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Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

This play takes place over a single day, from 8:30 am to midnight, in five scenes in four acts. It features a family of four, Mary and James Tyrone and their two adult sons Jamie and Edmund. Mary is a recovering and then relapsed morphine addict, and Edmund has tuberculosis. They love one another but seethe with anger, resentments, accusations, blame, and pain. Highly autobiographical, it follows O’Neill’s own family life very closely, with Edmund standing in for the playwright.

As a play, it offers a different format in which to write autobiography, one that features present tense, action, and dialog; subtext and interior drama must be communicated solely in dialog and stage directions.

A Long Day’s Journey Into Night gave me a challenge because I don’t read much drama. It reminded me very much of Tennessee Williams, but I’m not sure if that’s because of all they have in common (alcohol, family drama, subtext, angst in a sort of claustrophobic domestic setting) or just because I’ve read so little drama.

A play is normally, by definition, almost entirely built of dialog; stage directions supplement that dialog but are often minimal. This play is something of an exception. The first thing I noticed was that O’Neill uses unusually many and detailed stage directions, which may indicate his interest in closely following the historical truth of his own family. For example, act one opens with several pages describing the Tyrones’ living room, down to the titles and authors of the books on the bookshelves. (These come into play late in the work.) My first thought was that this was a very challenging play to produce faithfully, including in terms of casting, as the characters’ physical appearances are described in great detail. When I learned the degree of autobiography involved, the level of detail made more sense.

For my own purposes in studying this work, I annotated it for the differences between drama and memoir–in other words, for the possible reasons for O’Neill’s choice of format, the characteristics allowed for by the play. It was worth doing, and I look forward to finding a production to view someday. (Kim recommends Sidney Lumet’s film version, with Katherine Hepburn in the role of Mary, Ralph Richardson as James, Jason Robards as Jamie [he also played the role on stage], and Dean Stockwell as Edmund.) But I confess I look forward to reading more familiar work–prose–again, too.


Rating: 7 drinks.

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