It is almost dinner, and Mary is spending time with Cathleen, whom she has given considerable amounts of whiskey because she wants someone to talk to. Mary’s skin is even paler than it was before, and her eyes “shine with unnatural brilliance.” What’s more, her “detachment” is quite pronounced, and she speaks as if she’s the “naive, happy, chattering schoolgirl of her convent days.” As the scene opens, she comments on the foghorn, which bleats through the window. “Isn’t it awful, Cathleen?” she asks, and the drunken housekeeper agrees that it’s “like a banshee.” “I don’t mind it tonight,” Mary admits.
Mary hates being alone so much that she has sought out Cathleen’s company just so she doesn’t have to deal with her own crushing sense of isolation. Indeed, her feelings of loneliness are clearly quite troubling, considering the fact that she can’t seem to escape them even when she’s high. After all, even the foghorn—which she previously detested—doesn’t bother her when she’s high, suggesting that her loneliness is uniquely resistant to her drug use.
Throughout their conversation, Cathleen rambles about random matters, but Mary doesn’t seem to notice. Instead, she focuses on voicing her own thoughts, using Cathleen as nothing more than an excuse to talk. When Cathleen eventually tries to go back to the kitchen to help the cook, Mary tells her to stay because she doesn’t “want to be alone, yet.” To convince the young girl, she offers another “big drink of whiskey” and fills the bottle back up with water.
Once more, Mary’s loneliness comes to the forefront of the play. This time, she appears rather desperate to avoid spending time alone, as if she can’t bear even a moment of solitude.
Indulging her mistress, Cathleen accepts the drink and starts asking Mary questions. This encourages Mary to rehash her life as a young girl living in a convent. “I used to love the piano,” she says. “I worked hard at my music in the Convent—if you can call it work when you do something you love. Mother Elizabeth and my music teacher both said I had more talent than any student they remembered.” She upholds that she might have gone to Europe to study music if she hadn’t met James. “Or I might have become a nun,” she adds.
With nothing in particular to talk about, Mary yet again plunges into the past. In doing so, she makes it clear once more that she has idealized the idea of her own youth, thinking of it as a time when nothing in her life was wrong. By talking extensively about her former prospects as a concert pianist, she tries to ignore her present reality.
Mary tells Cathleen a story about the first time she met James. At the time, he was a well-known actor. Apparently, Mary’s father became friends with him and wrote to tell her that he wanted to introduce them when she came home for Easter vacation. When the time came, she and her father went to one of James’s performances and were invited backstage after the show. “I know he liked me the first moment we were introduced,” she says. “I fell in love right then. So did he, he told me afterwards. I forgot all about becoming a nun or a concert pianist. All I wanted was to be his wife.”
It’s worth noting that, although Mary is rehashing what was perhaps the happiest period of her life, she’ll never be able to escape the present. This is why even when she’s romantically reminiscing about the past, she can’t help but speak somewhat regretfully about the choices she made. Indeed, she knows that her decision to marry James is what eventually led her away from her supposedly idyllic life in the convent. As such, her words are fraught with meaning and regret when she says, “I forgot all about becoming a nun or a concert pianist.”
After Mary finishes her story, Cathleen retreats to the kitchen. Lounging in a chair, Mary speaks to herself, criticizing herself for speaking “sentimental[ly]” about the past. “You were much happier before you knew he existed, in the Convent when you used to pray to the Blessed Virgin,” she says. She then tries to pray but stops because she doesn’t think that “the Blessed Virgin” will be “fooled by a lying dope fiend.” Just then, she decides she must go upstairs and take more morphine, but she hears James and Edmund returning before she can slip away.
In keeping with the idea that Mary’s memory of the convent is tainted by regret, she tells herself that she was “much happier” before she met James. This, it seems, is why even her reveries about the past bear hints of her sorrow. In an effort to recapture the person she was before she met James, then, she tries to pray, but she no longer has the willpower to stick with it. As such, she gives herself an excuse to stop, saying that “the Blessed Virgin” can’t be “fooled by a lying dope fiend.” In turn, she grants herself permission to seek out more morphine.
As Edmund and James enter, Mary gives them a warm welcome, urging her husband to have some whiskey and generally babbling in drugged excitement. Eventually, she notices that Jamie hasn’t come home, and says, “I’m afraid Jamie has been lost to us for a long time, dear,” concluding that her son has gone out drinking with Edmund’s money. “But we mustn’t allow him to drag Edmund down with him,” she continues, “as he’d like to do. He’s jealous because Edmund has always been the baby—just as he used to be of Eugene. He’ll never be content until he makes Edmund as hopeless a failure as he is.” In response, both Edmund and his father tell Mary to stop talking, though James adds that Edmund should heed her advice so that his brother doesn’t “poison” his life.
One thing that’s worth considering about the Tyrone family is that they are—against all odds—bound together very tightly. Indeed, the fact that they say such awful things and still manage to live with one another is rather remarkable, a sign that their love is resilient. After all, Mary has just suggested that her very own son purposefully killed Eugene and is now trying to bring Edmund down, and yet, her family members hardly even argue with her. Though they tell her to be quiet, her venomous words do little to actually upset them, and James even echoes her sentiment. Given that Edmund feels strongly for his brother, it’s a wonder that he doesn’t storm out of the house. In fact, it’s a testament to just how much he loves his mother that these comments don’t drive him away from her for good.
Ignoring James and Edmund, Mary talks about how Jamie has grown up to “disgrace” the family. At the same time, though, she says it’s not so surprising, since James brought the boy up to be a “boozer.” “Since he first opened his eyes, he’s seen you drinking.” Protesting this point, James says, “When you have the poison in you, you want to blame everyone but yourself!” Unfortunately, she continues in this manner, and Edmund and James do their best to ignore her, advising one another not to pay attention to her words. Pouring drinks for themselves, they down whiskey, and Mary apologizes for sounding “bitter.”
When James says that Mary wants “to blame everyone but” herself when she “has the poison” in her, he successfully identifies her main way of avoiding guilt. At the same time, there’s no denying that James is an alcoholic, meaning that both he and Mary have set negative examples for James and Edmund. Instead of dwelling on this fact, though, James and Edmund simply pour drinks for themselves, apparently resigned to the fact that they’re alcoholics.
“Do you know what I was telling [Cathleen], dear?” Mary asks James. “About the night my father took me to your dressing room and I first fell in love with you. Do you remember?” Touched by this turn in the conversation, James assures her that he’ll never forget, and Mary says, “No. I know you still love me, James, in spite of everything.” She then tells him that she loves him, too, “in spite of everything,” though she ruins the moment by adding that she wouldn’t have married him if she’d known he drank so much. She then talks about how he used to leave her in hotel rooms all by herself while he was out drinking, and Edmund explodes, saying, “Christ! No wonder—!”
The idea that Mary and James love each other “in spite of everything” is a perfect encapsulation of why the entire Tyrone family is able to stay together. Although they all treat one another terribly—blaming each other and trying to make others feel guilty about their own shortcomings—they can’t escape the fact that their familial bond (their love) is stronger than their differences. And though this is perhaps admirable, it’s worth considering that this dynamic keeps them from ever breaking the toxic cycle of denial and blame that ensures their collective unhappiness.
Once again reverting to nostalgia and sweetness, Mary reminisces about the beauty of her wedding dress, remembering how “particular” she was about how it was made. “I wonder where I hid it?” she says. “Probably in one of the old trunks in the attic. Some day I’ll have to look.” At this point she stops, realizing she has been rambling about the past, and her husband sighs, asks when dinner will be ready, and says, “Well, if I can’t eat yet, I can drink.” Looking at the whiskey, though, he realizes that people have been “tampering” with his alcohol. Angrily, he goes to fetch another bottle.
Once again, Mary loses herself in the past as a way of forgetting about her current circumstances, this time speaking admiringly about her wedding dress. The fact that she doesn’t know where this dress is anymore is significant, for it symbolizes her inability to recapture the happiness and youthful innocence of her earlier days.
When James is gone, Mary tells Edmund about his past, saying he’s stingy because of the way he was raised. “His father deserted his mother and their six children a year or so after they came to America. He told them he had a premonition he would die soon, and he was homesick for Ireland, and wanted to go back there to die. So he went and he did die. He must have been a peculiar man, too. Your father had to go to work in a machine shop when he was only ten years old.” Uninterested, Edmund tells Mary he’s heard this story countless times. To change the subject, he says, “You haven’t asked me what I found out this afternoon. Don’t you care a damn?” he asks. “Don’t say that!” she replies. “You hurt me, dear!”
Given that she so frequently complains about James’s stinginess, it’s surprising that Mary speaks empathetically in this moment about his upbringing. Indeed, she seems eager to show her son why James feels the way he does about money. This tenderness comes about because she loves her husband, despite their tumultuous relationship. However, Edmund clearly dislikes the way his mother fluctuates between emotions, and so he tries to change the subject by telling her about his diagnosis.
Ignoring his mother’s sensitivity, Edmund says, “What I’ve got is serious, Mama. Doc Hardy knows for sure now.” Just as Mary begins to disparage Hardy, he pushes on, saying that the doctor had a specialist examine him, too, meaning that they’re absolutely sure about the diagnosis. “Listen, Mama,” he says. I’m going to tell you whether you want to hear or not. I’ve got to go to a sanatorium.” In an aggressive voice, Mary tells Edmund that she “won’t have” this, saying Hardy doesn’t know what he’s doing. She then tries to downplay the situation, saying that she’s not going to worry because she knows that Edmund—like his father—likes to be dramatic. “If I gave you the slightest encouragement, you’d tell me next you were going to die,” she says.
Yet again, Mary fervently denies the possibility that Edmund might be seriously ill. What’s remarkable about this moment, though, is that he’s telling her very straightforwardly that he’s quite sick, and she still manages to avoid acknowledging reality. As such, the audience sees that her unwillingness to accept what Edmund is telling her has less to do with Edmund himself than it has to do with her. Indeed, her refusal to hear what her son is saying is a selfish act of self-preservation, not an empathetic reaction to difficult news.
Speaking honestly with Mary, Edmund informs her that people do die of what he has. He even begins to reference her own father, but she cuts him off. “There’s no comparison at all with you. He had consumption,” she says. Frustrated, Edmund erupts, saying, “It’s pretty hard to take at times, having a dope fiend for a mother!” Instantly, he regrets saying this, apologizing and then asserting that he needs to leave, hurrying through the parlor as his mother stares out the window. When he’s gone, Mary speaks to herself, saying that she should go take more morphine and adding that she hopes she’ll take too much sometime, because she would never be able to overdose on purpose, since this would mean the “Blessed Virgin” would never forgive her.
As Mary continues to deny the fact that Edmund is seriously ill, Edmund finds himself unable to stand her any longer. Instead of offering him support, she makes the entire matter about herself, ultimately causing him to say that it’s hard to have “a dope fiend for a mother.” In this moment, he articulates the difficulty of having a parent who is emotionally incapable of supporting her loved ones.
Before Mary can go upstairs to take more morphine, James returns with a new bottle of whiskey, and she tells him that Edmund most likely left to go find Jamie uptown. Then, breaking down, she says, “Oh, James, I’m so frightened! I know he’s going to die!” In response, James tells her that Hardy said it should only take six months for Edmund to recover, but Mary doesn’t believe him. Defeated, James says they should sit down for dinner, but she announces that she’s not hungry and that she thinks it would be best for her to “go to bed and rest.” “Up to take more of that God-damned poison, is that it? You’ll be like a mad ghost before the night’s over!” he seethes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, James,” she replies. “You say such mean, bitter things when you’ve drunk too much.”
No matter how hard Mary tries to deny the fact that Edmund is seriously ill, it becomes clear that she doesn’t truly believe the lies she’s telling herself. This is overwhelmingly apparent when she suddenly admits that she’s “frightened” Edmund is going to die. And yet, despite this outbreak of honesty, she instantly composes herself, once more pretending nothing is wrong by saying that she doesn’t “know what [James is] talking about” when he references her drug use. Worse, she blames him for behaving erratically when he’s intoxicated, as if she’s not the one constantly contradicting herself when she’s high.