BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, March 4, 1973
There is a relentless logic in the fact that Eugene O'Neill, America's
greatest tragic playwright, ended his career
with the writing of a starkly autobiographical play. "Long Day's Journey
Into Night" is the story of the four O'Neills—called the Tyrones in the
play—at a moment of anguished crisis in the summer of 1912. The play's
names and events are so thinly disguised that there is no disputing the
literal nature of its revelations.
Like James and Mary Tyrone of "Long Day's.
Journey," James and Ella O'Neill fought an endless, losing battle to
adjust to each other's totally dissimilar natures. Ella came from an
emigrant Irish family that had attained middle-class respectability by
the time she was growing up. James's own emigrant family never made it
up from poverty, and James struggled desperately to attain
success—though not respectability—as a leading actor of his day. Actors
were not, in the 1870's, quite socially acceptable. But they could
achieve a kind of raffish glamour, and the sheltered, delicately bred
Ella became infatuated with the handsome young matinee idol.
The glamour soon rubbed off, under the stress of
years of touring back and forth across the country, which provided James
with his chief income. By the time Ella realized that she was miserable
in her life as an actor's wife, she also realized that she and James
were bound to each other by a helpless love that was stronger than any
disaffection for their mode of living. Shortly after the birth of her
younger son she became a morphine addict. The O'Neills'
unsettled life and Ella's drugged acceptance
of it had a predictable effect on their sons, James Jr. (Jamie) and
At the time in which "Long Day's Journey Into
Night" is set, James and Ella had settled fatalistically for the cycle
of love-hate, guilt and forgiveness, depicted in the play. Their son
Jamie, at 33, had become a cynical, alcoholic has-been, his chief
preoccupation to goad his long-suffering father, whom he blamed for his
mother's illness. And Eugene (called Edmund in the play) was, indeed, at
23, on the verge of a severe breakdown in health, brought about by the
derelict life he had led since dropping out of college at 18.
While "Long Day's Journey" is the final, naked
revelation of O'Neill's "truth" about his family, it is by no means
O'Neill's only significantly autobiographical play.
But it was not until the publication of the play in
1956, three years after O'Neill's death, and the recognition of its
autobiographical content, that it became possible to discern how very
autobiographical many of his earlier plays had been. It then was
apparent that such plays as "All God's Chillun Got Wings,"
"Desire Under the Elms," "The Great God Brown," "Mourning Becomes
Electra," "A Touch of the Poet" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten"
(written just after "Long Day's Journey," but published in O'Neill's
lifetime) had been symbolically disguised portraits of the members of
O'Neill's family, locked in various stages of conflict with each other
and God. A number of other O'Neill plays, notably "Beyond the Horizon,"
"Anna Christie," "The Iceman Cometh" and O'Neill's only comedy, "Ah,
Wilderness!" contain subtler autobiographical references, But it is the
plays dealing with the husband-wife, parent-child relationships that
suggest O'Neill had been testing, and steeling himself for, the ultimate
soul-baring of "Long Day's Journey."
"All God's Chillun Got Wings," written in 1923, is
the first play in which O'Neill portrayed his parents in conflict. In
this undeservedly neglected work, O'Neill, not bothering to disguise his
parents' given names, called his two protagonists Jim Harris and Ella
Downey. He did not deem it necessary to disguise the names because Jim
was black and the play, extremely daring for its time, seemed, on the
surface, to be a study of miscegenation. He correctly assumed that it
would be impossible for anyone to identify the Jim and Ella of the play
with his father and mother.
But with "Long Day's Journey" as a key, it becomes
obvious that Jim and Ella Harris symbolically represent James and Ella
O'Neill, just as James and Mary Tyrone represent them literally.
James and Mary Tyrone are shown to be at once
deeply in love and irrevocably embattled; Mary dwells on the fact that
she has, out of helpless passion, married beneath her. She indulges in
self-pitying monologues. She has tried to understand James's ambition,
and his terror at being unable to rise to, and stay at, the top, but she
cannot excuse the effect it has had on her. James cannot reach her
through the fog of morphine into which she withdraws.
James, for his part, adores her, but writhes under
her withdrawal and contempt. Ella perceives herself as having been
driven to addiction by James. He feels that her weakness has ruined his
life. He has had to resign himself to caring for her as one would a
Similarly, Ella and Jim, in "All God's Chillun Got
Wings," marry out of desperation. Each needs and clings to the other,
though they cannot give each other happiness or even peace. Ella, who is
poor but white, considers herself Jim's superior. Jim, who cannot
overcome his sense of inferiority as a black, swallows this humiliation.
Ella resents Jim's unrelenting fight to overcome the disadvantages of
his background. She is furious at being dependent on him, and incapable
of accepting his self-sacrifice and devotion to her. Jim cannot follow
her behind the locked door of her disillusionment.
Jim and Ella drive each other to the brink of
madness, but they do not let go. In the end, Jim's hope of rising above
the petty cruelties that life has imposed on him is crushed, and he
resigns himself to being Ella's nurse.
In "Desire Under the Elms," written a year after
"All God's Chillun Got Wings," O'Neill pushed beyond the marital
conflict of his black-white play to express an even more agonized
concept of his victimized mother and almost equally victimized self. In
this play the mother is dead, but her presence
is palpable and insistent.
The father is neither an actor, as is accurately
portrayed in "Long Day's Journey," nor the
symbolic black man of "All God's Chillun Got
Wings," but domineering, hard-bitten, frugal
Yankee farmer named Ephraim Cabot, who
clawed a living from a rockbound New
England farm, crushing his fragile wife in the
process, and inspiring in his sensitive
younger son an Oedipal complex to warm the
cockles of any Freudian heart.
"I have always loved Ephraim much!," O'Neill once
wrote to a close friend. "He's so
Ephraim's theme, "God's hard,
not easy!," echoes the dying words of James
O'Neill to his son, that life was damned hard billet to chew."
O'Neill's portrait of Ephraim Cabot exposes
the same mixture of sympathy and
hostility, love and hatred, as his portrait
of James Tyrone—an accurate
revelation of O'Neill's conflicting emotions
toward his father.
The family relationships of "The
Great God Brown," written a year later, can
also be seen as having their inspiration
in the life of the embattled O'Neills, though
it is an intricately mystical, often confusing
play of masks. In the play the protagonist,
Dion Anthony, modeled on O'Neill, speaks of
his mother as "a sweet, strange girl, with
affectionate, bewildered eyes
as if God had locked
her in a dark closet without an explanation."
Of his father, Dion says, "What aliens we were
to each other. When he lay dead, his face
looked so familiar that I wondered where I
had met that man before. Only at the
second of my conception. After that, we
grew hostile with concealed shame."
Continuing to unravel the
complexities of his family under various
guises, O'Neill proceeded, in 1929, to "Mourning
Becomes Electra." Ostensibly a modern
retelling of the Greek legend, set in a New England town at the end of
the Civil War, "Mourning Becomes Electra" sticks close to the emotional
core of O'Neill's life. Here, again, the conflict between husband and
wife is expressed in terms of the conflict between Ella and James
O'Neill. And the bitter, blaming, guilty relationships between the
parents and their two children, though heightened melodramatically for
theatrical effect, are the same basic relationships of the O'Neill
O'Neill, speaking through the character of Lavinia
Marmon (Electra), ends the play with a line that is part despair, part
masochistic gloating: "I'm the last Mannon." O'Neill used precisely that
phrase after the death, in rapid succession,
of his parents and brother. He wrote to a friend, "I'm the last
In his dedication to his third wife, Carlotta
Monterey, of "Long Day's Journey" in 1941, O'Neill wrote: "I give you
this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood . . . You will
understand I mean it as a tribute to your love . . .that enabled me to
face my dead at last and write this play—write it with deep pity and
understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones"
Expressing a less sympathetic attitude toward his
family and himself ten years earlier, through Lavinia in "Mourning
Becomes Electra," O'Neill wrote:
"I'll live alone here with the dead, and keep their
secrets, and let them hound me until the curse is paid out .. . It takes
the Mannons to punish themselves for being born."
"A Touch of the Poet," one of O'Neill's last plays,
on which he worked, on and off, for seven
years, picks up many of the same threads that spin the tangled emotional
web of the earlier plays. It is, primarily, a scathing portrait of his
father—this time disguised as an innkeeper in a village near Boston in
The innkeeper, Cornelius Melody,
is "broad-shouldered, deep-chested."
(James Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey" is also
"broad-shouldered and deep chested.") Melody has "impervious
strength, a tough peasant vitality." (Tyrone has "a lot of solid,
earthy peasant in him.") Melody's manner "is that
of the polished gentleman. Too much so. He overdoes it and one
soon feels that he is overplaying a role which
has become more real than his real self for
him." ("The stamp of his profession is
unmistakably on Tyrone . . . The actor shows
in all his unconscious habits of speech,
movement and gesture.")
That O'Neill was very consciously
thinking of his father when he created
Cornelius Melody is apparent from a remark he
made to his friend, the critic, George Jean
"What ["A Touch of the Poet"] needs
is an actor like Maurice Barrymore or
my old man," O'Neill said. "One of those big-chested,
chiseled-mug, romantic old boys who could walk onto a
stage with all the aplomb and regal
splendor with which they walked into the old
Hoffman House bar, drunk or sober."
Lacking a Barrymore or a James
O'Neill, the Theatre Guild, which planned
to produce the play, was considering
Laurence Olivier. That was in 1947, and
Olivier, though he was a highly regarded actor, had not achieved the
stature that, today, might possibly have
met O'Neill's exacting and usually quite
unrealistic standards. The play finally
had to be postponed because of O'Neill's
failing health, and was not produced on
Broadway until five years after O'Neill's
death—without Olivier. There is some sort of ironic moral to be drawn
from the fact that Olivier is finally playing,
not Melody, the mock James Tyrone
O'Neill, but the original.
With "A Moon for the Misbegotten,"
the last play O'Neill was able to complete, he achieved a
blending of literal autobiography and poetic
fantasy that lifts it,
in some ways, above even the powerful "Long
Day's Journey Into Night." It has been given
several very good productions both here and
abroad, but it has yet to be universally
acknowledged as the soaring masterpiece it is.
The play describes the last, bitter
days in the life of Jamie O'Neill, here
called, as in "Long Day's Journey," Jamie
Tyrone. At the time of its writing Eugene
O'Neill was seriously ill with the nervous
disorder that shortly would end his career,
and both because of his illness and the play's painful content, he
suffered even more over its writing than
he had over "Long Day's Journey."
Most tormenting of all—perhaps even
more so than facing, again, as he did in
"Long Day's Journey," his mother's drug
addiction—was reliving his mother's death.
Ella O'Neill did not, in the
end, succumb to her morphine habit, as is implied by Mary Tyrone's final
scene in "Long Day's Journey." After her husband's death in 1920, she
made a final successful effort to overcome the habit, and lived a fairly
serene life until 1923, when she died in California of a brain tumor.
Jamie had given up drinking for her sake, and made her care his
The appalling details of Ella's
death and Jamie's journey from California to New York with her body, as
recounted by Jamie Tyrone, form the climax of "A Moon for the
Misbegotten." Jamie's impending death—the play
is set in 1923, two months before the death of the real Jamie—sounds
the final note of doom for the four haunted Tyrones.
It was almost as though O'Neill
feared that the Tyrones of "Long Day's Journey" might have been
construed still to have some life in them. And so he polished off Jamie
and repeated one more blazing epitaph for his family.
It was in 1923 that he became
"the last O'Neill." It was in 1943, the year "A Moon for the
Misbegotten" was written, that illness ended O'Neill's career. He lived
on another 10 years, much of that time a helpless invalid, dying in
November, 1953, of pneumonia.
In justice to O'Neill, it should
be noted that h requested that "Long Day's Journey" be withheld from
publication until 25 years after his death. His widow, for her own
reasons, decided to release the play. If O'Neill's wish had been
honored, the play's secrets would still be unrevealed, the secrets of
his family's tragedy perhaps forever unidentified.
To O'Neill, the whole thing
might have appeared to be just one more monstrous irony. He was a man
who could say and mean it: "Life is a tragedy. Hurrah!"