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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XI, No. 2
Summer-Fall, 1987


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THE TYRONE FAMILY IN BRUGES:
A BELGIAN LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT

[A review of Long. Day's Journey Into Night (Lange Dagreis naar de Nacht), directed by Julien Schoenaerts and presented by the Korrekelder Theatre Company, Bruges, Belgium, November 14, 1986 - January 10, 1987. Dutch translation and stage design by Julien Schoenaerts. Costume design by Dominique Wiche.]

A heavy fog was progressively shrouding Medieval Bruges on that dark November evening, and the town's celebrated canals were suffused with brooding mystery. It was against such an appropriate background that Julien Schoenaerts' controversial production of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey. Into Night opened at the Korrekelder Theatre The foggy atmosphere which enveloped the city undoubtedly contributed to the success that the show had with its enthusiastic opening-night audience.

Attending the performance of an O'Neill play in Belgium is a rare opportunity. Indeed, Long Day's Journey had not been produced in this country since 1970, when it was staged in French by the Theatre de l'Ancre in the provincial town of Charleroi. Thus, while O'Neill enjoys considerable popularity in England, France and Germany, he is practically unknown to the average theatergoer in Belgium. The new version of Long Day's Journey, co-produced by the Bruges Korrekelder and the Antwerp Arenbergschouwburg theatre companies, received its premiere in Bruges in mid-September, subsequently moved to Ghent for approximately fifteen performances, and after that tryout period joined the Korrekelder repertory in Bruges from November 14, 1986 to January 10, 1987. (This reviewer attended the performance there on November 29.)

Julien Schoenaerts' vision of O'Neill's masterpiece drew both criticism and praise from Flemish drama critics. The reviewers of Het Laatste Niews and De Standaard rejected the "dull" characterization concept, citing the lack of energy in the performances of Mary and James Tyrone, and conceding merit only to the young actors who played their two sons. On the other hand, the critics of De Gentenaar, De Morgen, De Gazet van Antwerpen and Brugsch Handelsblad praised the non-melodramatic theatrical style that Schoenaerts had adopted and applauded his ability to preserve a delicate balance among the four protagonists.1 The present review will try to provide a more balanced examination of the production's qualities and defects.

At the outset it should be noted that the Korrekelder Company's repertoire readily conforms with O'Neill's dramaturgy. Since its founding in 1961, the theatre has specialized in serious avant-garde drama by Dutch, French and English authors. Over the years, it has produced such plays as Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Pinter's The Caretaker and The Lover, and has also brought to Flemish audiences works by Durrenmatt, Orton, Hampton, Ionesco, Obaldia, Claus, Horovitz, Mauriac and Camus. As such a list might suggest, O'Neill's tragedy received the commitment of theatre practitioners dedicated to effective productions of modern masterpieces.

In addition, the theatrical space offered by the Korrekelder was certainly well-suited to the intrinsic rhythms of O'Neill's play. The constricted performance area, together with the small size of the auditorium, reinforced the intimate nature of the drama, offering a powerful contrast between the narrow stage and the overwhelming intensity of the heroes' griefs. Such a space could have served admirably for the "S. S. Glencairn" playlets, in which the confines of the forecastle perform an essential role in shaping the tragic mood. This set, then, reminded one of the playwright's earlier achievements and stressed the continuity existing among the various periods of O'Neill's career. Interestingly, when performed in Ghent, the play benefitted equally from a much larger stage, which, instead of stressing the intimate aspect of the drama, italicized the distance separating the protagonists and thus hinted at their profound solitude. (The accompanying photographs of the two settings will give the reader a more accurate idea of the dimensions of the Iwo stages than mere words can.)

The set design in both locations complied largely with the playwright's wishes and instructions and demonstrated Schoenaerts' excellent intuition for the type of theatrical language required by O'Neill's drama. The Bruges decor duplicated almost exactly the interior of O'Neill's boyhood home, Monte Cristo Cottage, in its presently restored condition. The properties, especially the wicker chairs, combined with the miniscule proportions of the stage, offered an effective evocation of O'Neill's cramped and dreary New London house as it is remembered in the play.

Dominique Wiche's handling of costumes was equally judicious. Although, as the group photograph reveals, they did not completely jibe with the author's historical vision, they nonetheless expressed remarkably well the opposed personalities of the four Tyrones and thus offered further theatrical tensions among the Characters. Edmund, for Instance, was clothed in a "bohemian" fashion that betrayed his poetic inclinations. Similarly, Jamie's garments, though more redolent of the 80's than of the century's earlier decades, conveyed the elder brother's bitterness and cynicism through their dandy-like character, By contrast, the elder Tyrones were dressed more conventionally---a feature that reflected their adherence to social status and tradition. That their clothes appeared worn out and shabby underscored the disintegration of the world symbolized by James and Mary.

In addition to directing the play and designing the set, Julien Schoenaerts undertook its adaptation into Dutch and also played the role of James Tyrone. A famous Flemish actor, he began his career in 1950 as a member of the Royal Dutch Theatre Company in Antwerp, after graduating (as did his three fellow performers in Long Day's Journey) from the well-known acting school, Studio Herman Teirlinck. From 1962 to 1969, he worked for the Dutch Comedy in Amsterdam. Then he returned to Belgium, where he has continued to appear regularly on both stage and screen, performing leading roles in plays by such noted writers as Kafka, Dostoevski, Durrenmatt, Genet, Pirandello, Shakespeare, Beckett and Pinter. Progressively, he gained renown as a fine interpreter of the classics, while establishing a solid reputation for directing as well.

Schoenaerts' gifts as translator and adapter of Long Day's Journey merit great praise. Not only does O'Neill sound superbly well in this Dutch version, which underlines the dark and brooding overtones of the dramatist's own language; but the text of the play could be fully appreciated, owing to Schoenaerts' felicitous decisions with regard to cutting. Whereas in the 1970 French version, performed in Charleroi, Edmund's celebrated sea speech was, for no apparent reason, deleted, these lines were rightly restored in this production, whose cuts removed no essential element of meaning from O'Neill's script.

In his directing capacity, Schoenaerts attempted to achieve a balance of forces between the elder Tyrones, resisting the temptation to focus excessively on either James or Mary. Moreover, he decided to delete the role of the maid, Cathleen, probably in an effort to stress the playwright's "absurdist" vision. As a result of this decision, Mary delivered the lines normally addressed to Cathleen to a character existing only in her troubled imagination, permitting Schoenaerts to concentrate on Mary's loneliness and further enhance O'Neill's theme of human isolation. This approach may not be entirely unjustified, since recent criticism has demonstrated points of confluence between O'Neill's later dramas and the work of Beckett and Camus--especially in their rendering of an ominous, disquieting universe in which man is doomed to an "exile without remedy."2 Schoenaerts' directing stance, then, merits approbation inasmuch as it allowed us to follow the development that links O'Neill's plays to the surrealistic experiments of such successors as Ionesco and Pinter.

Finally, as an actor, Schoenaerts also had his moments of magic. These emerged most richly in the fourth-act scene between James and Edmund. When confessing to his son with "real, if alcoholic, affection" that he liked him in spite of everything--"You're no great shakes as a son. It's a case of 'A poor thing but mine own,'"--Schoenaerts reached a sensitive emotional climax that simultaneously revealed his acting talents and underlined the love binding James and his younger son.

Surprisingly, Reinhilde Decleir as Mary Tyrone, disadvantaged perhaps by her young age, gave a less successful performance than did Schoenaerts as her husband. Still, although her version of Mary lacked rhythm and energy, she did have brilliant moments, especially in the monologue that replaced her conversation with Cathleen. Unfortunately, Mrs. Decleir did not sufficiently stress Mary's gradually intensifying dependence on morphine, preferring to offer a non-evolutionary depiction of the heroine's addiction. And she appeared to have decided--for I am certain that this was not a result of technical incompetence--not to emphasize Mary's fiery temperament. Despite these defects, Mrs. Decleir had clearly prepared her part with care and diligence.

But certainly the most brilliant acting in this production was provided by the two young Dutch actors who played the Tyrone brothers. Norbert Kaart gave a most poetic version of Edmund, one which added considerable depth to the character. In this task, he was undoubtedly aided by his genuine "Bohemian" complexion. He recited Edmund's sea speech with such intensity that any critic who still considered Edmund a minor and superficial character would have instantly revised his judgment. Carl Ridders, enlisting the help of his natural Mephistophelian looks, offered an appropriately cynical portrait of Jamie. Both Kaart and Ridders achieved their greatest success in the famous last-act scene between the two brothers. When Jamie admitted his ambivalent attitude of love and hate towards his younger brother, both attained a climax of sincerity that moved the entire audience without any recourse to melodramatic effects. Owing to this powerful rendering of the sons' roles, O'Neill's masterpiece could be seen from a perspective somewhat different from the usual--one which highlighted Edmund's and Jamie's tragic plights. In addition, both young actors handled the problem of imbibition particularly well. Steven F. Bloom has made abundantly clear that O'Neill possessed a clinically accurate knowledge of the symptoms of alcohol dependency.3 Bloom argues that at certain degrees of intoxication, alcoholics tend to become more loquacious and insightful than when sober. Therefore, he implies, the playwright's characters cannot be interpreted as conventional, melodramatic stage drunkards. That Kaart's and Ridders' version of alcoholism should reflect the findings of recent critical investigations points to the modernity of their acting style.

In summation, Julien Schoenaerts' production of Long Day's Journey Into Night was most meritorious in its accurate setting, its skillful translation, its judicious cutting, its "absurdist" suggestiveness, and its superb presentation of the Edmund-Jamie relationship. The fact that the part of Mary Tyrone was not consistently performed in a suitable style can be forgiven in view of the absence of a tradition of interpreting O'Neill in Belgium. Because of these various elements, I submit that Schoenaerts' production is of major importance in the historical record of O'Neill's foreign performances. It is to be hoped that such a noteworthy achievement will encourage more Belgian theatre companies to devote their energies to the plays of O'Neill, especially as the 100th anniversary of his birth is approaching.

--Marc Maufort

1This information was derived from the periodical De Korre, 13, ii (November 1986), 3.

2In a paper delivered at the 1986 Boston conference on O'Neill's later years ("Waiting for the Dough: O'Neill's Hughie), Steven F. Bloom demonstrated the similarity between Beckett's Waiting for Godot and O'Neill's late drama. See also J. Dennis Rich, "Exile Without Remedy: The Late Plays of Eugene O'Neill," in Eugene O'Neill: A World View, ed. Virginia Floyd (New York: Ungar, 1979), pp. 257-276. Rich indicates the confluence of vision between O'Neill's plays and the existential stance of Camus.

3See Steven F. Bloom, "Drinking and Drunkenness in The Iceman Cometh: A Response to Mary McCarthy," The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, IX, i (1985), 3-12.

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