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For Eugene O'Neill the writing of Long Day's Journey Into Night was a purgation: in it he has faced ghosts that haunted him during most of his life-time and forced him to understand and reveal them to his own soul. The result is a play which, though heavy with the pain and despair and fruitless sorrow of human life, transcends all these as a testimony to the endless and inescapable power of man's love for man.
In the Tyrone family O'Neill has represented almost all the weakness of which humanity is capable--drunkenness and a narrow-minded avarice in James Tyrone, the second-rate actor; dope-addiction in his wife, Mary; laziness and a destructive urge toward self-abasement in Jamie, their elder son; and physical infirmity in Edmund, the younger. But one tragic day of their lives--more tragic even than many others--the playwright strips them to their souls and shows their humiliating struggles to reveal and impart the depth and truth of their love for one another. Yet the curse of humanity is too strong upon them, for in love they injure and destroy what they would cherish and preserve. And always memories of what might have been intensify the agony of their failures. And so, struggling to escape one another, they find themselves drawn together again by the desperate need which only this painful devotion can provide.
Mary Tyrone, living in a world of dope in which she wanders between past and present, removed a little from the humanity of her men, recognizes this problem but knows she cannot attain the spiritual strength in which, "I will hear myself scream in agony, and at the same time I will laugh because I will be sure of myself." And so she seeks escape through morphine, which to her is like the fog closed about their summer house: "I really love fog . . . It hides you from the world and the world from you. You feel that everything has changed, and nothing is what it seemed to be. No one can find or touch you any more."
James Tyrone and his sons seek the same escape, but their ways are closer to the earth: through liquor, prostitutes, and poetry. But they too cannot remain alone in the fog or in the clubs and bars very long, but are drawn back to the white-haired woman, once beautiful, who is their wife and mother, and their grief. And when they return to the house, to unhappiness and sordid squabbling, she is glad: "I was so relieved and happy when you came, and grateful to you. It's very dreary and sad to be here alone in the fog with night falling."
So as the long day passes into night and they have all tried their escapes, they come together again to one another. The memories--Mary's wedding-dress, Edwin Booth's praise for James years ago--lie in the attic trunk above, whispering waste and despair. Love has imposed a mighty toll upon their lives, but in the end it binds them together, wracked by pity and fear. Young Edmund's hopeless citation of Nietzsche, "God is dead: of His pity for man hath God died," is forgotten. O'Neill has forgiven the Tyrones as we must forgive all mankind.
Missing here is the extravagant language and device of much of the playwright's work. In a single room with plain words the Tyrones struggle to explain and justify their lives, and their drama is not a drama of action, but of souls trapped and in conflict: unwilling to stay, unable to destroy the bonds of love that hold them or halt the movement of time which gives them no reprieve.
"None of us can help the things life has done to us," says Mary. "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."
Still, in the Tyrones' journey into night, O'Neill has judged humanity and found beneath all its guilt the absolution of love. As the most personal and last published of the author's plays, Long Day's Journey Into Night is fitting tribute to his craft as a writer and his compassion as a human being.
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