The canon is a problematic concept. Its attendant implications of an homogenous heritage and dominant cultural norms tend to legitimate only a fairly narrow field of experience. But there can be canons cultural and personal. My high school English class reading lists featured the occasional play, always Shakespeare or Miller. For the most part, I was on my own to explore the rich history of the form, sometimes latching onto famous titles and but open to anything that looked interesting. The core requirement as my personal canon formed was that a work resonated in such a way that it became essential to my understanding of the form, resulting in a list that encompassed everyone from Ibsen to Joe Orton and Christopher Durang. And of course, there were the plays that bridged between the personal and common canons. Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is an undisputed monument of American drama, but it was just another play when I first encountered it.
One of the most valuable services provided by a cultural canon is the expectation of a shared familiarity with a given body of works. Knowledge of a certain set of material provides a necessary basis for approaching new works. It would be impossible to pass judgment on where within the form a contemporary play about strained families falls without grounding in Long Day’s Journey. O’Neill is as essential to understanding works like Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County—laden as both plays are with concerns about parents, siblings, addiction, and secrets—as Howard’s End is to reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.
But there’s a more personal value to works of literature, too.
In some respect, it diminishes art to reduce it to utility, what practical end it achieves. But reading, while growing up (and still today), more than any assembly or guidance counselor, was the best preparation for life I could have asked for. In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, one of the teachers expresses his belief that literature’s greatest purpose is preparatory: that poems and books give us the tools necessary to deal with eventual sorrows and confusion and joy—an inoculation for the heart and mind. Or, as David Foster Wallace would have it: “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”
Long Day’s Journey has made it to the top strata of my personal literary canon—play or novel—because each time I return to it, it has more to offer on what it means to be a human being. With each visit, new focuses arise to catch my attention in O’Neill’s text. Of course there are the movie-of-the-week-esque themes: addiction, which O’Neill both reveals in harsh reality and heightens to a ghostly dimension, and its relation to personal pain. Topicality can certainly throw the play into new lights: to look in recent years at James Tyrone’s attachment to the solid investment of property adds to his stubbornness.
But most resonant are the nuanced family interactions. Brothers Jamie and Edmund share a tense and conflicted bond born of jealousy, guilt, concern and true affection. Their not enemies, but we’re shown the frays in their fraternal bond. In the past, the relationship I found most central was that between Jamie and his father. James Tyrone, a successful actor in his day, allows his disappointment in his wayfaring son to bleed into hostility and resentment. Jamie is equally disappointed in his own failures, but facing his father’s disapproval so harshly, becomes defensive and exacerbates the conflict between the two, dramatizing the conflict that arises between internalized and externalized expectations. But on more recent readings, I’ve become even more fascinated with the role reversals in progress during the play: Mary, the mother, becomes infantilized in her sons’ eyes as she dips deeper into her morphine haze; Jamie pushes Tyrone to deal head-on with Edmund’s illness, finding a place of authority in their relationship. This is a family in transition, the children stepping in to take over from their parents. There is plenty in the Tyrone family that I have yet to face in my life, but if the time comes, it’s reassuring to know that I’ll have received my shots.
O’Neill teaches us something about living through the complexity and humanity with which he imbues his characters. The confused mix of love, disgust, and concern the Tyrones feel for one another brings them to life, and somewhere beyond. I was lucky ot have discovered Long Day’s Journey early on; with a work this rich, I want as many chances to dig back in as I can get.