Long Day's Journey into Night

Long Day's Journey into Night

Original window card, 1956
Written by Eugene O'Neill
Characters Mary Cavan Tyrone
James Tyrone
Edmund Tyrone
James Tyrone, Jr.
Date premiered 2 February 1956
Place premiered Royal Dramatic Theatre
Stockholm, Sweden
Original language English
Subject An autobiographical account of his explosive home life with a drug-addicted mother.
Genre Drama
Setting The summer home of the Tyrones, August 1912

Long Day's Journey into Night is a drama in four acts written by American playwright Eugene O'Neill in 1941–42 but first published in 1956. The play is widely considered to be his masterpiece and magnum opus. The play premiered in Sweden in February 1956 and then opened on Broadway in November 1956, winning the Tony Award for Best Play.

O'Neill posthumously received the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the work. Long Day's Journey into Night is often regarded to be one of the finest American plays of the 20th century. The play concerns the Tyrone family  including parents James and Mary and their sons Edmund and Jamie. Mary is addicted to drugs and Edmund is ill with tuberculosis. The "Long Day" refers to the setting of the play, which takes place during one day. The play is semi-autobiographical.


The play takes place on a single day in August 1912, from around 8:30 a.m. to midnight. The setting is the seaside Connecticut home of the Tyrones, Monte Cristo Cottage. The four main characters are the semi-autobiographical representations of O'Neill himself, his older brother, and their parents.

This play portrays a family in a ferociously negative light as the parents and two sons express accusations, blame, and resentments – qualities which are often paired with pathetic and self-defeating attempts at affection, encouragement, tenderness, and yearnings for things to be otherwise. The pain of this family is made worse by their depth of self-understanding and self-analysis, combined with a brutal honesty, as they see it, and an ability to boldly express themselves. The story deals with the mother’s addiction to morphine, the family’s addiction to whiskey, the father’s miserliness, the older brother’s licentiousness, and younger brother’s illness.


Act I

James Tyrone is a 65-year-old actor who had long ago bought a "vehicle" play for himself and had established his reputation based on this one role with which he had toured for years. Although that "vehicle" had served him well financially, he is now resentful that his having become so identified with this character has limited his scope and opportunities as a classical actor. He is a wealthy though somewhat miserly man. His money is all tied up in property which he hangs on to in spite of impending financial hardship. His dress and appearance are showing signs of his strained financial circumstances, but he retains many of the mixed affectations of a classical actor in spite of his shabby attire.

His wife Mary has recently returned from treatment for morphine addiction and has put on weight as a result. She is looking much healthier than the family has been accustomed to, and they remark frequently on her improved appearance. However, she still retains the haggard facial features of a long-time addict. As recovering addict, she is restless and anxious. She also suffers from insomnia, which is not made any easier by her husband and children's loud snoring. When Edmund, her younger son, hears her moving around at night and entering the spare bedroom, he becomes alarmed, because this is the room where, in the past, she would satisfy her morphine addiction. He questions her about it indirectly. She reassures him that she just went there to get away from her husband's snoring.

In addition to Mary's problems, the family is worried about Edmund's coughing; they fear that he might have tuberculosis, and are anxiously awaiting a doctor's diagnosis. Edmund is more concerned about the effect a positive diagnosis might have on his mother than on himself. The constant possibility that she might relapse worries him still further. Once again, he indirectly speaks to his mother about her addiction. He asks her to "promise not to worry yourself sick and to take care of yourself." "Of course I promise you," she protests, but then adds ('with a sad bitterness'), "But I suppose you're remembering I've promised before on my word of honor."

Act II

Jamie Tyrone and Edmund taunt each other about stealing their father's alcohol and watering it down so he won't notice. They speak about Mary's conduct. Jamie berates Edmund for leaving their mother unsupervised. Edmund berates Jamie for being suspicious. Both, however, are deeply worried that their mother's morphine abuse may have resurfaced. Jamie points out to Edmund that they had concealed their mother's addiction from him for ten years. Jamie explains to Edmund that his naiveté about the nature of the disease was understandable but deluded. They discuss the upcoming results of Edmund's tests for tuberculosis, and Jamie tells Edmund to prepare for the worst.

Their mother appears. She is distraught about Edmund's coughing, which he tries to suppress so as not to alarm her, fearing anything that might trigger her addiction again. When Edmund accepts his mother's excuse that she had been upstairs so long because she had been "lying down", Jamie looks at them both contemptuously. Mary notices and starts becoming defensive and belligerent, berating Jamie for his cynicism and disrespect for his parents. Jamie is quick to point out that the only reason he has survived as an actor is through his father's influence in the business.

Mary speaks of her frustration with their summer home, its impermanence and shabbiness, and her husband's indifference to his surroundings. With irony, she alludes to her belief that this air of detachment might be the very reason he has tolerated her addiction for so long. This frightens Edmund, who is trying desperately to hang on to his belief in normality while faced with two emotionally horrific problems at once. Finally, unable to tolerate the way Jamie is looking at her, she asks him angrily why he is doing it. "You know!", he shoots back, and tells her to take a look at her glazed eyes in the mirror.


The third act opens with Mary and Cathleen returning home from their drive to the drugstore, where Mary has sent Cathleen in to purchase her morphine prescription. Not wanting to be alone, Mary does not allow Cathleen to go to the kitchen to finish dinner and offers her a drink instead. Mary does most of the talking and discusses her love for fog but her hatred of the foghorn and her husband’s obvious obsession with money. It is obvious that Mary has already taken some of her “prescription.” She talks about her past in a Catholic convent and the promise she once had as a pianist and the fact that it was once thought that she might become a nun. She also makes it clear that while she fell in love with her husband from the time she met him, she had never taken to the theatre crowd. She shows her arthritic hands to Cathleen and explains that the pain in her hands is why she needs her prescription – an explanation which is untrue and transparent to Cathleen.

When Mary dozes off under the influence of the morphine, Cathleen exits to prepare dinner. Mary awakes and begins to have bitter memories about how much she loved her life before she met her husband. She also decides that her prayers as a dope fiend are not being heard by the Virgin, but still decides to go upstairs to get more drugs, but before she can do so, her son, Edmund, and her husband, James, return home.

Although both men are drunk, they both realize that she is back on morphine, although Mary attempts to act as if she is not. Jamie, the other son, has not returned home, but has elected instead to continue drinking and to visit the local whorehouse. After calling Jamie a "hopeless failure" Mary warns that his bad influence will drag his brother down as well. After seeing the condition that Mary is in, her husband expresses the regret that he bothered to come home, and he attempts to ignore her as she continues her remarks, which include blaming him for Jamie’s drinking, and noting that the Irish are stupid drunks. Then, as often happens in the play, Mary and James try to get over their animosity and attempt to express their love for one another by remembering happier days. When James goes to the basement to get another bottle of whiskey, Mary continues to talk with her son, Edmund.

When Edmund reveals that he has tuberculosis, Mary refuses to believe it, and attempts to discredit Dr. Hardy, due to her inability to face the reality and most importantly the severity of the situation. She accuses Edmund of attempting to get more attention by blowing everything out of proportion. In retaliation, Edmund reminds his mother that her own father died of tuberculosis, and then, before exiting, he adds how difficult it is to have a "dope fiend for a mother." By herself, Mary admits that she needs more drugs and hopes that someday she will “accidentally” overdose, because she knows that if she did so on purpose, the Virgin would never forgive her. When James comes back with more alcohol he notes that there was evidence that Jamie had attempted to pick the locks to the whiskey cabinet in the cellar, as he has done before. Mary ignores this and bursts out that she is afraid that Edmund is going to die. She also confides to James that Edmund does not love her because of her drug problem. When James attempts to console her, Mary again rues having given birth to Edmund, who appears to have been conceived to replace a baby Mary and James lost before Edmund’s birth. When Cathleen announces dinner, Mary indicates that she is not hungry and is going to lie down. James goes in to dinner all alone, knowing that Mary is really going upstairs to get more drugs.

Act IV

At midnight, Edmund comes home to find his father playing solitaire. While the two argue and drink, they also have an intimate, tender conversation. James explains his stinginess, and also reveals that he ruined his career by staying in an acting job for money. After so many years playing the same part, he lost his talent for versatility. Edmund talks to his father about sailing and of his aspiration to become a great writer one day. They hear Jamie coming home drunk, and James leaves to avoid fighting. Jamie and Edmund converse, and Jamie confesses that although he loves Edmund more than anyone else, he again ambiguously lashes out at his father calling on him to fail. Jamie passes out. When James returns, Jamie wakes up, and they quarrel anew. Mary, lost in her morphine dreams of the past, comes downstairs. Holding her wedding gown, she kneels and prays, with her husband and sons silently watching her.


Several characters are referenced in the play but do not appear on stage:

History of the play

O'Neill finished revising the manuscript into its final version in March, 1941.[1] He did not want it ever produced as a play, and did not even want it published during his lifetime, writing to his friend, the critic George Jean Nathan:

There are good reasons in the play itself... why I'm keeping this one very much to myself, as you will appreciate when you read it.[2]

O'Neill did not copyright the play. In 1945 he had a sealed copy of the manuscript placed in the document vault of publisher Random House, instructing that it not be published until 25 years after his death. He sent a second sealed copy to the O'Neill collection at Yale University.[3]

Less than a year after his death, O'Neill's third wife Carlotta Monterey decided to publish the play. After Bennett Cerf at Random House expressed unease at contravening O'Neill's explicit wishes, Monterey had it published by the Yale University Press in 1956, with the bulk of the proceeds deeded to Yale's Eugene O'Neill Collection and for scholarships at its drama school.[4]

Autobiographical content

Monte Cristo Cottage, the autobiographical analog for the setting of the play, as it appeared in 2008.

In key aspects, the play closely parallels Eugene O'Neill's own life. The location, a summer home in Connecticut, corresponds to the family home, Monte Cristo Cottage, in New London, Connecticut (the small town of the play). The actual cottage is today made up as it may appear in the play. The family in the script corresponds to the O'Neill family, which was Irish-American, with three name changes: The family name "O'Neill" is changed to "Tyrone," which is the name of the earldom granted to Conn O'Neill by Henry VIII. The names of the second and third sons are reversed, "Eugene" with "Edmund". In fact, Eugene, the playwright, was the third and the youngest child, and he corresponds to the character of "Edmund" in the play. O'Neill's mother, Mary Ellen "Ella" Quinlan, corresponds to the character Mary Cavan. The ages are all the actual ages of the O'Neill family in August 1912.

Eugene O'Neill's father, James O'Neill, was a promising young actor in his youth, as was the father in the play. He also shared the stage with Edwin Booth, who is mentioned in the play. James O'Neill achieved commercial success in the title role of Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, playing the title role about 6,000 times; he was criticized for "selling out" for commercial success at the expense of artistic merit.[5]

Eugene's mother Mary did attend a Catholic school in the Midwest, Saint Mary's College, of Notre Dame, Indiana. Subsequent to the date when the play is set (1912), but prior to the play's writing (1941–42), Eugene's older brother Jamie did drink himself to death (c. 1923).

Regarding O'Neill himself, by 1912 he had attended a renowned university (Princeton), spent several years at sea, and suffered from depression and alcoholism, and did contribute to the local newspaper, the New London Telegraph, writing poetry as well as reporting. He did go to a sanatorium in 1912–13 due to suffering from tuberculosis (consumption), whereupon he devoted himself to playwriting. The events in the play are thus set immediately prior to O'Neill beginning his career in earnest.


Premiere productions

Long Day's Journey into Night was first performed by the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden.[6] During O'Neill's lifetime, the Swedish people had embraced his work to a far greater extent than had any other nation, including his own. Thus, the play had its world premiere in Stockholm on February 2, 1956, in Swedish (as Lång dags färd mot natt), in a production directed by Bengt Ekerot, with the cast of Lars Hanson (James Tyrone), Inga Tidblad (Mary Tyrone), Ulf Palme (James Tyrone, Jr.), Jarl Kulle (Edmund Tyrone) and Catrin Westerlund (Cathleen, the serving-maid or "second girl" as O'Neill's script dubs her). The premiere and production were very successful, and the directing and acting critically acclaimed.

The Broadway debut of Long Day's Journey into Night took place at the Helen Hayes Theatre on 7 November 1956, shortly after its American premiere at Boston's Wilbur Theatre. The production was directed by José Quintero, and its cast included Fredric March (James Tyrone), Florence Eldridge (Mary Tyrone), Jason Robards, Jr. ("Jamie" Tyrone), Bradford Dillman (Edmund), and Katharine Ross (Cathleen). The production won the Tony Award for Best Play and Best Actor in a Play (Fredric March), and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play of the season.

The play’s first production in the United Kingdom came in 1958, opening first in Edinburgh, Scotland and then moving to the Globe Theatre in London’s West End. It was directed again by Quintero, and the cast included Anthony Quayle (James), Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (Mary), Ian Bannen (Jamie), Alan Bates (Edmund), and Etain O'Dell (Cathleen).

Other notable productions

Film adaptations

The play was made into a 1962 film, starring Katharine Hepburn as Mary, Ralph Richardson as James, Jason Robards, Jr. as Jamie, Dean Stockwell as Edmund, and Jeanne Barr as Cathleen. The movie was directed by Sidney Lumet. At that year’s Cannes Film Festival Richardson, Robards and Stockwell all received Best Actor awards, and Hepburn was named Best Actress. Hepburn’s performance later drew a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress.

In 1973, the ITV Sunday Night Theatre program on British television presented the play intact, starring Laurence Olivier, Constance Cummings, Denis Quilley, and Ronald Pickup, directed by Peter Wood. Olivier won a Best Actor Emmy Award for this performance.

The 1982 made for ABC-TV film, with an all African American cast of Earle Hyman (James), Ruby Dee (Mary), Thommie Blackwell (Jamie), and Peter Francis James (Edmund).

The 1987 made for TV film starred Kevin Spacey as Jamie, Peter Gallagher as Edmund, Jack Lemmon as James Tyrone, Bethel Leslie as Mary, and Jodie Lynne McClintock as Cathleen. Lemmon was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in Mini-Series or Made-for-TV Movie the following year.

In 1996, another adaptation, directed by Canadian director David Wellington, starred William Hutt as James, Martha Henry as Mary, Peter Donaldson as Jamie, Tom McCamus as Edmund and Martha Burns as Cathleen. The same cast had previously performed the play at Canada's Stratford Festival; Wellington essentially filmed the stage production without significant changes. The film swept the acting awards at the 17th Genie Awards, winning awards for Hutt, Henry, Donaldson and Burns. This version was later aired by PBS on its Great Performances series in 1999.[8]

Awards and nominations



  1. Gelb, Arthur; Gelb, Barbara (2000). O'Neill: Life with Monte Cristo. New York: Applause Books. ISBN 0-399-14609-1. Retrieved 13 October 2016.
  2. Gelb
  3. Gelb
  4. Gelb
  5. Eaton, Walter Prichard (1910). The American Stage of Today. New York, New York: P.F. Collier & Son.
  6. "Long Day's Journey Into Night". eOneill.com. 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-17.
  7. Brenda Murphy, O'Neill: Long Day's Journey into Night
  8. "Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night" on PBS-TV's "Great Performances.". Style Weekly, September 15, 1999.

Further reading

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