Long Days Journey Into Night
Introductory Acts of Othello and Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Introductory acts are normally a very crucial part of plays in drama. They serve as a foundation, introducing main characters and the plot, and they also capture the audience’s attention making them anticipate what is to come in later acts. An effective introduction is one that presents its main features, such as characters, plot and themes, in a compelling manner that impacts the audience. Although the plays Othello and Long Day’s Journey into Night have very different introductory acts, they are both still effective.
To begin with, the introductory act in Long Day’s Journey into Night serves as an effective basis for the play, enticingly introducing the main aspects. The four family members and main characters are presented to the audience, just as in Othello primary characters, as well as a few secondary characters, are revealed in the first act. In the beginning of A Long Day’s Journey into Night, it almost seems as though the play centers on a happy, normal family. It begins just after the family breakfast, which is a significant daily ritual when families come together to connect. However, as the first act progresses, the audience begins to realize that this is not so, especially after the major quarrel between James Tyrone and his son Jamie. This argument introduces one of the main themes in the play, and that is James Tyrone’s miserliness and the effects it has on his family. Jamie and his father have a very tense relationship and often gets into arguments, with Jamie blaming his father for most of the problems occurring in the family, such as Edmund’s illness, “It might never have happened if you’d sent him to a real doctor when he first got sick,” and the initiation of Mary’s morphine addiction “…he was another cheap quack like Hardy! You wouldn’t pay for a first-rate-”. The family seems to be on a downward spiral, and Mary, therefore, sinks back into her old ways, revealing another major theme, whereby the characters are stuck and do not want to move forward.
Much like Long Day’s Journey into Night, the first act in Othello effectively captures the audience’s attention with a compelling introduction. This play begins in the middle of a conversation between Iago and Rodrigo which quickly reveals the first plot of the play. We learn that Iago is the antagonist, willing to do anything to get revenge on Othello for choosing Cassio for a promotion instead of him, “I know my price, I am worth no worse a place”. Soon after, we are introduced to Barbantio, Desdemona’s father, who has just learned of his daughter’s elopement to Othello and is enraged. Although Othello is a respected man in Venice, the marriage is unacceptable because of his different racial background. This brings about the prevailing theme of racism in the play and betrayal in the play. Murray Carlin alleges, “Othello is about colour, and nothing but colour.” Although Othello, as the protagonist, is not introduced in this first act, his importance is made clear. The playwright of Othello introduces major characters and themes, as well as the plot in the introductory act, just as the playwright of Long Day’s Journey into Night does. It is done effectively, even though both playwrights have a different style of writing.
Furthermore, the introductory acts in both plays are proved to be effective because of the impact they have on audiences. Long Day’s Journey into Night is a modern play, thus is intended for a modern audience, while Othello is a classic play written in the Elizabethan era and was intended for an Elizabethan audience. Nonetheless, the first act of both plays impacted their audience. The conflict in Act 1 of Long Day’s Journey into Night between James Tyrone and Jamie excites the audience as they learn more information about the dysfunctional family members. They learn about Edmund’s illness as well as Mary’s addiction. The audience was also shocked when they found out about Mary’s use of morphine again at the end of the act, “Her long fingers, warped and knotted by rheumatism, drum on the arms of the chair, driven by an insistent life of their own, without her consent.” According to critic Lewis Gannett, “No play Eugene O’Neill ever wrote speaks more eloquently to the reader…” Moreover, in Othello, the protagonist who bears the same name as the play is notably absent in the first act. This actually impacts the audience as they are anticipating his reveal in the next act. They await the confrontation between him and Barbantio on his marriage, and they are also anticipating Iago’s plans for revenge and how it would be executed in later acts. Critic Edward Pechter said, “Othello has become the tragedy of choice for the present generation.”
Although both plays Othello and Long Day’s Journey into Night are different in many ways, the plays share a common aspect in a compelling introductory act. They both introduced main characters effectively and presented a few major themes and the plot. This, along with their style of writing, made audiences excited for more and left them in anticipation and suspense for what is to come.
The Real Addicts
At first glance, Eugene O’Neill’s gut-wrenchingly poignant and heartbreakingly raw play, Long Day’s Journey into Night, appears to tell the story of Mary Tyrone’s morphine addiction and how her family responds to the situation. Often, however, we find that great works of literature are not so one-dimensional as that. There is another important aspect to this piece – the alcoholism of Mary’s husband, James and their two sons, Jamie and Edmund. On the surface, the men’s consumption of alcohol appears to be no more than a couple of emotionally drained men attempting to the take the edge off, as it were. But after a closer and more thorough reading, something becomes quite apparent: the men are addicts as equally as Mrs. Tyrone is. In fact, the claim might be made that they are, in fact, drunkards who are much further lost in their addiction than is the drug-addicted woman who is their wife and mother, especially because they have not admitted to their problem; they have not even entertained the thought that this likelihood exists.
The play takes place on the day of Mary Tyrone’s relapse and, seemingly, it revolves around that. However, there is something else going on – alcoholism. When read with a slightly more cautious eye, it is difficult and maybe even impossible to deny that the three men in this play, James Tyrone and his sons Jamie and Edmund, are alcoholics. The alcoholism may prove to be even more detrimental than Mary’s addiction for a myriad of reasons. The men are sneaky about their drinking; they drink constantly throughout the day while Mary appears to relieve herself only once; they constantly discuss the drug abuse while utterly failing to acknowledge the possibility of alcohol abuse; and they are able to deny their addiction so easily because there are three of them and only one of her and the addiction seems to find a certain strength in numbers while attacking the vulnerability of the minority. It is for these reasons that the possibility of alcohol abuse is quite conceivable and, indeed, has the potential to be even more injurious than Mary’s drug addiction. For if a person does not admit to a problem, a solution for that problem will never be sought. In the case of addiction, as is apparent here, what could possibly be more dangerous than that?
The first sign that there is alcohol abuse among the men – Mr. Tyrone, Jamie and Edmund – is the sneakiness with which they go about their drinking. In Act 2 of the play, which occurs at about quarter to one in the afternoon, Edmund is seen reading a book while his father and brother are outside working and his mother is upstairs. Catherine, the servant girl, brings him whiskey, presumably because he has asked her to do so. He then asks that she call the others for lunch rather than doing it himself. Catherine, rather snidely, remarks, “you’re making me call them so you can sneak a drink before they come” (O’Neill 421). And Edmund does indeed spring out of his chair and sneak a drink while she goes to the door to call Mr. Tyrone and Jamie. Her comment seems knowing – as if it has happened other times in the past and Catherine understood what his intentions were. A few minutes later, when his brother Jamie joins him, Edmund encourages him to “sneak one while you’ve [Jamie] got a chance,” to which Jamie responds, “I was thinking of that little thing.” After they’ve drunk, Jamie “measures out two drinks of water and pours them in the whiskey bottle and shakes it up” (422). They deliberately go out of their way to cover their tracks. In a study entitled “An Index of Alcoholic Drinking Behavior Related to the Meanings of Alcohol” conducted by Harold A. Mulford and Donald E. Miller, both of the State University of Iowa, “310 respondents responded positively to one or more of the 12 items” that were listed as signs of alcoholism, one of them being “I sneak drinks when no one is looking” (27-28). Jamie and Edmund employ this exact behavior – they sneak drinks when no one is looking and then, on top of of that, they cover their tracks by replacing with water the whiskey that they have consumed.
Since Mr. Tyrone is the man of the house and, technically, the whiskey belongs to him, he does not have quite as much opportunity or need to sneak about his drinking or cover his tracks. However, there is a certain slyness to his drinking. For instance, in Act 3, he goes to get a “fresh bottle of whiskey” and Mary remarks that “he’ll sneak around to the outside cellar door so the servants won’t see him. He’s really ashamed of keeping his whiskey padlocked in the cellar” (O’Neill 451). There is a certain craftiness to this behavior. Perhaps he locks his whiskey to keep it from his sons, but perhaps he locks it away because he is ashamed of how much he has and how much he consumes. It is true that he does not literally sneak his whiskey, but he is certainly sly about his consumption. Mary and Catherine seem to be aware of this deceit – they use the word “sneak” itself to describe the behavior of the men.
The second indicator of serious alcohol addiction and perhaps the most obvious indicator is the continual nature of the men’s drinking, especially when contrasted with the singular nature of Mary’s substance abuse. In the second act of the play, we learn of Mary’s relapse. There is a terrible conversation between Edmund and Jamie during which they conclude that their mother has succumbed to her addiction once again (O’Neill 422-424). Interestingly enough, O’Neill’s biological mother, after whom Mary Tyrone is modeled, “kicked her drug habit,” according to Zander Brietzke in his article “Too Close for Comfort: Biographical Truth in Long Day’s Journey into Night” (25). There are strong autobiographical ties in this play and this may be another connection: O’Neill’s mother did overcome her addiction and, though Mary does relapse, the reader does not pick up any evidence that there is a second time – there is yet hope for a recovery, for she has only given in to her addiction once.
The men, however, are a different story. It is nearly impossible to pinpoint a single time when James, Jamie and Edmund are drinking because they hardly ever put down the glass of whiskey. We see their consumption of alcohol throughout the entire play – in fact, they drink so much that by the end of the play, all three of them are drunk. In Act 4, when Edmund comes home, it is noted that “he is drunk now, too, but like his father he carries it well” (O’Neill 454). A little while later, when Jamie returns home, he is described as being “very drunk,” so much so that he is “woozy on his legs. His eyes are glassy, his face bloated, his speech blurred, his mouth slack like his father’s, a leer on his lips” (469). Again, there is a noteworthy biographical tie here, for O’Neill’s real life brother, after whom Jamie is modeled, did indeed drink himself to death (Brietzke 25). The comparison here is clear: Mary Tyrone abuses morphine once and O’Neill’s mother eventually overcame her drug addiction while Jamie Tyrone drinks so much that he causes himself to arrive at a state of extreme drunkenness and O’Neill’s brother eventually drank himself to death. In fact, according to Michael Hinden in his article “O’Neill and Jamie: A Survivor’s Tale,” Jamie O’Neill, the author’s brother, “destroyed himself” with his drinking (438). Now, since we can see how these two addictions came to an end in real life and we can see the biographical similarities in this play as a whole, it seems very likely that O’Neill’s intention for his fictional characters was not wholly different than the family members by whom he was inspired. Perhaps he was suggesting that it was the drunken men who were truly addicts, not his mother, not Mary.
The third hint indicating that the addiction of the men is much deeper than Mary’s addiction is the fact that her addiction is so commonly and so frequently discussed while the men’s addiction is never even mentioned. Throughout the play, each of the men discusses Mary’s morphine addiction at least once with one of the other men. Jamie first voices his suspicions to his father when he says that he “woke up and heard her moving around in the spare room” and that it scared him because he “couldn’t help remembering that when she starts sleeping alone in there, it has always been a sign– [of a relapse]” and his father responds quietly that it was “like a curse she can’t escape” (O’Neill 415). After this, it is Mr. Tyrone who brings it up to both of his sons:
“If your mother had prayed, too–She hasn’t denied her faith, but she’s forgotten it, until now there’s no strength of the spirit left in her to fight against her curse. But what’s the good of talk? We’ve lived with this before and now we must again. There’s no help for it. Only I wish she hadn’t led me to hope this time. By God, I never will again!” (432)
And it is Edmund who is last to discuss the matter. He does so bitterly and brokenly, describing the addiction as a horrible thing to see and notes that the “hardest thing to take is the blank wall she builds around her” in order to lose herself, for “she takes it to get that effect,” at least she did this time, according to his observations (461). The men cannot resist talking about Mary’s situation. Jack W. Entin, in his piece entitled “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” sums up their process perfectly with the statement that “each in his own turn holds forth in a lengthy emotional, almost kaleidoscope account of berating the others in the family for their faults, indifference, and selfishness” and also notes that “it seems that all of the members of the family are both loved and loathed at the same time” (318). They are extremely perceptive when it comes to Mary’s plight, yet not one of them has acknowledged the possibility of being in the same position as she is.
Furthermore, not only do Mr. Tyrone, Jamie and Edmund discuss the matter among themselves, but they also address her directly. Edmund is most pitiful, Jamie is most blunt and Mr. Tyrone is most disappointed, and each of them ultimately approaches her personally and individually. This time, it is Edmund who initially speaks out. He tells Mary that he is “trying to help” because it is bad for her to forget. The right way is to remember, he says, so that she will always be on her guard. “You know what’s happened before. You know I hate to remind you. I’m doing it because it’s been so wonderful having you home the way you’ve been” (O’Neill 418). He is pleading with her, gently, not to fall back into her old habits. Jamie, on the other hand, is not so compassionate. “Do you think you can fool me, Mama?” he asks her, “I’m not blind” and when she denies a knowledge of what he is implying, he responds, “No? Take a look at your eyes in the mirror!” (426). His manner is curt, his language is clear and there is no denying the meaning of his words. When Mr. Tyrone finally confronts her, it is described as a “grief-stricken” encounter. “Why couldn’t you have the strength to keep on?” he mourns. This question is in alignment with John Henry Raleigh who asserts that Mr. Tyrone “believes in self-responsibility” in his article “Communal, Familial, and Personal Memories in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night” (71). Perhaps he is trying to help her overcome her addiction. But he gives up so easily when she denies knowing what he is discussing, as she has done previously with Jamie, and he “hopelessly” remarks, “never mind. It’s no use now” (429). Perhaps his concerns are rooted more in burying his addiction than in healing hers.
Finally, we see the addiction of the men culminating in their existence as the majority. For there is a certain strength in numbers and it is much easier to attack the vulnerable minority (Mary) than to penetrate the strength of the majority (Mr. Tyrone, Jamie and Edmund). Each of these men appears to be an alcoholic as exemplified through their constant drinking, the sneakiness of their drinking and the utter lack of acknowledgement of a potential drinking problem; thus, when these three alcoholics are put together in one unit, they form a strong group. There is a certain unity in their shared addiction and that unity is present in their communal drinking and in their conversations as they continuously discuss how best to handle Edmund’s sickness and, more importantly, Mary’s addiction. For example, in Act 1, Mr. Tyrone scolds Jamie for mentioning Edmund’s sickness in front of Mary and Jamie retorts that hiding things from her is the wrong way to handle the situation (O’Neill 411). They find a great advantage in their similarities because they allow the men to hide in one another’s drunkenness. Mary, on the other hand, is all alone in her drug addiction. She has no shadow beneath which to hide. She is the vulnerable one. She is the one easily attacked. A little farther along in the same act, when Edmund claims that he is not suspicious of his mother, Mary replies, “Oh, yes you are. I can feel it. Your father and Jamie, too” (419). She understands the weakness of her position – the weakness of the minority. The men exploit that. They use her vulnerability to create a distraction for themselves. Mr. Tyrone, Jamie and Edmund drink constantly, but they use the weakness of one, the minority, to cover up and distract from their own weakness – the weakness of three, the weakness of the majority. This is a weakness that is far greater, for they have not yet admitted it and they are able to conceal the true nature of their addiction under the guise of a ‘harmless act’ of which all three of them partake.
In an article entitled “Reality and Its Vicissitudes: The Problem of Understanding in Long Day’s Journey into Night,” Stephen A. Black notes that there is an “assumption that understanding gives people control over themselves, over circumstances, and over nature itself” (57). In their efforts to save Mary from her addiction by seeking to understand it, Mr. Tyrone, Jamie and Edmund utterly fail to save themselves. So many signs of alcoholism are apparent – the sneakiness of the drinking, the continual nature of the drinking, the absolute failure to acknowledge it while focusing so greatly on the addiction of another and their method of retreating into the comfortable majority where everyone else is doing the same thing that they are doing. It is hard to ignore such a real, such a thorough portrayal of alcoholism. It exists greatly in this play – the men are serious addicts. It is true that Mary has a dangerous morphine addiction, but it is also true that the men have an alcohol addiction; indeed, they are much more intensely lost in their addiction – for they do not even know yet that it exists.
Black, Stephen A.. “Reality and Its Vicissitudes: The Problem of Understanding in “Long Day’s Journey into Night””. The Eugene O’Neill Review 16.2 (1992): 57–72. JSTOR. 30 Nov. 2015. Web.
Brietzke, Zander. “Too Close for Comfort: Biographical Truth in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”.” The Eugene O’Neill Review 25.1 (2001): 24-36. JSTOR. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
Entin, Jack W. “Long Day’s Journey into Night”. The Clearing House 37.5 (1963): 318–318. JSTOR. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
Hinden, Michael. “O’Neill and Jamie: A Survivor’s Tale.” Comparative Drama 35.3 (2001): 435-445. Project MUSE. Web. 26 Nov. 2015.
Mulford, Harold A., and Donald E. Miller. “An Index Of Alcoholic Drinking Behavior Related To The Meanings Of Alcohol.” Journal Of Health & Human Behavior 2.1 (1961): 26-31. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.
O’Neill, Eugene. “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 402-480. Print.
Raleigh, John Henry. “Communal, Familial, and Personal Memories in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Modern Drama 31.1 (1988): 63-72. Project MUSE. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.
Ephiphanies in “Long Day’s Journey into Night”
While the word “epiphany” suggests positive enlightenment, it is only negative in Eugene O’Neill’s disturbing “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Each family member undergoes a bitter revelation within the course of only twenty-four hours. Through self-examination, the four family members all finally grasp the causes of their sorry lives. James Sr.’s epiphany occurs in the form of a personal confession to his son, when he admits he would have enjoyed his life if he had continued pursuing acting rather than letting money rule his decisions. James reluctantly acknowledges that his childhood poverty led him to be a miser: “A dollar was worth so much then. And once you’ve learned a lesson, it’s hard to unlearn it (148).” His fear of the poorhouse ultimately causes James to realize that “Maybe life overdid the lesson for me, and made a dollar worth too much, and… that mistake ruined my career as a fine actor (149).” Abandoning his passion as a Shakespearean actor ultimately desecrated his life. He tells Edmund, “I’ve never admitted this to anyone before, lad, but tonight I’m so heartsick I feel at the end of everything, and what’s the use of fake pride and pretense. That God-damned play I bought for a song and made such a great success in- a great money success- it ruined me with its promise of easy fortune (149).” At this moment, when James is honest with himself, he finally realizes that money has shattered his potential and caused him a despondent life.Jamie, one of James’ sons, lives in a world much unlike his father’s, but like James recognizes that his life holds no real substance. Jamie abhors the worthless person he has become. He claims he “hates life” and “has been dead for so long (165).” His lifestyle of bars and brothels causes him nothing but self-pity, depression, and jealousy. Jamie admits to his brother, Edmund, that he never wanted his brother to succeed and “make [him] look worse by comparison (165).” He even goes so far as to say that he hates Edmund for his mother’s addiction. He quickly revokes this statement, claiming, “I love you more than I hate you. My saying what I’m telling you now proves it. I run this risk you’ll hate me–and you’re all I’ve got left (166).” By confessing what he has hidden behind for thirty-four years, Jamie plummets toward rock bottom. At this point in his hollow life, it becomes evident he cannot overcome his doubts and failures. When the optimism he places in his mother’s sobriety falters, he says “I’d begun to hope if she’d beaten the game, then I could too (165).” This discouraging confession confirms the desperate future ahead for Jamie. Mary also uncovers much about her self-destructive nature. The mask behind which she hides disappears momentarily during a morphine relapse. Like her husband, Mary regrets the choices in her youth that led her to drug addiction. If she had followed her dream and joined the convent, morphine would play no part in her life. Toward the end of the play, Mary longs for the faith she has lost: “I remember when I had it I was never lonely nor afraid. I can’t have lost it forever, I would die if I thought that. Because then there would be no hope (173).” During her soliloquy, Mary muses, “If only I could find the faith I lost, so I could pray again! (107)” These lines suggest that Mary’s prediction has come true: by losing her faith, she lost all hope. Without this hope, Mary struggles with her substance dependency and feels shameful and weak. As Mary begins to pray, she stops and proclaims, “You expect the Blessed Virgin to be fooled by a lying dope fiend reciting words! You can’t hide from her!…I must go upstairs. I haven’t taken enough. When you start again, you never know how much you need (107). This confession is the only time Mary verbally admits she can not overcome her addiction, and it signifies her surrender. In Mary’s last line, she revisits her long-ago decision to leave the “Blessed Virgin” for James Tyrone. Her constant retreat into her past confirms her revelation that by not following her dream, she created a life of sorrow. Edmund arrives upon his epiphany in the same manner as his mother, by reflecting on his past. He discloses his realization to his father over the drunken card game: “It was a great mistake, my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a seagull or a fish. As it is, 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! (153).” Edmund always feels tremendous guilt for his mother’s condition, which was caused by his birth. His statements suggest an inability to cope with the difficulties in his life, therefore inspiring the feelings of rejection and not belonging. In an earlier scene, when Edmund returns from a foggy walk, he tells his father, “That’s what I wanted, to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself (131).” Edmund faces many pressures in his life that he cannot control. The guilt he endures eventually breaks him down and ruins his potential. While talking to his father, Edmund realizes he will never become a commendable man.Throughout “Long Day ‘s Journey into Night,” Eugene O’Neill provides insight into the dismal worlds in which each character barely lives. James Sr. sacrifices his passion of acting for his obsession with money, only to find the money was not worth his dream. Jamie admits he drove his life straight into the ground and struggled to take Edmund with him. Mary realizes that by losing her faith, she lost her joy and self-control as well. Edmund acknowledges that the sea is the only place he ever feels welcome. When each character finally breaks through the barriers of denial and fallacy in their everyday lives, their revelations are anything but the “positive” enlightenment we normally associate with epiphany.
The Autobiographical Truth in Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Aspiring writers are often told, “Write what you know.” Writers are thus encouraged to draw on their personal experiences to craft their narratives. Experienced authors often choose to create semi-autobiographical works, which contain a blend of some elements of their real lives and some of their own fictional creation. Irish-American playwright Eugene O’Neill is one such author who drew largely from personal experience to create his plays. Long Day’s Journey into Night is widely considered to be his finest literary achievement and also his most personal play. This drama has many autobiographical elements but with some important fictional characteristics. An understanding of how O’Neill draws on personal elements in the creation of this text can deepen our appreciation of this powerful work.
Long Day’s Journey into Night is a truly unique play in the way that it differs from most semi-autobiographical works. Many works in this genre are initially based on life events, but then the author chooses to veer the work in another direction. O’Neill, however, remains largely true to the events of his life. As O’Neill scholar Michael Hinden explains, O’Neill had “no need to fabricate family incidents for his plot” and actually “pruned additional family troubles from the finished play” (94). In fact, compressing the events into a twenty-four hour period is arguably the most fictional part of the production. As Hinden writes, “The play fixes a moment of time shared equally by its protagonists, reaches into the past to illuminate that moment, and presents it without editorial comment” (93). We can pin down some facts about the O’Neills’ lives in the moment, but we as the audience are left to speculate about the remainder of the characters’ lives. When examining the O’Neills’ lives, we must remember that several events and details were intentionally left out of the production. With an acknowledgment of the unusual nature of O’Neill’s writing, we can begin to examine the autobiographical elements in the play.
The four central characters in the play are based on O’Neill’s immediate family. First, James Tyrone is based on Eugene’s father, James O’Neill (1846-1920). Like his character in the play, James was an actor best known for the role of Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo. Despite this being his most successful role, it also became the “fatal turning point in his career” (Hinden 104). He was typecast and could not find another role after it. The O’Neills spent much of their life traveling and living out of hotels due to James’s acting career. Eugene believed that this led to his mother’s morphine addiction (104). While Eugene’s portrayal of his father’s career appears accurate, James’s personal traits in the production may have been biased, particularly in regards to James’s handling of money. Hinden argues: “Friends who remembered James O’Neill protested that his presentation as a miser in the play was inaccurate. They recalled the actor as an open and generous man who always was happy to provide a handout” (101). Eugene portrays his family from his own personal lens, which is subject to bias. His characters thus closely resemble but do not completely reflect the members of his family.
Mary Tyrone is based on Eugene’s mother, Mary Ellen (“Ella”) Quinlan O’Neill (1857-1922). Like her character in the play, Ella met her future husband backstage at one of his New York performances. The two were married on June 14, 1887, and their first son James Jr. (Jamie) was born a year later. Five years later their son Edmund was born. He quickly died, however, after contracting measles from his older brother. Ella lived in conflict between blaming herself and blaming Jamie for the baby’s death (Hinden 98). Eugene chose to exchange his name in the play with his brother’s. His character is named Edmund Tyrone in the play, and the dead brother is referred to as Eugene. Some scholars speculate that Eugene made this choice to emphasize how he felt living in the shadow of a “ghost child” (101). Some believe that the play suggests Eugene’s birth indirectly led to his mother’s drug addiction (98). A doctor prescribed her morphine after a painful and traumatic childbirth. However, “whether the doctor who introduced her to morphine was a cheap hotel quack, as Mary charges in the play, or a respectable practitioner, cannot be ascertained” (99). Her drug addiction spanned many years and deeply troubled the O’Neill family. Her addiction is central to the plot of the play. Her unusual behavior in the play, such as wearing her wedding dress, is also true. However, what is left out of the play is Ella’s surprising recovery. In 1914 she retired to a convent and found the strength to give up morphine (99). In the play Eugene chose to focus on her earlier life which was still ravaged by addiction.
Jamie Tyrone in the play is based on Eugene’s older brother James O’Neill, Jr. (1878-1923). Scholars claim that Jamie’s character is the most lifelike in the production (Hinden 100). As Hinden writes, “The measles episode, school expulsions, bitterness, drinking, whoring, and the train ride are the legacy of James O’Neill, Jr.” (100). In real life, Jamie was a troubled soul who could not find a healthy way to cope with his problems. He cared deeply for his younger brother, but he was always afraid his troubles would bring his brother down (101). In the play and in life, he was addicted to alcohol for almost all his life. In fact, after his mother’s death in 1922, he “never had another sober day” (99). His drinking eventually became so terrible that Eugene had to distance himself from his brother in real life (101). Jamie actually tells his brother to keep his distance in the play. His character warns, “At the first good chance I get, I’ll stab you in the back” (O’Neill 821). As is predicted in the play, Jamie slowly drank himself to death and died at age forty-five.
Edmund Tyrone is O’Neill’s self-portrait, and as Hinden describes is “somewhat disingenuous” (104). O’Neill looks back on his younger self from a place of experience. Many details of his own life are intentionally left out. Hinden argues, “Edmund’s inexperience in the play is crucial: through his passivity the family’s aggression comes sharply into focus” (105). Edmund in the play is a sensitive person but with a dark edge, friends of the true O’Neill seem to agree that he had a sensitive but dark personality (105). What is left out of the play is his failed marriage to Kathleen Jenkins and his strained relationship with his son Eugene O’Neill, Jr. His character would have already experienced his marriage and the birth of his son by the time the play took place. As was his character, O’Neill was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium in 1912. It appears as though his character may die in the play, but the real O’Neill did recover within a year. His time dealing with illness actually inspired him to pursue a career in writing (Clark 24). Though he received success as a writer, he lived to see a grim life. He could not escape the influence of his older brother and became a chronic alcoholic. O’Neill experienced multiple failed marriages, the suicide of his eldest son, and a Parkinson’s-like tremor which kept him sick for many years. He died of pneumonia in 1953, and his last words were, “Born in a hotel room– and God damn it– died in a hotel room” (qtd in Hinden 106). His character Edmund is a version of O’Neill isolated in time, written by an experienced O’Neill looking backward. He intentionally removes his character from the tarnish of his own experience.
Long Day’s Journey into Night was birthed out of O’Neill’s experience in a broken family that was ravaged by pain and addiction. His portrait of his family is grim, but the O’Neill family did not experience only darkness. Hinden explains:
Each of the four O’Neills lived to see a wish fulfilled. James watched his son develop into the fine artist he might have been, Ella conquered her addiction, and for a few years Jamie finally had his mother all to himself. As for O’Neill, his third marriage was a fulfilling one despite its stormy quarrels. (107)
It is important to acknowledge that, despite what the play suggests, not every moment of the O’Neills’ lives was depressing. They experienced their own moments of love and of triumph. O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical work may be a criticism of his family and the pain they inflicted upon him, but it is also his way of remembering his family and paying tribute to them. A better understanding of O’Neill’s life helps us see the way the work actually honors his family. The characters in the production as well as the members of O’Neill’s family are broken and beautiful, and because of the success of O’Neill’s work, they will always be remembered.
Clark, Barrett H. Eugene O’Neill: The Man and his Plays. Stratford Press, 1947.
Hinden, Michael. Long Day’s Journey into Night: Native Eloquence. Twayne Publishers, 1990.
O’Neill, Eugene. Complete Plays 1932-1942. Literary Classics of the United States, 1988.