Pity and Understanding and Forgiveness

On November 29, 1945, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and recipient of the Nobel Prize, Eugene O’Neill hid some of his greatest work from the world. He sent one manuscript to his publishers at Random House with the explicit instructions that it was “to be published twenty-five years after my death—but never produced as a play.” O’Neill wrote to a friend that he had “good reasons” for “keeping this one very much to myself,” even going as far as to not have it copyrighted to prevent it from being on record anywhere. This script, which his publisher believed had some of O’Neill’s “most magnificent writing in it,” was never to be seen or heard on stage.

Bruce Dubose and Jo Schellenberg onstage as as James and Mary Tyrone

Though many O’Neill plays were “deeply and deliberately autobiographical” prior to Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in his other work “the family portraits had been so well disguised that almost none of the playwright’s contemporaries had recognized them” (Black, xiv). This play, however, would be entirely different. It is actually set smack dab in the living room of his family’s summer home in New London, Connecticut and contains family portraits “so awful” that his publisher was convinced that after they were revealed “to all the world,” certainly “thousands of people” would ask: “How could any man write that way about his own father?” The predictions of adverse reactions anticipated by O’Neill and his publisher were by no means unfounded; One of his relatives told biographers that upon receiving a copy of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, she threw it into the fire without reading a page.

 

Long Day’s Journey Into Night takes place in one room over the course of a single day in August of 1912, “a day,” as O’Neill describes it, “in which things occur which evoke the whole past of the family and reveal every aspect of its interrelationships,” as the Tyrones wait for the doctor’s diagnosis of their youngest son. In the play, O’Neill condenses the events of an entire summer into just one day, heightening not only the drama, but also the characterization of the family members. James Tyrone (the real-life counterpart to the playwright’s father, James O’Neill) is portrayed as a tight-fisted miser who cannot shake the lessons learned growing up in poverty that taught him to fear ending up in “the poorhouse.” Tyrone, like the playwright’s father, James O’Neill, was a great matinee idol who achieved great acclaim in a widely successful touring production of The Count of Monte Cristo. Tyrone’s wife, Mary Cavan Tyrone (not unlike Mary (Ella) O’Neill), battled with a morphine addiction that began after her youngest son’s birth and haunted her in the summer home that she hated. The family’s eldest son, James Jr., or Jamie (named after the O’Neill’s oldest) showed his younger brother around the bars and brothels in their little town to wise him up to the ways of the world. The Tyrone’s middle child died in infancy. Though the O’Neills also lost a child, the playwright did not name the Tyrone’s lost child after his brother Edmund. Instead, he gives the Tyrone’s missing child his name, Eugene, and gives the name Edmund to the youngest Tyrone, who most resembles himself. Much like the character of Edmund, O’Neill understood his birth to have been the start of his mother’s battle with addiction and was diagnosed with consumption in the summer of 1912. From a very young age, O’Neill read books well beyond his maturity, which cultivated in him what a classmate remembered as an “aura of sophistication,” but that the character James Tyrone regards as “morbid atheism.”

 

In O’Neill’s own estimation, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a “deeply tragic play” that, “at the final curtain,” leaves the characters “trapped within each other by the past, each guilty and at the same time innocent, scorning, loving, pitying each other, understanding and yet not understanding at all, forgiving but still doomed never to be able to forget.” But the work is not meant to be a slanderous attack on his relations. This play was a labor of pain for O’Neill, but also one of compassion. His wife Carlotta (who is responsible for disregarding O’Neill’s wishes and getting the play published and produced just years after his death) recalls him often coming out of his study after a day of writing, gaunt with red eyes, appearing ten years older than when he had gone in that morning. In his letter to Carlotta, which was published with the script, he wrote to her:

 

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 in appropriate 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! 

Gene
Tao House
July 22, 1941

 

Eugene O’Neill blatantly drew from the circumstances of his family life throughout his career, especially in Long Day’s Journey Into Night where the similarities between the O’Neills as they were in life and the Tyrones as they appear in the script are staggering. So staggering, that untangling the two, the fact from the purely fictitious has proved a daunting task for biographers and theatre artists alike. But for O’Neill, the facts were not always synonymous with the truth. “Facts are facts,” he believed, “but the truth is beyond and outside them.” Though the play is highly autobiographical, O’Neill was not writing his autobiography, he was writing his truth into a tragedy: The Monte Cristo Cottage in the summer of 1912 his stage, “all four haunted Tyrones,” merely players.

 

Now, exactly 60 years after its world premiere at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Sweden on February 10, 1956, Undermain Theatre brings Eugene O’Neill’s tragic masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night to Dallas for the first time in over two decades. This production is made possible in part, by a grant from the Tad Adoue III Fund at The Dallas Foundation.

 

~Abigail Birkett, Undermain Emerging Artist

Comments are closed.