Performing Arts

‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’: A Masterpiece of Natural Theater

TIMEJanuary 7, 2022

How very fortunate we are that American playwright Eugene O’Neill’s widow, Carlotta Monterey, disregarded the wishes of her late husband and had “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” published in 1956, just three years after his death and not the 25 years that O’Neill himself requested. It means we had the pleasure of arguably America’s greatest tragedy for many more years than the playwright anticipated.

O’Neill’s masterpiece tells the story of his real family, whom he casts as the Tyrones—his actor father (James), drug-addicted mother (Mary), reckless older brother (Jamie), and gravely ill O’Neill himself (Edmund)—over the course of one day, sunrise to midnight, in August 1912.

Over the course of four acts, we watch them bicker, drink heavily, fight, and suffer as a steady fog literally closes in on them in their Connecticut cottage. By the end of the play, they remain in anguish over their failures, missteps, a deceased baby brother, and the renewed drug addiction of Mary. Even given some poetic license (O’Neill’s real mother, Ella, overcame her addiction), O’Neill presents a bleak picture of his family and questions the ability of human beings to succeed in life.

In addition to being riveting theater, the play is a prime example of what Natural Theater is all about. This may be why the play continues to resonate with American audiences (to say nothing of international audiences).

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A photographic portrait of Eugene O’Neill by Alice Boughton. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. (Public Domain)

Natural Theater

Natural Theater is a movement that builds on the philosophy of our nation’s founding, in that all people are free to pursue their lives in accordance with the Natural Rights given to them by Nature’s God. Such pursuits inevitably lead to conflict. Translated for the theater, this means that characters of the Natural Theater encounter conflict, not because they are victims of an unjust society but because they have contributed to this conflict through their own actions (defined by reason, as the Founders outlined).

Ultimately, however, despite setbacks and suffering, the plays of the Natural Theater remain hopeful, forgiving, and redemptive. Human nature, therefore, becomes both the cause and the resolution of drama.

What might one think of when reading or viewing “Long Day’s Journey”? No doubt, one image that comes to mind is the horrifying ending where an aged and bitter James Tyrone; his wastrel son, Jamie, passed out on a couch; and his dying son, Edmund, looking aimlessly at a fogged-out horizon, watch their dear wife and mother descend the steps holding her wedding gown in a drug-induced stupor. The message that such an image offers is one of unabated misery—seemingly the very antithesis of the Natural Theater.

But look again.

Recognizing One’s Mistakes

We cheapen O’Neill’s message by concluding that the play’s ending is a microcosm of the state of the world and the inevitable fate of human endeavors. Instead, is it a cautionary tale of poor choices and their consequences. Rather than depress, it teaches. And while it may appear hopeless, it nonetheless offers meaning by exploring the human condition and the issue of God-given reason (what our Founders called Natural Rights).

From this perspective, the play is all about the individual choices that one makes in life and as such focuses on the failings of the individual—not of society or the cosmos—as the cause for conflict. The play, then, is a four-act confessional where the Tyrones lament their failures, ultimately placing blame on themselves while the outside world—never presented as absurd or predatory—closes in on them. The approaching fog becomes all the more important as it, too, closes in on the Tyrones, leaving them alone together to face the consequences of their choices.

The fact that the Tyrones attribute their failures to themselves serves two purposes: First, it puts the fault squarely on their shoulders, which from a Natural Theater perspective gives them an air of dignity; second, it creates an environment for the audience members that allows them to feel empathy for the Tyrones without the notion that somehow external forces are to blame for their misfortune.

James Tyrone’s speech to his son Edmund is a case in point. It occurs in Act 4, when James talks at length about his career and how he was enticed by the steady salary of appearing in that play that ruined him “with its promise of an easy fortune.” By the end of the speech, he realizes it wasn’t the play that destroyed his once-promising career, but his own choices: “What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder.” He punctuates this a few moments later by quoting his beloved Shakespeare: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.”

_James_O'Neill_as_Abbe_Busoni
Eugene O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is considered an autobiographical play. Eugene O’Neill’s father, James, is James Tyrone in the play. In life, he was an actor. Here he’s in the role of Abbé Busoni in “Monte Cristo.” (Public Domain)

In the same conversation, Edmund relates his desire to be at one with the sea and to find meaning and “ecstatic freedom” by losing himself in nature. Realizing his limitations as a human being, Edmund admits that he will “always be a stranger who never feels at home,” ultimately realizing that even his speech cannot convey the meaning he wants it to: “Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people,” he concludes famously.

What we have here in James and Edmund are two characters who understand their culpability in the circumstances of their lives. As a result, we can empathize and understand and yet distance ourselves from condemning all of humanity because of the life choices of two men.

But what of the remaining Tyrones, Jamie and Mary? Do they blame themselves in any way? For Jamie, the answer is “yes.” In the final act of the play, he confesses to his younger brother that he has purposefully steered him in the wrong direction:

“Did it on purpose to make a bum of you. … My putting you wise so you’d learn from my mistakes. Believed that myself at times, but it’s fake. Made my mistakes look good. Wanted you to fail.”

Jamie’s honest appraisal of himself—and his confession of true love for his brother—lends him a dignity that his drunkenness and wanton ways would not normally allow. One could conceivably imagine a modern-day Jamie Tyrone blaming his failures on external forces such as fate, “the system,” oppression, or a Godless universe. O’Neill’s Jamie will have none of it; he is to blame: “I’ve been a rotten bad influence,” he tells Edmund.

Mary Tyrone seemingly is the one character who fails to see herself as a victim of her own doing; indeed, she often blames James for the predicament she is in, living in a house that she says has never been a home. And yet, in her final scene—where she enters in a haze brought on by morphine—she is painfully aware that she has made the wrong decisions in life, particularly giving up on her desire to be a nun. With this confession, Mary closes the circle on the four of them, condemned not by a world that doesn’t understand them but by their own actions.

A Cautionary Tale

In fact, the world outside the Tyrone home seems well-functioning. The only outsider is the housekeeper, Cathleen, used sparingly and mostly as comic relief. Other townspeople are mentioned: McGuire, who talks cigars and real estate with James; Shaughnessy, James’s tenant farmer; Captain Turner, who chats with James as he’s gardening; Dr. Hardy, Edmund’s physician. These people are merely described by the Tyrones, for O’Neill never presents them as flesh-and-blood characters.

James, in particular, finds fault with all of them. (Shaughnessy is a “wily Shanty Mick,” and Captain Turner a gabber.) And yet, there’s no indication that these townspeople—or any outside force—are at the core of Tyrone misfortune, although James would like us to think it is they who are at fault for some of his poor decisions.

Thus, the “four haunted Tyrones” (as O’Neill described them in his dedication of the play) come to grips with themselves in the only way they know how: through despair, alcohol, and drugs. Nevertheless, they have laid bare their failings and found themselves wanting, with the fog enveloping them into silence. Their world is a sad state of affairs, but it is their world only. The rest of us are comfortably outside, watching with pity but unscathed. O’Neill does not implicate his audience in the misery of the Tyrones; he merely presents the consequences of lives spent in defiance of their natural gifts as human beings.

The world is not a hostile place in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” It is not a bleak, Beckettian landscape. And while the Tyrones and Beckett’s “Godot” tramps all stare before them, motionless, as their respective plays conclude, one gets the sense that the Tyrones are not representing the fate of all humanity but rather of a particular household. Beckett, on the other hand, seems to condemn us all to a world of pain and loss, softened somewhat by the relationships we forge with those who share existence with us.

In our own time, when taking responsibility for our despair is no longer in fashion, we can better see that it is precisely because O’Neill’s vision centers on the individual who shares the blame and the glory for his or her humanity that makes “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” a Natural Theater masterpiece.

Robert Cooperman is the founder of Stage Right Theatrics, a theater company dedicated to the preservation of the founders’ vision through the arts. Originally from Queens, New York, he now lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he earned his doctorate at The Ohio State University.