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Long Day's Journey into Night | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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Long Day's Journey into Night | Context


Realism in American Drama

For centuries, actors performed in a declamatory, or vehemently expressive, style, shouting their lines loudly and striking poses. By the 19th century, however, realism was becoming more popular. The development of the "box set" style theater led to more realistic environments that looked like a room in an actual house. Productions required props (handheld items the actors use, such as a book or a teacup) and set pieces (such as furniture) that fit the period in which the play was set.

Playwrights in 19th-century Europe were also experimenting with realism. Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), and August Strindberg (1849–1912) were some of the chief playwrights that focused on real people facing real problems. Failing marriages, arguments between parents and children, questions of self-identity, midlife crises, and work and money problems were the central conflicts of many 19th-century plays. Playwrights would occasionally experiment with more grandiose epics or heroic figures, but they were interested in life as it was, not some idealized version of life from the past.

Many of the European theatrical trends were lost on American audiences of the late 19th century. American productions tended to be musical revues, melodramas, or classics such as Shakespearean plays performed by highly admired actors like Edwin Booth (1833–93), whom the character James Tyrone—based on the playwright's father—worked with in his youth. Eugene O'Neill's father, James O'Neill, was an actor who made his living playing in romantic costume dramas and occasional Shakespearean productions.

When O'Neill began writing plays, he deliberately eschewed both the poetic word stylings of English playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616) and the conventions of melodrama. His earliest works were about seafaring folk like the people he had met on his travels. He wrote using authentic language that sounded the way these people spoke in real life, and while his plays contained plenty of drama, the drama was grounded in genuine emotional pain rather than in predictable plot-driven complications typical of melodramas of the era. O'Neill received numerous awards for his achievements, and his works continue to be performed all over the world because of their power and honesty.

The Irish in America

O'Neill once told his son, "The one thing that explains more than anything about me is the fact that I'm Irish." O'Neill never visited Ireland, but his work is heavily shaped by his family's Irish American experience. Long Day's Journey into Night, O'Neill's most autobiographical play, is one of his most Irish plays.

While Irish people had been immigrating to America since the early 18th century, the greatest number of Irish emigrated in the 19th century as a result of the Great Famine (1845–49). A potato blight, or disease, destroyed many crops in Ireland and made life even more difficult for Irish peasants who had been struggling for years. Wealthy British residents owned large tracts of land in Ireland, and they felt no need to provide for their tenant farmers who were starving because the blight wiped out their primary food source. Entire families, like the character James Tyrone's, moved to the United States in search of a better life.

However, life in the United States brought its own set of challenges. After starvation in Ireland, many immigrants were ill, weak, and poorly equipped for hard labor. They had little, if any, money left since they often had to pay their own way across the Atlantic. Worst of all, they were Catholic, a religion viewed with suspicion by Protestant Americans. There were rumors that the Irish would help the pope invade America and rule under Catholic canon (religious) law. Signs were posted telling Irish people not to bother applying for jobs. A political party known as the "Know-Nothings" grew from the idea that Catholics and immigrants should return to the places they came from.


In the play Edmund suffers from consumption, just as O'Neill once did. Today, consumption is better known as tuberculosis (TB). While different forms of tuberculosis exist, pulmonary tuberculosis, a bacterial infection in the lungs, is one of the most serious. Symptoms include coughing, fever, loss of appetite, and loss of weight.

In the early 20th century, consumption was a leading cause of death in the United States. The disease was not always fatal, but since it was airborne and thus highly contagious, people were terrified of contracting it. Consumptive patients were usually admitted to a sanatorium to reduce the possibility of infecting family members. Fortunately, O'Neill had a mild case and was cured after about six months of treatment.

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