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Mayo Cinic enlists 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' as a teaching tool about addiction

John Skelley (Edmund Tyrone) and Peter Michael Goetz (James Tyrone) in the Guthr
Photo by Michael Brosilow
John Skelley (Edmund Tyrone) and Peter Michael Goetz (James Tyrone) in the Guthrie Theater's production of Long Day's Journey into Night, by Eugene O'Neill.

Few plays depict addiction and its destructive effects on families with as much brutal honesty as Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” O’Neill wrote the semi-autobiographical play in the early 1940s, but he refused to let it be published during his lifetime. The first productions of the play occurred in 1956, three years after his death. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1957.

“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” takes place on a single day in August 1912 at the Connecticut home of an aging actor, James Tyrone, and his wife, Mary. Also present in the home that day are the couple’s grown sons, 33-year-old Jamie and 23-year-old Edmund. All three male characters abuse alcohol, and Mary is addicted to morphine.

O’Neill’s own family was similarly afflicted. (Edmund represents O’Neill in the play.) His mother had a morphine addiction, and his older brother (also named Jamie) died of an alcohol-related illness at age 45. The tragedy of addiction also extended into the family’s next generation. O’Neill had two sons. One suffered from alcoholism; the other became a heroin addict. Both committed suicide.

This Saturday, Jan. 26, the Mayo Clinic is partnering with the Guthrie Theater to use “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” as a vehicle for discussing addiction and its effects on individuals and families. The all-day seminar includes a full performance of the Guthrie’s current production of O’Neill’s play as well as presentations and panel discussions by addiction experts from the Mayo Clinic and elsewhere. Actress Melissa Gilbert will also speak about her personal history with alcoholism and drug abuse. Although designed as a continuing medical education program for health professionals, the event is also open to the public. The fee for public attendees is a bit steep — $150 — but that includes the performance of the play and lunch.

Dr. Timothy Lineberry
Dr. Timothy Lineberry

One of the experts who will be speaking at Saturday’s event is Mayo Clinic psychiatrist Dr. Timothy Lineberry. MinnPost spoke with Lineberry on Tuesday about why he believes “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is such a powerful and useful creative tool for understanding addiction. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

MinnPost: How accurately does the play depict addiction?

Timothy Lineberry: It’s really remarkable. It speaks to issues that we’re struggling with now, like opioid dependence and the prescription opioid epidemic, as well as the issues with alcohol dependence. It’s probably even more relevant today than it was in the 1950s.

MP: What do we know about addiction today that we didn’t know all those decades ago when this play was being written and first produced?

TL: It’s interesting because the play is set in the early 1900s, before World War I. There really weren’t options related to effective treatments then. In fact, there was a stigma associated with treatment. Nor was there an understanding of the biological framework and the other issues associated with substance abuse and addiction.

MP: Addiction was often considered a character flaw.

TL: Yes. And I think even at this time, frankly, there are a number of issues with stigma and lack of understanding.

MP: You’re going to be talking about gender differences with addiction at Saturday’s event. Did you see those gender differences depicted in the play?

TL: Yes. There are differences between men and women in terms of the pattern of addiction and associated issues. We see different reasons for opioid dependence in women versus men, and a different progression of the addiction. And we do see a lot more psychological symptoms with the use of opioids and prescription drug abuse in women versus men.

The play actually does a nice job of depicting that. There’s the connection with [the mother] getting started [on morphine] after childbirth and with her anxiety and nervousness. Of course, everybody is different. There are clearly men [whose drug use is associated] with significant anxiety and psychological difficulties, and the play does a good job of depicting that as well.

MP: How common is it for a families to have multiple members with addictions?

TL: Family history of chemical dependence is a significant factor. There are a number of genetic aspects associated with addiction. The play obviously focuses on the family interactions and difficulties associated with lifelong patterns of addiction.

MP: Do you think playgoers will come away from this play with a better understanding of addiction?

TL: Yes, particularly in the context of understanding the family impact and struggles with addiction. There is a part [of the play] that’s fictionalized, but, obviously, this is very autobiographical as well. It does a nice job of illuminating the personal impact that addiction has on individuals and on families.

MP: What do you hope health-care clinicians will take away from the play?

TL: It’s kind of a combination of things. It’s really about identification, treatment and understanding. For clinicians, the hope is that the emotional content of the play may help them remember and improve their understanding of addiction.

MP: Are clinicians doing a good job with recognizing and getting help for people with addictions?

TL: Our data does not reflect that. In terms of quality of care for screening and identifying substance disorders, we have significant room for improvement.

MP: What about the general public? What can individuals be doing to help with the country’s addiction problem?

TL:  Our hope with [Saturday’s program] is to help people understand the impact of addiction. I think that’s what makes this play so powerful. But people also need to understand that there are treatments available. There are things we can do to make a difference. Hope is a significant aspect of people getting better. I’m impressed in my clinical practice with how persistent people are. If you can get people through situations and inspire hope, they’ll recognize that there is a chance that things can be better. Then you can do good things.

MP: Anything else people should know about Saturday’s program?

TL: I think it will be fun. I don’t want people just to think, "Oh, my gosh, a play on addiction.” Events like this are really a chance to raise how we remember and think about things like addiction. If you get down to the scientific aspect of it, emotional experiences — the arts, music — those things have a powerful impact in terms of memory and association. So, if we can combine a very emotionally powerful and easily understood story with knowledge, people are much more likely to retain and use that knowledge.

You’ll find information about Saturday’s event on the Mayo Clinic’s website. For information about the Guthrie’s other performances of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” see the theater’s website. The upstart St. Paul’s Gonzo Group Theatre is also staging a production of the play starting Feb. 7. FMI and reservations.

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