Around noon on the same day, Edmund is sitting alone in the parlor when Cathleen, one of the housekeepers, enters with a bottle of whiskey. After Edmund tells her to fetch Jamie and James for lunch, she guesses aloud that he’ll sneak a drink before they arrive. “Now you suggest it,” he says, turning to the bottle. He then tells Cathleen to wake up Mary, but the housekeeper tells him his mother hasn’t been sleeping, but “lying down in the spare room with her eyes wide open.” Disconcerted, Edmund says, “Oh well then, just call my father.” When Cathleen leaves, he quickly grabs the whiskey and pours himself a drink, then arranges himself to look like he’s simply been reading as Jamie walks in.
It’s relatively unsurprising that Mary hasn’t been napping, but rather lying on the bed with her “eyes wide open.” This, it seems, is yet another indication that she has relapsed after manipulating Edmund to stop monitoring her every move. On another note, it’s worth paying attention to the irony of Edmund’s concern about his mother’s addiction, considering that he seems to have a vice of his own: drinking. Indeed, by sneaking a glass of whiskey, he takes part in a similar kind of furtive activity.
Looking at the whiskey, Jamie—who was not followed inside by his father—says, “Sneaking one, eh?” Smiling, Edmund admits that he did in fact have a drink. Moving toward the bottle himself, Jamie says that James is outside talking to Captain Turner, and when he’s finished stealing some whiskey for himself, he fills the bottle back to its original level with water. “Listen, Kid,” he says, sitting down. “You know me. I’ve never lectured you, but Doctor Hardy was right when he told you to cut out the redeye.” In response, Edmund assures his brother he’s going to stop drinking after Hardy delivers him the bad news during their appointment that afternoon. “I’m glad you’ve got your mind prepared for bad news,” Jamie says. “It won’t be such a jolt.”
Once again, Jamie reveals his belief that people ought to acknowledge the truth, even when it’s difficult. This is why he’s glad to hear that Edmund is “prepared for bad news.” Unfortunately, Mary is apparently incapable of adopting this kind of mindset. What’s more, it’s somewhat ironic that Edmund tries so hard to combat denial, considering that his claim that he’ll stop drinking seems like a lie he’s telling himself in order to continue his bad habit.
“Where’s Mama?” Jamie asks, suddenly looking about himself. When Edmund tells him that Mary is upstairs, Jamie is visibly unsettled. “Is she coming down to lunch?” he asks, to which Edmund says, “Of course.” “No of course about it,” Jamie replies. “She might not want any lunch. Or she might start having most of her meals alone upstairs. That’s happened, hasn’t it?” Hearing this, Edmund shows “frightened resentment” and tells his brother to stop “suspect[ing]” their mother. “You damned fool!” Jamie explodes. “Why did you leave her alone so long? Why didn’t you stick around?” “Because she accused me—and you and Papa—of spying on her all the time and not trusting her,” Edmund answers. “She made me feel ashamed.”
In this conversation, Edmund admits that his mother has shamed him into leaving her alone. Only now, it seems, does he fully recognize the fact that she has manipulated him. And yet, he defends himself, angry that his brother would imply that he should have been more responsible. After all, Mary is clearly quite adept at deceiving her loved ones, and so it isn’t fair that Jamie should chastise Edmund for succumbing to her tricks.
“Listen, Kid,” Jamie says, “I know you think I’m a cynical bastard, but remember I’ve seen a lot more of this game than you have. You never knew what was really wrong until you were in prep school. Papa and I kept it from you. But I was wise ten years or more before we had to tell you.” He goes on to say that he hopes he’s wrong, but that he has good reason to be suspicious of Mary. At this point, the two brothers hear their mother coming downstairs, and Jamie takes this as a sign that she hasn’t succumbed, saying, “I guess I’m a damned suspicious louse.” However, when she appears in the parlor, Jamie “knows after one probing look at her that his suspicions are justified.”
When Jamie says he has “seen a lot more of this game than” Edmund, he reminds his brother that there’s a history to their mother’s addiction. Indeed, Jamie has witnessed Mary’s troubles time and again, and this makes it difficult for him to have faith in her ability to stay clean. Unfortunately, this distrustful attitude turns out to be “justified” when Mary appears in the living room, at which point Jamie can tell that she has relapsed.
Edmund, for his part, doesn’t notice that Mary is less nervous and that her eyes are brighter. In fact, he doesn’t even notice the “detachment in her voice and manner” that Jamie immediately picks up on. When he asks if she feels rested, she says, “Yes, ever so much better. I’ve been lying down ever since you went out. It’s what I needed after such a restless night. I don’t feel nervous now.” Catching Jamie’s scornful look, she asks what’s bothering him, and when he doesn’t answer, she remembers aloud that he’s been doing yardwork. “That accounts for your sinking into the dumps, doesn’t it?” she says. “If you want to think so, Mama,” he replies. Mary then asks where James is, and Edmund tells her he’s wasting his time talking to Captain Turner.
Although it’s obvious—to Jamie, at least—that Mary has relapsed, she decides to keep up her act of innocence. As such, she tells herself that Jamie is in a bad mood because he had to do yardwork, though she should know that the real reason he’s angry is because he knows she has relapsed. Because she doesn’t want to admit this, though, she tells herself this phony story, oddly keeping up her charade of denial even after she has given herself over to addiction once again.
Jamie makes a joke at his father’s expense, and Mary chastises him for not respecting James enough. “Stop sneering at your father! I won’t have it! You ought to be proud you’re his son! He may have his faults. Who hasn’t? But he’s worked hard all his life. He made his way up from ignorance and poverty to the top of his profession!” At this point, Edmund asks his mother why she’s badgering Jamie so much, and she says she doesn’t like the way he’s “always looking for the worst weakness in everyone.” Then, she adds, “But I suppose life has made him like that, and he can’t help it.”
When Mary says that “life has made” Jamie look “for the worst weakness in everyone,” she implies that change is impossible. Indeed, she even says that her son “can’t help” acting like this, ultimately framing growth as impossible. As such, she reveals her fatalistic worldview and the belief that a person’s past is inescapable. This, of course, is yet another way to avoid having to reckon with her own problems, since this interpretation of life makes it easy for her to believe there’s nothing to be done about her addiction.
As Edmund, Jamie, and Mary wait for James, they grow impatient. Mary, for her part, goes on a rant about the fact that their servants are incompetent because they’re only seasonal residents. “Every year I have stupid, lazy greenhorns to deal with. But you’ve heard me say this a thousand times. So has [James], but it goes in one ear and out the other. He thinks money spent on a home is money wasted. He’s lived too much in hotels. Never the best hotels, of course. Second-rate hotels.” Trying to look into her eyes, Edmund says, “What makes you ramble on like that, Mama?” Patting his cheek, she tells him there’s no particular reason for her chattiness.
As Mary goes on a rant about her husband being too cheap to invest in a real house, she once again implies that a large part of her discontent has to do with the fact that she doesn’t feel at home anywhere. In turn, this unprompted monologue alerts Edmund to the strange way she’s acting, and he begins to realize that something is amiss.
Edmund gets up and goes to summon James. Meanwhile, Jamie stares resentfully at Mary, who asks him why he’s looking at her so menacingly. “Oh, for God’s sake, do you think you can fool me, Mama? I’m not blind.” In response, she tells him she has no idea what he’s talking about, and before they can finish their conversation, Edmund returns and says he “got [James] moving.” Then, pausing, he asks his mother what’s wrong. “Your brother ought to be ashamed of himself. He’s been insinuating I don’t know what,” she says. “God damn you!” Edmund yells at Jamie, advancing upon him angrily even as his brother turns his back and shrugs. Stopping Edmund, Mary grabs him and says, “It’s wrong to blame your brother. He can’t help being what the past has made him. Any more than your father can. Or you. Or I.”
Once again, Mary tries to evade her family’s scrutiny by shaming anyone who is suspicious of her. Of course, this time Jamie actually has a right to be suspicious, since it’s clear she has finally relapsed. Nonetheless, she clings to this manipulative tactic, ultimately pitting Edmund against Jamie in order to take attention away from her drug use. However, when Edmund comes to her defense, she immediately feels guilty. As such, she reiterates her fatalistic idea that people can’t change themselves, suggesting that the “past” has made them all the people they are, for better or worse.
Disconcerted by what his mother has just said, Edmund says, “He’s a liar! It’s a lie, isn’t it, Mama?” “What is a lie?” Mary responds. “Now you’re talking in riddles like Jamie.” Then, when she looks up at him, she says, “Edmund! Don’t!” As James walks up the steps outside, Edmund slumps dejectedly in a chair. Still, though, he refuses to admit anything. “Well?” Jamie says to him, but he merely answers, “Well, what? You’re a liar. Here’s Papa. I hope he loosens up with the old bottle.”
At this point, it’s obvious that Edmund knows his mother has relapsed, but he’s unwilling to admit it. As such, he plunges into denial, unable to reckon with the idea that his mother has manipulated him to do the very thing he was afraid she’d do.
Entering, James apologizes for being late, claiming that Captain Turner wouldn’t stop talking. Without turning, Jamie can tell his father is examining the whiskey. “It’s all right,” he says. “The level in the bottle hasn’t changed.” “I wasn’t noticing that,” James says. “As if it proved anything with you around. I’m on to your tricks.” From his chair, Edmund interrupts to say, “Did I hear you say, let’s all have a drink?” Frowning, James says Jamie is free to have some whiskey, but that Edmund shouldn’t because of what Doctor Hardy has advised. “To hell with Doctor Hardy!” Edmund says. “One isn’t going to kill me.” As such, James makes a display of “fake heartiness” and admits that a little bit of whiskey in moderation is good for the health. When Edmund dashes a large drink into his glass, though, he says, “I said, in moderation.”
Along with Edmund’s denial regarding his mother’s relapse comes a renewed desire to drink. In this way, O’Neill shows the audience that this young man—and, in truth, all of the Tyrones—deals with hardship by turning to substances. This, of course, does nothing to help Edmund come to terms with his mother’s relapse, but he’s content nonetheless to resign himself to alcoholism.
The three Tyrone men drink their sizable glasses of whiskey. Sensing tension in the room, James looks around and asks what’s wrong. “Why are you wearing that gloomy look on your mug?” he asks Jamie, who says, “You won’t be singing a song yourself soon.” At this moment, Mary—who had momentarily stepped out to speak with the cook—comes in and speaks in a distant, distracted way, eventually saying that she’s “sick and tired of pretending this is a home.” “You never have wanted [a home],” she says to James, “never since the day we were married! You should have remained a bachelor and lived in second-rate hotels and entertained your friends in barrooms! Then nothing would ever have happened.” As everyone stares at her, it’s evident James now knows that she has relapsed.
Hoping to distract her family members from the fact that she’s high, Mary chastises James for never providing her with a proper home. Worse, she even tries to blame him for her own misfortunes by saying that “nothing would ever have happened” if he didn’t ask for her hand in marriage and then bring her along to live his untethered life.
Seeing Edmund’s empty glass, Mary tells her son he shouldn’t be drinking. She then blames James for letting their son have alcohol. “How could you let him?” she asks. “Do you want to kill him? Don’t you remember my father? He wouldn’t stop after he was stricken. He said doctors were fools! He thought, like you, that whiskey is a good tonic!” After she says this, “a look of terror” passes over her face, and she says, “But, of course, there’s no comparison at all.”
In this moment, audience members will recall that Mary’s father died of consumption. The fact that Mary starts talking about him, then, indicates that she knows—on some level—that what Edmund has is more serious than a mere “summer cold.” However, she instantly takes back what she said, trying hard to convince herself that “there’s no comparison at all” between Edmund and her father.
After a moment, Mary notices that the Tyrone men are staring at her. “Please stop staring!” she says. “One would think you were accusing me—.” Cutting herself off, she says in a “pleading” tone, “James! You don’t understand.” James responds that he’s been foolish to believe her in. “I don’t know what you mean by ‘believing in me.’ All I’ve felt was distrust and spying and suspicion,” she says. She then points out that he’s having yet another drink and that he’ll be fully drunk by nighttime. Switching gears, she says, “Oh, James, please! You don’t understand! I’m so worried about Edmund! I’m so afraid he—” Before she can finish, though, James says he doesn’t want to hear her excuses.
Mary fluctuates rapidly between acknowledgement and denial. Interestingly enough, each acknowledgement she issues comes about somewhat involuntarily. Indeed, she seems incapable of containing these moments of partial confession, suddenly exploding with, “James! You don’t understand” and other similar lines. However, the next thing she says is always some kind of denial. When this no longer proves effective, though, she says, “I’m so worried about Edmund!”—a pathetic attempt to blame her relapse on her son’s illness.
“James! I tried so hard! I tried so hard!” Mary says. “I suppose you did,” he answers, rather moved despite his anger and disappointment. “For the love of God, why couldn’t you have the strength to keep on?” Then, as if she’s having a completely separate conversation, Mary says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Have the strength to keep on what?” “Never mind,” James says as he exits the parlor. “It’s no use now.”
Mary’s insistence upon denying her relapse is absurd, considering that she also provides excuses for why she succumbed to her addiction. Nonetheless, she holds fast to her denials, and this depresses James, who eventually asserts that it’s “no use” trying to reason with her. As such, he expresses his resignation, a defeatist attitude that oddly mirrors Mary’s own assertion that people can’t “help” what the past has “made” them.