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Journey Into Night

Eugene O’Neill’s “Play of Old Sorrow”

Eugene, Jamie and James O’Neill on the porch of the Monte Cristo Cottage, c. 1900

In only a little more than three years, Eugene O’Neill lost his father, mother and only brother. Two decades later he would restore that family to its troubled wholeness in arguably the greatest of all autobiographical dramas, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. James O’Neill, Eugene’s famous actor father, died of cancer in the summer of 1920 after living just long enough to witness his son’s breakthrough to Broadway success, Beyond the Horizon, which won the second Pulitzer Prize ever awarded in the drama category. The occasion of the father’s sudden illness and the son’s sudden acclaim coincided with a moment when they gained new sympathy, understanding and respect for each other in conversations that formed the basis for the dialogue in Act 4 of Long Day’s Journey.

After the lacerating experience of his father’s painful end (“froth! — rotten — all of it — no good,” was reportedly James’ final assessment of life), Eugene plunged into a prolonged period of drinking, but soon after he sobered, he wrote a play that led to his being seen as the single most significant playwright in America. The Emperor Jones was hailed as the first play of the American art theater. An experiment in expressionism, the play takes us through the dark night of the soul of its title character, an African-American Pullman porter and escaped felon who connives his way to becoming emperor of a West Indian island. In the midst of a revolution and lost in a forest at night, Jones faces a series of apparitions taking him deeper and deeper into his past and ultimately into his race memory to discover the moment when he became alienated from his own soul and permanently lost his sense of belonging.

Like Long Day’s Journey, it is a memory play, which takes us into the process of guilty and sad remembrance. In that sense, it tells the story O’Neill had heard from his father, of a man who through greed and theatrical fakery became an emperor of sorts — as Edmond Dantès, the Count of Monte Cristo. James O’Neill played this part over four thousand times after buying rights to an adapted version of the Dumas novel in 1883, the same year his second son Edmund was born and two years prior to that boy dying of the measles. Probably the last time he ever played the part was in 1912, the year in which Long Day’s Journey is set, when he played Dantès in a 56-minute feature film. At the time of filming, his son Eugene was coming down with consumption (tuberculosis), and a day of diagnosis was unfolding into a night much like the one in the play.

Two years later, Eugene’s mother died (in Los Angeles) of a brain tumor, and his brother Jamie died (in a sanatorium) of alcoholism. O’Neill’s whole experience of birth family abruptly became memory, and it is no wonder that elements of his origin story adhered to many of the characterizations and plots in his plays, culminating in Long Day’s Journey. All four members of the family in this play descend into memory in search of the moment when they lost a sense of belonging, but no one more so than Mary Tyrone, who, like Brutus Jones, faces a series of ghosts or apparitions of the past (“haints,” Jones calls them) and finally revisits the moment when her soul was severed from God.

Monte Cristo Cottage in “decay and ruin”

In the decade following The Emperor Jones, O’Neill was wildly exploratory in his plays, and the American theatrical world sat back in amazement even when his experiments proved flops. With the sudden flux of income he, along with his wife Agnes Boulton, moved restlessly from house to house in search of what he called his “final harbor,” a sufficient home. In October 1925, during a stop in New London on business (selling those “bum” properties in which his father had invested), he drove out Pequot Avenue to look at the home of his youth. A “Monte Cristo” signboard still hung over the front door, but the house was vacant. In his diary he wrote: “Decay & ruin — sad.” That night, he met Doc Ganey and a few of his other old pals at “the Club” in town and got thoroughly drunk. A few years later, his marriage to Boulton fell apart, and he sailed off to Europe with a woman who would become his third wife and surrogate mother — the beautiful Carlotta Monterey.

O’Neill’s search for home would continue for the rest of his life, but Carlotta was, with a few lapses, a constant. When they returned from France in 1931 for the production of his massive trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra, which was modeled on Aeschylus’ Oresteia, they bought a second-hand Cadillac and, driven by a chauffeur, motored up the New England coast, stopping in New London to revisit O’Neill’s “home.” Carlotta remarked what an inadequate house it was, calling it “a quaint little birdcage.” O’Neill could not bear to enter, but perhaps it was on that occasion he drew an accurate plan of the ground floor. New London and a house like this were clearly on his mind when two months later he awoke one morning with a play called Ah! Wilderness fully developed in his mind. It’s a comedy, a fantasy of what he called “the way I would have liked my boyhood to have been.”

He turned to the real story of his family in 1939–1940 when a worsening tremor in his hand made it clear that his writing career would soon come to an end. It was time to address the ghosts of his past. Over 147 days he wrote Long Day’s Journey, at a time when World War II was breaking out and he was visited by his own “misbegotten” sons. The elder, Eugene Jr., was losing himself to dissipation and squandered talent and the younger, Shane, was lost in a vague sense of art and soon to go to sea. Eugene O’Neill’s “play of old sorrow” was haunted in many ways by the past, but we know it was also troubled by the present, and of that torment came one of the masterpieces of American drama.

He knew that his family’s life would be affected by the play’s private disclosures, and so he asked that it not be published until twenty-five years after his death. Carlotta released the play for publication and production just three years after O’Neill’s death in 1953 because she understood the profundity of his intentions in writing the play. Critics and audiences, too, understood that the character Edmund, the “stammering” poet, was a stand-in for Eugene O’Neill himself who, because of what he had watched of his family drama, was capable of turning the painful and personal facts of this “night” into illuminative art. On O’Neill’s twelfth wedding anniversary in 1941, he gave Carlotta a typescript of the play with the following inscription, which she insisted must appear in all publications of the play. It is a moving testament to his achievement:

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!

By William Davies King

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