“Here’s How”: An Object Lesson in Long Day’s Journey Into Night
“Here’s how,” Edmund Tyrone says three times, raising his glass to drinking and forgetting in the final act of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It’s a hollow refrain—a sad toast to a false hope of escape from a relentless family cycle of pain, guilt, and recrimination.
Eugene O’Neill’s monumental autobiographical drama is known for its ritual recitations of poetry, airings of grievance, soul-twisting soliloquies, and stunning revelations. But Long Day’s Journey is also a play about silence—and the volubility and intoxication that mask silence among people who use their inherited gift of language to keep one another at bay. Better than any Irish American writer or artist I’m aware of, O’Neill captures the Irish penchant for talking ceaselessly, sometimes splendidly, about almost anything except what matters. His exquisite dramatization of the tension between what is and isn’t said in an Irish American family drunk on words, dreams, drugs, and booze is excruciating to watch.
A theatrical family, the Tyrones’ day-to-day discourse is larger than life. James regales, Jamie ridicules, Edmund recites, while Mary retreats to her narrative of disappointment and resentment over the role she plays. The dialogue in the first half of the four-and-a-half hour drama bristles with euphemisms, elliptical sentences, evasions, and empty reassurances.
“Don’t. I can’t bear having you remind me,” Mary admonishes Edmund when he alludes to her morphine use. He apologizes, fumbling to explain his worry over her restless insomnia. Distraught, his mother upbraids him for suspicions and “spying,” insisting it was Edmund’s illness that kept her awake. Edmund acquiesces. “You know it’s only a bad cold,” he says, a denial neither believes. Later, after his suspicions about his mother are confirmed, it is Edmund who can’t bear being reminded. “Let’s not kid each other, Papa, not tonight. We know what we’re trying to forget,” he says, and adds, hurriedly: “But let’s not talk about it. It’s no use now.”
O’Neill’s famously complex stage directions—the talisman-like bottle on the table, the averted gazes and sullen stares, the sounds of foghorns and Mary moving about in a morphine haze upstairs—are as genuinely expressive as much of what is said in the play.
In the last act of Long Day’s Journey, James and Edmund, then Edmund and Jamie, and then the three drink, declaim, confess and tear one another apart. Drunk to begin with, they consume quantities of liquor that would make many men speechless. Drink turns the Tyrone men poetic and expansive, at first. When Edmund stumbles in at close to midnight, he finds his father playing solitaire. The two of them argue reflexively over Tyrone’s electric bills, whether Shakespeare was an Irish Catholic (as James insists) or a souse (Edmund’s claim). They quote philosophers and poets, and drink up as they try—and fail—to avoid family topics that torture them all: Mary’s relapsed drug use, Edmund’s TB diagnosis, Jamie’s dissolution, and James’s defeat at the end of the day.