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The Transcendence of Melodrama
in Long Day’s Journey into Night


BY Michael Manheim
FROM Perspectives on O’Neill: New Essays, edited by Shyamal Bagchee, University of Victoria, B.C., 1988

Many of those who see Long Day’s Journey into Night as a play that conveys a sense of the futility, absurdity, or meaninglessness of human existence, even those who claim to see the play as a tragedy, are actually seeing it as what R. B. Heilman calls a “drama of disaster,”1 a melodrama in which evil triumphs—the “evil” in this case being that triumphant futility.2 The story of a respectable matron discovered to be a drug addict seemingly unable to recover despite repeated “cures”; of a potentially great actor’s selling himself out to become a matinee idol; of a brilliantly talented, witty, and compassionate son’s continuing inability to “find himself’ at the age of 34; of the seemingly endless hurt and recrimination at the heart of family lifeall these are seen as proving the hopelessness of the human condition. Such a view polarizes the play, makes it melodrama. Any suggestions of hope in the play become the “good,” futility the opposite pole, the “evil” which triumphs.

In Heilman’s “drama of disaster,” positions must be polarized; melodrama of any kind leaves no doubts. Heilman sees this kind of clarity as a limitation in literature. He believes that the greater a dramatic work, the more it transcends the limits of melodrama. What those interpreters of Long Day’s Journey into Night referred to above do not see is that the play is a true tragedy precisely because it does not reduce existence to “good” and “evil” alternatives, regardless of what the good and evil stand for. Tragedy, Heilman implies, demands a complex understanding which, while it does not leave the moral and psychological implications of the play as clear as they necessarily are in melodrama, nevertheless makes them a more accurate reflection of life. However well acquainted we become with the major characters in a tragedy, they will always finally remain inscrutable to us. And the work itself will ever be subject to varying interpretations. Such is the case for a reading of Long Day’s Journey as tragedy rather than melodrama.

Like Heilman, a number of deconstructive critics make clear that the closer and more detailed the reading of any great literary work, the more inscrutable it becomes. Truly great works of literature (Oedipus, Lear, Anna Karenina, and, one might add, Long Day’s Journey into Night) take us close to the inscrutability of human existence itself. Far from fragmenting the works they deal with, which the deconstructors are sometimes accused of doing, those critics can add to our sense of the overall character of these works. J. Hillis Miller’s discussion of Lord Jim or Barbara Johnson’s of Billy Budd,3 through their elucidation of the unyielding contradictions central to these works, do not reduce but enlarge one’s sense of their wholeness. These critics have helped us to understand that encompassing what a deep literary work must encompass necessarily involves contradictions inaccessible to reason. Critics who see Long Day’s Journey as totally negative in its implications leave out this important element of contradictoriness.

A statement by Mary Tyrone, made in Act One, has often been cited in support of a pessimistic or positivistic reading of the play. In her personal despair about her pastin particular, her drug addiction and its causesMary answers James’s appeal that she “forget the past” with the cry: “How can I? The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too.” Mary feels that her past is fated to be repeated; she is what her past has made her, and there is no escaping that fact. Mary has at this point in the play reverted to her ritual of addiction. She has again begun to dwell on oft-repeated themes: the birth of her third child which she says brought about her first encounter with morphine, her loss of an earlier child, her earlier life with her husband, her days in the college/convent she attended. Going back through her past, she perceives each major event in her life, even her marriage, as a necessary outcome of what preceded it. And she finds her past characterized by repeated faith and hope followed by repeated disillusionment.

As if to parallel the structure of Mary’s ritual of despair, her husband and sons go through their own rituals, chiefly in reaction to her return to the drug: the shock, the sense of defeat, the drink, and, in the case of her sons, the over-riding cynicism. For each character, the discovery and persistent rediscovery of Mary’s addiction leads him from a sunlight of faith and self-confidence to an abyss of fear, loathing, and self-loathing. Mary’s story of lost hope, her sense of the inevitability of failure, leads the men to assess their own past lives in the same way. Jamie’s “They never come back” describes, from this perspective, not just Mary, but all the four haunted Tyrones. And this same progression forms the basis of the Tyrone “drama of disaster,” a structure of scenic images implicit in the title of the play. We are given the impression from the start that this is a play which moves from the hope and confidence of a sunlit morning, through a long afternoon of fogs and disillusionments, to a night of the darkness of despair. So it has always been, Mary implies, and so it will always be, we hear O’Neill implying, for the haunted Tyrones and for the whole misbegotten human race. Or so this reading of the play goes, a reading I see as melodramatic.

What, then, counters Mary’s theme, “deconstructs” the disaster structure I described, and takes the work beyond melodrama? It is the way Mary’s clear definition of the past is played off against multiple other interpretations of that past that leaves us unable to judge, unable to accept her simple melodramatic interpretation. The past may be the present, and the future, too—but past, present, and future are made up of such infinitely contradictory elements that the apparent solidity of Mary’s seemingly simple sense of cause and effect actually gives way to indeterminacy and uncertainty about both causes and effects.

In the speech, Mary imposes on her past its single meaning for her, but her interpretation of it is only one of its several contradictory meanings. Her meaning is implicit in her words “one day I could no longer call my soul my own,” the one fateful day probably being the day on which she first used morphine as a result of a “quack” doctor’s having prescribed it to counter the pain of Edmund’s birth. One past event, she maintains, shaped the present, and must inevitably shape the future as well. But James’s description of her earlier years (in Act Four), as well as her own “confession” to Kathleen in Act Three, suggests she had been given to seeking escapes well before she ever took morphine. And Mary’s final speech also suggests that the Mother Superior in her convent had recognized this quality in her when she insisted that Mary leave the convent for a time before deciding to become a nun—before possibly using the convent as an escape, that is, from the world. Moreover, her early marriage to an established older man, recounted in both her confession and James’s, suggests a desire to seek the protection of a father figure—her own father having obviously been a strong presence in her childhood—in preference to facing the world on her own. These parts of her past which O’Neill explicitly or implicitly presents suggest Mary’s tendency toward withdrawal well before the drug took hold, and that tendency, we might say, is evidence of a “weakness” in her nature which led to her addiction.

All very well, but was Mary’s indeed a “weak” nature? She also wanted to be a concert pianist, and there is evidence she had some ability. Was her addiction the result of a tendency to withdraw, or evidence rather of a strong, if frustrated, artistic sensibility? If we opt for weakness, we wonder whether the weakness was something she was born with, or the stress of a woman’s position in a man’s world, or the result of a traditional Irish Catholic upbringing? (That last would itself, of course, posit many contradictions in an O’Neill play.) Or was it a reaction to being drawn into an utterly new pattern of life as an overly young wife and mother? If we opt for strength, might not hers be the strength of a gifted woman unable to fulfill her talents? After all, similar characteristics also appear in her son, Edmund, whom we do not usually think of as weak and in whom uncertainty and inner conflict seem natural components of a creative nature. And just as causes of her addiction are ambiguous, so, too, are the causes of her guilt. Is it guilt at being a “dope fiend,” or guilt at having failed to be true to her abilities? Even so seemingly clear a motive force as the guilt so prevalent in all O’Neill’s plays is subject to conflicting interpretations.

The play presents all of these possible interpretations of Mary’s addiction. While her own view as she states it is over-simple, melodramatic, the truth of her situation is in fact indeterminate. All that we really learn from her past is that we can really learn nothing.

What holds for Mary also holds for her husband and sons. What appears to exist may indeed exist, yet something quite the opposite may also exist. One of the shaping forces in James’s past, of course, has been his popular adventure play and what he sees as his failure to have realized his potential as a “great Shakespearean actor.” What actually happened in the past, and the implications of what happened, are uncertain, however. While he clings to his interpretation of the waste of his talent, there is reason for us to believe that he succeeded in precisely the area he was best suited for. Certainly the figure we encounter on stage seems more a swashbuckling hero than a Hamlet. On the other hand, the years may simply have erased qualities which would have made the Shakespearean roles appropriate, especially in a nineteenth-century acting style. The point is that we can neither accept nor reject James’s view of the past. Too many contradictory factors are involved for us to be sure. James’s failure is clear enough—but so is his success. And there would always have been the drink—not necessarily related to the success or the failure—but not necessarily unrelated to them either. He had and he had not been a potentially great Shakespearean actor. The same ambiguity exists for James’s celebrated miserliness. Yes, he bought his wife a second-hand car. And, no: he gave his wife a Packard, which, even though this one was used, was nevertheless one of the finest cars of its day. In short, he was and he was not a miser.

It should be noted, moreover, that in his interpretation of the past (and of life), James is never so bound by a melodramatic perspective as Mary. For all his whiskey, he is not removed from the world as his wife is. He is able to adjust the absolutes which form the basis of his cliches and pronouncements, adjust often on little notice to the shifting realities around him. If he is at certain moments convinced of his own miserliness, the fatal nature of consumption, the moral bankruptcy of his eldest son, he at other moments hates waste, pays for the sanatorium, believes Edmund will live, and understands Jamie. This “double-think” is what makes him finally so flexible, especially in contrast to Mary, whose condition makes it much more difficult for her to go through comparable reversals, try as she at times does. It is James who is able to forgive once his wraths are spentforgive even Jamie, which the text makes it clear he does in fact do with almost clock-like regularity. And this flexibility suggests his instinctive appreciation of the ambiguity of the events the play deals with, past and present. James plays melodrama but knows when to yield the role-playing in the face of life’s complexities.

While the Tyrone sons, both of them through their laughter, claim the flexibility of youth in the face of their parents’ rigidities, they have their own pronouncements and cliches. Not until their all-important exchange in the last act are they really any less shackled by melodramatic perspectives than their parents are. Both Edmund and Jamie are determined to be convinced that the hotel quack brought on Mary’s addiction, that Mary lacks the “willpower” to overcome her condition, that their father is a miser, and that his alcoholism has been the chief root of their mother’s unhappiness. All of these views are single-minded melodramatic interpretations. Nevertheless, both brothers repeatedly reveal that their opposing convictions are just as strong (Edmund in his persistent hoping); and in the darkest recesses of their darkest night, it is Jamie who explicitly explores the indeterminacy of all things.

Looking specifically at Edmund, the contradictions inherent in his character are chiefly evident in his attitudes toward Mary. His responses are both vindictive and forgiving. Moreover, this opposition is itself subject to contradictory interpretations. His vindictiveness keeps seeming justified to him because Mary abandons him during her drugged states. Yet it also provokes the awesome guilt which possesses all O’Neill’s youthful heroes. Similarly, his forgiveness is two-sided. On the one hand, it suggests a childlike need for support, but it is also evidence of an increasing maturity. In turn, these two sets of contradictory responses are subject to their own internal contradictions. Past and present imply nothing about the future other than that in its inevitable contradictoriness it will resist all fixed interpretations.

Most subject to his own internal contradictions, yet the sole character to be aware of the inevitability of contradiction, is Jamie. His reactions to Mary are like Edmund’s, with the vindictiveness more savage and the guilt more intense. Both sides of Jamie’s responses to his parents are extreme. And with the accompanying alcohol (which like his father’s is both related and not related to these responses), he is also deeply involved in his own self-destruction. (For him in A Moon for the Misbegotten, the drink finally will have physical effects comparable to Mary’s morphine.)

In the talk with Edmund late in Act Four, all the contradictoriness underlying Jamie’s responses throughout the play becomes explicit. After pouring out his envy and resentment of his brother, Jamie pleads, in what is anything but a one-dimensional melodramatic appeal:

But don’t get me wrong, Kid.! love you more than I hate you. My saying what I’m telling you proves it. I run the risk you’ll hate me—and you’re all I’ve got left—What I want to say is, I’d like to see you become the greatest success in the world. But you’d better be on your guard. Because I’ll do my damnedest to make you fail.4

In expressing, and feeling as he expresses it, his great hostility toward Edmund, Jamie also expresses the very great love he has for his brother. And from what Jamie says, we also sense the contradictory elements in both his hostility and his love, equal parts of something negative and positive in each. Jamie identifies the negative parts of all his contradictions as “the dead part of-me,” a phrase which encompasses all of his cynicism but the statement of which denies the assertion and makes the “live” part of him so active a force in the play. Jamie, through his self awareness, more than any of the other characters takes the play beyond melodrama.

What I have been saying about open-endedness versus melodrama is also illustrated by the dialogue involving the men in this play, much of which consists of highly charged responses, made in full earnest, but with constantly shifting moral perspectives. When Jamie accuses James of having first let Mary become addicted by calling on the services of the cheap quack at the time of her pregnancy with Edmund, we are aware that alternative views are possible of that situation: that James indeed needed the immediate services of any physician at the time in question (though he did want a cheap one), that the “quack” in question may have treated Mary in the same fashion any physician of the time would have treated her (though hotel physicians could well have been of questionable ability), that Mary was yielding on that occasion to escapist impulses of long standing (though the pains associated with Edmund’s birth were undoubtedly very great). In no case is there a “right” or a “wrong” in what these characters say to one another. The power of O’Neill’s dialogue in this play comes from the realization, on our part but also at times on their part, that the certainty which underlies a genuinely melodramatic assertion does not exist.

The power also derives from the sense one gets that what we are hearing has all been said before, numerous times—a quality marvelously realized in the 1973 Laurence Olivier television production of the play. The heavy preponderance of cliches and catch-phrases, which might in another play be the natural accoutrements of melodrama, here, because they are so often mutually contradictory, creates resonances of contradictions going far back into the past. Not just on this day has the family told anecdotes about crafty Irishmen. Not just this once have James and Jamie quarreled bitterly over Mary’s condition. Not just this once have they been increasingly drawn together by their mutual concern for her. Not just this once has Mary alluded to her long waits for James in theatrical hotel rooms. Not just this once has Jamie jested with his brother about drinking and prostitutes. Not just this once has the deep communication between Edmund and his mother broken down. If Jamie can hear James’s cliches “coming,” we can hear his wisecracks and statements of cynical contempt coming. And these resonances deepen the contradictoriness which we associate with these figures. If they have split before, they have also come together, many times. The resonances involve reversals, reconciliations, the capacity to forgive, the certainty of renewed hostilities. The repetitions suggest that while this day journeys into night, the past is not one thing (as Mary sees it), this day too is contradictory, and the future will be more of the same. This day is special only in the sense that Edmund understands something more of life’s ambiguity than before.

The play’s title, however, finally more than anything else, keeps insisting that we consider the play a drama of disaster. Yet, if we also consider the symbolism of the fog in the play, which descends progressively as the “long day” progresses, and for many most convincingly indicates the despair in the play, we must find, as we have throughout, the contradictoriness. Fog is a notably contradictory image throughout the O’Neill canon. It connotes not only the despair inherent in being lost but also the joy inherent in having discovered one’s own identity—apart from family and society—like the heroine’s response to the fog in O’Neill’s much earlier Anna Christie. For Mary, the fog is associated with her drugged state, for which she fears it, but it is also the atmosphere in which she feels most independentand creative. The latter attitude is certainly also true for her younger son.

The fog was where I wanted to be.... Everything looked and sounded unreal. Nothing was what it was. That’s what I wantedto be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue.... (p. 131)

Both Mary and Edmund feel more in touch with themselves when they are enveloped by the fog, where “truth is untrue,” a phrase that states both flight from reality and the possibility of making a new truth. Fog, in short, does accompany mutually exclusive moods in this play.

And if fog does not connote a single point of view, why must night? Certainly in a melodramatic context, the word night is suggestive of finality, the finality of despair; and a “long day’s journey into night” seems to support the hopelessness implicit in Mary’s deterministic speech. But counter-images of night are also to be found in the play: for example, when Edmund recalls night on the “old hooker”:

I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! (p. 153)

This lyrical outbreak does not imply that Edmund’s images of night stand for the play, but neither must night as an image of despair stand for the play. Like Anna’s and Edmund’s beloved fog, night represents indeterminacy more surely than it represents “no exit” finality. If one is searching for absolutes, then the “long day’s journey into night” is a melodrama which ends in evil triumphant. If one is alive to the openness which has always characterized the greatest literature, then that long day’s journey is one into a longer night’s journey stillinto an unknown of endless possibility. In the night of the play’s last act, the men probe new openings in their relationships. If Mary cannot probe such new openings because the drug prevents responses, that single failure is hardly a certification of the bankruptcy of the human spirit, as some would seem to have it.

Sidney Lumet’s ending to the film version of 1961, which had the camera slowly withdrawing from the four “haunted Tyrones” close around their little table lit by their single light bulb into an un-starlit universe, is for me the most imaginative and open ending given a production of this very open-ended play.6


1.  See Robert B. Heilman, Tragedy and Melodrama (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968).

2.  Few critics genuinely concerned with the artistry of Eugene O’Neill consider the play melodrama, especially in comparison to O’Neill’s early plays, but most unquestioningly accept the statements about the past made by the characters, and many treat the play as a “drama of disaster” in that they see in it a testament to the final hopelessness of the human condition. In Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1958), for example, Doris V. Falk finds that the “tragic conception of life” is represented in the play “as an endless struggle between opposite images of the self,” and that this struggle is seen as “not only hopeless... but worthless” (194). “The final curtain,” she says, “falls on the most pathetic and terrifying scene in the entire canon” (191). Harold Bloom has more recently put the assessment of Long Day’s Journey as a “drama of disaster” in other terms: “The helplessness of family love to sustain, let alone heal, the wounds of marriage, of parenthood and sonship, have been so remorselessly and so pathetically portrayed, and with a force of gesture too painful ever to be forgotten by any of us.” Introduction to the critical anthology, Eugene O'Neill (New Haven, Conn.: Chelsea House, 1987), 12.

3.  In Miller, Fiction and Repetition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), 22-41; and in Johnson, The Critical Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 79-109.

4. Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1955), 166.

5.  Anna, in opposition to her father, speaks “exultantly” of the fog: “I love it! I don’t give a rap if it never lifts It makes me feel clean out here—‘s if I’d taken a bath.” The Plays of Eugene O'Neill 3 vols. (New York: Random-House, 1954), 3: 26.

6In contrast to Doris Falk’s view of the play’s closing scene, Jean Chothia concludes her discussion of the dynamics of language in the play with the following: “The quiet ending of the play is not a conclusion but another relentless beginning   In Forging a Language: A Study of the Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Cambridge University Press, 1982), 184. See also Judith Barlow, Final Acts: The Creation of Three Late O’Neill Plays (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), 63-111. Barlow deals with the playwright’s growing sympathy toward his characters through the various stages of the composition of each of his last major plays. This growing sympathy, she suggests, results in a view which recognizes the delicate balance between love and hatred, loyalty and betrayal, kindness and cruelty which constitutes the essential form of human relationships.

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