Religious Authoritarianism and Spiritual Anti-authoritarianism in Tyrone Family

Freedom [is] in the being of speech through the presence of the self to the other.
Julia Kristeva

O’Neill wanted to avoid the melodramatic excesses… He wanted to develop what he called ‘behind life’ drama, drama that is generated by values (largely psychological…) rather than by incident. This attempt may account for… an emphasis on metaphorical function of stage sets… The ‘behind life’ quality… is best realized in distorted images.
R. Moorton (Ed.), “Eugene O’Neill’s Century”, 1991, p. 74
Jamie gives story about sensitivity and compassion in the brothel.

The sun of the fog: silver (through the fog) sun – that’s how Lumet introduces the world of the characters to the film’s viewers. The fog, the basic metaphor of LDJN – separates James, Mary, Jamie and Edmund from the world and from each other, and yet unites them in their awareness of being similar in their separateness. It is as if at this point of unconscious/informal family ideology of Tyrones – the very democratic psychology is born, a democratic combination of individualism and mutual respect that opens the avenue for mutuality and communication. It is this democratism of communication when togetherness is mediated by individual perspectives, is capable to gently but firmly oppose the traditional spirituality (the members of Tyrone family are born of) with its moral perfectionism, moralistic scapegoating and general personalization of all the problems leading to excess of guilt and shame (when real understanding is impossible and only grief and demonization of otherness and dissimilarity are available to scratch and sooth the existential wounds).

It is still morning, and Mary and James try very hard to start the day on a positive and cheerful note.

But the truth of Mary’s morphine addiction breaks through the neat façade of their relationships, and only mutual recriminations are left for old married couple to address their pain and disappointments.

In this still we see Mary’s archetypal pose in life – feeling abandoned by her husband (with his previous job in the theater and his bohemian friends) and sons – alone with her self-reproaches.

Mary knows that her younger son is seriously ill, and she is not only absurdly blaming herself for his illness but simultaneously, unconsciously using her grief as an excuse and justification for taking morphine.

Mary knows that Edmund got Consumption but she irrationally forbids him to say it (as if pronouncing the truth will make him doomed), and in the moment when fear for himself makes him weak and feel desperately dependent, he forces her to hear that he is ill.

For Mary, as for a mother it’s unbearable to feel that she is not a perfect parent in her son’s (and her own) eyes. She tries to stop Edmund’s questions about her condition (she knows that he considers her addiction as her betrayal of him, his brother and their father).

In certain moments she cannot control her fury created by unbearable guilt.

Edmund asks for his mother’s forgiveness for childishly accusing her for being not compassionate enough.

James and his two sons, both still materially dependent on him, jokingly “negotiate” who deserves an extra-drink and who is not.

Jamie like his mother is permanently self-reproachful. In his case the reason for his “moral guilt” is different from hers. He hates human hypocrisy and dishonesty and a preference for pleasant falsities and naïve albeit tricky fabrications instead of objective truth. But because for people it is not easy to hear from him the truth he feels bad that he often forces the truth on them.

Edmund and his father sometimes have long night conversations with tough moments of categorical disagreements and gracious moments of mutual empathy and reconciliation.

In this shot, Edmund who personifies in O’Neill’s play and Lumet’s film the poetic/mystical sensibility, is philosophizing about his spiritual identity. If today’s young people could think and talk as elegantly and penetratingly about their existential problems…

Edmund doesn’t know what to do to help his mother to stop taking morphine. But he doesn’t really understand why she needs this drug.

Edmund contemplates his destiny and the world’s future.

Mary in front of her husband and sons is giving herself to morphine induced delirium.

Eugene O’Neill (1888 – 1953), the author of the play Lumet’s film is based on.

Sidney Lumet (1924 – 2011)


People who are “chosen” – provided with double affliction: emotional sensitivity and an intelligent mind, have problem with life – with human body, relationships with other people (and how life is organized in human society), with everything our nature and social conventions program us to look for – physical survival, satisfaction of amorous and sexual needs, higher place in the social hierarchy, the ordeals of parenting, a power and wealth, confrontation with power of others and with our own mortality and death. For such people who problematize everything (like the characters of “Long Day’s…” – LDJN), traditional spirituality is not protective idol (with claws of dogmatic beliefs), in multicolored shadow of which regular people feel encouraged and reinforced in their determination to fight with rivals, enemies and people’s and world’s otherness. But in people afflicted by the sensitivity for the problematic, traditional spirituality is a way to contact the mystery that invites them to get closer yet at the same time lets them maintain their freedom. For Mary Tyrone, the heroine of LDJN, this mystery of otherness of the world is perceived through the existential metaphor of the fog, amidst which she can stop to see herself “just living” in all imperfection of her life with its shame, guilt and pain. Mary wasn’t able to protect her second son who died in infancy. She is not able to help her grown-up sons to become successful and happy, and to prevent dangerous illness of one of them. And, on top of this, her relations with her husband, romantic and passionate at first, upon meeting real life produced bruises and wounds that become chronic with age.

All the members of the family O’Neill and Lumet represent in “Long Day’s…” are in a permanent confessional dialogue with one another, a dialogue that in today’s life is almost completely absent between Americans and more and more so between Europeans. Today’s mutuality is based on points of similarity which excite friendliness, not on the discovery of otherness that stimulates empathy, thinking and imagination. People more and more feel happy to find commonalities and are repelled from one another by dissimilarities. According to Julia Kristeva, linguist and psychoanalyst, the fact that today’s culture of fight for success and compensatory consumerism (of goods, services and entertaining and massaging images) puts aside the value of introspection and mutual communication of introspective and empathic experiences, has devastating consequences for human ability to live with other people and creates a climate of suspicion, hate, greed, frustration, endless wars and destruction. She is talking about a kind of freedom that is forgotten by our culture orienting us on economic power, scientific control and external victories – “Another concept of freedom favors being, and especially singular being, versus economic and scientific necessity.” (J. Kristeva, “Intimate Revolt: The Powers and Limits of Psychoanalysis”, Vol. 2, Columbia, 2002, p. 264), and about civilizing and peace-orienting role of confessional speech – “… freedom [is] in the being of speech through the presence of the self to the other… this liberation of the being of speech [inscribes] freedom within the essence of philosophy as endless questioning.” (L. Kristeva, ibid, p. 263). The reason this style of mutual confessions is absent today is that the pervading mass cultural atmosphere contradicts this style (to consume is much more pleasant than to confess, and to cheer a baseball star is more pleasant than to analyze yourself and your interlocutor), to this we can add a stressful environment.

Commercial fiction and cinema use psychological mechanism of positive and negative identification of the viewers with the characters or protagonists. Filmmakers have to either reduce/smoothen or, conversely, in a caricatured way exaggerate otherness/dissimilarity between personages and the audience because in otherness lies the origin of “boredom”, suspicion and eventually loss of popularity of the work of art. But Lumet allows himself to base his film on the psychological uniqueness of his characters that makes it more difficult for the viewers to identify with them (without the immediately detected similarity that serves as a narcissistic bridge between the audience and the protagonists and is good for the box office).

James Tyrone, the father of the family, is not a religious dogmatic. For him god is Shakespeare and church is classic theater. Nevertheless his authoritarian posture towards the world, his proclivity to assess and judge people according to almost a priori standards, and the irrational need to unconsciously disavow truths about himself, other people and historical events and come up with endless alibis and justifications for innocent not even lies but examples of bad faith (to make life correspond to his beliefs/axioms) – all this discloses him as a traditional authoritarian personality although softened by his experience of being exposed to aesthetic grace of art enveloping his disappointments in life by the makeup of artistic beauty. James personifies the dogmatic side of religious psychology that is already displaced (and at the same time prolonged) by secular culture (to settle there not less solidly than it did in religion).

Mary Tyrone personifies the martyrdom facet of religious psychology. Mary feels shame and guilt for her inability to make her children live up to the standards of perfection formulated/established by the religious tradition. She feels so humiliated by her failure as a mother and as a woman that she can no longer pray to God or to Christ. She is passionately praying only to Virgin Mary who for Mary Tyrone represents the spiritual alternative to human life. “…Mary does want what none of us can really have; a second chance, a truly new beginning by making what has happened undone. Mary seeks to regain herself as she was before she lost her innocence, before she married Tyrone and set into motion the events that followed her marriage…” (R. Moorton, ibid, p. 139) Martyrdom through psycho-somatic pain – tactile distancing from the body and worshiping virginity are Mary’s creative “solutions” of the problem of her human destiny, protection against her drastic “failures” according to the rigid codes of religious idealism – “Psychological defenses are specific unconscious or semi-conscious patterns of behavior used to avoid internal or external threat. They are universal modes of dealing with anxiety and are intrinsic to personality and character.” (John Stroupe [Ed.], “Critical Approaches to O’Neill”, AMS, 1988, p. 170)

Jamie and Edmund personify the alternatives to religious psychology (its rebellious progeny trying to liberate itself from its influence). Jamie with his sharp critical mind, observant empathy and the ability to look at himself objectively (without disavowing the truth about his real motivations) represents the intellectual aspect of existential spirituality. Edmund with his poetic interests, literary talent and mystical bent represents its artistic aspect.

Like James when he meets an unpleasant reality starts to retreat into a protective modality of declamation (as if he is on the stage), Mary traumatized by the truth of an aging body and deteriorated relations with her husband (with whom she exchanges endless accusations about the past), tries to psychologically deny it through her very pain (somatization of the truth) and dreams about her convent days (free from profane life of human body) or the beauty of her wedding gown, and then taking morphine helps her to feel herself in a blissful prelapsarian condition. But in spite of her prejudicial perception of the reality of life (created in her by traditional concept of spirituality as being above-life), by separating from her sons into a delirium instigated by over-dosing on morphine, she, paradoxically, realizes her love for them. “Possessiveness can be selfish and kill, and possessiveness relates particularly to woman, as in the widespread mythological symbol of the impersonal, possessive, unwittingly selfish Great Mother, whose children are for her not persons but possessions that she consumes or smothers (envelops to the point of death)… But a psychologically sound woman knows how to relinquish, to let her natural protectiveness open into freedom for those she protects…” (Walter Ong, “Fighting for Life [Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness]”, Cornell, 1989, p. 100) By retreating farther into her delirium where past, present and the future are mixed in metaphysical eternity, Mary tries to liberate her sons from permanent agonizing worry about her drug-addiction, liberate them into surrendering her to her illness. O’Neill and Lumet emphasize that existential spirituality in all its health can act through neurotic and even through psychotic mechanisms. Mary Tyrone’s morbid addiction tells us about her refusal to sacrifice her children to a life that, according to her, is too predatory, indifferent and anti-Christian. In this she is different from Christ’s mother and, may be, even ahead in her not-resolvable suffering for the destiny of her children.

Special attention Lumet dedicates to the question of family members’ collective pathology of denying the truths and accusing each other in being carriers of lies. “The family…deals with internal tensions by denying their existence… This family tautology, together with work needed to maintain it, is a feature of the family held together by the narcissistic way of life.” (Christopher Lasch, “The Culture of Narcissism [American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectation]”, W.W.Norton, 1991, p. 172) The truth (examples of truths that are denied and disavowed are Mary’s drug addiction and Edmund’s Consumption) at first just bluntly denied, but it’s not enough to deny it to get rid of it because the family members know the truth perfectly well. So, it’s then projected (banished) into the “bad/evil person” (in Tyrone family it is usually Jamie who tries to defend the truth), and then through chastising him as a liar the truth is buried – mutilated and unrecognized. We remember this logical pathology of anti-truth psychological maneuverings in Bush Junior administration’s attempt to justify its decision to invade Iraq. The result is intellectual youth-abuse of unimaginable proportions when near one hundred percents of our soldiers who served in Iraq (and more than hundred thousand stationed there today) are made participants in a collective delirium that war in Iraq and continuation of staying there are absolutely necessary for defending our country from the enemies.

Edmund, Mary’s younger son, shares her love for the fog although their perception of the fog as a symbol is different. “…elder Tyrone tells his son Edmund that he has the ‘making of a poet’, Edmund replies that he hasn’t even the makings. ‘I just stammered. That’s the best I’ll ever do… stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people’… the inarticulate child of fog speaks with his native eloquence… The fog was O’Neill’s first and last symbol of man’s inability to know himself, or other men, or his destiny… whenever searchers seek for meaning and identity, approach the truth about themselves they must run away, back to the fog, where, alone, they can ‘belong’. Mary tells her son ‘…I really love fog… it hides you from the world and the world from you… It is the foghorn I hate. It won’t let you alone. It keeps reminding you, and warning you, and calling you back’. Edmund too longs for that mysterious region where self was lost… He goes for a walk in the fog because ‘The fog was where I wanted to be… Everything looked and sounded unreal. Nothing was what it is.’” (Doris V. Falk, “Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension: An Interpretative Study of the Plays”, Rutgers, 1958, p. 181) If for Mary fog is a metaphor of the traditionally spiritual salvation from the world, for Edmund it is the image of spiritual cradle – the origin of his inspiration and creativity. Traditional spirituality is simultaneously spiritual inspiration and hiding from it, opening yourself to the mystery of otherness of the world and retreating from the encounter with this mystery. If to consider that Edmund is a personification of O’Neill in young age, he is only partially belongs to traditional spirituality to fully reach existential spirituality later.

Lumet’s unique scope of spiritual sensitivity that opened him to the experience of traditional spirituality as power, Christianity with its humanistic potential to be a transitory step towards existential spirituality, and this last one (spirituality of living with mortality), puts him in a unique position to grasp O’Neill’s aspirations, and his own spiritual potentials.
Jamie doesn’t want to have an impeccable reputation
Wisdom of a positively negative frankness

Questions to help viewers in further study of the film

1.How can we compare the atmosphere of human togetherness in the Tyrone family with the atmosphere in a typical American family today, after hundred years of “historical development” of our country?

“…mind is neither brain, nor self, nor language, but the person’s ability to have a conversation with himself – the self acting as both speaker and listener – the “I” and the “me” speaking and listening to one another. When we talk to ourselves while sleep, we are dreaming. When we talk to ourselves while awake – in ways permitted in our society – we are thinking or praying. And when we talk to ourselves while awake – in ways prohibited in our society – we are (said to be) crazy… Conscience is a particular kind of self-conversation, the self’s inner dialogue concerning the goodness or badness of its own conduct. How does our conscience – that is, how do we – know how to do this? The same way we know everything else, namely, by learning… Although equating mind with brain implies a denial of the distinctively human activities called ‘minding’, ‘talking to oneself’, and ‘being responsible’, many experts now support this view.” (Thomas Szasz, “The meaning of Mind: Language, Morality, and Neuroscience”, Praeger, 1996, p. 2, 28, 75)

2. Can we say that passionate (and expressing care about each other) dialogues of O’Neill/ Lumet’s characters are dedicated to finding the truth of their identities and relationships, but simultaneously… hide this truth? Why these dialogues have this double intention?

3. What in the film is symbolized by Mary Tyrone’s morphine addiction?

4. What is the fog a metaphor of in the film?

5. Why Mary does not pray to God-father or Jesus but only to Virgin Mary?

6. How does Mary’s growing withdrawal from human world reflect religious mythology?

7. Can we state that James Tyrone’s position toward Shakespeare is essentially religious, that he treats Shakespearean texts as a believer treats Bible?

8. Why Mary slaps Edmund when he tells her the truth about his illness?

9. What is the meaning of the fact that neither Jamie not Edmund married or at least think about getting married?

10. Can today’s idea of speedy correction of the “family problems” including divorce, superficial counseling or prescription drugs, which tries to eliminate the problem instead of solving it, is exactly what Tyrone family is so lucky to avoid?

11. What is Mary’s the most basic problem as a religious person?

12. How can we qualify the four characters of the film as the personifications of different aspects of spiritual experience?

13. Can we call Mary’s tendency to mix (under the influence of morphine) her memories, actual life and future – an escape (from life, history, sociality, otherness, the unknown) into Static Eternity as a radical psychological defense?

14. How can we characterize the difference in the very religiosity between Mary and James? Is his model of perfection more ritualistic, aesthetic and sociomorphic?

15. How does Mary Tyrone unconsciously try to help her sons even while regressing into delirium?

16. Can we find similarity between “sensitive” and intellectually developed male characters – Jamie and Edmund, and “brutes” – Hank from “The Night of Iguana” (NI) and Stanley Kowalski from “A Streetcar Named Desire” (SND)?

17. What is the basic difference between how members of Tyrone family behave in relation to each other and other people and how Stanley treats other characters in SND? What is the difference between democratic and totalitarian codes of mutuality?

18. What is so peculiar in how Jamie and Edmund react on their mother’s drug addiction?

19. Why Jamie and Edmund are so ambivalent about their father?

20. How can we characterize the four characters’ of “Long Day’s…” use of language in comparison with how Ms. Fellowes in NI or Stanley Kowalski in SND talk?

21. What is the difference between Mary Tyrone’s drug addiction and the addiction to prescription or illegal drugs in young people today?

22. In what sense Mary Tyrone’s position towards her sons is radically different from the position of Saint Mary towards her Son? Is this difference connected with Mary Tyrone’s drug addiction?

Posted on Nov, 2 2014 – Acting-Out Politics Weblog opens discussion about the psychology of Bushmerican style of behavior.