REVIEWS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE
1. LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, directed by Jonathan Miller. Broadhurst Theatre, New York City, April 21 - June 29, 1986. [Following its Broadway run, the production transferred to London. where it opened at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, on Monday, August 4. It is scheduled to move to Tel Aviv in October. Since the production is still "on the boards," the use of the present tense in the following review seems justified. --Ed.]
This is a short Long Day's Journey Into Night, a feature apparently meant to make the drama more appealing, or at least less intimidating, to the theatregoing public. A short Long Day's Journey, however, is a contradiction in terms: you can no more make O'Neill's Journey a short one than spend a cold day in Hell--an apt metaphor, since it suggests the second, and related, problem with the current revival. Not only is this a short Long Day's Journey; it is also a very cold Long Day's Journey.
Director Jonathan Miller has cut the play's running time from the usual four hours or so to about two hours and forty minutes, not by making extensive cuts in the text (although there are some unfortunate ones), but primarily by using overlapping dialogue. When the Tyrones speak, nobody listens; everybody talks at once. Now, Miller is quite right that, realistically, in the heat of family arguments, one person rarely has the courtesy to wait for another to complete a well-crafted speech; and this is an acceptable notion with reference to the Tyrones. Furthermore, it is certainly true that much of what the Tyrones say to each other is repetitious, often ritualistic; so that the characters barely do attend to each other's words since they have heard them so many times before.
So it is true, then, as Miller contends, that we do not miss any especially important lines of dialogue because of this approach. To say, however, that if we do not miss any dialogue, then we do not miss any of O'Neill is to fail to recognize that the essence of O'Neill's drama does not lie in the words themselves. To say that, since it is all so repetitious anyway, we do not have to hear all of the repetitions, is to deny what is now so well-known about O'Neill's dramaturgy: he wrote for the theatre, not for the easy chair, and he certainly meant for an audience to experience the repetition, which is a central reality of the lives of his characters. So even if a little or none of it is actually deleted, the problem is that if the audience cannot hear it, if they do not endure it, then the theatrical fabric of the drama is torn.
It is not the overlapping dialogue alone, though, that moves the play along to its conclusion in under three hours; in fact, a limited amount of that device might have worked quite nicely without destroying the play's texture. There is more madness to Miller's method: he seems to have directed the drama as if the actors were playing "Beat the Clock." This production simply moves too fast; I had the impression that each performance represented a challenge to the cast to bring the play in under three hours. But O'Neill's drama cannot be approached as one would approach the Boston Marathon. The Tyrones do not live a fast-paced life; theirs is a world of stasis, paralysis. To understand the Tyrones, you must spend time with them, their time, at their pace. You have to understand the "horrible burden of Time weighing on your shoulders and crushing you to the earth," as Edmund puts it, quoting Baudelaire. The Tyrones cannot escape this burden, try as they may; and by allowing the audience to escape an hour and twenty minutes early, Miller denies us the full experience of the play.
The pace-setter in this production, especially for the first three acts, is Bethel Leslie in the role of Mary Tyrone. Apparently the idea here was that rapid speech might be symptomatic of her morphine intoxication, and I would not argue with Dr. Miller about the accuracy of that diagnosis. In performance, however, there are at least two problems with this notion. First, Ms. Leslie speaks very rapidly from the opening curtain, when Mary has just begun to take the morphine again, and the pace only increases from then on. There are not enough variations to indicate how much morphine she has taken, or to indicate the onset of withdrawal symptoms, and she never seems to attain that peaceful sense of calmness which, presumably, is what she is after by taking the drug in the first place. She remains nervous and high-strung at virtually all times. Second, her rapid-fire delivery becomes rather monotonous, making her a distant and cold Mary Tyrone. Now, while these are certainly aspects of the character, in Ms. Leslie's portrayal they define the character. Ms. Leslie's performance is admirable, given the interpretation; she speaks the lines just about as rapidly as one imagines is humanly possible. What is gained in time, though, is lost in feeling, and this has significant effects on the impact of the entire production.
One of the achievements of this interpretation, in fact, is to reiterate the central importance of Mary in the dynamics of the drama. She is the one to whom the others react; she is the one around whom the drama revolves; and the actress can, therefore, set the pace and establish the mood of the entire production. In this case, ironically, Ms. Leslie's Mary has a negative effect, setting too fast a pace, and establishing too cold a mood.
Because Mary seems so detached and cold, we have little sympathy for her, and therefore we have too much for James. Granted, O'Neill does seem to be more severe toward his mother than his father in the text, and he does give the father his confessional moment and the subsequent implied forgiveness from his son. Still, this production oversimplifies the situation. As Mary says, everyone is to blame, and no one is to blame; yet in this production it is much too easy to blame Mary.
Aside from Ms. Leslie's portrayal of Mary, another factor that contributes to this effect is Jack Lemmon in the role of James Tyrone. Mr. Lemmon is a very fine actor, and he has some wonderful moments in this play. One of the most memorable comes towards the end of Act Two, Scene One, when James returns from working outside, after Jamie and Edmund have had clear evidence of Mary's return to morphine. After Mary's first speech with James in the room, the stage directions state that "Tyrone knows now. He suddenly looks a tired, bitterly sad old man," and this is exactly what happens. When Mr. Lemmon turns to the audience here, after observing the now obvious signs of his wife's condition, he is indeed a man transformed, shot through by a reality that visibly shakes him to his very soul. He is suddenly deflated, all the life taken out of him by this one glimpse of his wife and the recognition of her return to the "cursed poison." From this point on, Mr. Lemmon noticeably deteriorates, looking more and more like a lost, broken old man. This deterioration culminates with a nice small touch in Act Four, when after threatening Edmund with his belt, James returns the belt to its place on the waistband of his pants, missing most of the belt loops. This action is a subtle sign of drunkenness in a man who holds his liquor well, and it results in a physical feature of his appearance at the end of the drama that makes him seem all the more pathetic.
The moment of deflation, in Act Two, Scene One, is moving, but at the same time, indicative of the overall interpretation of the play. Tyrone is the wounded victim, portrayed from the outset as a basically good man who occasionally becomes defensive and obstinate. Much of his behavior is meant to be humorous, such as his careful attention to his liquor supply; but beneath the humor, there must be an awareness of his responsibility for the family's situation. This gets lip service because it is in the script, but Tyrone seems to be more exonerated than held accountable. Some of this may have to do with Jack Lemmon's persona, developed especially in various film roles over the years. He often plays the victim; he often seems put upon, whether by larger political forces, as in Missing, or by a sloppy, inconsiderate roommate, as in The Odd Couple. Mr. Lemmon's Tyrone responds to much of his trouble by grunting and groaning, and mumbling inaudibly, which seems terribly inappropriate. James is not essentially a complainer, and he is certainly not a mumbler. He is a proud man who makes a point of projecting his words, even if his pride is sometimes inappropriate and his words sometimes reveal his weaknesses. If he is a victim, his own stubbornness is at least partially responsible. Indeed, it can easily be argued that James has a stake in maintaining Mary's dependence on morphine, and that he has done little to really help her; she, after all, gives him a good reason to get drunk. Long Day's Journey requires a delicate balance between James and Mary, so that one recognizes the complexities of both characters and their relationship.
For instance, for all his responsibility for her condition, James does truly love her; he enjoys teasing her playfully and being physically attentive to her. This should be apparent early in the play, before she moves away from him, beyond his reach. In this production, however, she is far away from the outset. It is a common observation about the play that the opening of Act Two, Scene Two provides a revealing contrast to the opening of Act One, partially in that James and Mary enter separately in the later scene, whereas in the first they enter together, with James's arm around Mary's waist. In Miller's production, the play opens with James and Mary already on stage, standing apart, separate. In spite of some physical contact later in the opening scene, Mary's distance from her husband is established immediately.
This distance is also a serious problem in Mary's relationship with her sons, especially with Edmund, who believes that Mary takes the morphine to get "beyond our reach, to be rid of us, to forget we're alive." He is, of course, correct; Mary does build a "blank wall" around herself. This is a process, though; the audience should see her build the wall, and therefore, she must begin within the family's reach in order to move beyond it. In the text, she is especially attentive to Edmund's health, even if her concern is ambivalent; and she does vacillate between mothering him and denying that there is anything wrong with him. It may not be necessary to go to the extreme of excessive physical contact, as in the 1962 film with Katharine Hepburn; yet without a sense of any warmth or affection between mother and son, with virtually no physical contact, it is more difficult to feel Edmund's pain when Mary "departs" at the end of the play. It is hard to understand why Edmund even bothers to beg for her attention by the end of this production, since we saw him receive so little maternal affection previously. In the text, Mary is certainly often cold and distant, but she is also sometimes maternal and nurturing, or at least tries to be; but this production seems determined to prove how hard it must be to have an automaton for a mother.
Mary's coldness, conveyed mostly by avoiding eye contact while speaking rapidly and unfeelingly, also has ramifications for Jamie. Although his attachment to his mother is less explicit than Edmund's, and more effectively sublimated beneath his cynical defenses, Jamie does try to believe this time; he must believe in Mary in order to begin to believe in himself. It is therefore important for him, too, that Mary seem to be within reach, especially at the beginning. The home should feel like a home to him and his father; Mary should seem to be a mother to her sons. Since Ms. Leslie misses the nurturing, maternal quality of Mary's character from the beginning, Jamie's cynicism tends to seem entirely justified. It is difficult to imagine why he would be anything but cynical with such a cold, distant mother. But this oversimplifies matters: Jamie's cynicism should be part of the family's problems, not an easily understandable and acceptable solution for him.
Among the cuts that Miller has made in the text is Jamie's recitation of "A Leave-taking" in the last scene of the play. It would not make sense, though, for this Jamie to attempt to reach out for his mother at the end, so he is virtually eliminated from the final scene. His last memorable line in this production is "The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia," which is played mostly for laughs, so that Jamie seems too unaffected by his mother's condition; he is too much the devil-may-care cynic. While Kevin Spacey gives an excellent performance as Jamie, and even captures flashes of the self-hatred that lies beneath the cynical bitterness (especially in the climactic confessional scene with Edmund), yet he is denied his proper "leave-taking," and thus remains the sneering cynic, rather than the bitter, broken, lost young man he should be at the play's end.
It is, indeed, in these final moments of the production that Mr. Miller has most egregiously cut and altered the text, doing a great disservice to its potential impact. First, Jamie announces his mother's entrance, wobbling drunkenly on the sofa as she descends the staircase. Granted, "The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia" is meant to provide momentary relief from the wrenching confessions of Act Four, but the line should also suggest the anticipated horror of what is yet to come. Here, Mary descends wearing her wedding gown, rather than dragging it behind her; she looks disheveled, confused, and rather old, not "youthful" at all. Since she wears the dress over her clothing, she looks rather ridiculous, not innocent and "girlish," thus adding inappropriately to the humorous impact of Jamie's line. In addition, Mary should not wear the gown, so that it is clear that she has now returned to a time in the past before she married James Tyrone. Giving up the gown to him, as indicated in the stage directions, is doubly symbolic of what she feels she has done with her life, as well as of her wish to return to a time before the wedding, before she wore the gown, to a time when she was happy. The impact that O'Neill intended the scene to have is weakened by Miller's decision to eliminate this visual image, and it is certainly more difficult to feel, as some do, that Mary has perhaps at least attained some sense of peace at the end. This is, however, consistent with Miller's totally unfavorable view of Mary in the production.
Furthermore, during this final scene, only Edmund tries to reach Mary, whereas in the text he is the last of the three men to try, and he almost breaks through. These final attempts to reach her serve to isolate each character in succession, punctuated by Jamie's resigned refrain, "It's no good." In the text, they also attempt to have a final drink together, which is then cut off by Mary's final speech. In this production, the drink is not suggested. With the audience's attention thus focused on Mary, the men do not seem as affected by her "departure" as they should be. Finally, after her last line, Mary stands behind James, puts her arms around his neck from behind to embrace him, and he groans, giving him the last "word" in the play, and fixing in that final moment, the impression that the entire production creates--that Mary is the cause of the family's woes, and that James is the enduring victim. Just when Mary should be most distant, and each character isolated, Miller has her make contact.
Generally, the depiction of the younger Tyrones is much more satisfying than that of the elders (although the fault lies not in the stars, but in the director, I suspect). In addition to Mr. Spacey's fine performance as Jamie, Peter Gallagher sensitively plays an appropriately understated Edmund. His illness never distracts from the ritualistic patterns within the family, yet is always subtly in evidence, reminding the characters and audience of the fragility of this young man, and thus of the romantic dreams that he espouses. Mr. Gallagher performs admirably in the absence of a mother who should lure him as well as reject him. In the final act, his coat seems a necessary and appropriate form of protection, not so much from the elements as from his mother.
One weak moment for Mr. Gallagher seems, again, more of a directorial problem than an acting deficiency. This comes in the fourth act, when Edmund angrily calls his father a "stinking old miser." In the speech leading up to that line, Mr. Gallagher becomes enraged to the point of violently overturning a chair, which seems excessive at this point, for this character, in his condition. It detracts from his violent outburst, later, at Jamie, in protection first of his mother, then of his father. It is, perhaps, an attempt to make us feel some contempt for Tyrone; but here, too, the effect is to show Tyrone as the victim, this time of a rash and violent son. It remains difficult to understand such rage directed physically at the kindly, victimized Mr. Lemmon.
One of the best scenes in this production, on the other hand, is the beginning of the confrontation between Edmund and Jamie when the latter returns home in Act Four. As they sit together, drunkenly laughing over Jamie's antics at Mamie Burns', there is a genuine feeling of brotherly love and camaraderie between them, suggestive of many previous nights of drunken affection. It is a warm and moving scene, which makes Jamie's threatening confession to Edmund all the more powerful and poignant. The only problem with Jamie's confession is his angry outburst towards the end. In fact, all three male characters have moments of enraged outburst; and in all three cases the outburst seems overdone, somehow unbelievable. Again, I think this has something to do with the pace of the production. Although it is true that alcoholics experience sudden and unexpected mood changes, these outbursts are not so much "changes" as they are peaks of mounting frustrations, resentments, or self-loathing, which take more time to develop than Miller allows. Even in anger, the Tyrones are rather slowly aroused, and when they are, the anger is often tempered by ambivalence, or guilt.
Jodie Lynne McClintock does very well as Cathleen, providing an appropriately respectful sounding board for Mary in Act Three, while also conveying an uneasy suspicion about Mary's behavior. Her drunkenness is believable and humorous, enjoyed with a lightness that is in obvious contrast with the increasingly somber intoxication of the Tyrones.
The costumes by Willa Kim are fine, the use of white providing an effectively stark contrast to the bleakness of the lives portrayed. The lighting by Richard Nelson is very effective at dimly illuminating these scenes of darkening hopes. The only problem is the apparent lack of fog, which is a design problem that involves the scenery by Tony Straiges.
The furniture in the house clearly suggests that no particular expense has been incurred to make this home especially stylish or comfortable. The main problem, though, is that there is entirely too much room. This is a spacious set, especially surprising to anyone familiar with Monte Cristo Cottage. Walls of vertical wooden panels suggest ceilings that are too high. Furthermore, the fog never seems to roll in to form that impenetrable wall around the house; at least, from where I was sitting, off to the left in the audience, out of view of the windows, the fog was nonexistent. While the lighting did change from a rather promising bright morning, with light streaming in through the windows, to a rather gloomy dimness at the end, the fog was noticeably missing, again eliminating an important symbolic stage image from the text.
In addition, in the middle rear of the stage, the staircase leads up towards stage left; but with no wall behind it, just blackness, it seems to be leading nowhere. While it is true that other characters do climb and descend these stairs during the play, the staircase really should be Mary's, and it does, in fact, lead somewhere quite real--the spare room--and through it, to her past. To have the staircase so visible, with characters bounding up and down, and with action occurring right on the steps, detracts from the haunting effect of the sounds from above, and of those on the stairs, especially in Act Four. There is a similar problem with the placing of the piano prominently in the foreground downstage right. When other characters sit at it, stand around it, and touch it, it too becomes less exclusively Mary's. The piano is supposed to be something that Mary has not touched in years, a part of her past that the others would avoid, so that when we hear her playing it at the end, the effect is much more haunting. In this production, these important effects are lost. The location of the stairs and the piano right on stage, however, saves time, of course, and helps to move the action along, which for this production is all-important. To be haunting, after all, takes too much time.
If more people sit through this faster version of Long Day's Journey than would sit through a more than four-hour version, however, then perhaps this production may serve an important function. Such a reinterpretation of a great play breeds debate and controversy, and therefore publicity and curiosity; it raises interesting and important questions about the text, about the nature and structure of the drama itself. Perhaps some of the people in the audience, who may never have considered it otherwise, will now wonder what the "original" is really like. In many ways, Mr. Miller's production betrays O'Neill's text, but perhaps it will prompt another director to assemble another fine cast soon for another major production, to prove Jonathan Miller wrong--about the audience and about the play--perhaps another director who trusts O'Neill and will serve the text.
--Steven F. Bloom
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