It is understandable that so many people in our class did not find the last act of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night a satisfying one; there is no tidy ending, no goodbye kisses or murder confessions; none of the charaters leave the stage with flowers in their hands or with smiles on their faces and none of the characters give explanatory monologues after the curtain falls, as we’ve become accustomed to by reading so much Shakespeare. O’Neill, though, isn’t Shakespeare and Long Days Journey Into Night is as different from, say, A Midsummer’s Night Dream or Twelfth Night than a pint of stout ale is from a glass of light chardonney.
It is because of the uniqueness of the play that the final act is so fitting a conclusion, and it is because of the essence of the play that there is closure in the final scene and it is because of hte nature of hte play that the final act carries upon its shoulders as powerful an impact as any other ending put upon an American stage.
The reason that many people did not find the end of hte play a real conclusion is because of the fact that Long Day’s Jounrey Into Night is not a play of action, like almost all other plays are. It is set within a single room during the course of a single day, and it consists mainly of long monologue and bitter banter rather than movement or plot development, but there is a reason that O’Neill does this; his play is not one where characters move from place to place and experience various dilemnas and need to work their way out through the course of a beginning, middle and end. LDJIN is a play of introspection, a play of confession, understanding and ultimately, a play of understanding, and it is in the final act of the play that all of these elements are worked out.
The Tyrone family is, as Edmund describes them, a family of fog people; through the first three acts of hte play we see them hiding their true feelings and emotions from each other from not each other but from themselves through a stammering which has developed from many years of holding things back. Even Jamie, who is berated time and time again for his loose tongue, stammers, as he has things that he has left unsaid and that no one is really aware. In many ways, the first three acts of the play are little more than just this – four characters stammering, letting emotions build themselves up inside of them; the first three acts are a prelude to the drama that unfolds in the final act of the play.
In the beginnings of the play we are given the extreme circumstances surrounding the family that day: Edmund is to be diagnosed with consumption, Mary is to fall deeper and deeper into an addiction from which she supposedly recovered, and each of the characters is to unravel under the strain that all the stammering has placed upon them. We are given the impression that the events of the fourth act has never happened before; for example, even though he has lived with his father for more than twenty years, Edmund has never heard him speak the way he speaks to him in his final act, when his father tells him of how miserable he is now and how he was so muh happier as a struggling, young actor than as a commerial success.
Up until the final act, Edmund has gone with Jamie and fancied Tyrone as little more than a crabby old miser. It is in his saying, I’m glad you told me that papa. I understand you much better now. that the essence of the final act, and of the play, is best illustrated. This is a family of people once filled with promise, ambition and hope but who now move along the stage like the emaciated phantoms of hteir former selves. And none of them really understands why.
Part of the reason that Edmund has never heard his father speak of this is because his father himelf never really realized the truth about what he’s become and about what choices he has made; he has known simply that he was miserable, but not why. It is not under the final hours of perhaps the worst day of the family’s history that the setting is set so that, with truly nothing left to lose, truths can come out, and this, again, is what the play is about – understanding, and the circumstances surrounding it.
The play is a play about forgiveness, too, and in that since it is not entirely depressing. (Using the previous example again) Tyrone is more or less vilified through the first three acts of the play, and it is true that he is in some respects to blame for many of the misfortunes that have befallen the family and his wife in particular. In his last long monologue though, as he’s speaking to Edmund, the audience comes to realize the circumstances that have made him the way he is, and to begin to forgive the faults that before seemed inexcusable and monstruous. He becomes human, as do all the characters.
Jamie, too, comes to really understand himself – through the play he wittily plays himself up as something more than the loafer that he is. In the final act, though, he finally realizes what it is that he has become – he has become little more than the lover of the fat women in the hick-town hooker shop, as he says, and it is because of this that we can begin to understand and forgive what he himself has just begun to understand; that he is not the ol’ pal to his brother that he says he is, but that he in fact has been trying to destroy the promise that his brother has and that he, too, once possessed.
It was the common opinion of many of the people in the class that in the final act the characters are pathetic. In many ways, however, it is not until the final act that the characters become in some ways, as Jamie puts it, absolved of their sins. For the first three acts they do little more than bicker, trading insult at every opportunity that arises. In the final act, as the characters stop their stammering and speak, for the first time, from their hearts, we come to understand what it is that has made them so bitter and resentful towards one another, and it is here and through this understanding that we can forgive each of them for what they’ve miserable, suffering people that they’ve become.
Eugene O’Neill wrote the play in the later part of his life in many ways for this reason: to forgive his family and absolve them from the harsh opinions which permeate his earlier works. Forgiving is not an easy thing to do, though (O’Neill eludes to the pain it caused to write LDJIN in his dedication), and, as a result, LDJIN is not an easy play to understand or to sit through.