A semi-autobiographical play in four acts; O'Neill's tribute to his brother, James O'Neill, Jr. The action takes place between noon on an early September day in 1923 and dawn the following morning. The setting is the farmhouse of Phil Hogan, a tenant farmer, in Connecticut. The house is a dilapidated clapboard, two-story structure, once painted "a repulsive yellow with brown trim" but now weathered to "blackened and weathered gray" with bits of "dim lemon" paint. There is a one-story addition at the right, which is Josie Hogan's bedroom, with tar-paper outside walls. There are three steps up to the front door of the house, to the left of this addition. There is a path which leads to the woods on one side and the county road on the other. Under Josie's window, near the house, is a flat-topped boulder.
Act I: Just before noon on a clear hot day. Josie enters from the bedroom, an almost freakishly oversized woman of just under six feet who weighs about 180 pounds but is nonetheless firm and feminine of body. Her face, though not pretty, is a typically Irish one, with large dark-blue eyes and a rather charming smile which reveals even white teeth. Her hair and eyebrows are black and coarse, while her complexion is fair, freckled, and sunburned. She wears a cheap, sleeveless, blue cotton dress and is barefoot. She looks around and is relieved when her brother, Mike Hogan, appears. He is "about four inches shorter than his sister. . . [with] a common Irish face.... Mike is a New England Irish Catholic Puritan, Grade B, and an extremely irritating youth to have around." He is in dirty, sweaty overalls, a brown shirt, and he carries a pitchfork. Josie is angry with his tardiness, but when Mike offers the excuse of being afraid of his father, "the old hog," Josie slaps his face, knocking him off balance. He cringes and begs her not to hit him as she tells him not to insult their father: "I like him, if you don't." Josie has made arrangements so that Mike can flee the farm and go to Bridgeport to their brother Thomas, a sergeant of police there; if he can't get Mike a job, then perhaps he will pass him on to John, a barkeep in Meriden. Josie has helped them escape also, and though she never hears from them, she is not really resentful. She thinks the police force or tending bar would be suitable positions for a prig like Mike: "you was born a priest's pet, and there's no help for it....You're worse than decent. You're virtuous." This angers Mike, who starts to speak of Josie who is, as she puts it, "the scandal of the neighborhood," and doesn't care for his proffered prayers.
As she has done before, she has taken some money from Phil Hogan's satchel, calling it unpaid wages, to salve Mike's sensitive conscience. Momentarily she reveals real tenderness toward Mike and his two brothers, but she speedily covers it with a coarse remark which starts Mike preaching at her once more about her language and her dishonesty in helping her father cheat people by doctoring sick animals and selling them at full price, suggesting that she should leave the farm and marry a decent man, "Though it'd be hard to find a decent man who'd have you now." Josie asserts that she wouldn't want such a man because he'd be like Mike—and she doesn't want to be tied down to one man. Mike reacts by asking whether that includes James Tyrone, Jr., who will "be rich once his mother's estate is settled." Sarcastically he suggests that Josie has been mooning after Tyrone.
Mike suggests that she and her father have a plan to catch Tyrone by having Phil, with a shotgun and witnesses, catch him in bed with Josie. Josie keeps her temper with difficulty, as Mike continues, telling of his dislike of James Tyrone, with "his high-toned Jesuit college education," his quoting Latin, and his assumption of superiority when in reality he is "nothing but a drunken bum who never done a tap of work in his life, except acting on the stage while his father was alive to get him jobs" remarks that make him a clear portrait of O'Neill's own brother, Jamie. Mike's vindictiveness culminates in a wish that Josie will manage to "nab him . . . and skin him out of his last nickel." These comments anger Josie, who tells her brother to be off before their father returns. At this, Mike scampers off as his father runs back from his piggery to berate his idle son. Josie looks after her brother, saying that she stole the money for "the little boy you used to be that I had to mother" and not the adult he has become. Then, in order to meet her father, she gets down a broom handle for self-defense: "Not that I need it, but it saves his pride."
In a moment, Phil Hogan, a barrel-shaped man of "fifty-five, about five feet six," enters. He has short arms, stumpy legs, a fat porcine face, and skin that is sunburned and freckled. He is dressed in brogans, a coarse straw hat, filthy overalls, and a dirty undershirt. His high-pitched voice has a notable brogue. He is ready to chastise Mike, "the lazy bastard," but Josie engages in delaying tactics before telling him that Mike has left like his brothers. Phil realizes who is responsible and taxes her with having stolen money from him as well, but Josie announces her right to some of the money since she had doctored a nag to get a good price. Hogan joyfully recalls the way he beat the Crowleys, the buyers, but then Josie reveals that she had knocked one of them over when Phil was getting the worst of the battle.
Hogan remembers with resentment that his wife had died when Mike was born, and when Josie reminds him that she alone could put him in his place when he came home roaring drunk, Phil claims that his daughter is the same, "There's no liberty in my own home," but goes on to ask about Mike's "preaching" to her. She tells him that as usual it was about her scandalous ways, asserting her own freedom to give a man "his walking papers." Phil wishes that she were not such a "terrible wanton woman" but confesses to a certain pleasure that as a result she has not left the farm.
Josie then retells Mike's proposition that she trick Jim Tyrone into bed and force him to marry her, a comment that arouses Phil's interest, suggesting that such a trick is a very old one, "but sometimes an old trick is best because it's so ancient no one would suspect you'd try it." Josie resents this approach, but Phil continues, saying they'd make a good match because neither could be superior to the other; after all, James would only be returning to the same class as his father, the actor who had worked his way up from poverty to riches, to be "a true Irish gentleman." With this, Josie recalls the way Phil used to dress her up and send her to meet the elder Tyrone when, as their landlord, he would come to demand the arrears in the rent owed him. Then she would offer him a drink of the good company whiskey, and the old actor would calm down, tell her she should be an actress, and give her a half-dollar when she would admit that Phil had put her up to it. At this, Phil, unaware that James Tyrone, Sr., knew of the trick, would claim he would vacate the place unless the rent was lowered and the house painted. But a few drinks later, the rent was forgotten.
Suddenly, Josie becomes suspicious of her father and his tricks, because he keeps insisting that Jim Tyrone likes her and is a good match, recommending that she get her wits together and grab him. Josie scoffs at his plan that she get him alone in the moonlight, saying that she wouldn't want to be married to a drunk, even though she is sure she could straighten him out. Certainly she'd love to get her hands on his money, but Jim will go back to his Broadway tarts and spend it there, though she herself "is decent and deserving compared to those scum." The more Hogan speaks of Jim, the more illogical Josie becomes, and it is clear that she is indeed fond of him.
But then Hogan turns to the source of his concern—the farm. The estate of Mary Cavan Tyrone is almost out of probate, and he is afraid that Jim will decide to sell it as soon as he can because he already has a large offer, despite the fact that they have been tenants for twenty-five years and Jim has promised that he will not sell them out. Perhaps the executors will insist on accepting an offer much greater than Phil's, or Jim will agree to a sale one night "when he has one of his sneering Broadway drunks on." Josie can't believe this of him: "He only acts like he's hard and shameless to get back at life when it's tormenting him—and who doesn't?" This revealing comment brings Phil to dig further and prompts Josie into saying that "Poor Jim" is mourning for the death of his mother. Phil then suggests that Josie ought "to be extra nice to him, for one thing," and not act "brazen," to which Josie scornfully replies that perhaps she ought "to pretend I'm a pure virgin," thus putting an end to the conversation, telling her father to get his stew from the stove while she finishes Mike's work. But then she sees Jim approaching, "like a dead man walking slow behind his own coffin" when he thinks himself unobserved, but sprucing up when he sees them. As Phil insists that Josie tidy herself up, she slams into her room and James Tyrone, Jr., enters.
He is in his early forties, about five feet nine, with a "naturally fine physique" which is beginning to run down from dissipation. His puffy face with its aquiline nose and sneering expression gives him "a certain Mephistophelian quality." His dark hair is thinning and he has a bald spot. However, he still retains something of a devil-may-care Irish charm, attractive to women and men (especially fellow drinkers). He is dressed in a dark brown suit which suggests a Broadway gambler trying to look like a Wall Street broker. He has drunk enough to anaesthetize his hangover, and he and Phil spar verbally with the familiarity of old contenders. Tyrone opens with a Latin quotation from Virgil applicable to the rock-strewn infertile farm and then goes on to tell the tale of his being sent down from a Jesuit university just prior to graduation because of his unsuccessful bet with a classmate that he would be able to pass off a Broadway tart as his sister. This actually happened to Jamie O'Neill. With this, Jim sits down with Phil who promptly complains about "this rockpile, miscalled a farm," suggesting that Tyrone ought to pay him to stay. Tyrone asks after Josie, who has been looking gently at him, "pleased to hear him laugh." She banters with him, suggesting that he probably needs a woman in bed with him to overcome the "heebie-jeebies" of the booze, but as she continues with rough talk Jim tells her to stop, clearly disgusted with it, and tells Josie that he is through with dainty tarts; now he likes big women, a remark that makes Josie blush. Obviously he has some regard for her, his "Virgin Queen of Ireland," as she also has for him.
Jim starts angling for a drink, which Phil refuses. Tyrone then tells Phil that T. Stedman Harder, the Standard Oil man whose farm abuts Hogan's, is about to visit because Phil's pigs continually wallow in his ice pond; "somehow Harder's fence in that vicinity has a habit of breaking down." In fact it does so immediately it is repaired, and the farm manager suspects Phil Hogan as the culprit. Hogan rejoices in having Harder come to visit, and Josie kisses Jim for the great news; but suddenly she "looks startled and confused, stirred at the same time frightened," covering her emotions with a scornful "Ooh, there's no spirit in you! It's like kissing a corpse." Jim is a trifle surprised, but Josie, at Phil's request, breaks out the whiskey in celebration of the imminent arrival of T. Stedman Harder, who is seen riding with his manager in the distance. Tyrone wants to see the fun, so Josie pushes him into her room to keep him out of sight, promising to "spoon in the moonlight" with him that night.
Harder is the epitome of the privileged, wealthy, Ivy-League-university type who wants to live the life of a country squire. He is a lethargic, slightly fat, somewhat stupid man, accustomed to receiving respect from people outside his class, immaculately dressed in English riding gear and carrying a riding crop. He is a born mark for the Hogans, who are quick on verbal attack, because he speaks slowly and thinks deliberately. They insult him merrily, picking up his words and interpreting them literally, suggesting that he is a "poor crazy creature." Then, seeing that Harder's manager is some distance away, Hogan turns the tables, threatens him and taxes him with breaking down his own fence to entice the pigs into the ice pond with the intent to destroy them: "How many pigs is it caught their death of cold in his damned ice pond and died of pneumonia?" Josie alleges ten deaths from pneumonia and ten more as the result of contracting cholera from the water. Phil then launches into a verbal assault on Harder as "a pig-murdering tyrant" and orders him off the property as a trespasser, giving him a shove. With this Harder leaves and rides off with his manager, who is barely able to stay in the saddle for laughing. Harder is a dramatization of an anecdote in Long Day's Journey into Night. When he has gone, Tyrone, whose bursts of laughter have punctuated this exchange, reappears, and they all share the joke. Jim then reveals that the large offer for the farm had come from Harder, and now he expects to receive an even higher offer from the same source. Phil quickly reminds Jim of his promise that he could have first refusal of the property, but Jim paraphrases Kipling's "Rhyme of the Three Sealers,": "There's never a promise of God or man goes north of ten thousand bucks." Phil claims to be "suspicious," and Jim allows that he "could well sell it." Josie becomes angry with him, and Jim reminds her of their date that evening, "I expect you to be very sweet to me," going on to compliment her on "the most beautiful breasts in the world." Josie is momentarily pleased but then tells Jim he must eat. He tells her to go ahead and mother him as they both go inside.
Act II: The same as Act I, but the wall of the house has been removed, revealing a small, low-ceilinged living room with bare boards, fly-specked wall-paper, and a clutter of worn-out furniture of the "fire sale" variety. The door to Josie's bedroom is at the right. A clock on the bureau says 11:05 P.M. Josie is sitting on the front steps, "hunched up," wearing an expression "of sadness and loneliness and humiliation." She gets up, goes inside, and lights a kerosene lamp, then notes the time, recalling that Tyrone had said he would be there around nine. She angrily pulls out the flower she had pinned to her bosom, flinging it into a corner: "The hell with you, Jim Tyrone!" The sound of Phil Hogan singing the melancholy Irish ditty, "The Praties They Grow Small," is heard, and he lurches in, less drunk than he appears. He shouts out to Josie, who yells back, and then he pounds on the door. She tells him to come in, "you drunken old loon." At this the pair argue about his inebriation, but Josie is a trifle suspicious that he has returned before closing time at the inn.
Phil sarcastically notes that Jim Tyrone has stood Josie up, suggesting that no one can say anything to a woman in love, something Josie denies. Then, after a lot of drunken blather, he says that Jim Tyrone has agreed to sell the farm to Harder for ten thousand dollars, though papers are not yet signed. Josie cannot believe that Jim would break a promise, but Phil insists that Harder is going to meet with the executors of Mrs. Tyrone's estate the next day. Josie is bitterly disappointed, but then Phil tells her that she has made a fool of Jim Tyrone because he really does seem to have affection for her, and Mike's scheme of her catching him is not such a bad idea because it might really work—Jim actually believes she is a virgin and that all her sluttish boasting is merely a cover. Josie is furious, and Phil says that the reason Jim has not come to visit is that he loves her too much to seduce her. She asks whether Jim has yet signed any papers and then proposes to go down to the inn, raise a fuss about his breaking their date, bring him home, and put Mike's plan into execution. Phil's part in the scheme is to arrive at sunrise with witnesses. She will fulfill her earlier intention to do anything, no matter how crooked, if Jim were to break his promise about the farm. But marriage is not on her mind; what she wants is a paper signed and witnessed to the effect that he will sell the farm to Phil Hogan at the price he offers and that he will pay Josie ten thousand dollars when the Tyrone estate is settled. But though Josie will allow him into her bed, she won't allow him anything more, so "he'll pay for nothing." She believes he will give anything to keep the Hogans quiet, to avoid publicity and preserve his vanity about his prowess with women. Phil and Josie agree to go to the inn, Phil to pick out witnesses and Josie to collect Jim, but first she goes to smarten up: "Sure, those in my trade have to look their best." But Phil notes that she doesn't even light her lamp: "God forgive me, it's bitter medicine. But it's the only way . . . now."
When Josie returns, she has obviously been crying but defiantly starts off toward the door when she sees Jim coming along the road. Phil is furious over the way he has made Josie wait, and the pair think up a new scheme. Josie will continue as if she knows nothing, and Phil will pretend to be so drunk that he does not remember anything of what was said at the inn; this he does, and Josie orders him out of the house as Jim enters, eyes glazed, vague in movement and speech, but otherwise not appearing very drunk. Phil departs singing, "The praties they grow small," in such a "stinko" state that Jim is puzzled because Phil hadn't seemed so bad earlier. Josie then suggests that Jim apologize for keeping her waiting and says that if she had any pride she wouldn't speak to him; to this Jim responds that Josie has too much pride, a remark that Josie finds curious and unsettling.
The two of them sit down on the front steps, Jim one step lower. For a moment or two he is silent, but then he speaks of "the old heebie-jeebies" and tells her, "I've really begun to love you a lot, Josie," recalling that he had had some mad idea to go to bed with her and lay his head on her breast. Josie then suggests that maybe he can do that later, but in the meantime she draws his head down on her breast as he relaxes. Phil's song is heard in the distance as Tyrone reacts with lines from Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale"; "Now more than ever seems it rich to die." Josie bitterly remarks that Tyrone must have a bad conscience, a remark that he treats with suspicion until she suggests that it is for wanting to go to bed with her. He says he wants tonight to be different and insists that Josie lay off her rough talk, as he sits there and she again bitterly talks of his promises. Finally, she suggests that she get him a drink and goes into the house, revealing the living room and a section of her bedroom. Tyrone stares into emptiness and then suddenly says, "You rotten bastard," and attempts to light a cigarette, but his hands are trembling so violently that he cannot.
Act III: The same, except that the living room wall has been replaced. No time has elapsed, and Tyrone is still trying to light his cigarette. When he succeeds, he starts walking back and forth and then swears at himself before singing an old Gay Nineties tearjerker: "And baby's cries can't waken her/In the baggage coach ahead." This causes his sneer to change to "a look of stricken guilt," and it is with relief that he sees Josie coming out with a quart of whiskey, two tumblers, and a pitcher of water. She pours for both of them, somewhat to Tyrone's surprise, but despite her claim to drinking once in a while, she is clearly so inexperienced that he later prevents her from drinking any more. She recalls that it is Jim's "pleasure to have me pretend I'm an innocent virgin tonight" after he tells her to cut out "the raw stuff," but then he looks at her with real desire and kisses her passionately. However, he stops there and turns away, while Josie reacts with a mixture of "fright, passion, happiness, and bitter resentment." Josie keeps the drinks coming, and Jim asks if she is trying to get him drunk, but Josie says she wants him "to forget all sadness" and feel happy. She continually refers to his "Broadway tarts," and Jim says he finds her more beautiful than they. Every time he kisses her, he begins to feel physical desire, but he turns away, claiming he doesn't want to poison their relationship; as he says later, "When I poison them, they stay poisoned."
Slowly, punctuated with drinks and with compliments, and even with some anger directed against Josie's rough talk, Jim reveals that Phil has tricked Josie into this compromising situation. At the inn, Jim had told her father that he had no intention of accepting the Harder offer of ten thousand dollars for the farm and that he and his brother were agreed that Phil could buy it. He and Phil had celebrated the end of probate together. This discovery makes Josie almost hysterical because she realizes that her father is trying to trick her into bed with Jim who knows that indeed she is a virgin: "You pretend too much. And so do the guys. . . . They all lie to each other. No one wants to admit all he got was a slap in the puss when he thinks a lot of other guys made it." What is more, Jim is sure that Phil is aware of the situation, something that upsets Josie even more—that he would wish to hurt her. This brings Josie to confess her virginity to Jim and offer herself to him in love, knowing that he wants her: "As if I gave a damn what happened after! I'll have had tonight and your love to remember for the rest of my days." But then she recalls that he must leave before sunrise (and Phil's return).
Jim then makes a serious drunken pass at her, acting as if she is a whore. Josie is appalled and he stops, turning to her in "bitter accusation" for leading him on when he wanted this night to be different from the other nights he had spent with a woman. With this, Josie runs after him, kisses him with almost maternal solicitude, and gets him to sit down with his head on her bosom: "Sure if there's one thing I owe you tonight, after all my lying and scheming, it's to give you the love you need, and it'll be my pride and my joy." In this situation, with Jim resting on the bosom of this almost freakish earth-mother of a woman, Jim is finally able to tell his tale of hate, love, sorrow, and degradation, his loss of hope, the hurt with which his mother died, and his own contributing fault when he "was too drunk to go to the funeral." He had managed to beat the liquor for the sake of his mother, but shortly before she died of a brain tumor he had gone back to it, and toward the end she had seen him drunk. After that, he brought her body back on the train to New York, en route to Connecticut so that she could be buried with her husband. But on the train, the memory of her laid out in her coffin, looking so young, pretty, and innocent, tormented him. As a result, he drank solidly, making a total nuisance of himself to the other passengers until he found a "blond pig," a prostitute, whom he invited to share his drawing room for fifty dollars a day, trying desperately to forget his mother's body "in the baggage coach ahead."
He also recalls his father's miserliness and his own search for happiness. Acting was no good because he was "a third-rate ham," and following the horses made no profit because he was too concerned with their meaningless beauty and returned again to the bottle as a means of forgetting. He looks on Josie as "simple and kind and pure of heart," words he used to speak of his mother; on her breast he confesses and exorcises his past, finding forgiveness in the moonlight and Josie's insistence that "she hears. . . and I know she understands and forgives me too, and her blessing lies on me." Jim, who has at last been able to weep for his faults, then falls asleep as Josie gazes tenderly on him: "Sleep in peace, my darling. Oh, Jim, Jim, maybe my love could still save you, if you could want it enough!" But then common sense takes over; she realizes the impossibility of this dream and looks derisively on the situation: "God forgive me, it's a fine end to all my scheming, to sit here with the dead hugged to my breast."
Act IV: Dawn; Josie is sitting in the same position as at the end of Act III. She does not seem to have moved, and Jim's head is still on her breast. She looks exhausted from her motionless vigil but is afraid to move in case she wakens him. Phil Hogan appears from behind the barn, looking as if he has slept in the haystack. He approaches Josie quietly, but she has heard him. He attempts to keep up the pretense that he returned to the inn and came back blind drunk, but Josie taxes him with "the scheme behind your scheme"; yet witnesses would have been unnecessary, as Phil says, because nothing has happened. But Josie claims that there has been a miracle, "a virgin who bears a dead child in the night, and the dawn finds her still a virgin." Hogan tries to laugh off Josie's virginity, but she tells him to stop lying, saying that nothing has happened; the sadness in her face comes from the sorrow a woman feels "for the man she has loved who has died." But, like Nora Melody in A Touch of the Poet, she speaks of the "pride" that is also in her heart. She had thought there was hope in James Tyrone, but "I didn't know he'd died already—that it was a damned soul coming to me in the moonlight, to confess and be forgiven and find peace for a night." Then she turns on her father, enraged at his greed and his lies, knowing that Josie loved Jim yet lying about the farm so that she would do the scheming, force Jim to offer marriage to her, and then, after he would leave her and drink himself to death, she would be the legal widow. She says that she now intends to leave the farm, just as her brothers have done, to leave Phil to his dirty schemes. But Phil says that he had taken the chance in the hope of bringing Josie some happiness, despite any consequences.
With this, the sun has risen on a beautiful morning, and Josie sends Phil away while she wakens the sleeping Tyrone "with a maternal tenderness," saying, "I hate to bring you back to life, Jim, darling. If you could have died in your sleep, that's what you would have liked, isn't it?" Then as he stirs she hopes that he will remember "that one thing and forget the rest." Awakening, Jim reacts as if he is with one of his "tarts" but realizes with surprise that he is with Josie, who treats him with her accustomed good-humored friendliness, complaining that she is numb from holding him all night. Jim, not even finding interest in another drink, finds himself strangely peaceful after a night without nightmares. She finds that he remembers very little of what went on, and therefore she speaks of the beauty of the night; and in answer to his question about whether he had tried to go to bed with her, she says they had just "kidded."
He feels "at peace with myself and this lousy life—as if all my sins had been forgiven," and as he looks at the sunrise in the terms of a dramatic curtain rise, he becomes genuinely emotional to Josie : "I'll never forget it—here with you." Josie is pleased, hoping that he would "feel beauty in it—by way of a token," a remark that puzzles him. Troubled, Jim asks if he has tried to "get out of order last night," but Josie assures him otherwise. However, as soon as he takes a drink of Phil's good liquor, memory returns, and he starts to leave. Josie is stricken and begs him not to leave like that because they will never meet again, "and I know that's best for us both." She wants him "to remember my love for you which gave you peace for a while," but Tyrone "defensively" claims he doesn't know what she is talking about. Josie then agrees that she doesn't remember, either; but when she wishes him "good-bye and God bless you," Tyrone comes to her, kisses her twice, saying that he will always remember Josie and her love, bids her the same farewell, and walks away as Josie sobs.
Phil Hogan looks after him with hatred, and when Josie says she will prepare breakfast, he looks at her "pleadingly," telling her that his scheme was not aimed at getting Tyrone's money but rather at bringing the two of them together "to face the truth that you loved each other," hoping that her love would save Tyrone. As for the money, he claims he thought of it only so that Josie would have a better life than a shanty farm. Josie believes and forgives her father, teasing him about playing Cupid, saying she will not leave him. With this, Phil lights up, claiming that he had thought of committing suicide in Harder's ice pond, and in an attempt to restore the old relationship, he calls for his breakfast; but when he vents his rage at Jim, Josie stops him in anguish: "Father, I love him!" Phil apologizes, and the two try to act in their normal adversary manner. As Phil goes in, Josie looks after Tyrone: "May you have your wish and die in your sleep, soon, Jim, darling. May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace."
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