Theatre Review from the June 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill (Apollo Theatre)
This 1956 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, written in 1942 and recently staged at the Apollo Theatre in London, was not performed until after O’Neill’s death. This was because of its autobiographical nature, its inclusion of characters clearly drawn from members of the O’Neill Irish-American family and its descriptions of real incidents within it.
O’Neill was a breath of fresh air in American theatre in the 1920s, a writer of realistic dramas inspired by the naturalism of Chekhov, Strindberg and Ibsen. He avoided melodrama and sentimentality and concerned himself with tragedy, pessimism, and socialism. He used vernacular speech and portrayed working-class characters in works like ‘Anna Christie’ and ‘The Iceman Cometh’.
O’Neill moved in left wing circles in Greenwich Village, New York City, where he met John Reed and Louise Bryant (their menage-à-trois is portrayed in the 1981 film ‘Reds’). Reed, a member of the Socialist Party of America, was in Russia in 1917 at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution and wrote about it in his book ‘Ten Days That Shook The World’. He helped form the Communist Party of America.
In the early twentieth century there were exciting times for socialism in the USA. These saw the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, an organisation which advocated the abolition of capitalism and the wage system and opposed the First World War. The increasingly reformist nature of the Socialist Party of America led car workers in Detroit to leave in 1916 and form the Socialist Party of the United States. This later became the World Socialist Party of the United States, the fraternal party of the SPGB.
‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ dissects the conflicts of the bourgeois thespian James Tyrone (O’ Neill’s father) and his wife and two sons, and covers themes of patriarchy, the lack of fulfilment for women, addiction (alcohol and morphine), resentments, self-deception, illness, greed, failure, artistic promise, and general dysfunction in bourgeois family life in early twentieth-century American capitalism. The Irish-born family patriarch emigrated to America at the time of the Great Hunger of the 1840s when the potato famine and subsequent failure of the British government led to a million deaths and mass emigration from the Emerald Isle. O’Neill describes Tyrone’s experience of child labour and family poverty in the expanding industrial capitalism of nineteenth-century New York City.
Tyrone’s son Edmund (O’Neill) is a budding playwright, with a TB condition who has left Princeton early. O’Neill himself left after a year because as the apocryphal story goes “he threw a beer bottle through the window of Professor Woodrow Wilson” (later the US President who promised voters to keep America out of the First World War but took them in, and later oversaw the Volstead Act which prohibited alcohol in the USA for 13 years).
O’Neill analyses the dysfunctionality of a bourgeois family in capitalism and shows the neuroses associated with bourgeois family life. Marx and Engels pointed out that the bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course with the abolition of capitalism.