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The Stature of Long Day’s Journey Into Night


BY Michael Manheim
FROM The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill, Cambridge University Press, 1998


What Richard Sewall1 suggests is the most salient characteristic of true tragedy is not its plots, themes, or subjects so much as the range of human feeling it incorporates in a single work, notably the “capacity for suffering” and the “stamina” of its central figures. To this I would add that it is not suffering and stamina alone, important as these qualities are in tragedy, which contribute to the greatness of a work but also the range of often contradictory feelings underlying the characters’ statements and actions. In Sophocles’ Antigone, it is not Antigone’s monumental courage and fortitude in insisting on her brother’s burial that contributes to our sense of who she is so much as it is that courage and fortitude set next to her equally monumental rigidity. Her heroism does not rule out this rigidity nor does the rigidity discredit the heroism. It is in taking those qualities together that we come to see her as tragic.


Long Day’s Journey Into Night requires this kind of full assessment. Those who see the play as overwhelmingly painful, depicting only what one critic calls the “nightmare realities” of family life, tend not to recognize the force of the contradictions within the dialogue. The pain is abundant, of course, but so are the gestures, responses, sometimes even nothing more than pauses in the seemingly endless patterns of recrimination that alleviate the pain.


Such contradictory feelings within the dialogue are first apparent in the opening act during a heated exchange between James Tyrone and his elder son, Jamieas the two prepare to go out and trim the hedge. Disagreement and recrimination are abundant hereon subjects ranging from Edmund’s illness, Mary’s possibly revived addiction, James’s stinginess, Jamie’s apparent failure in lifebut each character repeatedly counters. the recrimination by appeals for sympathy and reassurances like Jamie’s “almost gentle “I’ve felt the same way, Papa.” And if such reassurances are followed by renewed attacks and counter-attacks, nevertheless, the pauses, appeals for sympathy, and assertions of common feeling are periodically so pronounced as to serve as markers of the undercurrent of mutual trust that exists beneath the turbulence of their relationship. Such early encounters establish the constant counterpoint of feelings that will be heard throughout the play.


What one looks for first in any naturalistic play is, of course, the story, the plotespecially in the case of O’Neill, the melodrama, since O’Neill was, from start to finish, subject to the accusation of being a “melodramatist.” And melodrama there is aplenty in this play. It is the story of the day in the family’s life when the genuine if shaky stability it has somehow always maintained breaks apart from causes that are essentially unavoidable. The melodramatic interest inherent in the plotwhat is sometimes called the “suspense”is rooted in two closely related questions: (1) Has Mary Tyrone reverted to her drug-addiction of long standing, implying that she will be lost to her family, perhaps permanently? And (2) Has Edmund Tyrone contracted the much-feared “consumption,” implying that he will be lost to his family, perhaps permanently? These are the basic questions that move the plot from beginning to end, increasingly intensifying the aura of fear, a time-honored attribute of melodrama, surrounding these people.


Concomitantly, James and Mary confront their problems in melodramatic language that leans heavily on James’s roles in traditional stage melodrama and on Mary’s Victorian upbringing. Mary’s lines especially, increasingly influenced by her drug, make the play seem like the kind of old-time melodrama which focuses on such issues as “madness” and the unnatural.


But the play is not melodrama. That Mary has reverted to her addiction and that Edmund will have to go to a sanatorium are really the givens of the playnot what anyone the least familiar with O’Neill’s life will first learn from its plot. And the melodramatic poses of James, Sr. which so irritate his sons, are more the stuff of the play’s comedy than of any genuine sound and fury. Even Mary’s drug-induced arias evoke not so much fear finally as deep compassion. The structure of the last act as it deals with the drugged Mary’s threatened appearance illustrates that we are beyond melodrama. Her repeated pacings upstairs and Edmund’s glimpses of her about to descend but changing her mind evoke an aura of terrorthe madwoman-in-the-atticthat sharply contrasts with her actual appearance at the end, where, totally divorced from reality as she is, she not only arouses pity rather than fear but also seems, for some, to emblemize some of the play’s deepest meanings.


The melodrama and the melodramatic effects, then, serve as the background of the playpart of the set in a sensebut the foreground consists of the life of these figures as we see them relating to one another under the play’s testing circumstances. The foreground evokes not the fear associated with the background melodrama but the compassion and understanding associated with tragedy.


For me, the long final act is the all-important one because it shows the men of the family reaching one another as deeply as people ever do, and that final act will receive the lion’s share of this discussion. But the final act (until its very end) leaves out the play’s one major woman character, even though her presence upstairs generates the intensity of feeling the men experience. Therefore, since Mary is both the figure the playwright felt most strongly about in writing the play and the one he seems least able to fully to come to grips with, she must receive her due before any comprehensive understanding of the work can be achieved.


Most men have difficulty understanding their mothers. In O’Neill’s case that difficulty was exacerbated by his own mother’s addiction, the cause he believed of his life-long pain. The character representing her must be looked at carefully in any analysis of this play. But the scene in which Mary’s role is most affectingher monologue constituting the largest part of the third actis one in which she is under the control of her narcotic. And memorable as this episode is, it may contribute more to our understanding of the effects of morphine than to our understanding of the woman. On the other hand, her appearances earlier in the play show her in her “normal” state, a state in which she plays the role of wife and mother, trying to hide the signs of her habit from the men. The episode I would like to look at in some detail is one in which Mary reveals most about herself in her relatively unnarcotized condition, one in which she struggles to deal openly with herself and with Edmund. It is an exchange late in Act 2, just before her men leave her to go downtown; and while Edmund intends this exchange to be a final appeal to his mother to control her addiction, it develops into something quite different.


Mary, picking up from an earlier discussion of Edmund’s deteriorating health, begins by being solicitous of him, saying he should not go up town in “the dirty old trolley” on such a hot day. But the motivation for her concern is of a complex nature that sets the tone for the rest of the exchange. A series of intertwined fears constitutes the mood out of which she speaks and in one way or another color everything she says. They include her natural motherly fear concerning Edmund’s health, her fear that he probably has the dreaded consumption, her fear that she is constantly being watched, and her fear of being left alone with her drug. In the midst of these fears is also a clarity, however, about who she is and what she is doinga clarity that breaks out suddenly, like sunlight that momentarily breaks through the fog but quickly disappears.


Response sets off counter-response. We hear her go into a tirade against Doc Hardy, whom Edmund must visit to be told the truth that he has the illness that killed her fatherHardy, who, she says, can only look “solemn and preach will power” in response to her condition. The mention of Hardy then sets off other responses: that her husband likes Hardy for only charging a dollar, and a few lines later that the upset caused by Edmund’s illness is the chief cause of her renewed addiction. But then the intensity of her reactions is suddenly broken as she realizes, with a clarity of thought quite missing up until now that Edmund may feel she is using his illness as an excusewhich Edmund, of course, does feel. Next Edmund’s appeals to his mother to give up her drug (“You’re only just startedYou can still stop”) are met with the familiar contradictory denials: from “Please...don’t talk about things you don’t understand!”which at least acknowledges that the problem existsto “Anyway, I don’t know what you’re referring to.” Mary’s denials always represent the nadir of her fear.


Out of this plethora of startling shifts in response come, however, the honesty and clarity of her most memorable statement of the scene. Acknowledging that it is natural for Edmund to suspect she is blaming him, she becomes totally and pitifully open:

How could you believe mewhen I can’t believe myself? I’ve become such a liar. I never lied about anything once upon a rime. Now I have to lie, especially to myself. But how can you understand, when I don’t myself. I’ve never understood anything about it, except that one day long ago I found I could no longer call my soul my own.

(Complete Plays III, 769-70)

This moment of truth leads to a new theme: that one day, “when the Blessed Virgin Mary forgives me and gives me back the faith in Her love and pity I used to have in my convent days,” she will be “sure” of herself, even when she hears herself “scream with agony.” The whole idea of Mary’s religious faith is mootoften quite contradictorylike much else in the play. On the one hand, O’Neill seems to present it as a genuine means for Mary’s recovery (as it may have been for O’Neill’s mother in real life). But on the other, especially as she lowers “her voice to a strange tone of whispered confidence, it sounds like a new version of her drug This is especially apparent in her reference to her feeling that she will be sure of herself even while she hears herself scream in agony. The ambiguity here seems twofold: first in reflecting O’Neill’s own ambivalence toward the religion of his youth, and second in reflecting the puzzle he finds at Mary’s center. Her statement about her religious faith appears to flow naturally from her most open and honest attempt to understand her addiction. But it reflects a dependence on a religious figure that suggests the workings of the drug itself. So her clearest moment reflects another crucial contradiction.


But she immediately reverts again to cynical denial. Suddenly thinking that Edmund will not believe her confession since he always suspects her of lying, she reverts to the most denying (and rejecting) of all her attitudes: “Now I think of it, you might as well go uptown. I forgot I’m taking a drive. I have to go to the drugstore.”


I deal with this passage not primarily to illustrate Mary’s cynical denials but to illustrate the manifold nature of Mary’s consciousness. A feeling of motherly solicitude leads to one of intense anger, which leads to one of intense anxiety, which leads to one of hysterical accusation, which leads to one of guilt, which leads to one of open acknowledgment, which leads to one of hope rooted in a lost religious faith, which leads to one of cynical rejection. All these are Mary Tyroneno one more important than the rest. Mary ends this dialogue with her very cynical statement about going to the drugstore. And he concludes the scene on a similarly contradictory note. Alone for the first time, she says that she feels both glad the men are gone and terribly isolated by their departurealtogether contradictory sets of feelings simultaneously experienced.


The Mary we see and hear during her extended monologue opening Act 3 possesses the same characteristics we saw in the short scene just dealt with, but always, and increasingly, under the influence of her drug. She swings from fuzzy remembrances of life at the convent and of her first meeting with the matinee idol who was to be her husband to the harsh self-assessment that seemingly more rational thoughts provide, but both extremes are in large part responses to the narcotic stimulusworking, it is true, upon actual memories and feelings, but coloring them, distorting them, making them seem at times more like ravings than her feelings in the scene with Edmund just described.


With the return of James and Edmund the same distortions continue to characterize the counterpoint of Mary’s responses. Her exchange with Edmund while James goes to the cellar to fetch a new bottle of whiskey might be considered a continuation of the exchange discussed earlier. She displays the same hysteria at the prospect of Edmund’s illness (now medically confirmed), the same condemnation of Doc Hardy, the same instants of motherly affectionexcept that it is now clear that what Mary says at both extremes is greatly affected by the drug. Edmund is finally goaded into his famous “It’s pretty hard at times,, having a dope fiend for a mother!”a still point in the breakdown of their relationship. It is this attack that sends Edmund off into his most guilt-ridden flightinto the night, with the same, we must suppose, suicidal thoughts that provoked him to the earlier actual suicide attempt he alludes to in his subsequent conversation with James. It is not so much the contradictions, but the dope that Edmund cannot deal withas it is the dope that none of the men can deal with.


So, in pursuing the family relationships from this point on in the play, the now thoroughly drug-imprisoned Mary must be left outuntil the very end. It is the relationship among the men that is the subject of the play’s long final act. There is here no segment involving James and Jamie, perhaps because there was one in the first act that potently demonstrated both the savagery of their hostility and the depth of their closeness. There is nothing more the play can tell us about their relationship. So the focus of Act 4 will be first on James and Edmund, then on Edmund and Jamie, the retrograde brother who arrives on the scene fresh from Mamie Burns’s brothel much later in the evening. The oft-suggested idea that tragedy puts before us experience we are familiar with from our own lives, only in more highly charged terms and with more perilous implications, is nowhere better illustrated than in the relationships between James and Edmund, then Edmund and Jamie, that run the gamut of contradictory emotions the playwright creates in this final act. Both relationships rock between genuine hostility and equally genuine fellow-feeling, both extremes intensified by the alcohol they consume, which leads them to speak more openly and emotionally than they might otherwise do.


James and Edmund are very much father and adult-but-younger son in a late-night confrontationthe father ever over-confident regarding his wisdom and experience, the son ever insistent upon his individuality and independence. They are intensifications of their progenitors Nat and Richard Miller of Ah, Wilderness!, who are nothing if not typical middle-class father and son; but the subject of the Tyrones’ discourse is a serious illness and an afflicted mother rather than a late-night fling in a seedy tavern. Those are large exceptions. The difference enlarges Long Day’s Journey to tragic proportions. The special conditions of their relationship from the start take them beyond that earlier play: James’s having once been a promising Shakespearean actor of shanty-Irish background and Edmund’s having a disease which at the time of the play was still looked upon the way many look upon AIDS in this day. And, of course, the special circumstance that both are extremely worried about a wife-mother who is a drug addict. All this is heard, of course, in the context of the contradictions between them and within each.


At the opening of the scene, a dejected Edmund runs head-on into his father’s penny-pinching. Full of clichés all-too-familiar to the family about “making the electric company rich” and the time-honored “learning the value of a dollar,” James orders Edmund to turn off the meager hall light (this is 1912, remember), which Edmund has switched on after bumping his knee in the dark. Much of this interchange is still the stuff of situation comedyas is Edmund’s refusal to obey and the rage with which James responds to the challenge. But the immediate counterpoint comes with James’s realization, as he feels moved to strike his son, of Edmund’s conditionwhich prompts an exaggerated outflow of guilt and profuse affection. The pattern is set for what follows.


As he does periodically along the way, James proposes they have a drink while at the same time chastising Edmund for drinking in his condition. In response, Edmund launches into the first of several recitations of then-contemporary poetrythis one from Ernest Dowson’s “Cynara” poem, which includes the famous “They are not long, the days of wine and roses.” This he shortly follows with Baudelaire’s poetic advice to “Be ever drunken...with wine, with poetry, or with virtuebut be ever drunken.” Edmund’s immediate purpose in these quotations is to justify his drinking and to challenge his father, but their larger effect is to resonate the deeper ideas of the scene and of the play. Their conflict here is clearly of a different order than those involving Edmund’s illness and Mary’s addiction. Father and son here are drawn close by their mutual response to the impact of the verseeven if James does compare it unfavorably with Shakespeare and call Edmund’s poets “whoremongers and degenerates”for what the poems all imply is that the vicissitudes of life must be indeed unbearable but for the possibility of being “ever drunken.” Edmund is advocating the pursuit of what a later writer was to call the “lightness of being,” attitudes which make the experience of living itself inebriating. Although he assaults Edmund’s poets, James implicitly shares this outlook in his favorite toast, “Drink hearty,” and in his stated admiration for Edmund’s poetic efforts.


But the contrapuntal pattern of the scene continues. The discussion of poets and poetry leads to the mention of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whom James condemns as a “dope fiend”which directly leads both to thoughts of Mary. Father and son turn on one another with the sound of Mary pacing upstairs. The talk turns again into attack and defense, prompted by Edmund’s reference to James’s supposed penury concerning doctors. In the midst of this, at James’s suggestion, they begin a card game, which has the effect, like the sharings of the bottle, of again breaking the tensionbefore hostilities are again renewed.


In one of their moments of relative harmony, James, to explain why he is a “miser,” commences his extended aria of the scenethe tale of his father’s suicide, his long-suffering mother, and his impoverished youth. This leads into the story of his career as a promising young Shakespearean actor working with the great Edwin Booth, and why he took the infamous role which made his fortune but ruined his chances of ever fully realizing his talents. Edmund, as he remarks elsewhere, has heard the story “ten thousand times,” but hearing it under the circumstances, and as it is related by the great performer at the height of his powers, it reaches him, perhaps for the first time. For the first time he empathizes with his father, not only with his pain because shared pain is so much a part of this scenebut also with his father’s earlier hopes and enthusiasms.


Edmund then tells his story of his life at sea, which is not involved so much with the pain of his immediate past as with the glimmers of intermittent hope and faithever punctuated by renewals of bitterness, of coursethe sea has given him. This is significant because, in spite of the pain and regret of his father’s narrative, what Edmund tries to equal in talking about his own life is the poetry implicit in the older man’s speech. The exchange brings them together as never before as they hear the mood-shattering sounds of the elder brother’s return.


This encounter between James and Edmund is best experienced in the theatre (or on screen), of course, where when well performed it seems far less prolonged than it may read off the printed page. What it conveys, beyond anything else, is a sense of closeness and interdependence made more rather than less convincing by the periodic near-violence of their conflicts. The two function as father and son on a deeper level here than in most other such encounters in drama.


If the relationship between James and Edmund is a combination of the universal and the particular, that between Jamie and Edmund is still more sothe universal eminently recognizable in their brotherly camaraderie and competitiveness, and the particular again deriving from the special nature of their mutual pain. Both share the time-honored cynicism of educated youtheven if Jamie’s youth is wearing rather thinand both share the familiar feelings of an older—younger brother relationship, Jamie having long been Edmund’s model to emulateboth in his wit and his debauchery. But the particular nature of their brotherly relationship has chiefly to do with Mary. Each knows better than anyone else how the other one feels about hera mutuality of feeling that closely links thembut each is deeply and irrationally jealous. Jamie, as he says explicitly, cannot help resenting the fact that it was Edmund’s being born that started Mary on her morphine. Edmund cannot help resenting Jamie’s harboring such feelings and that Jamie’s having learned of Mary’s addiction so much earlier“caught her in the act with the hypo”has set a model of despair that the younger brother cannot escape. Yet, as Jamie also observes, the special nature of their suffering has brought them closer together than most siblings. Much about their mutual affection and resentment is familiar, but have a “dope fiend for a mother” gives their relationship its tragic dimension.


At the heart of this episode lie Jamie’s radical swings in behavior and mood, intensified but not really much exaggerated by his drink. He is the “holy sinner” of this play, the epitome of its view of the human condition as innately contradictory. On the negative side, Jamie is its most corrupt figure. Not only is his alcoholism pernicious, but along with it come the other aspects of his corruption: the sardonic tongue, the malicious sexual behavior, the indolence, the gambling and general financial profligacy, and his dependence on the support of his father. So sardonic does he become in this scene that he refers to Mary as a “hop-head,” a word which understandably prompts Edmund to strike him in their confrontation’s most violent moment.


But on the all-important other hand, Jamie Tyrone is the one truly humane figure in this playand while this idea might seem incomprehensible to some, it contributes much to the kind of stature the play possesses. This stature has to do with the deepest kind of emotional suffering accompanied by the recognition and understanding of that suffering by the sufferer. When Jamie says early in the play that he knows how his father feels about Mary’s condition, he speaks out of an empathy which is his unique gift. Along with the large capacity of his own suffering, he can feel the suffering of otherseven Mary’s, whose drug dependency he is the only one of the three men can see is parallel to his own alcohol dependency. And her reversion, after a brief period of false hope, has hurt him the most: “It meant so much. I’d begun to hope, if she’d beaten the game, I could, too.”


The segment of the episode that tells us most about who Jamie is (how O’Neill sees him) is his rendition of this visit to the bordello, where he chose as his sexual companion “Fat Violet,” the whore who is about to be let go because none of the customers want her. Though speaking sarcastically (which is his wont), Jamie’s description of his time with her as a “Christian act” is in fact just that. He felt sorry for Vi, he sayssorry for her when his purpose in going to the brothel was to make him forget his sorrow for himself. The fact of having had sex with her especially fits this definition. He had, he says, “no dishonorable intentions” when he escorted her upstairs. He just wanted, he says, to recite some of the modern poets to her (for example, Dowson’s “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion”)which characteristically seems intended both to mock her and to comfort her but she grew angry and cried. “So I had to say I loved her because she was fat,” he says, “and she wanted to believe that, and I stayed with her to prove it, and that cheered her up…”  If the “Christianity” of this act may elude some, it may nevertheless be seen as the one act of completely selfless giving in the play.


Yet with all this, the swings to the negative in Jamie’s attitudes become ever more savagethe liquor talking, he says, but we know by this time it is always the essential character talking. He persistently returns to his attacks on Edmund“Mama’s baby, Papa’s pet, the family white hope”even to the most savage of all“it was your being born that started Mama on dope.” But he always swings back to the equally heartfelt praise of his brother and pleas for his understanding: ‘You’re the only pal I’ve ever had. I love your guts. I’d do anything for you!”


These swings culminate, of course, in his concluding confession, in which he cuts his lifeline with his only friend by warning Edmund of his potentially destructive nature. He will, he says, be waiting to greet Edmund with a genuinely glad hand upon his return from the sanatorium, but he will also be waiting to stab him in the back. This is by no means a confession of hypocrisy but rather an understanding, not shared by the other men about themselves or him, that there are always two parts of an individual speaking, a dead part and a live part: “The dead part of me hopes you won’t get well.” But while the dead part is to be feared, the live part is equally potent as is revealed in his repeated outbursts of unconditional affection for his brother culminating in his final appeal: “Remember I warned youfor our sake. Give me credit. Greater love hath no man than this, that he saveth his brother from himself.” Having Jamie recite this last variant of scripture sarcastically, as some productions do, misses the point. His devotion to Edmund is real, as even James, Sr. observes a few lines later, and it is in his case a devotion the live part of him has for all the people of the playincluding Mary. But it is ever juxtaposed with the savagery of the dead part. It is thus that Jamie is O’Neill’s spokesman in the play, his exaggeratedly contradictory states focusing tragedy’s inescapable light on the human condition.


If the play’s tragic force is brought home by the violently alternating emotions of the pairs of men in the last act, its concluding elegiac quality is the mood of Mary’s final appearance. Mary is now totally back in her world of the convent. She fumblingly plays the piano in the next room as the men awake from their drunken sleep, more than a little frightened at what they may see when she appears. But what they see is a dazed woman carrying an elegant wedding dress, lost in her romantic past. Still under the spell of her drug, she laments on the one hand her loss of the convent and on the other her marriagein which she “was so happy for a time.”


Unlike her earlier drugged states, this is one of resignation. More deeply under the spell of her drug than she has ever been, she here embodies the play’s central, and for O’Neill life’s ultimate and most critical, contradictions. Tragedy is by its nature both devastating and uplifting—and so is the appearance of the life-giving/life-destroying mother—the source of their love and their hate—both devastating and uplifting.


The terrible beauty of this scene is captured in the spirit of Jamie’s final poetic quotefrom Swinburne’s “A Leave-taking”which bespeaks both the pain and the acceptance of their mother’s tragedy:

Let us rise up and part; she will not know.
Let us go seaward as the great winds go,
Full of blown sand and foam; what help is here?
There is no help, for these things are so,
And all the world is bitter as a tear.


No one can say what a truly great tragedy is. Even the Greeks and Shakespeare are being questioned by the critical pace-setters of the late twentieth century. But for most, Aristotle’s measures still hold. It must achieve genuine and widely acknowledged emotional catharsis and it must convincingly portray an image of fallen greatness. Long Day’s Journey Into Night has certainly succeeded on the first count and for most on the second as well. The rhythmical play of its emotional extremes have affected audiences as have few other dramas of the twentieth century, and the images of fallen greatness in the deterioration of so finely wrought a family has evoked the kind of empathy that has convinced many that the play deserves to be placed beside the Oedipus plays and King Lear. It has undeniably been a model for family plays of the later twentieth century and perhaps will be for centuries to follow. The future may test such assumptions, but for the present this play may be held up as the epitome of tragedy in our time.




1Richard Sewall was the person who immediately came to mind when a separate article on Long Day’s Journey was scheduled for this volume. His essay on the play in The Vision of Tragedy (enlarged edition)—Yale University Press, 1980:161-99—seems to me to have come closest to articulating in direct, concrete language the nature of the play’s greatness. As editor of this collection, I originally asked Professor Sewall, who is at this writing approaching his 88th birthday, to write the piece; but after considering the possibility for some weeks, he declined, feeling he had nothing to add to what he had already published. It is, then, in recognition of what Sewall has done that I have taken the lead from his work in developing further my own thinking about the play.


Most O’Neill critics have dealt with this play. Among those who should certainly be read is Normand Berlin, who discusses it extensively in almost all his publications on O’Neill.


Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.


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