Saturday, November 20, 2010

Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill (1957)

Summary:  The play takes place over the course of one day in the summer of 1912 at the Tyrone summer home.  Patriarch James Tyrone is a mediocre but working actor, his wife Mary is a not-so-recovering morphine addict and his living sons Edmund and James are grown boys who drink too much, enjoy the company of whores and can't seem to hold continuous jobs.  Younger brother Edmund (who once did hold a job as a sailor) has an ominous persistent cough that is eventually formally diagnosed as tuberculosis, though all members of the family are slow to accept this fact.  As the day progresses from 8:30 AM to midnight, the men of the family get drunker as Mary slips into morphine-induced hysteria.

Thoughts:  Though I have not yet checked the tag counts, I am fairly certain that the most used tags in this project have been "dysfunctional family", "drama" and "alcohol."  This play is perhaps the most distilled example of the combination of these subjects.  Many of the plays in the project have taken place in living rooms, with people sitting around:  first talking to each other, then fighting with each other.  This play is certainly no exception.  From the beginning, O'Neill makes it clear that the fights on this day are not new.  Instead, they are conflicts that have been familiar to the Tyrone family since the first child (Jamie) was born.

While the play depicts the ugliness of addiction and the specific sting of family arguments, the importance of the past is a major theme in the play (reminiscent of so many recipients of the Pulitzer Prize).  The theme of "the importance of the past" is unearthed by characters with contrasting opinions on the issue (reminding me of The Piano Lesson and Topdog/Underdog).  James is hard on his sons because he wants them to do something with their lives and create a future for themselves; while Mary is obsessive about remembering the past.  She states, "The past is the present, isn't it?  It's the future, too.  We all try to lie out of that but life won't let us"  (Act 2, Scene 2).  Later, she stresses, "Only the past when you were happy is real" (Act 3).  Though things have gone wrong in her life (death of an infant named Eugene, addiction to morphine, single alcoholic sons, etc.) she yearns for a time when things were better....even though this time may be a highly fictionalized creation of her drug-addled mind.

In the Norton Anthology of Drama Introduction to this text, Martin Puchner writes that this play is probably very close to autobiography for Eugene O'Neill.  O'Neill's father was an actor.  After having some success in a production of The Count of Monte Cristo, he stayed in that role until the end of his life and was never given the chance to blossom as an actor.  Though comfortable, he probably wasn't artistically fulfilled (much like James Tyrone).  Likewise, O'Neill's mother hated traveling and never felt that the family had a "home" since they accompanied their patriarch on his tours across the United States.  This play is one of the longest in the project, and there are very few moments of levity or hope in the text.  The dramatic structure of the play (and therefore any reading/watching of it) closely mirrors the title.

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