By Eugene Gladstone O'Neill (1888-1953)
A Study Guide
Type of Work and Year of First Performance
Long Day's Journey Into Night is a tragic stage play in four acts. O’Neill based the events in the play on those in his own life, although he altered the events to suit his dramatic purpose. He completed the play in 1941, but it was not produced until 1956, three years after his death. The play was first performed on February 10 of that year in Stockholm, Sweden. It opened in New York City on November 7, 1956, at the Helen Hayes Theatre. The play received the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for literature.
The action takes place in the living room of the Tyrone family’s seaside country house in Connecticut. Act 1 begins at 8:15 on a sunny morning in August 1912. Act 2 begins at 12:45 p.m. The air is warm and the sky is hazy. Act 3 begins at 6:30. A heavy fog blankets the area, and a nearby lighthouse periodically sounds a foghorn. Act 4 begins at midnight. The fog is even denser than before, and the foghorn continues to sound while ship's bells occasionally ring.
Mary Cavan Tyrone Wife of James Tyrone. She has been addicted to morphine since October of 1888, when she gave birth to her son Edmund. Although she has been institutionalized for her addiction, she is unable to overcome it. She thinks often about the past, expressing regret that she did not become a nun or a concert pianist. Nevertheless, she says she loves her husband. The character of Mary Tyrone was modeled on author O'Neill's mother, Ella Quinlan O'Neill, who frequently accompanied her husband during his road tours. Like Mary Tyrone, she became a morphine addict while giving birth.
Edmund Tyrone Twenty-three-year-old son of James and Mary. He suffers severe coughing spells that worry his family, especially his mother, who refuses to believe they are symptoms of a serious illness. The other members of the family suspect that he has consumption (tuberculosis), and medical tests prove them right. Edmund shows promise as a writer. Like his father, he enjoys whiskey even though he knows his doctor has forbidden it. The character of Edmund Tyrone was modeled on O'Neill himself. Like the fictional Edmund, Eugene O'Neill worked on a ship, had an alcohol problem, attempted suicide, and developed consumption (tuberculosis). He received effective treatment at a sanitarium in Wallingford, Connecticut. Oddly, in the play, author O'Neill calls the character representing him Edmund and calls the Tyrone child who died in infancy Eugene. In real life, it was Edmund who died in infancy and Eugene who was the twenty-three-year-old who suffered coughing spells.
Jamie Tyrone Thirty-three-year-old son of James and Mary. He is the hellion of the family, drinking heavily, frequenting houses of prostitution, and ignoring his father’s frequent pleas to make something of himself. Although he is highly intelligent, he has been content simply to put in time as an actor in a job his father obtained for him. Jamie’s failure in life is apparently partly due to the guilt he feels about the death of his infant brother, Eugene. When Jamie was a child, Eugene contracted measles from him and died shortly thereafter. Jamie’s father and mother continually berate Jamie because they think he is a bad influence on Edmund. The character of Jamie Tyrone was modeled on author O'Neill's brother, Jamie (James Jr.), who died of alcoholism in middle age.
Cathleen Irish domestic. Her idle comments—for example, about James Tyrone’s preference for a “drop of whiskey,” about Edmund’s health, and about Mary’s lapsed Catholicism—help to develop the characters. Cathleen also helps to draw out Mary’s thoughts by asking questions and by listening attentively.
Offstage CharactersThe following characters are mentioned by the Tyrone family, but they do not appear on the stage: (1) Eugene, son of the Tyrones who died in infancy. ; (2) Bridget, the Tyrones' cook; (3) Doctor Hardy, the Tyrones' incompetent family physician; (4) Harker, businessman who sells James Tyrone real estate; (5) Mother Elizabeth, mentor of Mary Tyrone when Mary was young; (6) Fat Violet, harlot friend of Jamie; (6) Smythe, chauffeur who drives Mary and Cathleen into town; (7) Shaughnessy, enemy of Harker who accuses the latter of plotting to kill his pigs; (8) Captain Turner, neighbor who talks with Tyrone while the latter is working in his yard.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
It is a sunny morning in August 1912. At about 8:30 James Tyrone, sixty-five, and his wife, Mary, fifty-four, are exchanging pleasantries in the living room of their seaside summer home in Connecticut. Tyrone, a retired actor of modest renown, tells Mary in his resonant voice that she looks just right after gaining weight, but she says she needs to lose a few pounds. When she asks why the their two sons—James, Jr., thirty-three, and Edmund, twenty-three—are still in the dining room, Tyrone answers, “It’s a secret confab they don’t want me to hear, I suppose. I’ll bet they’re cooking up some new scheme to touch the Old Man.”
His comment—though made lightheartedly—contains a trace of pique, suggesting that all may not be well between Tyrone and his sons. When Mary hears Edmund coughing, she says the youth should eat more to build the strength he needs to get rid of what she thinks is a bad cold. Tyrone assures her the lad is fine, but his worried look alerts the audience that he is keeping disturbing information from her—namely, as the audience soon learns, that he believes Edmund has consumption (tuberculosis), a potentially fatal disease.
Why is he hiding this information from her?
Because he knows she'll go to pieces if he tells her what he thinks, for Mary is a delicate, unstable creature. When she gave birth to Edmund 23 years before, the physician prescribed morphine for her pain, and she became addicted to the drug. Her habit has tortured the family, as only a drug addiction can. However, she has recently returned from a sanitarium after prolonged treatment to wean her from the drug. But since the slightest upset could sabotage her recovery, Tyrone hides from her his suspicion that Edmund is suffering from consumption, which claimed the life of Mary's father. There is more to this story, though. The physician who prescribed the morphine is a man of dubious skills whom Tyrone engaged to save money. His penny-pinching on this matter and others has long rankled the rest of the family. So closefisted is he that he monitors whiskey bottles to see whether others have been nipping at his supply, and he unscrews light bulbs in the living-room chandelier to save on the electric bill.
When the conversation between Mary and her husband shifts to his loud snoring, she calls her sons into the living room to confirm that Tyrone sounds like a foghorn when he sleeps. After Jamie and Edmund compliment their mother on how she looks—they, too, want to keep her spirits up—they support her in her observation about Tyrone's snoring, with Jamie quoting an appropriate line from Shakespeare’s Othello: “The Moor, I know his trumpet.”
Tyrone does not take kindly to Jamie's remark—which is nothing new—and says:.
“If it takes my snoring to make you remember Shakespeare instead of the dope sheet on the ponies,” Tyrone tells Jamie, “I hope I’ll keep on with it.”
Jamie is a ne'er-do-well who gambles, drinks heavily, and frequents brothels. Why he turned out to be the hellion of the family is matter of conjecture, but it may be due in part to the guilt he feels about the death of his infant brother, Eugene, twenty-six years before. When Jamie was seven, Eugene contracted measles from him and died shortly thereafter.
Tyrone's remark stirs Mary to Jamie's defense. Her husband, she says, should not be so touchy; Jamie meant no harm. When Edmund also defends Jamie, Mary unpredictably scolds Edmund for always siding with Jamie against their father. Jamie then pleas for sanity: “Let’s forget it.” Tyrone replies: “Yes, forget! Forget everything and face nothing! It’s a convenient philosophy if you’ve no ambition in life except to—“
The word war has begun; it will continue late into the evening.
After Tyrone further excoriates Jamie, Edmund, disgusted, goes upstairs coughing. Mary says his “summer cold” has made him irritable. “It’s not just a cold he’s got,” Jamie says. “The Kid is damned sick.”
Mary leaves the room. Tyrone then again attacks Jamie, this time for letting on that Edmund might be seriously ill. Such news will only upset Mary, he says, and make her turn to morphine for relief. Jamie insists that his mother should be aware that Edmund might have a serious affliction. Then he criticizes his father for being too cheap to send Edmund to a good doctor instead of an “old quack.” Tyrone retorts that he knows the value of a dollar but that Jamie squanders his money at the end of each acting season on “whores and whiskey!” Furthermore, “If you weren’t my son,” he says, “there isn’t a manager in the business who would give you a part.”
The conflict gradually worsens as the living room becomes a battleground whenever two or more members of the family are in it. One person attacks; another person counterattacks.
A favorite tactic of Tyrone is to accuse Jamie of setting a bad example for Edmund, who has apparently picked up many of Jamie’s habits, including drinking to excess. Jamie, angry that his parents seem to regard Edmund as the fair-haired boy of the family, attacks Edmund where it hurts—his ambition to become a writer. Though Edmund exhibits promise, Jamie attempts to dismiss him as a hack.
Meanwhile, Mary tells her husband that she loves him but in the same breath berates him for never having provided a real home for her and their sons. Year after year, he went on the road to perform in plays, leaving his family in limbo or installing them in cheap hotels. He never cultivated friends for the family to socialize with; his friend was a barroom and booze.
Jamie and Edmund are the same way, she says, because they have never had an opportunity to meet people.
“I know you both would have been so different," she says, "if you’d been able to associate with nice girls instead of— You’d never have disgraced yourself as you have, so that now no respectable parents will let their daughters be seen with you.”
Thankfully, the Tyrone summer house has a front yard, and Tyrone and Jamie go out to work in it, providing a respite from the feuding. Mary goes upstairs to lie down (that is, to shoot morphine), and Edmund lounges on a couch with a book.
Just before lunch, Jamie comes in, and he and Edmund have a whiskey and water the bottle to prevent their father from noticing their thievery. Jamie becomes upset when he learns that Edmund has allowed Mrs.Tyrone to go upstairs alone. Left unattended, he believes, she will succumb to a hidden supply of morphine. Jamie’s fears are well founded, for when she comes back downstairs for dinner, her eyes are glazed. When Tyrone comes in for lunch, he pours a whiskey for himself and reluctantly allows Jamie and Edmund to have a shot. He seems in a good mood. But when he discovers Mary’s condition, he is devastated. She was supposed to be cured of her addiction; now she is right back where she was before she went to the sanitarium.
As the day progresses, so does the family feuding. Mary continually resurrects the past, saying she gave up a good home with her father to marry Tyrone. She could have been a nun, she says, or perhaps a concert pianist. But, no, she married Tyrone. Not only is he unable to provide a decent home, she says, he also refuses to lay out enough money to hire competent domestics and even engages the cheapest doctors for the family’s health care.
Tyrone rebukes his wife for lapsing back into her drug addiction. He also attacks Jamie and Edmund for renouncing their Catholic religion. When Jamie criticizes his father for his lukewarm faith, Tyrone admits that he is not the best of Catholics but says he is on his knees every morning to pray for Mary’s recovery. Edmund, alluding to his mother’s failure to overcome her habit, then snidely observes that Nietzsche must have been right when he said God was dead.
Later in the afternoon, Edmund leaves for a doctor’s appointment; Jamie and Tyrone also go out. By early evening, Mary is stoned on morphine and full of self-pity. With Cathleen as her audience and with a foghorn sounding outside, she talks about her past, dwelling especially on her missed opportunity to become a nun or a concert pianist. Cathleen is only too happen to listen, for she gets to nip at the whiskey bottle.
After Edmund and Tyrone return, Mary tells Edmund to be wary of Jamie, who, she says, will only lead him down the path of failure. She also observes that Tyrone has set a bad example for them with his drinking. When Tyrone is in the cellar fetching more whiskey, Edmund tells Mary how serious his illness is: The doctor has confirmed that he has consumption. But Mary, lost in stupor, refuses to confront this news. After Edmund leaves, Tyrone comes back with his whiskey and says he’s ready for dinner. But Mary goes upstairs.
When Edmund returns, he and Tyrone argue about the institution Edmund is to enter for treatment of his disease. True to his form, Tyrone has chosen a low-cost, low-quality facility for Edmund. “To think when it’s a question of your own son having consumption,” Edmund says, “you can show yourself up before the whole town as such a stinking old tightwad! . . .I won’t go to any damned state farm just to save you a few lousy dollars to buy bum property with. “
Edmund has a coughing spell.
Tyrone throws up his arms and says, “You can go anywhere you like. I don’t give a damn what it costs.” Then he modifies his statement, saying Edmund can go anywhere he likes "within reason."
Tyrone, noticing how weak Edmund looks, says. “You’d better take a bracer.” Edmund pours his glass to the brim and gulps. Tyrone pours another drink for himself, then talks about his money philosophy. When he was young, he says, he learned the value of a dollar and “the fear of the poor house.” Ever since that time, he has worried that something unforeseen will take away his hard-earned money. So he began investing in property. “The more property you own," he says, "the safer you think you are.”In his defense, he says he gave Edmund everything when he was a boy—nurses, schools, college, food clothing. Although he acknowledges that Edmund worked hard when he had a job working on a ship, he downplays this type of work as a great adventure.
Edmund replies, “Particularly the time I tried to commit suicide. . . and almost did."
Tyrone talks more about his family history, then repeats that Edmund may go to any sanitarium he likes. He also admits that he may have made a mistake by playing the same stage role again and again and ended up a slave to it.
“I lost the great talent I once had through years of easy repetition, never learning a new part, never really working hard. In his earlier days, he says, he had acted with the renowned Edwin Booth, showing great promise, but he did not capitalize on his talent.
Edmund is pleased that he and his father have had their talk. “I know you a lot better now,” he says. When they hear Jamie approach the front door, Tyrone goes out a side door, saying, “I’ll go out on the front porch. He has a tongue like an adder when he’s drunk. I’d only lose my temper.”
After Tyrone sneaks out, Jamie stumbles in very drunk. He complains that the room is dark as a morgue and screws in lights in the chandelier that Tyrone had unscrewed to save money. When he sees his father’s whiskey bottle, he pours himself a generous glass and discusses the good time he had with a prostitute named Fat Violet. Then, referring to his mother, he says in a sneering, hateful tone, “Where’s the hophead? Gone to sleep?”
Enraged, Edmund jumps up and punches Jamie in the face. When Jamie is about to fight back, he stops himself and admits, “I certainly had that coming.”
Edmund then apologizes. Jamie explains his behavior, saying he feels depressed because this time he thought his mother had kicked her habit.
“I’d begun to hope, if she’d beaten the game, I could, too.” He begins sobbing, then says, “And then this stuff of you getting consumption. It’s got me licked. We’ve been more than brothers. You’re the only pal I’ve ever had.”
Moments later they argue again. Then Jamie says he’s so drunk he now has the courage to tell the truth: that he has been a bad influence on Edmund. “And worst of it is, I did it on purpose.”
He says he made drunkenness look romantic, made harlots appear glamorous, and made work look like a “sucker’s game”—all to subvert Edmund. Jamie says he wanted Edmund to fail because he was always jealous of him—“Mama’s baby, Papa’s pet.”
When Jamie dozes off, Tyrone comes in and says he heard that last part of the conversation.
“But don’t take it too much to heart, lad,” Tyrone says. “He loves to exaggerate the worst of himself when he’s drunk. He’s devoted to you. It’s the one good thing left in him.”
Tyrone pours himself a drink. Jamie awakens and argues with his father. Mary comes downstairs in a daze.
“It’s the damned poison,” Tyrone says. “But I’ve never known her to drown herself in it as deep as this.”
Mary says she has just had a talk with Mother Elizabeth, telling her she wanted to be a nun. But Mother Elizabeth told her she had to test herself by going to parties and dances.
“That was in the winter of senior year,” Mary says. “Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.”
The play ends.
Source for the plot summary: O’Neill, Eugene. Long Day’s Journey Into Night. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1956..
Denial and Self-Delusion
When the four members of the Tyrone family are sober, they generally refuse to acknowledge their own failures and weaknesses. Instead, they deny their faults altogether, choosing to blame another family member for them or to argue that they are victims of uncontrollable circumstances. Their self-delusions lead to petty bickering and raging arguments, often punctuated with insulting language. To escape discord and avoid facing their failures, they take refuge in liquor or, in the case of Mary, morphine. Under the influence of drugs, they tend to probe the past and ruminate over what could have been or should have been. Oddly, when they are primed with the artificial courage of their drug of choice, they sometimes own up to their flaws or forgive others for theirs. But such conversational benefactions are almost always negated by renewed verbal warfare.
no one seems willing
to take the necessary measures to overcome
addiction, although Jamie says
he might have been inclined to seek help if his
mother had set an example
of sobriety. But, of course, his sincerity here is
suspect, for he is refusing
to take responsibility for his behavior. In effect,
he is saying that he
is still a drunk because his mother is still a
morphine addict. And so
the family self-destructs. At the end of the play,
each member of the family
is an alien in a familiar world; the Tyrones live
The climax of Long Day's Journey Into Night occurs when Mary comes downstairs near the end of the play in a daze and says she has just had a talk with Mother Elizabeth, telling Mother she wanted to be a nun. Mary's drug stupor signifies what has been wrong with the family all along: dysfunction, inability to communicate, use of drugs or alcohol to cope, failure to face reality. Mary's morphine-ridden body is the Tyrone family. Whether the other family members can
Paradox is a controlling figure of speech in the play in that the past seems to control the present—or, in a manner of speaking, is the present. For example, Mary Tyrone continually dwells on the past—in particular, the fact that she could have been a nun or a concert pianist. At one point, she remarks, “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too."At the end of the play, in an apparent hallucination, she says she has just told Mother Elizabeth that she wants to be a nun. As for James Tyrone, he continually played the same role in the Count of Monte Cristo during his stage career. Yesterday's performance became today's performance. Now that he is retired, he is still acting, telling Mary that Edmund is in good health when he is suffering from tuberculosis. He fears that if he tells her the truth, she will resurrect another ghost of the past, her morphine habit. Eventually, of course, she does relapse into her old habit. For Jamie, too, the past is the present. He cannot shake the thought that he was responsible for the death of his infant brother, Eugene. So, more than two-and-a-half decades after Eugene's death, Eugene's ghost haunts him. Jamie turns to drink to soothe his guilt. Edmund, meanwhile, repeats the past of his brother and his father every time he takes a drink.
Eugene Gladstone O’Neill was born in a hotel room in New York City on October 16, 1888, and died in a hotel room in Boston on November 27, 1953. He was the second child of Irish Catholic parents—James O’Neill, a prominent actor who was a heavy drinker, and Mary O’Neill, who became addicted to morphine while giving birth to Eugene. Because his father’s acting troupe was constantly on tour, O’Neill spent much of his childhood in hotels and on trains with his mother looking after him. He attended boarding schools and studied at Princeton University but was expelled after a year for getting drunk and smashing a window. In 1909, he married Kathleen Jenkins, who bore him a son, Eugene, Jr., in 1910.
Meanwhile, O'Neill worked as a secretary for a New York mail-order company, then went to Honduras to prospect for gold. However, the only thing he brought back with him was malaria. He next worked as a theatrical manager but soon abandoned that job to work as a sailor on a Norwegian ship. During his travels, he lived for a time in Buenos Aires, Argentina. There, he worked for Westinghouse Electric, Swift Packing Company, and Singer Sewing Machine Company before resuming the life of a sailor on the trans-Atlantic American Line. Then he returned to the U.S. to act in vaudeville. During this period of his life (1910-1912), O'Neill drank heavily and often lived as a derelict. While occupying the back room of a seedy bar in New York City, he took an overdose of the sleeping pill Veronal (diethyl barbituric acid), which nearly killed him. It is believed that he may have been attempting to commit suicide.
In 1912, when he was twenty-four, he became a reporter for the New London (Connecticut) Telegraph, a job that lasted just four months. Later in the same year, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and entered a sanitarium in Wallingford, Connecticut. During his treatment, he began to write plays and read works by the great authors, notably the Swedish playwright August Strindberg. From that time forward, he devoted himself entirely to writing and over the next three decades rose to prominence as the greatest and most influential American dramatist of his time.
Stark realism is the hallmark of many of his plays, and he set a standard for other American playwrights—such as Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller—to follow. Ironically, it was his dysfunctional family and turbulent upbringing that provided the subject matter and themes for many of his greatest plays. In all, he wrote more than sixty plays, winning four Pulitizer Prizes and a Nobel Prize. In the last years of his life, O'Neill developed a degenerative brain disease (misdiagnosed as Parkinson's disease) that slowly robbed him of physical functions without affecting his intellectual abilities. Consequently, he suffered the indignity and torture of bedridden physical incapacity while still mentally acute. He was buried at Forest Hills Cemetery outside of Boston.
Study Questions and Essay Topics