Revives O’Neill’s Reputation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The American production of the autobiographical play, considered to be the crowning achievement of Eugene O’Neill’s career, opened three years after the dramatist’s death. It became one of his most famous and best-regarded works.

Summary of Event

In 1956, the year Long Day’s Journey into Night premiered, the reputation of America’s foremost dramatist was at an all-time low. In spite of the fact that Eugene O’Neill had won the Nobel Prize in Literature Nobel Prize in Literature;Eugene O’Neill[Oneill] in 1936, and that there were stirrings of things to come with a 1956 revival of The Iceman Cometh (pr., pb. 1946) in New York, most critics were content to think of the dramatist as an outdated, over-the-hill, third-rate thinker who had been lucky enough to write a few decent plays. When Long Day’s Journey into Night was produced in Boston on October 16 and then three weeks later in New York, few people in the audiences were prepared for the blistering drama they witnessed. Voted the best play of the year by drama critics, Long Day’s Journey into Night launched a complete reevaluation of O’Neill’s career and won for him, posthumously, his fourth Pulitzer Prize Pulitzer Prizes;drama . Theater;drama Long Day’s Journey into Night (O’Neill)[Long Days Journey into Night] [kw]Long Day’s Journey into Night Revives O’Neill’s Reputation (Nov. 7, 1956)[Long Days Journey into Night Revives ONeills Reputation] [kw]O’Neill’s Reputation, Long Day’s Journey into Night Revives (Nov. 7, 1956)[ONeills Reputation, Long Days Journey into Night Revives] Theater;drama Long Day’s Journey into Night (O’Neill)[Long Days Journey into Night] [g]North America;Nov. 7, 1956: Long Day’s Journey into Night Revives O’Neill’s Reputation[05310] [g]United States;Nov. 7, 1956: Long Day’s Journey into Night Revives O’Neill’s Reputation[05310] [c]Theater;Nov. 7, 1956: Long Day’s Journey into Night Revives O’Neill’s Reputation[05310] O’Neill, Eugene Monterey, Carlotta Quintero, José

In 1939, when O’Neill realized that his writing days were drawing to a close (he was suffering from a palsy that made the act of writing increasingly difficult), he set aside an ambitious cycle of plays he had been working on and took up the painful task of wrestling with the ghosts of his past. Although all O’Neill’s plays are thinly veiled autobiography, none up to this point had faced the truth about his immediate family—his mother, father, brother, and himself—as directly and as pointedly as did Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Writing the play was the most painful experience O’Neill had faced as a dramatist. Taking more than two years to complete the work, the dramatist was possessed by his vision, wrestling day and night with the terrible truths he was revealing about himself and his family. O’Neill’s daily writing regimen was strict. He would rise early in the morning and, after breakfast, work steadily on the play until early afternoon. His wife, the former actor Carlotta Monterey, described him as a man “being tortured every day by his own writing. He would come out of his study at the end of a day gaunt and sometimes weeping. His eyes would be all red and he looked ten years older than when he went in in the morning.”

When the play was finished in the summer of 1941, O’Neill, all but exhausted from his efforts, found the energy to complete only one more play in his life—the sequel to Long Day’s Journey into Night, A Moon for the Misbegotten Moon for the Misbegotten, A (O’Neill) (pr. 1947, pb. 1952). His inscription to his wife on the manuscript of Long Day’s Journey into Night—dated July 22, 1941, their twelfth anniversary—read in part: “I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. . . . I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness . . . that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play—write it with deep pity and understanding for all the four haunted Tyrones.”

The play, as it turned out, divulged far more about the O’Neill family than O’Neill’s son Eugene O’Neill O’Neill, Eugene, Jr. , Jr., felt comfortable with, and he asked his father to withhold the play from publication. Honoring his son’s request, O’Neill carried the manuscript of the play to the offices of Random House Random House in November of 1945, where he instructed that it be sealed with wax, stipulating in the covering document that it not be opened until twenty-five years after his death.

In the light of O’Neill’s stipulations against its release, the story of how the play was produced on Broadway only three years after the dramatist’s death is one of the American theater’s more curious episodes. After the suicide of Eugene O’Neill, Jr., in 1950, at a time when the financial situation of O’Neill and his wife looked bleak, the dramatist referred to the play in storage as a “nest egg,” explaining to Monterey that Eugene, Jr., had requested that the play be withheld from the public. O’Neill suggested to his wife that if their situation worsened, they now could publish the play.

Nothing was done about the play, however, until two years after the dramatist’s death, when Monterey, as the executor of O’Neill’s estate, requested Random House to publish the play. Thinking they were duty-bound to honor the dead playwright’s wishes, Random House refused the request. At that point, O’Neill’s wife retrieved the manuscript from Random House and handed it over to the Yale University Press Yale University Press , where it was published early in 1956. The wide success of the published version would have pleased the dead playwright, since on so many occasions he had publicly railed against the staged productions of his plays, arguing that he preferred to see them in book form so they could be judged on their own merits, without the services of actors and directors.

Shortly thereafter, Monterey set up an appointment with Theodore Mann, Leigh Connell, and José Quintero, the people responsible for the revival of The Iceman Cometh, and asked them if they would be interested in bringing Long Day’s Journey into Night to Broadway. The rest is theater history. The play opened at the Helen Hayes Theatre on November 7, 1956, and was hailed as a masterpiece. O’Neill, after more than forty years on the American stage, reached a new zenith in his career as America’s foremost dramatist.


Eugene O’Neill’s reputation as a significant force in modern American theater rests on his efforts to move the art of playwriting out of the dark ages of Victorian melodrama and into the contemporary world of serious drama. No major American dramatists wrote before O’Neill; he stands as the first American dramatist to achieve international recognition, with his plays produced around the world to critical acclaim.

Capitalizing on the early twentieth century interest in the writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, O’Neill explored the psychology of the person, the play of conscious and unconscious tensions in characters as they interact with one another. Following the lead of the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, O’Neill experimented with the confrontations of family members as they sought to discover themselves and their rightful place in the world. On more than one occasion, too, O’Neill recognized his indebtedness to the plays of August Strindberg, particularly the Swedish dramatist’s attempts to delve beneath the surface features of character to discover the core of the person.

Theater, O’Neill said, should be a “source of inspiration that . . . drives us deep into the unknown within and behind ourselves. The theatre should reveal to us what we are.” In fact, all O’Neill’s plays have been viewed as variations on this single theme: the attempt of the protagonist to understand himself, the meaning of his relationships with others, and, by extension, the meaning of existence.

O’Neill’s primary impact on twentieth century American theater was as an innovator and experimenter, with both the thematic content of his plays and his staging techniques. In fact, a whole line of American playwrights, including Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams Williams, Tennessee , Edward Albee, and David Mamet, benefited from O’Neill’s earlier efforts. “My pioneering had busted the old dogmas wide open,” O’Neill said, “and left them free to do anything they wanted.” Sherwood Anderson, the novelist, wrote to O’Neill that “the more I see of the theatre, the more I realize what you have done for it.”

Experimenting with the element of lighting, for example, O’Neill discovered he could isolate characters on the stage, create a mood, or aid with the progression of the play’s atmosphere from scene to scene. Long Day’s Journey into Night, for example, begins in bright early morning sunlight with the easy banter of the Tyrone family after breakfast and ends at night with the characters defenseless and in large measure defeated, bathed in a dim circle of light surrounded by the outer darkness. In retrospect, it is difficult to imagine the advanced lighting techniques of the modern stage without first recognizing the earlier experimental efforts of O’Neill.

Nowhere is the dramatist’s goal of expanding theater more apparent than when he explores the depths of a character, trying to uncover the persona behind the mask. In fact, in his play The Great God Brown Great God Brown, The (O’Neill) (pr., pb. 1926), O’Neill went so far as to have the characters interchange real masks on stage to alert the audience to changes in a person. How, O’Neill questioned, can the dramatist show the differences between what characters say publicly and their private thoughts?

After experimenting with traditional monologues as well as personal asides spoken directly to the audience, O’Neill moved beyond these wooden techniques and relied directly on anger, remorse, and the need to be understood and loved to unlock a character’s inner self. The efforts of O’Neill to find ways to strip away the illusions of his characters while they attempt to connect to one another set the stage for a series of electrifying moments in modern American theater—from the shattering of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (pr., pb. 1947), to Biff’s attempts to reach Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949), to the battle royal between George and Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (pr., pb. 1962), to the bitter struggle between Ruth and Nick in David Mamet’s The Woods (pr. 1977, pb. 1979).

Inheriting a stage limited by its puritanical sensibilities, O’Neill prided himself on his efforts to break down the barriers surrounding such topics as alcoholism, drug addiction, and sex. The broken, demented outcasts that people Tennessee Williams’s plays owe much to the fledgling efforts of the earlier O’Neill to claim taboo subjects as the legitimate concerns of the theater. At one point, recognizing his debt to O’Neill, Williams said, “O’Neill gave birth to the American theatre and died for it.”

Finally, Eugene O’Neill was the first American dramatist to give voice to the fashionable pessimism and despair of the twentieth century. In Long Day’s Journey into Night, Mary Tyrone says, “None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.” Humans, O’Neill insisted, are fog-bound creatures, isolated, frustrated, and lost in a world of self-delusion. Occasionally the fog lifts, and one can make connections to the natural world and one’s fellow human beings, but then the fog descends again, and one is thrown back into darkness.

Humans are doomed from birth, O’Neill believed, to pursue a hopeless hope for a better, more meaningful life. O’Neill was the first American dramatist to uncover the tortured soul of modern humans. Theater;drama Long Day’s Journey into Night (O’Neill)[Long Days Journey into Night]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, Doris. Eugene O’Neill’s Last Plays: Separating Art from Autobiography. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005. Interrogates the relationship of O’Neill’s three plays to his life. Includes chapters on each member of the fictional Tyrone family, exploring their relationships to their counterparts in the O’Neill family.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold, ed. Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A helpful collection of scholarly articles for the reader who wants to delve more deeply into the meanings of the play. Placed in chronological order of publication, the articles define O’Neill’s place in the American literary landscape and generally agree that Long Day’s Journey into Night is his masterpiece. Chronology, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowen, Croswell. The Curse of the Misbegotten: A Tale of the House of O’Neill. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959. Biography of O’Neill, written with the assistance of his son Shane, that explores the notion that the O’Neill family labored under a mysterious curse that worked its way out in the family’s alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicides. Bowen suggests the curse that alienated and isolated the members of the O’Neill family was caused not by their inability to love but by their inability to communicate that love. Chronology of premieres of plays, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Floyd, Virginia. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. Claims that O’Neill is a pioneer of modern drama and the foremost American playwright of the twentieth century. Floyd divides the book into four sections and provides specific biographical information to help readers understand the connections between the dramatist’s plays and his life. Chronology, photographs, brief bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gassner, John. O’Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964. Presents a range of positive and negative evaluations of O’Neill’s dramatic legacy. The analyses either point to the dramatist’s shortcomings as a thinker and as a writer who lacked facility with language or suggest that O’Neill was America’s leading dramatist and that Long Day’s Journey into Night was his crowning achievement. Chronology, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. The standard, full-length biography of O’Neill, offering a wealth of details about his life and plays culled from extensive research and interviews with more than four hundred people who knew the playwright. The Gelbs recognize the autobiographical content of O’Neill’s plays, suggesting that the story of his life is the key to understanding his tragic outlook in his art. Photographs, chronology of productions of published plays, extensive index.

Kazan Brings Naturalism to the Stage and Screen

Waiting for Godot Expresses the Existential Theme of Absurdity

The Crucible Allegorizes the Red Scare Era

Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun Debuts on Broadway

Pinter’s The Caretaker Opens in London

The American Dream Establishes Albee as the Voice of Pessimism

Categories: History