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The End of Exile?
O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night in Brussels

Reviewed by Marc Maufort

 

Long Day's Journey Into Night, directed by Armand Delcampe.  “Théâtre Royal du Parc”, Brussels, Belgium, October 16-November 15, 2003.  “Théâtre Jean Vilar”, Louvain, Belgium, November 27-December 21, 2003.

While post war English-American drama can boast fairly frequent productions on the Brussels francophone stage, Eugene O’Neill’s last masterpieces have not yet enjoyed a similar kind of popularity in the European capital. The fall 2003 production of Long Day’s Journey into Night by the Brussels mainstream theatre company “Théâtre Royal du Parc” therefore possessed  historical significance, the last major staging of O’Neill’s autobiographical play in French dating back to 1970, when the “Theatre de l’Ancre” mounted it in the provincial town of Charleroi (see my analysis of this show in Theatre Survey, XXIX.1, 1988, 117-125). Likewise, in the Flemish part of the country, Julien Schoenaerts’ 1986 Ghent-based production of Lange Dagreis naar de Nacht (which I reviewed for The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter XI.2, 1987, 23-28) remained a bench-marking performance for much of the following decade. Thus, ironical as this may sound to theatre historians, O’Neill’s play appeared as a discovery to many who attended the 2003 Brussels production.

A general view of the set

This recent version of “Long Voyage du Jour à la Nuit” offered a mixture of weak and strong points, although on the night of the premiere, when I attended the show, the public received it enthusiastically. The play’s poetic atmosphere was adequately translated into scenic language, especially in the production’s soundscape. To that end, the director, Armand Delcampe, resorted to Chopin’s music at appropriate intervals as well as to a haunting foghorn which Edmund’s “fog” speech in Act IV adequately echoed. The male cast of the play consisted of Armand Delcampe as the father, Bernard Sens as James and Didier Colfs as Edmund.

Didier Colfs as Edmund, Bernard Sens as Jamie,and Armand Delcampe as Tyrone

At times, these male actors’ heavy and monotonous tone of delivery unnecessarily slowed down the rhythms of the first half of the play. Personally, I think that some judicious cuts in these initial acts would have contributed to a more suitable structural balance: it would have lent the poetic fourth act additional theatrical impact. Similarly, the jocular, indeed comic, mood of the opening scenes could have been more emphasized so as to forcefully counterpoint the play’s subsequent “journey” into tragedy. The decision to have the actress performing Kathleen, Marie-Line Lefebvre, adopt a thick local Belgian accent, presumably meant to reproduce the maid’s Irish brogue, contributed more to verbal heaviness than to a genuine comic relief. In marked contrast, the actress playing Mary, Jacqueline Bir, offered a scintillating rendition of her protagonist’s oscillating emotions, with an impeccable sense of diction and vocal variety. On the whole, despite these quibbles, I felt moved by the actors’ ability to convey O’Neill’s rapidly shifting moods.

Jacqueline Bir as Mary and Armand Delcampe as Tyrone

They made us grasp what Michael Manheim has termed O’Neill’s “new language of kinship” or his “vital contradictions”, whose adequate translation in stage language makes huge demands indeed on actors and director alike.

Armand Delcampe probably felt that the play’s greatest merit lay in its autobiographical elements; this may explain his decision to leave the metafictional underpinnings of the fourth act in the background in order to focus more exclusively on the characters’ neurotic behaviour. This directorial stance may account for the weaknesses that spoiled much of the first part of this concluding act, which lacked genuine dramatic tension. I must admit, however, that this production did better than the 1970 Charleroi version, from which Edmund’s “sea” speech was almost entirely excised. Here, Didier Colfs vividly rendered Edmund’s mystical insights, although O’Neill’s allusion to stammering as the “native eloquence of us fog people,” a key statement referring to the nature of his dramatic realism, lacked adequate emphasis. Further, Tyrone’s recitation of the hardships he had to endure when emigrating to America were given an excessively sentimental, indeed lachrymose, twist. The confrontation between Edmund and his father, shaped in the script as a double confession, did not move to an ostensible sense of exorcism and mutual understanding. In addition, the literary allusions to Baudelaire and Swinburne characterizing O’Neill’s modernist attempt to spatialize time did not seem sufficiently foregrounded. Likewise, the duologue between Jamie and Edmund failed to convey the conflicting emotions which assail the older brother. In particular, the central gothic-like reference to Frankenstein remained sadly buried in the general flow of words.

Fortunately, the somewhat dull first part of Act IV was relieved by Jacqueline Bir’s climactic reappearance on stage with the symbolic wedding gown. Her impersonation of the withdrawn, drug-addicted Mary Tyrone then reached a dazzling climax. Bir marvelously modified her voice so as to sound like a young girl, subtly making the present and the past fuse, without ever sounding melodramatic.

Bernard Sens as Jamie and Didier Colfs as Edmund

The director elected to highlight her entrance on the stage with a particularly radiant light, thus suggesting some form of transcendence. Throughout the scene, she remained isolated in this eerie ray of light symbolizing her existential crisis. Her final lines, focusing on her meeting with James Tyrone and her subsequent ephemeral happiness thus received a special poignancy. Clearly, Jacqueline Bir proved a truly O’Neillian actress in this performance and the Brussels show largely owed its success to her mature understanding of O’Neill’s “language of kinship”. That the Brussels production will re-locate in Louvain’s “Théâtre Jean Vilar” until the end of 2003 indicates that O’Neill’s masterpiece can strike deep chords in receptive Belgian audiences. In the past decade, then, O’Neill had been too often absent from the Belgian theatre world, relegated to an unjust oblivion comparable to that of the banished prince in More Stately Mansions. I would hope that the important, if not flawless, “Théâtre du Parc” production will signal the end of his exile in our latitudes.

Professor Maufort teaches at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, in Belgium.  Production photographs are courtesy of the “Théâtre Royal du Parc” and Serge Daems.

 

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