By 1940, O’Neill had won three Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel Prize in Literature, but the work for which he is remembered and praised and revered as America’s foremost dramatist is Long Day’s Journey into Night, his autobiographical work dealing with the torment of his own family. It earned for him a final Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1956. In the dedication of the play to his wife Carlotta, O’Neill says: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.
O’Neill was fascinated with the family unit and with the effects of heredity as well as relationships upon the generations. If one generation is poor, the second becomes miserly, and the third contemptuous, what remains for the fourth generation? O’Neill’s outlined cycle of plays, which he was never to complete, explored the past and future of a single family through three hundred years and many generations. Long Day’s Journey into Night also expresses the idea that bonds of blood are inextricable. Each of the characters is in conflict over the role of the independent self and the role of dependent family member. In their ambivalence, feelings of love and hate surface and clash. The family unit is confined, a self-contained universe, and beyond is only the void.
In this family drama the O’Neills become the Tyrones: father James, a famous actor known for his role as the count of Monte Cristo; mother Mary, a thinly disguised portrait of Ellen Quinlan O’Neill; and the two sons Jamie and Edmund, mirrors of Eugene’s brother Jamie and the playwright himself. Set in New London, Connecticut, the time is 1912, the year of O’Neill’s suicide attempt and his brush with tuberculosis.
Like The Iceman Cometh, the structure is classical; the events are compressed into one August day. The first act occurs in the morning, the second before and after lunch, the third at 6:30 p.m., and the fourth at midnight. There are five characters (including the maid Cathleen), a shared past, and individual guilt. The action unfolds through psychological revelation. The past is revealed through the dialogue, the guilt through the relationships of the four family members.
The catalytic agent is Mary’s morphine addiction, which she believes occurred after Edmund’s birth when James hired a “quack doctor” to treat her, a belief that arouses guilt in both Edmund and James and encourages resentment in Jamie. In the first act she is supposedly “well” again, and the facade of a happy family can be maintained. Edmund is ill, however, probably with tuberculosis (in that period usually fatal), and concern for him provides Mary an excuse to return to her habit.
The first to perceive that her latest cure is not successful is Jamie, who reveals his suspicions to Edmund. Soon all three men recognize that Mary’s rambling complaints about their home, the servants, James’s frugality, and Edmund’s drinking are signs of her addiction. Each tries to persuade her not to succumb. Tyrone pleads brokenly, “Dear Mary! For the love of God, for my sake and the boys’ sake and your own, won’t you stop now?” She responds vaguely that they should not “try to understand what we cannot understand, or help things that cannot be helped—the things life has done to us we cannot excuse or explain.”
After lunch, the men escape into town, leaving Mary alone. She begins to return to the past, or the past returns...
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to her. With Cathleen imbibing Tyrone’s liquor freely, Mary recalls her early days in the convent, her first meeting with James Tyrone, and her lost faith. When Edmund returns with confirmation of his tuberculosis, Mary refuses to listen and angrily cries, “I hate you when you become gloomy and morbid.” Edmund bitterly retorts, “It’s pretty hard to take at times, having a dope fiend for a mother!”
The last act unites the three men at midnight in drunken misery around the dining room table. First, James and Edmund alternate between bickering over the use of electricity and accusations of each other’s culpability in Mary’s addiction. Then each reveals a part of his real self: Tyrone’s regrets about his wasted career and Edmund’s love of the sea. Jamie arrives home, extremely drunk, to express in a moment of truth his hatred of Edmund. In the final moments, with the foghorn sounding in the background and the men in a drunken fog, Mary descends the stairs, in the deepest fog of all, trailing her wedding dress, and remembering how happy she had once been. Little hope remains.
The play is not totally autobiographical. O’Neill has exaggerated some aspects of his situations and omitted others. His father was not so miserly, nor his mother so emotionally dependent, nor he quite so blameless. Nevertheless, the skill with which complex relationships are developed and projected is masterful, and the truth of the family’s conflicts is shattering.