No other work in American literature has haunted me like this one.
It is our Great American Play, I think. It’s truths are eternal, and the shock of recognition is terrifying.
It is a family play, set in 1912 in a house in New London, Connecticut. The story is deeply autobiographical. The characters are facsimiles of O’Neill’s family: the father, James, a once-promising Shakespearean actor who squandered his talent in exchange for an easy buck; the mother, Mary, a morphine junkie wrecked by addiction after the death of a young son; Jamie, the alcoholic and cynical older brother; and Edmund, the wayward, seafaring youngest son with a deep poetic streak, who is the playwright himself, but who takes the name of O’Neill’s real-life dead brother in the play.
O’Neill wrote “Long Day’s Journey” in the early 1940s, in the last decade of his life while in the throes of a severe neurologiocal disorder, after he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize. He never wanted it to be performed. His widow, determined to enshrine his legacy as one of the great American artists after his death, insisted that it be produced on the stage. It was, and it was a smash, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1956, O’Neill’s fourth.
The play, like much of O’Neill’s work, is about what you’re left with after all illusion has been stripped away. It’s about saying everything you’ve ever wanted to say to your loved ones, but couldn’t. It isn’t always pretty.
As Tony Kushner said in a PBS documentary: “[O’Neill’s idea is that] there are great complexes and abysses of meaning under the surface of life, and our job as artists and people is to dig, and go deep, and to dive, as Melville kept saying, deeper and deeper and deeper, and the more deeply you dive the more you’re at risk of being dismantled and crushed. But that’s what your job is and you don’t flinch from it … O’Neill is our Shakespeare, he sets the standard.”
It’s been said that O’Neill invented American theatre, that he was our first serious playwright. It’s interesting to note that most of the major American writers of his vintage saw their talent flame out as they aged (Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald); O’Neill’s only improved, despite a worsening battle with a Parkinson’s-like disease. That is heroic.
O’Neill died in a Boston hotel along the Charles River in 1953, with his wife Carlotta at his side. “Born in a hotel room,” he told her before passing, “and goddamnit, died in a hotel room.”
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