COVID-19 and the Rise of Domestic Violence make Eugene O’Neill’s1916 play, Before Breakfast Timely

By David Block

I recently completed The School of The New York Times online course write and think like an editor. There, participants were shown how to review songs, art, movies, books, TV shows and theatre. The theatre segment had the biggest impact on me, therefore, I will share what I learned from that section. I found out that plays over a hundred years old can still be quite pertinent today.

A key example is Eugene O’Neill’s 1916 play Before Breakfast, which was the play that I chose to dissect. This 105-year-old one-act play has as much significance today as it had when it first premiered. Today, it can easily be tied in with domestic violence due to the pandemic.

In the play, Mrs. Roland becomes fed up with her lazy, unemployed, and drunken husband Alfred. Instead of seeking employment, he philanders. At home, he drinks and sleeps, while she keeps the place clean and also goes to work.

Her verbal assault sounded somewhat similar to couples’ arguments today stemmed from the orders to stay at home and to practice social distancing. It is now a serious issue. One example is last year’s study put out by two Brigham Young University assistant professors, Emily Leslie and Riley Wilson. Their article focused on the rise of domestic violence due to Covid-19.

They wrote that the pandemic increased domestic violence calls by 7.5% from March to May 2020.

You can review their research and results at

Their findings convinced me that now there are hundreds of people like Mrs. Roland.

In the play, she yelled at Alfred. During her diatribe, we learn that he went from the bedroom to the bathroom. She ordered him to come out to the kitchen and face her, but he never did. As a result, Mrs. Roland’s anger worsened.

I wondered if she planned to drag Alfred out to the kitchen and hit him or if he would belt her. Neither scenario occurred. Moreover, we do not see him on stage. All we hear are his occasional moans.

She screamed that his poems would never get published and nobody would ever read them. She reminded him that his wealthy family now cut him off. She yelled that the rent would be due in a few days and that their landlord refused to give them a grace period.

Not one encouraging word left her lips.

As she screamed at him, he slowly committed suicide. Most viewers could figure that out, but not Mrs. Roland. She looked into the bathroom and ordered him to shave more carefully. He was cutting himself and his blood was dripping onto the floor. She recently cleaned it and the last thing she wanted was to clean it again due to her husband’s carelessness.

Later in the play, she demanded to know why he was ignoring her. She looked inside the bathroom again, but this time she screamed.

Today’s high unemployment rate due to COVID-19, and the rise of domestic violence made Before Breakfast realistic and relevant.

How many days in a row can someone be on the receiving end of his/her spouse’s verbal abuse before retaliating? How can one honestly live with a Mr. or Mrs. Roland?




David Block worked as a documentary producer/director and a freelance writer for over 30 years. See for more info about him.

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David Block worked as a documentary producer/director and a freelance writer for over 30 years. See for more info about him.

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