Long Day's Journey into Night

by Eugene O’Neill

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Variations Between Printed and Produced Versions of Long Day's Journey into Night

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By the time Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night hit the boards at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, absurdist playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco had already begun an assault on language as an inadequate tool for authentic communication. In his play, written fifteen years earlier, O'Neill seems to have come to a similar conclusion, though in a much more familiar guise: his relentless and trenchant realism. Edmund, the playwright's persona in the baldly autobiographical play, seems to sum up O'Neill's belief as he concludes his long monologue in Act IV: "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."

In Edmund's words lies the essence of the O'Neill paradox. No other playwright so highly acclaimed on stage is so often found flawed on paper. To the annoyance of many critics, Long Day's Journey into Night, often reputed to be O'Neill's crowning achievement, best illustrates that paradox. It is a text that, if merely read, seems to fall embarrassingly short of the glory it has achieved on stage. Unaided by the magic of the theater, at some disjointed and awkward places, the text does seem to stammer, lurch, and sputter along—but it does so at least partly by design.

Theater only admits to one cardinal sin—boring an audience. Literary trespasses, on the other hand, seem almost infinite. As the premiere production of Long Day's Journey into Night in Stockholm demonstrated, on the stage the play was absolved of its literary failings; its audiences sat through its four and one-half hour length, not just without complaint, but with unflagging attention and final approval. That fact perplexed some critics, including Henry Hewes, who in his Saturday Review assessment of the Swedish production and the published play ventured the opinion that O'Neill's work improved in translation. For him, the Swedish rendering gave "the play a movement and a music that it sometimes lacks in English." The raw English text, on the other hand, was permeated "with old arguments hashed, rehashed, and re-rehashed." For Hewes, there even seemed to be some emotional chord in the Swedish national character that O'Neill managed to strike, a chord, presumably, not found in the English-speaking world.

Hewes wrote on Long Day's Journey into Night again in the Saturday Review, after its Broadway opening, during which Quintero and company kept the American audience glued to their seats. The work proved every bit as stage worthy in English as it had in Swedish. For all its real or assumed literary sins, it struck, not just a Swedish, but some universal emotional chords. Hewes recanted. For him the play now became "enormously interesting," with "a breadth... that may make it the most universal piece of stage realism ever turned out by an American playwright."

The play's stage success may baffle but should not surprise those who read O'Neill's works with some sense of the transforming power of the stage. There is a time-tested truism of theater that says that many plays read poorly but play very well (and, of course, vice versa). In the case of Long Day's Journey into Night, the maxim may well have its greatest currency, for on paper, O'Neill's craftsmanship, in places, seems almost primitive and his expression flat and even hackneyed.

Yes, Long Day's Journey into Night suffers from a comparison with, for example, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman . Miller's "tragedy of the common man," from the same period, is generally considered the chief rival to O'Neill's play...

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as the greatest tragedy of the American theater.Death of a Salesman reads very well, revealing a stylistic mastery presumed lacking in O'Neill's play. Miller's dialogue flows smoothly, even when Willy breaks into his hallucinatory conversations with Ben, as in Act I, when Willy plays cards with Charley while conversing with the specter of his dead brother. It is a marvelous piece of word stitching and control. By comparison, O'Neill's dialogue often seems rough hewn, even crude, particularly in the sudden emotional lurches that move a character from angry recrimination to abject contrition, as in many of Jamie's lines. On paper, these sudden shifts may well seem jarring and forced, although even C. J. Rolo, otherwise hostile in his Atlantic Monthly review, characterized the emotional phrasing as "generally convincing."

Critics have carped about other problems with Long Day's Journey into Night, "the massive faults" that Stephen Whicher mentions. O'Neill has been damned for his crude technique, for the excessive incursion of borrowed poetry, for example, or his redundancy and attention-challenging prolixity. Some criticism, highly subjective, goes beyond technique to the play's content, its unrelieved gloom, its self-pitying characters, or its skeleton-rattling quest for personal absolution.

A play, of course, is not the text; it is the very thing on stage, a place where, in post-modernist terms, the text is repeatedly deconstructed to the bone. O'Neill, for all his real or imagined textual flaws, had an acute sense of the theater, the only proving ground of drama. In Long Day's Journey into Night, the playwright reveals his great faith in the interpretive artists of the living theater to find the play, not just in, but behind, between, and around his words. As Travis Bogard noted in his Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, O'Neill's "ultimate 'experiment'" was to return to "a confident reliance on his actors." In both Long Day's Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten, Bogard claimed that "everything, now, is in the role. An actor in these plays cannot hide behind personal mannerisms, clever business or habitual stage trickery. O'Neill has stripped all but the most minimal requirements from the stage, leaving the actors naked. They must play or perish."

Nakedness is the play's essential condition. Each character is ritually stripped of dignity and self-control as the outward mask of filial regard and concern falls away, exposing an array of conflicting emotions: love, jealousy, shame, guilt, hate—within whose endless jars truth resides. Characters almost immediately begin a ritual of repeated recriminations: the miserliness of James Tyrone, the apostasy and dereliction of Jamie and Edmund, the inability of Mary to escape from her addiction. The play thus becomes a crucible of pain, whose grinding pestle is the rude and abrasive language that resonates throughout. Characters stammer and babble because the polite and rational language of conversation cannot carry the overload of their discharging emotions. In their most poignant moments, Edmund grasps at the truth of his inner self in his own poetic metaphors, Mary escapes into narcosis, James Tyrone into self-pitying incoherency, and Jamie into the expropriated poetry of others. For each, normal discourse simply fails to bear adequate witness to the character's inner agony.

As John H. Raleigh noted in The Plays of Eugene O 'Neill, throughout the play there is also "a continuous tension between the present and the past." In a ritual quest for absolution, each character is forced, at some point, to confront both. Although Mary seeks to restore her lost innocence in her romanticized girlhood, in Act III she faces a moment of painful truth: "You expect the Blessed Virgin to be fooled by a lying dope fiend reciting words! You can't hide from her!" But, as Whicher observed in Commonweal, "the most poignant effect of the play is the counter-movement by which the mother retreats into illusion while the others move to a clear sight of truth." Ironically, that clear sight comes through alcohol, which thickens their tongues and numbs their minds. They face themselves honestly when least able to convey their honesty in lucid and coherent language.

The men try to cope with their current feelings by a protracted and self-critical examination of their past. Each has at least one confessional monologue, painfully linking the past to the present in an effort to expiate his human failings. James Tyrone, for example, explaining that his miserliness springs from his deep-rooted fear of poverty, evinces some self-disgust because he sold his acting talent short for material security. Although long and somewhat redundant, these speeches are necessary to explain the ambivalent feelings that Eugene O 'Neill and the Tragic Tension: An Interpretive Study of the Plays author Doris V. Falk asserted "lead to tense, exhausting, and brilliant drama."

Much of what seems clumsy or primitive in the text becomes poignant on stage—the heavy-handed reliance on fog as symbol, for example, or Jamie's mood lurching between sneering accusations and instant regret. The physical gestures and objects, merely described in the play, become very important complements to the dialogue. In fact, the physical objects create a poignant effect in proportion to their very scarcity, particularly in the last act, when the Tyrone family tragedy seems somehow embedded in a single lighted bulb, a worn out deck of playing cards, a bottle of cheap whiskey, and an old, satin wedding gown. Oddly enough, some descriptions in stage directions, richly suggestive on the page, may be impossible to render in the theater. For example, as Mary sinks deep into her morphine-induced narcosis, her eyes grow increasingly brighter. In staging the play, the description can only serve to cue actors, to draw them to a physical focal point revealing Mary's relapse into her addiction and attendant isolation. On the other hand, the fog horn, beginning in the third act, takes on the force of a keening chorus of mourners, a powerful counterpoint to the characters' pain in its melancholic and desolate wail. Its power is only hinted at by the stage directions.

The O'Neill paradox is a troubling problem. Plays that pass into the realm of dramatic literature must ultimately survive as texts to be read, as fixed and permanent as fiction and poetry. The staged play, on the other hand, is ephemeral and forever changing—right up to the final curtain of the play's last performance. O'Neill, a great innovator and experimenter, worked tirelessly to test the limits of the stage, not leave behind a canon of literary masterpieces. Unfortunately for his reputation, many of his plays, theatrical swans, are textual ugly ducklings, and, like his actors, must be played or run the grave risk of perishing.

Source: John Fiero, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

New York Times Review of the 1956 Production

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In the following excerpt from a review of Long Day's Journey into Night that originally appeared in the New York Times on November 8, 1956, Atkinson applauds both the play and the production, asserting: "Long Day's Journey into Night has been worth waiting for. It restores the drama to literature and the theatre to art."

As drama critic for the New York Times from 1925 to 1960, Atkinson was one of the most influential reviewers in America:

With the production of Long Day's Journey into Night at the Helen Hayes last evening, the American theatre acquires size and stature.

The size does not refer to the length of Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical drama, although a play three and three-quarter hours long is worth remarking. The size refers to his conception of theatre as a form of epic literature.

Long Day's Journey into Night is like a Dostoevsky novel in which Strindberg had written the dialogue. For this saga of the damned is horrifying and devastating in a classical tradition, and the performance under Jose Quintero's direction is inspired.

Twelve years before he died in 1953, O'Neill epitomized the life of his family in a drama that records the events of one day at their summer home in New London, Conn., in 1912. Factually it is a sordid story about a pathologically parsimonious father, a mother addicted to dope, a dissipated brother and a younger brother (representing Eugene O'Neill) who has TB and is about to be shipped off to a sanitarium.

Roughly, those are the facts. But the author has told them on the plane of an O'Neill tragedy in which the point of view transcends the material. The characters are laid bare with pitiless candor. The scenes are big. The dialogue is blunt. Scene by scene the tragedy moves along with a remorseless beat that becomes hypnotic as though this were life lived on the brink of oblivion.

Long Day's Journey into Night could be pruned of some of its excesses and repetitions and static looks back to the past. But the faults come, not from tragic posturing, but from the abundance of a great theatre writer who had a spacious point of view. This summing-up of his emotional and artistic life ranks with Mourning Becomes Electra and Desire Under the Elms, which this department regards as his masterpieces....

Long Day's Journey into Night has been worth waiting for. It restores the drama to literature and the theatre to art.

Source: Brooks Atkinson, in a review of Long Day's Journey into Night (1956) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from The New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp. 378-79.

O'Neill's Long Journey

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[In the following essay, Whicher provides a favorable assessment of the Swedish production of Long Day's Journey into Night, and offers high praise for O'Neill's skill as a playwright, noting especially his talent for writing compelling drama that contains sensitive, moving insights into human nature.]

In accordance with the dying wish of Eugene O'Neill, his last play, Long Day's Journey into Night, was given its world premiere in Stockholm by "Dramaten," a group which has gained an international reputation for its distinguished productions of O'Neill plays over a period of thirty years. Their superb presentation of his "last letter to the world" makes clear that it is a play, and not a memoir cast in dialogue form as it has been characterized by certain American reviewers of the book.

It is true, as these reviewers point out, that the work has a great deal of autobiographical interest and emphasis. The Tyrone family which it depicts is O'Neill's own, and the story which he lays bare, a story of "the damned," is true to the facts as we know them. Furthermore, the mood of this last play is the same as that which dominates many of his earlier, largely autobiographical works—the mood of homelessness, the sense of helplessness, the death-longing, the constant background of the "ole davil, sea" which marked the plays of the S.S. Glencairn group, Anna Christie, Beyond the Horizon and, with varying disguises, The Straw and All God's Chillun Got Wings.

The significant fact, however, is not that the work contains autobiographical elements, but that O'Neill has transcended them so completely. The undeniable impact of its current Swedish production, for example, certainly cannot be explained by the self-revelation which the play contains. Audiences are not sitting on hard seats night after night, absorbed in this play for over four hours, just because it gives them information about O'Neill. Nor does its autobiographical element explain my own reaction. Starting with a prejudice against O'Neill, and watching its first performance with no knowledge of the play, I found my attention held from first to last, and was moved as one can only be, I would suppose, by real drama. Since then I have studied the English text of the play and have gone back to the stage production to find it just as gripping. If our definitions of tragedy do not fit this work, we should perhaps rethink our definitions.

For this reason, I can not agree with those critics of the play who speak of O'Neill's inability to cut, as if we had another Look Homeward, Angel on our hands. I predict that any future Maxwell Perkins who tries to cut this to the limits of an ordinary play will find that it can not be done.

The play as a whole is a solid, sinewy, exceptionally well-built piece of work. O'Neill has left us a big, powerful Something, like a yacht in the living room, which can't and won't be dismissed. Whether we think it ought to or not, this play does prove itself by the only proper test for a play: performance. It is gripping and moving theater.

That being the fact, we need to ask why, for it has several massive faults which should have destroyed it. It austerely ignores almost every means, including action, by which the usual play interests an audience. As Joyce, Proust, and Woolf have written novels that abandon story, so this is a tragedy that abandons "drama," and, further, it makes its journey on the usual square wheels of O'Neill's style, although some speeches are eloquent in context.

Furthermore, the fact remains that he asks actors to sustain and audience to respond to one emotion—helpless grief at hopeless loss—for nearly five hours. For all his skill and that of his interpreters, that is asking a great deal, by all rights it should have been much too much.

One reason why it is not is the play's masterly construction. Is there a tour de force like this in modern drama—a play that sustains mounting tension through so much talk and so little action, with no fantasy, spectacle, poetry, or play of ideas to help it on? In Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller uses flashbacks that contrast present and past with dramatic sharpness. A book that comes close to O'Neill's play in theme and mood, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, dazzles the reader with its juggling of the time sequence. O'Neill, hewing to the line of strict naturalism, foregoes all this, so that the past can enter his play only as narrated in the present. Yet the past is his subject, or a large part of it. The way he has solved a problem which no other dramatist would have attempted is a revelation of O'Neill's dramatic craft.

The chief reason for the play's success, however is the character portrayal. James and Mary Tyrone are two of the richest roles in dramatic literature. The whole interest of the play is in its character revelation. Its excitement consists in feeling ourselves penetrate steadily deeper into the lives of this family until we reach the full "pity, understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones" with which the author wrote. He not only makes us see, he makes us care; we value these people as they value each other. Nothing has impressed Swedish audiences more than the play's warmth. O'Neill has shown force and insight in other plays, but never this love and compassion for his characters.

Beyond the deep human interest, however, is the tone and mood of the whole, what we must call the religious dimension. O'Neill has constantly tried in his plays to treat the "big subject," the Mystery beyond human life. One can argue that this is what has spoiled some of his work. Here he succeeds; he is not soft, as in Moon for the Misbegotten, nor abstract, as in Lazarus Laughed or The Iceman Cometh. An awareness of life as a mysterious shaping force, a vague dark enemy like the Boy in Peer Gynt, rises quietly and naturally from the human situation and gives it tragic stature.

A word must be said of the chief device used to give this effect, the foghorn. Perhaps this "sick whale in the back yard"—which the Swedes, not having our Moby Dick reflexes, translated "sick elephant"—seems over-obvious in the reading. As handled by "Dramaten," however, that living yet inhuman voice in the background of the last two dark acts, punctuating and commenting on the action and calling us back, as it does the characters, to the thought of the fog and sea around us, has sometimes almost intolerable power. Of all the remarkable sound effects in O'Neill's plays, this is the finest.

But the catharsis of Journey is not to be achieved by a trick. In this work O'Neill passes his final judgment on the life he escaped—surely with relief—three years ago. As the night and fog close in, the characters struggle toward honesty, helped on by whiskey, which O'Neill uses here as elsewhere as a kind of truth serum. What they reach is hopeless resignation, helpless love, and a longing for death. Man can live by illusions, O'Neill says, and he can live by faith, which is probably the same thing, but ultimately neither is any good. The most poignant effect of the play is the counter-movement by which the mother retreats into illusion while the others move to a clear sight of truth. But she knows too: "There is no other way I can stop the pain—all the pain." Nor can faith help. The father's Catholic belief is "bog trotter" superstition, scornfully rejected by his sons, who quote Zarathustra: "God is dead." The mother's dream of recovering her innocent convent girl's trust in the Virgin is pathetically futile. One call of the foghorn refutes her.

The climax of the play is Edmund's long speech in the fourth act about the "high spots" in his memories. "For a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free!... For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!" Remembering O'Neill's long effort to assert some "meaning," ending with the "electrical display" of Strange Interlude, we can hear the sick older man summing up his life through the mouth of his younger self. "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!"

It may be that Long Day's Journey into Night has succeeded in Sweden because this heartsick pessimism goes down easier here than it would in the United States. Anywhere it makes a strange tragedy. If we accept, for example, Francis Fergusson's formula for drama, that it begins in purpose and works through passion to perception, then we have to say that purpose survives here only as a long-abandoned illusion, that perception is essentially complete early in the play, and that nearly all we have is four acts of agony. This is, rather, a play of discovery, like Oedipus, but of discovery for the audience only; the characters have little left to discover.

Yet this may be the modern tragedy. In its passivity, its despair, its longing, its undramatic reduction of human life to meaningless suffering, and its agonized honesty, it strikes a keynote of our modern mood. If we are to write honestly, this is what we must face. If we are to work through to something more "positive," this is what we must overcome. O'Neill's journey is also our own.

Source: Stephen Whicher, "O'Neill's Long Journey" in Commonweal, Vol. LXIII, no. 24, March 16, 1956, pp. 614-15.


Critical Overview