Written “with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones,” Long Day’s Journey into Night may be the greatest American play of the twentieth century. After a career of many dramatic experiments—some successes, some failures—in the last years of his life Eugene O’Neill found his most truthful and artistic voice in an autobiographical work detailing the torment of his own family. It earned him a fourth Pulitzer Prize, awarded posthumously in 1957. In O’Neill’s Tyrone family, James Tyrone resembles his father, James O’Neill, a famous actor known for his role as the Count of Monte Cristo. Mary Tyrone is a thinly disguised portrait of the playwright’s mother, Ella Quinlan O’Neill. The two sons, Jamie and Edmund, are pictures of Eugene’s older brother and the playwright himself.
The play is classically structured, the title appropriate. The events of this four-hour drama are compressed into one day, with the first act occurring at 8:30 in the morning, the two scenes of the second act before and after lunch, the third act at 6:30 in the evening, and the final act at midnight. It tells of the journey shared by the four principal characters through one particular day, but the past is always with them. Like Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715), it is a play of revelation rather than action.
The Tyrone family is like a single living organism; what affects one affects all. The individuals may be in conflict over their own roles, but they are inextricably bound to one another by love and hate. Hostility is never far from the surface. The Tyrones are well aware of each family member’s vulnerabilities and are skilled in attacking them. Like musical motifs, each person’s flaws are played again and again: Tyrone’s miserliness, Jamie’s profligacy, Edmund’s illness, and, most important, Mary’s dependence on morphine. The drinking problem of the three men is ignored and excused, for the most part, because they share it. At the beginning of the...
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