The play begins in the living room of the Tyrone family's summer home at 8.30 in the morning in August 1912. The family has just finished breakfast. Mary Tyrone and her husband enter together, coming from the dining room. Tyrone compliments her on having gained twenty pounds, and they talk for a few moments affectionately. The conversation briefly turns into an argument when Mary makes a reference to Tyrone's lack of success at buying and selling real estate. From the dining hall comes the sound of Edmund coughing, which worries Mary, even though she has convinced herself that Edmund suffers only from a bad cold. Tyrone tells her not to get upset over it, but his worried glance at her suggests his concern. He tells her she must concentrate on taking care of herself as well as Edmund. Mary is clearly in a nervous state, but she denies it, and Tyrone tries to smooth things over with some affectionate words to the effect that he is glad to have her back as her old self. She comments that she did not sleep well, and teases him about his snoring.
A burst of laughter is heard from the dining room. Tyrone is annoyed because he assumes that his sons are making a joke at his expense. Tyrone makes it clear that he is displeased with what Jamie, who is nearly thirty-four years old, has made of his life.
Jamie and Edmund enter, still chuckling. Edmund is clearly in bad health. He is thin and his cheeks are sunken. Jamie stares at his mother, making her self-conscious, but he explains that he was only thinking that she looked very well. Edmund comments on this too, and Mary is reassured. Jamie and Edmund then tease their father about his snoring, which irritates him. A quarrel seems about to erupt between Tyrone and Jamie, but Mary smoothes things over. Edmund explains what he and Jamie were laughing about. The previous night at the inn they had encountered a man named Shaughnessy, who is a tenant on a farm owned by Tyrone. Shaughnessy told them he had won a confrontation with Harker, a millionaire businessman and friend of Tyrone, whose estate borders the farm. Apparently some pigs escaped from the farm and bathed in Harker's ice pond. Tyrone is not amused by the story, since he fears he may face a lawsuit over the matter. He picks a quarrel with both his sons, prompting Edmund to leave the room in disgust. Edmund goes upstairs, coughing, which prompts Jamie to remark that Edmund is seriously sick. Mary insists that Edmund merely has a bad cold, and Tyrone, anxious to calm her, reports that Dr. Hardy thinks Edmund may have a touch of malarial fever, which can be cured with quinine. But Mary, in an emotional outburst, says she distrusts Dr. Hardy and all doctors. When Tyrone and Jamie stare at her she becomes self-conscious. Tyrone speaks to her affectionately, trying to reassure her of her beauty. But Mary is aware that she is growing old, and speaks regretfully of how beautiful her hair used to be. She goes into the parlor to see the cook about dinner.
After Mary has gone, Tyrone attacks Jamie for mentioning that Edmund is sick, but Jamie says it is wrong to let Mary go on fooling herself. He and Tyrone both know that Dr. Hardy believes Edmund is suffering from consumption (tuberculosis). Jamie then turns on his father, blaming him for not sending Edmund to a better doctor. He claims that Tyrone only uses Hardy because he is cheap. Tyrone angrily defends Hardy and denounces the more expensive doctors, saying they charge too much. Tyrone then accuses his son of not knowing the value of a dollar. He claims that Jamie never saves money and wastes all his salary on prostitutes and drink, and only gets work as an actor because of his father's influence. He accuses Jamie of being lazy and wasting the money his father spent on his education, dropping out of several colleges, having no ambition, and showing no gratitude. Then he complains that Edmund has ruined his own life by trying to imitate the wild escapades of his healthier brother. His nervous constitution cannot survive the stress. Tyrone then turns again on Jamie, accusing him of being responsible for Edmund's sickness because he set him a bad example. Jamie resents the accusation, pointing out how close he and Edmund are. He also says that Edmund has a strong will of his own, and cannot be influenced more than he wants to be. Tyrone then mentions that Edmund has been doing well at his job as a reporter on the local paper, and Jamie adds that some of Edmund's creative work is excellent. Tyrone starts to quarrel with Jamie again, but Jamie, exasperated, tells him to stop. They then drop their antagonism as Tyrone switches the topic of conversation to Mary. She has been home for two months following her treatment for morphine addiction, and he has been delighted at having her back. So has Jamie. Tyrone wants to keep the truth of Edmund's condition from her, but knows it will be impossible if he has to be sent to a sanatorium. But he has confidence that she is strong enough to survive the blow. Jamie hints that he does not share his father's confidence. He tells Tyrone that the previous night, Mary went to sleep alone in the spare room, and in the past that has always been what she did when she took morphine. It transpires that the root of Mary's addiction goes back to the birth of Edmund, when the doctor prescribed morphine. Jamie blames the doctor for incompetence and then blames Tyrone for refusing to pay out money for Mary to see a good doctor.
The quarrel breaks off as Mary comes back in from the parlor. Tyrone and Jamie agree to go outside and trim the hedge. Mary has heard them arguing, but neither Tyrone nor Jamie is prepared to tell her what the argument was about. She talks and acts in a highly nervous, odd way, and the two men stare at her, both fearing the worst about her condition. Tyrone then goes outside, and Jamie tells his mother not to worry about Edmund. She resents his concern, and he is hurt by her attitude.
After Jamie goes outside, Edmund enters. He has just had a coughing fit and says he feels rotten. Mary fusses over him, but he tells her that the only thing that matters is for her to take care of herself. After she looks out of the window and sees wealthy neighbors driving by, she confesses to Edmund that she has always hated this town and never wanted to live there. She agreed because Tyrone liked it and insisted on building the house, where she has had to go every summer. She has never liked the house, because Tyrone would never spend enough money on it for it to become a good home. She also grumbles that Edmund and Jamie have spent too much of their time with loose women they met in bars, with the result that no respectable parents will let their daughters be seen with them. Edmund lets slip that he fears she may relapse into her addiction, and Mary complains that they are all suspicious of her and spy on her. She complains that she is always alone, but Edmund reminds her that one of them always stays around to keep her company. Edmund tells her about her use of the spare room the previous night, but she insists it was because she was worried about him. Edmund wants her to promise that even if he does have a serious illness, she must go on taking care of herself (he means that she must not go back on morphine). She promises she will do as he asks, but she admits that she has broken promises in the past. She says she will go upstairs and lie down for a nap.
Edmund goes out on the porch to join Jamie, leaving Mary sitting in an armchair trying to relax, but only becoming tense. She fights a battle to keep control of herself.
The fact that the play begins just after the family breakfast is significant. The play is shaped around mealtimes, daily rituals when a family comes together to reaffirm its connections. A family meal should be a harmonious time, but harmony is not to be found in the Tyrone family. Although breakfast appears to have passed off relatively smoothly, with all the family in attendance, each later gathering for a meal will reveal deeper and deeper fractures within the family.
The major open quarrel in Act 1 is between Tyrone and Jamie, and it introduces one of the main themes of the play, the corrosive effect of miserliness on the part of Tyrone. It first appears when Jamie says to his father accusingly that Edmund might never have become so seriously ill had Tyrone sent him to a decent doctor in the first place. The theme returns later in the Act, when Jamie makes the same accusation about Tyrone's hiring of the cheap doctor who first gave Mary morphine, after she had given birth to Edmund. This, according to Jamie, was the root of his mother's addiction. Tyrone's recurring response is that his sons do not know the value of a dollar. The same argument will recur several times in the play. It is a sign of the sterile repetitiveness that characterizes the interactions of the family. They are stuck in their ingrained attitudes and long-held resentments and cannot move beyond them. However, in spite of the bitterness of their feelings, there is also genuine affection between the members of this family. It surfaces often after they go too far in their arguments, regret their hasty words, and remember other, more positive emotions that are buried quite deep. An example occurs after the vicious quarrel between Tyrone and Jamie. As Tyrone says how happy he is that Mary has been well in the two months since she returned from treatment, Jamie drops his hostility towards his father: "His son looks at him, for the first time with an understanding sympathy. It is as if suddenly a deep bond of common feeling existed between them in which their antagonisms could be forgotten." This becomes the pattern of the play: angry words and bitter quarrels alternating with moments of at least partial reconciliation and understanding. But the latter are never more than fleeting and do little to help the deteriorating family situation, which is propelled on its downward spiral mostly by the realization on the part of the men that Mary has sunk back into her addiction and cannot face reality.
Long Day's Journey into Night: Novel Summary: Act 1