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.
He was equally struck by the principles of Expressionist drama, which aimed to capture the darker elements of the human psyche, and of the new social realism (in Ibsen and Strindberg). He joined the experimental jazz age movement that sprouted among poets, artists and musicians in Greenwich Village. In sum, O’Neill absorbed everything that was going on and spewed out his own synthesised artistic expression. In 1936 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but he’d hardly started.
O’Neill was born in a hotel on Times Square in 1888, worked in a mail order house, prospected for gold in Honduras, contracted malaria, filled in backstage as a dogsbody, escaped a disastrous first marriage by going to sea for several years, attempted suicide, worked in newspapers, became a Greenwich Village hobo, entered a sanatorium with tuberculosis… and then started writing, feverishly and seriously.
His writing is often clumsy and repetitious. There aren’t many jokes. But from the time he made his Broadway debut with his first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, in 1920—and won the first of his four Pulitzer prizes—his destiny was clear. O’Neill had the rare gift of living a life in the context of family and transforming it instantly into art. He did so with more intensity than anyone in the theatre before or since.
All the major themes that run through his work are there in Beyond the Horizon: the claims of the land, the destructive cradle of the family, the pleasures of booze and adventure, the liberating forces of self-expression. And O’Neill gives us two brothers—his yin and yang, one a doomed poet, the other an ambitious farmer—divided by love for the same woman.
As Kenneth Tynan said, reviewing the 1958 London premiere of Long Day’s Journey, O’Neill’s strength has nothing to do with intellect, verbal beauty, or even the accepted definitions of tragedy and comedy. “What moved us,” said the American critic Stark Young (approvingly quoted by Tynan), as early as 1926, “was the cost to the dramatist of what he handled.” In Long Day’s Journey, written in 1941 but set in New England three decades earlier, the hurt and the pain is almost unbearable.
In his will, O’Neill forbade the play to be performed until 25 years after his death (though Carlotta, his third wife, allowed the world premiere at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm just three years later, in 1956). It’s a classic case of reading the runes of an artist’s intentions and overriding them for the general interest. Long Day’s Journey was simply too painful for O’Neill to contemplate staging in his lifetime… the play was his apotheosis.
Eugene was his mother’s third son. Her second had died when the eldest boy had ignored his parents’ orders, after contracting measles, not to go near the new baby. Guilt and retribution run through the Long Day’s Journey, as they did the sons’ lives, like a streak of acid.
The four protagonists are life drawings of the O’Neill family: James Tyrone, the once-great actor, now a drunken skinflint reduced to vaudeville performances of an old favourite (James O’Neill toured for years in The Count of Monte Cristo); his wife, Mary, a morphine addict as a result of suffering in childbirth; and two sons—James Tyrone Jr, a failed actor and drunken whoremaster, and Edmund, a consumptive poet who has been to sea and worships the poets Ernest Dowson and Algernon Swinburne as literary heroes.
The whole traumatic Irish Catholic family history, with its “atmospheres” and whisperings, its big lies and small deceits (the grown boys have to “sneak” a pre-lunch whiskey while their father’s out the room), is packed into one single day and night with a fierce Aristotelian unity.
The central character of James Tyrone has long been a daunting challenge for actors who aspire to greatness. Laurence Olivier gave one of his overpowering, iconic performances—on a par with his Richard III and Othello—in Michael Blakemore’s National Theatre production in 1971, milking the applause of his family like a street troubadour, leaping delicately to adjust the lighting over the dinner table, glowering dangerously like a wounded bull in the corner of his own miserable domesticity.
We seemed not be watching great drama, said the Guardian’s Michael Billington, but eavesdropping on life itself. When the performance was televised in 1973, Clive James found a new way of describing a dramaturgy “whose every phrase seems to be chosen for its dead weight, and whose poetry resides in nothing that can be said.”
James noted, too, in relation to O’Neill’s tragic muse, that the two sons were not the last of the ancient Greeks but the first of the 20th-century walking wounded. O’Neill, he concluded, was the only decadent who was also transitional, marking the movement from booze to drugs as a brain sweetener.
The influence of Long Day’s Journey is inescapable in our modern theatre, on both sides of the Atlantic. Rarely has a playwright stripped himself so bare.
Every week, the Royal Court presents a play with elements of Long Day’s Journey as young dramatists dredge their limited experience and memories of growing up for salty and vindictive material. You realise just how good O’Neill is when you then see a play like Polly Stenham’s award-winning That Face (2007)—a blistering, in many ways exemplary, study of maternal disintegration acted by a dissolute tragedy queen trying to cling on to her son (incestuously) and her daughter (haphazardly) as they submit to drugs and unhappiness.
For all its power, Stenham’s play seems as fraught with middle-class privilege as it does with short-term selfishness. The difference is that O’Neill has a capacity for love, horror and tolerance that outstrips any pettiness on the way. As Tynan said, he might not have been able to carve heads upon cherry-stones (as Johnson said of Milton), “but he could cut a colossus from a rock.”
Compared to his modern dramatic counterparts, O’Neill is infinitely more atavistic, more plugged into the world that had shaped his antecedents. The only play he wrote that looked into the future was Strange Interlude (1928), a five-hour epic ending in 1945 which helped popularise Freud in America. The play portrays a woman, Nina Leeds, who decides she wants a particular man to father her child and passes the baby off as her husband’s.
In this work O’Neill experimented with “the aside,” dramatising the interior monologue as a way of revealing character, a crucial feature of his later masterpieces.
Strange Interlude became the most celebrated American play of the 1920s (the Marx Brothers even nodded to it in Animal Crackers: “Pardon me while I have a strange interlude,” said Groucho before going into a satirical riff), and still seems provocative and new.
Jonathan Miller put something of that experimentalism back into Long Day’s Journey when he directed it in London in 1986, with Jack Lemmon as James Tyrone and Kevin Spacey as the elder son. The actors overlapped dialogue and the show was faster and funnier than usual.
Yes, the play is a mythic, maudlin masterpiece. But it’s not an immutable object that needs to be treated with solemn reverence. Miller and Lemmon proved that you don’t have to deliver the lumber with lumberingness. The last London revival, in 2000, starring Charles Dance and Jessica Lange (with Olivia Colman of Peep Show and The Iron Lady fame, as the maid) was poetic without being thunderous, prompting one critic, Paul Taylor, to say that “while they leave you in no doubt that Long Day’s Journey is a tragedy, they also suggest, elatingly, that it could be subtitled ‘Absolutely Bibulous.’”
The latest production, which opens at London’s Apollo Theatre in April, has been a pet project of director Anthony Page for some years. With a distinguished track record at the Royal Court and in the West End, where he has become the go-to director for the other great American poetic dramatists, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, Page is adamant about Long Day’s merits. “I saw the original production in 1956 and I’ve always wanted to do it. It is beyond dispute a very great play, but the casting has to be right, and this has taken a long time. I’ve cut it quite a lot, so it should play at two-and-half-hours instead of three-and-a-half.
“It was written to be read, and it reads as a poetic tragedy. But the more you work on it in the theatre, the more subtle and Chekhovian it becomes. It does strike me now as a very Russian play, there’s so much going on under the lines, and the relationships are shifting all the time.”
For the moment, the spangles and the dancing girls are on hold. As a little old lady was once overheard saying as she came out of another Eugene O’Neill marathon: “It’s not really a show, it’s much more of a play.”