Bethany suggested last month that we take a literary field trip to Eugene O’Neill’s country home outside Danville. I thought that sounded like a great idea, and not only because there’s a really good independent bookstore in Danville I’ve been wanting to visit again. But it occurred to me that I haven’t read any of Eugene O’Neill’s plays with the exception of The Hairy Ape sometime early in high school, and probably I should know something about his work before I go to his home. I went out and bought a few of his plays, and Bethany recommended I start with Long Day’s Journey into Night, since it’s autobiographical, and so I did. Bethany has taught this play quite a few times and I’m looking forward to discussing it with her. I loved it so much. It was quite possibly the best play I have ever read. I seriously considered rejoining Netflix so I could rent the movie version with Katherine Hepburn.
For those of you who haven’t read the play or seen the movie, it takes place in a single day. Act 1 takes place in the morning right after breakfast; Act 2 in the afternoon; Act 3 in the evening; and Act 4 at midnight. The characters are the members of the Tyrone family: James and Mary, and their two sons Jamie and Edmund. They are gathered at their summer home and we learn early on that this may be the most dysfunctional family ever. James is an actor who has spent his life on the road, depriving his family of a true home. Mary has recently recovered from some sort of condition that doesn’t become clear until later, though drugs or alcohol are implied. It becomes obvious that the Tyrone men have varying problems with alcohol and that Edmund is really sick with a respiratory ailment, probably tuberculosis, though Mary insists that it’s just a summer cold.
The beginning of the play is filled with tension—we all know something terrible is going to happen to one of the characters, or maybe to all of the characters. It was pretty obvious to me at the outset that Mary was going to relapse, if only because everyone else keeps talking about how wonderful she is doing, and saying things like “I can’t tell you the deep happiness it gives me, darling, to see you as you’ve been since you came back to us, your dear old self again (17).” The male Tyrones also try so hard not to fight or discuss anything unpleasant around Mary, even though they all love to argue about who is making Mary’s life more difficult: James with his constant traveling for his work; Jamie with his dissolute lifestyle; or Edmund with his ridiculous tuberculosis. The Tyrone men do all share a genuine concern for Mary, though, as we see when Jamie and James stop arguing for a minute and begin to discuss how they think she is doing. O’Neill’s ability to create tension is masterful in the first act of the play. I felt pretty stressed just reading it; I can only imagine how I would feel if I were actually seeing it performed.
Things proceed throughout the next couple of acts: the boys fight with their dad and each other, and drink whiskey, and Mary begins to disintegrate. When she says “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 (63)” we know that she’s lost again. It comes out eventually that her poison of choice is morphine—she became addicted to it after having Edmund. Watching her fall back into addiction is absolutely fascinating and terrible. The anger that James, Jamie, and Edmund feel is palpable as they each come to terms with Mary’s relapse. Long Day’s Journey into Night should probably be required reading for all rehab patients, because if they read it they’ll know how all of their family members feel about their disease.
I don’t know that I have ever read anything as emotionally powerful as this play. It was too much to read in one sitting, though I could have gotten through it really quickly just based on the number of pages. When I finished I felt like I needed to drink some whiskey, and I hate that stuff. Act 4 is sort of comic because it takes place at midnight, and the men are all drunk and slurring and talking nonsense. Mary is lost in the past, talking about her life at the convent school playing piano. This is apparently her favorite thing to talk about when she’s on morphine.
Something I would have liked to see in this play is Mary’s struggle before she relapses. There are snippets of it, like at the end of Act 2 when she says to herself after the men leave, “It’s so lonely here. (Then her face hardens into bitter self-contempt.) You’re lying to yourself again. You wanted to get rid of them. Their contempt and disgust aren’t pleasant company. You’re glad they’re gone. Then Mother of God, why do I feel so lonely (98)?” But for the most part we see Mary through the eyes of others. It would have been nice to see her through her own eyes, see what happened to make her slip up, that kind of thing. Of course, O’Neill didn’t know that side of things with his mother, and I expect he was not the kind of writer to make up stuff like that. So I can accept this hole in the story, but it’s something I would have liked.
I found the title to be evocative of the mood of the play and also kind of beautiful. At first I thought it was just a reference to the time frame of the story, but after reading it I see that it’s more a reflection on the journey the characters take into their vices: the night of the title is the night that the characters descend into with morphine and whiskey. I would go further and say that it’s more a reference to Mary’s journey than the others, though it applies to them too with their own alcoholism. Mary, though, seems completely lost in the night at the end. The men want to be, I think, but don’t quite make it as far as she does.
I don’t know that there’s much more I need to say about this play. It was amazing. I want to see it performed. I’m definitely going to read more Eugene O’Neill plays and I can only hope they are half as good as this one.
(Both meme’s at the top are from www.eugmemeoneill.tumblr.com.)