It’s taken me a long time to get around to seeing a Eugene O’Neill play, which is strange considering he was one of the first playwrights I actually read outside of school (O’Neill, Hare and Miller was the full list. That was a depressing summer.) In other words, I was first exposed to it as a literary artefact, and I think that I thought the drama of Long Day’s Journey Into Night was in the revelations that unfurl across the play. It was only later I realised that this isn’t true; the drama is in what saying those things in that particular moment does to those people. They’re too easily conflated, I think.
James Tyrone launching into a monologue about his lost talent isn’t dramatic. James Tyrone launching into a monologue about his lost talent as his drunken, consumptive son sits opposite him as his morphine-drugged wife shuffles around upstairs is dramatic.
I’m not entirely sure why Long Day’s Journey resonated with me as a teenager. That’s an immediate lie, I know exactly why. Because it appealed my angsty self. Because it’s so specifically about one family that it could be about any. And because from the moment I discovered him I was a little bit obsessed with Eugene O’Neill. He seemed just so sad, in a completely unpretentious way. It was in the way he so ruthlessly attacks his own ability, the way he was wracked with self-doubt even as he was crafting this masterpiece. He was so sure he didn’t have the makings of a poet, only the habit. And that seemed so horrible to me. It still does, being so crippled by self-doubt.
There’s a gorgeous documentary about O’Neill that’s definitely worth a watch. In it, someone mentions that the only really change O’Neill made between his family reality and the play is that he switched his own name with that of the dead baby, and how that tells you more about Eugene O’Neill than anything else in the play. Always a little in love with death.
I was thinking, as I left The Inheritance a few days after Long Day’s Journey, just how significant time is in the play. It all happens over 16 hours, wouldn’t it be interesting to see it done in real time? Watching that family collapse over 3 and a half hours is interesting, but what would watching it collapse over 16 hours do? Would it diffuse the tension, or draw it out to an unbearable pain? It might just be terrible. I’d be interested to see, though.
I guess that was my main problem with this production (which is very good, okay,) that it didn’t take it’s time. Maybe it’s because it wasn’t the version of Long Day’ Journey I’ve had in my head for 4 years or whatever. But I just wanted it to be longer. I wanted to hear them breathe in the same room, I wanted them to actually live in that house instead of just argue in it. Stick another interval or two in and make an event of it. Time fucking matters.
How often do the Tyrone’s have a day like this? I know there’s the (very convincing) argument that this is the only time it happens, and that nothing could ever be the same for the Tyrone’s after that night, but I’ve always thought it has happened before, and it would happen again. They’re living in complete denial. Certainly in the way Matthew Beard was playing Edmund, I felt like he’d heard these things a hundred times before. There’s very little surprise in him.
Lesley Manville is brilliant as Mary, particularly in the first act; the way she flits around the stage, so desperate to run up those stairs and into the spare room, but knowing she can’t, not straight away. Permanently on the edge of tears, always on the edge of breaking. There’s also the suggestion (that I’ve always bought into) that it’s deliberate. That Mary does do it to hurt her family. That she knows what she’s doing. That even in the throes of addiction she’s never totally without agency in that house, a house she loathes so much.
Long Day’s Journey seems to me an absolutely titanic tragedy. It devastated me when I read it. Its tragedy is in the fact that nothing changes. Even in The Iceman Cometh, there’s a catharsis; there’s a shift in the power dynamic and a sense that justice is served. In Long Day’s Journey – nothing. Nothing changes. Nobody dies. And somehow, that’s worse.
Photo by Hugo Glendinning.