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The Anguish of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” — the Final Weekend at The Wallis

By Ernest Kearney  —  Shortly after finishing Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill presented the original script of the play to his wife, Carlotta, along with a note on their 12th wedding anniversary:

Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in

tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and

tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead

at last and write this play – write it with deep pity and understanding and

forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones.

Passing by the closed door of the room he used for his writing in his Northern California Tao House, Carlotta would later report that, during the hours he worked on Long Day’s Journey—his most autobiographical drama—she heard him, constantly, sobbing.

O’Neill would write two more plays after finishing his tragedy of the Tyrone family: A Touch of the Poet in 1942 and Moon for the Misbegotten in 1942-43.

But Long Day’s Journey would, in all but chronology, be O’Neill’s last and greatest work.

There is a great amount of irony attached to the work.  The foremost being, perhaps, that throughout his career O’Neill had sought for the dramatic intensity and vitality that the Greeks had achieved with their theatre.  His quest of this emotional vigor had taken him from the theatre of ancient Athens in Mourning Becomes Electra and Desire Under the Elms to other dramatic forms such as Noh theatre in The Great God Brown.

The irony that his most perfect expression of it, one that even adheres to the classical unities, would be rooted not in the great myths, but in the sad wreckage of his own life.

Long Day’s Journey follows the story of the viciously bitter and unhappy O’Neill family, or at least as the playwright saw them to be.

O’Neill did not want it ever produced as a play.  He did not copyright the work; instead he gave one sealed copy of the play to his publishers at Random House with instructions that it not be published until 25 years after his death.  A second sealed copy was sent to Yale University to which he had also left his correspondences and notes.

More irony is found in the contravene of O’Neill’s wishes coming from the efforts of the woman to whom he dedicated the work: It was his wife, Carlotta, who—shortly after O’Neill’s death—contested his decree and demanded that Random publish the play.

Being the widow, the law sided with her and the play came to print in 1956.

Compounding the irony of the O’Neill masterpiece: Long Day’s Journey Into Night, did not, first, come to the Broadway stage, or even the American stage, but had its world premiere in February, 1956 at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden as “Lång dags färd mot natt.”  The Swedish nation had shown an enthusiasm for O’Neill’s work since Anna Christie (1921) and had vaulted at the opportunity to mount a critically acclaimed premiere.

(l-r) Matthew Beard (Edmund Tyrone), Lesley Manville (Mary Tyrone), Jeremy Irons (James Tyrone), and Rory Keenan (James Tyrone Jr). (Photo by Lawrence K. Ho / Courtesy of Wallis/Annenberg)

In this it can serve as a mirroring of Ghosts by the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen with whom O’Neill had been compared his entire career.  Ghosts, written in 1881, (ironically centered on a family ruined by a patriarchal figure) was viewed as too controversial to be staged in Norway, and so had its premiere on stage in Chicago, Illinois.

In writing to a friend about his reluctance to have his work either produced or published O’Neill confessed; “There are good reasons in the play itself… why I’m keeping this one very much to myself.”

When the play opened on Broadway in November 1956, some of those reasons became clear.  Friends and colleagues of James O’Neill took the playwright to task for what they decried as character assassination of his father, setting into motion a debate that still rages today.

There is, however, no arguing that regardless of the playwright’s shading, the four main characters of the drama are semi-autobiographical renderings of O’Neill himself, his older brother Jamie who died of alcoholism at age 45, and their parents James and Mary.

Most of the play’s details; the seaside home, the father’s acting career, the mother’s drug dependence, the younger son’s illness are taken from O’Neill’s life.

A last ironic touch is found in the drama’s single discrepancy as to names; James, Mary and Jamie are in the play as they were in life.  But O’Neill has replaced his own name with that of his younger brother Edmund.

The brother who died in infancy.

On the stage of the Wallis, director Richard Eyre has gathered a talented cast and given them a splendid set on which to work.  Unfortunately, neither the cast nor the set seems well tuned to O’Neill’s piece.

Jeremy Irons as the elder Tyrone at once seems too solid and too lithe for the role; too solid for a man consumed by internal recriminations and too lithe for the brooding, dominating father figure.  Likewise, Matthew Beard as Edmund and Rory Keenan as Jamie, seem hale and hearty even as both of them bear the conquering worm within.

This is a doomed family on stage before us.  All love, all compassion, all warmth and tenderness, all hope is corrupted by the incessant need to bestow blame, to conceal guilt by fault finding, to exonerate oneself in accusing the other.  Here is all the torment of the ancient Harpies found in a single family.

Lesley Manville (Mary Tyrone). (Photo by Lawrence K. Ho / Courtesy of Wallis/Annenberg)

Everyone in the cast seems oddly detached, above the agonies of their characters; everyone except Lesley Manville as Mary Tyrone.  Manville seems to find the right surges of hope and despair as she feels the ebb and flow of her cravings for the needle and vial awaiting her up in her bedroom with the promise of relief.  She alone, seemed to understand that this is a family fighting a forlorn hope for survival.

Undercutting this sense of urgency was the set by Rob Howell.  In O’Neill’s stage description of the setting he uses words like “dark,” “windowless,” “threadbare,” “and shabby.”  The characters are constantly bickering about the dilapidated nature of the home, as it reflects the relationships.

Not so, on the stage of the Wallis, where the set put me to mind of a Malibu beach house I once entered, for a party, back in the days when I was still under the delusion that I wanted nothing more in life than a chance to work on the script for Rambo VII.

In the play, the tragedy is that the characters do not perceive the essence their salvations require.  That it is also missing from the stage of this production denies it the hope of affecting the audience.

 

The elder Tyrone speaks of his wife’s morphine addiction as “a curse she can’t escape.” Then moans, “None of us can help what life has done to us.”

 

Perhaps he’s right.

 

Perhaps guns don’t kill people, families do.

 

But the one hope that the Tyrone’s have they renounce by the denial of their own failings.

 

They could have shown forgiveness to each other and, in doing so, they could have found forgiveness for themselves.

 

“None of us can help what life has done to us.”

 

But we can forgive life and one another.

 

That the characters in Long Day’s Journey Into Night are unable to do so makes the work a sublime tragedy.

 

That Richard Eyre’s staging lacked the chance of hope diminished the production.

I would like to believe that the sobbing man behind that door at Tao House was finally able to find it.

 

♦     ♦     ♦

NOTE: Featured Image —  Jeremy Irons (James Tyrone), Lesley Manville (Mary Tyrone). (Photo by Lawrence K. Ho / Courtesy of Wallis/Annenberg)


What:

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
by Eugene O’Neill
Director Richard Eyre
Set and Costume Design Rob Howell
Lighting Design Peter Mumford
Sound Design John Leonard

Where:
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Bram Goldsmith Theater
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA, 90210

When:

June 8 – July 1, 2018
Performance Schedule: Tues – Fri at 7:30pm; Sat at 2pm & 7:30pm; Sun at 2pm

Tickets:

Single tickets: $35 – $125 (prices subject to change)
Online – TheWallis.org/LongDays
By Phone – 310.746.4000


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Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest’s stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

Latest comment
  • What a tragedy that the production is not up to the task of presenting this masterpiece. But Mr. Kearney’s review leaves me with the indelible image of O’Neill crying, despairing, as he wrote. It’s a testament to what drives the best authors: they write not because they want to, but because they have no other choice. This heartfelt review makes me want to buy the script and read it.

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