Edmund’s poignant quote that encapsulates the character of Mary Tyrone shows evidence of one of the play’s main underlying themes; the destructive power of the past and the horrors that not being able to let go of it can bring. Each member of the Tyrone family will delve into their past to try and escape the hellish environment surrounding them, which they themselves have made. By delving deeper into the past to escape themselves and their family members, they only worsen the situation, paralyzed by a painful double bind that drags them into a downwards spiral of depression.
The semi autobiographical play was written by O’Neill between 1941 and 1942 but only published in 1956, 3 years after his death. The fact that he prevented the play from being published shows that the scenes are based on true scenes of pain and suffering that he and his family endured which made him feel vulnerable if out in the open. Perhaps he, just like the characters in Long Day’s Journey into Night, was afraid of his past and the destructive power that it holds. Edmund’s description of Mary Tyrone as a “ghost haunting the past” is a near perfect encapsulation of her character later in the play.
Plagued by her morphine addiction, Mary Cavan Tyrone (based on the O’Neill’s mother Mary O’Neill who faced a real morphine addiction) tries to escape into the ‘good old days’ of her past. The morphine acts as a kind of time machine that brings her back to being the “naive, happy, chattering schoolgirl of her convent days”. However by falling into the trap of the past with her own personal drug, like all the family members, she loses the will to fight against her problem in the present and takes more morphine to counter this effect, freezing herself in a deadly double bind and showing the destructive nature of longing for ‘days gone by’. In this way, the title Long Day’s Journey into Night, can be seen as a metaphor for the family’s journey into the past through the use of drugs and alcohol that act as their ‘time machines’.
The past is destroying their lives by pretending to be a place of solace. For Mary, this place of consolation is the days of her youth in the nunnery. For the real Mary this was the Ursuline Academy on Euclid Avenue where she would learn to be pious and forgiving (values she would later lose after her marriage to James Tyrone). At 15 Eugene O’Neill’s mother attended St. Mary’s Academy and graduated with honours in music. This would become the basis with Mary Tyrone’s obsession with becoming a concert pianist. This obsession culminates in Act 4 when Mary is heard playing an eerie, “forgetful, stiff fingered” version of one of Chopin’s simpler waltzes in a poetic cry to her youth.
This search into her past represents “the destruction of the family because of the family’s inability to move on, to grow, and to prosper, instead choosing to live in the past “glory days” where one no longer has to worry” as critic William Dorey puts it. After the piano playing she emerges in the living room with her wedding grown in another desperate attempt to recapture the past. This longing for things completely lost to her depresses her and her family and sends them further into their alcohol or drug fuelled hazes. Thus the past can be seen as destructive because it reminds the characters’ of their lost dreams and hopes and fuels the depression that runs throughout the text.
However the drugs don’t only plunge her into hopes dreams that have disappeared; they also give her new hope, an even more nefarious trick of the past. In a quote that can be used for many of the characters, Mary says: “I can’t have lost it forever. I would die if I thought that”. This example of Mary desperately hoping that her dreams aren’t lost forever, and her uncertainty of what those dreams even are because of the distance between herself and the days of her youth, provide even more evidence of the destructive nature of the past in Long Day’s Journey into Night.
The character of James Tyrone presents us with a very different form of the past being destructive. Although Tyrone does not lose himself in the past as much as the other characters of the play, his actions in the present are caused by how his personality was moulded by his earlier days. He gets attacked by his sons Edmund and Jamie for being a miser when he either refuses to pay for expensive bills or tries to save money when turning off lights. Jamie even calls him “old Gaspard” after the miserly farmer in Les Cloches de Corneville by Robert Planquette. However, Tyrone has been made this way by his past. He has been psychologically damaged to be fearful for money due to his obsession with the American Dream. In many ways he has succeeded with the American Dream, his father a poor Irish immigrant, James
had to work in a “machine shop” from the age of ten which he is scolded for mentioning too much to his two sons. He then climbed the ladder of society by becoming a successful actor and making himself a fortune. The fact that his new found riches bring him no satisfaction is O’Neill’s way of deriding the idea of the American Dream and America’s obsession with it at the time. O’Neill saw it as “improvement through economic means in exchange for repressing self-gratification” as Henry Manson puts it. Tyrone’s miserliness as caused by his past will then damage his family and himself by refusing him to spend enough to make his family enjoy their home or get a better doctor (Doc Hardy being the symbol of Tyrone’s miserliness).
Tyrone’s past choice to exchange fame for money and become the lead actor in the Count of Monte Cristo for years on end (another real background event) is a constant reminder to him of what he could have been. The obvious regret he feels for “that god damned play” which “ruined me with a promise of an easy fortune” is the reason for his obsessive drive to make something of his sons. He wants them to become famous and not just rich. Seeing they are neither, he clashes with them frequently and the disappointment he feels simmers on the surface throughout the whole play. His alcoholism and that of his two sons can also be blamed on his Irish heritage. Thus James Tyrone’s past can be blamed for his feeling of unfulfillment, family arguments with his sons and alcoholism which shows blatant evidence of the past being presented as a destructive force in the play.