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O'Neill opens up the play with a whole host of stage directions describing the living room of the Tyrone summer home in August, 1912:
There are two doors off the living room that lead to the rarely-used front parlor and dark back parlor.
The back parlor acts as a passage from the living room to the dining room.
Between these doorways is a bookcase with a picture of Shakespeare above it. (For more on the books, hit the "Shout Outs" section.)
On the right side of the living room is a door to the porch, a table and desk, and windows looking out over the front lawn to the harbor.
On the left, we find a similar row of windows, a couch, and a bookcase (again, see "Shout-outs"). Really, what matters is that the books look as if they've been read over and over.
Finally, there's a round table in the middle of the room, under an electric chandelier, surrounded by three wicker chairs and one leather-seated rocking chair.
O'Neill continues to use the stage directions to tell us about James and Mary Tyrone, the Irish-American parents who have entered the living room after breakfast.
Mary's fifty-four and has a young, healthy figure with a pale, thin face (which is still pretty). She uses no make-up, and she has thick, white hair and big, beautiful brown eyes. Her once lovely hands are now knotted with rheumatism and always move nervously. She's sensitive about their ugliness and humiliated that her nervousness draws attention to them. O'Neill tells us that she hasn't lost her "convent-girl youthfulness" and "unworldly innocence" (1.1.opening stage directions).
James is a big, handsome guy with the strong posture, broad gestures, and resonant voice that speak to his former career in acting. He wears shabby clothes, keeping them until they absolutely can't be worn anymore. He never gets sick, and he's "stolid," but he's also sentimental and intuitive.
Tyrone comes in with a hug for Mary, telling her she's gotten nice and fat. And even though she thinks she "ought to reduce," she still laps up the compliment. Seriously – calling her fat is really meant to be nice.
James lights up an "after-breakfast cigar" he got from this guy McGuire, who, we discover, has also conned James into some terrible real estate purchases.
They hear a fit of coughing from their second son, Edmund, in the dining room, and they are reminded of his unknown illness. They try to sound like they're not worried, but they are.
James asks Mary why she's seemed "high-strung" recently, and Mary starts acting a bit sketchy.
James hints that something was wrong with Mary's health in the past, saying that she has to take care of herself and that she has finally "come back" to the family.
Mary says she was kept awake by the foghorn in the harbor. James agrees, but Mary laughs and says he was snoring all night.
They hear laughing from the dining room, and assume that Edmund and their eldest son, Jamie, are making fun of James. They agree that it's good to hear Edmund laughing, since he's been so down lately, but they're less enthusiastic about Jamie. Mary remarks that Jamie hasn't "turned out all right" yet.
Jamie and Edmund hop out of the dining room still laughing. In stage directions, we find that Jamie, a man in his early thirties, has his father's physique but somehow seems more worn down. He's usually cynical, but when he does smile without a sneer, he's funny, romantic, with a charming affect of irresponsibility. In these moments, he's sentimental and poetic.
Edmund is ten years younger than Jamie, and thinner and wirier like his mother. He's got the same features, down to the long, nervous fingers. His nervousness is what links him most to his mother. He's clearly unhealthy, much too thin and sallow.
Mary tries to make small talk, bringing up how Jamie snores as much as his dad, but Jamie gives her a suspicious, probing look.
Mary becomes extremely self-conscious and fixes her hair nervously.
Jamie feels bad, and says she looks well.
James chimes in with what's clearly the best line of the play: "She's so fat and sassy, there'll soon be no holding her."
Edmund, who's obviously Mary's favorite, agrees.
They return to the carefree topic of snoring, and Jamie jokingly quotes Othello ("The Moor, I know his trumpet").
Things turn a bit sour, though, because James accuses Jamie of spending more time betting on horses than memorizing Shakespeare.
Edmund and Mary try to put out the fire before it starts, yelling at James to cut it out.
Jamie, though, doesn't really care, and says to forget it.
Here James takes another swipe at his older son, saying all Jamie ever does is "forget everything and face nothing," and that he lacks ambition.
Mary cools things down, and Edmund tells everyone what he and Jamie were laughing about:
Last night, Edmund went to a local inn (to drink, even though the doctor told him not to), where he ran into a tenant (Shaughnessy) of the farm James owns.
This tenant (whom James calls a freeloader) has gotten into a fight with a millionaire oil baron (named Harker).
The tenant and the baron's properties are next to each other, and Shaughnessy's pigs have been bathing in the Harkers' pond because the fence between them is broken.
The oil guy accuses Shaughnessy of breaking the fence (James is "sure he did, the dirty scallywag").
Shaughnessy, though, is huge and intimidating, and when the baron comes to challenge him, the tenant (who's a bit drunk) starts yelling at him that the baron's trying to kill his pigs by chilling them in the pond and making them drink poisoned water.
Shaughnessy threatens to hire a lawyer to sue him and to send his dog after him, so Harker runs away.
Mary and James laugh approvingly, but then James stops quickly when he realizes that this fight could get him in trouble with Harker.
Edmund rightly argues that James loves it that his tenant put a rich fat cat in his place, but that James is also legitimately scared of a lawsuit.
This is too much truth for James, who gets mad at Edmund.
Then, for no apparent reason, James turns on Jamie, yelling that Jamie probably wishes he could have fought against Harker, too.
Edmund storms off, upset; Mary tells James not to mind Edmund, since he has a bad summer cold.
Jamie insists, though, that Edmund is really sick.
Mary gets mad at Jamie for suggesting such a thing, and James tries to calm both Mary and Edmund by remarking that their doctor thinks it might just be a bit of malarial fever, easily cured.
Mary flushes with anger and expresses her strong disapproval of the family doctor, Doctor Hardy. She exclaims that doctors just want you to stay dependent on them and their medicines.
After remarking on medical dependency, Mary gets very self-conscious, and starts worrying about her hair.
The men of the family compliment Mary, and she's pleased. She gets up to see the cook about the food for the day, and insists that Edmund not work outside.
Once she leaves, James yells at Jamie for upsetting Mary over Edmund's health, but Jamie doesn't think she should keep kidding herself. Jamie can tell from the symptoms – and from Doc Hardy's stalling – that it's probably consumption (i.e., tuberculosis).
James acknowledges that Hardy mentioned it could be consumption.
Jamie gets angry on Edmund's behalf, accusing his dad of sending Edmund to an awful doctor. James tries to defend Hardy, but Jamie insists that he's a "cheap old quack," third-rate even in their small town. He's the cheapest doctor in town, says Jamie, and that's no coincidence.
James yells that there's no excuse for this rudeness, as Jamie isn't drunk at the moment.
He's not one of those high society people who can afford to pay the doctors who prey on right folk, James adds.
Jamie reminds him that he's one of the biggest property owners in the area, but James objects that all the property is mortgaged.
Jamie eventually gives up, saying he'll never change his father.
James strikes back, telling Jamie he's never known the value of a dollar, and that he always throws away his money on booze and women.
According to James, he tried to help Jamie become an actor when Jamie couldn't find anything himself, but Jamie still can't get a job, nor has he been able to complete his education.
This persistent unemployment is why Jamie's at home for the summer: he's working on the grounds of the house to pay for lodging. James says that the worst part is that Jamie shows no gratitude.
Jamie, bored with the argument, just wants his dad to shut up.
Now, though, James is upset and gaining momentum. James tries to encourage Jamie to make something of himself by trying acting again.
Jamie ends the discussion, and they move back to Edmund.
James, still nettled by the insults to Doctor Hardy, accuses Jamie of making his younger, weaker brother sick by showing him the life of whiskey and women when Edmund can't handle it.
Jamie accuses his dad, in turn, of acting like Edmund's going to die instead of recognizing that consumption is curable. Jamie says it's an "Irish peasant idea" that you'd die of consumption living in a "hovel on a bog"; with modern treatment, Edmund should be fine.
James is less than thrilled by this depiction of his home country, and again accuses Jamie of being a terrible influence.
Jamie counters that Edmund means a lot to him and that he wants Edmund to learn from his mistakes. Plus, Jamie defends, Edmund wouldn't be affected by Jamie in any case, since Edmund is so stubborn – that's why Edmund went off sailing all over the world.
In Jamie's fury, we find out that Edmund's been working at the local paper.
Jamie spits out that, if Edmund weren't James's son, there's no way they'd keep Edmund on staff; still, Jamie feels bad about saying this and takes it back, admitting that Edmund's poetry and parodies are actually good.
And the rage finally starts to die down: the two men turn to the topic of Mary, about whom they seem to agree.
We don't know exactly what James and Jamie are talking about yet; they both think it's been great to have Mary back (she returned home two months ago), and that she's been doing well. (Well with what? We'll find out soon.)
Now, though, Mary is falling apart again thanks to Edmund's illness, which brings back horrible memories of her beloved father's own death from consumption.
The guys agree that Mary can stick to it this time, but Jamie admits his suspicions from the night before, when he heard her at three in the morning moving around the spare room (where she used to go have whatever it is that they haven't mentioned yet).
James wants to believe that it was Mary's way of escaping his snoring, and yells at Jamie for being too suspicious, but we can tell that he's a bit worried himself.
James admits that it would be awful if she can never stop worrying about Edmund, since she started having these mysterious problems after Edmund's birth.
Jamie again brings up Doctor Hardy, saying that it was Hardy's fault that Mary's elusive problem began. The argument escalates yet once more until Mary enters.
Mary overhears them mention Hardy, and, acknowledging that he isn't the best physician in the world, changes the subject quickly. She tells James and Jamie to work on the hedges, and then complains about her swollen hands.
James comforts her while Jamie, tender now, tells his mom that everyone's proud of her, and hopes she'll be careful and not worry too much about Edmund.
Mary resents his suspicions and rebuffs Jamie.
Jamie and James leave, and Mary sinks into her chair, nervous and frightened.
Edmund comes downstairs coughing and, after a moment of panic, she settles down to welcome him.
Worried by his sickly appearance, Mary tries to make Edmund comfortable, but Edmund asks her to take care of herself.
Mary shifts the subject to the Chatfields who just drove by, commenting that they, unlike the Tyrones, have a nice home in which to entertain their friends. She claims that she wouldn't want to be part of this town's social network anyway. But – she's always been ashamed of their cheap home, and the fact that her boys do all their socializing at bars, meeting easy women who ruin their reputations.
Edmund reminds Mary clumsily that, in recent years, she wouldn't have wanted people to see her anyway. This obviously distresses Mary, who begs Edmund not to remind her.
Edmund insists that it's better for her to remember so that she'll always be on her guard.
Mary doesn't understand why Edmund's suddenly so worried about her, guessing that her family is beginning to suspect her. She's upset that none of them believe in or trust her, and wishes she had people to talk to outside of the house.
Mary demands that Edmund tell her why he doubts her word, so he admits that he heard her in the spare room the previous night.
She blames James's snoring, and accuses Edmund of spying on her, and then says she couldn't sleep because she was so worried about Edmund.
Edmund tries to reassure her, but also asks her to take care of herself even if he is badly ill.
Mary promises that she will on her "sacred word of honor," but then admits she'd promised before and lied.
All of a sudden, she waxes philosophical, wondering how anyone can forget (her mysterious problem, we assume, but also any bad thing that's happened).
Edmund tells her to snap out of it, and Mary decides to go take a nap until lunch.
Edmund eyes Mary, but then feels bad about his doubts.
They share a tense pause, and Mary asks if Edmund's afraid of leaving her alone.
Edmund forces a smile and tells her to take a nap while he goes and talks to Jamie.
Once he's gone, Mary seems to relax in an armchair. Suddenly, though, she becomes tense and nervous, fighting with herself, as her knotted fingers drum on the arms of the chair without her consent.