Half past six in the evening, same day. Mary sits in the family room, waited on by Cathleen. She complains about the foghorn. She does not mind the fog, but the noise of the horn is terribly gloomy to her. She is clearly keeping the girl around just so that she won't be lonely. Cathleen is cheerful and kind, but also oblivious to Mary's problem. Mary keeps offering Cathleen whiskey. She uses Jamie's trick: whenever she takes whiskey, she refills the bottle with water to keep the level the same. Mary complains about some of Tyrone's quirks, and Cathleen lightly defends her employer. Mary bristles when Cathleen implies that Edmund seems to be very sick. Cathleen mentions that in town, the pharmacist offended her: Mary had Cathleen get the medicine for her, and the pharmacist initially questioned where Cathleen had gotten the description. Mary tells her the medicine is for the rheumatism in her hands.
Mary muses about her youth. She used to want to be a nun. Her other dream was to be a concert pianist, but now her hands are so damaged she can barely play. Mary also remembers meeting Mr. Tyrone, and how in love she once was. Cathleen is trying to focus, but she is not terribly sharp and she has become a bit drunk.
Cathleen leaves to help Bridget in the kitchen, and Mary wonders to herself about her lost faith. She tries to recite the Hail Mary, but she feels that she is too repulsive to pray. She scolds herself bitterly: "You expect the Blessed Virgin to be fooled by a lying dope fiend reciting words! You can't hide from her!" (109). A moment later, she hears the boys coming back home. For a moment, she is resentful of their return. The next instant, she is happy that her loneliness will end.
Edmund and Tyrone have clearly been drinking. Jamie is still out. Mary receives the men happily, but they see quickly that she is lost in the dope. Mary warns Edmund that Jamie wants to make him a failure, like he is. Tyrone seconds the thought. Mary talks about how Jamie was such a happy baby, as was Eugene, the baby who died. Edmund was always over-sensitive. Mary keeps talking, and then she blames Tyrone for Jamie's drinking. Tyrone was always drinking when the boys were young, and anytime the boys were sick he'd give them a teaspoon of whiskey.
Mary reminds Tyrone of the first night when they met. There is a brief, touching moment of tenderness. And then she returns to criticizing him, talking about the many times when he came home drunk over the years. She then speaks nostalgically about her wedding dress, and how she fussed over it. She doesn't know where the dress is now; it must be in the attic somewhere.
Tyrone tastes the whiskey, and becomes angry when he realizes how watered down it is. He goes down into the cellar to get more, and Edmund and Mary are alone. Edmund tries to tell Mary how sick he is, but she refuses to listen. She talks about how much she hates Doctor Hardy: his poor methods nearly drove her mad. Edmund well remembers the night she did go mad, running out of the house and screaming for dope. It was soon after he found out about her addiction, which Tyrone and Jamie hid from him for many years. Talking so directly about the past hurts Mary, so they stop. Edmund leaves. Mary, alone, wishes that one day, she might take too much morphine and overdose by accident. Tyrone returns, and has a brief run-in with a completely soused Cathleen. Tyrone asks Mary to come and have dinner with him. She tells him she's not hungry, and that she's going to take more medicine. He says bitterly that she'll be mad as a ghost before the night is over, but she tells him that she doesn't know what he's saying: it's only medicine for her rheumatism, after all.
One of the most important activities of the family is eating together; before, lunch was cancelled. And now, dinner falls apart. Tyrone ends up eating alone, as Mary goes upstairs to take morphine and the boys are in town, presumably getting drunk.
This act starts and finishes with two moments illustrating Mary's isolation. In the opening, she is keeping the empty-headed Cathleen because she is starving for companionship. Part of Mary's isolation comes from the absence of female friends or family; she has spent decades now as the lone woman in a family of men, deprived of friends in part because of her husband's profession, and in part because of her years of morphine addiction.
Social isolation is paralleled by isolation from reality. Mary manages to convince herself of her own lies: the morphine, in her fantasy world, is painkiller for her rheumatism. Her story is more than a lie she tells to Cathleen: when Edmund is horrified that Cathleen might tell people about his mother's affliction, Mary switches into denial mode:
EDMUND: For God's sake, Mama! You can't trust her! Do you want everyone on earth to know?
MARY: Know what? That I suffer from rheumatism in my hands and have to take medicine to kill the pain? (118)
Illusion is one of Mary's primary defenses.
Part of the play's power is the juxtaposition of brutal fighting and tender moments. If the play were non-stop bickering from beginning to end, it might be hard to sympathize with the Tyrones. We have a tender moment between Mary and Tyrone, as she reminds him of the day they met. The long, dark decades since have been terrible. The past is a powerful theme, both as a burden and as an escape. Mary is now using the past as a refuge. She is fondly remembering her courtship and her days at the Catholic boarding school, and the more morphine she takes, the more trapped in the past she becomes. Ghost imagery is key here. At the end of the act, Tyrone warns her that she'll be mad as a ghost if she continues. The word is not accidental: metaphorically, she's a phantom. She wanders around the house, detached from the world of the living, isolated and constantly reliving past moments. The wedding dress is another symbol: it represents lost promise, a day of hope that becomes ironic when viewed in the context of everything that has followed.
But the past is also a terrible burden. Mary is reminiscing nostalgically one moment, and then lashing out at Tyrone the next: "But I must confess, James, although I couldn't help loving you, I would never have married you if I'd known you drank so much" (115). She also launches into a story about something that was repeated many times over the years: during their honeymoon, Tyrone came home drunk.
Between Tyrone's stinginess and Mary's accusations, most audience members tend to feel less sympathy for Tyrone by this point in the play. Edmund lashes out at his father, saying it was no wonder that Mary turned to dope.
All of this reliving of the past parallels the work done by the play itself. O'Neill does not try to hide the autobiographical nature of the work. For example, we learn that the name of the Tyrone child that died was Eugene; in real life, Eugene O'Neill had a brother who died in infancy whose name was Edmund. See "Context" for a more detailed description of the autobiographical nature of the play.