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The final act opens around midnight, as always, in the living room.
James is sitting in almost total darkness, playing solitaire. He has gone through three-quarters of that new whiskey bottle, and has a reserve bottle sitting on the table as well. He's clearly drunk, but he hasn't been able to escape from reality yet. He looks like he did at the end of Act III: resigned.
Edmund comes home, bumps into something, and curses.
Edmund turns on the hall lamp, but his father tells him to turn it off.
Edmund doesn't turn off the light. He, too, is drunk, but doesn't seem much changed under the influence, except that he's maybe more belligerent and aggressive.
James says he's glad Edmund showed up, because James was getting lonely.
Then, James orders Edmund to turn out the light, since there's no reason to keep the house ablaze at this time of night.
Edmund retorts that one light is not a waste of money, and Edmund busted his knee in the hall because he couldn't see.
James says he could have seen if Edmund were sober, but Edmund shoots back that James is clearly drunk, too.
Edmund argues that one bulb left on all night costs less than one drink, but James couldn't care less about Edmund's facts and figures.
Edmund retorts that James only believes what he wants to believe: James thinks Shakespeare was an Irish Catholic ("The proof is in his plays," James agrees), and so was the Duke of Wellington (because only an Irish Catholic could have beaten Napoleon!). Edmund tells James to turn off the light himself, if he cares so much.
James threatens to beat Edmund, but belatedly remembers his illness and apologizes, telling Edmund not to goad him.
Edmund's guilt complex continues to work overtime; he feels bad about causing a fuss, and offers to turn off the light for his father's sake.
James tells Edmund generously to forget about it, and then, in a dramatic gesture, turns on all three chandelier bulbs in one swoop. James proclaims that if they're going to be poor, they may as well start today.
Edmund laughs, even though James was quite serious.
Edmund, James compliments, recognizes the value of money, unlike that deadbeat brother of his, Jamie.
James asks where Jamie's gotten to, but Edmund didn't actually go meet him. Instead, Edmund went for a walk on the beach.
Earlier that day, though, he did split his money with Jamie, leading James to speculate that Jamie's probably at a brothel.
Edmund wishes his dad would just lay off his brother for a while, and threatens to leave, but James chills out and offers him a drink.
The two Tyrones drink, and Edmund (echoing his mother's view on the subject at the end of Act III) meditates on his love of fog. Edmund considers the fog a place where he can be alone with himself, where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself. The fog makes him feel as though he has drowned long since, as though he were a ghost of the fog, which is itself a ghost of the sea.
Edmund insists he makes the most sense when he gets morbid like this; after all, he says, life sucks, so who wants to see life as it is?
Although James is impressed by the poetry of Edmund's speech, he finds it too grim. He asks why Edmund doesn't abandon all his third-rate authors and memorize Shakespeare instead – after all, the Bard's already said everything worth saying.
Edmund disagrees, and quotes Baudelaire (see "Shout Outs") to back up his argument that they should be drinking to forget.
Edmund gets into a bit of a groove with old Baudelaire, this time in reference to Jamie's late night debaucheries.
James assumes Baudelaire is an atheist, since denying God is the denial of hope.
Edmund's really on a roll with the quotations, though: this time, he quotes Dowson to accuse the absent Jamie of never being faithful to a woman in his life. Edmund finds himself superior, since he has access to pleasures most people never understand.
Again, James turns the topic to God, but Edmund isn't listening.
Instead, Edmund ponders why he feels superior to Jamie, since he's done the exact same things. His quoting gets embarrassing when Edmund realizes that Dowson himself died of alcoholism and consumption. Awkward. Edmund wants to change the subject.
James doesn't help much, listing all the "whore-mongers and degenerates" Edmund studies while he neglects Shakespeare.
Edmund says Shakespeare was a drunk too, but James won't buy it. Sure, the Swan of Avon may have enjoyed a drink or two (it's a good man's failing, he says), but Shakespeare didn't poison his brain with morbid-ness. And, James points out triumphantly, Rossetti was a drug addict. Awkward again.
Edmund tries a second time to change the subject, and is again unsuccessful – but he can't resist defending himself, telling James that he's wrong about Edmund's ignorance of Shakespeare. After all, he learned Macbeth in a week to win a bet with his father.
They hear Mary moving around upstairs and simultaneously look upwards with dread.
James and Edmund knock back another drink each and hope Mary doesn't come down, since she's such a "ghost haunting the past."
James sighs that the only happy days she ever had were at her father's home or at the convent.
Mary's wonderful home wasn't actually all that special, James confides to Edmund. Her father was a nice enough guy, but an alcoholic (and with champagne, no less – the worst, according to James). It was that, along with his consumption, which killed him.
James realizes that he's brought up consumption again, and feels guilty. (What a conversational minefield this play is!)
The two start playing a game of cards, but they can't focus.
Instead, James unburdens himself over Mary's insistence on viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses. Here's a home truth about Mary's musical ability, offers James: she was a mediocre pianist! The nuns just flattered her because they loved her. What's more, she would never have been able to stand nun-hood because she was so flirtatious and lively. Mary would have been incapable of renouncing normal life.
Speak of the devil: James and Edmund hear Mary start to come downstairs, but she appears to turn around and go back up again.
Edmund hates Mary's withdrawal from family life and her ability to shut out the people around her.
James encourages Edmund not to be too hard on Mary, since she's so frightened for his health, and since morphine isn't an easy habit to kick.
All of a sudden, Edmund lashes out at his father, saying James is absolutely right, it's not Mary's fault; it's James's fault for getting her a cheap, stupid doctor who dosed her up with morphine without a thought for the consequences.
What's more, Edmund asks, why didn't James get her in rehab as soon as she got hooked? He bets James told her to use a little will power, so he wouldn't have to spend money on treatments.
James, nettled, retorts that he's spent thousands and thousands of dollars on quack cures, but they haven't worked.
Edmund really twists the knife here, charging that it's because James never gave her a reason to stay off drugs. What has Mary got in her life, after all? A house in disrepair in a neighborhood she hates, while James runs around town being suckered into get-rich-quick real estate schemes. And then he drags her all around the country with no one to talk to until he gets home drunk.
Edmund concludes by saying he hates his father.
James is thunderstruck. He never dragged Mary on the road against her will, he sputters. Mary accompanied him because she loved him and wanted to be with him. And she could have talked to others in the acting company. And James paid for a nurse so that she could travel with their children.
Edmund calls this James's one great generosity, which James undertook only because he was jealous of all the time Mary spent with their kids. In fact, Edmund speculates, if Mary had taken care of the kids herself, giving her something substantial to do with her time, she might not have gotten hooked on heavy opiates.
James roars that it would have been better if Edmund had never been born. But he feels immediately ashamed of himself (perhaps he remembers his own shock at a similar comment Mary makes in front of Edmund in the first scene of Act III).
Edmund miserably admits that he knows that's how Mary feels, but James insists that it's not true – he only said all that in a rage. Edmund apologizes for the whole "hate your guts" comment, and they make up.
Soon enough, though, because this family just can't help itself, another fight breaks out. Edmund accuses James of sending him to the cheapest sanatorium in town. Edmund knows that James asked Hardy to recommend a place for him, but once Hardy made his recommendation, James began nattering on about falling into the poor house.
James denies this account hotly – it's just that he really is too poor to afford a fancy sanatorium.
Edmund has a killer piece of ammo against that – after the appointment with Hardy about Edmund, James went to his club and bought another bad piece of property.
Edmund insists that he's tried to make allowances for his father's cheapness, because he knows his father's childhood story, and he's spent some time broke and alone, learning the value of a dollar. This last move though, is the straw that breaks the camel's back. Edmund doesn't even care so much that James is treating him badly; it's that he's made it obvious to the whole town that he's a giant tightwad, even about the treatment of his consumptive son. Edmund won't go to a state sanatorium just to save James a few dollars.
By this point, Edmund is screaming, until a fit of coughing stops him in his tracks.
At this sight, James begins feeling more guilt than anger.
James admits that he's been a bit miserly. He's always lived in fear of losing all his money, which is why he has bought so much land – no one can take that away from him, even if the banks fail.
What's more, Edmund can't know the kind of poverty James has seen. When Edmund traveled, it was a romance, an adventure in poverty, but when James was growing up, he was barely able to survive.
Edmund reminds James of the time he tried to commit suicide on his "romance," but James doesn't believe that a sober Tyrone would ever do such a thing. Even though James's own father was rumored to have committed suicide, he couldn't have – because he was a Tyrone.
James goes back to his childhood story: when he was ten, his two older brothers had already left the house, leaving him the man of the house. He recalls one Christmas when they actually had enough food to feed all the children. He describes his mother as a fine, brave, sweet woman, who worried that she'd have to die in the poorhouse. In those days, James learned to be a miser, and it's a hard lesson to unlearn.
Still, James tells Edmund to choose any sanatorium he'd like – within reason. This makes Edmund smile, encouraging his father to go on. There's another place that would still be cheap but better quality, offers James. Edmund smiles again, and agrees that it sounds like a bargain.
James acknowledges he's probably a bit too cheap, and then tells Edmund something about himself James has never admitted to anyone before: James thinks that, by achieving such great success with one play, he was ruined by easy fortune.
James realizes that he is a slave to the part for which he is renowned, unwilling to play other roles until he suddenly discovered that he couldn't play other parts. He'd lost his talent through years of easy repetition, becoming complacent in his abilities. And, before the play that made his fortune, he'd been such a promising actor! He'd been on stage with Edwin Booth (a real actor, by the way), who said James was a better Othello than he ever was. But once he played the money-making part, he was never able turn back; the cash was too good.
Edmund is touched by James's confession, and thanks his dad for telling him.
James grins, saying he shouldn't have mentioned it since it's a bad way to convince Edmund of the value of dollar.
Instinctively, James asks if they can turn out the chandelier, and Edmund agrees, laughing.
James again wishes he hadn't chosen money over art, blaming himself in a quote from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. James confesses that he kept the praise Booth gave him on a piece of paper in his wallet for years, but looking at it finally made him too sad.
Father and son return to playing cards when they hear a sound upstairs again.
Edmund takes another drink, and starts waxing philosophical; O'Neill describes him in a stage direction as "deliberately giving way to drunkenness and seeking to hide behind a maudlin manner."
Edmund muses on a contradiction: he and James try to forget Mary while straining to hear her every noise.
Emerging from his depressing, poetic style, Edmund decides to tell James some of his own fond memories. Edmund tells of an experience in Buenos Aires, aboard a sailing ship:
Edmund lies on the bow, water foaming under him, the ship white in the moonlight. He becomes so overwhelmed by the aesthetic experience that he loses his tether to life and feels set free. He becomes part of the sea, part of the ship, part of the sky. He exists outside both time and the mortal life of a man.
Edmund recounts another, similarly transcendent experience in the crow's nest at dawn, watching the sun creep up over the sea. In a moment of "ecstatic freedom," he felt a fulfillment beyond men's normal desires. He describes these kinds of experiences as "the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand." These moments are necessarily fleeting, though; once they pass, we are left alone in the fog of human existence.
Edmund concludes by saying that he wishes he were an animal, since he never feels at home, doesn't want and isn't wanted, doesn't belong, and is a little in love with death.
Aside from this "morbid craziness" about not being wanted and loving death, James finds some good poetry in what Edmund has to say.
Edmund refuses the compliment, regretting wistfully that he can only stammer what others express so beautifully. But, as Edmund puts it, stammering is the way fog people speak.
Suddenly, they hear someone stumble and fall outside. Edmund grins because that means Jamie is home.
James doesn't want to deal with Jamie, so he goes out onto the porch.
Jamie comes in extremely drunk and slurring his words. He starts yelling, and Edmund tells him to be quiet.
Jamie complains about how dark it is, quoting a Kipling poem about crossing a river in the dark.
Jamie sees the bottle of whiskey on the table and takes another drink, knowing that this should make him pass out. The trouble is, as Jamie points out, he's drunk enough to sink a ship and he still can't knock himself out.
Edmund asks for the bottle too, and Jamie won't give it to him. As soon as Edmund asks again, though, Edmund folds like a cheap suit, saying, "Go ahead and kill yourself."
Jamie starts bashing James, saying James will probably send Edmund booze just to kill him off quicker so he won't have to keep paying for that sanatorium.
Edmund defends his father (perhaps thanks to their mutual bonding session), but Jamie says he can't be fooled, and keeps on calling James a miser.
Edmund asks Jamie what he did in town, and Jamie acknowledges that he went to the brothel.
Jamie says he picked a prostitute named Fat Violet, which gives Edmund a chuckle ("she weighs a ton"), but Jamie says it's no joke: her appearance is affecting her livelihood.
James, in turn, was feeling bad about himself, so when the proprietor of the brothel tells him she'll have to fire Fat Violet because no one wants her, Jamie jumps at the chance to do a good deed. He hires Violet just for a heart-to heart about the sadness of life.
Edmund guesses that Jamie recited poetry, and he's right.
Jamie relates that Violet thought his behavior was a mean joke and started yelling at Jamie and crying. To calm her down, Jamie told her he loved her because she's overweigh, and stayed with her to prove it. She kissed him when Jamie left, and confessed that she'd fallen for him. The two of them collapsed into tears in the hallway.
At first, Jamie describes this episode as a circus act, but then he becomes more serious and says it was a "Christian act" to "cure her blues."
Jamie falls silent and begins to nod off, but then suddenly looks up, quotes a Kipling poem, and asks in a sneering tone where the "hophead" is.
Edmund is shocked, and looks sick at Jamie's frank hatred.
In a sudden burst of rage, Edmund jumps out of his chair and punches him in the face. For a moment, Jamie prepares to retaliate, but then the fight goes out of him, and Jamie agrees that his comment was out of line. He had it coming, he says.
Edmund apologizes for hitting him, but Jamie repeats that it's right that he did. It's just that Jamie really believed her this time. He admits that he'd begun to hope that, if Mary could beat morphine, he could beat his demons, too. Jamie starts to cry.
Edmund, fighting back tears himself, says he knows just how Jamie feels.
Jamie recounts when he first saw Mary with a needle; he never imagined that women who weren't prostitutes might take dope. And now that Edmund's got consumption, he's all broken up again – Edmund's the only pal Jamie's ever had and he loves him so much.
Once again, though, his mood turns on a dime, and Jamie wonders whether Edmund thinks he's just waiting for Edmund and James to die so that Jamie can get all the money.
Edmund tells Jamie that he's being an idiot, that he's never thought that for one second.
Jamie's not satisfied, though: just because Edmund's their parents' pet, well educated, and the author of a few published poems, that doesn't mean Edmund's amounting to anything.
Jamie pauses and retracts these words; he wants Edmund to succeed.
In fact, Jamie points out, Jamie should be proud: since he brought up Edmund, Edmund's success would reflect well on Jamie's skills as a brother. After all, it was Jamie who wised Edmund up about women so he'd never be a fall guy, steered him toward poetry, and told him that he should write one day.
Edmund laughs, agrees, and suggests a drink.
Jamie takes one, but won't let his brother do the same, telling him not to be scared of the sanatorium. Edmund will be back in six months, all better. Doctors are all con men, anyway, trying to get money in a big graft game.
Jokingly, Jamie takes his cynicism to the limit, saying that, at the final judgment, salvation will come to those who slip a few coins to the Judge.
Here's where Jamie seems to start doing some truth telling: he tells Edmund that, not only has he been a bad influence on Edmund, but he's done it on purpose. A big part of him wants to ruin Edmund so that he will look good next to him. Jamie has tried to make getting drunk look romantic and prostitutes seem fascinating. He's always been jealous, and he resents that Edmund's birth started Mary on morphine. Jamie says he can't help hating his little brother.
Jamie insists that he loves Edmund more than he hates him, and the fact that he's saying all this proves it. He really does want to see Edmund succeed, but Edmund must be on guard, because Jamie will stab him in the back.
Jamie has felt like a part of him has been dead for a long time, and that's the part that has been hurting Edmund, and it's the part that's happy Mary is back on morphine – another corpse in the Tyrone house.
Edmund just wants Jamie to shut up, but Jamie keeps right on talking. He says he feels better, having confessed, and assumes that Edmund forgives him. Jamie falls asleep as he instructs Edmund not to die, since Edmund's all he has left.
James comes back in, relieved that Jamie finally stopped talking. James overheard Jamie's drunken confessions and tells Edmund that James had warned him about it before, and Edmund must take these threats seriously now.
Seeing that Edmund is hurt, James quickly backpedals, advising Edmund not to take Jamie too seriously.
James looks upon Jamie, reflecting how tragic it is that his first-born, who showed such brilliant promise and who should have carried on the Tyrone family name, should be left like this.
Edmund entreats James to be quiet, but James pours another drink and calls his son a finished waste.
Jamie wakes up, quoting Shakespeare's Richard III and Rossetti as if to corroborate his father's criticism, "Look in my face. My name is Might-Have-Been;/ I am also called No More, Too Late, Farewell." James agrees.
Jamie taunts James by saying that Edwin Booth was a worse actor than a trained seal, because seals don't pretend there's an art to acting. They just do their job and earn their daily fish.
James is enraged, but Edmund calms him quickly by reminding him that any noise might draw Mary down the stairs.
Jamie goes back to sleep and James starts to nod off himself.
Edmund sits nervously, until he hears a noise.
Edmund leaps up, looking hunted, and makes a quick gesture towards the back parlor, but he soon settles and waits.
Suddenly, the lights of the front parlor's chandelier blaze to life, and Mary starts playing the piano awkwardly and with stiff fingers.
James and Jamie snap awake and listen.
The playing ceases abruptly and Mary appears in the living room doorway, pale and with glistening eyes. She looks even more youthful. Her hair has been braided in two pigtails, and, carelessly thrown over one arm is her white wedding gown. She is about as aware of the men in the room as she is of the furniture.
Jamie, astonished, calls this a "mad scene," and labels his mother Ophelia (Hamlet's love interest).
Edmund slaps Jamie, and James approves.
Jamie admits once more he had it coming, but repeats that he had hoped…only to start crying again.
James threatens to kick Jamie out of the house, but the crying softens him, and he pleads with Jamie to stop his weeping.
Mary begins to speak, and the others fall silent. She repents that she has become so bad at playing piano. Sister Theresa will surely be mad at her, telling her it isn't right, what with all the money her father spends on lessons. Mary notes the generosity of her father, and promises to practice more, even though, for some reason, her hands hurt and have grown ugly. She'll go to the infirmary tomorrow, since Sister Martha can cure anything.
Mary wanders into the room and wonders aloud what she came there to find. She's become absent-minded, always dreaming and forgetting.
James asks what she's carrying, and Edmund answers that it's her wedding gown.
James asks if he may take it away so Mary won't get it dirty, and she agrees, thanking this elderly gentleman for his kindness. She can't understand, though, what on earth she could want a wedding dress for, since she's becoming a nun – just so long as she can find whatever it is she's looking for.
James calls out to her hopelessly, but Mary shows no sign that she hears him. He shrinks back, sick and sober.
Jamie sees that it's no use, reciting a Swinburne poem describing a woman who would not notice even if everyone left her.
Mary keeps looking for whatever she has lost, and Jamie can't help but take his turn to call out to her. His stream of Swinburne continues.
Mary laments that, if she lost whatever she's looking for forever, she'll die, because it's that important to her.
Edmund seizes Mary's arm like a hurt little boy, crying out that he has consumption.
For a moment, Edmund seems to have gotten through to Mary; she struggles with him, yelling "no!"
The moment passes, though, and she falls back into detachment, telling Edmund that he mustn't touch her because she's hoping to become a nun.
Jamie regards Edmund with both pity and jealous gloating as he tells him it's no good. Jamie still won't let go of that Swinburne poem, adding that Mary would not see if they left.
James concludes that they shouldn't pay any attention, even though he's never seen her this bad.
He asks for the bottle from Jamie, and scolds him for reciting morbid poetry.
The three men pour themselves drinks in a circle. James lifts his glass and his sons follow suit, but, before they can drink, Mary speaks. The three lower their drinks to the table at the sound of her voice, forgetting even the siren song of alcohol.
Mary looks extremely youthful and innocent, with an eager and trusting smile.
She explains that she had a talk with Mother Elizabeth, whom she loves dearly, even more than her own mother. Mother Elizabeth always understands, without Mary having to say anything. Her eyes see through Mary, and she can't keep any secrets from her. Still, Mother Elizabeth isn't as understanding when Mary tells her she wants to be a nun. Mary explains that she prayed to the Blessed Virgin to make sure, and that she had had a vision at a shrine that convinced her that the Virgin had smiled and blessed her.
Mother Elizabeth counsels that Mary should be even more sure; she should try to live like a normal girl, going to parties. If, after another year, Mary still feels the same way, she can come back and they will talk it over.
Mary is a bit upset, but will do anything Mother Elizabeth suggests. She feels confused, and seeks sanctuary at the shrine to find peace again; Mary is certain the Blessed Virgin hears her, and will always love her, as long as she doesn't lose faith.
But then, a few months pass, and something happens: Mary falls in love with James Tyrone "and [is] so happy for a time."
The three men remain motionless, and the play ends.