Long Day's Journey into Night

Long Day’s Journey into Night, featuring the tragically dysfunctional Tyrone family, is considered one of the greatest works of American drama. The play is an autobiographical depiction of playwright Eugene O’Neill’s own family and was not published or performed until after the author’s death. Long Day’s Journey into Night won the 1957 Tony Award for Best Play and posthumously earned O’Neill his fourth Pulitzer Prize for Drama. 

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Table of contents

    Long Day’s Journey into Night: A Play by Eugene O’Neill

    Long Day’s Journey into Night is a play by American Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, written from 1939 to 41. It is widely considered O’Neill’s greatest work.

    The play is an autobiographical dramatization of O’Neill’s family and takes place on a single day in August 1912. Because of the autobiographical content, O’Neill did not want the play performed or published until twenty-five years after his death. However, the playwright died in 1953, and his widow published the play just a few years later, in 1956. It was first performed in Sweden that same year.

    Long Day’s Journey into Night won the 1957 Tony Award for Best Play, a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

    Long Day’s Journey into Night: A Summary

    Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill is a play in four acts.

    Act I

    Long Day’s Journey into Night begins at 8:30 in the morning on an August day in 1912. The Tyrone family is staying in their Connecticut summer home, where all the play’s action takes place.

    Long Day's Journey into Night, Connecticut Barn, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Tyrone family is staying in their summer home when the play takes place.

    The Tyrones have just finished breakfast, and James and Mary, the parents of the family, enter the sitting room. Through their conversation, we learn that Mary has just returned to the family after spending time away receiving treatment for morphine addiction. James expresses his pleasure at his wife’s return and says he is glad to see her doing much better.

    However, the couple hears their youngest son, Edmund, coughing offstage, and James immediately tries to divert Mary’s attention, telling her not to worry and to focus on her own well-being. Mary becomes suspicious, wondering why her husband says this when Edmund only has a cold.

    When Edmund and his brother, Jamie, enter, it becomes clear that Edmund is in poor health. An argument begins when the sons tease their father about his snoring, and the family continues bickering until Edmund exits in a fit of coughing.

    Jamie comments on his brother’s illness, angering his father for mentioning it in front of his mother. After Mary exits, James scolds his son, telling him that Mary needs to focus on getting well. Both he and Jamie suspect Edmund has tuberculosis and worry that this news could trigger Mary to relapse.

    The two argue some more. James believes that his son is lazy and that he does not value money or hard work. On the other hand, Jamie argues that his father is stingy, refusing to spend money on a good doctor for Edmund and squandering his wealth on various real estate investments.

    The two agree, however, that Mary needs their support if she is to make a full recovery. Jamie already worries that she is relapsing. He tells his father that he heard her in the spare room during the night, where she used to go to take her morphine. James dismisses his son’s worry, claiming that Jamie always looks for the worst in everyone.

    Mary enters again and interrupts the new argument between the two men. They exit, and Edmund enters, coughing again. He talks with his mother, and she expresses regret about the life she has led with James. She promises her son that she will take care of herself but also acknowledges all the promises she has broken in the past.

    Act II

    Act II is divided into two scenes, one before lunch and the other following the afternoon meal.

    Scene I

    Act II begins on the same day, around 12:45 pm. Edmund is reading in the sitting room, and Cathleen, the Tyrones’ maid, enters. She flirts with Edmund and he tells her to call the others in for lunch.

    Jamie enters, and the brothers discuss their mother’s addiction. Edmund is inclined to believe that she is improving, but Jamie is more skeptical. He informs his younger brother that they concealed Mary’s addiction from him for ten years, suggesting that he may not understand the full depth of their mother’s struggle.

    Long Day's Journey into Night, Cigar and whiskey glasses, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Tyrone men start drinking before lunch.

    Mary enters, frets about Edmund’s coughing, tells her sons they should show their father more respect, then goes on to complain about how her husband refuses to spend money to hire good servants.

    Edmund exits, searching for his father, and Jamie insinuates that he knows his mother is still taking morphine. She claims she doesn’t know what he is talking about, starting another argument until Edmund returns with James.

    James argues with his sons about the whiskey, which Jamie has started drinking without him. Then Mary begins an argument with her husband, again naming her regrets about their life together, telling him that their home has never felt like her home. James also begins to suspect that Mary is back on morphine. When their sons exit, James tells her he should never have believed in her. Mary is immediately defensive, but James isn’t convinced.

    Scene II

    Scene II begins after the Tyrones have eaten lunch. James and Mary argue a bit more about their conflicting ideas of home, but the influence of Mary’s morphine is becoming more apparent, and she doesn’t press the matter.

    The phone rings and James takes a call from Edmund’s doctor, who wants to see his patient that afternoon. The family fears bad news, except for Mary, who has no faith in the doctor her husband has hired. They argue a bit more, and Mary exits.

    Jamie believes that his mother has gone to replenish her morphine, but James and Edmund defend her. The three argue until Edmund agrees to address the issue with his mother.

    He exits to speak with her, and James and Jamie’s conversation turns to Edmund’s health. James reveals that the doctor told him there is no doubt that Edmund has tuberculosis. James sees this diagnosis as a death sentence, but Jamie argues that his father just has to spend the money to send Edmund to a good sanatorium.

    Jamie exits as Mary returns. James and Mary begin another lengthy argument, and she indirectly blames her husband for her morphine addiction, saying that he refused to pay for a decent doctor when she was recovering from Edmund’s difficult birth. She tells James that she believes Edmund's poor health is punishment for breaking her vow to not have another child after their second son, Eugene, died of measles when he was a baby.

    Edmund reenters, and he, James, and Jamie go to visit the doctor, leaving Mary alone.

    Act III

    Act III begins at 6:30 in the evening, just before the Tyrone family’s dinner. Mary and Cathleen are alone in the sitting room. Cathleen is drinking, and Mary is reminiscing. She tells Cathleen that her dream was to become a nun or a pianist, both of which fell by the wayside when she fell in love with James. Despite her love for her husband, she claims to have never felt at home with his crowd of theater friends.

    Long Day's Journey into Night, piano, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Mary dreamed of becoming a pianist before she met James.

    Cathleen exits, but Mary continues musing about her memories. She was happy before she met James, she thinks. She wishes she could pray but believes God won’t hear her prayers because of her addiction. Defeated, she decides to go upstairs for more morphine.

    Before Mary can leave, James and Edmund enter. Both men have obviously been drinking, and the effects of Mary’s morphine are also clear. She continues to lament the past and present, complaining that her husband and eldest son drink too much. Jamie is still in town, reportedly drinking and visiting a local whorehouse.

    James exits to retrieve a fresh bottle of whiskey, and Edmond admits his diagnosis of tuberculosis to his mother. She refuses to believe him and again expresses her lack of confidence in the doctor. The two argue again, and Edmond leaves his mother alone.

    In her solitude, Mary confesses that she cannot kill herself because the Virgin would never forgive her, but she hopes she might overdose by accident.

    James returns with his whiskey, and Mary expresses a sudden fear that Edmund will die. James tries to comfort her, but she goes off to bed just as Cathleen announces that dinner is served.

    Act IV

    Act IV begins after dinner, around midnight. James is alone in the sitting room playing solitaire when Edmund returns from a walk. Both men are drunk and start another argument, but later the conversation turns more intimate and sincere.

    They talk about Mary and her dream to become a pianist or a nun. Edmund blames his father for his mother’s addiction, citing his failure to pay for a good doctor and later to give Mary the home she desired. James claims again that his sons don’t value money and have taken for granted the life he’s given them.

    If James is stingy, it is only because he’s worked hard for everything he has. His dream was to be an actor who was a true artist, but he sold out for commercial success and was never able to escape the typecasting that plagued him ever since.

    James exits when he hears Jamie coming home. Jamie enters, drunk, and pours himself another whiskey. He tells his younger brother about his night and the whore he slept with, and then both men end up in tears as they discuss their mother’s addiction.

    Jamie tells his brother that he has been a bad influence. He tells his brother that he loves him but has purposefully tried to set a poor example, hoping to see Edmund fail out of jealousy. Eventually, Jamie passes out, and James reenters.

    Jamie wakes again. He briefly argues with his father before both of them pass out again.

    Mary enters, hallucinating from the morphine she has taken. She is holding her old wedding gown and seems to believe she is back in the convent of her childhood. She explains once again that she hoped to become a nun but then met James and fell in love. The three men watch her in silence, and the play ends.

    Long Day’s Journey into Night: Characters

    • James Tyrone Sr. is the father of the Tyrone household. He is sixty-five years old, although he appears to be younger and more robust. He has worked as an actor for his whole life and spent years in touring productions. James’ financial frugality is a point of contention between him and his family. His sons blame their mother’s morphine addiction on James’ reluctance to pay for a good doctor, and James regards his sons as lacking work ethic and taking money for granted.
    • Mary Cavan Tyrone is James’ wife. She is fifty-four years old and has suffered from a morphine addiction since the birth of her youngest son, Edmund. She once dreamed of becoming a nun or a pianist, but she met James and fell in love. Although she still loves her husband, she also resents him for robbing her of these dreams.
    • James “Jamie” Tyron Jr. is Mary and James’ eldest living son. He is thirty-three years old and looks like his father. Jamie is an alcoholic, and he often wastes his money on women and booze, to the disappointment of his parents.
    • Edmund Tyrone is Mary and James’ youngest son. He is twenty-three years old and more gentle and intellectual than his older brother. Like Jamie, he sometimes spends too much money on alcohol, but his parents remain more optimistic about his future. Edmund is in poor health, and he is diagnosed with tuberculosis during the play.
    • Cathleen is the Tyrone family maid. She briefly flirts with Edmund and later drinks while Mary talks to her in a morphine-induced haze.
    • Eugene Tyrone does not appear in the play but is mentioned a few different times. He was Mary and James' second son who died of measles when he was a baby.

    An Analysis of the Autobiographical Elements in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night

    To make an analysis of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, it is important to understand the play’s autobiographical elements.

    O’Neill based the Tyrone family on his own family, and the characters are the same age as O’Neill’s family was in 1912. The playwright changed the family’s last name, but the first names he left intact. The only exception is for the characters Edmund and Eugene in the play. In reality, O'Neill's deceased elder brother was named Edmund. However, in Long Day’s Journey into Night, O'Neill switched his name and his brother's. The son who dies as a baby is called Eugene, and the youngest child is called Edmund.

    O’Neill’s father was a successful actor who made his living starring in a traveling production of the melodrama The Count of Monte Cristo, and his mother became addicted to morphine following the playwright’s own difficult birth.

    O’Neill’s elder brother, Jamie, drank himself to death in the early 1920s. O’Neill himself contracted tuberculosis while traveling and working abroad and was admitted to a sanatorium in 1912.

    Long Day’s Journey into Night: Key Quotes and Themes

    Some key themes in Long Day’s Journey into Night are resignation and repetition, regret and the past, and family and home.

    Resignation and Repetition

    The monotony of repetition infects nearly all aspects of the Tyrones’ lives, as does the sense of doomed resignation that accompanies it.

    I suppose it’s because I feel so damned sunk. Because this time Mama had me fooled. I really believed she had it licked. She thinks I always believe the worst, but this time I believed the best…I suppose I can’t forgive her—yet. It meant so much. I’d begun to hope, if she’d beaten the game, I could, too. —Act IV

    The whole play is organized around the family’s meal times, emphasizing the monotony of the routine that structures their lives and giving the audience the impression that this day is like any other in the Tyrones’ life.

    The family spends their day bickering, rehashing old arguments, and dealing with their various vices. Each of the Tyrones abuses some kind of substance; Mary has her morphine, and all the men are drunk by the end of the play. This repetition that is inherent in drug and alcohol abuse governs the family’s life to a great extent.

    The Tyrones are also largely resigned to their lot in life. Mary has hopelessly given herself over to her addiction, and James, who spent his career as an actor doomed to play the same part over and over again, sees his sons following in his alcoholic footsteps.

    Regret and the Past

    When the Tyrone family isn’t resigned to their present, they live hopelessly in the past.

    That’s what makes it so hard – for all of us. We can’t forget. —Act I

    Mary, in particular, expresses her regret throughout the play. She resents having given up her dream to become a nun or a pianist to marry her husband instead. The more morphine Mary takes, the deeper into the past she goes until she is hallucinating by the end of the play.

    For his part, James regrets sacrificing his artistry as an actor for commercial success. Both parents express carrying degrees of regret throughout the play as their sons fail to meet their expectations.

    Family and Home

    Throughout Long Day’s Journey into Night, Mary, in particular, is fixated on the idea of home and how her home falls short of her expectations.

    Oh, I’m so sick and tired of pretending this is a home! You won’t help me! You won’t put yourself out the least bit! You don’t know how to act in a home! You don’t really want one! You never have wanted one – never since the day we were married! You should have remained a bachelor and lived in second-rate hotels and entertained your friends in barrooms! —Act II

    She claims several times that her idea of home is different from her husband’s or even that what they share is not a home at all. She insists that one should not feel lonely in a home, and each member of the Tyrone family frequently feels isolated, even though they are constantly interacting with one another.

    Traditional family roles are also skewed in the play, and the Tyrone family lacks any kind of responsible adult figure. Mary is weak and helpless under the power of her addiction, and James fails to earn his sons’ respect. Both Edmund and Jamie are floundering in their adult life, to the disappointment of their parents.

    Long Day's Journey into Night - Key takeaways

    • Long Day’s Journey into Night was written by Eugene O’Neill between 1939-41, but it was not published or performed until 1956, a few years after the author’s death.
    • The play is an autobiographical depiction of O’Neill’s own family and takes place in August 1912.
    • Long Day’s Journey into Night depicts one day in the life of the Tyrone family as they argue with one another, relive the past, and struggle with various vices, addictions, and illnesses.
    • Some key themes are resignation and repetition, regret and the past, and family and the home.
    • Long Day’s Journey into Night won several awards, including a Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Long Day's Journey into Night

    What is Long Day’s Journey into Night about?

    Long Day’s Journey into Night shows a day in the life of the Tyrone family as they grapple with addiction, disillusionment, and their complicated family dynamic.

    What is the significance of the title in Long Day’s Journey into Night?

    Long Day’s Journey into Night takes place over one day. Therefore, the title refers to the passage of time in the play, the journey through the day to reach the night.

    When was Long Day’s Journey into Night written?

    Long Day’s Journey into Night was written between 1939 and 1941.

    Why was Long Day’s Journey into Night never performed during O’Neill’s lifetime?

    Because of the play’s blatant autobiographical content, O’Neill did not want the play published or performed until twenty-five years after his death. O’Neill’s widow, however, published the play in 1956, just three years after the author passed away.

    Why did Eugene O’Neill write Long Day’s Journey into Night?

    Eugene O’Neill wrote Long Day’s Journey into Night towards the end of his life. It was a way for him to reflect on his own family and young adult life.

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