Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
There is a nice chill in the evening air. The sun is rising just a bit later and setting just a bit earlier. Those long days of summer are once again behind us. Fall is just around the corner. Time for that last summer read; it’s going to be a journey through the library stacks.
Reading works by a playwright is something I’ve never done. I contemplated this challenge while I perused the stacks at the main branch of the Charleston County Library, my Nobel Laureate list in hand. The stacks are fewer as the book world moves to a digital format thus my journey to the “Os” and the works of Eugene O’Neill is a short one.
The Nobel Prize was awarded to Eugene O’Neill in 1936 “for the power, honesty, and deep-felt emotions of his dramatic works, which embody an original concept of tragedy.” The choice of Long Day’s Journey into Night was an obvious one. Written between 1941-1942 and published in 1956, it is considered his major work. The treat is the discovery of Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer. This large volume was divided into eight parts: “Beginnings, 1901-1906; Apprenticeship, 1917-1920; Certainties, 1920-1926; Carlotta, 1926-1928; Voyager, 1928-1931; Laureate, 1931-1936; Heights, 1936-1945; and Ending, 1945-1952.” Letters from the time O’Neill won the Nobel Prize — what an opportunity for a peek behind the curtain into the very personal world of a laureate.
The small paperback version of Long Day’s Journey into Night that I checked out details the copyright as an unpublished work in 1955 by his wife Carlotta Monterey O’Neill; first publication in February 1956; copyright renewed by Yale University 1984; corrected edition copyright by Yale University 1989; Harold Bloom’s Forward copyright 1987; first published as a Yale Nota Bene book 2002. In 1989, the play was in its sixty-first printing.
To review, I was hesitant about reading a play. But it didn’t take me long before I was lost in the journey of that day which began in the living room of the Tyrones’ summer home in 1912. In one afternoon I quickly advanced through the four acts and came to midnight. A fluid and natural read, albeit a dramatic one, of a family in turmoil. Addiction, illness, frugality, and irresponsibility are all presented with brutal honesty and brilliant dialogue in this autobiographical play. The reader becomes a voyeur to a family in crisis and can’t step away.
Dialogue was O’Neill’s strong suit and his affection and ability for writing dialogue is self described in a letter dated January 20, 1935 penned while at his home: Casa Genotta, Sea Island, Georgia. O’Neill had written a tribute to Professor George Pierce Baker that appeared in the New York Times seven days after Baker’s death. Baker’s wife must have written a note of appreciation to which O’Neill responded:
“Dear Mrs. Baker: Your kind letter took a great load off my mind. Ever since I sent that to the Times’, I’ve been laboring under a guilty feeling that it was unforgivably inadequate. I did try hard to make it a message of my very deep feeling of gratitude and sadness, and emphasize the greatest gift one human being can give another — the courage to believe in his work and go on — a gift which Mr. Baker gave to me, as he did to so many others. What I will always remember first about him is not the teacher but the man, the charm of his personality, his ability just by being himself to convey faith to you, and understanding sympathy, and friendship. Many men can teach but only a fine, rare few can be in themselves an education in faith for others! But I am a clumsy writer indeed when it comes to anything but dialogue, and I was afraid my word had bungled expressing any of this. However, now that I know you found worth in what I wrote, that’s all I care about.
Again, my deepest sympathy — and, always, all good wishes to you. Cordially yours, Eugene O’Neill”
For 1936, there are eleven letters included in the chapter entitled “Laureate, 1931-1936” for the reader’s enjoyment. Six of them reference the Nobel Prize. There are references to hectic days, “dodging the radio and newsreel baloney,” delight in hearing from old friends, and enjoying congratulatory notes. One letter is to James E. Brown, Jr., the third secretary of the American embassy in Stockholm, Sweden that includes the speech he prepared: “Enclosed you will find the speech you suggested. I have never been a guest of honor, or made a speech in my life, and I’ve only written about two of them before this, but I hope this one is adequate.” O’Neill did not attend the award ceremony.
Long Day’s Journey into Night premiered in Sweden in February 1956, opened on Broadway in November 1956, and won a Tony Award for best play. The script was a gift: “For Carlotta, on our 12th Wedding Anniversary. Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness 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 the four haunted Tyrones. These twelve years, Beloved One, have been a Journey into Light — into love. You know my gratitude. And my love! Gene. Tao House. July 22, 1941.”