June 2010

Arts & Letters

Writing from the grave

By Peter Conrad

Eugene O’Neill’s 'Long Day’s Journey into Night'

Eugene O’Neill thought of his Long Day’s Journey into Night as a posthumous work. Completing it in 1941, he decided that it should only be published 25 years after his death; he also stipulated that it should never be performed, effectively killing it before its creation. Writing it made him feel like a dead man – a ghost haunting himself or a gravedigger exhuming his own cadaver. The play is an account of his tormented family history and although the character who shares his experiences is called Edmund, he gave his name, Eugene, to Edmund’s younger brother, who died in childhood. O’Neill was revisiting his life on the assumption that it had already ended.

His widow decided to lift O’Neill’s embargo three years after his death, and the play was first performed in 1956 in Stockholm, an appropriate location, since its morbidity and the alcoholism of its characters are somewhat reminiscent of Scandinavian life, even though it’s about an Irish clan in New England. Since then, productions have been infrequent, because of the demands the piece makes on actors and audiences. It requires a King Lear and a Lady Macbeth: Andrew Upton, who directs it for the Sydney Theatre Company this month, has cast William Hurt as the hollowly grandiose father, James Tyrone, and Robyn Nevin as his morphine-addled wife, Mary.

What’s needed in addition to the talent are customers who will pay good money to be harrowed, and perhaps even to be occasionally bored. The longueurs of Long Day’s Journey into Night are the whole point of it. This is a play about the entropic operation of time, and it makes us watch a group of people who slouch and stumble through their daily routine only to confront an even more inert, insomniac night. In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the games played by the tramps make time pass, even though it would, as one of them says, have passed anyway. But O’Neill compels us to witness mortality at its remorseless, insidious work, and shows up the emptiness of attempts to conceal that protracted death. Boredom is what we call our existential discomfort as we feel the sand erosively sifting through the hourglass. To make matters more difficult for the audience, the play sticks to the classical unities with a vengeance. The action (of which there is little, except for the pouring of drinks and the ritualised exchange of recriminations) stays penned in one place – the shabby-genteel living room of a holiday home beside a foggy beach – and is restricted to that single exhausting, eponymous day.

If you steel yourself for the journey, however, there are rewards. Fortunately, O’Neill also has mordant fun exposing the self-deception of his characters and is achingly tender in his sympathy for them. Tragedies, after eliciting our pity and terror, are supposed to guarantee us purgation. After three or more hours of wrangling, the play’s last line, delivered by the doped mother, is an instant of poetic bliss that is all the more touching for being so casually expressed. It briefly testifies to the possibility of happiness, although we realise after it has been spoken and while the lights are mercifully fading that this joy is remembered, and has been irrecoverably lost.

What makes Long Day’s Journey into Night so wrenching is that it’s about all our lives. Its autobiographical references are exact – O’Neill’s father was a penny-pinching ham actor like James Tyrone and his mother became addicted to morphine after being dosed with it during childbirth – but they don’t turn the piece into a howl of self-pity. The Tyrones and their two surviving sons represent the human family, a potentially lethal incubator. An institution designed to regulate the transmission of property has actually proved better at passing on guilt from one generation to the next. DNA reduces us to helpless variants of the mismatched couple who begot us and imposes a curse as fatal as that which hounds the Orestes of Aeschylus after his act of matricide. “The past is the present, isn’t it?” says Mary. “It’s the future, too.” So much for the new life the family supposedly exists to foster. We rail against this unjust biological fate and retaliate by doing harm to those we love. Locked in the same domestic cell, we each retreat into an incommunicable solitude: the conversations of O’Neill’s characters are monologues that prattle on along parallel lines. Drink or prescription drugs or some other opiate quietens anxiety, at least for a while. In her lucid moments, Mary grieves on behalf of us all about “the things life has done to us” and the worse things we have done to ourselves. Such lacerating honesty is hard to take; no wonder O’Neill thought he ought to spare us by suppressing the play.

He also despaired of its being performed because it is a scornful critique of the theatre and of the role-playing even the most unhistrionic of us rely on to keep going. Tyrone is so accustomed to the attitudinising of the melodramas he appears in that he can no longer tell the difference between acting and living – or, rather, he can tell, as his frequent lapses into remorse make clear, but can’t do without the fiction. His elder son, Jamie, has been forced into the same career and despises it. But O’Neill ingeniously overcomes the theatre’s unauthenticity by writing as if he were a novelist, able to rely on a reality that is more solid and ample than the thin pretences of the stage. In his opening survey of the set, he lists all the books on Tyrone’s shelves and asserts that the volumes “have the look of having been read and revered”, as if that too were part of the audience’s prep. Mary Tyrone’s twisted rheumatic hands are described with an exactitude that would take a movie camera’s close-ups to verify. Another stage direction specifies that Jamie, with his dissipated looks, must resemble his father, rather than his mother: an impossible request to make of an actor, though it acknowledges that for O’Neill these were human beings he knew intimately, not performers hiding behind false faces.

The play is saved from depressiveness by the lyrical language to which the characters – especially Edmund, a poet in this family of actors – treat themselves when fuelled by booze and its ambitious bravado. It dares to evoke, even to compete with, Shakespeare, who is quoted and discussed throughout: Tyrone, for instance, is tipsily certain that he was an Irish Catholic. When Mary, high on morphine, comes downstairs after midnight carrying her wedding dress, ready to begin the reminiscential monologue that ends the play, Jamie snarls “The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!” – although the staring-eyed woman who goes on to rhapsodise about her unspoiled adolescence is more like Lady Macbeth. O’Neill was unafraid of such comparisons, just as he insisted on measuring up to Aeschylus in his American Civil War saga, Mourning Becomes Electra; it may have been foolish of Tennessee Williams to describe Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as King Lear relocated to the Mississippi delta, but O’Neill does not disgrace himself when he challenges the classics.

Everyone should experience Long Day’s Journey into Night once. Being a greedy fellow, I’ve done so twice. I’m not too sorry to have missed Jack Lemmon’s sweetly bumbling Tyrone in 1987 or Jessica Lange’s ragged but radiant Mary in 2000. But I will always feel richer and stronger for having seen the 1971 National Theatre production in London with Laurence Olivier as Tyrone, and in New York in 2003 I was turned inside out by Vanessa Redgrave’s Mary. O’Neill, who had such contempt for actorish feigning, would have gaped in amazement and gratitude if he had witnessed those brave, self-denuding performances. Already elderly and frail, Olivier made amends for the phoniness of Tyrone’s profession by risking his neck in a gratuitously dangerous bit of physical business. The parsimonious character is in the habit of unscrewing superfluous light bulbs – easy enough to do, but Olivier made it difficult for himself by climbing onto a chair hovering on the edge of a table, reaching up to remove one bulb and dizzily swaying back to the floor, after which he repeated the vertiginous act, almost willing himself to fall (which he never did); it was his equivalent of an acrobat’s tightrope walk without a safety net. And I am equally unable to forget the wordless twitching of Redgrave at the end of the first act as her crazed fingers, begging for the drug that would quieten them, drummed involuntarily on the arm of her chair. Thanks to O’Neill, the theatre on occasions such as these triumphantly justifies its own existence: great actors, like the finest artists, are liars who tell us the truth.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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