Explore the significance of the past in the play “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” by Eugene O’Neill Essay
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At the very start of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, O’Neill sets the scene for the theme of the past being integral to the play directly with the dedication to the love and tenderness of his wife – “… 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 of the four haunted Tyrones.” This admittance that the play was written as a sort of autobiography, a partial re- telling of O’Neill’s personal history, means that it seems almost intrinsically connected to the past right from the beginning, the intimation from the author being that he wrote it as a form of catharsis in order to deal with the real events from his own life.
Consequently the theme of the past is introduced before even the first Act has begun.
The idea that he is ‘facing his dead’ is a particularly apt one as at the time of writing the play, the people upon whom its characters are based – O’Neill’s family – had all passed away some years before.
His father, mother and elder brother Jamie are all portrayed in the same roles in the play as they had in real life, and with similar histories. The only alteration is that instead of the middle son being named Edmund, O’Neill changes the baby’s name to his own, and calls it Eugene, having the fictional Edmund take the place of himself within the family.
The main way in which the characters seem constantly to trap themselves in the past is through their constant blaming of the present upon past events. There is nothing in the present to which they do not attribute any blame, and none of them in any way seem to blame themselves for what has happened to them, preferring instead to blame each other. Consequently none of their conversations can be held without somehow referring to the past, as it is the past upon which they have built their relationships with each other.
The relationship between Tyrone and Jamie for example is one in which Jamie blames Tyrone for his miserliness with his money, which he believes is what led to his mother’s addiction to morphine, and her recent unhappiness which caused her to return to the drug. Tyrone blames his son for being an “evil-minded loafer”, and says thats’notes he is responsible both for making nothing of his own life, and also for leading Edmund astray. In fact, the blame for these character defects does not lie within Tyrone or Jamie as personalities, but rather with the circumstances which caused these traits.
For Jamie, his alcoholism and cynicism are largely to do with his discovery of his mother’s drug addiction when he was younger – it is made clear that prior to this discovery, Jamie was talented and enthusiastic, excelling at school and clearly liked by many people. He himself admits that the event had a large bearing on his life in just the same way that he has resorted to alcohol in order to purge himself of the same sort of knowledge about Edmund – “Christ, I’d never dreamed before that any women but whores took dope! And then this stuff of you getting consumption. It’s got me licked…”. Jamie’s cynicism clearly did not exist before he discovered that his mother used morphine, or at least not to the same degree, the fact that he’d ‘never dreamed’ of the idea effective in suggesting how completely distant it was from his mind – and therefore how different his mind must have been from its present state of suspicion.
The circumstance precipitating Tyrone’s miserliness were similarly ones which he himself did not contrive – when he was only ten years old, his father abandoned the family and Tyrone was forced to go and find work, living a large part of his life in poverty. It is this which has made him so conservative with his money, and reluctant to expend more than is absolutely necessary, preferring to invest it in property, which he believes is the best way to keep it safe. The power of money over him is made particularly clear when the audience are told that, despite his obvious love of acting, he chose financial success over furthering his career, thereby ruining his chances of achieving his ultimate goals.
This culture of blame without moving on from it, or attempting to understand the source of it is one of the key factors in preventing the family from escaping from their past – rather every event in the present is related back to some previous action or accusation, without any hope of ever resolving it. This is encapsulated in Mary’s comment “It’s wrong to blame your brother. He can’t help being what the past has made him. Any more than your father can. Or you. Or I.” – the idea that the whole family has been moulded by past events and cannots’notes move on from them permeates every conversation, as they each hold the other somehow responsible for what has occurred – and because they believe that they themselves should not be blamed for what they did, none of them will accept their portion of the responsibility, nor learn from what has happened.
Throughout the play we see the same basic errors happening time and time again
– the nature of the tendency of each character to continually place blame for the present on something which another did in the past means that the occurrences of the past are constantly being bought forward into the present, and because no character will accept their blame, there seems to be no way to move forward into a future which is not largely concerned with what has happened before. What this ultimately leads to is a past which is largely cyclical. As no character will relinquish their grip on the past and what has happened before, by accepting blame from it, or learning from it, the same problems and occurrences repeat themselves.
For example, Mary resumes taking her morphine, just as she had done before, and despite seeing the same signs leading up to it as before, the family, with the exception of Jamie, remain blind to it for some time. Tyrone is continually cheated out of money by McGuire, whose questionable skills as a property realtor hardly ever yield any profit to Tyrone himself – and yet he does not learn from his past either, and continues to do the same thing at no gain to himself.
Their sheer inability to take anything from the past, or to leave it alone, means that nothing in the play is occurring for the first time – in a way, everything about the present in which the Tyrones are living is also the past. A quote from Mary – “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too…” – is particularly fitting to explain the way in which they are living. The structure of the novel echoes this confusion of times – the play occurs all in the space of one day, and yet it deals with the problems both of the future and of the forty or so years previous. This idea that everything is simply a recurrence of something which has happened before -and what will continue to happen for the rest of time- is analogous to the title, in that everything could simply have happened in one “Long Day”, with the past, present and future simply merging into one twenty-four hour time periods’notes
Living one’s life trapped in a repeating cycle of the past is not particularly conducive to being happy, as there is no real hope to look forward to when you are simply repeating the same things over and over again- as Jamie says, “… weary roads is right. Get you nowhere fast. That’s where I’ve got-nowhere. Where everyone lands in the end, even if most of the suckers won’t admit it”, and so all of the characters have devised their own way of ‘escaping’, which controls the way in which they act throughout the play.
For Jamie, the feeling that he hasn’t actually achieved anything because he has
never been able to move on is something that he only finally admits to when drunk, but which reveals the sense of hopelessness he feels from being stuck in a loop. Slightly later in the play he confides to Edmund “I’d begun to hope, if she’d beaten the game, I could, too…” – his hope that his mother had shrugged off her addiction, and that the future would no longer be a repetition of the past had been very important to him, as it offered a way out. However, that hope disappeared, and he resorted back to his usual escape of drinking alcohol, which is what he does for most of the duration of the play.
Tyrone also drinks in order to escape the past, although unlike Jamie he also attempts to escape the repetition of the past by denying the fact that it is being repeated – he refuses to recognise Mary’s symptoms until they are undeniably obvious, preferring to believe her lies rather than admit to what is going on. In that respect, he is unlike Jamie, whose cynicism prevents him from being able to overlook things as he chooses.
Mary, however, does not attempt to escape the past in the same way that Jamie and Tyrone do, but prefers, though the use of morphine, to escape the present and return to the happiest phase of her life, during the early years of her marriage to Tyrone and her time at the convent, playing the piano. Reminders of the present, such as her hands, which have become unsightly due to rheumatoid arthritis, appal her, and as the play progresses and the morphine takes her over more and more, she regresses further and further back into the past. Her reaction to this re-living of the past is to attempt to return to her favoured part of it.
Edmund’s attempt to escape the past is most notable in that at one point, he actually did succeed – during his time sailing, he says that he “became drunk withs’notes the beauty and the singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself – actually lost my life. I was set free!”. The idea that he became ‘drunk’ with it alludes to Tyrone and Jamie’s drunken attempts to escape the past, although where they used alcohol, it seems that he used nature – he continues to refer to other occasions when he has felt free in a similar way, and all of them took place in a natural setting. For an audience, this liberation and sense of the natural world starkly contrasts with the three rooms and claustrophobic conversation in which the play is set, and so it is an excellent way to illustrate the total freedom which Edmund has attained.
Edmund attempts to recreate this sensation by trying to express it through the use of poetry – however, he says that he will never truly be able to express it how he would like to, saying that even what he just said was just ‘stammering’. “Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people”, is the way in which Edmund describes his inability to describe the feeling – this reference to fog people is particularly interesting as throughout the play, the fog is almost a symbol of the past. As the day wears on, the fog returns to cloud over the landscape around them, and so Mary’s illness returns to cloud over the present and send her further back into the past.
This pathetic fallacy of the weather responding to Mary’s haziness in her own mind is also effective in creating the sense of claustrophobia which comes from being trapped in the same circumstances over and over again – just as the fog can be very claustrophobic and hide everything else from view, so the past traps the family in and prevents them from seeing the present clearly. Edmund also suggests in that quote that the whole family are ‘native’ fog people – almost that there is something about the way in which they live which they cannot help, but which they are genetically programmed to do. This is curious because it is perhaps the most impartial opinion expressed by one of the characters, and entirely without blame on any one of them. This perceptiveness of Edmund and the ability to reflect ‘from a distance’ on what is going on is perhaps due to the fact that he is acting as the author’s representation of himself.
Another role of the past in the play is that it motivates the creation of an atmosphere of censorship and non-admittance. The audience is slow to find out s’notes about the exact nature of Mary’s illness, for example, because the characters do not want to talk about the worse aspects of what happened before, and so as a topic of conversation it is forbidden by unvoiced consent until eventually Jamie faces up to the fact that she seems to be returning to her old condition. This state of affairs seems to have come about as a form of resistance – as if by not speaking about something, they will somehow avoid it happening again and be able to continue as normal. Similarly Mary and Edmund attempt to pretend, to varying degrees, that his illness is other than it is – Mary by calling it a cold and dismissing it, and Edmund to a lesser extent by calling it Malaria, which is more easily cursed, and continuing to drink as if he were not at risk of damaging his health.
It is clear that the family refuse to talk about quite a number of incidents and feelings – things which only really come out when they are under the effect of either alcohol or morphine – such as the death of Eugene and Mary’s incident on the dock in her nightgown, because such events unlock emotions and feelings which they have hidden in order to protect each other. Mary doesn’t talk about how she blames Jamie for giving Eugene the measles, or how she blames Edmund for her drug addiction when she is in her right state of mind, because she realises that those aspects of the past are too hurtful. Tyrone attempts to prevent her from continuing to speak of them when she does begin, in case one of the boys should hear. Although the past is virtually all that is discussed, there are certain sections of it which the family attempt to bury behind them.
The main occurrence of the play is the return of Mary’s ‘illness’ – her return to taking morphine, and other than this very little else actually physically happens to any of the characters during the play. That her illness is actually characterised by a return to the past is particularly important as regards the past as a theme behind the play. It is quite clear to the audience that what Mary is experiencing – this return to her past – is an actual physical illness, and that something is definitely wrong with her mind.
This leads to the consideration that the whole family’s return to the past could also be deemed an ‘illness’, and without the presence of Mary’s actual illness it would not be as easy to see that the frame of mind in which the Tyrones live is somehow unhealthy. Mary’s s’notes regression into her past also serves to reveal a great deal of truths about the other characters in the play and what had happened to them before, as well as a number of the deeper-held secrets which the family usually did not discuss, such as Eugene’s death and where the blame for it lies. That the rest of the family seem ashamed that Mary would make such an accusation and blame it on her mental instability, when they are perfectly happy to blame and accuse each other all the time is rather ironic, and so Mary’s illness serves to highlight the problems with the rest of the family and the way in which they function.
In terms of the message of the play, and what the audience take away with them, it seems that the past is also of significance, in that the play is something of a warning as to what the consequences might be if people never moved on. Of course, it is therefore quite appropriate that O’Neill wrote it as a part of his own moving on, and his own way of putting the past behind him. The ending of the play is almost anticlimactic in that it just finishes, with no conclusion or rounding-off of the story – simply that the end of the day has been reached, and this too mirrors the idea that there is no end and therefore no past when the past is relived as if it is the present and the future, too.
Of all the themes in the play, the past is by far the most significant of them all, not least because the author wrote it as a semi-autobiographical work. It is the driving force behind the way the characters act, the way they interact and the way in which the atmosphere deteriorates from a rather hopeful one at the beginning of the play into one rather devoid of hope at the end, as the ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ is completed, with Mary fully under the influence of the morphine and the other characters having apparently given up on her salvation and also their own conversation. The feeling of being trapped in the past – what O’Neill was attempting to get rid of by ‘facing his dead’ and writing it all down as a work of fiction – dominates the atmosphere of the play, without which the power of the piece would be lost.