Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Tyrone Anthology: Authority in the Last Act of Long Day's Journey into Night

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Tyrone Anthology: Authority in the Last Act of Long Day's Journey into Night

Article excerpt

The stage directions for the opening of act 4 of O'Neill's Long Days Journey into Night are The same. It is around midnight. During the act the argument between father and sons reaches full pitch; but the anger of the family is tempered by repeated deference to literary authority, as Tyrone and his sons quote fourteen times from eight writers and make references to seven others. As I shall demonstrate, the act is largely anger and consolation, for the great problem of the play--who bears most responsibility for the family's downfall--has been answered in the third act where we see the wife and mother of the house resort to her own authority, and her own distorted memory of the past, which feeds her embittered personality. Our understanding of the family's defeat at the end of the third act makes the fourth all the more moving, and a consideration of the writers each character quotes, Shakespeare, Rossetti, Kipling, or Baudelaire, and even the writers referred to by O'Neill in earlier stage directions, is an essential element in understanding who speaks with most authority in the play, in discovering who is right and who wrong in its extended argument.

Brenda Murphy argues convincingly that the play has two endings, a valuable analysis in explaining the use of quotation, as I shall note. Michael Hinden and Marc Maufort are the only other critics to address this question at length. Maufort concentrates on quotation from Baudelaire alone, and not as an authority quoted but rather as an important influence on O'Neill's thinking. Hinden sees the quotations as representing differences in taste across generations, and as an important part of the family's literary and theatrical background, but again, not as an almost forensic leavening in the play. (1) I shall discuss act 4 first, giving the essential arguments made by the characters in defense of themselves and against others, and then look back at the end of act 3, where the play has its first conclusion.


At midnight Tyrone, half-drunk and unhappy, is dealing cards to himself. Edmund comes home before his older brother Jamie, and Tyrone is glad to see him, although they argue over lights being left on. They will be onstage for the first half of the act, with Jamie and Mary coming in later, both badly impaired by alcohol or drugs. They settle whatever is left of the argument over Tyrone's cheapness, both dreading Mary's descent from the second floor. They argue almost to forget about her.

After the argument over the lights being on, Edmund accuses his father of sentimental religious romanticism, for Tyrone has claimed in the past that the Duke of Wellington and Shakespeare were Irish Catholics. Wellington was Irish, although a Protestant; and we know from earlier scenes that Tyrone came of age, professionally, in the late-nineteenth-century American theater, when eccentric theories about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays were at their peak. Ignatius Donnelly, in The Great Cryptogram (1887), and others advanced wild theories that would have baffled the intelligent and sensible young actor. (2) So O'Neill has Tyrone make a transfer of nationality and religion concerning Shakespeare. If others deny that he wrote at all, in the face of overwhelming evidence, why should not young Tyrone, while touring the Midwest in the 1870s and 1880s, have made his own suitable adjustment to Shakespeare's life? O'Neill does not tell us this directly, but I think I have reasoned back from the dialogue without going astray from his intent)

   So he was. The proof is in his plays.

   Well he wasn't, and there's no proof of it in his plays, except to

   The Duke of Wellington, there was another good Irish Catholic!

   I never said he was a good one. He was a renegade but a Catholic just
   the same. (127)

The use of "renegade" is important, for Tyrone's great weakness that emerges in the play is not stinginess, a substantial but commonplace failing that he barely acknowledges as a flaw and that his decency more than offsets. …

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