The great bulk of Eugene O'Neill's work was done between about 1914 and 1933, a period which saw him win Pulitzer Prizes for Beyond The Horizon, Anna Christie, and Strange Interlude as well as create The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, Desire Under the Elms, The Great God Brown, and Mourning Becomes Electra. But around 1933 O'Neill--who struggled against physical ailments, alcoholism, and a host of personal demons--fell silent.
Although O'Neill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936, he would remain silent for some ten years, leaving most to believe he had written himself out, was burned out, that his career was over. But in spite of tremendous personal issues, O'Neill continued to write in private, and during this period he would generate a string of powerful plays, many of which would not be released for performance until after his death in 1953. The legendary Long Day's Journey Into Night, closely based on his own family life, was written in the early 1940s. It was first performed in 1956--some three years after his death--at which time it too won the Pulitzer Prize.
The play presents the story of the Tyrone family. James Tyrone is a famous stage actor, now aging; his wife Mary is a delicately beautiful but sadly worn woman named Mary. Their two sons are studies in contrast: Jamie, in his late 30s, is wild--fond of wine, women, and song--and seen as a bad influence on younger Edmund, who is physically frail but intellectually sharp. The action takes place at their summer home, and begins in the morning; the family seems happy enough--but clearly there is something we do not know, something working under the surface that gives an unnatural quality to their interaction.
Over the four acts and next four hours the morning passes into afternoon, the afternoon into night. And we will learn the truth: the history of money grubbing, the alcoholism, the drugs, the personal failures, the seemingly endless cycle of self-defeating, self-destructive behavior in which the four are locked beyond hope of redemption. And as it progresses the play gathers itself into an almost unendurable scream of agony, a scream of truly cosmic proportions.
Why, you might ask, would someone wish to read--much less sit through--such a play? A work so painful that it often becomes difficult to continue reading or to look at the stage? I myself asked this question when I first encountered it. Over the years I have done quite a bit of theatre. In the early 1980s I played the role of Edmund; in the late 1990s I played the role of Jamie. On both occasions I found the play horrifically painful to perform. On both occasions I wondered if such a painful play could find an audience in small-town America. On both occasions Long Day's Journey Into Night sold out and not a person left the theatre before each performance ended.
Because, I think, the play taps into something that is universal but which is extremely difficult to express in simple terms. As O'Neill might say himself, it has a touch of the poet--but of a failed poet. Somehow, in some unique way, it speaks to the self-knowledge we all have of the hidden dreams that never came true, the little accommodations, the big and small failures that have stung us and changed us and over time made us--for better or worse--the beings that we are. It has humanity. It makes us see our own humanity. It makes us acknowledge the humanity of those around us.
Many, myself among them, regard this as O'Neill's finest play--and considering the great power that many of his works have, that is saying a great deal. It is also in some respects one of his most accessible plays: shorn of the experimentalism to which O'Neill was frequently drawn and beautifully simple, beautifully direct, even those unaccustomed to reading playscripts will find it a rapid and powerful read. For this reason it is really the only O'Neill script I recommend to casual readers. And I recommend it very, very strongly indeed. A great drama, both on the page and on the stage.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
on September 2, 2000
Long Day's Journey into Night is the play in which Eugene O'Neill, as he says in the dedication, had to "face [his] dead at last" by writing about the tragic dysfunctions of James, Mary, Jamie, and Edmund Tyrone, characters based respectively on O'Neill's father, mother, and brother, and O'Neill himself. It is set entirely at the O'Neill residence and takes place over the course of the day on which the family doctor confirms that 23 year-old Edmund has tuberculosis and must go to a sanatorium. There is relatively little action in the play aside from that; most of the dialogue relates to the other members of the Tyrone family facing the various problems that haunt them every day of their lives: Mary is addicted to morphine; Jamie is an alcoholic and at 33 seems unlikely to amount to anything; and James also has an alcohol problem but more importantly is still bitter about his childhood, which was cut short when he was obliged to go to work at a machine shop at the age of 10 because of the departure of his father.
The whole Tyrone family is in a state of despair, and it's hard to think of an author better at capturing despair than O'Neill (in no small part, one suspects, because he came of age in the sort of environment depicted in this play). O'Neill was certainly bitter about his past, but, importantly, he doesn't lose perspective. Although the way the Tyrones treat each other ranges from neutral to downright cruel, O'Neill does a splendid job of balancing this against the fact that they all love each other deeply and feel very unnerved whenever they realize that they're treating each other unfairly. Despite all the problems he faced as a young adult, O'Neill always viewed his family with a good deal of love and reverence, and that comes through in the play. As Mary puts it, "None of us can help the things life has done to us. They're done before you realize it, and once they're done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you'd like to be, and you've lost your true self forever." The tragedy of Long Day's Journey into Night lies in the fact that these great individuals have lost their true selves due to the various demons that haunt their lives.
Some of O'Neill's works could reasonably be criticized for featuring relatively one-dimensional characters and formulaic plots. In the case of Long Day's Journey, though, because O'Neill was able to rely on his own experiences, all four main characters are exceptionally deep and balanced, and the plot is distinctly unpredictable. Though I've very much enjoyed all the O'Neill plays I've read, it seems that in Long Day's Journey he finally put together all his talents and produced his crowning achievement.
on August 12, 1999
I read the play when I was 19. I stumbled upon it on a dime rack at the library. One day, I was moving and had some time on my hands until the movers arrived to haul away my stuff. I pulled out my copy and was never the same again. I sat on the floor and read from the late morning to dusk--when the light was no longer sufficient to read by. I hadn't noticed that my shoulder had begun to ache or that my throat was screaming for water, I was absorbed in the play as if I was receiving a vision. Anyone who claims that the play is not well-written doesn't understand literature, nor have they seen the staged production. (I'd highly recommend the movie with Katherine Hepburn). The honesty of the playwright will put you through an emotional ringer that is difficult to detach yourself from long after the reading is done. The fog horn, the deception, the cutting words of the players all haunt your dreams. This is a masterpiece.
on May 5, 2003
If one needs the ultimate example of a classic American play, I would have to say the play about the most un-classic, untypical (or is it?) American family...Eugene O'Neill's "Long Days Journey Into Night." Set in the chlostrophobic New England summer house of the Tyrone's, and spanning over the course of one day, the Tyrone family--the stingy, retired actor James, the lonely opium addicted wife Mary, drunken Jamie, and sensitive, ill Edmund--avoids, denys, confronts and retreats from all their demons, until it is finally night, and they no longer can.
Depressing, huh? Well, of course it is...but within it is something so powerful, so strangely beautiful, that the reader (or viewer) is enthralled. One sees seemingly strong James, ashamed of himself for selling out his acting abilities for financial security. Mary, lonely from James' years of touring, has turned to an opium addiction that she can not seem to confront. Jamie, from hate of his father's stinginess and his own self-blame, loses himself in alcohol and whores. And sweet, artistic, tubulcular Edmund (O'Neill's alter ego) plays witness in the deteration of his family's web of pain, denial and lies. All they want is for morning to come, another day to let the fog come in around them so they can forget again.
In a way, isn't that what we all want to do sometimes? Just forget what's going on around us, even for a while. I would recommend this play as absolutly essential to read--for the fan of the theatre, literature, or a layman. Anyone can relate to the pure, raw emotion and guilt O'Neill conveys. Buy it now, you'll thank me later.
Eugene O’Neill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936, and won several Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. “Long Day’s Journey…” is generally considered his magnum opus. It was first performed in 1956, three years after his death. For this Kindle edition, with the all-too-appropriate cover, there is an introduction by Harold Bloom, one of the many of this genre that might be easily skipped. Bloom is unequivocal in his praise: “Long Day’s Journey must be the best play in our more than two centuries as a nation.” Bloom performs a tour-de-force of brief comparisons between O’Neill and most other celebrated writers. Warning! If you decide to plod through the intro, you may enjoy the following insights: “O’Neill seems a strange instance of the Aestheticism of Rossetti and Pater, but his metaphysical nihilism, desperate faith in art and phantasmagoric naturalism stem directly from them.”
As for the play itself, there are only five characters: James Tyrone, 65, an accomplished actor, his wife Mary, 54, stricken with rheumatism, their son James, 33 a ne’er-do-well, still searching for his place in the world, and the younger son, Edmund, 23, who is not in good health, along with an Irish servant girl, Cathleen. The entire play occurs on one day, in August, 1912, at the Tyrone’s summer house (and only house), somewhere along the New England coast.
Although the play is set in time more than a century ago, the central theme could be ripped from today’s headlines concerning opioid abuse and addiction. Mary got “hooked” on morphine, prescribed to her by a doctor after the death of her second son. She continues to seek its solace, since, as she says: “It hides you from the world and the world from you. You feel that everything has changed, and nothing is what it seemed to be. No one can find or touch you anymore.” Denial is the addict’s crutch, as Mary proclaims: “Now I have to lie, especially to myself.” But she is not the only one in denial – at one level or another, all the males in the family skirt around the issue of their wife’s / mother’s dependency problems – it is just a little medicine for her rheumatism.
And the men have their own “dependency problem”: alcohol! It is a dependency that has always been more open, and socially acceptable. I had to chuckle at one part of the play – both my son, and I, when I was my son’s age, had roommates who had alcohol dependency problems, and would drink our liquor, and then add water to the bottle so that the level of alcohol would appear to be the same. This technique played out prominently in the play, with the father James knowing that the sons did this.
No question that it is a well-written and structured play. O’Neill utilizes flashbacks to provide scenes from James and Mary’s courtship and marriage. Mary had two youthful dreams: to be a nun or a concert pianist – the latter now impossible with her rheumatic fingers. Money issues have continued to be a major issue in their lives. The author has helped push me to finally read Baudelaire since O’Neill has the younger son, Edmund, quote him (to the annoyance of the others) on several occasions (“the vulgar herd can never understand”).
It is a depressing play, about an unfortunately depressing and familiar subject. The reader – or at least this one – wants to shake any one of the characters, and say simply: “Get on with your life – there are a lot of roses that still need to be smelt.” I know that is a prime reason I would never re-read this play, and have been tempted to give it only four stars, yet that rating is simply too subjective. O’Neill has written a great, 5-star, timeless play.
on July 8, 2003
I haven't actually read a play since college and I picked this up because I am going to see the Broadway production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night", starring Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Dennhey,and I always find that I appreciate shows like that more if I am familiar with the play itself. It was an enjoyable genre change for me!
What makes this play particularly interesting is the autobiographical nature of the plot (so disturbingly autobiographical, in fact, that O'Neill would not allow its publication and production until after his death!). O'Neill dedicated the play to his wife, basically stating that writing this was his way of coming to grips with his own past and the "4 haunted Tryrones" of his life. I imagine that when this first appeared in the theaters in the 1950s, it struck a sensitive and somewhat controversial chord amongst the public since issues such as drug addiction and alcoholism were not common topics in popular entertainment at the time. I also enjoyed all the literary references to the likes of Shakespeare, Baudelaire and Swineburne (and so forth!). It made me want to acquaint myself with such literary talents once again!
This is another example of a piece of literature that reaches across the decades with timeless themes such as familial love, loyalty, jealousy, guilt and betrayal, as well as depression, addiction and greed. While I pitied and even despised some of the qualities I saw in these characters, I couldn't help empathizing with Mary's nervous addiction as well as James' feeling of disappointment in his past failures. In other words, these characters are all so human, that I couldn't help being drawn into the realistic pathos of their lives.
on May 4, 2006
There's a good reason O'Neill insisted that Random House not publish this play until 25 years after his death, which would have prevented its production until 1978. The characters and the story are painfully drawn from O'Neill's own family life. Even though his immediate family members had all died, he surely was concerned about the hurt it could cause his surviving relatives and the impact of memories shared by his close friends. Random House ultimately honored the agreement but, fortunately for the history of drama, O'Neill's wife allowed the play to be published by Yale University Press and produced on Broadway in 1956, only three years after his death.
The volume is labeled here as a "second edition" but in truth it's simply a corrected edition that fixes relatively minor errors that were introduced in the 1956 publication. (Due to a production error, the first printing dropped a single line. The 61st printing in 1989 restored four lines that were dropped by the typist who retyped O'Neill's edited manuscript. Otherwise, it's the same play that was originally published fifty years ago.)
The play's power comes not from its plot; there is hardly any action at all. Instead, one sees O'Neill's family living out a single and typical day. James Tyrone, Sr., has spent his entire life playing one role in a nationally popular play, much like James O'Neill (Eugene's father), who starred in an adaptation of "The Count of Monte Cristo," appearing in some 4,000 performances between 1883 and 1912. Early in the play, Tyrone realizes that his wife, Mary, has suffered a relapse into her longtime morphine addiction. Similarly, just before he turned 13, Eugene O'Neill had learned of his own mother's morphine addiction (when she attempted to drown herself). The addiction, which lasted for more than a quarter of a century, resulted from the difficulties of Eugene's birth.
The two sons are modeled on Eugene and his brother. The older Jamie is an amiable, shiftless loafer and an alcoholic in training. (The real Jamie entered a sanatorium after a bout of alcohol poisoning and died soon thereafter.) And the younger Edmund, of course, is Eugene himself, who worked as a seaman on various freighters, attempted to commit suicide in a Manhattan saloon soon after his return to the States, and returned home to learn he has tuberculosis.
The play is set on a specific day in this family's life: the day Edmund finds out his diagnosis (which in Eugene's life would be in November 1912, only months before O'Neill began to write his first dramatic sketch). And it is certainly a long day's journey. O'Neill portrays his family brutally and lovingly: his mother is a ghost wandering the house in her dreamy universe; his father is a cheapskate concerned more about acquiring real estate than about spending a cent on his son's medical recovery; the brother begins drinking early in the morning and stumbles home nearly 24 hours later. Edmund is lost in his poetic musings.
And all four of them manage constantly to get on each other's nerves with well-practiced rituals of selfishness, denial, argument, insult, and forgiveness. Their incessant banter and taxing squabbles don't always read well on the page; that professional performances of the play don't wear on the audience is a testimony to O'Neill's mastery of the dramatic form. It is, I think, O'Neill's best work.
on September 15, 2015
An intense and heartbreaking iconic 20th Century American play that reads like a novel when taken with the meticulous stage directions. Autobiographical in nature, and meant to be released after the author's death, Long Day's Journey into Night shines a searing spotlight on addiction within a family of misfits. Dysfunctional doesn't start to describe these alternately repressed and emotionally brutal group. Grim, depressing, honest and brilliant.
on June 5, 2002
There are many themes in this story - drug addiction, alcoholism, depression, egoism, and blame. What makes the play so powerful is its ability to show us a family with horrible problems and horrible habits, but still make that family likeable. We still hope for them. A heroin-addicted mother torments herself with the past. Her egomaniac husband, a washed-up actor, postures and struts to cover his feelings of responsibility. Their sons battle depression and alcoholism, and neither ever feel good about themselves. A cycle of blame makes its way continually through the house, a run-down affair often shrouded in fog. This fantastic (if depressing) play is a meaty, moody work that is almost as good to read as it is to watch.
on December 11, 2000
It's a gloom play with conversations full of anger, rage and sarcasm, grief and sorrow. It's the story of a family whose members have lost every connections between each other, four characters that desperately seek a last vestige of love to be confronted only with disappointment in the end. It's an autobiographical play, too. I read the book late at night, sometime after midnight had passed, along with a couple of cigarettes and some wine. And it really got me. The feeling of being detached from everything else, to be utterly alone with yourself and the thoughts of your mind, it crept more and more on me with every page I turned. These are genuine wounds that bloom before our eyes like the flowers of torment and sometimes I meant to even hear the echo of the cries of the hurt when my heart beat faster. But if one doesn't want to open up to the sinister and absolutely melancholic atmosphere of the book I can well understand that...