The O’Neill Legacy

"For Carlotta, on our 12th Wedding Anniversary: 

Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play– write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones. 

These twelve years, Beloved One, have been a Journey into Light – into love. You know my gratitude. And my love!

Tao House
July 22, 1941"

Eugene O'Neill

Eugene O'Neill

This dedication was written by Eugene O’Neill to his wife Carlotta Monterey when he gave her the script for what would become his masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. And the playwright’s words make it immediately clear that this was not an easy script to write. While many of O’Neill’s 38 plays contain elements taken from his own life, none would be as deeply autobiographical as this one—which is why its author was reluctant for it to ever see the light of day.

Today, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is one of the most performed plays of O’Neill’s oeuvre, let alone of the 20th century American canon. But its fate could have turned out much differently.

O’Neill completed Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 1941, but it wasn’t produced in America until 1956. And if the playwright’s wishes had been followed, it would have taken even longer. Unwilling to see the representation of his own tortured family on stage in his lifetime or while anyone who could be hurt by it was still living, O’Neill left Carlotta instructions that the play not be published until 25 years after his death. In 1942, he had a sealed copy placed in a vault at his publisher, Random House, with a contract drawn up to make this decree official. O’Neill would pass away in 1953 at the age of 65, but somehow the world was introduced to the Tyrone family only three years later—or 22 years earlier than the playwright intended. So what happened?

Technically, Carlotta would choose to transfer the rights to the play to Yale University, which allowed her to get around the earlier agreement, but the emotional reasons go much deeper. Carlotta told some inquirers that Eugene always meant that play to be a “nest egg” for her, which could only happen if it were published and produced. She also argued that O’Neill’s concern had been that his fragile elder son, Eugene Jr., couldn’t handle seeing the play, but since the child passed away before his father did, that reason was no longer relevant. Of course, this reasoning ignores the fact that O’Neill reiterated his wishes months after his son’s death, writing to his publisher: “No, I do not want ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night.’ That, as you know, is to be published twenty-five years after my death—but never produced as a play.”

It’s possible that Carlotta simply chose to bring Long Day’s Journey Into Night to the public so soon because she knew how good it was and how long it had been since her husband’s last success. Late in his life, O’Neill would have a long fallow period in which no new work came to the stage. He was busily writing during this time but was so displeased with his work that he allowed very little of it to be released. He had planned to create a great cycle about an Irish-American family but would only complete one piece, A Touch of the Poet, to his satisfaction.

The very act of writing became difficult in the playwright’s later years, as O’Neill dealt with a severe tremor. It’s believed that A Moon for the Misbegotten was the last play he completed before losing his ability to hold a pencil. He had many other partial scripts as his health was declining, but Carlotta complied with her husband’s request to destroy them. She would later tell the New York Times: “He didn’t want to leave any unfinished plays and he said, ‘It isn’t that I don’t trust you, Carlotta, but you might drop dead or get run over or something and I don’t want anybody else finishing up a play of mine.’ We tore them up, bit by bit, together. I helped him because his hands—he had this terrific tremor, he could tear just a few pages at a time. It was awful, it was like tearing up children.”

Perhaps it was this knowledge of all of the destroyed work that the world would never see that drove Carlotta to give us Long Day’s Journey Into Night so quickly. We may never know what motivated her or how Eugene O’Neill would have reacted to her decision, but we can certainly be grateful that we have this play in the world. It helped to seal O’Neill’s legacy as one of the great playwrights of the 20th century. He would posthumously be awarded his fourth Pulitzer Prize for this play (the most of any playwright), and he is the only American playwright ever to be awarded a Nobel Prize.

In O’Neill’s obituary in the New York Times in 1953, the paper of record wrote, “Whatever judgment posterity may make, the history of the stage will have to find an important niche for him, for he came upon the scene at an opportune moment and remained active long after the American theatre had come of age.” Famous Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote of O’Neill, who had become a friend over the years, “Through the lines of his plays came an unconquerable and unpredictable energy that transformed the American theatre from a silly craft into a serious art. He boldly related the theatre to the intellectual life of the times…He was not interested in artful plots but in ideas—or specifically, the one idea of the destiny of mankind. Whether the individual plays were good or bad, and many were bad, he consistently aimed high and attempted to say fundamental things…he loved life in his own fashion. In fact, he loved it so deeply that he spent all his mature years wrestling with the essentials of it.”

Almost every single play he wrote dealt with some kind of tragedy and came from a deeply personal place laced with pessimism. It would be fair to say that Eugene O’Neill didn’t have a lot of hope for mankind, with one critic calling him “America’s own apostle of woe.” But audiences have embraced that woe, in the same way that terrible tragedies on stage moved the Greek playwrights whom O’Neill admired so greatly. Tragedy was not a new dramatic form, but it was reintroduced by O’Neill in a particularly American idiom. We can look with thanks to the legacy of Eugene O’Neill for the ways in which today’s playwrights spill open their hearts on the stage, giving us the kind of vital and moving theatre that the man himself would have enjoyed.

Long Day's Journey into Night is now playing at The American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Long Day's Journey Into Night

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