WRESTLING WITH THE ANGEL IN THE
Eugene O'Neill said that he wrote Long Day's Journey Into Night "with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones." We know, from the work done by Arthur and Barbara Gelb and by Louis Sheaffer, the extent to which O'Neill was indeed facing his own dead when he shaped this play "written in tears and blood." O'Neill's success in creating what is often called the greatest American play is a tribute to his genius as a dramatist as well as to a psychological lucidity remarkable for a beset son and brother. Louis Sheaffer defines O'Neill's concern in Long Day's Journey:
O'Neill undoubtedly faced his most difficult self-imposed task in creating the role of Mary Tyrone, based on his mother, Ella Quinlan O'Neill, who was addicted to morphine from the time of his birth. It is around Mary Tyrone, inevitably a problematic character in the play, that the most ambivalent feelings of both family and audience swirl. Brendan Gill, for example, says in his review of the 1986 New York revival of Long Day's Journey, that while the plot might seem to evoke sympathy for Mary Tyrone, in fact, "the theme is that women are murderously destructive by nature and men are in constant peril of not surviving their machinations" (93).
I believe, with most critics, that O'Neill achieves a far more delicate balance than Gill's response would suggest. In his effort to work from a painful sense of grievance toward compassion, O'Neill created a richly complex portrait of Mary Tyrone as wife and mother. The drama and her place in it invite re-vision, such as Adrienne Rich describes: "the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction" (35). Inspired by the personal suffering he was courageously confronting, O'Neill manages to allow Mary/Ella to articulate her own. The result, I would suggest, is an authentic representation of a woman at odds, to use historian Carl Degler's term, with home and family as they were structured in her day. Mary Tyrone emerges in the play in uneasy relation to those virtues associated with what Barbara Welter has called the "Cult of True Womanhood": "piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity" (21).
Carol Smith-Rosenberg describes the role of woman as it was envisioned in Mary Tyrone's youth:
What historians, such 'as Smith-Rosenberg, as well as literary analysts, such as Elaine Showalter, have made increasingly clear in the last few years is that for some women the only escape from the rigorous imperatives that governed the private sphere to which women had been relegated, was a retreat into chronic illness or madness. Mary's addiction to morphine has its own specific features, including the particular stigma associated with her condition. It has, however, much in common with other such withdrawals that seem to suggest a disguised form of rebellion against the role of what Virginia Woolf called "the angel in the house," the virtuously self-denying woman who cheerfully accepts the vicissitudes and constraints of domestic life. Mary Tyrone, for example, has some resemblance to the main character in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper." Both are at the outset poised precariously between health and illness, and both by the conclusion have made a total escape from reality into a more tolerable oblivion. When Jamie refers to his mother as an Ophelia figure in the final scene of the play, he reinforces our sense of her as akin to others suffering from a diversity of disturbances linked with their predicaments.
The pathological can often be illuminated in relation to the social and personal circumstances that are its context. As Jean Strouse says in her biography of Alice James, the talented sister of Henry and William, who spent her life as an invalid:
When O'Neill introduces Mary, she has been free of drugs for the two months since her most recent treatment. In the early moments of the play, she seems indistinguishable from the traditional women of her day. As Tyrone and Mary enter, he compliments and teases her and she responds flirtatiously with affection and good humor. She shares in the amusement of Tyrone and Jamie when, in an interlude of family harmony, Edmund tells his story about Shaugnessy's outsmarting the wealthy Harker. It is soon apparent, however, that Mary will be tested to the limit and that her return to morphine is imminent. Edmund is clearly ill and his illness, a reminder of her father's death from consumption, serves as the catalyst. Increasingly anxious, Mary is especially vulnerable to memories of the most difficult events of her life. She recalls vividly, for example, the death of her baby, Eugene, which occurred when she had left the children with her mother to accompany James on tour, and Jamie, who had been forewarned, infected the baby with measles. She has a heightened awareness, as well, of the time after Edmund's birth, when morphine was first prescribed for her.
Tyrone, Jamie and Edmund are all aware of Mary's fragile condition and are sensitive to it. The vision, however, of true womanhood so permeates the household, as it does the culture, that they do not fully understand the impact of the demands they are making of her. She has, after all, just returned from a "cure" after many such efforts in a history of more than twenty years of addiction. Yet implicit in the family exchange is the insistence that she now renew the marriage to James Tyrone; be a model of recovery for Jamie, who has been on a downward course; and serve as the maternal nurturer/nurse for Edmund in his illness. Her husband and sons have no thought but to restore her to a woman's "natural" place in the home.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman suggested, in a treatise in 1903, that home was viewed as "something perfect, holy, quite above discussion" (3). Such an image seems to dominate the imagination of the Tyrone family. James Tyrone, for example, happy with Mary's initial well-being, says, "This home has been a home again" (36), and Jamie concurs. That the Tyrones have a haven in a heartless world is dependent on Mary Tyrone's acquiescence in all that it implies and her ability to create it for her husband and sons.
Mary seems to share in their vision of what should be, complaining that she never had more than the cottage that O'Neill significantly describes as "James Tyrone's summer home" (11). She expresses resentment about her husband's career as a touring actor, which necessitated hotel living, and his reluctance to spend money on their summer place. In her complaints she seems to defend herself against charges of inadequacy as wife and mother by insisting that she was without both setting and props upon which her role was contingent. Mary complains, for example: "I've never felt it was my home. It was wrong from the start. Everything was done in the cheapest way. Your father would never spend the money to make it right" (44). She idealizes the home her indulgent father had provided for her, calling that a "real home."
Mary's deprivation, as she sees it, never exempted her from the exigencies of the private sphere, especially its isolation, something she experienced both in the hotel rooms that were her lot, as well as in the only home they had. While her isolation is, in part, self-imposed and related to her drug addiction, her complaint is, nonetheless, genuine. Mary says to Edmund that she wishes there were some place she could get away to "for a day, or even an afternoon." Edmund's response is to try to soothe her, but she goes on: "Your father goes out. He meets his friends in barrooms or at the Club. You and Jamie have the boys you know. You go out. But I am alone. I've always been alone" (46). Here Mary gives expression to a deeply felt criticism of her situation. But her complaint is subsumed into what appears to her family as a monotonous and hurtful litany of accusations and it goes unheeded. There is to be no change in her circumstances and, therefore, no remedy. When her husband and sons leave her with the maid Cathleen, Mary struggles painfully with a conflicting desire for solitude and an overwhelming fear of loneliness.
There are indications, as well, that Mary had mixed feelings about replicating the home of her childhood. At times, for example, O'Neill's stage directions suggest that her mood is in contrast with the seeming intensity of her wishes. One speech in which Mary complains that Tyrone "doesn't understand a home," is offered "with a resentment that has a quality of being automatic and on the surface while inwardly she is indifferent" (61). Her detachment seems here, as elsewhere in the play, only in part attributable to the drug she has taken. Mary's early hope was, it seems, to move beyond a family home. She reveals the telling discontinuity of her focus when she speaks of the past: "I had two dreams. To be a nun, that was the more beautiful one. To become a concert pianist, that was the other" (104). As a pious young convent girl, she had had fantasies about two roles that were sanctioned for women, which would have permitted experience beyond the domestic. While Tyrone is persuasive in suggesting that Mary would probably not have been successful at either attempt, her dreams provide us with poignant clues to her desire for a life beyond what had been designated. Mary consistently acknowledges her love for her husband, but wonders why her devotion led so relentlessly to loss and diminution. In the extraordinary final scene, Mary, carrying her old wedding gown, more deeply into her past than she had ever been before, manages to suggest dark and troubling questions about the human condition. O'Neill's gift for illuminating the universal is matched, however, by his talent for representing the specific and the personal. In his fidelity to the truth of experience, O'Neill reveals the consequences of the reigning illusions of a particular time. He is no less accurate in his representation when he is himself susceptible to them.
The research of Virginia Floyd and of Judith Barlow on the versions of Long Day's Journey from the scenario to its final form, suggests that O'Neill made his portrait of Mary Tyrone less harsh as the play evolved. All the same, the design of the play itself suggests the validity of Edmund's outcry: "It's pretty hard to take at times, having a dope fiend for a mother" (120). O'Neill chose to make Mary's withdrawal from her family into her past seem final and hopeless even though Ella O'Neill did free herself from her habit after twenty-five years, during a stay in a convent rather than a sanatorium. Moreover, O'Neill recovered from his bout of tuberculosis, but the prognosis for Edmund's illness remains in doubt. It is, then, at the time of Edmund's greatest need that his mother is unavailable to him, and it is his belief that her retreat is intentional. He says to Tyrone: "You know something in her does it deliberately--to get beyond our reach, to be rid of us, to forget we're alive! It's as if, in spite of loving us, she hated us!" (139). Here Edmund identifies her illness as metaphor, as a manifestation of a profound reluctance to live the life of the true woman, but no conception of alternatives presents itself.
In Long Day's Journey, it is only Mary who truly fails Edmund. He gets the response he needs from his father. When he calls Tyrone "a stinking old miser" (145), Tyrone defends himself eloquently with the story of his impoverished youth and offers to send Edmund to a sanatorium at least somewhat better than the "state farm." Edmund is clearly moved by Tyrone's admission of regret that he'd been seduced by his box office success from more challenging roles. He and Tyrone become sufficiently companionable that Edmund talks to his father about his great love for the sea and knows he is understood when he says that he "will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death" (153-4). Tyrone can appreciate the indications that Edmund has the "makings of a poet" (154). As Travis Bogard says of Tyrone, "He remains a simple man, free of cynicism, incapable of hatred. O'Neill's view of his father contains full charity" (431). Even Jamie, in his bitter self-denunciation as a brother who has a part of him that hates life and wishes Edmund harm, probably strengthens their bond with his confession, while emancipating Edmund somewhat from his influence.
Mary emerges as most culpable, in spite of the playwright's having given her some latitude of expression. The perspective of the aggrieved son is a source of the drama's power. No doubt O'Neill omitted any reference to the fact that, by Edmund's age, he had already been briefly married and had a child, in order to maintain such a singleness of focus. Yet as the play concludes there is more of a sense of resolution than of desperation. A gentling influence is most at work at those moments when O'Neill permits Mary Tyrone a voice that transcends her conflicts with the dictates of pure womanhood. Mary says, for example:
Here she sounds most like Edmund/Eugene, whom she somewhat resembles. O'Neill assigns Mary lines that exonerate "all the four haunted Tyrones." Acknowledging their affinity, he identifies her with his own psychological and artistic purpose of achieving "deep pity and understanding and forgiveness." Through his de-mythologized recognition of the mother as separate and different and yet like, O'Neill moves his play toward realized intention.
-- Bette Mandl
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Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.
Gill, Brendan. "Unhappy Tyrones." The New Yorker 12 May 1986: 93-94.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Home. New York: McClure, Phillips and Co., 1903.
-----. The Yellow Wallpaper. Old Westbury: The Feminist Press, 1973.
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-----. O'Neill, Son and Playwright. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1968.
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Strouse, Jean. Alice James: A Biography. New York: Bantam, 1982.
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