Exploring the greatest new and classic plays


Photo © Marc Brenner

Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson
Wyndham’s Theatre, London
April 2024
Photo by Johan Persson

Long Day’s Journey into Night – Footnotes

Jun 11, 2024 | Footnotes | 0 comments

The Footnotes to our episode on Eugene O’Neill’s magnum opus Long Day’s Journey into Night contain observations on the publication and first production of the play, James Tyrone the actor, Mary’s preoccupation with the past, and O’Neill’s dramatic form.

Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.

The publication and first productions of the play
Because of the deeply personal revelations the play contained, Eugene O’Neill gave explicit instructions that Long Day’s Journey into Night should not be published until twenty-five years after his death, and that it should never be performed on stage. So how did it come to be both published and performed within three years of his death?

Well, in his will O’Neill granted his wife, Carlotta Monterey, the rights to his private papers and literary properties. He also noted that he had granted Random House publishers the right to publish Long Day’s Journey into Night, on condition that it not be published until twenty-five years after his death. Although O’Neill and Monterey’s relationship was turbulent, and he formally retracted his bequeath to her at one point, he finally confirmed that his wish that she be his sole heir to his literary estate, though his provisos about ‘Long Day’s Journey’ remained.

After O’Neill’s death in November 1953, Monterey initially seemed committed to upholding his wishes, confirming in her diary that she was protecting his “twenty-five year box” which contained personal papers and the play manuscript, vowing that the box could not be opened until 1978. But less than a year after O’Neill’s death, she approached Random House, requesting that they publish the play. O’Neill’s editor at Random House, Bennett Cerf, refused to break his agreement with O’Neill. In a fury, Monterey took the manuscript to Yale University Press, and the play was published in 1956.

As for the first production of the play, that had an unlikely origin. The Artistic Director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, apparently asked the then Secretary General of the United Nations, who was also a Swede, to inquire if the rights might be available for a Swedish production. Monterey said that she granted the theatre in Stockholm the right to stage the play in gratitude for the support Sweden had shown O’Neill, including the Nobel prize. The premier performance of the translated play in Stockholm in February 1956, attended by the Swedish king and queen, was greeted with huge acclaim, and Monterey immediately offered the rights for the play to be produced on Broadway in November 1956, where it received similarly ecstatic reviews.

It is not clear precisely why Monterey chose to countermand O’Neill’s instructions. It would be natural to assume that she did it for the money, but the proceeds from North American publication were directed to support the Eugene O’Neill Collection at Yale University library, and the royalties from the first Swedish production were donated to the Stockholm theatre’s cast. The most likely explanation is that she acted proactively in order to prevent any possible alternative claims to the rights for the play, notably from O’Neill’s second wife, Agnes Boulton, because she knew that Bolton possessed an early manuscript of O’Neill’s preliminary sketch for the play written nearly thirty years earlier. Whatever the reason, perhaps we should be thankful after all that her untimely release of the play assured O’Neill’s reputation.

The first edition of Long Day’s Journey into Night

Royal Dramatic Theatre Stockholm

Brian Cox as James Tyrone
Wyndham’s  theatre, London, April 2024
Photo by Johan Persson

James Tyrone the actor
James Tyrone is of course, an actor, as O’Neill’s own father was. O’Neill’s character notes inform us that “the stamp of his profession is unmistakably on him…the actor shows in all his unconscious habits of speech, movement and gesture.” There is an element of self-dramatization in his behaviour, and in his somewhat romantic idea of himself as an artist, as expressed in his lament that he betrayed his talent in favour of the wealth he accumulated from touring in The Count of Monte Cristo. In his mind he sold out, when he could have been in his words, “a great Shakespearean actor”.  Even while we may distrust his immodesty about his exceptional talent, we do relate to his profound disappointment in himself, as encapsulated in his poignant, unfinished question, “What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder, that was worth – ”.

We also understand that his pursuit of money was driven by his impoverished childhood, a compulsion that he admits he cannot “unlearn”. So we are sceptical when he says that he would gladly have been poor if he could have been the “the fine artist I might have been”. He makes this vainglorious claim at the very moment that he’s unscrewing the light bulbs to save electricity. Edmund laughs heartily at the irony.


Mary and the past
As we discussed at length in the podcast, as Mary takes more morphine, she increasingly escapes back into the past. She says that the drugs “kill the pain. You go back until at last you are beyond its reach. Only the past when you were happy is real.” She talks radiantly about the convent school, her wanting to be a concert pianist, and about first meeting and falling in love with James. “I fell in love right then…I forgot all about becoming a nun or a concert pianist.” Although she later laments that she turned her back on the church, in fact as James tells us, she was too full of life to have chosen an ascetic existence: “Your mother was one of the most beautiful girls you could ever see. She knew it too. She was a rogue and a coquette, God bless her…She was never made to renounce the world. She was bursting with health and high spirits and the love of loving.” You can feel the sensual spark between them in their memory.

For Mary the past is not just somewhere to escape to. She also has a philosophical resignation that believes that events in the past have made all of them who they are, and that they cannot change or escape what has made them. She says, “None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”  For her the process is inexorable; there is no redress or escape: “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”. It is hard to believe that O’Neill didn’t feel the same about his own haunted past, a story that he was compelled to confess in writing this play.

Patricia Clarkson as Mary Tyrone
with Brian Cox as James Tyrone
Wyndham’s Theatre London, April 2023
Photo by Johan Persson

Dramatic form
Given that O’Neill stipulated that the play never be produced on stage or film, it is interesting to consider how this premise may have influenced the nature of O’Neill’s writing or its dramatic form. I noted in the podcast that the published text of the play contains extensive opening stage directions, giving very specific descriptions of the Tyrone’s summer house, right down to the authors of the books on display in the bookcase, as well as of the characters themselves. The text also includes more than a usual number of specific directions on line readings, which as they were not intended for actors or directors, are intended to help readers to imagine characters’ thoughts and responses in the way that a novelist would.

O’Neill had apparently expressed some disillusionment with the staging of his plays, saying that they never entirely lived up to his intent. “I would rather place them directly from my imagination to the imagination of the reader”, he said. But he did not choose to write his story as a novel. As Jeremy rightly said in the podcast, the play was his form. I think ultimately that we must be thankful that Carlotta Monterey disobeyed O’Neill’s wishes and allowed the play to be performed. We would otherwise miss the unique energy of performing and experiencing live drama, as well as the variety of different interpretations, nuances and meanings that can be extracted in performance.

The language in the play is also wonderfully lyrical, full of literary allusions. The characters launch into beautifully composed stories and poetic monologues, which are beyond a naturalistic form of speech. In fact, O’Neill referred to his dramatic style as “super-naturalism”. In our conversation, Jeremy pointed to the effective foreshortening of time in the construction of the play, for example, where all of the family’s emotional history is distilled into this one long day and night. The bleak existential landscape of the final act of the play in particular is not dissimilar to the emotional expressionism of Strindberg’s writing. Indeed, when O’Neill received the Nobel Prize he dedicated much of his acceptance speech to describing Strindberg’s influence on his work.

The dream-like tone of the play is evoked by the references to the fog rolling in from the sea, engulfing the house as Mary is increasingly numbed by the morphine she takes. The atmosphere is occasionally punctuated by the mournful sound of the foghorn, and one can also imagine the periodic flash of the lighthouse light through the darkness.



The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You might also be interested in …
082 – People, Places & Things by Duncan Macmillan

082 – People, Places & Things by Duncan Macmillan

Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places & Things is a blisteringly frank and funny portrait of addiction and invented identity. When the play premiered at the National Theatre in 2015, Denise Gough won awards for her electrifying performance, and as we record this episode she revives her role in London’s West End.

It is a fascinating and challenging play, and an exhilarating piece of theatre. I am delighted to talk with its author, Duncan Macmillan, and the production’s director, Jeremy Herrin.

081 – The Government Inspector, by Nikolay Gogol

081 – The Government Inspector, by Nikolay Gogol

Vladimir Nabokov described The Government Inspector as the “greatest play in the Russian language”. Gogol’s comedy of mistaken identity is an unexpected mix of fantastical farce and serious social satire. that has survived as a paradigm of political corruption and social hypocrisy in any age or place.

As we record this episode a new adaptation of the play written and directed by Patrick Myles arrives on the London stage, and I’m delighted to talk with Patrick about this classic play and its enigmatic author.

080 – Long Day’s Journey into Night, by Eugene O’Neill

080 – Long Day’s Journey into Night, by Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O’Neill wrote his autobiographical magnum opus, Long Day’s Journey into Night, in 1941, but because of the personal revelations it contained he gave explicit instructions that it was not to be published until 25 years after his death and that it should never be staged. In the event his widow allowed both to occur in 1956, only three years after his death, when the play won O’Neill his fourth Pulitzer prize.

As we record this episode, a powerful new production of the play is playing in London, with Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson heading the cast. I am delighted and privileged to talk with the production’s director, Jeremy Herrin, about O’Neill’s monumental play.

Photo by Johan Persson.