Eugene O'Neill on Page and Stage

Plays as "living" art forms.


Key Staff

Primary instructor

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique


Plays are "living" art forms, existing not only on the page, but in performance. Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night is a masterpiece of American theatre; the powerful words of the text take on even more weight and impact when performed. This lesson explores both the genius of O'Neill's work and the power of dramatizing it. This lesson may be used in conjunction with the Illusion and Reality in American Drama unit concerning Tennesee Williams and Eugene O'Neill.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Exercise oral play-reading skills.
  • Add range to their understanding of ways dramatic force is achieved through structural patterns, diction, tone quality, rhythms of syntax, and pace of dialogue.
  • Appreciate the value of the playwright’s stage performance directions.
  • Explore a playwright's craftsmanship in building characterization.
  • Experience growth in the writing process, skills of research, collaboration, oral presentation, contextual and comparative analysis.

Teaching Approach

  • Thematic
  • Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Discussion
  • Discovery Learning
  • Experiential Learning
  • Research
  • Reflection

Assessment Type



What You'll Need

Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should familiarize themselves with O’Neill’s work using these sources:

Prior Student Knowledge

  • Preferably, students will have already read Long Day's Journey into Night. If not, the instructor should provide them with context for the scenes studied.

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Theater or Stage


Small Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with visual impairments or disabilities may need modified handouts or texts.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Initiate the study of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Share with them the fact that Eugene O’Neill is considered by many to be America’s first "real" dramatist and finest playwright. Have students read the Bio - Eugene O'Neill handout located within the Resource Carousel, charting influences and highlights in his life. He was awarded four Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel Prize in literature—two of the highest honors an author can achieve.

Note that Long Day’s Journey into Night is a classic of American theatre. O'Neill was awarded his fourth Pulitzer Prize for the play (posthumously). Note that a 2003 revival of the play garnered seven Tony Award nominations and five Drama Circle Awards.

2. Ask for one or two volunteers to collect biographical information on Eugene O’Neill for class presentation. Point out to students that the base for the play they are about to read is very autobiographical.

3. Have students read the play's italicized exposition aloud in a large group format. Briefly review key details of the exposition, for instance: In what year does the play take place? What time of day is it when the play opens? How would you sum up the "aura" of the physical setting based on O’Neill’s careful delineation of floor plan and furnishings? What key observations does O’Neill make in profiling Mary and James Tyrone?

Build Knowledge

1. Divide the class into small groups. Assign the groups to read Act One silently and to work together to answer the Study Questions.

2. Explain to students that theatre is essentially a living art form, and that a play does not only exist as a text, but primarily as a performance piece. Ask students to share experiences that they have had with reading and viewing plays. How was the impact of the performance different from that of a silent reading?

3. Tell students that they will be performing an oral reading of Long Day’s Journey into Night (or portions of it). Ideally, have students cover the entire play in oral reading sessions. If time does not allow for a complete reading, assign the students to read Acts Two and Three as homework, using class time to flush out the structural movement and development of narrative in the two Acts, and to read aloud a few Suggested Passages for oral reading located within the Resource Carousel that illuminate key threads of the play.

4. Now that students have been exposed to the play on and "off" the page, begin an exploration of the work. Explain to students that they will first examine the play as a text, and later as a performed piece. First, have the students discuss the structure of the play. Note that its internal structure is a series of encounters, primarily between and among the four family members (the exception being a brief encounter between Edmund and Cathleen in Act Two, and a more sustained encounter between Mary and Cathleen in Act Three). It is through the interplay of conversations within these encounters that the audience becomes increasingly aware of the characters’ perceptions of their personal failures, their psychological mindset, and of the causes of breakdown in family relationships.

5. Have students discuss how, through the intensity of these conversations, the audience also becomes aware of the love each family member has for the other. Ask them whether they believe this love that transcends the words spoken and bitter accusations made in the conversations.

Note, also, that the “action” of the play takes place within one day, starting at 8:30 A.M. and ending around midnight. Share with students the fact that many of Eugene O’Neill’s scripts draw heavily from patterns of Ancient Greek tragedies. He uses real masks, for instance, in some of his dramas, and he built a play, Mourning Becomes Electra, using as a base the Oresteia cycle of Aeschylus. To underscore how Long Days Journey into Night reflects the influence of Ancient Greek tragedy on O’Neill’s work, consider reviewing (or introduce) background on Aristotle’s delineation of the Unities as governing rules of Greek tragedy.

6. To help students gain more insight into the intricacy of the structural patterns of the play, consider assigning a brief essay (of 3-5 paragraphs) on one of the following threads that run throughout the encounters. Have students identify where these threads appear and how they drive the plot forward or help us to understand the characters better. Call attention to the fact that each of these threads is infused in such a way that the four members of the family, in different alignments, participate either as speaker or listener in the discussion of them and that the threads are immersed in an interplay of illusions of the past and the "reality" of the present.

  • Mary’s marriage to James Tyrone; life "on the road" in "second-rate hotels"
  • James Tyrone’s "miserly" ways throughout their marriage
  • Mary’s days in the Convent
  • The promise of Jamie’s success versus his seeming failure in the present
  • Eugene’s early engagement in life versus his withdrawal
  • James Tyrone’s early ambitions (career; property) versus his epiphany of his part in the disintegration of his family
  • References to Ireland and the Irish
  • Jamie’s apparent "crusty shell" versus the revelation of his true feelings
  • Mary’s recurring obsession with images of the past as accumulating "symptoms" of her imminent breakdown


1. Tell students that they will now explore the process of characterization in O'Neill's play. Note that throughout Long Day’s Journey into Night, there are recurring images of another consciousness—an undefined essence of some kind of "other." In some speeches, the other seems related to a force outside of the self of the speaker. In some speeches, the other seems to be the intrinsic past self of the character or a consciousness in which the character is temporarily submerged.

2. Consider assigning students an essay in which they define the context in which one of the following images occurs and its implication in the building of characterization. Alternatively, assign a different image either to individual students or to pairs of students and have students (a) explicate the image within the context in which it is embedded, and (b) explaining the relationship of the image to characterization, narrative, and theme.

Suggested images:

  • Fog
  • The sea
  • Ghosts of the past
  • The Convent
  • Blessed Virgin Mary
  • The wedding dress

3. Tell the students that they will now study the impact of staging certain portions of the play. Prepare two copies of an excerpt (or excerpts) from the play. One copy should have the stage directions blacked out; the other should be left intact.

Distribute a blacked-out version of the excerpt to one of the groups. Ask participants to perform the excerpt, delivering the lines the way they think the lines should be delivered. Such aspects as tone quality, inflections in syntax, and body language should be based strictly on personal interpretation of the content of the lines.

Next, distribute the original version of the excerpt to the group. Ask participants to study O’Neill’s stage directions on the second copy carefully, and to try to follow these directions as closely as possible in acting out the vignette. Repeat the exercise with other groups of students.

4. Initiate a discussion with the audience about whether or not they saw any measurable differences in the performances of the excerpts. Ask for specific explanation of any recognized differences and for comment on whether the meaning of lines or passages was affected in any way by modifications in delivery.


1. Have students discuss the differences between experiencing O'Neill's play on the page and in performance. How was the play enhanced (or diminished) by their textual analysis? How was it enhanced or diminished by their in-class performances? Ask students to think about how they might respond to a full-scale performance of the play.


1. Assess the students based upon the following criteria:

  • Level of discernment in contributions from research and to collaborative work
  • Substantive contributions to class discussion and special projects
  • Range and depth in analysis
  • Evidence of creative thinking
  • Thoughtful response in pre-writing, pre-discussion “brainstorming” activities
  • Seriousness of purpose in following through on writing assignments
  • Solid preparation for performance activities
  • Alignment of written performance with good practices of the writing process
  • General level of engagement in all activities and assignments

Extend the Learning

A challenging topic for a formal essay assignment could be explicating the title, Long Day’s Journey into Night. In defining out the metaphorical qualities of the title, especially the images of “day” in relation to night, students could be expected to draw specific evidence from the development of the play to clarify how the title sustains as a “third-dimensional” structural force throughout the development of the play.


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Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

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