BY Michael Manheim
Long Day’s Journey into Night
Since Long Day’s Journey into Night is, like The Iceman Cometh, so commonly regarded as despairing, much needs to be said in favor of the vitality that makes the play for me both hopeful and despairing. The supposed pessimism governing the play is usually based on its dealing with what many today call a dysfunctional family. I reject that term In dealing with the play primarily because It is borrowed from the world of the psychological social worker and connotes the clinical, an approach the audience might feel external to rather than included in. The term makes me think of quasi-professionals nodding sagely to one another rather than as an audience which feels itself deeply involved in the experience depicted. Those who feel themselves sufficiently separate from this play as to use the term dysfunctional to describe the family central to it should put the text away or leave the theater, and pick up an article on family life in Psychology Today Seeing this play as an exploration of a dysfunctional family is like seeing King Lear as a case study in geriatrics. People who think of this play in such terms are saying, in effect, this play is not about me, not about my father’s truculence and miserliness, not about my mother’s periods of withdrawal and denial, not about my children’s lack of direction. Because of my control of my own life, this is a work I can be aloof from, that I can assess objectively. In fact, it is a play that cannot be assessed objectively. It can only be successfully assessed subjectively.
Long Day’s Journey is about a family that is as dysfunctional as most families with adult children are—especially when under trying emotional circumstances. To say that the members of this family speak feelings that most families leave unexpressed is undoubtedly true, but that does not leave this family less functional than most, but more, just because much is spoken in this play that most families leave unspoken. In this play just one member, the drug-addicted mother who is the subject of so much of the family’s unease, keeps her true feelings unspoken, except when under the influence of her drug. Her husband and sons actually function very well, function in much the same way the derelicts in Iceman function—by alternately attacking and comforting one another. And while most families do not have drug-addicted mothers at their center, most families have some problem which can seemingly never be remedied. Rather than speaking of the Tyrones as a dysfunctional family, perhaps we should begin speaking of them more as a family with a serious problem, but possessing the gift of speaking about that problem more freely than most would under similar circumstances.
While some of the dialogue of Long Day’s Journey sounds melodramatic, the play is also far from melodrama.1 Little real interest is generated by whether Mary has reverted to her addiction or whether Edmund has contracted tuberculosis, questions which would be the centers of interest in the play were it melodrama. It is clear almost from the beginning that Mary has fallen back and that Edmund has the disease. Rather, the interest derives from how Mary’s and Edmund’s conditions affect them and the other two members of the family. Joseph Golden sees it this way:
Golden is correct in saying the play does not derive its power from plot (for which I would substitute the term melodrama), but from O’Neill’s development of the human interrelationships. And those interrelationships are rooted in this play, as in the other plays I look at in this volume, in contradictions within its individual characters.
Contradictions abound in this play: from the play’s title and setting to the personalities of its four characters. The meaning of none of its central images is as fixed as it may seem to be in the minds of the men as they think about the drug-addicted Mary. The fog, for example, has comforting as well as threatening connotations in the play. Edmund and Mary both tell us of being reassured by it. And the ambiguous sea that figures in so many of O’Neill’s earlier plays, connotes opposing ideas: all the way from the panic of isolation in an absurd universe to the reassurance afforded us by the Emersonian idea expressed by Edmund in the play that at moments one can sense the eternal connections between human beings and nature. Other details have similar contradictory connotations: the placement, as Jean Chothia has observed,3 of the books by late nineteenth century pessimistic writers and philosophers on one side of the stage and the plays of Shakespeare on the other, the mockery of the sons and the moral certainty of the father figured in the first set of books offsetting and offset by the second. One thinks too of Mary’s complaint about James’s having provided her with a second-hand Packard—used, to be sure, but still a Packard—of her complaints about the cheap way in which the house has been furnished, which has led many scene designers to place a lot of wicker and pine tables on the stage, but others to catch the counter-implication that her complaints may be a sign of her desolate feelings. Most recent productions represent the furniture as quite handsome—more masculine than she might like, perhaps, but not shoddy. Similarly, there are the land deals James has allowed himself to be “stuck with.” In spite of the contempt the other three have for these deals, James seems to be accumulating a fairly substantial estate. What Mary and her sons say about James on the subject of money is true but at the same time not true.
But more important are the contradictions within the characters. Is James the “stinking old miser” Edmund accuses him of being at the point at which the seriousness of his illness has just been confirmed and the decision must be made where Edmund will go to for treatment? While James has tentatively decided on a cheaper, state-supported institution, following Edmund’s outburst on the subject, he says he never intended Edmund to go to any sanatorium he did not want to go to. Is he lying? I think what O’Neill gets across here, as elsewhere, is that human motives in such circumstances are complex. James sincerely wants the best for his son, but James, because of what he tells us of his childhood, always lives in the shadow of the “poor house.” It is as incorrect to say that the first motives govern his responses as it is to say the second do. What he says at a given moment is a response to one set of motives; what he says directly following may be a response to an opposing set of motives. One must guard against the acceptance of anything he says as the final word. The swings back and forth are ongoing. When James says that Edmund can go to whatever sanatorium he wishes, he adds the famous qualification—“within reason”—which takes them back to where they began. Jamie savagely points out that his father is motivated by the “Irish peasant” notion that consumption must be fatal, so why waste the money. But James is also motivated by both a genuine love for his son and a desire for respectability, which counter Jamie’s accusation, although the accusation is also legitimate. James is governed (and tortured) by his contradictions, which are finally more integral to his nature than any opinion he may express at a particular moment.
Turning to Mary Tyrone, contradictions in her responses run right through her characterization, contradictions which may be exaggerated by her drug but which are also integral to her nature. They are focused first in her famous line, too often taken to signify O’Neill’s assertion of life’s futility: “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too.” But what takes the play beyond such a simple construction is the way Mary’s clear definition of the past is played off against multiple other possible interpretations of the past. The play fights the simple blacks and whites of melodrama. She is “weak,” her family members say, unable to show the “willpower” to conquer her addiction. But is Mary’s succumbing to her drug altogether the result of weakness? She also wanted to be a concert pianist, and there is evidence she had some ability. Was her addiction the result of fearful dependency upon others, or evidence of a strong artistic sensibility frustrated by a talented woman’s probable rejection in a man’s world? Was It the result of having been attracted at an early age into the role of wife and mother, when her natural inclinations lay elsewhere? Might not her so-called weakness reveal a kind of inner strength, a determination to struggle against the inevitable? I am not claiming it was, of course, but only trying to suggest possible contradictions in her nature associated with a past which is, according to her, the present and the future, too.
More to the point are her responses within the dialogue. In one episode—an exchange late in Act 2, just before her men leave her to go downtown—Mary (in a relatively unnarcotized condition) reveals much about herself.4 She zig-zags among contradictory feelings associated with Edmund’s health, her rage at Doc Hardy for preaching “will power,” her husband’s niggardliness, her fear of being left alone, her genuine concern that she is hurting her son, and her denials, which always represent the nadir of her efforts to overcome her fears. And out of these marked shifts in feeling comes a moment of startling clarity:
But Mary’s clarity here leads inevitably to a new theme. The Blessed Virgin Mary will one day forgive her, she says, and she will once again be “sure” of herself, even when she hears herself “scream with agony.” O’Neill seems to present Mary’s religion as the one possible means for her recovery (as it may well have been for O’Neill’s mother), but when Mary lowers “her voice to a strange tone of whispered confidence,” that religion sounds like a new version of her drug. So her clearest moment is followed by still another contradiction. And the passage ends with her once again in denial:
The more famous scene focusing on Mary is that opening Act 3, which contains many of the same contradictory elements just looked at, except that in Act 3 Mary has come more fully under the influence of her morphine, the drug coloring and distorting her several contradictory recollections of the past, making them at times feel more like ravings. And in her final appearance during the last scene of the play, the contradictions, along with anything resembling the real world, disappear, and her lines suggest a seamless pattern of fantasized memory. The drug obscures the contradictions in her nature, and the loss of contradiction in what she says makes her more truly pitiful than at any other point in the play. The central contradiction of that final scene resides not in Mary, but in the men, who must recognize in their wife-mother the source of both their love and their hate. She becomes the great life-giver/life-destroyer by whom they are both uplifted and devastated.
What needs to be said more specifically about the vitality of this play rests primarily on two related factors: 1) the character of Jamie,5 than whom there are few characters in literature more vitally contradictory, and 2) the sense of merging one gets from this family during its rhythmically recurrent harmonious moments.
Quoting from what I have previously written about Jamie, he is
The way to understand Jamie best is to consider
Jamie Tyrone is like no other character discussed in this book so much as Chekhov’s doctor in The Three Sisters. A vital contradiction in drama is a contradiction that enhances our sense of a character’s humanity. It is not simply that at critical moments the character is inconsistent in word or behavior. It is that the force of the contradiction is such that we recognize the character’s individuality more deeply than we would if the character were not contradictory. We are more, not less, convinced of the love Arkadina has for Konstantin by her radical reversals in feeling toward him. And so with Julie’s responses to Jean, or Hjalmar’s to his wife and daughter. Of none of these relationships would it be correct to say that because of the outbursts of animosity that the affection they demonstrate is false or put on. The outbursts are part of the emotional rhythm of their relationships. The claims that pull them away from each other are as strong as those binding them together. Conflicting claims are part of the human condition.
And what holds for the characters just mentioned holds especially for the doctor and Jamie. Like the doctor, Jamie sees, especially when drunk, appallingly exaggerated images of his failures, and gives full vent to his self-hatred. The doctor is not vindictive toward anyone the way Jamie is when Jamie blames Edmund for being born and taunts him as “Mama’s baby, Papa’s pet!” The doctor’s abuse is more restricted to himself in his famous drunken scene. But he does break a valuable ceramic clock that belonged to the sisters’ mother, and his failure to assist at the fire is certainly comparable to Jamie’s periodically vicious cynicism when it is turned outward. At the same time, like the doctor Jamie is capable of giving to others in the ways he alone is sensitive enough to recognize they most need. Jamie gives to his brother the way the doctor gives to Andrei; he gives him vital emotional support at a critical moment.
What distinguishes O’Neill in these late plays from the other playwrights is what I, following Simon Harford in More Stately Mansions, have called character merging, and that merging comes to be most evident through the character of Jamie Tyrone in this play, and his stand-in Erie Smith in Hughie (who I look at briefly at the conclusion of this chapter.) The idea of character merging, comes in the form of sudden bursts of mutual sympathy between characters who are in the midst of sometimes fierce disagreement, to which they return following the bursts of mutual sympathy. The agreeable sides of the contradictory responses in each character join forces for a brief time.
We first get such a burst during the family’s responses to Edmund’s story of Shaughnessy’s pigs—later to be repeated in the action surrounding Hogan’s pigs in A Moon for the Misbegotten. The mutual laughter of the family to the story shows them at their most harmonious in the play, all of them pleased at Shaughnessy’s humiliation of the “Standard Oil millionaire.” But the harmony is broken by James’s recurrent anger both at his sons and at Shaughnessy for getting him in trouble with his rich and powerful neighbor.
The emphasis here is on James’s countering mood, but the harmony is certainly present, especially in that it involves Mary, who is nowhere else so in tune with the others. And in that harmony is represented the merging of feelings that tells us they are very much a family, in spite of all that is to follow.
The volatile contradictions in brother Jamie makes the idea especially evident later in the first act, where Jamie and his father testily discuss all the play’s themes before going out to work on the hedge. Their merging amid the quarreling is focused on two themes: Mary’s addiction and Edmund’s illness. James repeatedly attacks Jamie for his dilatoriness, drinking and financial dependency, while Jamie repeatedly attacks James for his niggardliness accompanied by his uncontrollable buying of “bum property.” There is a flash of mutual sympathy with the first mention of whether Edmund is infected. They argue over Doc Hardy’s medical abilities, but come together for an instant as the seriousness of Edmund’s condition becomes apparent:
Their closeness is clear, but the rhythm of accusation and counter-accusation begins anew. There is about six parts antagonism to one part mutual sympathy is this episode, but if played correctly, the one part will balance the six parts. This is especially true when the conversation turns to Mary. Here the responses of the two seem to merge into a single response—again, just for a moment. James muses on how well Mary has seemed since her return from the sanatorium.
But again, James’s suspicions of Jamie are once again aroused merely because Jamie has said Mary “seems” all right, and the re-criminations return ever more virulently.
I keep thinking in writing this of Prince Hal’s famous image in Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV when he imagines himself imitating the sun “breaking through the foul and ugly mists” that “seemed to strangle” it. The breaking through of the sun suggests the feeling created in this play when characters merge amid the foul and ugly mists of recrimination. The instances of such mergings are few and far between but the more impressive for being so. We hear them in scenes involving James and Mary, especially when they momentarily express their genuine love for one another, and between Mary and Edmund—in exchanges like the one I discussed earlier, in each case the harmony being broken by one of Mary’s denials. And they are quite audible in the first of the two long exchanges in the final act, that involving James and Edmund, in their heated discussion of what kind of sanatorium Edmund will go to, and especially in their autobiographical monologues. In the second instance, each character, though primarily listening to the other, seems to grow increasingly a part of the other character’s experience. Edmund, prepared to be bored by his father’s oft-repeated story of his childhood, this time can honestly say that he knows his father “a lot better now”; while James, despite his repeated attacks on Edmund’s literary paragons, genuinely hears in Edmund’s monologue about his life at sea "the makings of a poet.”
But the instances of character-merging seem most feelingly instigated by the self-condemning Jamie. It is Jamie who first responds sympathetically to the mention of Edmund’s illness, as it is Jamie who is described empathizing with his father regarding Mary. And it is Jamie who feels and identifies his mergings with Edmund during their allimportant late-night conversation. As their attacks upon one another in this episode are virulent, so are their comings together the deepest of any in the play. It is of course often the virulence that prompts he emotional reunion. These sharp twists and shifts, tightly intertwined in the dialogue, are most recognizable in their intensity, especially when Mary is their subject:
They become especially close here, because of Edmund’s physical violence and immediate regret, and Jamie’s strong appeal to their mutual hurt:
And that Jamie will within a few minutes say he hates Edmund’s guts takes away not a whit from the sincerity of the love and the sense of merging conveyed here. And despite what he says, it is not the alcohol that prompts these protestations of both affection and hostility so much as it is the rhythm of Jamie’s feelings heard in extremis.
The main thing that sets Jamie apart from the others is his awareness of the critical contradictions in his nature and his ability to articulate that awareness. In his “big” confession of the scene, he begins with the insight that Hickey only comes to at the end of his confession: that (with Wilde) he hates the one he loves even at the instant of his most unconditional love, and that the hate is always to be feared. It is the hate that prompted Hickey to kill his wife, and that Jamie warns Edmund against:
This is O’Neill’s deepest insight of the late plays, and It goes back to Strindberg’s Easter, when Elis tells of the man who was a “faithless” friend to his father while at the same time a true friend. In this confession Jamie merges with his brother because he puts himself wholly in his brother’s place, feeling with Edmund’s prospective feelings as well as his own. He prompts us to feel Edmund’s predicted delight in his brother’s welcome, a delight so profound that Edmund will not be ready for the inevitable attack. In effect, Jamie at this moment of most selfless bonding is warning Edmund to distrust their mergings. Jamie knows well that he is Edmund’s “old pal,” knows it so well that he is at pains here to warn him of the extremes to which the “dead part” of his nature can lead him. I have heard Jamie’s attitude here described as his “hypocrisy.” It is the very opposite of hypocrisy. It suggests a merging of the two deeper than anything that has gone before. In trying to save his brother he knowingly tears apart the attachment to his brother that is “all I’ve got left.” In his own life, as Stephen Black most recently has told us, O’Neill was trying in this play and especially its sequel to make amends to his brother for having many years before accepted—indeed in part caused—the separation.7
Long Day’s Journey into Night puts before us the extremes that Jamie represents as the live part and the dead part of human existence like no other O’Neill play—or, for that matter, any play looked at in this study. Nowhere else are the recriminations so grim and insistent, but nowhere is the sense of mutual support gone so deep (unless it be when Jim and Josie come together in A Moon for the Misbegotten). The stasis reached at the end of the play is a dark one. It has been a journey into the dark night of human relationships. But it has also been about the fleetingly restorative power that only such relationships can have, unless one has become self-protectively narcotized. Like the alternatives suggested by what Chebutykin says vis-a-vis what Olga says at the end of The Three Sisters, the final scenic image of the narcotized Mary visà-vis the surrounding presence of her three men is that of a kind of death-in-life and life ongoing.
I think I might best close this discussion of Long Day’s Journey with a brief look at this play’s immediate successor in the O’Neill canon, the one-act Hughie, with which it shares, despite the many differences in the characters and the setting, something essential in common. Erie Smith, the small-time gangster and central figure of the play, is the very opposite of Jamie Tyrone in cultural background and intellect. He lacks Jamie’s wit, and he has none of Jamie’s instinctive concern for others revealed in Jamie’s attitude toward Fat Violet. But the two are similarly open, voluble, and vitally contradictory; and when Jamie says of Edmund, “You’re all I’ve got left,” we are hearing the same feelings Erie had for his lost friend, the earlier night clerk, Hughie. Erie feels as isolated by the loss of Hughie as Jamie feels he will be once he has cut himself adrift by his confession that he means to harm his brother, whom he loves. What Erie seeks from Hughes, the new night clerk, is of the same order as what Jamie has always had with his brother: a capacity for an emotional merging focused on some particular subject, in the case of Jamie and Edmund their attitudes toward women, or drink, or their father, or finally their mother. In the case of Erie and Hughes, it is a merging focused on the crap shoot, which both know is fixed by Erie, but which gives both a sense of order and reassurance in the seemingly eternal night of the play—the night of Erie’s fears and Hughes’s chaotic imaginings.
In other words, through the parallels between Jamie and Edmund, and Erie and the night clerk, Hughie is a fitting sequel to Long Day’s Journey. The other, more important sequel, however, is the play I shall discuss in the following, concluding section of this study.
1. See my essay “The Transcendence of Melodrama In Long Day’s Journey into Night.”
2. The Death of Tinker Bell: The American Theatre in the Twentieth Century (Syracuse UP, 1967) 44-45.
3. In “Trying to Write the Family Play,” The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill 196-197.
4. See my “The Stature of Long Day’s Journey into Night,” The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill 206-216.
5. It is noteworthy that among the play’s four major figures, Edmund, the representation of the playwright himself at an earlier age, is the only one not deeply contradictory in his attitudes.
6. The quoted passages in this paragraph are taken from my “Stature” essay (see note 4 above), 214-215.
7. See Black, Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy 298, 465-469.
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com