EXCERPT FROM THE PROGRAM
Below is an excerpt from the Long Day's Journey Into Night program written by Robyn Quick.
“The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.” -Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Mary Tyrone’s response to her husband’s desperate plea that she “forget the past” not only justifies her meditations on the multiple sources of blame for her family’s problems and pain, it also provides a description of the journey of the play. As their long day progresses, the characters venture deeper into the past events that have shaped them individually and collectively, and from which they will not release each other or themselves.
The creation of the play was born out of a similar emotional journey to the past for playwright Eugene O’Neill. His widow, Carlotta O’Neill, described conversations the playwright initiated with her in the summer of 1939: He told her that he was “haunted” by an impulse to write a play about his “youth and family.” Soon, he began work on a play set in New London, Connecticut, in 1912, with characters and events that closely mirrored the biographical details of his mother, father, brother and himself. The writing of the play that was to become Long Day’s Journey Into Night took an emotional toll, as he was “tortured every day by his own writing. He would come out of his study at the end of a day gaunt and sometimes weeping. His eyes would be all red and he looked ten years older than when he went in in the morning.” ( “Talk with Mrs. O’Neill.” The New York Times)
O’Neill’s dedication to the play upon its completion in 1941 described both his struggle and salvation in this work:
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.
(Long Day’s Journey Into Night: Critical Edition)
But he was not ready for the public to know the carefully-guarded family secrets woven into his work of art. He stipulated that Long Day’s Journey Into Night should not be published until twenty-five years after his death and never produced in the theatre. Upon his death in 1953, however, his widow Carlotta became the executor of his estate. She began negotiating publication and production rights for the play. Some of O’Neill’s friends and colleagues disagreed with her choice, arguing that it was a violation of the playwright’s wishes. Others, however, were delighted to learn of another play by O’Neill and welcomed the opportunity for Long Day’s Journey Into Night to be shared with the public. Drama critic Harold Clurman wrote upon its publication in 1956: “I believe she was right. Who knows what such a play—or any play—will mean twenty-five years after an author’s death? At the present moment, the play is a precious gift to us—regardless of its ultimate value.” (“The O’Neills,” The Nation)
Clurman’s sense of the play’s gift to his time was widely shared among his contemporaries. When the first Broadway production opened later that year, it received a standing ovation—a rarity at the time. That production ran for 390 performances and earned the playwright a Drama Critics Circle Award, a Tony Award, and his fourth Pulitzer Prize. Theatre critic Brooks Atkinson wrote that with this play, “the American theatre acquires size and stature.” (“Theatre: Tragic Journey,” New York Times) And, in 2018, we can now answer Clurman’s question about the “ultimate value” of this play: It has been hailed as America’s greatest family tragedy—perhaps our greatest play—and produced on stages world-wide.
O’Neill’s return to his past may have been a journey of tears and blood, but according to writer Robert Brustein, it also created something of great value for the playwright and for those who will continue to encounter his play: “O’Neill has elected to return to it once again—reliving the past and mingling with his ghosts—in order to find the secret and meaning of their suffering. For the playwright has discovered another escape besides alcohol, Nirvana, or death, from the terrible chaos of life: the escape of art where chaos is ordered and the meaningless made meaningful. The play itself is an act of forgiveness and reconciliation, the artist’s life-long resentment disintegrated through complete understanding of the past and total self-honesty.” (Theatre of Revolt)