Long Day’s Journey into Night

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Authors: Joyce Moss and George Wilson
Date: 1997
Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them
From: Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them(Vol. 3: Growth of Empires to the Great Depression (1890-1930s). )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview
Pages: 7
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Long Day’s Journey into Night

by Eugene O’Neill

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A play set in the living room of the Tyrones’ summer home in New London, Connecticut, on a day in August 1912; written in 1939-1941, published and first performed in 1956.


A family deals with years of accumulated pain and guilt by alternately blaming and trying to forgive one another and themselves.

Eugene Gladstone O’Neill was born in a Broadway hotel room in 1888, not far from the theaters that the O’Neill family came to know so well. For decades, his famous father, actor James O’Neill, toured the American theater circuit, his family dutifully in tow. Eugene grew up despising what he perceived as the trite, commercial nature of the industry around him, and when he turned to writing drama in 1912, he resolved to write a very different kind of play for American audiences. The troubles of his Irish-American family inspired many autobiographical portraits in his works, and he was lauded as the finest tragedian the United States had ever produced. When he died in 1953, he left behind among other great plays Long Day’s Journey into Night, which was so personal that he ordered it not to be published until twenty-five years after his death.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

Morphine addiction

Blaming the rheumatism in her hands, the aging mother of O’Neill’s fictional Tyrone family starts to take morphine again. Like many middle-class women of her generation, she becomes addicted by using medication prescribed for her at a time when the effects of the drug were not fully understood. Doctors valued this derivative of opium as a painkiller and a mood-enhancer, prescribing it for temporary relief of ailments as diverse as insomnia, bronchitis, and syphilis.

At age thirteen, Eugene O’Neill happened upon his mother as she was giving herself a mor phine injection, and slowly he realized what his father and older brother, Jamie, had already known for years. Mrs. O’Neill felt mortified and accused Eugene of spying on her. She had been able to keep her secret from the familly initialy, and she fooled her friends by avoiding them or hiding her morphine-brightened eyes behind a veil when she left the house.

Like Mrs. O’Neill, the fictional Mary Tyrone was introduced to morphine after the complicated birth of her last son. In real life, that son was Eugene O’Neill, who later expressed his feelings of guilt in the character Edmund Tyrone. Mrs. O’Neill checked in and out of sanitariums for treatment, with limited success, but ultimately owed her recovery to the help of Carmelite nuns.

By 1912 the medical profession had circulated strong warnings against the indiscriminate use of Page 219  |  Top of Articlemorphine, and much less of it was being administered. New legislation also made it much harder for people to obtain the drug without a valid prescription, which may in O’Neill’s play explain the pharmacist’s reluctance to fill an order for Mary Tyrone. In addition, many people were reevaluating their attitude toward morphine addicts because of changes in the addict population. In the late 1800s most of them were middle- and upper-class women, followed by veterans of the Civil War. But by the time of the play, they were being replaced by pleasure-seeking, lower-class addicts, including prostitutes and young urban males.


It would not have been comforting to the character Edmund Tyrone, a consumptive, to know that someone in the United States died from tuberculosis, or “consumption” as it was then called, every three minutes during his era. People in the early stages of tuberculosis suffered from weight loss, slight fever in the afternoon, bleeding from the lungs, and a mild cough lasting a month or more. Consumption was already correctly identified as being caused by a living germ in the lungs, but as yet there was no certain cure.

Treatment facilities called sanatoria attempted to deal with the problem by offering patients a good environment for recovery. Fresh air, hearty meals, and plenty of rest were valued as means to check the growth of the germs and strengthen the patient. In addition, an increasing number of physicians were using X-ray technology to detect the fluid that would accumulate in the lungs as a result of the disease. Surgical procedures were sometimes used to drain this fluid or collapse the diseased lung. The medical community disputed the best way to diagnose and treat consumptives, but it agreed with the government, which circulated pamphlets warning that one’s chances for recovery depended on early detection and professional care.

Eugene O’Neill himself suffered from tuberculosis in 1912. Unbeknownst to their family and friends, his father first took him to a dilapidated, state-run sanitarium. Two days later Eugene refused to stay, and he transferred to Gaylord Farm, a semiprivate institution, where a doctor punctured his chest with a hollow needle and drained fluid from his right lung. He stayed for six months, and it was there, he said, that he started to write plays.

Alcohol abuse

Around the turn of the century, saloons like those frequented by the Tyrones played an integral part in the social life of American men. Inevitably, heavy drinkers returned regularly to satisfy their thirst, but patrons had many incentives to make visits to the local bar a part of a cherished routine. For a modest price, it offered a place to read the daily newspaper, play cards or billiards, and catch up on sports information and politics. A “free lunch” was usually available at little or no extra cost, and adjacent rooms provided a place for labor unions and lodges to meet.

If men were its primary patrons, however, women were its chief opponents. After all, it was considered their job to maintain a proper home, and to some extent they were blamed if the men in their families sought amusement elsewhere. A housewife had ample reason to express concern about the negative side of her husband’s indulgence in saloon life: gambling and intoxication led directly to insolvency and promiscuity, an insult that could bring with it the ugly reality of sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis.

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I am the last woman in the world to make excuses for my acts, but you don’t know what morphine means to some of us, many of us, modern women without professions, without beliefs. Morphine makes life possible. It adds truth to a dream. What more does religion do? Perhaps I shock you. What I mean is that truth alone is both not enough and too much for us.

(Courtwright, p. 60)

As a result, organizations such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union fought hard to outlaw the sale and consumption of alcohol. Their radical position eventually won out over efforts aimed merely at regulation and compromise. Many men also supported the temperance movement in the name of improving the health and character of the nation. By 1917 the cause had won so much popular support that Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment (ratified in 1919), which enacted a ban on the sale of alchohol for almost fourteen years.

Despite the impressive amount of bourbon consumed in the play, no one mentions the growing belief that alcohol dependency was a disease, or that treatment existed for it. By contrast, a double standard is applied to Mary Tyrone’s periodic hospitalization and her losing battle against morphine addiction. In real life, Page 220  |  Top of ArticleEugene’s brother, Jamie, also checked in and out of sanatoria repeatedly in an effort to curb his alcoholism. Eugene’s recollections of his brother’s struggle as a substance abuser may account for the fictional Jamie Tyrone’s keen disappointment at his mother’s failure to break her cycle of dependence. Even Eugene himself was fighting a serious drinking problem.

Irish elements

The tendency to drink heavily is one of several stereotypes about the Irish that finds expression in this play about an Irish American family. Drinkers prized their ability to hold their liquor; James Tyrone’s outrage at the idea that alcohol ever interfered with his family life or his work is entirely believable.

The Irish are famous for their storytelling and wit, epitomized in the characters’ long monologues and the skillful manipulation of a wealthy American neighbor. The Tyrone family takes pleasure in the prank of their Irish tenant farmer, Shaughnessy, who lets his pigs wallow in the neighbor’s ice pond (such a pond supplied ice that would be chopped in the winter and stored in silos for use in warm weather). The incident lays bare a fierce sense of national pride often associated with the Irish.

In the early 1900s, many Irish Americans belonged to the working class, finding employment as domestic servants and factory laborers. After eliminating his thick Irish accent, James O’Neill earned many fans as an actor, but he received a much cooler welcome at the exclusive Thames Club, which accepted very few Irish members. James was careful to be extremely polite to club members, buy them drinks at every opportunity, and limit his own alcohol consumption at the club—reserving true drunkenness for his favorite local bars.

Catholic elements

An Irish background automatically implied belief in the Catholic faith, and immigrants newly arrived from Ireland observed its rituals out of cultural pride as much as religious fervor. The daughters of affluent Catholic families might attend convent schools, which offered the finest education a young woman was likely to receive in the late 1800s, given that most university liberal arts courses were still closed to them.

Eugene O’Neill’s mother Ella (born Mary Quinlan) entered the convent of St. Mary at Notre Dame, Indiana, in 1872. Her coursework included classes in philosophy, rhetoric, French, and astronomy, and her talent for the piano drew high praise from an internationally accomplished piano teacher. As a boy, O’Neill venerated his

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mother’s religious devotion and sought to lose himself, as she did, in the mysteries and the promises of faith. After discovering his mother’s addiction to morphine, O’Neill strove to be especially pious for a time, then abandoned his faith at age fifteen.

A life in the theater

The theater milieu was not generally approved of by Catholics, and many of Ella Quinlan’s friends dropped her when she married a famous actor. At the time, James O’Neill was widely regarded as one of the most promising stage talents of his day. Skilled in performing classical roles, he was nevertheless unable to pass up the adulation and financial security he found as the hero of a stage melodrama called The Count of Monte Cristo. He played the role over three thousand times, and he even hung a sign on the family home in New London, identifying it as “Monte Cristo Cottage.”

His two sons, Jamie and Eugene, sometimes joined him onstage reluctantly, and their mother spent many years accompanying her husband on the road. Touring had a dramatic impact on the lives of the O’Neills. Mrs. O’Neill recalled cradling her infant sons in the dresser drawers of hotel rooms, forever wishing for a home more Page 221  |  Top of Articlein line with the tastes she had acquired from her upbringing.

Turn-of-the-century theater in the United States was dominated by melodrama, vaudeville skits, and star-driven revivals of the classics, especially Shakespeare’s plays. These genres were supported by a profit-oriented theater industry that favored stage gimmicks and matinee idols as means of drawing large audiences regularly. As a result, script quality and artistic integrity often suffered. Eugene O’Neill shared the wide-spread opinion that his father had sold out his potential as an artist. He rejected the shallow nature of the theater world of his father and strove instead to write serious plays that would challenge the audience.

The Play in Focus

The plot

Sunlight fills the Tyrones’ living room one summer morning, as Mary Tyrone flinches under the watchful eyes of her husband, James, and their sons, Jamie and Edmund. They deny scrutinizing her and reassure her with compliments. The family’s small talk is punctuated by harsh accusations as the Tyrones address a variety of matters: the antics of an Irish-American tenant farmer; Edmund’s failing health; James’s tendency to be tightfisted with money; and the poor work ethic of his two sons.

By midday the sunshine outside has given way to haze, and the family starts to gather again for lunch. Jamie and Edmund drink bourbon and worry about how their mother might have passed the morning upstairs. Her recent behavior fits an old pattern that led to the relapse of an unnamed affliction. When she joins them, their worst fears are confirmed, and they and their father are distraught by the new development.

After lunch, the men’s dull acceptance of Mary’s turn-for-the-worse alternates with a faint hope that she might halt the cycle that has only just begun. Then a local doctor confirms that Edmund has consumption (tuberculosis). The family struggles to absorb the impact of this second crisis in typical Tyrone fashion—each member tries to determine which of them is most responsible for the bad news.

Fog rolls in at dusk, and Mary asks the family’s Irish serving girl to keep her company while the men go to town. Although Mary denies it, the indulgence of an old drug habit alters her personality, making her ever more detached. Finally the prescription medicine is named: dope (and later, morphine). After James and Edmund return for dinner, her addiction and Edmund’s poor health are linked in the discussion to an earlier family tragedy, the death of a baby named Eugene.

Around midnight, the living room is lighted by a single, dim lamp as thick fog at the windows hides the world outside. The father James and Edmund show the effects of alcohol and continue to drink as they play cards absent-mind-edly, resurrect old arguments, and delve deeper into complicated family problems, both past and present. Thoroughly drunk, son Jamie returns home and has a revealing talk with his brother. Mary joins the men downstairs, and she is now even further withdrawn into her drugged state. She drags her wedding gown on the floor and speaks of her schooldays at a convent, recalling a time before life made her into someone she did not want to become.

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We considered the O’Neills shanty Irish, and we associated the Irish, almost automatically, with the servant class. As a matter of fact, I remember being very upset when I first started going to church—my father became a Catholic convert—and I recognized only servants in the church. ‘Why do we go to the Irish church? = I remember asking my mother, to her embarrassment. We were among the few Catholic families considered acceptable.—A chagrined appraisal by Mrs. E. Chappell Sheffield, a daughter in the Chappell family, on whom O’Neill modeled the self-important Chatfields in the play.

(Gelb, p. 95)


The members of the Tyrone family each feel ashamed for a variety of reasons, both in front of one another and in the eyes of society. Long Day’s Journey into Night examines this shame as an underlying explanation for the ways in which the Tyrones suffer and make each other miserable. They are unable to simply forget their past mistakes because, as Mary explains, “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us” (O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night, p. 87).

Mary Tyrone denies and hides her addiction to morphine, a dependence not befitting a wife and mother. Her resentment of her husband’s career, her nostalgia, and the dream state caused by the narcotic make her shirk her responsibilities. Page 222  |  Top of ArticleShe feels this inadequacy most painfully when remembering that she placed her husband’s desires (and perhaps her own) ahead of caring for an infant son, who died.

James Tyrone recalls his early days as an actor, using the praise he earned then to endure the fact that he chose material security over greatness as an artist. “What the hell was it 1 wanted to buy,” he wonders bitterly, acknowledging that poverty in childhood made him obsessively sensitive about money (Long Day’s Journey into Night, p. 150). His family blames his miserliness for Edmund’s poor health and the failure to provide an adequate home. Whether or not James agrees openly with the family’s accusations, their grievances pain him for the truth that is in them.

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To me, the tragic alone has that significant beauty which is truth. It is the meaning of life—and the hope. The noblest is eternally the most tragic. The people who succeed and do not push on to a greater failure are the spiritual middle-classers. Their stopping at success is the proof of their compromising insignificance.

(O’Neill in Gelb, p. 5)

Thoroughly drunk, Jamie Tyrone confesses to Edmund something that his parents have suspected for years: he has jealously and actively tried to ruin his brother. Jamie is also sensitive about having squandered his potential as a good student and depending on his father for work.

Edmund Tyrone feels responsible for his mother’s drug addiction and the pain it has caused everyone in the family. It is tempting to consider that Edmund, the character based on O’Neill himself, has the least to feel guilty about, and that the playwright therefore flatters himself. The play itself, however, is an admission, a delayed acceptance of his family and a forgiving of himself and them for the torment they caused one another.

Sources and composition

In many of his earlier plays, the dramatist had already translated the troubled O’Neills into characters modeled on members of his family, including himself. A relationship almost identical to that of Mary and James Tyrone provides the focal point of one such play, All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1923). Audiences of the time did not relate that play to O’Neill’s own family life since the male protagonist was black. The fact is that like any dramatist who draws on his personal life, O’Neill felt free to change the details in more and less obvious ways. This applies to Long Day’s Journey into Night as well, although almost each of its details finds a close counterpart in real life. Sometimes, however, the details are manipulated. For example, O’Neill’s infant brother, Edmund, died in the manner described in the play, but O’Neill exchanges the names, calling the autobiographical character Edmund and the dead baby Eugene.

By the time O’Neill began work on Long Day’s Journey into Night early in the summer of 1939, a tremor in his hands made writing almost impossible. O’Neill found dictation and the use of typewriters or recording devices incompatible with his creative process, and the dramatist was stranded. The palsy was the result of a rare degenerative disorder whose victims remain fully competent but intermittently lose control of their limbs and their ability to speak.

Realizing that his productive days as a playwright were numbered, O’Neill discontinued his work on an ambitious cycle of eleven plays and turned instead to the writing of Long Day’s Journey into Night. His third wife, Carlotta, described the agony her husband endured during the steady work schedule he set himself:

He would come out of his study looking gaunt, his eyes red from weeping. Sometimes he looked ten years older than when he went in the morning. For a while he tried to have lunch downstairs with me. But it was very bad, because he would sit there and I knew his whole mind was on his play—acts, lines, ideas—and he couldn’t talk. I would have to sit there perfectly dumb. I didn’t even want to make a sound with the chair that might disturb him. It made me very nervous and it made him nervous seeing me sitting there like that. We decided it would be best for him to have his lunch on a tray, alone.

(Carlotta O’Neill in Gelb, p. 7)

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

Changes since 1912

By the time the play was written (1941) and produced (1956), the United States was not the same place it had been in 1912, the year the play takes place. The popular socialism of the early twentieth century—a movement that James Tyrone associates with anarchy—had given way to the patriotism that ostensibly united America during World War II. Page 223  |  Top of ArticleIn addition, O’Neill’s cultural heritage had lost much of its social stigma—so much so that an Irish-Catholic was elected president only five years after Long Day’s Journey into Night was produced.

Changes in the morphine addict population, hinted at in the play, had become more pronounced. As a result, stricter legislation targeted recreational users and the petty crimes believed to support narcotics habits. Although the war cut off many of the routes used by smugglers of illegal drugs, an underground market survived. In most medications, morphine had long since been replaced by a milder version of the drug, codeine. In other medical news, a professor of microbiology named S. A. Waksman identified streptomycin in 1944 as an antibiotic effective against tuberculosis, and the epidemic waned.

The revival of the alcohol industry after the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in 1933 promised jobs and precious tax revenue during the Great Depression in America. Wary that the ban might be reimposed, advertisers encouraged drinking in moderation; but within a decade, alcohol consumption matched 1912 figures. O’Neill agreed to professional help for his alcoholism and succeeded in mastering his drinking problem early in 1927, after consultations with a psychoanalyst gave him an explanation for it. The rapid expansion of the support group Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1939, the year O’Neill began writing his play, signaled that America’s troubles with alcohol abuse were wide-spread and that they were gaining recognition during this period.

Production, reviews, and honors

Eugene O’Neill wished that Long Day’s Journey into Night not be published until twenty-five years after his death, citing a request of his eldest son, Eugene, Jr., as the reason. The dramatist took the manu-script to Random House publishers in 1945, where he drew up a document outlining the terms of the play’s disappearance. As per O’Neill’s wishes, the manuscript was sealed with red sealing wax and deposited in a downstairs safe. Even so, the playwright insisted that it never be produced.

More O’Neill family tragedy followed, however, when Eugene, Jr. committed suicide in 1949. Afterward, his father and Carlotta faced financial hardship and discussed the possibility of publishing the play as a last resort. About two years after her husband’s death, Carlotta exercised her legal right to Eugene’s works, and the play was retrieved from Random House. Mrs. O’Neill sent it simultaneously to the Yale University Press and to the director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm.

The Swedish ensemble won acclaim for its production of Long Day’s Journey into Night, receiving worldwide attention when the play premiered in Stockholm on February 2, 1956. Prominent American producers and directors besieged Carlotta with requests to stage the masterpiece on Broadway in New York. She hesitated for a few months before turning the play over to three young producers who had already succeeded with the revival of another O’Neill play, The Iceman Cometh. A four-hour production, Long Day’s Journey into Night, made its American debut at the Helen Hayes Theater in New York on November 7, 1956, once again earning enthusiastic reviews. Many critics speculated about O’Neill’s purpose in writing such a probing, pain-filled analysis of a family in crisis. One wrote:

That he was damaged by his family is only a fact now, a piece of truth to be put down out of respect for the whole truth; there is no residual rancor. He seems to be asking forgiveness for his own failure to know his father, mother and brother well enough at a time when the need for understanding was like an upstairs cry in the night; and to be reassuring their ghosts wherever they may be that he knows everything awful they have done, and loves them.

(Cronin, p. 16)

Long Day’s Journey into Night won O’Neill a fourth Pulitzer Prize and sparked renewed interest in the dramatist and his plays. His popularity had been waning since the early 1930s, despite the fact that, in 1936, O’Neill was the first American dramatist (and only the second American) to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. Even without the overwhelming success of Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s place in the history of the American stage was assured. In an article acknowledging that O’Neill’s plays were sometimes hard to like, the famous drama critic Eric Bentley insisted, “He is the leading American playwright; damn him, damn all; and damning all is a big responsibility” (Bentley in Cronin, p. 1).

For More Information

Cronin, Harry. Eugene O’Neill: Irish and American; A Study in Cultural Context. New York: Arno, 1976.

Courtwright, David T. Dark Paradise: Opiate Addiction in America before 1940. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

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Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

Keers, R. Y. Pulmonary Tuberculosis: A Journey Down the Centuries. London: Ballière Tindall, 1978.

Lender, Mark Edward, and James Kirby Martin. Drinking in America. New York: Free Press, 1982.

O’Neill, Eugene. Long Day’s Journey into Night. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Raleigh, John Henry. “O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and New England Irish-Catholicism.” In O’Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by John Gassner. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2875100188