Long Day's Journey into Night was never performed during O'Neill's lifetime. On his twelfth wedding anniversary with his wife Carlotta, O'Neill gave her the script of the play with this note:
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 enable 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!
July 22, 1941.
The play is deeply autobiographical. O'Neill, like Edmund, was the child of a Broadway actor. The O'Neills were Irish-American, as are the Tyrones. Catholicism looms large in both families, with a religious father appalled by his sons' apparent rejection of the Church. O'Neill's father was an alcoholic, and like James Tyrone, he gave up a promising career as a Shakespearean actor for a part in a commercial but artistically worthless play called Monte Cristo. In the play, Tyrone speaks of this commercial success but never names it. O'Neill's mother in real-life was a morphine addict, and like Mary, became one after the birth of her youngest child. Jamie is also modeled after O'Neill's real-life brother, a dissolute alcoholic whoremonger who failed miserably at everything he put his hand to. And Eugene had an older brother named Edmund who died as a baby; in the play, the dead middle son is named Eugene.
Like Edmund, Eugene O'Neill sailed for years, taking odd jobs. And O'Neill also had fragile health; he was forced to rest for six months in a sanatorium so that he could be treated for tuberculosis, which in those days was a very dangerous disease.
A play of such a private nature would have been too painful to produce during O'Neill's life. The play was first performed in 1956, three years after O'Neill's death. It won a Pulitzer Prize and has often been hailed as O'Neill's greatest play. Certainly, the play is invaluable for scholars seeking to understand O'Neill's work; Long Day's Journey Into Night reveals the most formative forces of O'Neill's life, as well as the values and virtues he valued most. The play also represents an established artist making peace with his troubled past, forgiving and understanding his family and himself.