Long Day’s Journey Into Night

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his lifetime or while anyone who could be hurt by it was still living, O’Neill left Carlotta instructions that the play not be published until 25 years after his death.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.

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

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James Tyrone: The Old Man


“He is by nature and preference a simple, unpretentious man, whose inclinations are still close to his humble beginnings and his Irish farmer forebears. But the actor shows in all his unconscious habits of speech, movement and gesture. These have the quality of belonging to a studied technique.” (From O’Neill’s description of the character James Tyrone)

Biographer Barbara Gelb has called the role of James Tyrone “O'Neill's Lear,” because of the actions and emotions it challenges an actor to perform. While strong paternal figures loom heavily in many of O’Neill’s plays, his robust characterization of Tyrone stands apart as his most powerful statement about his father, James O’Neill, and their complicated relationship.

Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)


Although he became a successful American actor, James O'Neill lived his entire life haunted by a fear of poverty. Uncertainty remains about his actual birthdate, because he was vague in talking about his past; he was probably born on October 15th of 1845, in County Kilkenny, during the worst of the Irish potato blight. His father, Edmund, was a poor tenant farmer whose wife, Mary, was 17 years his junior. The family had five daughters and three sons, of which James was the youngest.

The O’Neills made a difficult sea voyage to America, arriving in Buffalo, New York when James was six. Like most Irish immigrants, they confronted prejudice and disdain and could find only the lowest paying jobs. Edmund became a dock worker. After five years and the death of oldest son Richard, Edmund abandoned his family and returned to Ireland, where he died in 1862. Ten-year-old James went to work in a machine shop to help support the family. As he watched friends and neighbors move to the poor house, James’s fear of poverty grew.

His older sister, Josephine, was determined to improve conditions for her family. She married a successful businessman and moved to Cincinnati, taking 16-year-old James along. Her husband gave James a position selling military uniforms in his store and hired a private tutor to educate him. Like many success stories, James O’Neill rose as a result of hard work and some good luck.

His theatre career began in 1867, when, responding to a friend’s dare, he took a job as an extra in a play. He quickly discovered an inclination for acting, and the stage manager recognized his talent. Over the next decade James apprenticed with some of the great actors of the age: Edwin Forrest, Joseph Jefferson, and Edwin Booth. He developed his craft, overcame his Irish brogue, and memorized over 50 roles—including most of Shakespeare’s heroes. His talent, good looks, and charm earned him the respect of his peers and popularity with audiences.

James was well-liked by women, both onstage and off. One actress recalled, "When played with other Romeos, I thought they would climb up the trellis to the balcony; but when I played with Jimmy O'Neill, I wanted to climb down the trellis, into his arms." Fifteen-year-old Ella Quinlan, the daughter of a Cleveland businessman, caught James’s eye. Two years later, they met again in New York and a long courtship followed. Against her mother’s wishes, she married James in 1877. By this time, he had become a leading man in a theatre company, earning an impressive $195 a week. Their newlywed happiness was soon jeopardized when Nettie Welsh, a former lover, brought a lawsuit claiming that James had already married her and fathered a 3-year-old son. Welsh lost the case due to insufficient evidence, but the scandal hurt the marriage—even as it helped James’s box office appeal. James and Ella had three children: James Jr., Edmund (who died of the measles as a toddler), and Eugene, born in 1888. Despite Ella’s dislike of the theatrical lifestyle and her long struggle with addiction, James remained a devoted and faithful husband.

In 1883, James first played Edmond Dantes in the melodrama The Count of Monte Cristo, based on Alexandre Dumas’ novel. Over the next 30 years, he performed the role over 6,000 times and earned more than $800,000 —a fortune for a man who started as a penniless immigrant. But it became a Faustian bargain: he had sold out artistic aspiration in exchange for financial security and felt trapped by the role. Still, he played Dantes until the production finally closed down in 1916. In 1920, with his self esteem broken and his spirit destroyed, James O’Neill died of intestinal cancer.

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

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

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Mary Tyrone: A Shy Convent-Girl


But some day, dear, I will find it again—some day when you're all well, and I see you healthy and happy and successful, and I don't have to feel guilty any more—some day when the Blessed Virgin Mary forgives me and gives me back the faith in Her love and pity I used to have in my convent days, and I can pray to Her again when She sees no one in the world can believe in me even for a moment any more, then She will believe in me, and with Her help it will be so easy. I will hear myself scream with agony, and at the same time I will laugh because I will be so sure of myself.—Mary Tyrone

Jessica Lange as Mary Tyrone in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Jessica Lange as Mary Tyrone in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

Eugene O’Neill used the character of Mary Cavan Tyrone to work through the ideologies and choices that shaped the life of his own mother, Mary Ellen “Ella” Quinlan O’Neill. The two--woman and character--share a devout Catholic upbringing, marriage to a traveling actor, and an addiction to morphine. While O’Neill made changes to the details of his mother’s life to serve the play, it’s clear that the soul of Mary Tyrone’s journey is rooted in Ella O’Neill’s life experience.

O’Neill describes Mary Tyrone in the summer of 1912 just as his mother was then: 54 years old, medium height, with a striking face. “Her nose is long and straight, her mouth wide with full, sensitive lips….Her dark brown eyes appear black. They are unusually large and beautiful, with black browns and long curling lashes.”

Ella O’Neill was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on August 13, 1857. Like Mary Tyrone, whose voice has “a touch of Irish lilt in it,” both of Ella’s parents were Irish Catholic immigrants. She was raised in St. Brigid’s Parish on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio. Her father’s success in business--an achievement for an immigrant in an era of anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiment--allowed him to send Ella to private schools, first to Ursuline Academy near her parents’ home. The school was run by Ursuline nuns, an order that focuses almost exclusively on the education of girls and places a high value on individual spiritual and academic development and “the primacy of Hope...learning to trust in the Providence of God and the promise of a better tomorrow.” There, young Ella would have attended mass, confession, novenas, benedictions, and adoration in the convent chapel, passing hours staring at a painting of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child that hung in the sanctuary. She learned the difference between mortal and venial sins and developed a strong awareness of her own transgressions.

From Ursuline Academy, Ella was sent to the Convent of St. Mary in Notre Dame, Indiana. It was here that Ella, under the tutelage of Mother Elizabeth, developed as a pianist, exactly as Mary Tyrone describes. O’Neill even retains Mother Elizabeth’s name. School was, for both Ella and Mary, a happy time when faith and life were integrated and their creative talents nurtured.

It’s at this point that Ella’s biography diverges from Mary Tyrone’s backstory. In 1874, just prior to her graduation, Ella’s father died of tuberculosis aggravated by alcoholism, a habit he took up after his diagnosis. He left the family quite well off, and young Ella persuaded her mother to accompany her to New York to continue her music studies. It was there that she was re-introduced to James O’Neill, an actor and casual friend of her father’s that she first met as a teenager in Cleveland. At the time of their marriage in 1877, Ella was twenty years old and had lived through her father’s traumatic death. She was not the girl described in the play: a giddy, spoiled convent girl with a father who buys her everything she wants. But like Ella, Mary’s father died of tuberculosis.

Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

After marriage, Ella’s story converges with Mary’s. Both struggled with life as the wife of a traveling actor. Mary describes “one-night stands, cheap hotels, dirty trains, bearing children, never having a home.” In an era when middle and upper class women were defined by their ability to create a pleasant home for their family, Mary feels that she’s failed at her most important duty.

Ella gave birth to her first son, James, in 1878 and a second son five years later, just as Mary Tyrone does in the play. (In the play, the Tyrone sons are, in birth order, James, Eugene, and Edmund; in reality, Ella O’Neill’s sons were James, Edmund, and Eugene.) When her sons were seven and two, Ella left them in the care of her mother and joined her husband on the road. While she was away, Jamie, the eldest, contracted measles, and, despite being warned not to, snuck into his brother Edmund’s room. Edmund caught measles and died before Ella could reach him.

Mary Tyrone relates the same story, making it clear that she blames the baby’s death on Jamie. “I’ve always believed Jamie did it on purpose. He was jealous of the baby.” While a viewer might interpret Mary’s bitterness as a byproduct of grief, she was likely raised to regard seven as “the age of reason,” the age at which a child is developed enough to understand and receive the sacraments of confession and Holy Communion. He was old enough to be held spiritually responsible for his actions. At the same time, she feels deep guilt for having left her child. She feels that she’s committed a mortal sin and would have been raised to believe that she’s no longer in a state of grace, deprived of her inner connection to God.

Six years later, despite vowing not to have more children, Ella gave birth to her third son, Eugene. The birth was difficult, and she was given morphine for the resulting pain. This wasn’t unusual at the time. Doctors had limited options for treating pain, and the prevailing belief that women were more delicate, and more sensitive to nervous upset, lead to widespread prescription of opiates for all gynecological ailments. In 1879 the president of the American Gynecological Society recommended that physicians teach women suffering menstrual pain to become “opiumeaters.” Opiate-based over-the-counter remedies (including “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup,” used to calm fussy infants) were legal and widely available. There was nothing illegal or furtive about acquiring opiates during the early years of Ella’s addiction. Opiate addiction was seen sympathetically, as an unfortunate disease of upper and middle class women.

By 1912, the year the play takes place, there had been a shift in public perception of opiate use. Doctors became aware of the hazards of the drug. More importantly, sensationalized newspaper coverage of white slavery in Chinese opium dens and poor, minority criminal addicts lead to a legislative push to restrict and criminalize narcotic use. It was at this point in time that many women addicts, including Ella and her fictional counterpart, finally sought treatment. Though in the play we leave Mary Tyrone on that same August day in 1912, her final monologue foreshadows Ella’s own recovery from addiction. In 1914, Ella again entered treatment, possibly with the assistance of nuns, and successfully overcame her habit. She died of cancer in 1922.

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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