2015-2016 Season

James Tyrone: The Old Man

Posted on: June 18th, 2016 by Jason Jacobs


“He is by nature and preference a simple, unpretentious man, whose inclinations are still close to his humble beginnings and his Irish farmer forebears. But the actor shows in all his unconscious habits of speech, movement and gesture. These have the quality of belonging to a studied technique.” (From O’Neill’s description of the character James Tyrone)

Biographer Barbara Gelb has called the role of James Tyrone “O'Neill's Lear,” because of the actions and emotions it challenges an actor to perform. While strong paternal figures loom heavily in many of O’Neill’s plays, his robust characterization of Tyrone stands apart as his most powerful statement about his father, James O’Neill, and their complicated relationship.

Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)


Although he became a successful American actor, James O'Neill lived his entire life haunted by a fear of poverty. Uncertainty remains about his actual birthdate, because he was vague in talking about his past; he was probably born on October 15th of 1845, in County Kilkenny, during the worst of the Irish potato blight. His father, Edmund, was a poor tenant farmer whose wife, Mary, was 17 years his junior. The family had five daughters and three sons, of which James was the youngest.

The O’Neills made a difficult sea voyage to America, arriving in Buffalo, New York when James was six. Like most Irish immigrants, they confronted prejudice and disdain and could find only the lowest paying jobs. Edmund became a dock worker. After five years and the death of oldest son Richard, Edmund abandoned his family and returned to Ireland, where he died in 1862. Ten-year-old James went to work in a machine shop to help support the family. As he watched friends and neighbors move to the poor house, James’s fear of poverty grew.

His older sister, Josephine, was determined to improve conditions for her family. She married a successful businessman and moved to Cincinnati, taking 16-year-old James along. Her husband gave James a position selling military uniforms in his store and hired a private tutor to educate him. Like many success stories, James O’Neill rose as a result of hard work and some good luck.

His theatre career began in 1867, when, responding to a friend’s dare, he took a job as an extra in a play. He quickly discovered an inclination for acting, and the stage manager recognized his talent. Over the next decade James apprenticed with some of the great actors of the age: Edwin Forrest, Joseph Jefferson, and Edwin Booth. He developed his craft, overcame his Irish brogue, and memorized over 50 roles—including most of Shakespeare’s heroes. His talent, good looks, and charm earned him the respect of his peers and popularity with audiences.

James was well-liked by women, both onstage and off. One actress recalled, "When played with other Romeos, I thought they would climb up the trellis to the balcony; but when I played with Jimmy O'Neill, I wanted to climb down the trellis, into his arms." Fifteen-year-old Ella Quinlan, the daughter of a Cleveland businessman, caught James’s eye. Two years later, they met again in New York and a long courtship followed. Against her mother’s wishes, she married James in 1877. By this time, he had become a leading man in a theatre company, earning an impressive $195 a week. Their newlywed happiness was soon jeopardized when Nettie Welsh, a former lover, brought a lawsuit claiming that James had already married her and fathered a 3-year-old son. Welsh lost the case due to insufficient evidence, but the scandal hurt the marriage—even as it helped James’s box office appeal. James and Ella had three children: James Jr., Edmund (who died of the measles as a toddler), and Eugene, born in 1888. Despite Ella’s dislike of the theatrical lifestyle and her long struggle with addiction, James remained a devoted and faithful husband.

In 1883, James first played Edmond Dantes in the melodrama The Count of Monte Cristo, based on Alexandre Dumas’ novel. Over the next 30 years, he performed the role over 6,000 times and earned more than $800,000 —a fortune for a man who started as a penniless immigrant. But it became a Faustian bargain: he had sold out artistic aspiration in exchange for financial security and felt trapped by the role. Still, he played Dantes until the production finally closed down in 1916. In 1920, with his self esteem broken and his spirit destroyed, James O’Neill died of intestinal cancer.

Long Day's Journey into Night is now playing at The American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Long Day's Journey Into Night

No Comments

Mary Tyrone: A Shy Convent-Girl

Posted on: June 15th, 2016 by Leah Reddy


But some day, dear, I will find it again—some day when you're all well, and I see you healthy and happy and successful, and I don't have to feel guilty any more—some day when the Blessed Virgin Mary forgives me and gives me back the faith in Her love and pity I used to have in my convent days, and I can pray to Her again when She sees no one in the world can believe in me even for a moment any more, then She will believe in me, and with Her help it will be so easy. I will hear myself scream with agony, and at the same time I will laugh because I will be so sure of myself.—Mary Tyrone

Jessica Lange as Mary Tyrone in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Jessica Lange as Mary Tyrone in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

Eugene O’Neill used the character of Mary Cavan Tyrone to work through the ideologies and choices that shaped the life of his own mother, Mary Ellen “Ella” Quinlan O’Neill. The two--woman and character--share a devout Catholic upbringing, marriage to a traveling actor, and an addiction to morphine. While O’Neill made changes to the details of his mother’s life to serve the play, it’s clear that the soul of Mary Tyrone’s journey is rooted in Ella O’Neill’s life experience.

O’Neill describes Mary Tyrone in the summer of 1912 just as his mother was then: 54 years old, medium height, with a striking face. “Her nose is long and straight, her mouth wide with full, sensitive lips….Her dark brown eyes appear black. They are unusually large and beautiful, with black browns and long curling lashes.”

Ella O’Neill was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on August 13, 1857. Like Mary Tyrone, whose voice has “a touch of Irish lilt in it,” both of Ella’s parents were Irish Catholic immigrants. She was raised in St. Brigid’s Parish on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio. Her father’s success in business--an achievement for an immigrant in an era of anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiment--allowed him to send Ella to private schools, first to Ursuline Academy near her parents’ home. The school was run by Ursuline nuns, an order that focuses almost exclusively on the education of girls and places a high value on individual spiritual and academic development and “the primacy of Hope...learning to trust in the Providence of God and the promise of a better tomorrow.” There, young Ella would have attended mass, confession, novenas, benedictions, and adoration in the convent chapel, passing hours staring at a painting of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child that hung in the sanctuary. She learned the difference between mortal and venial sins and developed a strong awareness of her own transgressions.

From Ursuline Academy, Ella was sent to the Convent of St. Mary in Notre Dame, Indiana. It was here that Ella, under the tutelage of Mother Elizabeth, developed as a pianist, exactly as Mary Tyrone describes. O’Neill even retains Mother Elizabeth’s name. School was, for both Ella and Mary, a happy time when faith and life were integrated and their creative talents nurtured.

It’s at this point that Ella’s biography diverges from Mary Tyrone’s backstory. In 1874, just prior to her graduation, Ella’s father died of tuberculosis aggravated by alcoholism, a habit he took up after his diagnosis. He left the family quite well off, and young Ella persuaded her mother to accompany her to New York to continue her music studies. It was there that she was re-introduced to James O’Neill, an actor and casual friend of her father’s that she first met as a teenager in Cleveland. At the time of their marriage in 1877, Ella was twenty years old and had lived through her father’s traumatic death. She was not the girl described in the play: a giddy, spoiled convent girl with a father who buys her everything she wants. But like Ella, Mary’s father died of tuberculosis.

Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

After marriage, Ella’s story converges with Mary’s. Both struggled with life as the wife of a traveling actor. Mary describes “one-night stands, cheap hotels, dirty trains, bearing children, never having a home.” In an era when middle and upper class women were defined by their ability to create a pleasant home for their family, Mary feels that she’s failed at her most important duty.

Ella gave birth to her first son, James, in 1878 and a second son five years later, just as Mary Tyrone does in the play. (In the play, the Tyrone sons are, in birth order, James, Eugene, and Edmund; in reality, Ella O’Neill’s sons were James, Edmund, and Eugene.) When her sons were seven and two, Ella left them in the care of her mother and joined her husband on the road. While she was away, Jamie, the eldest, contracted measles, and, despite being warned not to, snuck into his brother Edmund’s room. Edmund caught measles and died before Ella could reach him.

Mary Tyrone relates the same story, making it clear that she blames the baby’s death on Jamie. “I’ve always believed Jamie did it on purpose. He was jealous of the baby.” While a viewer might interpret Mary’s bitterness as a byproduct of grief, she was likely raised to regard seven as “the age of reason,” the age at which a child is developed enough to understand and receive the sacraments of confession and Holy Communion. He was old enough to be held spiritually responsible for his actions. At the same time, she feels deep guilt for having left her child. She feels that she’s committed a mortal sin and would have been raised to believe that she’s no longer in a state of grace, deprived of her inner connection to God.

Six years later, despite vowing not to have more children, Ella gave birth to her third son, Eugene. The birth was difficult, and she was given morphine for the resulting pain. This wasn’t unusual at the time. Doctors had limited options for treating pain, and the prevailing belief that women were more delicate, and more sensitive to nervous upset, lead to widespread prescription of opiates for all gynecological ailments. In 1879 the president of the American Gynecological Society recommended that physicians teach women suffering menstrual pain to become “opiumeaters.” Opiate-based over-the-counter remedies (including “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup,” used to calm fussy infants) were legal and widely available. There was nothing illegal or furtive about acquiring opiates during the early years of Ella’s addiction. Opiate addiction was seen sympathetically, as an unfortunate disease of upper and middle class women.

By 1912, the year the play takes place, there had been a shift in public perception of opiate use. Doctors became aware of the hazards of the drug. More importantly, sensationalized newspaper coverage of white slavery in Chinese opium dens and poor, minority criminal addicts lead to a legislative push to restrict and criminalize narcotic use. It was at this point in time that many women addicts, including Ella and her fictional counterpart, finally sought treatment. Though in the play we leave Mary Tyrone on that same August day in 1912, her final monologue foreshadows Ella’s own recovery from addiction. In 1914, Ella again entered treatment, possibly with the assistance of nuns, and successfully overcame her habit. She died of cancer in 1922.

Long Day's Journey into Night is now playing at The American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Long Day's Journey Into Night

No Comments

Jamie Tyrone: That Drunken Loafer

Posted on: June 7th, 2016 by Olivia O'Connor


John Gallagher, Jr. and Michael Shannon in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

John Gallagher, Jr. and Michael Shannon
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

James O’Neill, Jr., the real-life counterpart of Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s Jamie Tyrone, was born in San Francisco in 1878 at an unusually stable—or at least stationary—period in his parents’ lives. James and Ella O’Neill, always at the mercy of James’s schedule as a touring actor, rarely stayed in the same place for long; their two years in San Francisco marked a relaxation of their usually breathless pace. James Jr. was born in the house of one of the couple’s friends, making him the only O’Neill child to be born in a home, rather than a hotel. But San Francisco was not to last; James and Ella went back on the road in James Jr.’s infancy. San Francisco receded, and James Jr., or Jamie, became a constant fixture of his parents’ constantly shifting life.

The O’Neills’ itinerant lives resulted in an endless string of close quarters. Years of hotel-room living created a tight bond between Jamie, an only child, and his parents—particularly his mother. Much later in life, at forty, Jamie wrote a letter to a friend in which he recalled relishing the smell of his mother’s perfumed bathwater. He would sometimes sneak into her bathroom to dip his hands into the sweet-smelling water before it drained. This near-Oedipal closeness has come to color one of the seminal events of the O’Neill family: the death of Edmund O’Neill, James Jr.’s first brother, born in 1883. James Jr. resented his baby brother’s arrival in the way that many older siblings do; the sudden shift in family dynamics—especially for a child accustomed to the solitary intimacy of traveling life—was difficult to bear. But though Jamie’s resentment wasn’t extraordinary, its outcome—or perceived outcome—was uniquely horrific.

In the winter of 1885, Edmund and Jamie were left in the care of their grandmother and a nurse so that Ella could join James Sr. on the Denver leg of his The Count of Monte Cristo tour. Seven-year-old Jamie contracted measles while his parents were away, and despite orders not to come near his younger brother, he evaded his grandmother’s eye and came into the toddler’s room, exposing nearly-two-year-old Edmund to the disease. Ella immediately bought a train ticket west; James stayed behind to fulfill his nightly obligation to Edmond Dantès. Before Ella could catch her train, she received a telegram informing her that Edmund had died. Blame for the incident floated around the family for years, haunting the O’Neills just as it does the Tyrones in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

Ella sometimes blamed herself for leaving, sometimes her mother for being negligent. Most devastatingly, she also blamed Jamie himself (as she does in Long Day’s Journey), believing he may have infected his young brother on purpose, out of jealousy. Whether or not Jamie intended to harm his brother, the death haunted Jamie for the rest of his life—not least because of his mother’s reaction. Eugene O’Neill, for his part, seemed conflicted about his brother’s role in Edmund’s death; in notes O’Neill wrote for a psychologist on the incident, he said Jamie had "unconsciously(?)" played a role. In an early draft of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a drunk Jamie made a speech admitting to infecting his brother intentionally; in subsequent drafts, the monologue was cut.

The death of Edmund kicked off a radical shift in Jamie’s young life. He was sent to a Roman Catholic boarding school in Indiana, a rather lonely destination for a seven-year-old boy. But he excelled both academically and socially, winning scholastic awards, acting in plays, playing shortstop on the baseball team, and becoming a favorite of classmates and teachers alike. By the time his second brother Eugene was born in 1888, newly independent Jamie no longer feared losing his prime spot in his parents’ lives. But his confidence gave way in his early teens, when, while on a break from school, he walked in on Ella giving herself a morphine injection.

Again, bearing witness to his mother’s fragility had a profound effect on Jamie. He blamed his father for his mother’s addiction—the beginning of a familial rift that we see entrenched in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. And once he returned to school, his focus shifted. While his grades remained mostly high, he began to act out, prompting his father to write a letter to the school president in which he offered assurance that "If [Jamie] can be kept well in hand for the next two years I am sure he will make a good man." But James Sr. wasn’t entirely hopeful. The letter continued, "On the other hand there is a possible chance of his going to the dogs."

James Sr.’s latter prediction unfortunately hit close to the truth. Jamie left his Indiana boarding school at the age of sixteen and spent the next two years at Georgetown Preparatory School in DC and St. John’s Preparatory School in the Bronx. His behavior continued to raise eyebrows. In his last year of college at St. John’s University, his risk-taking came to a head in an event that combined two of his favorite vices. On a bet, he invited a prostitute to campus, claiming that she was his sister. He was expelled with six months to go till graduation.

John Gallagher, Jr., Michael Shannon, Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

John Gallagher, Jr., Michael Shannon, Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

A few years later, after a few stabs at other careers, Jamie ultimately came around to trying his father’s profession—acting. He had the looks, the voice, and the charm for the job—but not the discipline. While he wasn’t the lazy lout James Sr. often accuses him of being in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (he actually worked quite steadily at his father’s company for a number of years), he was hardly a model performer. He often appeared onstage drunk and had a habit of inviting local prostitutes to watch his performances on the road.

Though he was mentioned in the same breath with his father in press clippings (and took advantage of the tony clubs and dining halls offered to the celebrated older actor), he never earned much respect from critics and only continued to lose respect from his father. Regardless of what talent he may have had, he did next to nothing to cultivate it, saying he’d been "forced" to participate in his father’s, rather than his own, dream. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Jamie acknowledges a jealousy towards his younger brother’s potential, and indeed, the real Jamie may have resented Eugene O’Neill’s success in writing. After all, Jamie had been the family intellectual as a child. As an adult, he held a dream of becoming a newspaperman that was never to pass—but which Eugene saw realized in his own life.

By the time Jamie was 36, he and his father continued to tour together but were barely speaking. By the time he was 38, his acting career was over. But a brief bright spot was on the horizon. After his father’s death in 1920, James recommitted himself to his widowed mother’s care. At her urging—and inspired by her recovery from opioid addiction—he even stopped drinking, halting what had seemed an inevitable progression of alcoholism.

But this period of lightness—in which Jamie was free from the denigration of his father and willingly bound to dote on his mother—was not to last. In 1922, sober for nearly a year and a half, Jamie accompanied his mother on a trip to California to look into one of James Sr.’s real estate investments (in Long Day’s Journey, Tyrone’s sons –particularly Jamie—ridicule him for his poor and insatiable taste for property). While in California, Ella, suffering from a brain tumor, became ill and fell into a coma. Jamie, always susceptible to despair at his mother’s poor health, was distraught and began drinking almost immediately. In his own account of the event, he believed that Ella had woken up from her coma momentarily and had seen that he’d returned to the bottle. He believed she then "was glad to die" and left the world disappointed in her first son’s weakness.

Jamie accompanied his mother’s body back home to the east coast for interment. His train ride across the country with his mother’s coffin, immortalized in A Moon for the Misbegotten, was another tragically defining episode in Jamie’s life. He drank continuously (one of the nurses who had cared for his mother reported that he carried ten bottles of whiskey onto the train), cementing his slide back into alcoholism, and he hired a prostitute for the duration of the trip; they spent the journey locked in his compartment. When he arrived back east, he was barely conscious, and he was too drunk to attend even his mother’s burial. He didn’t stop drinking.

In February 1923, Eugene sent a detached telegram to the family’s lawyer to warn him of his brother’s behavior, writing, "The people who have been taking care of Jim in Darien phoned me[.] He has broken loose again is on way to New London [sic] after most disgraceful scene in theatre Stamford last night[.] Will be arrested there if he returns[.] Any measures however drastic you see fit to take to restrain him in New London [sic] will have my full approval." When Jamie was finally forced into a sanitorium, Eugene refused to visit him, though a friend, writing in July of 1923, said Jamie had "expressed a great desire to see" his brother. In the same letter, the friend laid out a horrible picture of Jamie’s health, saying, "He is very thin, pale, trembles a great deal and of course very weak. He cannot read or write so he asked me to write for him." Four months later, Jamie died without reconciling with Eugene. He was 45.

In A Moon for the Misbegotten, we meet James Tyrone, Jr. twelve years after the events of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Many scholars and biographers see the play as an exercise in wish fulfillment for Eugene O’Neill. The character of James finds absolution in his relationship with Josie; a comfort that the real-life Jamie was never afforded. Though the fictional James seems to be headed to the same death as his true counterpart, he does so with a lighter heart.

Long Day's Journey into Night is now playing at The American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Long Day's Journey Into Night

No Comments