the literary dispute, but it only leads to talk of dope fiends and consumption, subjects too close to the family’s own predicament.

Before long they return to Mary’s condition. She can be heard moving about above them. “She’ll be nothing but a ghost haunting the past by this time,” Edmund says, harking back to the period before he was born. She torments James in the same way, commenting on her life before she met him, but he reflects the reality of her life, and her “great, generous, noble Irish gentleman” of a father, whom James liked but who had his failings, namely his alcoholism—“it finished him quick—that and the consumption—” (3:800). Edmund notes their inability to avoid “unpleasant topics,” and they try to amuse themselves with a card game but quickly resume their discussion of Mary. James says that she exaggerates her potential as a concert pianist as well. There is a momentary scare of her coming downstairs, but she does not appear. “The hardest thing to take is the blank wall she builds around her,” Edmund says. “Or it’s more like a bank of fog in which she hides and loses herself” (3:801). James reminds him that “she’s not responsible.” Edmund agrees, angrily blaming his father’s miserliness. “Jesus,” he explodes, “when I think of it I hate your guts!” (3:803).

Edmund apologizes with sincere self-reproach, then brings up his own past, traveling the world  with no money and all the while trying to understand his father’s terror of poverty. He admits he  made serious mistakes and behaved terribly toward his father in his own way. But he found out that his father had convinced Doctor Hardy to find the cheapest, state-run facility he could find. Fuming over his father’s stinginess, Edmund succumbs to a fit of coughing. James is once again overcome  with anger and guilt, but Edmund’s condemnation draws out the truth about his poverty-stricken  childhood. Edmund’s adventure abroad, he says,  “was a game of romance and adventure to you. It was play.” Edmund responds with acerbic irony: “Yes, particularly the time I tried to commit suicide at Jimmie the Priest’s, and almost did.” His father attributes Edmund’s depressive episode to alcohol, but Edmund submits that he was “stone cold sober. That was the trouble. I’d stopped to think too long” (3:807).

James describes how his father left his mother and siblings to die in Ireland (probably by suicide) and how he eventually overcame their situation through his love of the theater. Ever since, he has been terrified of dying in the “poor house” and promises Edmund he can go to any sanatorium he wants—“within reason” (3:808). Edmund grins  at his father’s predictable addendum. James continues with an admission that he has never told  anyone before—“that God-damned play I bought for a song and made such a great success in [The Count of Monte Cristo]—a great money success— it ruined me with its promise of an easy fortune” (3:809). Edwin Booth, “the greatest actor of his day or any other,” had remarked while costarring in Othello with James, that at 27, James played a better Othello than he ever could. But the profit from the moneymaker was too great a temptation; James had given up his promise as an artist. “What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder,” he soberly asks himself, “that was worth—” (3:810).  Edmund expresses sincere gratitude, as the admission explains a great deal about James he never  knew. He assents to his father’s request that they turn out the lights.

Edmund relates some “high spots” from his own life—moments of revelation always “connected with the sea” (3:811). “It was a great mistake, my being born a man,” he concludes. “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!” (3:812). James compliments his son’s poetic nature but protests about  the final line of not being wanted and longing for death. Edmund disagrees with his father that he has the “makings of a poet”—“No, I’m afraid I’m like the guy who is always panhandling for a smoke. He hasn’t even got the makings. He’s only got the habit. I couldn’t touch what I tried to tell you just now. I just stammered. That’s the best I’ll ever do. I mean, if I live. Well, it will be faithful realism, at least. Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people” (3:812–813). The two hear Jamie approach, evidently stumbling on the doorstep, and, afraid of losing his temper, James escapes to the porch.

Jamie enters, drunk and boisterous, and shouts with false merriment, “What ho! What ho!” (3:813). Slurring his words, he complains about the darkness, recites a line of Kipling’s, and turns on the lights, referring to their father as “Gaspard” (a miserly character in drama). He looks down at the bottle of whiskey in astonishment. Edmund warns that another drink will make him pass out; but then he suggests they both have a drink. Jamie initially refuses, given Edmund’s condition, but like his father, he eventually assents. Jamie rails against James’s stingy refusal to send Edmund to the best possible sanatorium, but Edmund explains that he and their father worked it out, and that James will pay for any place “within reason.”

Jamie has returned from a local brothel run by a madam called Mamie Burns. He relates that Mamie wanted to fire a prostitute named Fat Violet because men rarely choose her, and she eats and drinks too much. Jamie, who “likes them fat, but not that fat,” sympathetically chose Violet. “Ready for a weep on any old womanly bosom,” he told her he loved her and remained with her for a time, which apparently cheered her up (3:816). Jamie rambles on about actors being trained seals, his low prospects, and his grim view of life, all the while reciting poetry that speaks to his fatalistic mood. Edmund finally tells him to shut up, and he stares at him threateningly until finally agreeing with his brother. But then, “in a cruel, sneering tone with hatred in it,” he asks, “Where’s the hophead?” Edmund starts at the words and punches Jamie in the face. Jamie braces for a fight but settles down and thanks him. He explains his bitterness about their mother, believing that “if she’d beaten the game, I could, too.”

Jamie recalls the first time he caught Mary with a hypodermic needle in her hand: “Christ, I’d never dreamed before that any women but  whores took dope!” (3:818). The return of her habit, along with Edmund’s diagnosis, has crushed his spirit. He swears he loves Edmund, though he intimates that Edmund must be suspicious that he might be looking forward to his death, as then Jamie and their mother would inherit the estate exclusively. Edmund indignantly demands to know  what made him think of that. Jamie first acts confused and then resentful, and finally launches into  a full-blown jealous fury. Everything Edmund has achieved, everything he knows, came from him. “Hell, you’re more than my brother. I made you! You’re my Frankenstein!” (3:819). This outburst does little but amuse Edmund, who suggests they have another drink.

Jamie gulps down a massive drink and turns sentimental. He wants to confess something he should  have told Edmund years before—that his inducting Edmund into his world of prostitutes, booze, and dark philosophy was a deliberate plan to destroy his one great competitor, along with the person responsible, if indirectly, for making his mother a morphine addict. “I know that’s not your fault, but all the same, God damn you, I can’t help hating your guts—!” (3:820). Frightened now, Edmund again tells him to shut up. “But,” Jamie continues, “don’t get the wrong idea, Kid. I love you more than I hate you.” It is the part of him that died that hates him, and it is that part of him that he warns Edmund to avoid at all costs. For when Edmund  returns from the sanatorium, he says, “I’ll be waiting to welcome you with that ‘my old pal’ stuff, and  give you the glad hand, and at the first chance I get stab you in the back” (3:821). He admits this is a Catholic-style confession and believes his brother will absolve him. The last drink was too much for Jamie. He closes his eyes, lies back in a chair, and falls into a drunken half-sleep.

James reenters. He tells Edmund that he should heed Jamie’s warning, though he assures him that Jamie is devoted to him. “It’s the one good thing left in him” (3:822). He again rants over his eldest son’s wasted promise, which wakes Jamie up, and the two hurl vicious accusations at each other. Edmund tries to stop them, but Jamie gives up the fight. Both he and James drift off into another drunken doze (3:823).

The lights in the parlor come on abruptly, and Mary begins playing a simple waltz on the piano. The men’s eyes snap open. The music stops, and Mary enters wearing a sky-blue dress over her nightgown and slippers with pompoms, carrying her wedding dress on one arm. “Her eyes look enormous. They glisten like polished black jewels. The uncanny  thing is that her face now appears so youthful. Experience seems ironed out of it. It is a marble mask of  girlish innocence, the mouth caught in a shy smile” (3:823). Jamie sardonically breaks the silence. “The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!” (3:824—the female lead in Shakespeare’s Hamlet who loses her sanity) Edmund slaps him across the mouth with the back of his hand. James applauds Edmund and threatens to kick Jamie out of the house. Mary notices none of this. She speaks as if she is still a convent schoolgirl, wondering why her hands are so swollen and commenting that she must go to the nun’s infirmary. She ponders what it was she wanted in the living room. James awkwardly takes the wedding dress from her. She thanks him as if he were a kind stranger. James cries out to her with no effect, and Jamie, who sees that any attempt at real contact is fruitless, begins reciting Swinburne’s  poem “A Leave-Taking.” Mary goes on that without that which she is searching for, she believes she  will suffer loneliness and fear.

Edmund grabs her arm and announces desperately that he has consumption. For an instant, she  returns to reality, but she fights the pain of the present and returns to the sanctity of the past. Jamie  continues his recitation, and James remarks miserably that he has “never known her to drown herself  in it as deep as this” (3:827). The men raise their whiskey glasses, but Mary resumes her reveries of girlhood, and they slowly lower them back on the table. Mary relates a discussion she had senior year  at the convent with Mother Elizabeth over her prospects as nun. She experienced a vision of the Virgin  Mary at the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. The Blessed Virgin consented to Mary becoming a nun. Mother Elizabeth advised her to test herself first by “living as other girls lived, going out to parties and dances and enjoying myself.” After that, if she still wished to be a nun, then they would talk it over.  “That was the winter of my senior year,” she concludes. “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” (3:828).

The brothers sit frozen in their seats. James shifts in his chair. Mary “stares before her in a sad dream” (3:828), and the curtain falls.

Lesley Manville and Jeremy Irons/Bristol247


Long Day’s Journey into Night is an impressive work of art whether one knows about O’Neill’s actual biography or not. But when we do know it, the play can only be described as a tour de force. Eugene  O’Neill presented an inscription to his wife Carlotta Monterey O’Neill on their 12th wedding  anniversary that reveals a great deal about O’Neill’s autobiographical relationship to Long Day’s Journey and its characters. It reads, in part:

Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a  day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and  tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write  this play—write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted  Tyrones. (3:714)

Few artists, no matter their stature, have been able to achieve this level of immortality in a single work. O’Neill did so, remarkably, after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936, and it won  him his fourth Pulitzer Prize. Who among his audience in 1956 knew that the mother of America’s  greatest playwright, Mary Ellen “Ella” O’Neill, had been a morphine addict for over 25 years? That his brother, James O’Neill, Jr. (Jamie), would have exerted such a Mephistophelian influence on the playwright at such a young age? That his father, the great matinee idol James O’Neill, one of the most celebrated actors of his time, had lived in such a painful state of perpetual regret and with an Irish-born terror of poverty only alcohol and a nearly manic acquisition of real estate could ease his suffering? Certainly no one who did not know  the notoriously closed personality of O’Neill intimately, and even several who did.

However, Doris Alexander, in Eugene O’Neill’s  Last Plays: Separating Art from Autobiography, proposes a stern caveat to O’Neill’s audiences, but  particularly his biographers. She contends that an  “unfortunate result” of Carlotta’s choice of inscription (O’Neill actually wrote her several) is that it  predisposed biographers “to see the play as faithful family biography and personal autobiography,  rather than as the universal human tragedy of the impossibility, with the chances of life and pressures of the past, for anyone to live faithful to his idea of what he wished to be and achieve” (2005, 153). When read alongside most scholarship on Long  Day’s Journey, Alexander’s thesis stands as possibly the most revolutionary yet in O’Neill studies:  “A great work of art cannot stay factually true to the complexities of life. . . . The unwary biographer who raids a so-called autobiographical play for the facts of an author’s life will end up disseminating a mass of misinformation” (2005, 147).

Alexander introduces a raft of carefully researched historical evidence that contradicts some of the most poignant details in the play—Ella  O’Neill’s unhappiness on the road with her husband (by all accounts she was cheerful, surrounded  by friends, and boarded at the finest hotels), her desire to join a convent (Carlotta wanted this, not Ella), the idea that she married below her station by marrying an actor (Irish-American culture in general and her family in particular held a great deal of esteem for the acting profession), James’s limiting his repertoire to Monte Cristo (he played  many other roles over the period), James’s resentment of Jamie as a “loafer” (which sounds closer to  O’Neill’s anger against his son, Shane, at the time of composition), among many others. Incredibly, Alexander even found no evidence that the O’Neill family called anything but their first, much smaller house in New London “Monte Cristo” (2005, 102).

Based entirely on fact or no, and as penetrating as O’Neill’s insights are into his family life and the development of his personality and career, many  ask why it should matter that the play is autobiographical, or how that fact adds in any way to the  drama. One answer is that regardless of O’Neill’s heart-wrenching dramatization of his family life in the early 1910s, many in the audience of Long  Day’s Journey have, in fact, comparable, oftentimes much worse, experiences growing up than O’Neill. It is this the terrible truth, this “universality of pain,” as Travis Bogard has suggested, that “makes  pity and understanding and forgiveness the greatest of all human needs” (427). Long Day’s Journey  lends these usually repressed human needs—“pity and understanding and forgiveness”—a startlingly authentic voice.

O’Neill had an unprecedented talent for representing in art a deeply personal sense of bitterness, love, and understanding for those who shaped him. One cannot, therefore, consider O’Neill in a traditional way as the detached playwright off in the  wings with the actors as vehicles through which words are simply transferred to an audience. The ghost of the 53-year-old O’Neill haunts theaters as a near-tangible presence in the best productions of Long Day’s Journey. O’Neill is even more strongly felt than the autobiographical character Edmund Tyrone. Whether the play is based on fact or on an expressionistic sense of what was true beneath the surface, in Long Day’s Journey O’Neill becomes more than a creator—in this drama, the playwright is the protagonist.

O’Neill’s symbolic use of fog enhances this sensation perhaps even more, again, than the highly  autobiographical Edmund Tyrone. Fog in New London, Connecticut—a very real and recurring phenomenon—seems to slink into everything in the town, creating an actual connection between New London and the sea. It obviously left an early and longstanding impression on the playwright, who titled one of his earliest one-act plays, a work that has a strong autobiographical component as well, Fog. In Long Day’s Journey, the fog enhances the tragic sense of unity, enclosure, and isolation for the Tyrones. Beginning with Mary’s ominous prediction in act 1 that the fog will return, using her rheumatism (a physical ailment symbolizing greater spiritual pain) as a “weather prophet” (3:736), O’Neill employs fog symbolically throughout the play. In act 2, scene 2, James agrees with Mary about the fog rolling in once he has discovered that her morphine addiction has relapsed: “Yes, I spoke too soon. We’re in for another night of fog, I’m afraid” (3:762). Later, in the opening stage directions of act 3, the foghorn sounds as a warning to the Tyrones, “moaning like a mournful whale  in labor” (3:772); here O’Neill provides a subtle reminder of the cause of Mary’s addiction—labor pains—as Mary devolves into her adolescent high. At that point, she tells Cathleen how she has come to appreciate the fog (now symbolizing the effects of the drug), as it “hides you from the world and the world from you. You feel that everything has changed, and nothing is what it seemed to be. No one can find or touch you any more” (3:773). Once Edmund and James return, however, she feels that “the fog makes everything sound so sad and lost” (3:789), a remark that chases Edmund from the house and into the foggy night.

But Edmund also finds peace in the fog. For Edmund, the fog acts as a “veil” that he can draw between himself and the outer world. “I loved the fog,” he says to his father. “The fog was where I wanted to be. . . . Everything looked and sounded unreal. Nothing was what it is. That’s what I wanted—to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself” (3:795–796). Here we feel O’Neill’s presence most  strongly in the play: “It was like walking at the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago. As if  I was a ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost” (3:796).

Long Day’s Journey’s intensely personal nature  affords the play its stature in American theater history. “This stature has to do with the deepest kind  of emotional suffering,” argues Michael Manheim,  “accompanied by the recognition and understanding of that suffering by the sufferer” (1998, 214;  emphasis mine). O’Neill struggled to achieve this effect throughout his career. As early as his very first full-length play, he never relinquished this “personal equation” in his work. Max Stirner, the founding philosopher of philosophical anarchism whose The Ego and His Own O’Neill lists in his stage directions as being on Edmund Tyrone’s bookshelf, noted: “I write because I want to procure for my thoughts an existence in the world” (205). And one can gather by O’Neill scholars’ obsessive drive to connect the plays and characters to others in the canon that the same themes eternally recur—  some with triumphant success, others abysmal failure—and form a dialogue with one another that  culminates in Long Day’s Journey. Travis Bogard, O’Neill’s most penetrating critic, helpfully sums up these recurrent themes in what still stands as the masterwork of O’Neill criticism, Contour in Time:

The image of the poet destroyed by the materialist . . . the mother who is a betrayer of her  children and who resents being the object of their need; brothers bound in opposition; wives  who persecute their husbands; fathers and children fixed in a pattern of love and hate; the  maternal whore to whom men turn for surcease; men and women who feed on dreams. (445)

Each of these themes informs O’Neill’s work, if by varying degrees. And the importance of O’Neill bringing them together in the living room of Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, Connecticut—the one house in his life he might call a home—must never be dismissed. Its deeply personal nature brings the play to life in a way that he had not been able achieve with ambitious but somewhat flawed plays like Beyond the Horizon, Strange Interlude, and Mourning Becomes Electra. For Long Day’s Journey, O’Neill abandoned all his many avatars— of himself and his family—and went directly to the emotional source. It is no wonder that he repressed his cherished masterpiece, stipulating that it not be published until 25 years after his death and never be produced. What outsider, O’Neill must have asked himself, might bastardize or bowdlerize his most sacred, most personal work?

Parallels exist between Long Day’s Journey and virtually every O’Neill work, major or minor, extending as far back as his first play, A Wife for a Life (“Greater love hath no man than this” [1:821]) and as far forward as his last, A Moon for the Misbegotten. Anna Christopherson’s avowal to her father, Chris, in “Anna Christie,” for instance, looks forward to Mary’s repeated contention that nothing is anyone’s fault. “Don’t bawl about it,”  Anna says, “There ain’t nothing to forgive, anyway. It ain’t your fault, and it ain’t mine. . . . We’re  all poor nuts, and things happen, and we yust get mixed in wrong, that’s all.” Chris responds: “You say right tang, Anna, pygolly! It ain’t nobody’s fault!” (1:1,015). “Anna Christie” was O’Neill’s last major work of naturalism, a form to which he would return with Long Day’s Journey, before he began to experiment with Expressionism in the 1920s and early 1930s. In this experimental phase, O’Neill used symbols of artifice meant to illuminate characters’ inner feelings. Oftentimes, as in Days Without End, the stage “tricks” O’Neill devised were less than subtle, and critics varied in  their responses from respectfully reticent to down-right hostile. In Days, for instance, along with The  Great God Brown and Lazarus Laughed, actual  masks were employed—successfully and unsuccessfully—as “mercurial facades designed to control [characters’] dual personalities” (Floyd 534).  Oftentimes, inner thoughts and feelings were also revealed through melodrama, a genre designed to manipulate the audience’s emotional response through plot devices, as in Beyond the Horizon and Welded; and even through the supernatural, as in Bound East for Cardiff, Where the Cross Is Made, and The Hairy Ape (which also deployed  masks in its first production, with O’Neill’s enthusiastic permission, though he does not specify them  in his stage directions).

Although these experimental plays treat corresponding themes, O’Neill returned to his early  naturalism and abandoned nearly all theatrical artifice in Long Day’s Journey. In this play, defensive  masks, previously worn by the actors in his expressionistic plays, are stripped away through actual  experience and the interchange of dialogue. If, in Long Day’s Journey, Mary’s face while drugged takes  on the appearance of a “marble mask of girlish innocence” (3:823), an actress playing Margaret Dion  in The Great God Brown wears an actual mask for  the same effect. O’Neill biographer Louis Sheaffer attests that with Long Day’s Journey, O’Neill  “now scrupulously abstained from all novelty and  unusual devices, anything that smacked of theatricality, in order to show with absolute candor, with  unmistakable integrity, the familial forces that had kneaded, shaped, and warped him” (512). Travis Bogard adds that once O’Neill’s characters’ masks  were removed, mostly through alcohol and morphine, “Over their words there hangs no hint of the  Art Theatre Show Shop. O’Neill has enabled his  actors to motivate the monologues and make them convincingly natural, psychologically real” (426).

Edmund Tyrone’s admission to his father that he could only achieve “faithful realism” through “stammering” (3:812) can thus be read as a literary admission on the part of the author. Significantly, when we consider O’Neill’s late interest in East Asian thought, Edmund’s line resembles the Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu’s criticism of language as powerless to capture the perfection of the Tao  (the “Way”). Edmund’s admittance that “stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people”  (3:812–813) thus associates him with mystical thinking. By expressing false modesty in his poetic ability, one that greatly impresses his highly poetic  father, Edmund shows that the limitations of language itself are more to blame than he.

Long Day’s Journey can never be considered  “slice of life” realism, however, in which no dramatic structure or rhythmic patterns guide the  action from day into night. According to O’Neill himself, the play is meant to enact a blame game among its players, in which we come to recognize,  as he titled some notes in his Work Diary, “Shifting alliances in battle.” He specifies these alliance  shifts in the internecine warfare of the family as “Father, two sons versus Mother; Mother, two sons versus Father; Father, younger son versus Mother, older son; Mother, younger son versus Father, older son; Father and Mother versus two sons; Brother versus brother; Father versus Mother” (quoted in Floyd 549n). Each Tyrone suppresses the pain felt by condemning others, and when that fails, they turn to stimulants—Mary to morphine, James to  real estate, Edmund to poetry written by “whore-mongers and degenerates” (3:799), Jamie to sex  with overweight prostitutes, and all three men to whiskey. When they discover the impotence of stimulants and sex for long-term surcease, they return to the blame game. Such diversions stand in  stark contrast to those enjoyed by most of the family members in O’Neill’s late comedy Ah, Wilderness!, which can be read as O’Neill’s dream family  against the more closely accurate home life we find in Long Day’s Journey.

Biographer Stephen A. Black characterizes the play’s action as a series of “quasi-judicial proceedings, in which accusations and denials are made, evidence is adduced” (444). Psychologically, Black  continues, the “process of the play reveals a state  of inertia in the family in which “arguments transform into grievances, which prevent sadness from  ever being directly felt and loss from being directly acknowledged. Thus, the sadness of loss is avoided, but at the price of constant pain, and at the further cost that loss can never be mourned, outgrown, and left behind” (445). Each character attempts to control suffering by understanding the root cause of it (444); the overall rhythm of the play thus becomes a back and forth of “accusation-regret, harshness-pity, hate-love” (Berlin 89). The final  act, then, Virginia Floyd suggests, forms a “round- robin battle” amongst them all (549).

Along with the more evident repetition we find  in The Iceman Cometh—an aspect of the play critics find either musical or maddening—Long Day’s  Journey also approaches the rhythmical standards  of a symphony. “People say O’Neill’s plays are repetitious,” wrote Long Day’s Journey’s first American  director, José Quintero, “but he wrote like a composer, building theme on theme, and variation on  theme” (quoted in Murphy 19). Each recriminatory outburst by one or more family members against the others is relieved by a constant and reassuring “marker of the undercurrent of mutual trust that exists beneath the turbulence of their relationship”  (Manheim 1998, 207). All of this brilliantly culminates in the appearance of Mary Tyrone, higher  on morphine than any of the Tyrone men had ever  seen—a “delayed entrance” that O’Neill profitably used for the characters Anna Christopherson  in “Anna Christie,” Cornelius “Con” Melody in A Touch of the Poet, and Theodore “Hickey” Hickman in Iceman, among others, but never to such a devastating final effect (Bloom 226).

Critics often regard Long Day’s Journey as the finest domestic tragedy of the 20th century. Starting with the Greeks, the earliest tragedians, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles—all of whom O’Neill tapped for contemporary interpretations of  modern life—the term tragedy as a dramatic formula generally refers to a grandiose treatment of  the miseries of mankind and the power of fate to alter the course of even the most awe-inspiring  individuals, those who simultaneously suffer from and rise above their destinies. Tragedy must also  “achieve genuine and widely acknowledged emotional catharsis and it must convincingly portray an  image of fallen greatness” (Manheim 1998, 216). Building on Greek tragedy, tragedy in a domestic setting as in Long Day’s Journey began in the 18th century and became a hallmark of modern theater into our own time.

O’Neill adheres to the sense of tragic unity  Aristotle had established in his Poetics—restricting dramatic action (the “unity of action”) and,  less importantly, establishing a limited time frame of approximately 24 hours. O’Neill additionally conforms to later interpretations of tragic unity by restricting the physical location to one area and introducing few characters. In the Tyrones’ sitting room, the plot moves forward from day (a normal family) to night (a tragic sense of inevitable, mutual  doom) only as the revelations of the four characters emerge through dialogue rather than action. O’Neill applied the same tragic unity in action, time, and space in The Iceman Cometh, A Touch of the Poet, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. 

James and Mary Tyrone, along with their dissipated son Jamie, each present two selves to the  audience—the selves that might have achieved their potential and the selves that they have been fated to endure (see Floyd 541). Along with his tuberculosis, Edmund’s tragedy is essentially limited to the troubling fact of having been born among them, just as Mary’s tragedy (according to her) derives from having given birth to Edmund and, before that, marrying James. Edmund, then, is the least culpable of the four suffering Tyrones. Few of the actual, morally questionable past actions of  Eugene O’Neill himself arise in the play—abandoning his first wife, Kathleen Jenkins, and their  child, Eugene O’Neill, Jr., for instance, which happened before summer 1912. The worst we know  of Edmund is that he spent time drinking heavily in derelict bars, attempted suicide, and lived on a beach in South America, all of which actually happened to O’Neill before summer 1912. That  Edmund’s birth caused Mary’s addiction is a consciously irrational source of resentment on the part  of Jamie and Mary, though it still fosters guilt on Edmund’s part. Rather than regret what he has done or take on blame he could have controlled, Edmund finds the tragic core of his existence in the fact that he was “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!” (3:812).

O’Neill’s Irish background is an aspect of the  playwright’s life that critics generally ignored during his lifetime. O’Neill considered this a profound  oversight. “The one thing that explains more than anything about me,” he told his son, Eugene, Jr., “is the fact that I’m Irish” (quoted in Floyd 537). It also might be the one thing that can explain the most about Long Day’s Journey. Although A Moon for the Misbegotten and A Touch of the Poet are most often identified as his most “Irish” plays, O’Neill includes many noticeable Irish characteristics among the  characters in Long Day’s Journey as well: their lyrical use of language and quick mood reversals; their  physical features (“keep your dirty tongue off Ireland!” James shouts at Jamie. “You’re a fine one to  sneer, with the map of it on your face!” [3:761]);  heavy whiskey drinking; the family’s natural sympathy with the tenant farmer Shaughnessy over the  Standard Oil magnate Harker, a comic parable of  the tensions between Irish and New England Yankee culture and class associations; James’s assertion that Edmund’s “self-destruction” stems from  his denial of “the one true faith of the Catholic church” (3:759); the fact that O’Neill decided on  the name Tyrone because that is the county in Ireland “where the earliest O’Neills had ruled as warrior kings” (Sheaffer 512); or even James O’Neill’s  terror of tuberculosis as inevitably lethal, and thus considering a proper sanatorium for Edmund not worth facing poverty for.

Michael Manheim finds the source of the family’s particular tragedy in the mother figure: “Tragedy is by its nature both devastating and uplifting—and  so is the appearance of the life-giving/life-destroying mother—the source of their love and their  hate—both devastating and uplifting” (1998, 216). Indeed, the fact that Mary acts as the thematic muse is probably the most Irish Catholic aspect of  the play. All the Tyrones live under the general assumption that no one is responsible for his or her  pain, but they repeatedly have to convince themselves of this. Regardless of her consistent faith in  the imposition of the past on the present, Mary levels more blame on the other family members than  any other character. As the sitting room increasingly takes the form of a confessional (Sheaffer  514), O’Neill significantly indicated in the margins of an early draft that he intended Mary Tyrone to recite a pertinent line from the “Lord’s Prayer,” which, though absent in the final version, reflects the ultimate desire of the Tyrone clan: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (quoted in Floyd 553).

Mother-figure worship is a prevailing theme in the O’Neill canon—along with Long Day’s Journey, it figures prominently in The Great God Brown, Strange Interlude, and A Moon for the Misbegotten, among others—and the pain that ensues when  abandoned by the mother is a traditional obsession among men raised in Catholicism. In fact, one  reason José Quintero believed he felt such a strong affinity for O’Neill’s work is that he understood  “the guilt that all men of the Western world, particularly those raised Catholic, have over the fact  that their mothers had to have sex to have them” (quoted in Murphy 17). Edward Shaughnessy has written of “the cult of Mariolatry (Mary worship)” in Irish culture, in which the Irish Catholic people “nearly deified the wife-mother and equated her station with that of the Blessed Virgin Mary” (161). Hence O’Neill’s choice to call the mother’s character by her given name, Mary, rather than Ella,  the name his mother went by. The most openly forgiving member of the Tyrone family, Mary is also the most hurtful. On the one hand, she voices the one thematic thread underscoring all of their utterances and actions—that the past dictates the course of their lives, present and future. “The past is the present, isn’t it?” Mary tells Jamie. “It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us” (3:765).



The Tyrone family’s “second girl,” or servant working under the offstage cook, Bridget. O’Neill describes Cathleen as “a buxom Irish peasant, in her early twenties, with a red-cheeked comely  face, black hair and blues eyes—amiable, ignorant,  clumsy, and possessed by a dense, well-meaning stupidity” (3:743). Cathleen, who resembles the second girl, Norah, in Ah, Wilderness!, adds a further  Irish touch to the play, along with some very brief comic relief. In the opening scene of act 3, Mary Tyrone offers Cathleen whiskey, and the servant girl becomes humorously bold under the influence.  When Mary complains about her husband’s drinking habits, Cathleen defends James Tyrone as having “a good man’s failing” (3:774). Edmund later  expresses shock that Mary allowed Cathleen to buy morphine from the suspicious pharmacist, worrying that she might gossip about it in town. Cathleen does not, then, share the Tyrones’ isolation, and she can be seen as their one connection to the outside world. Apparently O’Neill’s fictionalized concern was unwarranted. According to sources  who knew Mary Ellen “Ella” O’Neill, even her closest friends never suspected her of having a drug  addiction until 1917. In that year, she underwent a  mastectomy operation, and it became public knowledge that she consequently “became used to drugs”  (quoted in Alexander 122).

Tyrone, Edmund

James and Mary Tyrone’s son and James Tyrone, Jr.’s brother. Eugene O’Neill’s most autobiographical character, the 23-year-old  Edmund is the end result of a long line of autobiographical avatars, such as John Brown in Bread  and Butter, the Poet in Fog, Robert Mayo in Beyond the Horizon, Stephen Murray in The Straw,  Richard Miller in Ah, Widerness!, and Simon Harford in More Stately Mansions, among others.  Edmund’s physical characteristics closely match those of these previous avatars and the playwright himself. O’Neill describes Edmund as looking most like his mother—“thin and wiry,” “big, dark eyes,” “high forehead,” “exceptionally long fingers,” and  exhibiting a marked “quality of extreme nervous sensibility” (3:723); this last characteristic shows where  he most evidently resembles his mother.

Edmund shares Eugene O’Neill’s older brother’s name, Edmund O’Neill, who died at the age of two after James O’Neill, Jr. (Jamie), apparently infected  him with measles. The death of the young boy, of course, had an enormously traumatic effect on the family, and O’Neill seems to express some feelings  of survivor guilt by naming his most autobiographical character after him. “Nothing was more true of  O’Neill,” writes biographer Louis Sheaffer on his naming the character Edmund, “than that he had a strong death wish” (512). Mary Tyrone experienced a great deal of pain at Edmund’s birth and was subsequently prescribed morphine to dull the pain. In the context of the play, if questionable in real life, Edmund’s birth caused Mary’s nearly 25-year addiction to the drug. Jamie Tyrone consciously understands that this unwanted result of the birth was not Edmund’s fault, but he cannot help blaming him. “I know that’s not your fault,” Jamie yells at him, very drunk, in act 4, “but all the same, God damn you, I can’t help hating your guts—!” (3:820).

Edmund works as a reporter for a local paper in New London, Connecticut, where he occasionally publishes poetry, as his creator had done in 1912. He also writes poems that his father, and even his dissipated brother, Jamie, find morbid. Again like his creator, Edmund worked in the merchant marine for some time and lived for a sordid period on beaches in South America. Edmund describes the revelatory experience of lying on the bowsprit  of a “Squarehead square rigger” bound for Buenos Aires, Argentina (in O’Neill’s life, the SS  Charles Racine). Looking out over the sea, he “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!” (3:811). He experienced  similar epiphanies on a ship owned by the American Line (in real life the SS New York or the SS  Philadelphia) and while swimming and lying on the beach. After his time at sea, he boarded at a bar in New York City called Jimmy “the Priest’s,” where he attempted suicide. His father blames the suicide attempt on alcohol, but according to Edmund, he was “stone cold sober. That was the trouble. I’d stopped to think too long” (3:807).

O’Neill’s autobiographical character is perhaps too noticeably the least of the Tyrone clan to blame for their misery. Scholars often remark on Edmund’s portrayal as a “relatively flawless” character who “alone is not stripped naked to the core of his soul” (Floyd 543, 536); Edmund comes across, unlike  the other Tyrones, as “a curiously two-dimensional reflection, whose past has been bowdlerized  and whose negative characteristics are only lightly touched . . . certainly a pale copy of what Eugene O’Neill was at that time” (Bogard 432, 435). There is no mention, for instance, of O’Neill’s having been kicked out of Princeton University his freshman  year for vandalism, drunkenness, and poor academic standing, or having abandoned his first wife,  Kathleen Jenkins, and their baby, Eugene O’Neill,  Jr., with whom he did not start to form a relationship until the boy turned 11. This limited characterization, the play’s most apparent flaw, has been  explained by Travis Bogard as the playwright discovering his identity “in the agony of others” (445).

Tyrone, James

Mary Tyrone’s husband and Edmund and Jamie Tyrone, Jr.’s father; based closely on Eugene O’Neill’s actual father, James  O’Neill. O’Neill describes James as a robust, strikingly handsome man of 65. James looks closer to  55 and exhibits the grandiloquent presence of the matinee idol he once was. Nevertheless, O’Neill writes in his stage directions, “He is by nature and  preference a simple, unpretentious man, whose inclinations are still close to his humble beginnings and his Irish  farmer forebears” (3:718). Like the other Tyrones, O’Neill wrote many avatars of his father, including Abraham Bentley in The Rope; Cornelius “Con” Melody in A Touch of the Poet; and the stern New Englanders Captain David Keeney in Ile, Ephraim  Cabot in Desire Under the Elms, and Ezra Mannon in Mourning Becomes Electra, among others.  Like Ezra Mannon, James loves his estranged wife very much and “gradually emerges more victim than culprit” (Sheaffer 515), and like Con Melody, James Tyrone “is both poet and peasant” (Bogard 430). O’Neill once characterized his father to his second wife, Agnes Boulton, as “a good man, in the best sense of the word—and about the only one I have ever known” (Alexander 2005, 147).

James Tyrone, a high-functioning alcoholic who has never missed a performance in his life, admits  to his younger son, Edmund, in act 4 that his fortune was made by buying the rights to a popular  play (in real life The Count of Monte Cristo) that restricted his ability to follow his true passion, to be a great Shakespearean actor—“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” (3:809). The actual James O’Neill bought the popular melodrama The Count of MonteCristo in 1894, and for five straight years, from 1885 to 1890, he played only one other role, Hamlet. But after that, contrary to what we know about James Tyrone, he played many other dramatic roles (Alexander 2005, 113). The profit from this moneymaker was too great a temptation for James, however, and he gave up his promise as an artist to relieve himself of the perpetual sense of impending poverty born of his humble Irish origins.

Tyrone’s dialogue with Edmund shows a great deal of love between the two men, though much frustration as well. His feelings toward his older son, Jamie, on the other hand, are largely negative. Although he does love him, he finds Jamie to be a terrific disappointment, a drunken womanizer, and a loafer, all of which is basically true. James’s father (based on Edward O’Neill), a first-generation immigrant, abandoned his wife and children when James was 10 years  old. The elder Tyrone returned to his native Ireland to die, probably a suicide. James’s family was  then evicted from their flat, and at age 10, James went to work in a machine shop, 12 hours a day for 50 cents a week. James eventually developed a love for the stage and quickly rose to great prominence as one of the finest actors of his generation. Edwin Booth, “the greatest actor of his day or any other,” had remarked while costarring in Othello with James that at 27, James played a better Othello than he ever could. Nevertheless, James never shook his fear of poverty, and one result is that, as described in the play, he hires second-rate doctors for his family members—one result, according to the other Tyrones, being Mary Tyrone’s morphine  habit, which she developed after James hired a second-rate hotel doctor to treat her labor pains while  she was giving birth to Edmund. James secretly wants to send Edmund to a state sanatorium after finding out his younger son has been diagnosed with tuberculosis. He invests heavily in local real estate, as he trusts land above all else for financial security, another Irish trait.

James met Mary Tyrone through her father (based on Thomas Joseph Quinlan; see Quinlan, Bridget Lundigan and Thomas Joseph), an Irish merchant friend of James’s, in the spring of her senior year at convent school. They fell deeply in  love, and whatever one can say about their marriage, he has remained faithful to Mary and is still  very much in love with her. Not once in their 36 years of marriage has he ever cheated or caused a scandal, a fact that allows Mary, in her words, to “forgive so many other things” (3:778). If his sons accuse James of being a “tightwad,” Mary blames him mainly for depriving her of domestic stability, boarding her in second-rate hotel rooms while he drinks with friends, and not allowing her to make the cottage into a “real home.” But according to  the diary of the actress Elizabeth Robins, who traveled with the O’Neills on tour, the actual James  O’Neill told her that “you only have one life, the world owes you a living, get the best you can. Go to the first class hotels, the best is none too good for you, besides it is false economy to eat bad food and sleep in poor rooms” (Alexander 2005, 98). O’Neill himself once mused, “My father, the Count of Monte Cristo, always got me the classiest rowboats to be had, and we sported the first Packard car in  our section of Connecticut way back in the duster-goggle era” (quoted in Alexander 1992, 179).

Tyrone, James, Jr. (Jamie Tyrone)

James and Mary Tyrone’s son and Edmund Tyrone’s older brother. James, or “Jamie,” is closely based on Eugene O’Neill’s older brother, James “Jamie” O’Neill, Jr.,  and also appears as “Jim” Tyrone, the main character in A Moon for the Misbegotten. O’Neill describes  Jamie, a severe alcoholic and great disappointment to his father, as 33 years old with a strong physical resemblance to James, Sr., but appearing “shorter and stouter because he lacks Tyrone’s bearing and graceful carriage. He also lacks his father’s vitality. The signs of premature disintegration are on him” (3:722). Significantly, the character has a “habitual expression  of cynicism [that] gives his countenance a Mephistophelian cast,” like that of Anthony Dion’s mask in  The Great God Brown, a multifaceted character who  melds the attributes of both O’Neill brothers. Nevertheless, O’Neill continues, “his personality possesses  the remnant of a humorous, romantic, irresponsible Irish charm—that of the beguiling ne’er-do-well, with a strain of the sentimentally poetic, attractive to women and popular with men” (3:722).

Jamie was psychologically scarred at a young age after discovering his mother injecting herself with morphine. “Christ,” he says to Edmund, recalling the experience, “I’d never dreamed before that any women but whores took dope!” (3:818). He tried acting with his father for a time but failed, and he  cynically regards actors (i.e., his father) as “performing seals” (3:817). He feels that at this point,  his mother will not recover, and by association he will never conquer his own addiction to alcohol— “I’d begun to hope, if she’d beaten the game, I could too” (3:818). (The actual Jamie O’Neill died  of alcoholism, though Mary O’Neill had successfully “beat the game” years before.) He blames his  father, whom he continually refers to as a “tightwad” and a “Gaspard” (a miserly character), for  Mary Tyrone’s addiction, since it was he who hired  a second-rate hotel doctor who prescribed morphine to his mother while she suffered from birth  pains. He also perversely blames Edmund, though he understands his brother is not really to blame. “I know that’s not your fault,” he yells at Edmund, very drunk, in act 4, “but all the same, God damn you, I can’t help hating your guts—!” (3:820).

Importantly, Jamie confesses in act 4 that he deliberately led his younger brother into a life of dissipation and vice as revenge for addicting their mother and serving as a living reminder of his own shortcomings. “Mama’s baby and Papa’s pet!” he screams at his younger brother. “The family White Hope! You’ve been getting a swelled head lately. About nothing! About a few poems in a hick town newspaper!” (3:819). James O’Neill is well aware of  Jamie’s methods, accusing him directly of tarnishing Edmund for his own gratification: “You made  him old before his time, pumping him full of what you consider worldly wisdom, when he was too young to see that your mind was so poisoned by your own failure in life, you wanted to believe every man was a knave with his soul for sale, and every woman who wasn’t a whore was a fool!” (3:732). But James also recognizes Jamie’s true affection for his younger brother and tells Edmund that “it’s the one good thing left in him” (3:822).

Over the course of his life, Jamie has been a great disappointment to his father, who felt that he squandered his education by getting expelled and later demonstrated enough talent on the stage to replace him as one of the United States’ leading  actors. But Jamie’s severe alcoholism and patronage of brothels have prevented him from achieving  anything in life and also from making a living on his own. “Like Tantalus,” Travis Bogard remarks, equating him with the figure from Greek mythology who was denied the fruit and water always in view, Jamie “has no refuge from desire. His is the howl of a soul lost in hell” (431). Doris Alexander takes issue with those who impose a historical reality on the fictional Jamie, regarding the character as closer to O’Neill’s second son, Shane Rudraighe O’Neill, whom O’Neill accused of “never willing to start at the bottom” (quoted in Alexander 2005, 87). Jamie O’Neill worked steadily in the theater and did start at the bottom of that profession, she contends, and “only in the very last years of his  father’s life did [he] descend into unremitting alcoholism and irremediable unemployment” (140); in  addition, he never started betting on horses, as his father accuses him in the play, until after he quit drinking and after their father’s death (142).

Jamie Tyrone is in many ways the most unsympathetic Tyrone, a possible rationale for O’Neill having written another play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, with him as the primary subject. On the  other hand, he is, as Michael Manheim argues, “the one truly humane figure in the play,” as his kind treatment of the overweight prostitute Fat Violet appears to be “the one act of completely selfless giving in the play” (Manhein 1998, 214, 215). Jamie’s act was certainly humane, though perhaps not entirely “selfless,” as Jamie’s choice stems from a desire to feel the nurturing body of a mother figure. When he went to Mamie’s brothel, he tells  Edmund, he was “ready for a weep on any old womanly bosom” (3:816). Jamie, as Doris Alexander  writes, “is plagued by an indelible association of the mother he loves and admires with prostitutes” as  a result of his discovering her with a hypodermic needle (2005, 143).

Tyrone, Mary Cavan

James Tyrone’s wife and Edmund and James Tyrone, Jr.’s mother. Mary Tyrone is closely based on Eugene O’Neill’s mother, Mary Ellen “Ella” O’Neill, who was a morphine addict for more than 25 years. O’Neill describes her as a striking-looking 54-year-old with a “young, graceful figure, a trifle plump, but showing little evidence of middle-aged waist and hips. . . . Her face is distinctly Irish in type” (3:718). Her younger son, Edmund,  resembles her physically, as he too has a “high forehead,” “dark brown eyes” and “long, tapering fingers.”  “What strikes one immediately,” O’Neill continues, “is her extreme nervousness,” again like Edmund. Mary suffers from rheumatism—her hands have an “ugly crippled look” (3:718)—and she uses that affliction as an excuse to carry on her morphine addiction. Mary is continually searching the house for her glasses,  an act symbolic of her inability to see the love surrounding her. She creates one of the central tensions  of the play by demonstrating a need for isolation, while at the same time a terror of it (Bogard 428).

Mary, like the Tyrone men, conveys a broad emotional range, from peaceful distraction to outward  rage. But coming from her, the effect is far more terrible, given her facade of girlish innocence and the  men’s need for her affection. O’Neill characterizes Mary in this way, according to Michael Manheim,  to reveal the “manifold nature of Mary’s consciousness. A feeling of motherly solicitude leads to one of  intense anger, which leads to one of intense anxiety, which leads to one of hysterical accusation,  which leads to one of guilt, which leads to one of open acknowledgement, which leads to one of hope rooted in a lost religious faith, which leads to one of cynical rejection. All these are Mary Tyrone—no one more important than the rest” (210).

James Tyrone disabuses his younger son, Edmund, of the belief that Mary’s father (based on Thomas Joseph Quinlan) was “the great, generous, noble Irish gentleman she makes out”; he was, rather, “a nice enough man, good company and a good talker,” a wholesale grocer who died of alcoholism and tuberculosis (3:800). As a girl, Mary attended a convent school and studied piano there. She believes that while there, she experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary calling her to become a nun.  Having been raised, according to her, in a “respectable home” and schooled at the “best convent  in the Middle West” (3:775), as a schoolgirl she dreamed of being either a concert pianist or a nun. Mother Elizabeth (the actual name of the founder of Ella O’Neill’s music department at St. Mary’s [Alexander 2005, 85]) advised her to test her faith by “living as other girls lived, going out to parties and dances and enjoying myself” (3:828). Then she met James Tyrone. “You were much happier before  you knew he existed,” she says to herself of her marriage to James, “in the Convent when you used to  pray to the Blessed Virgin” (3:779). Although the actual Ella O’Neill had known James for six years  before marrying him, Mary expresses continual disappointment over her premature decision to live  as the wife of a traveling matinee idol. She bitterly complains of having raised her sons in “one-night stands and filthy trains and cheap hotels and bad  food,” particularly with Edmund’s extreme sensitivity. “When you have the poison in you,” James  responds angrily to her recriminations, “you want to blame everyone but yourself!” (3:782).

Doris Alexander contends that it was O’Neill’s wife at the time of the play’s composition, Carlotta Monterey O’Neill, who dreamt of becoming a nun,  not Ella O’Neill (82). After reading the script, Carlotta apparently acted “humorously indignant at  this cavalier theft of her own story” (82), and there are many attributes that Carlotta, not Ella, shares with Mary Tyrone: Carlotta’s wedding dress more closely resembles the dress O’Neill describes in act 4, and it was Carlotta who had arthritic hands, not Ella, among other traits (81). Tyrone disabuses his son Edmund of Mary’s side  of the story, explaining that she was neither a particularly talented piano player, nor did her father,  a drinking partner of his, provide the “wonderful home” Mary would have them believe (3:800). Mary voices jealousy over the Protestant families in New London, Connecticut, families like the Chatfields, whose lives for her appear to “stand for something” (3:738). If, as O’Neill has said of himself, “the battle of moral forces in the New England Scene is what I feel closest to as an artist,” along with the fact that “the one thing that  explains more than anything about me is the fact that I’m Irish” (quoted in Floyd 537), it follows that  “no other character” in the O’Neill canon, as Virginia Floyd argues, “portrays more effectively than  Mary Tyrone the cruel consequences of the migration of the Irish to America and the price they paid  for assimilation” (538).

Alexander, Doris. Eugene O’Neill’s Creative Struggle: The Decisive Decade, 1924–1933. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.
———. Eugene O’Neill’s Last Plays: Separating Art from Autobiography. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005. Barlow, Judith. Final Acts: The Creation of Three Late O’Neill Plays. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Berlin, Normand. “The Late Plays.” In The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill, edited by Michael  Manheim, 82–95. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Black, Stephen A. Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.
Bloom, Steven F. “‘The Mad Scene: Enter Ophelia!’: O’Neill’s Use of the Delayed Entrance in Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Eugene O’Neill Review 26 (2004): 226–238.
Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Floyd, Virginia. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment. New York: Ungar, 1985.
Manheim, Michael. Eugene O’Neill’s New Language of Kinship. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1982.
———. “The Stature of Long Day’s Journey into Night.” In The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill, edited by Michael Manheim, 206–216. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Murphy, Brenda. O’Neill: Long Day’s Journey into Night. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Shaughnessy, Edward L. Down the Nights and Down the Days: Eugene O’Neill’s Catholic Sensibility. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000.
Sheaffer, Louis. O’Neill: Son and Artist. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.
Stirner, Max. The Ego and His Own: The Case of the Individual Against Authority. Translated by Steven T. Byington with an introduction by J. L. Walker. 1844. Reprint, New York: Benjamin R. Tucker, 1907.

Source: Dowling, R. M. (2009). Critical companion to Eugene O’Neill: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York, NY: Facts On File.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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