8:30 AM in the living room of the Tyrone family's summer home, August, 1912. The room is adjacent to the kitchen and dining room, and there are stairs leading up to the upstairs bedrooms. The living room is handsome and full of books; the collection is impressive, and all the more so because the books have the look of having been read. The Tyrone family has just finished having breakfast, and Mary and James Tyrone Tyrone enter. Mary is fifty-four, striking, but with a worn look. Her hands are knotted from rheumatism, and she continuously wrings them nervously. James Tyrone is sixty-five but looks younger, handsome and healthy looking. He has a fine voice, a sign of his trade as an actor.
Tyrone and Mary discuss the weight she's gained, although Tyrone thinks she could still stand to eat more. They end up talking about a friend of Tyrone's who helps him with real estate investments, and Mary and Tyrone have a light argument about his unwise investments. Their talk is interrupted by the sound of Edmund's cough in the kitchen. Mary is clearly concerned. Tyrone tells Mary that she needs to take care of herself, and that it's good to have her "old self again" since she "came back." Repeatedly throughout their conversation, we see that Mary teases Tyrone lightly and he does not take it well; we also see that he is convinced his sons don't respect him, as every time he hears them laughing in the kitchen he's sure they're making fun of him.
Edmund and Jamie enter. Jamie is thirty-four, but he has not taken good care of himself. He is charming, but his face and body show signs of heavy drinking. Edmund is in very poor health. He is frail and sensitive looking.
Both of the boys seem awkward around their mother: eager to compliment, and afraid they might offend. The conversation turns to teasing Tyrone about his snoring, and Tyrone becomes angry. He begins picking on Jamie's lack of direction in life, and Edmund leaps to his brother's defense.
Edmund then goes into a story about Shaugnessy, one of Tyrone's tenants. A poor farmer named Shaugnessy got into a fight with his oil tycoon neighbor. Shaugnessy verbally humiliated the millionaire. Tyrone doesn't find the story amusing. He fears that Shaugnessy might get him involved in a lawsuit with the tycoon, and he accuses Edmund of exacerbating the situation. He also doesn't approve of Edmund's angle on the story, and he repeatedly tells the boy to keep his "anarchist" and "socialist" comments to himself. Sick of the abuse, Edmund goes upstairs in a fit of coughing.
Jamie lets out that Edmund seems to be really sick. Mary insists that it's just a summer cold, and voices her distrust of doctors. Jamie looks at his mother, and his gaze causes her to be seized by a fit of nervousness. She thinks he's thinking about how she has faded. But Jamie and Tyrone shower her with compliments, and they are charming enough to lift her spirits. She exits to supervise Bridget, their servant.
As soon as she is gone, Tyrone and Jamie begin to fight. Tyrone is furious that Jamie risked upsetting Mary, but Jamie stands fast. Edmund, he insists, has consumption. With no one else to moderate, the argument is unabashedly vicious. Jamie blames Tyrone's stinginess: he continues to send Edmund to the cheapest doctor around. The talk turns to Jamie's aimless lifestyle. Tyrone accuses him of being lazy and without ambition, dependent on his wealthy parents and an ingrate as well. Tyrone defends his use of Dr. Hardy: the man has treated Edmund since he was a child, so, cheap or not, he knows Edmund's constitution. And Tyrone blames Jamie for Edmund's sickness. Edmund is ten years younger and looks up to Jamie like a hero: ever since he left college, he's been trying to live a lifestyle as wild and self-destructive as his brother's. But he doesn't have Jamie's toughness, and his health is suffering. At several points, Tyrone compares the two brothers to Jamie's disfavor, and Jamie fights back a repressed jealousy.
The talk turns to Mary. We infer that she is a morphine addict, recently recovered. For a moment, the two men put aside their enmity and seem to talk fairly to each other. But it breaks down again, as Jamie accused Tyrone of being at fault. Mary's addiction started after Edmund's birth, and in part because of an incompetent doctor. The two men become quiet at Mary's approach. Mary asks what they were arguing about, and Jamie avoids answering truthfully. He and Tyrone go out to work on the lawn.
Edmund comes downstairs. He and Mary have a tense conversation, avoiding real communication. She's worried about his health, and he's worried about hers. She doesn't like to think about her previous problems with addiction, but Edmund thinks that confronting the past will help her to stay off the stuff. Mary's a nervous wreck because she knows the three men are watching her every move. She admits to Edmund that she's never liked the house: done the cheap way. She never has friends over, and she never goes out, all because of Tyrone's anti-social tendencies. She has no friends to speak of, and she admits to being terribly lonely. Edmund finally goes out to read in the lawn while the others work. Alone, Mary tries to relax but finds herself seized by terrible anxiety, which shows in her constantly moving hands.
The first act sets up all of the central conflicts of the play. We will see these same arguments again and again. When Mary comes in and asks Tyrone and Jamie what they're fighting about, Jamie replies, "Same old stuff" (41). These are old fights that never get resolved. Many times, the stage directions indicate that the bitterness breaks down into weariness. At times, the characters lack the energy to keep up their anger.
O'Neill makes extensive use of stage directions. We should remember that Long Day's Journey into Night was never performed during his lifetime; he gave it to his wife on their anniversary as a kind of confession. Arguably, the play is meant to be read as much as it is meant to be performed. O'Neill's stage directions give directors strong insights into how to interpret the work; they also make the play able to stand up well as a piece of text. We get extensive notes describing the four central characters, and the stage directions are detailed, often poetic.
We learn from the opening stage directions that the Tyrone family is well educated. Texts ranging the whole Western canon are on the shelves; moreover, the books look well-used. The house is also clearly the home of a wealthy family. Later, we learn that in detail much of the construction is shoddy, due to Tyrone's stinginess, but the summer home remains nevertheless a place of the privileged. Money, however, is a constant source of conflict. Jamie aggressively picks at Tyrone for his stinginess. Although Tyrone has the chance to defend himself, we are nonetheless shocked to learn that he has probably skimped on his family's medical needs out of nothing more than stinginess.
Communication's breakdown is a constant theme. Argument rage on, but no closure is achieved. The conversations are full of half-articulated fears. Everyone is terrified that Mary will lose her battle with morphine addiction, but only Edmund dares broach the subject directly. The other two men talk around it, repeating, in a way that must be maddening for Mary, how good it is that she has back "her old self again." Avoidance is the strategy for dealing with the major health problems of the play. Edmund's consumption is denied by both Mary and Tyrone. Strangely, the men have decided to keep the probable diagnosis of consumption a secret from Mary; in an amazing feat of denial, the men stick to the idea that keeping it a secret longer will soften the blow when Mary inevitably learns the truth. Edmund hints at it with Mary, but even so he dares not confront her too long or too directly about it. Regarding his "summer cold," he says to her: "I want you to promise me that even if it should turn out to be something worse, you'll know I'll soon be all right again, anyway, and you won't worry yourself sick, and you'll keep on taking care of yourself " (49). Remember here that consumption (now more commonly known as tuberculosis) was a serious illness in 1912, treatable but still potentially fatal. The indirectness of Edmund's plea is typical of the play, as everything is veiled here. Unable to say "consumption," Edmund settles for calling it "something worse," and he downplays both the probability and the seriousness of the illness. Also, he talks obliquely of her illness, and he is the most direct of any of them. He refers to staying away from morphine as "taking care of yourself." Even that is too much: Mary cuts him off.
In part due to this constant failure to communicate, both parents show signs of paranoia. During his opening conversation with Mary, Tyrone interprets every bit of laughter from the kitchen as the boys enjoying a joke at his expense. Mary becomes even more anxious as she perceives the three men watching her every move, fearing that she might be slipping away. Mary suffers from extreme isolation: she is a lone woman in a house of boys, unvisited by friends and unable to go out. If anything, her loneliness has heightened her anxiety and paranoia, because she has long hours to fill with worry and fear.
The treatment of the characters is balanced. None of the four Tyrones is the villain. Edmund is probably the most well balanced of the characters, and receives the most favorable treatment, but even he has his moments of cruelty. Jamie's repressed jealousy of Edmund is balanced by his deep love for the boy. In his fight with Tyrone, Jamie dances awkwardly from fighting on Jamie's behalf to letting out sneering, jealous comments, as when discussing Edmund's new job:
JAMIE: (Sneeringly jealous again.) A hick town rag! Whatever bull they hand you, they tell me he's a pretty bum reporter. If he weren't you're son (Ashamed again.) No, that's not true! They're glad to have him, but it's the special stuff that gets him by. Some of the poems and parodies he's written are damned good.
Jamie's jealousy of Edmund is the darkest element of his character, and will figure prominently later in the play. But we see here also a clear love and loyalty for his brother. The two sons are very close, and Edmund has no inkling of Jamie's jealousy.
The play is deeply autobiographical, and many of the new details we learn about the characters corresponds with the facts about O'Neill and his real-life family. Here, we learn that Edmund traveled extensively as a sailor, which contributed to ruining his health. Eugene O'Neill's story is the same. For more information on these parallels, refer to the Context section of this ClassicNote; the parallels are two numerous to point out repeatedly in each section of analysis, so the autobiographical element of the play has been dealt with there.