Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1941-1942)
by Eugene O’Neill
Who is America’s greatest playwright and what is his best play? “Since its introduction in 1956, Long Day’s Journey into Night has yet to be surpassed by any American play.” And what playwright has been able to distinguish illusion from reality, P-B from P-A? There are none that we know of and yet playwrights have always been courageous in asking the hard questions about what it means to be human. Among the most frightening of those questions is the one that Albert Einstein considered so crucial. Is the universe friendly?
Eugene O’Neill seems to have answered Einstein’s question in the negative. Whoever answers “no” to that question becomes a powerless victim, ironically in a narrative of their own creation. “The Tyrones are doomed, but theirs is not a simple tragedy. It springs not only from what the Greeks call hamartia, the fatal personal failing, but from the accident of birth in a society that has forced them down wrong paths and set before them the false gods of success and money and conformity. O’Neill had explored these themes singly in earlier plays, but in Long Day’s Journey into Night he was able to develop them all.”
We repeat a crucial insight in this essay, namely, that both Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller have written plays where guilt and shame were central themes. “The Jewish Miller and the Irish Catholic O’Neill may not share ethnic origins. But they are equals in showing how shame took root and continues to flourish in a country founded by Puritans, in works that echo with the primal wails of ancient Greek tragedy.” Miller’s The Crucible, with a Puritan setting and O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night which has a New England setting are examples.
In his autobiographical “Journey,” O’Neill reveals the full-blown expression of the false self wreaking destruction as guilt, shame and self-medication destroy a helpless family. “This greatest of family portraits in American drama shows how reciprocal guilt both binds and rends the members of the Tyrone clan through the course of one day then manages to seem both thoroughly typical and apocalyptic.”
Nevertheless, O’Neill is not without his intuitive insights. The aspiring poet, the younger brother Edmund, comes close to sensing the existence of a healthier, alternative worldview. “He deals with the mystical things, and understands them. He sees that the spiritual side of life lets you identify with the sky and how it meets with the ocean. If you begin to feel it, understand it, something happens to you. That is O’Neill. The literal side is where the chaos is, and the blindness. But the sky and the sea give you a freedom of identification with something above and beyond and apart. Edmund vomits out the truth: man has inside the capacity to be bigger than he is on the outside—that capacity to rise higher than his fears and his material desires.”
All human beings due to the energy centers of the false self have hamartia, a “fatal personal failing,” in that we behave in an unsustainable way pursuing our personal survival strategy. But, given the fact that we each have a choice and are not “forced down wrong paths” we need not become the victim of our personal psychological predisposition or of the influences of the collective unconscious, the “accident of birth in a society.” We can instead, learn to create for ourselves a healthier narrative and at the Point of Power when we are confronted with the so-called “fatal personal failing” (and the resulting guilt and shame) we can choose to reject the victim consciousness and enter the present moment where we are all-powerful and free from hamartia.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.