NEW YORK – Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” is a masterpiece that is so difficult to act and to stage, it is rarely done. At the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street this spring, an Englishman, Jonathan Kent, has directed a brilliant production of the play.
In this almost-four-hour autobiographical play that is O’Neill’s greatest, the playwright was trying to understand the minds and hearts of those he called “the poor haunted Tyrones,” by which he meant his father, the actor James O’Neill Sr. (whom he called “James Tyrone”), his mother, Mary Ellen Quinlan O’Neill (“Mary Cavan Tyrone”), his brother Jamie and himself. He listed himself in the cast of characters as “Edmund Tyrone.”
O’Neill wrote the play in 1941 out of his memories of a dreadful day in 1912 at the family home in New London, when he and his father and brother discovered two terrible truths: that he, Eugene, had tuberculosis and his mother had relapsed, once again, into the habit of taking morphine.
Mr. Kent has selected a stellar cast to tell the story. Jessica Lange, a wonderfully gifted actress whom most of us remember from films and TV plays, is Mary Tyrone, giving a great and honest performance. She played the role once before in London 16 years ago with the British actor Charles Dance.
Now, she seems to have grown into it, not only age-wise, but also finding the perfect balance between Mary’s illusions of truth and the fantasies the drugs bring on. The Irish actor Gabriel Byrne – whom I have seen in the O’Neill plays “A Moon for the Misbegotten” and “A Touch of the Poet” – is superb as the miserly father James Tyrone, sacrificing a promising acting career to make a million dollars touring a romantic melodrama called “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
Jamie, the elder son, more than a bit of a lush and a cynical lost soul, is skillfully acted by Michael Shannon. Younger son Edmund, played by John Gallagher Jr., fears tuberculosis just as he was beginning to make something of himself as a reporter for a New London newspaper on the road to becoming the playwright Eugene O’Neill.
The play is one of almost overwhelming sorrow, yet it is not a tragedy. Although the Tyrones suffer the torments of the doomed and the mother Mary makes her descent into the mists of the past under the drug, the three men find new strength in the recognition of old truths while violently thrashing out their bitter differences. Mary, lost in the memories of a personal past, seems to be freed at last of her guilt and shame.
There is humor in the play to relieve some of the solemnity. Tyrone has some silly, wacky insistence that Shakespeare and the Duke of Wellington must have been “Irish Catholics,” else they could never have achieved greatness. And the sons joke about their father’s penurious care to keep all unnecessary light bulbs turned off.
But the real-life father economized in many ways, too, entrusting the birth of Eugene to a cheap quack doctor who gave Mrs. O’Neill morphine and so, unwittingly, started her on the habit. Years later, after her husband’s death, Mrs. O’Neill was to go into a convent where she was finally cured of drugs. Within a year after he contracted what was then called consumption, Eugene was cured.
Under Mr. Kent’s guidance and the expert cast’s work, the full stature of the play emerges once again in high relief. This is without question the wisest and one of the most mature of all the dramas of our great American playwrights and one that seems to endure decade after decade.
The play follows so closely the personal story of his own family that O’Neill forbade its production until 25 years after his death. His widow, Carlotta Monterey O’Neill, lifted the ban in 1956, three years after O’Neill died.
The story was profoundly personal and intimate to the O’Neills, but the basic story of love and hate is universally meaningful. The family learns what love and hatred are, and how they are intertwined in the tough fabric of all people’s lives.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.