Long Day's Journey into Night (1956) by Eugene O'Neill

A Brief Summary and Review

Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Long Day's Journey into Night is a drama in four acts. It was written by Eugene O'Neill during 1941 and 1942, but it was published only posthumously in 1956. Long Day’s Journey into Night is widely considered to be his masterpiece, and Eugene O'Neill received the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1957, four years after he died.

The play is set in August, 1912, at the seaside Connecticut home of the Tyrone family.

The action takes place during a single day, beginning about 8:30am and ending around midnight. We learn in the first act that Mary, the mother, has recently come home after having been hospitalized for morphine addiction. Edmund, one of the two sons, has begun to show signs of tuberculosis, something the family is not prepared to accept, nor to manage.

A major theme in this play is addiction and family dysfunction caused by it. In the play, the characters’ concealments, accusations, denials, and regrets escalate until the family’s desperation becomes almost palpable. There are moments of sincere affection and encouragement, but the deep flaws and resignation of each family member prevents any real chance for healing or reconciliation.  

Long Day's Journey into Night is a tragedy with hints of comedy. The story is in some ways cathartic, and at its center is the fall of a once-great family.

This fall is the result of numerous things, including Mary's addiction, Tyrone’s problematic frugality, alcoholism (that of Tyrone and of his two sons, Jamie and Edmund), the boys' laziness, and other issues.

The slow revelation of Mary’s addiction and Edmund’s tuberculosis drives the plot of the play.

There is tension enough among the characters, as they try to deal with these concerns, but their situation is further agitated by the rehashing of old arguments. One of the main issues, for example, revolves around Tyrone’s being dangerously parsimonious. The boys blame their mother’s addiction on Tyrone, claiming he was too stingy to get her a decent doctor when she was suffering a painful childbirth. There is also an intimation that Edmund’s illness may become fatal solely because of Tyrone’s unwillingness to find him decent treatment.

In addition to Tyrone’s money issues, Mary’s refusal to live in the present and to accept the things that are happening around her also causes great tension in her household. She even draws the wait staff into her family’s problems, encouraging her servants to drink with her so that she won’t feel lonely.  

Ultimately, drug addiction, alcoholism, the boys’ failures in life, the father’s money issues, and the mother’s insistence on living in the past all amplify the deeper issues of blame and regret, which are the themes at the heart of this play.

Despite the fact that none of the characters is particularly likable, the play itself is not a condemnation of the Tyrone family, a family which represents not only O’Neill’s, but a general “every family.” No single character is meant to be viewed as any worse or more damaged than the others, nor are is any character, for long, acceptable as any better than the others (there could be hope for Edmund, but that hope is dashed by his illness).

This is perhaps the play’s greatest achievement, that it remains fair to all characters, unbiased even though it is essentially a reflection on O’Neill’s own life.

The play resembles O'Neill's life in many ways. O'Neill, like Edmund, suffered from consumption. O'Neill's mother became addicted to morphine sometime around O’Neill’s birth, and his father, like Tyrone, was an alcoholic Irish Catholic actor. Like Jamie, O'Neill's older brother was rather reckless, living a “Broadway” life of booze and prostitutes. Finally, O'Neill himself had a brother named Edmund who died in infancy just as the Edmund of this play had a brother named Eugene who died as a baby. These parallels are impossible to ignore and add a deeper, tragic pathos to the play.

The critical and commercial success of this play has continued steadily since the play’s publication.

This can be attributed to the strength of O’Neill’s language, description, and characters, but also to the critical yet balanced and intimate look at this American family.

Despite their dramatic machinations, perpetual arguments and refusal to forgive and forget, the Tyrone family is unremarkable. They are not unique; instead, they are an entirely familiar American family, one which loves each other but just can’t seem to live together. It is easy for readers and audiences to identify with them, and through O’Neill’s brilliant craft, to remember them.

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Your Citation
Burgess, Adam. "Long Day's Journey into Night (1956) by Eugene O'Neill." ThoughtCo, May. 3, 2016, thoughtco.com/long-days-journey-into-night-oneill-739557. Burgess, Adam. (2016, May 3). Long Day's Journey into Night (1956) by Eugene O'Neill. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/long-days-journey-into-night-oneill-739557 Burgess, Adam. "Long Day's Journey into Night (1956) by Eugene O'Neill." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/long-days-journey-into-night-oneill-739557 (accessed November 17, 2017).