“Here’s How”: An Object Lesson in Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Father and son are drunker and more depressed than usual, and their bickering, predictably, turns into anger, then erupts as rage. They fight over painful events and revelations about Mary’s early drug use and Edmund’s suicide attempt that, piteously, this verbose, volatile family has managed not to discuss. Tellingly, James urges Edmund not to listen to his mother’s damning recollections of her loneliness during her marriage; it isn’t Mary, but “the poison talking.” Morphine is hardly the only venom coursing through the discourse in this tragic drama: Alcohol flows as freely as invective, corroding candor and distorting every exchange. Spent by their own outbursts, Edmund and James manage to share some memories and poignant memories. There are even brief flashes of understanding and affection—a lull in a terrible storm that gathers new force when Jamie arrives on the scene.

Announcing (unnecessarily) that he is “drunk as a fiddler’s bitch,” Jamie rambles and rants, his mood swinging violently. Malicious at one moment, mawkish the next, he flippantly refers to his mother as a “hophead.” Edmund hits him. Jamie, bewildered by his own cruelty, apologizes and claims it was the “booze talking.” Moments later, he is sobbing hopelessly over his mother’s failure to “beat the game.” For as he sees it, if she can’t manage to stay sober, neither can he.

Jamie’s protective feelings about Edmund and his illness seem to dissipate as both of them drink more in the last act. He taunts Edmund—poet manqué and family “pet”—and cautions his younger brother against himself. When Edmund gets out of the TB sanatorium, Jamie warns, “I’ll be waiting to welcome you with that ‘my old pal’ stuff, and give you the glad hand, and at the first good chance I get stab you in the back.” Edmund is discomfited by the confession, but Jamie is relieved, saying he’s “gone to confession.”

It is impossible to gauge Jamie’s sincerity in any of the roles he takes on and discards during the harrowing final act of this play: Like many Irish men, the Tyrones drink so they can talk to one another, but they don’t expect to be held accountable for anything “the booze” has had to say.

For all the wounds inflicted and scars opened in day and night of merciless confrontation and revelation, there will be no reconciliation or understanding achieved. Because no one is sober, no one can trust anything that is said.

When Mary enters, dragging her wedding dress and hallucinating in the play’s last scene, Edmund—Eugene O’Neill’s stand-in—impulsively grabs her arm. O’Neill’s stage directions tell us he pleads, “like a bewildered, hurt little boy”: “Mama! It isn’t a summer cold! I’ve got consumption.” His mother is oblivious, convinced for the moment she is a teenage innocent whose life lies ahead of her. James, once again, blames “the damned poison,” tells his sons to pay no attention and tells Jamie to pass him the bottle.

James, Jamie, and Edmund each pour another drink. There is no toast to transcendence this time, as they mechanically raise their glasses. Before they drink, Mary begins to speak her reverie to an imagined past, and they lower their drinks to the table, forgetting them. It is a slow, silent coda; a profound gesture of defeat.