December 11, 2017
O'Neill's Long Day's Journey
On this day in 1941, on his twelfth wedding anniversary, Eugene O'Neill presented the just-finished manuscript of Long Day's Journey Into Night to his wife, Carlotta. Accompanying the manuscript was O'Neill's letter of dedication:
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....
Also attached to the manuscript later were O'Neill's instructions, communicated to Carlotta and to Bennett Cerf at Random House, that the play could not be published until twenty-five years after his death, and not performed ever. In his diary he recorded that he was pleased with it -- "Like this play better than any I have ever written--does most with the least--a quiet play!--and a great one, I believe" -- but it had been an agony to face the family past. His father, mother, and older brother had died decades earlier, all of them within a little more than three years of each other, but the complexity and depth of O'Neill's feelings had remained. His characters, he wrote in one letter, were "trapped within each other by the past, each guilty and at the same time innocent, scorning, loving, pitying each other, understanding and yet not understanding at all, forgiving but still doomed never to be able to forget." The ban was to be a safety net, for both O'Neill and his children: he had wrestled the family ghosts into great art, and he did not want them soon given a chance to go walking.
Just two years after O'Neill's death in 1953, Carlotta had the script withdrawn from Random House, and donated to Yale University, with a view to publication and production. She pointed to the disintegration of the family O'Neill's ban was intended to protect -- Eugene Jr. dead by suicide, Jamie lost to heroin (he would commit suicide also), Oona disinherited for having married Charlie Chaplin -- and to a claim that O'Neill had given her permission to publish should she need the money. The biographers point to Carlotta's inflated view of herself and her needs, but perhaps she too felt wanted to unburden: "Will I ever be able to free myself of this man -- and the love I felt for him!" she wrote in a November, 1955 letter.
The world premiere of Long Day's Journey Into Night was in Stockholm, in a Swedish translation, the following February, with the off-Broadway American premiere that November. The audiences were moved to tears and standing ovations, the reviewers saw the "saga of the damned" as going beyond personal pain to "epic literature," and the playwright received a posthumous Pulitzer, his fourth. The following is one of the most treasured ghost-moments in modern drama, mother Mary's final, 2 a.m. entrance at the end of Act Four, she high on morphine and the rest of the family variously drunk:
... She wears a sky-blue dressing gown over her nightdress, dainty slippers with pompons on her bare feet. Her face is paler than ever. Her eyes look enormous. They glisten like polished black jewels.... Her white hair is braided in two pigtails which hang over her breast. Over one arm, carried neglectfully, trailing on the floor, as if she had forgotten she held it, is an old-fashioned white satin wedding gown, trimmed with duchesse lace....
Jamie: Breaks the cracking silence-bitterly, self-defensively sardonic.
The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!
His father and brother both turn on him fiercely. Edmund is quicker. He slaps Jamie across the mouth with the back of his hand....