1912 O’Neill Drama Relates to Opioid Crisis Today

NEW LONDON, Conn. — Change a few words and dress the characters in modern outfits, and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece, could be about any of the dozens of local families today torn apart by opioid addiction.

“It’s very relevant,” Jessica Lange, who last week won a Tony Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of the morphine-addicted mother Mary Tyrone in the current Broadway production, said in a recent radio interview on the Leonard Lopate Show. “Every night I get on stage and I start ranting about doctors … and it feels very, very current.”

Robert Dowling, a New London resident who wrote a critically acclaimed 2014 biography of O’Neill, believes the play offers some valuable insights that can help this community understand and, perhaps, better confront the current epidemic of addiction to prescription opioids and its cheaper illegal cousin, heroin.

Its most obvious message is that this is not a new problem, both Dowling and Richter said, and to recognize that finger-pointing and denial have never made things better.

“It’s the family’s pathological secrecy that denied Mary Tyrone her justifiable place as a victim and not a perpetrator,” said Dowling, an English professor at Central Connecticut State University who consulted on the current Broadway show, answering historical background questions for the cast.

“It’s very important for families not to bury themselves in shame and recognize that it’s a disease that can be cured,” he said. “But if you make it into a pathology, it will only get worse.”

A Special Place

Set on an August day in 1912, all the action of the play happens at the Monte Cristo Cottage on Pequot Avenue, the closest thing to a home for the O’Neill family.

Now a National Historic Landmark, the house overlooking the Thames River was cobbled together by O’Neill’s father, James, who made his career traveling from city to city as a ham actor in a melodrama, “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

This fall, the ghosts of that house are sure to be stirred when the city’s own Flock Theater stages a production of the play in the very room where the drama unfolds.Since the play was written in 1941 and first staged in 1957 —four years after O’Neill’s death — this has never happened before, despite numerous productions on other stages over the years and visits to the house by the professional actors and directors involved in them.

Derron Wood, artistic director of the Flock Theater, said this week that “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is an “absolute classic in American theater” that has long resonated with him personally and artistically.

Beginning rehearsals this spring, with the intention of giving a series of intimate performances of the heart-wrenching story at the house that inspired it, he said, is something he’s long wanted to do.

“We’ve been doing other shows in historic houses and museums, like the Hempsted House and the Shaw Mansion, to small audiences,” he said. “The house becomes a character, and the walls seem to talk.”

The Monte Cristo Cottage holds a singular place in American drama, noted Rob Richter, author of a recent book about O’Neill’s maritime influences and director of arts programming and the artists’ residence program at Connecticut College.
It is the only standing structure where a major work of American drama was set.

“It is unique,” Richter, an O’Neill scholar who gave a recent pre-performance talk for the Broadway production, set to close on June 26, said during a recent interview at the cottage.

“Here, within these tall ceilings James O’Neill had raised to make the house look more grand, they were keeping up appearances. As the day progresses through the play, the space gets darker and darker, as the fog of addiction is moving in,” he explained.

“By the end of the play at night, there’s just one little bulb lit, and the family is boxed in more and more by isolation and pain and shame,” he said.

O’Neill, who won four Pulitzer prizes, is considered by many to be the nation’s greatest playwright, American theater’s first realist who ripped open the curtain on issues affecting the working class, racism, alcoholism, destructive families and other harsh topics.

Being the first playwright to tackle the effects of morphine – the opioid drug of that era – in “Long Day’s Journey” was a natural progression.

“O’Neill many times did shocking things in his plays,” Richter said.

Pain of Childbirth

Near the beginning of the 3½-hour play and several times throughout, Mary Tyrone expresses her hatred for the “quack” doctor who prescribed her morphine to numb her pain after the difficult birth of her youngest son, in the play the 24-year-old Edmond, the stand-in for the young Eugene O’Neill.

In real life, Ella O’Neill started taking the drug in 1888 after giving birth to Eugene, an 11-pound baby.

For the next three decades, Ella O’Neill took the drug, with several unsuccessful attempts to break her addiction and even a suicide attempt before finally conquering its hold on her.

That came after she had regained her Catholic faith then stayed in a Brooklyn convent for several months in 1918.
Irresponsible doctors, druggists and caretakers of that era were complicit in many women of that era becoming addicts, Dowling said, just as negligent doctors of today can be blamed for overprescribing drugs such as Oxycontin and Percocet that open the door to heroin addiction for many.

In the play, Mary Tyrone says that under the power of morphine “I found I could no longer call my soul my own … someday I will find it again.”

Later, she laments that she has not taken enough of the drug to quell her inner demons, and that, “I hope some time, without meaning to, to take an overdose.”

Central to understanding the play, Dowling said, is appreciating the sense of abandonment her husband and two sons felt toward Mary Tyrone.

O’Neill named her Mary, he said, to reference the prominent role of St. Mary in Irish Catholic families, and the notion that the mother of the family was to be their avatar for the Blessed Virgin, who would be their spiritual leader.
When she fails profoundly at achieving this impossible standard, her sons and husband heap scorn upon her, calling her a “dope fiend” and a “mad ghost,” and she turns on herself.

Abuse of Alcohol

But the men were not blameless, leaving the house to partake of the socially acceptable drug — alcohol — in downtown establishments including one still in existence, the Thames Club, before returning home to continue drinking to intoxication.

O’Neill’s older brother James, who is represented by the character Jamie in the play, in fact died of alcoholism in 1923.
“It’s the double standard,” Dowling said. “They all knew they were screw-ups, but she’s the mother.”
Unresolved emotional pain is another theme in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

Mary, notes Richter, expresses deep sadness over the death of her second son at age 2 when she was on the road with her husband.

She regrets how her life has turned out – her loneliness and isolation, and how the drug seems her only friend.
But remembering that the real person who Mary is based on did ultimately get free of addiction should give people hope, Richter noted.

“Not that we should accept someone’s addiction, but this story focusing on the issue can let people come to understand that they’re not alone,” he said. “The cycle can be broken. Not that it’s easy.”

For Wood and members of the cast of Flock’s production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” the play is a vehicle for telling truths about one family that could shed light on audiences’ own families.

While watching the Tyrones’ destructive dynamic, viewers can “recognize what these people did to perpetuate the cycle, and then recognize it in themselves and their families,” said Victor Chiburis of New London, who portrays Edmond in the Flock production.

Eric Michaelian of New London, who portrays the older brother Jamie, sees parallels between the Tyrones and his own family’s struggles with addiction, denial and passive acceptance.

It’s his favorite play, he said.

“It’s their keeping secrets and compartmentalizing that keeps them isolated,” he said.

For Mary Tyrone as well as for other addicts, he said, “there’s this feeling of not belonging, of otherness,” but also of not being able to deal with the reasons for being susceptible to addiction in the first place.

“But you have to deal with that part of yourself that wanted the substance,” he said.

Taking shortcuts to escape emotional or physical pain with drugs rather than finding a way directly through it, both Wood and Chiburis said, is shown ultimately to be the way pain gets perpetuated and magnified.

“You have to go through the pain to allow the healing to happen,” Wood said.

While staging such an intense drama with local and contemporary importance is a demanding challenge, Wood, Chiburis and Michaelian see their main responsibility as bringing these tragic characters to life.

“We as artists put the least possible judgment on the story we’re telling,” Chiburis said.
Added Michaelian: “Our responsibility, most of all, is just to tell the story honestly.”

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