Long Day’s Journey into Night (Magill Book Reviews)
The play is overtly autobiographical, with O’Neill calling his father James Tyrone, his mother Mary Tyrone, his older brother James Tyrone, Jr., and himself not Eugene but Edmund Tyrone--thereby assuming the first name of the youngest brother, who died in infancy when exposed to measles by the oldest. In the preface, dedicated to his third wife Carlotta, O’Neill thanks her for the “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.”
Two events propel the action: Mary Tyrone, despite having recently been treated for drug addiction, relapses into her morphine habit; and Edmund learns (as O’Neill did) that he has tuberculosis and must enter a sanatorium. When other family members move urgently closer to Mary for her sympathy and support, she inexorably moves away from them into the fog of her illusions.
The family is shown as living in a closely symbiotic relationship, with each important attribute of one member affecting--usually for the worse--the behavior of the other three. The quartet is linked by resentment and guilt, but also by love and need. Anger and recrimination alternate with pity and understanding. Each character takes turns being victim and persecutor, aggressor and protector.
The drama rises above the confessional level to show the Tyrones as a universal family, whose soul-searing discoveries and dreams,...
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The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
The plot of Long Day’s Journey into Night observes the classical unities, its action telescoping from 8:30 a.m. to midnight of an August day in 1912, set in the Tyrones’ summer home at New London’s beach, Connecticut. The curtain rises with Mary and James Tyrone entering their dining room. She retains a young and graceful figure in her mid-fifties, has a striking, “distinctly Irish” face, uses no makeup, and sports dark brown eyes that are “unusually large and beautiful, with black brows and long curling lashes.” Qualifying this favorable impression is her extreme nervousness, expressed by continually fluttering hands so spoiled by rheumatism that they “have an ugly, crippled look.” O’Neill stresses her “shy convent-girl youthfulness . . . an innate worldly innocence.”
James Tyrone, eleven years Mary’s senior but belying his age by ten, is handsome, healthy, soldierly erect. In contrast to his wife, “he has no nerves.” His stolid Irish peasant heritage has kept him fit, but also keeps him from fully understanding the complex natures of his wife and sons. The latter soon join their parents. The elder, Jamie, resembles his father physically but lacks Tyrone’s grace and stamina. He shows “signs of premature disintegration,” while his cynical sneering “gives his countenance a Mephistophelian cast.” Twenty-three-year-old Edmund is his mother’s son, with luminous eyes in a...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
O’Neill combines the retrospective techniques of Henrik Ibsen with the exorcistic intensity of August Strindberg. As in such Ibsen masterpieces as Ghosts (pb. 1881 as Gengangere), Rosmersholm (pb. 1886), and The Master Builder (pb. 1892 as Bygmester Solness), he minimizes the physical action: Properties are few, the setting is simple, suspense is absent, and dialogue is all-important as the characters exhume and examine their past, continually rocking it backward and forward. To quote Mary once more: “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.”
The play begins with sunshine streaming through the windows, but by lunch time, in act 2, the sun has turned to “faint haziness,” which becomes increasingly dense in the early afternoon, with the fog rolling in by the beginning of act 3 and becoming a wall by act 4. The fog becomes the play’s pervasive leitmotif: Its gradual thickening is an obvious reflection of the increasingly befogged mental state of the Tyrone household. It is a profound, eerily enveloping backdrop for the Tyrones’ various tragedies; its ominous ally, the foghorn, loneliest and most mournful of man-made sounds, broods portentously over the family like a herald of doom. Early in act 1, Mary mentions her inability to sleep well the previous night, with “that awful foghorn going all night long.” Her husband compares it to...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*New London. Connecticut town that was both the boyhood and young-adult home of Eugene O’Neill, who employs it as the setting of this markedly autobiographical drama. The family’s summer home is modestly furnished with items of lesser value than one would expect for a wealthy, successful actor. His modest rooms are also dimly lit in the night scenes, because Mr. Tyrone wishes to save money on the electric bill.
One feature of this house that plays a prominent, almost haunting role in each scene is the spare room upstairs. There it is that Mrs. Tyrone withdraws from the rest of the family to give herself shots of morphine, to which she is addicted. An eerie aura also surrounds this house because of the dense fog, which rolls in from Long Island Sound and enshrouds it.
Another aspect of New London and the Tyrone family’s interaction with its citizens is important to the meaning of the play. The family is not the social equal of the prominent families in this ocean-side city. Mr. Tyrone has made his fortune by acting, a profession of some disrepute in his day. The addictions which afflict his wife and two sons (morphine, alcohol, and dissolute lifestyles) further isolate the Tyrones from the more substantial and well-respected residents of New London. The social isolation of the Tyrones is mirrored symbolically in their fog-enshrouded house.
*Broadway. Great theater...
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There are two historical periods relevant to Long Day's Journey into Night. The play was written between 1939 and 1941, but it is set in 1912, at a critical period in the author's own life, paralleling that of his fictional persona, Edmund Tyrone.
Events of moment from the outside world do not intrude on the Tyrone family dialogue. For example, there is no mention of the April, 1912, sinking of the Titanic, which took over fifteen hundred passengers to their watery death, and was the greatest maritime disaster of the age. Nor is mention made of Captain Robert Scott's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, which ended in March, 1912, when Scott and the last survivors died in a heroic attempt to reach awaiting shelter and provisions.
O'Neill's focus, relentlessly on the Tyrone family problems, simply made unnecessary the need for allusions to such important topical events. They are conspicuous only by their absence, a fact that contributes to the play's claustrophobic impact. An awareness of the outside world is reflected not in events but in the social consciousness of the Tyrones. They have a sense of living on the margins of respectability, not fully accepted by the "Yanks" because of Tyrone's impoverished, shanty-Irish, Roman Catholic heritage.
For the audience there is a foreshadowing of the impending American love affair with the automobile, which Henry Ford made possible when he introduced...
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Long Day's Journey into Night is Eugene O'Neill's thinly veiled autobiographical study of a dysfunctional family disintegrating because of its inability to cope with drug addiction, life-threatening illness, shame, and guilt.
Throughout the four acts of Long Day's Journey into Night, O'Neill preserves the unities of time and place. The setting remains the living room of the Tyrone's summer home in New London, Connecticut, and, in emulation of the classical practice, the action unfolds within a single day in August of 1912, starting in the early morning and ending around midnight. Each scene and act is a segment of that single day, and within each the progress of time is scrupulously faithful to the passage of real world time, relentless and impersonal.
O'Neill, within the realistic limits of his drama, uses symbolism very effectively. Of fundamental significance is the fog. It serves first as a mood enhancing but wholly natural phenomenon. At the beginning of the play, the fog of the night before has lifted, and the optimism of the Tyrone family is reflected in the day's early brightness. But by dinner time in Act III, the fog has again rolled in, its presence announced by a foghorn "moaning like a mournful whale in labor." Its return suits the encroaching sense of futility and isolation of each of the main characters, particularly Mary. It is she who asks why the "fog makes...
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Compare and Contrast
1910s: World War I begins in the summer of 1914, with the United States joining the allies against Germany in 1917.
1940s and 50s: O'Neill finishes Long Day's Journey into Night prior to America's entry into World War II on December 7, 1941. The Cold War with the Soviet bloc flares into open combat in Korea, a "police action" ending with an armistice agreement signed on July 27, 1953, four months before O'Neill dies. In 1956 the Soviet Union cracks down on dissidents in Poland and Hungary; that same year Long Day's Journey into Night wins O'Neill, posthumously, his final Pulitzer Prize.
Today: The 1990s bring an end to the Cold War and to fears of a nuclear holocaust.
1910s: The airplane, automobile, and motion pictures, all in their infancy, begin a radical transformation of daily American life.
1940s and 50s: Films, with sound since 1928, are the most popular entertainment medium; commercial airlines continue to replace trains in distance passenger travel; and American houses start sporting double garages. By the 1950s, television becomes both popular and increasingly affordable; jet engines become common on commercial planes; and large finned automobiles with powerful engines streak through America on a growing network of parkways and highways.
Today: Houses without at least two television sets grow rare; railroads continue a losing struggle to...
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Topics for Further Study
Investigate the history of the use of morphine and the problems of morphine addiction from the time of its chemical isolation from opium in 1806 to the present day.
Research the development of sanatoria or hospitals devoted to consumptive diseases and their methods of treating tuberculosis prior to the development of modern vaccines and chemotherapy.
Investigate the plight of Irish Catholic immigrants to America at the time of the potato blight famine that struck Europe in 1845.
Select one or more of the poets, novelists, or playwrights mentioned or quoted in the play and investigate their literary legacy and influence on O'Neill.
Research the state of the American theater at the end of the nineteenth century, particularly the negative effect that the profit motives of commercial theaters had on the quality of their productions.
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Long Day's Journey into Night was first adapted to film by Sidney Lumet, and starred Katharine Hepburn, Sir Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, Jr., and Dean Stockwell. A black and white film, Embassy, 1962; available from Republic Pictures Home Video.
Long Day's Journey into Night was produced again as a made-for-television film by Jonathan Miller, using Sinclair Lewis's adaptation of the play, and starring Peter Gallagher, Jack Lemmon, Bethel Leslie, and Kevin Spacey, in 1988; available from Lorimar Home Video/Vestron.
A third version of the play, filmed at the Tom Patterson Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, was directed by David Wellington, and starred Peter Donaldson, Martha Henry, William Hutt, and Tom McCamus, Stratford Festival, 1996; not currently available.
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What Do I Read Next?
A Moon for the Misbegotten, produced in 1947, was written by O'Neill as a eulogy for his brother, Jamie, who is fictionalized as Jamie Tyrone in the play. As he is in Long Day's Journey into Night, Jamie is an alcoholic who seeks solace in the arms of a series of large women. The play deals with his hapless affair with Josie Hogan. It was a work that O'Neill finally came to loathe, possibly because his own son followed in his uncle's footsteps and committed suicide.
Trouble in the Flesh (1959), is Max Wylie's graphic fictional account of Seton Farrier, whose life as the greatest dramatist of his day is clearly based on O'Neill's biography.
East of Eden (1952), John Steinbeck's fictional saga of the Trask family investigates themes parallel to those treated in Long Day's Journey into Night. Based on the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the novel focuses on family depravity, sibling jealousy and rivalry, guilt, and forgiveness.
Death of a Salesman (1949), Arthur Miller's great "tragedy of the common man," has some parallels with O'Neill's play, including the tragic consequences of material pursuits and the alienation of sons from their father. Miller's play is the principal rival claimant to Long Day's Journey into Night as America's greatest tragedy.
Buried Child (1978), Sam Shepard's mythic study of a dysfunctional family riddled with guilt for the murder of a real...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Hayes, Richard, "A Requiem for Mortality," Commonweal, Vol. 64, February 1, 1957, pp. 467-68. A belated review of the Broadway production of Long Day's Journey into Night praising both the play and the cast for achieving "tragic nobility" within a realistic framework.
McDonnell, Thomas P., "O'Neill's Drama of the Psyche," Catholic World, Vol. 197, April, 1963, pp. 120-25. Argues that Long Day's Journey into Night is O'Neill's apotheosis in his quest for a tragedy of self, of his own tormented psyche.
Manheim, Michael, Eugene O'Neill's New Language of Kinship, Syracuse University Press, 1982. This study's introduction, its chapter on Long Day's Journey into Night, and its appendix focused on the play's motifs offer solid help in interpreting the play.
Pfister, Joel, "The Cultural Web in O'Neill's Journey," in Staging Depth: Eugene O'Neill and the Politics of Psychological Discourse, University of North Carolina Press, 1995, pp. 203-15. Relates Mary from Long Day's Journey into Night to Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Annie Keeney in O'Neill's earlier play, Ile.
Raleigh, John Henry, "O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night and New England Irish-Catholicism," Partisan Review, Vol. 26, no. 4, Fall, 1959, pp. 573-92. A helpful background study that relates the "dualism of religion-blasphemy" that...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Barlow, Judith E. Final Acts: The Creation of Three Late O’Neill Plays. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A collection of ten essays by O’Neill’s major critics arranged in the chronological order of their publication, examining such topics as the monologues, the characters, the form, and the language. A helpful guide to the play.
Carpenter, Frederic. Eugene O’Neill. Boston: Twayne, 1979.
Gassner, John, ed. O’Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964.
Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill. Enlarged ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. A monumental one-volume biography. Invaluable to the serious student of the playwright and his work.
Hinden, Michael. “Long Day’s Journey into Night”: Native Eloquence. Boston: Twayne, 1990. An excellent introduction to the play and its history. Two admirable chapters are devoted to a close analysis of the major characters and their motivations. Extensive bibliography.
Manheim, Michael. Eugene O’Neill’s New Language of Kinship. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1982. Argues that the...
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