55 pages • 1 hour read
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Long Day’s Journey into Night is widely considered Eugene O’Neill’s best play. It was published posthumously under the pseudonym Tyrone and is an autobiographical work about O’Neill’s family. The play was originally published in 1956 with a first showing in Sweden that same year. The play has been adapted into film several times, including productions in 1962 and 1996, as well as television adaptations in 1973, 1982, and 1987. O’Neill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936. During his life, O’Neill was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, as well as one after his death for Long Day’s Journey into Night, which also won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1957.
O’Neill’s writing fits within the movement of American Modernism, which sought to explore new ways of viewing and portraying life and experience. O’Neill was known for using Modernist techniques to explore outcasts and those operating outside the social norm. O’Neill saw himself as an outcast, and his character in the play, Edmund, shows his own perspectives on his family and life in general.
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The play is a tragedy, following the decline of O’Neill’s parents and brother in the early 20th century. Though the play only covers a single day in the summer of 1912, it encapsulates years of trauma and neglect that O’Neill and his family experienced. Following the events of the play, both O’Neill’s parents and his brother Jamie passed away in the early 1920s. Long Day’s Journey into Night explores themes of Deflection and the Challenge of Confronting Problems, The Importance of Love and Support, and Inebriation as a Form of Escape and Denial as the Tyrone family tries to cope with Mary Tyrone’s addiction to morphine amid their familial issues and resentment.
This guide uses the second edition of the play, published by Yale University Press New Haven & London, from the original provided by Charlotte O’Neill in 1955.
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Content Warning: This guide includes discussions of addictions to drugs and alcohol as well as references to attempted suicide, suicidal ideation, and child loss, which feature in the source text.
The play opens on the morning of a day in August 1912, and it takes place in the Tyrones’ summer home in New London, CT. The family has just finished breakfast, and they move into the living room, which is the setting of the entirety of the play. Mary and Tyrone are in love, but they are avoiding an argument. Tyrone suspects their sons, Edmund and Jamie, are making fun of him in the other room. As Jamie and Edmund enter, it becomes clear that Edmund is ill, and his parents are concerned about him. Contrasting Edmund, Jamie draws the ire of his parents, who both think he is lazy. Jamie agrees to help Tyrone with yardwork, and Edmund decides to read. Though the reason is not clear yet, all three men are concerned for Mary’s well-being, noting that she spent time in their spare bedroom last night when she could not sleep.
Later in the day, Jamie comes in from the yardwork and he and Edmund sneak some of their father’s whiskey. They discuss their mother’s problem, but neither will address the nature of that problem. Mary comes down for lunch, and the three discuss how Tyrone spends too much time and money on his social appearances, noting his frugality with the family. Tyrone comes back inside, and an argument breaks out as Mary goes upstairs to take morphine, and it is revealed that Mary has been struggling with a morphine addiction for years. The men continue to drink, and Mary pleads with Tyrone not to be angry with her. Later, all three men leave for different purposes, with Edmund going to the doctor and Jamie accompanying him, while Tyrone goes to the Club to drink with his friends. Mary is left alone, though she begs Tyrone not to leave her. He suggests that she take a drive, though she does not know where to go.
That evening, Mary and Cathleen, their servant, return from the drugstore, where Cathleen got Mary more morphine, which she claims she takes for her rheumatism in her hands. Mary reminisces about her childhood but eventually allows Cathleen to leave as Tyrone and Edmund return home. They can tell that she has been taking morphine, and they argue about Jamie instead of the issue at hand. Tyrone goes outside to get more whiskey, and Edmund tells Mary that he has tuberculosis to snap her out of her hazy demeanor. Edmund insults Mary for her addiction when his attempt does not work, and he leaves. Mary wishes she could overdose on morphine, and, when Tyrone returns, she tells him that she does not think Edmund loves her. Mary laments having a third child, as their second child died in infancy. Tyrone tries to console Mary, but she leaves to go upstairs, implying that she will take more morphine, while Tyrone goes into another room to eat dinner alone.
At night, Tyrone stays up late, drunk, playing cards alone, as he does not want to see Mary upstairs. Edmund comes home and admits that he, too, has been drinking and walking in the fog. They argue over the cost of electricity, and Edmund tells Tyrone that he knows the hospital Tyrone is sending him to for tuberculosis treatment is cheap. Tyrone admits that he is a miser, and he agrees to send Edmund to a nicer hospital. When Jamie comes home, Tyrone steps outside to avoid him, and Edmund and Jamie argue about their parents. Jamie admits that he has been a bad influence on Edmund, and he cries when he realizes Mary may not be able to overcome her addiction. Tyrone returns and argues briefly with Jamie. Mary comes downstairs in a stupor, and she acts as though she is living in the past before realizing that it is the present and that she and her family are miserable.
By Eugene O'Neill