THE RETURN OF O'NEILL'S "PLAY OF OLD SORROW"
If Eugene O'Neill had had his way, Long Day's Journey Into Night (New Haven: Yale, 1956) would have remained sealed until twenty-five years after his death. Carlotta Monterey, his third wife, chose to release the play, written in 1940 and set in 1912, three years after he died in 1953, and thus last season's revival at the Broadhurst came to us burdened with its history of three decades of countless productions and intense critical scrutiny. Few would doubt that Journey is the greatest work of America's greatest playwright, and director Jonathan Miller must have scratched his head many times over the numerous problems of somehow finding something new to do with such an encrusted work. Some of Miller's innovations are clearly justified, but at least one is ludicrous and inexplicable.
The play was produced first in Stockholm before coming to New York on 7 November 1956. Fredric March made an imposing, oratorical James Tyrone but Florence Eldridge was not outstanding, so it was not immediately obvious that this is in fact Mary Tyrone's play. Jason Robards, fresh from his triumph in the revival of The Iceman Cometh, advanced his great career as an O'Neill interpreter in the role of James Tyrone, Jr.; Bradford Dillman was Edmund. The film version, a masterpiece, gave us the definitive Mary in Katharine Hepburn, with Ralph Richardson as the posturing and histrionic father. Jack Lemmon, Bethel Leslie, Kevin Spacey as Jamie, and Peter Gallagher as Edmund (the O'Neill character) must have felt they had a number of tough acts to follow. Fortunately, they weren't daunted.
The laurels clearly go to Lemmon; I think he was the best of all the fine actors I have seen in this punishing role. Lemmon was more rumpled, more Irish, more American, and less self-conscious than his predecessors. Miller let his star keep familiar mannerisms (the ten splayed fingers; the rising "uh-huh-huh") untouched, and they fit. Lemmon avoided the English-theatre speech that other actors usually use, and gave us a voice we could easily hear.
The problems with Ms. Leslie were caused by her director. She was allowed to give her third-act speech to the maid Cathleen much too quickly and rationally, which is wrong for someone already deep in a narcotic haze. The worst mistake occurred at what should be the high point of the play: Mary's walk down the stairs for her final journey into night. O'Neill stipulates that Mary comes downstairs "neglectfully, trailing on the floor, ... [her] old-fashioned white satin wedding gown" (p. 170). Miller put Mary in the dress, thus losing a masterful visual effect: the dress should seem an ectoplasm of her own ghost. Besides, while many allusions are made to Mary's lovely slim figure as a girl, the Mary of 1912 is described as, and actually is, quite fat. How did she get into that dress? It isn't a speculation one wants to be bothered with during the closing minutes of America's most tragic play.
Miller's decision to have some of the dialogue spoken simultaneously was disliked by most of the critics, and yet the device is true to the spirit of the play. The four Tyrones have nothing new to say to each other; they don't listen to each other because each has heard everything many, many times. Each deeply fears to be confronted again with his knowledge; every revelation is anticipated; through the four acts, the voices of the four Tyrones are a medley: "What's the use of talking?" "I know it's useless to talk." "Stop talking." "For God's sake, stop talking." "Hold your tongue." "What's the good of talk?" Hold your foul tongue." "Please don't talk about things you don't understand." "Stop talking, Mama." "Papa, shut up!" "Shut up, Papa!" "Oh, stop talking crazy, can't you, Mama?" "But let's not talk about it." "Be quiet!" "Shut your mouth right now." "Oh, shut up, will you?" "Keep quiet, can't you?" "Shut up, Jamie."
In the night, when three of the Tyrones have closed themselves in the cages of their silences, only Mary's voice goes on in grooves well worn by her narcotic reveries. But has the talk served for release or resolution? By no means. We know that this day has brought no change to the life of the Tyrones; the interior if not the actual events will recur next day and the day after that. The sun will rise again tomorrow morning; the protective mechanisms will be briefly in place again; there will be concealing chatter and careful silences.
Long Day's Journey is the most incontestably autobiographical of O'Neill's works, enabling him to "face [his] dead at last." Carlotta described for an interviewer the harrowing period of its composition:
However, the play's importance extends far beyond its autobiographical revelations. O'Neill's vision of human nature greatly exceeded all he could learn from direct experience, and his dramatic achievement was never more than partly attributable to any personal memory that went into its making. In this play, O'Neill has universalized the particulars of the family; he has raised the curtain on the common stage where each of us lives out the first and major drama of life. Relentlessly, he has included everything: the chafing under dependence, the love which imperfectly protects us from its opposite, the tormenting fact that we have an infinitely greater capacity to hurt our kin than to help them, and the weight of an inheritance that is rarely salutary.
The dichotomies in this play are the central ones of life: love and hate. The hate would be bearable if one were not at the same time confronted with the terrible facts of love. The urgency of love is to give one's spirit into the keeping of another, but in the very act of giving, the soul is struck cold with fear and anger over its vulnerability. Out of this anger, people become cruel or capricious to those they love, as if they would assert their power over the other in recompense for the power taken away. In the unassailable separateness of the other--parent, sibling, spouse, child, friend, lover--one must somehow seek some kinship in solitude. The search for tolerable attachment goes on against all the forces that are allied against it.
There is infinite pathos in the moments when some pair of the family group seems only a breath away from understanding and communicated affection. The viewer, knowing better, is nevertheless caught up in the hope of that moment. But kinship can bring more grief than its absence, and no Tyrone feels safe enough to stop probing for another's sensitivities.
The major symbolic device in Long Day's Journey is time: the single day of the play is a lifetime. The day moves from the sunshine of the morning, to the overcast noon, to the deepening shadows of twilight, to the night's deathlike blackness. The weather outside is analogous to the climate of the souls within. For sight-and-sound point-counterpoint, there is the fog seeping through the window and the wailing voice of the foghorn. Miller must be faulted for not having taken full advantage of these elements: the foghorn was not sufficiently obtrusive, the stage was too bright at the end of the play, and one wonders why Miller chose off-stage music when an on-stage phonograph could have been used to bring the music into the play.
To paraphrase Bierce: in this play there are four victims and four victimizers, making, in all, four. In the mercilessly precise bookkeeping of the emotions, one becomes a torturer as the inexorable consequence of one's victimhood; the capacity to hate is in implacable relation to the capacity to be enslaved by love. The special poignancy of this play derives from the fact that each of the four family members deeply loves each of the other three.
Mary moves this play as surely as Antigone, Electra and Medea move theirs. It is she who speaks its theme: "The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won't let us." It is she who binds the others to her in chains of their enormous and needless guilt. Mary's addiction to narcotics is the tragedy that drains the lives of the Tyrones. Because Mary in her consuming self-pity can accept no blame, each of the family members must serve his time as sin-eater for Mary. This woman is so wrapped in herself, so trapped by her illusions of her superior past, that she can blame her husband and young son for the terrible fact of her thralldom to drugs, and accuse her older son as the seven-year-old murderer of his brother. True enough that Mary has troubling intimations, from time to rare time, that she might have had some share in her tragic destiny; but these glimmerings are pushed away as quickly as they come. Mary's only possible role is that of martyred accuser, and the drug upstairs serves not only as an anodyne for her agony (we need not doubt that there is agony) but as a weapon to hold over the bowed heads of her family.
Edmund reveals the essence of the matter with his comment that Mary loses herself in drugs deliberately, "to get beyond our reach, to be rid of us, to forget we're alive! It's as if, in spite of loving us, she hated us." She does indeed.
Tyrone's sturdy belief that the addiction is "a curse put on you without your knowing or willing it" is charitable, and indicates how sad it would be for him to absorb the hard fact of her hatred. Only when he is "stung" can he blurt out to Mary the truth that "you want to blame everyone but yourself!"
The failings of the father are so obvious that their bite is weakened. He is a posturing, miserly actor, too fond of his tipple, but with considerable gentleness of soul. It is interesting that his sons are not really in awe of him and that they do not have for him that twisted, possessing love-hate that they feel for their mother. Tyrone at least has the virtue, rare in the others, of being able to take some portion of blame for his own shortcomings. His love for Mary is never destroyed by her addiction. He has lived with the illness longer, and knows its roots better, than either of the sons; in his heart there is a greater measure of understanding and forgiveness. This can only be possible because he has not accepted the burden that Mary would thrust on him if she could. The persistence of this man's love for his wife, his "hopeless hope," gives him a grandeur he would not otherwise possess.
Jamie is that traditional character, the humorous and dissolute older brother, until his particular agony is revealed almost at the end of the play. Jamie, we learn, has encouraged Edmund's failings out of massive jealousy. Jamie's love for his mother is the strongest (for which read, in O'Neill, the most destructive), and therefore it is he who brings the words "dope fiend" and "hophead" to the stage of the family. All but choked with his bitter disappointment at her return to drugs, Jamie can nevertheless admit that he's "even glad the game has got Mama again!" Jamie would rather lose his mother to drugs than to his younger brother.
Edmund is the most removed and least complex character in the play. He is newly returned from a soul-finding trip at sea, recently ill with tuberculosis, and vaguely moved to be a writer. Edmund has not perfected himself as a torturer; his role is to absorb his mother's cruelty and the shock of revelation from his adored older brother. Edmund's illness further stirs the cauldron of family horrors when Mary gently tells him that his birth has caused her addiction and his illness will perpetuate it. Little wonder that Edmund "will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who ... is not really wanted ... who must always be a little in love with death."
No progress occurs within the play, and the long dialogues do not produce the character-to-character communications and changes that one is taught to expect in drama. At the end of the play, the Tyrones do not know anything about each other that they did not know at the beginning. All of the revelations are to the audience. There is no tragic resolution. The curtain falls; the drama is endlessly repeated.
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