Long Day’s Journey Into Night was so personal and painful for Eugene O’Neill that he forbade the performance of the play until after his death. Does it stand the test of time?by Michael Coveney / March 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
O’Neill’s plays have long appealed to actors: an all-star production of Long Day’s Journey from 1988, featuring Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey
Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is the mother of all dysfunctional family plays, and the ultimate imprimatur of autobiography as a dramatic subject. After a 12-year hiatus in the London theatre—a gap ordained, probably, by the lack of actors willing to contemplate the summit—it is about to burst upon us once more.
A new production starring David Suchet, who has specialised in extravagant theatrical roles beyond his Hercule Poirot persona on television, and directed by Anthony Page, one of the early stars of the English Stage Company (home of John Osborne, Edward Bond and many talented new writers), will take up the challenge.
But how will this great work of art thrive in a theatre culture that is already stiff with plays about broken families, abusive childhoods and dead marriages? And can it still justify its status as the mainspring of modern American drama, the work of a demonically possessed genius who made possible, by their own admission, the careers of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, David Mamet and Neil LaBute?
Before O’Neill, there was no modern American drama. There were cabarets and vaudevilles and musical comedies. You can argue that the defining genre of the American theatre is the great modern musical, stretching from Show Boat in 1927 through Oklahoma! in 1943 to West Side Story in 1958 and on to the hyper-literate and musically complex innovations of Stephen Sondheim.
But O’Neill created a serious theatre, much as George Bernard Shaw did in England 20 years earlier, by the force of his talent and by absorbing the examples of Europe. He was much taken by the Abbey Players from Dublin, who visited New York in 1911. While resident in Jimmy the Priest’s “hell hole,” his drinking hang-out on Fulton Street—later dramatised in The Iceman Cometh, the companion play to Long Day’s Journey—he saw every one of their productions during their six-week engagement. He was struck by their everyday, working-class comic naturalism and the bold new style of domestic realism—as already exemplified in the productions of Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theatre.