Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Long Day’s Journey into Night, often considered one of the finest American dramas and as its author’s masterpiece, was first published posthumously in 1955. The sources of its plot and characters in the Nobel-winning author’s autobiography, his tortured family life marked by regret and addiction, seemed to demand its withholding until O’Neill’s death in 1953.
The play’s title is apt as it obeys the Aristotelian unities of time and place: it is set from morning to night on one summer day in one room of the Tyrone family’s New England summer home. The offstage sea, with its encroaching fog and sounding foghorn, contribute much of the solemn, oneiric mood.
The patriarch of the Tyrone family, James, is a wildly successful stage actor who came from impoverished Irish immigrants, including a father who abandoned the family. This poor beginning led him to sell out his Shakespearean gifts and ambitions for a moneymaking role that made him rich and famous but vitiated his talent; it also caused him to become a lifelong miser, no matter how much money he makes.
His wife, Mary, is a morphine addict who became hooked on the opiate after the birth of their son, Edmund. Edmund is their third son, but their second, Eugene, died in childhood; this tragedy, along with a punishing life on the road as an actor’s wife, has contributed to Mary’s addiction and despair, her endless reminiscing upon her long-vanished youthful promise when she was a convent-school girl.
Jamie and Edmund are their grown sons, Jamie a dissolute and cynical actor and Edmund a budding intellectual and artist devoted to the most pessimistic currents of modern thought. (Biographical critics note that Edmund is transparently a stand-in for O’Neill, though observe, too, the poignance with which the author gives his own name to the dead child.) The two sons, like the father, are alcoholics. Much of the play’s rhythm is structured by their increasing drunkenness throughout the day, and by Mary’s increasing disappearance into her morphine haze, “night” being not only a time of day but a state of mental darkness.
Long Day’s Journey is not quite plotless: its two dramatic foci are the family’s discovery that Mary has relapsed into addiction, when they’d thought she was cured, and Edmund’s diagnosis of tuberculosis, which casts a shadow of death over the proceedings. Both events provoke the play’s intense dialogues between and among the family members as they hurl recriminations at one another or deliver monologues about their failed promise, speeches gathering emotional force and bitter honesty as day turns to night.
Brief quotation cannot suggest the play’s mounting power of confrontation and scenic construction; I imagine it, like Death of a Salesman, is more powerful staged than read. O’Neill and Miller share a perhaps greater gift for dramaturgy than a way with words (which is not quite true of other major American dramatists, like Tennessee Williams and August Wilson). The play’s tableaux, particularly the concluding one, might be more powerful than the rather slangy and verbose speeches.
On the other hand, Long Day’s Journey also has a novelistic quality that comes out in its extensive stage directions, the descriptive passages of which seem meant to be read rather than staged. O’Neill’s impossibly detailed renditions of his characters’ appearances, which no casting director could hope to approximate, demand an inner theater:
Edmund is ten years younger than his brother, a couple of inches taller, thin and wiry. Where Jamie takes after his father, with little resemblance to his mother, Edmund looks like both his parents, but is more like his mother. Her big, dark eyes are the dominant feature in his long, narrow Irish face. His mouth has the same quality of hypersensitiveness hers possesses. His high forehead is hers accentuated, with dark brown hair, sunbleached to red at the ends, brushed straight back from it. But his nose is his father’s, and his face in profile recalls Tyrone’s, Edmund’s hands are noticeably like his mother’s, with the same exceptionally long fingers. They even have to a minor degree the same nervousness It is in the quality of extreme nervous sensibility that the likeness of Edmund to his mother is most marked.
What most fascinates me about this play is the debate about literature itself that O’Neill stages between the generations. The living room that is the play’s setting features two bookshelves. One represents the rebellious modernity of the sons and the other represents the old man’s comparative classicism:
Against the wall between the doorways is a small bookcase, with a picture of Shakespeare above it, containing novels by Balzac, Zola, Stendhal, philosophical and sociological works by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Engels, Kropotkin, Max Stirner, plays by Ibsen, Shaw, Strindberg, poetry by Swinburne, Rossetti, Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Kipling, etc.
Farther back is a large, glassed-in bookcase with sets of Dumas, Victor Hugo, Charles Lever, three sets of Shakespeare, The World’s Best Literature in fifty large volumes, Hume’s History of England, Thiers’ History of the Consulate and Empire, Smollett’s History of England, Gibbon’s Roman Empire and miscellaneous volumes of old plays, poetry, and several histories of Ireland.
As opposed to the supposedly calm universality of the father’s classic and romantic drama and enlightened historiography, the sons incline toward anarchism and socialism in politics, naturalism and aestheticism in literature, all of which entail a rejection of Christian metaphysics and morality. In later scenes, the sons quote from Baudelaire, Swinburne, and Wilde, whose aesthetics Tyrone pronounces “morbid”; he goes on to claim that Shakespeare contains both the genuine truths expressed by the morbid moderns but also much more:
Why can’t you remember your Shakespeare and forget the third-raters? You’ll find what you’re trying to say in him—as you’ll find everything else worth saying.
When we learn in a monologue what Shakespeare means to Tyrone, nothing less than a total transcendence of his desperate origins, we are less inclined to condescend with the radical youth to the elder’s classicism:
I was wild with ambition. I read all the plays ever written. I studied Shakespeare as you’d study the Bible. I educated myself. I got rid of an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife. I loved Shakespeare. I would have acted in any of his plays for nothing, for the joy of being alive in his great poetry.
And when Edmund mocks Tyrone’s possibly parochial insistence that “Shakespeare was an Irish Catholic,” we might be invited to appreciate the English dramatist’s universality as much as to laugh at the Irish-American’s credulity (and history has caught up with half of Tyrone’s equation, anyway: Shakespeare is nowadays widely regarded as a Catholic writer, if not an Irish one).
O’Neill intends, I think, to synthesize the classics with the moderns. If his characters are trapped in a fate they can’t escape, marked indelibly by their family and class origins and controlled by addictions they can’t evade through force of will, is this any less true of the personae in Sophocles and Shakespeare? How great a departure is Schopenhauer’s pessimism, Zola’s naturalism, or Wilde’s aestheticism, with their insistence on humanity’s determination by inhuman forces and on art’s amorality, from Greek tragedy’s celebratory hymns to crushing fate? Mary insists that “life,” a mysterious determining force, is the agent in their lives, rather than they themselves:
But I suppose life has made him like that, and he can’t help it. None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self for ever.
Mary, though, retains a transcendent belief in some “true self” for “life” to betray and abuse. Edmund, for his part, praises the dissolution of the self in the engulfing sea as his most authentic experience, which we could easily compare to Hamlet’s concluding admonition, “Let be,” or the manifest death-drive of Sophocles’s Antigone or Euripides’s Pentheus:
When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself. To God, if you want to put it that way. […] Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see—and seeing the secret, are the secret. 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!
Edmund’s artistic-mystic vision is the authentic experience of which alcohol and morphine offer only the degraded copy; this insight is why Edmund, the O’Neill stand-in, is alone among the characters in being able to write the play.
Browsing through Harold Bloom’s introduction to a later edition of the text (Yale UP, 2002), I see that Bloom dwells on the un- or anti-Americanism of O’Neill’s aesthetic. For Bloom, this means un- or anti-Emersonian, a rejection of Transcendentalist self-reliance and progressive optimism, against which the Irish-American O’Neill posits the pessimism of Schopenhauer and the severity of Jansenist Catholicism. In this vein, I have also sometimes heard O’Neill discussed by others as not American at all, but an honorary Irish author working somewhere between the “scrupulous meanness” of Joyce’s naturalism in Dubliners and the surrealist inertia of Beckett’s drama.
Leaving aside the perhaps beside-the-point national question, Long Day’s modernist combination of a naturalistic with a more symbolic or expressionistic mode makes O’Neill’s drama exemplary of a heightened or mythic realism, like so much of the 20th-century’s most powerful fiction and drama from Henrik Ibsen to Toni Morrison. O’Neill’s intellectual conviction that his characters’ wills are not their own, that they are lived by their fates, is embodied strikingly by their wild changes of mood, tone, and posture, as if O’Neill were asking the actors to be successively possessed by different spirits:
He forces a laugh in which she makes herself join. Then he goes out on the porch and disappears down the steps. Her first reaction is one of relief. She appears to relax. She sinks down in one of the wicker armchairs at rear of table and leans her head back, closing her eyes But suddenly she grows terribly tense again. Her eyes open and she strains forward, seized by a fit of nervous panic. She begins a desperate battle with herself. 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.
In this way, O’Neill’s dramaturgy literalizes his famous description, in the drama’s opening dedication to his wife, of “the four haunted Tyrones,” protagonists of this haunting modern tragedy.