Act I Part One The play begins in August 1912 at the summer home of the Tyrone family. The setting for all four acts is the family's living room which is adjacent to the kitchen and dining room. There is also a staircase just off stage which leads to the upper-level bedrooms. It is 8:30 am and the family has just finished breakfast in the dining room. While Jamie and Edmund Tyrone enter and embrace and Mary comments on being pleased with her recent weight gain even though she is eating less food.
Tyrone and Mary make conversation which leads to a brief argument about Tyrone's tendency to spend money on real estate investing. They are interrupted by the sound of Edmund who is having a coughing fit in the next room. Although Mary remarks that he merely has a bad cold Tyrone's body language indicates that he may know more about Edmund's sickness than Mary. Nevertheless Tyrone tells Mary that she must take care of herself and focus on getting better rather than getting upset about Edmund. Mary immediately becomes defensive saying "There's nothing to be upset about. What makes you think I'm upset?" Tyrone drops the subject and tells Mary that he is glad to have her "dear old self" back again.
Edmund and Jamie are heard laughing in the next room and Tyrone immediately grows bitter assuming they are making jokes about him. Edmund and Jamie enter and we see that even though he is just 23 years old Edmund is "plainly in bad health" and nervous. Upon entering Jamie begins to stare at his mother thinking that she is looking much better. The conversation turns spiteful however when the sons begin to make fun of Tyrone's loud snoring a subject about which he is sensitive driving him to anger. Edmund tells him to calm down leading to an argument between the two. Tyrone then turns on Jamie attacking him for his lack of ambition and laziness. To calm things down Edmund tells a funny story about a tenant named Shaughnessy on the Tyrone family land in Ireland where the family's origins lie. Tyrone is not amused by the anecdote however because he could be the subject of a lawsuit related to ownership of the land. He attacks Edmund again calling his comments socialist. Edmund gets upsets and exits in a fit of coughing. Jamie points out that Edmund is really sick a comment which Tyrone responds to with a "shut up" look as though trying to prevent Mary from finding out something. Mary tells them that despite what any doctor may say she believes that Edmund has nothing more than a bad cold. Mary has a deep distrust for doctors. Tyrone and Jamie begin to stare at her again making her self-conscious. Mary reflects on her faded beauty recognizing that she is in the stages of decline.
As Mary exits Tyrone chastises Jamie for suggesting that Edmund really may be ill in front of Mary who is not supposed to worry during her recovery from her addiction to morphine. Jamie and Tyrone both suspect that Edmund has consumption (better known today as tuberculosis) and Jamie thinks it unwise to allow Mary to keep fooling herself. Jamie and Tyrone argue over Edmund's doctor Doc Hardy who charges very little for his services. Jamie accuses Tyrone of getting the cheapest doctor without regard to quality simply because he is a penny-pincher. Tyrone retorts that Jamie always thinks the worst of everyone and that Jamie does not understand the value of a dollar because he has always been able to take comfortable living for granted. Tyrone by contrast had to work his own way up from the streets. Jamie only squanders loads of money on whores and liquor in town. Jamie argues back that Tyrone squanders money on real estate speculation although Tyrone points out that most of his holdings are mortgaged. Tyrone accuses Jamie of laziness and criticizes his failure to succeed at anything. Jamie was expelled from several colleges in his younger years and he never shows any gratitude towards his father; Tyrone thinks that he is a bad influence on Edmund. Jamie counters that he has always tried to teach Edmund to lead a life different from that which Jamie leads.
Act I Part Two Tyrone and Jamie continue their discussion about Edmund who works for a local newspaper. Tyrone and Jamie have heard that some editors dislike Edmund but they both acknowledge that he has a strong creative impulse that drives much of his plans. Tyrone and Jamie agree also that they are glad to have Mary back. They resolve to help her in any way possible and they decide to keep the truth about Edmund's sickness from her although they realize that they will not be able to do so if Edmund has to be committed to a sanatorium a place where tuberculosis patients are treated. Tyrone and Jamie discuss Mary's health and Tyrone seems to be fooling himself into thinking that Mary is healthier than she really is. Jamie mentions that he heard her walking around the spare bedroom the night before which may be a sign that she is taking morphine again. Tyrone says that it was simply his snoring that induced her to leave; he accuses Jamie once again of always trying to find the worst in any given situation.
Between the lines we begin to learn that Mary first became addicted to morphine 23 years earlier just after giving birth to Edmund. The birth was particularly painful for her and Tyrone hired a very cheap doctor to help ease her pain. The economical but incompetent doctor prescribed morphine to Mary recognizing that it would solve her immediate pain but ignoring potential future side effects such as addiction. Thus we see that Tyrone's stinginess (or prudence as he would call it) has come up in the past and it will be referred to many more times during the course of the play.
Mary enters just as Tyrone and Jamie are about to begin a new argument. Not wishing to upset her they immediately cease and decide to go outside to trim the hedges. Mary asks what they were arguing about and Jamie tells her that they were discussing Edmund's doctor Doc Hardy. Mary says she knows that they are lying to her. The two stare at her again briefly before exiting with Jamie telling her not to worry. Edmund then enters in the midst of a coughing fit and tells Mary that he feels ill. Mary begins to fuss over him although Edmund tells her to worry about herself and not him. Mary tells Edmund that she hates the house in which they live because "I've never felt it was my home." She puts up with it only because she usually goes along with whatever Tyrone wants. She criticizes Edmund and Jamie for "disgracing" themselves with loose women so that at present no respectable girls will be seen with them. Mary announces her belief that Jamie and Edmund are always cruelly suspicious and she thinks that they spy on her. She asks Edmund to "stop suspecting me " although she acknowledges that Edmund cannot trust her because she has broken many promises in the past. She thinks that the past is hard to forget because it is full of broken promises. The act ends with Edmund's exit. Mary sits alone twitching nervously.
Act II Scene i The curtain rises again on the living room where Edmund sits reading. It is 12:45 pm on the same August day. Cathleen the maid enters with whiskey and water for pre-lunch drinking. Edmund asks Cathleen to call Tyrone and Jamie for lunch. Cathleen is chatty and flirty and tells Edmund that he is handsome. Jamie soon enters and pours himself a drink adding water to the bottle afterwards so that Tyrone will not know they had a drink before he came in. Tyrone is still outside talking to one of the neighbors and putting on "an act" with the intent of showing off. Jamie tells Edmund that Edmund may have a sickness more severe than a simple case of malaria. He then chastises Edmund for leaving Mary alone all morning. He tells him that Mary's promises mean nothing anymore. Jamie reveals that he and Tyrone knew of Mary's morphine addiction as much as ten years before they told Edmund.
Edmund begins a coughing fit as Mary enters and she tells him not to cough. When Jamie makes a snide comment about his father Mary tells him to respect Tyrone more. She tells him to stop always seeking out the weaknesses in others. She expresses her fatalistic view of life that most events are somehow predetermined that humans have little control over their own lives. She then complains that Tyrone never hires any good servants; she is displeased with Cathleen and she blames her unhappiness on Tyrone's refusal to hire a top-rate maid. At this point Cathleen enters and tells them that Tyrone is still outside talking. Edmund exits to fetch him and while he is gone Jamie stares at Mary with a concerned look. Mary asks why he is looking at her and he tells her that she knows why. Although he will not say it directly Jamie knows that Mary is back on morphine; he can tell by her glazed eyes. Edmund reenters and curses Jamie when Mary playing ignorant tells him that Jamie has been insinuating nasty things about her. Mary prevents an argument by telling Edmund to blame no one. She again expresses her fatalist view: "[Jamie] can't help what the past has made him. Any more than your father can. Or you. Or I." Jamie shrugs off all accusations and Edmund looks suspiciously at Mary.
Tyrone enters and he argues briefly with his two sons about the whiskey. They all have a large drink. Suddenly Mary has an outburst about Tyrone's failure to understand what a home is. Mary has a distinct vision of a home one that Tyrone has never been able to provide for her. She tells him that he should have remained a bachelor but then she drops the subject so that they can begin lunch. However she first criticizes Tyrone for letting Edmund drink saying that it will kill him. Suddenly feeling guilty she retracts her comments. Jamie and Edmund exit to the dining room. Tyrone sits staring at Mary then says that he has "been a God-damned fool to believe in you." She becomes defensive and begins to deny Tyrone's unspoken accusations but he now knows that she is back on morphine. She complains again of his drinking before the scene ends.
Act II Scene ii The scene begins half an hour after the previous scene. The family is returning from lunch in the dining room. Tyrone appears angry and aloof while Edmund appears "heartsick." Mary and Tyrone argue briefly about the nature of the "home " although Mary seems somewhat aloof while she speaks because she is on morphine. The phone rings and Tyrone answers it. He talks briefly with the caller and agrees on a meeting at four o'clock. He returns and tells the family that the caller was Doc Hardy who wanted to see Edmund that afternoon. Edmund remarks that it doesn't sound like good tidings. Mary immediately discredits everything Doc Hardy has to say because she thinks he is a cheap quack whom Tyrone hired only because he is inexpensive. After a brief argument she exits upstairs.
After she is gone Jamie remarks that she has gone to get more morphine. Edmund and Tyrone explode at him telling him not to think such bad thoughts about people. Jamie counters that Edmund and Tyrone need to face the truth; they are kidding themselves. Edmund tells Jamie that he is too pessimistic. Tyrone argues that both boys have forgotten Catholicism the only belief that is not fraudulent. Jamie and Edmund both grow mad and begin to argue with Tyrone. Tyrone admits that he does not practice Catholicism strictly but he claims that he prays each morning and each evening. Edmund is a believer in Nietzsche who wrote that "God is dead" in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He ends the argument however by resolving to speak with Mary about the drugs and he exits upstairs.
After Edmund leaves Tyrone tells Jamie that Doc Hardy say that Edmund has consumption "no possible doubt." However if Edmund goes to a sanatorium immediately he will be cured in six to 12 months. Jamie demands that Tyrone send Edmund somewhere good not somewhere cheap. Jamie says that Tyrone thinks consumption is necessarily fatal and therefore it is not worth spending money on trying to cure Edmund since he is guaranteed to die anyway. Jamie correctly argues that consumption can be cured if treated properly. He decides to go with Tyrone and Edmund to the doctor that afternoon then exits.
Mary reenters as Jamie leaves and she tells Tyrone that Jamie would be a good son if he had been raised in a "real" home as Mary envisions it. She tells Tyrone not to give Jamie any money because he will use it only to but liquor. Tyrone bitterly implies that Mary and her drug use is enough to make any man want to drink. Mary dodges his accusation with denials but she asks Tyrone not to leave her alone that afternoon because she gets lonely. Tyrone responds that Mary is the one who "leaves " referring to her mental aloofness when she takes drugs. Tyrone suggests that Mary take a ride in the new car he bought her which to Tyrone's resentment does not often get used (he sees it as another waste of money). Mary tells him that he should not have bought her a second-hand car. In any case Mary argues that she has no one to visit in the car since she has not had any friends since she got married. She alludes briefly to a scandal involving Tyrone and a mistress at the beginning of their marriage and this event caused many of her friends to abandon her. Tyrone tells Mary not to dig up the past. Mary changes the subject and tells Tyrone that she needs to go to the drugstore.
Delving into the past Mary tells Tyrone the story of getting addicted to morphine when Edmund was born. She implicitly blames Tyrone for her addiction because he would only pay for a cheap doctor who knew of no better way to cure her childbirth pain. Tyrone interrupts and tells her to forget the past but Mary replies "Why? How can I? The past is the present isn't it? It's the future too. We all try to lie out of that but life won't let us."