The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: Long Day’s Journey Into Night

(l-r) Dean Stockwell, Ralph Richardson, Katharine Hepburn, and Jason Robards in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is the final play by Eugene O’Neill to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. It’s also the first of his plays to be published post-humously. O’Neill didn’t want it published for twenty-five years, and though Carlotta, his widow, later said it was due to his son feeling it would reflect badly on him at Yale, documentary evidence by O’Neill and by Carlotta herself proves that O’Neill himself didn’t want the play published until that time, and Carlotta knew it. In any case, she gave Yale University Press the rights two years after he died (after Random House refused to ignore O’Neill’s wishes), and Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theater staged the world premier in 1956 (Sheaffer 634-5). It is his most autobiographical play, and because of it, he recoiled from the truth buried within its pages. Because of that truth, and because O’Neill had finally confronted the source of his demons and exorcised them, and because he did it when his talent was at its zenith, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is widely considered “the finest American play ever written” (635).

While the family’s last name in the play is Tyrone, the family is really the O’Neills.

Reflecting the author’s pride of ancestry, the family in Long Day’s Journey is named Tyrone after the county in Ireland where the earliest O’Neills had ruled as warrior-kings. Accordingly, James O’Neill becomes James Tyrone here, while his first born son is again familiarly called Jamie. Though most of her life Mrs. O’Neill chose to be known as Ella, her playwright son, using her original first name, called her fictional counterpart Mary…As for his calling himself Edmund, after the brother who had died in infancy, while the dead child is renamed Eugene, the significance of the change is obvious: nothing was more true of O’Neill than that he had a strong death wish.

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The play’s action takes place over the course of a day and a night. James Tyrone, like O’Neill’s father, is a stage actor who gets stuck playing one role forever, though he longs to return to Shakespeare. Mary Tyrone, like O’Neill’s mother, becomes a morphine addict after giving birth to him and is widely suspected of abusing it again. Jamie is the alcoholic older brother; Edmund, the younger brother who is about to find out that he has consumption (tuberculosis) and must go to a sanatorium to recover.

As O’Neill’s most honored and popular play (though still not short, clocking in at around 3 hours), it’s been adapted numerous times for movies and television. And while Jason Robards merely popularized the role of Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, he originated the part of Jamie on Broadway in Long Day’s Journey – a role he plays again in the classic Sidney Lumet version of this play. The other actors in that production – Fredric March as James, Florence Eldridge as Mary, and Bradford Dillman as Edmund – were replaced by Ralph Richardson, Katharine Hepburn, and Dean Stockwell, respectively (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_Day%27s_Journey_into_Night#Premiere_productions)

One thing that distinguished Lumet’s The Iceman Cometh from Frankenheimer’s was his ability to punctuate the dramatic action with quick cuts and close-ups. He does the same here, and it’s his ability to know when to cut and what shot to employ that accentuates and supports the emotional weight of each scene, particularly since a soundtrack is mostly absent (it only plays at four parts in the movie – dissonant piano music at the ends of Act 1 and Act 2, beautiful piano music in Act 3 when Mary reminisces about meeting James for the first time, and in Act 4 during the final scene, and both types for the music that plays over the opening credits). He employs a dissolve at the end of Act 1 and fadeouts at the ends of Acts 2 and and 3, but otherwise doesn’t differentiate the breaks between acts. He also uses a silent lunch montage between the two scenes in Act 2.

Not that these actors need much help! First and foremost, we need to talk about Katharine Hepburn, who was nominated for an Oscar in a year that saw Anne Bancroft take home the statue for another movie based on a play: The Miracle Worker (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1963). O’Neill always wrote great parts for his actresses, but here Hepburn goes deep, using every tool in her acting toolkit, from facial expressions to elongating vowels and accenting words in a certain way to her incredible use of props (hugging a pillow and seeming to transform into a young woman when thinking of meeting her husband for the first time) and her hands (touching her hair, touching her face) to portray a woman in withdrawal from morphine, and in its grips. Here, she isn’t just playing several notes – she’s playing an entire goddamn symphony. And it’s this awareness of playing levels and layers and using her entire body as a vessel for the character and a intrinsic understanding of how to speak O’Neill’s lines that distinguishes her and Robards as great O’Neill actors. In fact, it’s a good thing she’s gone for most of Act 4 or you wouldn’t notice how stellar everyone else is. She truly earns her moniker “Kate the Great” here.

If there’s an odd-man out, it might be Ralph Richardson, except that his dramatic flair and perfect diction fit for a man who was a stage actor (on rewatch, he’s very good, just that he and everyone else more or less become supporting players to Hepburn). Compared to Hepburn, he seems to only be playing a couple of notes (and declaims everything as if he were reciting Shakespearean dialogue onstage), but his portrayal is deeper than it appears. Notice how he conveys all his pride and grief during his Act 4 monologue to Edmund, when he speaks of being praised for his Shakespeare by none other than Edwin Booth, and in his reaction to Edmund’s brutal reply. Jason Robards is his usual great self as Jamie, even if this isn’t a role like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh or Jamie (again) in A Moon for the Misbegotten which allows an actor to steal the spotlight. The exception is his Act 4 monologue, which is the best of the lot. Outside of this, he’s particularly great in his exchanges with Stockwell’s Edmund and his reactions to Edmund’s diagnosis. As a stand-in for the playwright, Stockwell does all that he needs to do, and more. It says something that while Hepburn is the standout, none of her costars let her down. You could believe that these actors were all one big dysfunctional family, including Jeanne Barr as the maid, Cathleen.

Shooting on film this time, Lumet is able to use the glorious black-and-white cinematography to play with shadows, especially on Hepburn. At one point, the chains from the swing cast their shadow on her; in another, latticework envelops her in the house. Lumet also films a dizzying scene where Hepburn’s monologue is going in circles (in Act 1, when she accuses Edmund and the rest of the family of spying on her), just as she (followed by the camera) goes in circles. And let’s not forget the closing shot, where the entire scene is dark as the family sits at the table, lost in their addictive haze:


The camera pulls back slowly, and walls of the room gradually disappear. Soon the characters are sitting in a black limbo, getting tinier and tinier as the light sweeps across them. Fade out. After he saw the movie, Jason [Robards] told me that he had read a letter of Eugene O’Neill’s in which he described his image of his family “sitting in blackness, around the table-top of the world.”

(Lumet 15-16)

Denis Quilley as Jamie and Laurence Olivier as James in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1973)

The next adaptation I saw is from 1973. Made for TV and present by The National Theatre, it stars Sir Lawrence Olivier (!) in an Emmy-winning role as James, bettering Ralph Richardson’s portrayal. And if Constance Cummings pales in comparison to Katharine Hepburn, hers is still a very good portrayal, just not one that goes all-in – though there is one great scene where she’s peeling an apple, which allows her to vent her frustrations at being suspected (with good reason) of relapsing on her morphine addiction. Never has an apple been so violently peeled and torn with a knife! Hepburn is more believable as an addict, both in her portrayals of its withdrawals and its bliss, while Cummings is better at the latter. Both male roles measure up favorably to their Lumet counterparts, particularly Denis Quilley as Jamie (Donald Pickup plays Edmund). His portrayal may not be as dynamic as Robards, but that’s because he’s a different actor. Both portrayals are great ones. Finally, Maureen Lipman matches Jeanne Barr as Cathleen, though Lipman might have the slight edge in personality.

I like that this version starts out with the camera coming into the house from outside and then shows Cathleen dusting each of the portraits, which is how the actors are introduced. Cathleen also begins Part Two (Acts 3 and 4), as she talks with Mary (whose hair is down).

The camerawork is good without being flashy, but director Peter Wood isn’t Sidney Lumet. At the end, the camera leaves the table with the Tyrones and pans around the room before coming to rest on the family through a window, where the scene freezes in a black-and-white frame, but that’s as flashy as it gets. And while the fog and the foghorn play their roles in Part Two, the sound of the horn and the light from the lighthouse vanish when it comes to that final scene at the table, lending a powerful poignancy to Lumet’s version that isn’t present here.

This version is also shorter than Lumet’s, with Part One lasting an hour and 18 minutes and Part Two lasting an hour and 21 minutes, for a grand total of 2 hours and 39 minutes to Lumet’s 2 hours and 50. Speaking of, there might be a bad edit right before the phone call from the doctor, confirming Edmund’s diagnosis. It seems to cut too quickly from the previous scene. This version also has a few of Mary’s short asides (end of Act 2, beginning of Act 3) appear as thoughts to herself, which are jarring. This isn’t Strange Interlude, after all! And unlike Lumet’s version, which is adapted straight from O’Neill’s play, this one is adapted by Michael Blakemore. Still, it’s essentially the same, and it’s nice to have it in color, even if the quality is not as good as Lumet’s (this version looks like it was shot on tape, instead of film). Apparently, Sir Lawrence was suffering from bad stage fright at this point in his career, which meant he made more movies and TV appearances to compensate (as noted in the extras on the DVD). Aren’t we lucky he picked this project, preserved for posterity! It’s truly a great performance. This version is worth tracking down, even if it doesn’t match the brilliance of Lumet’s.

(clockwise from top left): Peter Gallagher, Kevin Spacey, Jodie Lynne McClintock, Jack Lemmon, and Bethel Leslie in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1987)

One version that was a bit of a disappointment to watch was the Jack Lemmon/Kevin Spacey version of the play, where Lemmon plays James and Spacey plays Jamie. On paper, this is the most star-studded cast since Lumet’s, but while everyone does a great job in their roles, this version should be renamed Long Day’s Shouting Into Night. Anger is the overwhelming emotion here, a vision which shortchanges the love and the sense of regret that also permeate the pages of O’Neill’s drama. The opening credits are white words on a black background, with no music, and this joyless tone is kept up through the almost 3-hour runtime. I did think the overlapping dialog during their arguments was a great touch, as that feels like how a family would argue, and it also highlights how they aren’t really listening to each other (Lumet’s does this to some extent, too). I also liked that Mary was wearing the wedding dress at the end, whereas she is only carrying it in the other versions (and in the original play). And, instead of inner monologue narration, Bethel Leslie (like Hepburn) speaks her asides.

Her Mary, unlike Hepburn, is always angry. During her scenes when she’s on morphine, she speaks rapidly, but we don’t get the sense that she’s craving it during the other scenes. Maybe that’s how she’s been able to hide it from her family. Peter Gallagher makes an excellent Edmund, even if there isn’t that sense of brotherly camaraderie between him and Spacey that there is between Pickup and Quilley. Spacey goes for a different approach for Jamie. Unlike the theatricality of Robards and Quilley, he plays Jamie close to the chest. His Jamie is brooding, even if occasionally roused to laughter by Gallagher’s Edmund. On this score, I prefer Robards’s and Quilley’s interpretations.

Jack Lemmon might seem a bit out-of-place in Shakespeare, but he’s right at home in O’Neill. His choices for James are more violent than Richardson’s and Olivier’s, and his tenderness rarely matches Richardson’s, even going so far as to beat Jamie when he makes a crack about Mary near the end of the play. Still, it’s in keeping with this version’s interpretation of the text.

Each scene is broken up by the time of day when it occurs, in keeping with the source material. We start with 8:30am, August 1912 (Act 1), then 12:45pm (Act 2, Scene 1), continue on to 1:15pm (Act 2, Scene 2), then 6:30pm (Act 3 – when the foghorn first makes its chilly appearance), and finally end around midnight (Act 4). So far, Lumet’s is the only version that has the foghorn play throughout the final act, and this version doesn’t even have the family all sitting around the table. Instead, it ends with Mary standing behind James’s chair, hugging him from behind as he has tears in his eyes. Edmund is standing, facing them, while Jamie is passed out on the couch. Unfortunately, by that point we’ve learned to hate all of these awful people (except perhaps Edmund), so the final catharsis isn’t there. Even Cathleen (Jody Lynne McClintock) is bitter in this one, and gets yelled at by Mary. It’s a shame that director Jonathan Miller doesn’t capture the essence of O’Neill in this version, what with such a great cast (particularly Leslie, whose Mary plumbs the depths for a nuanced, if still angry, portrayal of the matriarch). This also appears to be the most complete version on film (even Lumet’s has slight cuts – so slight that I didn’t notice them until watching it again after watching the other versions of this play).

William Hutt (James Tyrone) and Martha Henry (Mary Tyrone) in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1995)

The Canadian TV version of 1995 is a different matter. Along with Lumet’s, this is the best version of O’Neill’s legendary play. Too bad it’s only available on VHS (and YouTube)! Both the love and the anger are there, as well as the regrets, pain, loneliness, and every other emotion conveyed through the text. The camerawork is fairly close to the actors, too, and while it pulls back sometime to give them their privacy (like when James and Jamie talk about Edmund’s possible diagnosis), most of the time it allows only one or two actors into its frame, matching the claustrophobic nature of the source material. Music appears on the soundtrack to accentuate emotions, but isn’t used excessively or in scenes where silence would be more powerful. And while Lumet’s version highlights the familial tragedy, this one highlights the familial love.

Martha Henry plays Mary Tyrone differently than Hepburn (she shows the effects of morphine in her performance; Hepburn shows the effects of its withdrawal), but her interpretation is just as valid and just as good (Haydnesque as opposed to Wagnerian), and her scene with Cathleen (Martha Burns) at the beginning of Act 3 plays up the inappropriateness of her behavior towards her servant in this scene (she’s too familiar) in a way that’s lacking in all other versions. She’s a bit inappropriate with Edmund, too, smothering him with her love, which also fits with her character (and is a trait her portrayal shares with Hepburn’s). She’s also the only actress that shows the rheumatism in her hand, with her left hand’s fingers frozen in a deformity. And while I love Hepburn’s regression into girlhood when she remembers meeting her future husband for the first time, Henry’s retelling is so sweet that you can tell, despite their fights, that she truly loves him. They’re both wonderful interpretations of this scene, but Henry’s version gives off the most feels.

William Hutt is everything you’d want in James Tyrone, and his monologue in which he mentions Edwin Booth praising him is the best version of this monologue on film, filled with such heartache and regret over his loss of talent, mixed with his pride over having been once that great. I’m not sure how Hutt conveys all these emotions at once (and with just his face and tone of voice), but it hits hard. He, along with Olivier, plays the part with an Irish accent, but Hutt’s is softer, which make sense, since James mentions to Edmund in his Act 4 monologue that he “got rid of an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife.”

Jamie (Peter Donaldson) and Edmund (Tom McCamus) remind me of Quilley and Pickup in their brotherly manner toward each other, (when McCamus hits Donaldson in Act 4, he immediately cradles him), and McCamus actually looks sick most of the time, even if he doesn’t cough as much as Gallagher does. Even Cathleen creates a fully formed character here, helped immensely by what the other actors give her in her scenes with them, particularly Henry.

But while the individual actors are great, they are also great together, and that’s what makes this version special.

Despite being 2 hours and 57 minutes long (which is 7 minutes longer than Lumet’s and Miller’s versions), I noticed one small cut in Jamie’s monologue about Fat Violet. In any case, it doesn’t marr what is a great adaptation of this play, and while Lumet has the superior end shot (this one ends with a shot outside the window, looking in), this version is so wonderful that I’d highly recommend seeking it out in addition to Lumet’s. Both versions (and, to a lesser extent, Olivier’s) help illuminate this play’s essence in all its complexities.

Note: Besides these four versions, IMDB lists four others. One, with Ed Harris and Jessica Lange, hasn’t been released yet. A 2017 live TV version appears to be a broadcast of an actual performance, but it’s only available to stream. A 2014 Digital Theatre version at the Apollo seems to have never been released on physical media, nor a tantalizing 1982 production with an all-black cast led by Ruby Dee.

Additional note: According to DVD Beaver, the Olive release of Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (which is the American release of the film, and the version I saw) is at the incorrect aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The Masters of Cinema release is at the correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has twice the bitrate of the American release, but is Region B locked.

Works Cited

Lumet, Sidney. Making Movies. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

Sheaffer, Louis. Eugene O’Neill: Son and Artist. Boston, Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1973.

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