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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 5


The Tyrone Family as Allegory for
Pre-World War Two United States of America:
Illusions of an Isolationist Nation

Jessica L. Nastal
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Although Eugene O’Neill’s past unarguably permeates his writing and scholarship about the playwright, the focus of this paper is the historical context in which he wrote.  As O’Neill wrote Long Day’s Journey in 1940-41, placing the play within its pre-World War Two American context permits the text to function on an allegorical level.  The United States was on the verge of involvement in a global conflict in the 1912 of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, as well as in 1940 when O’Neill began writing the play; the ideals the Tyrone family confront in 1912 are similar to those the United States’ government and citizens are forced to acknowledge in 1940.  The Tyrones must somehow harmonize their past ideals and present realities, just as the United States must resolve its almost-mythical isolationist stance with the reality of global warfare and tyranny.  Taking into account the role of the past as it affects and pervades the present and future within the Tyrone family allows the reader to understand that O’Neill’s depiction of a family tragedy is emblematic of the country as a whole in a time of internal and international crisis.

Many of O’Neill’s critics emphasize the sources of his language, ideas, and philosophical inquiry, as well as ideas concerning life, death, hope, and despair.  His language choices were influenced by the writers O’Neill admired, “novels by Balzac, Zola, Stendhal, philosophical and sociological works by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Engels, Kroptkin, Max Stirner, plays by Ibsen, Shaw, Strindberg, poetry by Swinburne, Rossetti, Wilde, Ernest Dawson, Kipling, etc.” (O’Neill 11).  The influence of Stendhal, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Strindberg within O’Neill’s personal views and writing is well documented; by including these authors as part of the opening stage directions of Long Day’s Journey Into Night – under a portrait of Shakespeare – O’Neill immediately alerts his readers and audience to the play’s connection between old and new, as well as the conflict between European and American ideals.  It is as if Shakespeare is an ancestor of the contemporary writers, keeping watch over them, while Edmund helps bridge the gap between past and modern thinkers within the play.  The younger American generation of 1912, represented by Edmund, is influenced by contemporary European thought, which has the shadow of past (literary) heroes and thinkers looking down upon it.  Edmund most clearly represents the importance of the past on the present through his acknowledgment of European ties – even his name refers back to Shakespeare’s King Lear

True to the literary bent of the play, O’Neill’s characters struggle to communicate with each other.  Despite a common critical assertion that O’Neill works in universal terms, particularly through the emphasis on family and age-old tragedy, Normand Berlin highlights O’Neill’s focus on the use of language within the Tyrone family specifically, while Harold Bloom emphasizes the “repressed intensities of inarticulateness in all of the Tyrones” (12).   When the family is not arguing or hyper-analyzing each word another states, meanings are misconstrued and the men are reduced to quoting their heroes of the written word rather than expressing their sentiments in their own language, while Mary’s speech is limited to discussions of the past.  The late exchange between Edmund and Tyrone clearly demonstrates the family’s inability to communicate comfortably:

EDMUND‘It is the hour to be drunken!  Be drunken, if you would not be martyred slaves of Time; be drunken continually!  With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you will.’  (He grins at his father provocatively.)

TYRONE(Thickly humorous.) I wouldn’t worry about the virtue part of it, if I were you. (Then disgustedly.) Pah!  It’s morbid nonsense!  What little truth is in it you’ll find nobly said in Shakespeare. (Then appreciatively.) But you recited it well, lad.  Who wrote it? 


TYRONENever heard of him.  (132-33)

As Edmund and Tyrone spend time together drinking, trying to understand each other, they resort to quoting their literary idols.  Tyrone cannot allow himself to enjoy Edmund’s attempt at humor, and interrupts his own train of thought to reclaim his “morbid” chorus in response to Edmund.  Ironically, of course, Tyrone has “never heard of” Baudelaire – if he had, we presume he never would appreciate Edmund’s recitation! 

The men demonstrate that part of their inability to communicate is a resistance to understand the literature – emblematic of a generation’s thoughts, hopes, values, reflections, and ideals – that the other appreciates.  Tyrone exclaims,

(Thickly.) Where you get your taste in authors – that damned library of yours! (He indicates the small bookcase at rear.) Voltaire, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Ibsen!  Atheists, fools, and madmen!  And your poets!  This Dowson, and this Baudelaire, and Swinburne and Oscar Wilde, and Whitman and Poe!  Whoremongers and degenerates!  Pah!  When I’ve three good sets of Shakespeare there (he nods at the large bookcase) you could read.  (135)

Tyrone and Edmund most clearly represent the struggle O’Neill saw between ideas of the old and new world orders, of the United States’ past history and current reality.  Tyrone, whose career was made on his role of Othello, acknowledges the importance of Shakespeare in the English-language literary tradition.  He refuses, however, to consider the new generation of philosophers, poets, and writers that speak to his son; they are atheists and degenerates, and they come from all over Europe and the United States.  Ideas concerning individuality are threatening to the older generation, as new considerations of self often are.  Edmund, by reading and appreciating writing from all over the Continent as well as the United States, appears to be of a new generation, aware of the shrinking world in which he lives, and appreciative of the explosive, modern consideration of self.

Several O’Neill critics mention his dissatisfaction with American culture during pre-World War Two period.  Berlin comments on O’Neill’s evident viewpoint concerning “America’s spiritual death, a cynicism connected with ruthless power and greed” (83).  The American success myth – one that Tyrone attempts to embody – is also one of money and power.  Tyrone appreciates men such as the millionaire Harker, of the Standard Oil company; however, he also feels loyalty to Irish men such as Shaughnessy, whose clever wit and bravery (albeit with “a few drinks under his belt” [24]) Tyrone admires.  Part of his conflict is that of most immigrants; he wishes to sever ties with the old country in a sense, but cannot.  He is torn between living the American dream of accruing wealth, and remembering what it was like to be evicted from slum apartments, owning nothing.

Doris Falk explains that O’Neill went through a period of overwhelming depression and anxiety before World War Two (as he did in 1911-12, when he attempted suicide, alluded to by Edmund in Long Day’s Journey Into Night); he stopped work on his ambitious eleven-play cycle tracing American history, “pending a return of sanity and future to our groggy world” (O’Neill qtd. in Falk 26).  O’Neill’s characters escape – through “the presence of the past,” drugs, and alcohol – because they are unable “to cope with the harsh realities of post-industrial society” (Schroeder; Antón-Pacheco 52).  O’Neill resists the American “success myth”; as Brenda Murphy continues to explain, materialism, greed, and capitalism lead to a loss of human feeling for O’Neill and his contemporaries (136).  The millions dead from World War One did not lead to an inspiring world democracy; rather, the devastation throughout Europe and destruction of hope for humanity led to the rise of fascism.  This loss of innocence and sanity is what brings O’Neill to despair on the eve of another World War.

The anguish O’Neill expressed is common throughout the period, stemming from the idea that past values no longer have worth or merit; that there may no longer be any values.  Falk elaborates on O’Neill’s existential struggle: in a world devoid of value, humanity is responsible for the creation of ideals and for its actions.  Complete freedom is at once terrifying – driving some to escape through various means, including self-medication – and liberating.  Through an existential worldview, we have the opportunity to create our individual destiny, and by extension, the destiny of mankind.  In such a world, we turn to our individual and collective histories to find meaning, which is an entirely subjective endeavor.  Long Day’s Journey Into Night ends with a small sign of hope for the future, as Edmund and Tyrone have come to an agreement about Edmund’s health, and an understanding about each other.  If Edmund can break away from his family fate of alcoholism, tuberculosis, and suicide, there is hope for the new generation.  The individual becomes universal, much like the United States’ involvement in the World Wars helped shape our worldview from insular to global in scope.

During World War One, the United States tried to maintain their “absolute neutrality” under President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic view of internationalism.  Once Germany threatened the commercial shipping ventures of the United States, Wilson declared war in 1917; unquestionably, US troops helped to end the long war.  After the devastating and costly war – in terms of human lives, destruction to Europe, and financially for the United States – Americans were hesitant to engage in another conflict.  In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the third Neutrality Act, after Hitler had invaded Poland and action that had occurred throughout Europe, North Africa, and Asia would eventually lead to World War Two.  As Stetson Conn, former Chief Historian of the Army, explains, the United States’ defense policy at the time was focused on the nation and territories, to preserve the individual freedom guaranteed by the Constitution: “‘to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity’” (1).  The United States’ eventual entrance into the War was in direct reaction to Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, not as a response to Nazi atrocities throughout Europe.

In the years leading up to the United States’ 1941 entrance into World War Two, the country was effectively “‘pulled two ways – toward doing everything possible to beat Hitler and toward nothing at all that [would] get us into the war’” (Tuttle 857).   Isolationists, such as Joseph P. Kennedy, were seen as defeatists, envisioning how to best leverage any possible talks with Hitler once the Nazis invaded, usurped, or overwhelmed England.  William Tuttle explains how Kennedy cautioned Hollywood producers: “To decry the horrors of Nazism could act as a boomerang, he warned, and make Jews in the United States more disliked than they already were” (851).  Scott Herring and George Steiner describe the indifference and disbelief of the world in response to the Holocaust, concentration camps, German invasions, and Nazism in general, and the lack of effort to stop it.  Eventually, Conn remarks, the United States’ involvement in World War Two “was a catalyst that tied the United States as never before to other free nations and peoples” (7).  It revolutionized previous concepts of defense and democracy, with the recognition of the country as an actor on the global stage.

O’Neill resists a positive appraisal of the new “shrinking” world, especially when considering that the free world – especially the powerful United States – knew about the Nazis’ gross contempt toward human life and in his view, did nothing to prevent the massacre of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children.  The connection between United States’ slow involvement in World War Two and O’Neill writing Long Day’s Journey Into Night, his most autobiographical and, as many argue, most accomplished work, seems to be the idea of what motivates people and nations.  In the play, guilt is the great mobilizer.  Each character feels liable about an aspect of their past that keeps invading their present realities; particularly, the guilt each person feels regarding both Mary’s addiction and Edmund’s illness.  Mary is addicted to morphine because of the pain of childbirth with Edmund.  She had a third child because she and Tyrone wanted another, after Jamie killed their child Eugene out of jealousy and loneliness from traveling with the theatre.  Tyrone forced Mary to have a “quack” doctor who just wanted to alleviate her pain and did not care about the consequences.  Each family member feels some blame for Mary’s continued addiction, but no one wants to take responsibility for it, or for how their previous actions relate to their present realities.

Considering the United States, O’Neill makes the claim that the country must confront its past actions to productively live in the present and prepare for the future – a concept Franklin Roosevelt drew on extensively in his Third Inaugural Address.  He states,

In Washington's day the task of the people was to create and weld together a nation.  In Lincoln's day the task of the people was to preserve that Nation from disruption from within.  In this day the task of the people is to save that Nation and its institutions from disruption from without.  To us there has come a time, in the midst of swift happenings, to pause for a moment and take stock—to recall what our place in history has been, and to rediscover what we are and what we may be. If we do not, we risk the real peril of inaction…. And yet we all understand what it is—the spirit—the faith of America. It is the product of centuries. It was born in the multitudes of those who came from many lands—some of high degree, but mostly plain people, who sought here, early and late, to find freedom more freely.

The United States cannot deny its European heritage as an English colony, its role as a past actor in international conflicts, and perhaps more immediately, its status as a country comprised of millions of immigrants.  World War One had proved that the world was shrinking; it should have warned the nation that the days of isolation are in the idealized past.  The utter destruction throughout “The War to End All Wars” should have instilled an overwhelming sense of concern for humanity in citizens throughout the world, and especially the United States as one of the world’s wealthiest nations.  O’Neill witnessed his country’s slow mobilization in the face of atrocities committed by the Nazis, and was disgusted.  The Tyrones see the world of their house as isolated and isolating – the fog surrounds the house throughout the play, and each individual is contained within their worldview.  The characters, however, demonstrate that they are interconnected – every action and discussion in the past and in the present affects another family member, just as in the global context of conflict. 

The idea that past ideals can impede forward progress seems particularly applicable to the United States as a pre-World War II nation.  The United States had been motivated by anti-capitalist (anti-monopoly, power, and greed), isolationist policies through the nineteenth century and the Depression (May 11).  Progressivism, however, collapsed after World War I, after the failed realization of a new international democratic system.  As Richard Hofstadter states, “‘the quest for the American past…[was] carried on in a spirit of sentimental appreciation rather than critical analysis’” (qtd. in Noble 69).  Only a critical understanding of America’s past, and how that influenced the present, could led to a constructive position as a country “‘not only mechanized and urbanized, but internationalized as well’” (Hofstadter qtd. in Noble 72).  With the development of the welfare state, pluralism, and liberalism, and in the face of an international, world-wide war, the United States must take the values and ideals which helped create the unique nation, but apply them to a new world order. 

By contextualizing Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night within its pre-World War Two framework, audiences can better understand the dire necessity of confronting a debilitating, haunting past within the present.  Our pasts – collective and individual – help to define us as a people and as a person, on both national and domestic levels.  By confronting, not idealizing, our past ideals and how they influenced us, we can proceed to become productive and fulfilled in the present or future.  We must be sure not to repress or deny our past in the present, for as the Tyrones demonstrate, it can always find a way to resurface and weaken an individual, family, or country.


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Berlin, Normand.  “The Late Plays.”  Eugene O’Neill.  Ed. Michael Manheim.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.  82-95.

Bloom, Harold.  Introduction.  Eugene O’Neill.  Ed. Harold Bloom.  New York: Chelsea House P, 1987.  1-12. 

Conn, Stetson.  Changing Concepts of National Defense in the United States, 1937-1947.”  Military Affairs.  28 (1964): 1-7.  JSTOR.  Web. 16 June 2006.

Falk, Doris.  “Fatal Balance: O’Neill’s Last Plays.”  Eugene O’Neill.  Ed. Harold Bloom.  New York: Chelsea House P, 1987.  21-36.

Herring, Scott.  “Her Brothers Dead in Riverside or Russia”: “Kaddish” and the Holocaust.”  Contemporary Literature.  42 (2001): 535-56.  JSTOR.  Web. 16 June 2006.

Murphy, Brenda.  “O’Neill’s America: The Strange Interlude Between the Wars.”  Eugene O’Neill.  Ed. Michael Manheim.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.  135-147.

Noble, David W.  “The Reconstruction of Progress: Charles Beard, Richard Hofstadter, and Postwar Historical Thought.”  Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of the Cold War.  Ed. Lary May.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.  61-75.

O’Neill, Eugene.  Long Day’s Journey into Night.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1955.

Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of the Cold War.  Ed. Lary May.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Roosevelt, Franklin D.  “Third Inaugural Address.”  Jan. 20, 1941.  Lillian Goldman Law Library.  Yale Law School, 2008.  Web.  28 Sept. 2009. 

Schroeder, Patricia R.  The Presence of the Past in Modern American Drama.  Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1989.

Steiner, George.  Language and Silence.  New Haven:  Yale UP, 1970.

Tuttle, William M.  “Aid-to-the-Allies Short-of-War versus American Intervention, 1940: A Reappraisal of William Allen White's Leadership.”  The Journal of American History.  56 (1970): 840-58.  JSTOR.  Web.  16 June 2006.



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