Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Written in Tears and Blood" (on O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night)

written in tears and blood
by Douglas Messerli

Eugene O’Neill Long Day’s Journey into Night / Los Angeles, Geffen Playhouse, the performance I attended was on February 28, 2017

As I wrote in My Year 2004: Under Our Skin, in 2003 I was scheduled to travel to New York where I had a ticket for a revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night with Vanessa Redgrave. Bad weather prevented my travel plans, so I spent the next few days re-reading the play instead. I had long ago seen the Sidney Lumet film version. And finally, last night, I got a chance to see the play on stage for the first time.

      O’Neill’s great family drama is far more difficult to realize, I now perceive, than one can imagine simply by reading it or seeing such a brilliant production such as the film starring Katharine Hepburn, Sir Ralph Richards, Jason Robards, Jr., and Dean Stockwell.

       Certainly the cast at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse were capable: all have played in numerous theatrical, film, and TV productions of important works. And this version’s James Tyrone, Jr. (Alfred Molina) is one of my favorite current actors.

       Yet the first two acts, in scenes that establish the figures before they turn into haunted ghosts, seemed uneven, as if these actors had just met for the first time. Certainly they did not have the rhythm of a family tortured by each other. Molina seems a far too-kind figure to represent the selfish and greedy former Shakespearian player that his character represents.

      Colin Woodell is a handsome Edmund, perfect the role, but seemed a bit ghostly even before he gets the sad confirmation of his consumption. Stephen Louis Grush also has none of the slightly loathsome charmer qualities that he later is asked to reveal. And Jane Kaczmarek seems far too earthly and powerful to be the frail Mary Tyrone, not so secretly hooked on morphine.

      Fortunately, after the intermission, when the long tales of guilt and errors begins spilling out, the characters found their footing, and the intimate conversation between Edmund and his father, where the son forces his elder to face up to his stinginess in planning to send him to a state institution for his cure and James Sr. admits not only to his greed but details how he has destroyed his own career and life by turning away from challenging roles—we do believe he may at one time have been a good actor, worthy of Booth’s praise—to recite, in endless popular performances, Edmond Dantès, the Count of Monte Cristo, an adaptation of which he had purchased the rights. Yes, his had told these stories to his wife and son endlessly, and we know, along with Jaime’s taunts, that he may be exaggerating or even lying in excuse of his behavior. But, if nothing else, he has supported his otherwise unemployable family members. And in the process he and we know he, just like Mary, has abandoned his life.
      Jamie’s drunken admission that he has attempted all of his life to corrupt his younger brother is a beautiful testament to his true love of Edmund, but also, we perceive, a sad testimony to how these family members destroy one another in their very embraces.
      And even Kaczmarek came alive in the long scene with her drunken maid, Cathleen (Angela Goethals), repeating all the lies about her youth—that she was a marvelous pianist and a committed religious believer—that James and her sons later disavow. Certainly this Mary seems far more grounded in the flesh than in any spiritual world. And by the end of the play, when her hair truly has “fallen,” a feat she displays throughout the work, she does almost seem to be the monster that the family sees her as.


     Although all of these figures already represent the living-dead—in real life O’Neill lost all three in a little more than three years—in the August 1912 day in which the audience encounters them, it is Mary who major spook, a woman, as Swinburne’s poem A Leave-Taking” reiterates, cannot “hear,” “know,” “weep,” “love,” “care,” or, finally, even “see.” She is in another world, another time in the past that perhaps never quite existed.
      What is so amazing about this “play of old sorrow” is how relevant it is still today, more than a century later, where variations of the same drug abuse and alcoholism is being played out in thousands and thousands of American families. Although we no longer like to imagine that our mostly university and large hospital-supported doctors are “quacks” such as the one that prescribed Mary to take morphine and sent off Edmund to a cheap public facility to cure his tuberculosis, too many doctors today care just as little for their patients in over-prescribing opiates and antibiotics which, by allowing super-viruses to develop, may result in an even worse public health crisis. 
     The ghosts that haunted O’Neill’s family members are walking all over the US and throughout the world even today. Perhaps that is why, over the last several years, we have seen so very many vampire and flesh-eating horror films. This Belle-Époque vision of the “real” US resonates with the first 17 years of our own new century. And its effects threaten to end the global community just as surely as did the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Los Angeles, March 1, 2017

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