Monday, June 11, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Tortuous Nights" (on O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night)

tortuous nights
by Douglas Messerli

Eugene O’Neill Long Day’s Journey into Night / Los Angeles, the Wallis Anneberg Center for Performing Arts / the performance Howard Fox and I saw was on the opening day, June 10, 2018

Yesterday afternoon I saw the much touted production by the Bristol Old Vic of Eugene O’Neill’s most important play, Long Day’s Journey into Night.
     While this was not my first time with this long-suffering play (a suffering both for its characters and, often, given the play’s length, for its audiences), I clearly had not seen as many performances as others, so one critic sitting behind me made clear to his theater guest—he’d seen, so he quite loudly 
claimed, at least six productions. I had watched the wonderful Sidney Lumet film, still my favorite of all of the play’s variations, two times, and planned to see it again a few days after this performance just as a reminder; and I’d read the play at least two times, once after having to miss—given a large East Coast snow storm—a production for which I had tickets, starring Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Robert Sean Leonard. Moreover, I had also seen a recent production of the play with Alfred Molina, Jane Kaczmarek, Stephen Louis Grush and Colin Woodell at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse last year.
     So, when attending the stunningly star-laden production at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, with a cast of Jeremy Irons, Lesley Manville, Matthew Beard, and Rory Keenan I did have a fairly good knowledge of the work, having almost memorized many of the play’s significant scenes.
      Yet, I felt freed from the burden, so it seemed, of many of the critics sitting near me. I could still see this marathon-endurance with somewhat fresh eyes. And my husband Howard had never before seen a live performance, although he too had read it and seen the film version. Accordingly, I was open to a new interpretation, which surely director Richard Eyre presented to us.
     Previous productions and my own readings seemed to suggest that the play began in a kind of haze of a family reunion—Edmond having returned home after his adventurous experiences as a sailor, with his mother, having also returned home from her stay at a sanatorium to help cure her of a morphine addiction—in which things “appear,” a word that should appear in double quotes, to be somewhat normal.
     Mary is, as her husband James Tyrone tells her time and again, “looking fatter”—although in the productions I’ve seen, as well as this one, she looks thinner than a reed—with Mary attending to her much beloved son, Edmund, equally thin, who apparently has a summer cold.
     Of course, we immediately recognize this perception as a true illusion, or more deeply, a delusion. Yet, with the fog having lifted, the sun shining temporarily upon their lives, there is almost a feeling of somewhat pacific family life hovering over them. After all, O’Neill makes it clear from the beginning that Tyrone does still love his wife, and Mary still adores him, as she does her youngest son, just as even the black-sheep of the family, the whoring often drunken Jaime, loves his brother, even his skin-flint father, and their problematic mother. This first act, with its many domestic necessities, the worry of all for Mary’s mental state and the dreaded fear for Edmund’s health, is balanced by the comings and goings of their maid Cathleen (Jessica Regan in this production) and the always irritated and invisible cook, Brigette, who invisibly attempts to bring this family together for their meals.
     Eyre and his cast, evidently, have purposely thrown this first act version away, immediately creating a tension between all the actors that one can cut with a sharp knife. Things that might once have appeared to be tenuous now cut immediately to the bone. The deluded expressions of family reconciliation immediately turn, in this performance, into ironic asides, expressions of true disappointment, dismissals, and evident hatred. The Tyrone’s of this cast almost immediately show their fangs while denying their every next sentence. One might be tempted to suggest that this Long Day’s Journey represents a kind of Trumpian world, where all the niceties have turned into bitter spittle.
      If there’s something almost refreshing in this sharply driven and quick-witted interpretation of O’Neill’s world, we also miss some of the lost belle epoch regalness and rituals that have, after all, allowed Tyrone to rule this ruined household and helped his wife into a drug addiction from which she will never ascend. This is not the world of Oxycontin addiction, but one of hotel doctors, and well-meaning townspeople who wash their hands from any dirty deeds.
   Fortunately, Irons plays Tyrone very differently from the imposing patriarch as we have seen in Sir Ralph Richardson, for example. He is a man, bitter and mean as he is, who is closer to Irons’ character of Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune, a distanced and highly distressed man who sees himself as an innocent in a world in which his wife has faded into non-existence, or as the character describes it, “when she gets that poison in her system there’s nothing you can do.” Like our contemporary leader, he will never be able to comprehend that he is, in fact, part of that poison. In the last long scenes of this seemingly endless night, Tyrone even seems to be a wronged man, a child of a father who has abandoned his family forcing the young boy to work endlessly in the Irish-American child-labor world to make a few cents each week to help support his mother. O’Neill even allows this character to demonstrate that he has been a victim of his own success: having purchased on the cheap a play which made him a matinee hero but closed him out of any of his great Shakespearian aspirations. Even though he claims, however, that the great actor Booth highly praised his acting, we can never know for sure whether or not his desires were so very different from those of Mary to become a concert pianist. There is no evidence for either of their claims. Perhaps Tyrone was simply destined to be come a romantic matinee “ham,” just as the deluded Mary was to retreat to her own bedroom to find a way out of her own “romance.”
      If Irons creates a new vision of Tyrone, so too does Lesley Manville give us a new portrait of Mary. This is not at all the fragile Mary of any other version I’ve seen or imagined. She can endlessly ask, as she does, “is my hair falling down,” but—particularly given the helmet of a wig she wears throughout the play—we know she is sharp as steel. Although she may continually declare that she is lonely, that she wants people about her at all times, we also know that she desires, even longs, to be alone.
     No longer is Mary a kind a butterfly whose wings have been torn through the long years of hotel living and her so-called mediocre summer house, but that she is a powerful wasp, ready to sting all those surrounding. Almost like the bitter sister of Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, this Mary is angry about everything, even the son whose birth caused her pains that led to her addiction. She does not truly want her family’s company, and escapes, in her imagination, quite willingly into a past of mid-west family life and a beautiful wedding gown that never quite existed—even though she does finally discover the gown in the memory-ridden attic of the house she can never describe as a true “home.” Indeed, Manville’s Mary can never find a home except for the mythical one in her own imagination. She never has had a true friend—actors were not to be permitted into her bourgeois/religious sensibility—and she has never truly embraced the family whom she declares she 
loves. Mary is the very center of this Long Day, and yet she is someone who none of the other family members ever want to see again; if only she would fall asleep, allowing them to tip-toe up to their rooms permitting them to fall into their own frightful dreams.
      Unlike the other Marys I have seen, Manville makes you truly dislike her. She is more than a ghost, she is a kind of haunted horror figure of the past who can only destroy any forward movement of this family.
    But then, as O’Neill quite clearly reveals, this is an already doomed group. Even Edmund’s seemingly loving brother warns him about his own treachery. And the true center of this world, Edmond / O’Neill himself (played by Beard in a kind of accent that is at moments difficult to penetrate) knows that although he is the most loved member of this Greek-inspired destructive familial world, he is also the object of their mutual wrath. One by one, they pet him, kiss him, embrace him, and hover lovingly over his body, while still spitting out their tortuous truths, filling him up with liquor, and, in Jamie’s case, literally pulling him in an out of chairs, almost as if Edmund were a kind of doll which he might use in his own libidinous desires.
      I’ve always thought of this play as a sad tragedy of family life. But this production provides a completely different dimension—not one I’m sure I entirely appreciate—which makes apparent just how sadomasochistic this family was. Their pushes and pulls, their psychological whips and chains are everywhere. And there is no respite for Edmond—or any of the others. Morphine, alcohol, and, finally, Morpheus himself, the god of sleep, are the only escapes from the tortures with which they afflict one another.
      If I have some reservations about this almost brutal production of O’Neill’s drama, I realize now, more than ever, just how close Long Day’s Journey Into Night is to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the “mother” and “father” of the later work afflicting some of the very same tortures upon a young professor and his wife. In neither of these plays do the characters, even though they have little left in their lives, “go gentle into that good night.”

Los Angeles, June 11, 2018


  1. Terrific review, Douglas! I can't wait to see it and think I will like this interpretation. All are equally guilty and responsible, yet all are sympathetic too. My only caveat is your Albee comparison: would that WHO'S AFRAID, which I always find obvious and irritating, especially the second couple, could hold a candle to O'Neill's real tragedy, based on his own life, of how a family with all this potential, can destroy itself. Mary's last speech about her convent days is, for me, quite heart-breaking.

  2. I agree with Marjorie. It's a fantastic review, Douglas. You seem to enter the bones and veins of the production, indirectly of the play. I always felt watching O'neill's play one has to abandon oneself to it. Then, its length becomes a purifying experience. For a stretch of time, one enters a terrifying and exhilarating world. I also have a wonderful memory of Lumet's film which I first saw in the New Yorker theatre (now a super market) in Manhattan. Murat