Long Day's Journey into Night | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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Long Day's Journey into Night | Act 1, Section 1 | Summary

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O'Neill divided Act 2 into two scenes but left the other acts intact. This study guide divides the other acts into sections for the purpose of summary and analysis.

Summary

It is 8:30 a.m. on an August day in 1912. The location is the main room, or "living room," of the Tyrones' summer home. Amidst the cluttered furniture, Eugene O'Neill specifies two bookcases: a small one containing works by Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), Stendhal (1783–1842), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), Karl Marx (1818–83), Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), August Strindberg (1849–1912), and others, as well as poetry by Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–82), and others. The other bookcase is large and "glassed-in" with more classical reading: Victor Hugo (1802–85), Alexandre Dumas (1802–70), "three sets of Shakespeare" (William Shakespeare, 1564–1616), and a variety of historical books. All of these heavy history books and classical novels appear to have been read many times, O'Neill notes.

James and Mary Tyrone enter. O'Neill describes Mary as 54, but with a fairly youthful figure. She is definitely Irish in appearance and does not wear makeup. Her hair is pure white, and her large, beautiful eyes are almost black in her pale face. Her hands were beautiful once, but are now deformed by rheumatism. Her hands never stay still. O'Neill notes she has "an innate unworldly innocence" and "a shy convent-girl youthfulness." James (referred to as "Tyrone" throughout the play) is 65 but looks a decade younger. He is "remarkably good looking" and carries himself like a soldier. His hair is thinning. He is "unmistakably" an actor, though he does not engage in deliberate poses. He sports a threadbare suit because he wears clothes until they are worn out. He is rarely sick and never feels nervous, thanks to "a lot of stolid, earthy peasant in him."

Tyrone and Mary are in a good mood as they enter. Tyrone's arm is around his wife's waist. They bicker gently, almost playfully, about how much breakfast Mary did or did not eat and whether or not Tyrone makes good real estate deals. They hear their two sons laughing at the breakfast table, but a bout of coughing distracts Mary. They both agree Edmund only has a summer cold, but Mary is unnerved. Tyrone tells Mary not to worry, saying she has been "high-strung." Mary retorts: "You really must not watch me all the time, James ... it makes me self-conscious."

Tyrone tells Mary he is glad to see her as her "dear old self again." Mary looks out the window and expresses relief that the fog is gone. She complains about the foghorn blowing the previous night and teases Tyrone when he says he could not sleep because of it since she heard him snoring. When Mary calls to her sons, they enter. James Tyrone Jr., known as "Jamie," looks like a less impressive version of his father. Edmund is 10 years younger than Jamie and looks more like his mother. He has some of her "nervous sensibility" and is also very thin and feverish-looking.

Mary asks the boys to back her up about their father's snoring. She is flustered by Jamie staring at her, but he tells her how healthy she looks. Tyrone and Edmund agree. The relatively cheerful tone of the conversation soon deteriorates as Tyrone criticizes Jamie for being lazy. Mary and Edmund try to intervene, but Jamie is unmoved. Mary asks what the boys were laughing at, and Edmund tells a story about one of his father's tenants who picked a fight with a millionaire. Although Tyrone has his own issues with this tenant, he cannot keep from smiling about the "wily Shanty Mick" and his willingness to stand up for himself. When Edmund insults the millionaire, Tyrone criticizes him. Edmund leaves the room. He can be heard coughing offstage.

Mary blames Edmund's temper on a summer cold, but Jamie tells her, "The Kid is damned sick." Mary is instantly furious at Jamie for saying such a thing. Tyrone interrupts, saying the doctor thinks Edmund has another bout of malarial fever, which he had previously. Mary launches into a diatribe against the doctor, causing both Jamie and Tyrone to stare at her. When she notices this, she becomes flustered. Tyrone reassures her. Mary exits to talk to the servants after forbidding Tyrone to make Edmund work outside.

Analysis

Eugene O'Neill clearly wrote this play as much to be read as to be performed. He never intended it to be performed in his lifetime because it was shockingly autobiographical. While some plays, such as those by English playwright William Shakespeare, have minimal (or unreliable) stage directions, O'Neill provides extremely specific details about the set and the characters: there are 11 paragraphs of stage directions before the first line is spoken. Some of this detail may reflect O'Neill's personal relationship to the setting and characters, as he is describing his family and their summer home.

O'Neill is very intentional, however, about what he includes. When he lists all the books in the bookcases, it illustrates something about the family members. The small bookcase belongs to a modern, somewhat revolutionary thinker (for the year 1912). This hints at Edmund's (and O'Neill's) preferred reading. The larger, glassed-in bookcase has more conventional titles. The audience later learns that the larger bookcase reflects Tyrone's taste, while the smaller bookcase reflects Edmund's intellectual preferences. It also anticipates later arguments between Edmund and Tyrone over their favorite authors.

In the character descriptions, O'Neill immediately brings up Ireland. Mary is decidedly Irish, and though he does not specifically use the word "Irish" in describing Tyrone, the reference to his "peasant" roots is intended to suggest Ireland as well. The anecdote about the "wily shanty Mick" (a "mick" is an insulting slang term for an Irishman) also grounds the audience in the reality of an Irish American family. By 1912, the year in which the play is set, the Irish were fairly well-established in America, but Tyrone has a clear memory of the days when the Irish were not welcome in America. This Irish American identity infuses everything Tyrone does in the play.

O'Neill was very proud of his Irish heritage, but he does not make these characters Irish purely for this reason. Long Day's Journey into Night was O'Neill's explicit attempt to retell the story of his family. In fact, an O'Neill relative once held the title of Earl of Tyrone. O'Neill's father was James O'Neill, and his elder brother was James O'Neill Jr. O'Neill's mother's first name was Mary, though she went by her middle name, Ella. O'Neill's father was an actor, his mother had a drug addiction, and his brother was an alcoholic. O'Neill himself was the youngest child, and after traveling around the world he was diagnosed with consumption and had to go to a sanatorium for care. O'Neill made no secret of the play's autobiographical roots. In fact, he decreed it should not be performed until many years after his death specifically because of its autobiographical nature.

O'Neill blends his family history with concepts drawn from ancient Greek drama. He often explored how to blend Greek tragedy with the modern world—his play Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) is his most obvious example. In Long Day's Journey into Night, O'Neill embraces the Aristotelian "unities," French classicists' interpretations of ideas from ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle's (384–22 BCE) Poetics (350 BCE). The unities were unity of action, unity of time, and unity of place. Long Day's Journey fulfills all three.

Unity of action means the play follows a single plotline. A Shakespearean comedy, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream (1600), has multiple plotlines—the four lovers, the battle between the fairy king and queen, the "mechanicals" rehearsing a play—that all happen to occur in the woods on a particular evening. Such a play does not have unity of action. Long Day's Journey has a single storyline: the interactions between family members as they learn about Edmund's diagnosis and realize Mary will never fully recover from her "illness." Unity of time means the events of the play occur in a single day. This is also demonstrated in Long Day's Journey as the acts roughly correspond to breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night drinking. Unity of place means a single location for the play. O'Neill uses a single setting, the bottom floor of the Tyrone home.

On the surface, not much seems to happen in this first part of Act 1. A family chats after breakfast. The father does not approve of his sons. The mother and one of the sons are both ill. In fact, O'Neill's power comes from the things that are not spoken aloud. In theater, this is referred to as "subtext," literally the message beneath the text. Actors use subtext to adjust how they deliver the lines. If an actor has to say "hello" in a scene, the subtext affects the actor's tone of voice, physical movements, mannerisms, and more. This is another way O'Neill uses stage directions. When he includes the phrase "as if she wanted to dismiss the subject but can't" in one of Mary's lines, he tells both the actress and the audience that Mary knows Edmund is seriously ill.

Subtext also affects how the other characters react to Mary. Why are they all so insistent that she looks well? Why does O'Neill have certain characters—Jamie and Tyrone, in particular—keep watching her? Even if the audience does not know yet, the characters do, and this knowledge shapes their actions. Mary is the mother figure of the play, a role that carries enormous implications. She is the central figure around which the other characters revolve.

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