Long Day's Journey into Night

by Eugene O’Neill

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How is O’Neill's Long Day’s Journey into Night a modern tragedy?

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O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is a modern tragedy in the sense that it deals with recognizably modern themes. Though O’Neill may pay homage to his Ancient Greek forebears in terms of dramatic structure, the content of the play, with its psychological determinism and collapse of traditional family relationships, is recognizably modern.

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It is largely the substance of O’Neill’s posthumously published masterpiece that makes it a recognizably modern tragedy. The setting, the characters, and the fraught, complex relationships between them all contribute toward the status of the play as a species of modern tragedy.

Whereas in ancient Greek tragedy, the principle struggle is between man and the gods, the central struggle in Long Day’s Journey into Night is between man’s own past, present, and future. The tragic characters on display owe more to Freud and Jung than they do to Sophocles or Aeschylus. Here, it is deep-seated neuroses, rather than the whim of the gods, that is largely responsible for the prevailing tragedy.

There’s a certain psychological determinism at work throughout the play, which makes it thoroughly modern. This means that all of the characters, to a considerable extent, are the victims of factors outside their control. And it is these factors that account for much of their behavior

James Tyrone, for instance, is a miser because he grew up in unimaginable poverty. Mary, his wife, is addicted to morphine because James was too cheap to hire a proper doctor when she gave birth to Jamie. And both Jamie and Edmund have grown up to be troubled young men on account of their father’s alcoholism and their mother’s hopeless drug addiction.

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O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night is a modern tragedy in form and function. The original, classic tragedy was defined by Aristotle and exemplified in ancient Greek drama. This play would feature a hero of noble stature who experienced a fall from grace due to their own flaw. The fall was supposed to be so dramatic that it would bring about a sense of catharsis or emotional release from the audience. The audience was also supposed to learn from the experience, believing that they could easily trade places with the hero and fall in a similar manner if they were not careful.

Sophocles follows this format with Oedipus Rex. Oedipus has gained stature by solving the riddle of the Sphinx and saving his people, but because of his pride and arrogance, he fulfills the prophecy he sought to defeat, killing his father and marrying his mother. He becomes an outcast and ends the play blind and alone, having lost all he once had.

On the surface, O'Neill's play does not seem to exhibit the characteristics Aristotle defined, yet careful study reveals it does have them, only in a more modern sense. For instance, we have a family with two central figures, James Tyrone and his wife Mary, who begin their lives together with dignity and fame. When we meet them, they have already fallen, but they do experience a fall from greatness. He was an actor with potential for greatness, and she was a sophisticated young woman filled with promise. After they experience the tragic loss of one of their children, they spiral into a cycle of self-blame, self-loathing, and general finger-pointing that leaves their other two children unable to grow and develop. Mary blames James for being too cheap to pay for a good doctor, and James blames Mary for her inability to fight her addiction to morphine. While we don't see the dramatic finish we see in Oedipus Rex as the titular character tears his eyes out, the audience does experience catharsis. The final scene with Mary in her wedding gown lets the audience know this family will never be able to move on from its painful past.

So, while O'Neill doesn't offer a traditional tragedy along the lines of the Greek form, he does offer a modern tragedy, one that leaves readers believing indeed that they could easily suffer similar consequences should they fail to face their pasts and move forward.

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Let's start with a look at what tragedy is . . .  Aristotle defined it as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.”

O'Neill certainly includes all of these characteristics in his autobiographical play.  Since the play is based on his own life, it is very clearly a realistic imitation of an action. There is great magnitude of the several subplots - the mother's addiction, the men's alcoholism, Edmond's consumption, etc.  The language is absolutely poetic throughout - consider Edmond's monologue about the sea as a perfect example of artistic expression.  The play is full of emotion - emotion that is purged throughout the four acts.  Each character has at least one major cathartic moment.  Because of the realism and the seriousness of the story-line, an audience may also experience a catharsis.

What makes it modern, I suppose, are the modern issues driving the tragedy, along with the more domestic (less epic than traditional tragedies) setting.

However, O'Neill did not set out to write a tragedy.  He set out to heal himself by facing the demons of his youth.  The play was written not to be published or performed, but was given to his wife as an anniversary gift; he credited her with bringing him into the light from his dark past.  She had the play published after his death as she recognized its literary merits.

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Explain the statement: Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night is a modern tragedy. Please answer in detail.

Your question addresses the issues of both tragedy and modernity in O'Neill's drama. First, are we certain that Long Day's Journey into Night satisfies the definition of tragedy? In my view it does, because it fulfills the Aristotelian requirement of evoking pity and terror. The Tyrone family is hugely dysfunctional, and the single day in its history that O'Neill gives us is almost unbearably sad. Each family member is trapped in his or her own sense of guilt and failure. Tyrone is a has-been actor who, though having achieved great fame and wealth, still senses that his artistic achievements have been inadequate. His sons are massive disappointments to him. Jamie is an alcoholic ne'er do well. Edmund has potential but is consumed by self-pity and is physically ill with consumption (tuberculosis). Until the end of the play all are in denial about his illness, partly because all (except perhaps Jamie ironically) consider consumption a death sentence. Mary has retreated into a dreamworld because she can't bear the stress of living within this family, and she uses narcotics as a coping mechanism, trying unsuccessfully to hide this from her husband and sons. All the Tyrones are mired in substance abuse—either alcohol or drugs—as a means of self-medicating.

The one element lacking is a genuine "tragic ending." In fact, the ending is ambiguous in that we don't know what will eventually become of Edmund and the others. The climax is his announcement to his mother that he has consumption, but we're left to wonder what the consequences of it will be for him. The real-life Edmund—Eugene O'Neill himself—recovered from the illness. But the ending shows the family still submerged in hopelessness, with Tyrone saying "Pass me that bottle," continuing to drown himself in liquor because he sees no way out for the wreckage his family has become.

The play is "modern" in the sense that it is a "middle-class" drama in which a domestic dynamic is laid bare and honestly examined, following in the direct line of nineteenth-century dramas by the European playwrights Hebbel, Ibsen, Strindberg and others. But the substance-abuse theme is especially contemporary and even shocking in the manner in which it is portrayed. Altogether, as with O'Neill's work as a whole, the play was a seminal achievement in modern drama.

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