For Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey Into Night was an act of contrition and a personal confrontation with his tumultuous family history. That he could translate his anguish into an autobiographical drama of universal resonance and profound emotional impact is a testament to the genius and artistry of, arguably, the greatest playwright in the history of American theater. O’Neill called it "a play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood."
Completed in 1941, when O’Neill was past fifty and already a Nobel laureate, LDJIN was not produced until 1956, three years after his death. It was an extraordinary theatrical event, launching this masterpiece onto the stage with a dream cast (Frederick March, Florence Eldridge, Jason Robards, Jr.) that brought the Tyrone family to vivid, searing life for entranced audiences that sat mesmerized through its more than three hour length.
Now filmmaker David Wellington has brought the play to the screen based on a 1994 Stratford (Canada) Festival stage production. Filmed in a golden aura of autumnal browns and cream and ochre, Wellington uses his camera eye with inventive sensitivity, attuned appropriately to the dialogue, to the listener as well as to the speaker, roaming about within the confines of the Tyrone Connecticut home, finding unexpected angles to gently surprise the eye and visually complement the text.
The play unfolds over one day in the life of this troubled family, artfully alternating scenes amongst the four characters, allowing each to have one-on-one dialogue with each other, as well as ensemble pieces; it’s an almost operatic structure – arias, duets, trios, quartets.
James Tyrone, a retired actor who sold out a promising Shakespearean career for easy commercial success, has a history of miserliness, rooted in a childhood of desperate poverty, deeply resented by his family, and blamed by them for misfortunes that ensued. His wife, Mary, a faded beauty, the convent girl who married the matinee idol, is now hopelessly addicted to morphine. Elder son Jamie, a self-loathing drunkard, and younger son, poetic and consumptive Edmund, round out this angst-ridden family.
With dialogue that reverberates poetically, O’Neill’s characters reveal their lifetimes of stored up family feelings: resentment, denial, blame, and self-deception, but with a powerful grounding of underlying love that, along with rivers of alcohol, somehow keeps the family from total disintegration. Above all, this is a tragedy of losses – lost opportunities, lost faith, lost ideals, lost hopes. Sadness and pain permeate the drama as creeping fog softens edges and moaning foghorns mourn unfulfilled dreams. "My name is ‘Might-Have-Been,’" says Jamie. And James Tyrone pinches his pennies, paranoically dreading a destitute old age, unscrewing bulbs in the lighting fixtures even as he deflects the light of truth from his family’s sorrows.
A viewer who saw the original New York production witnessed an almost insurmountable benchmark for performances of LDJIN. If not attaining the rarefied standard of accomplishment – and doubtlessly memory-enhanced quality – of March, Eldridge, and Robards, Jr., the current cast delivers up a moving and credible interpretation, nonetheless. Martha Henry captures the damaged fragility of Mary Tyrone, every muscle of her face engaged in conveying the pain and sadness of this tragic heroine, her whispery voice gliding through drug-addled monologues like the sussurus of brittle leaves eddying in an autumn breeze. Tom McCamus as Edmund, listens as well as he speaks in a performance of intelligence and low-keyed intensity. When he, O’Neill’s alter ego, tells his father of his experience as a seaman, a moment of rapture glows in the gathering darkness of the evening. "I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it," he rhapsodizes, "I dissolved in the sea …I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life…to life itself!"
A brooding, beautifully melancholy musical score by Ron Sures, rich in mellow tones of cello and clarinet, unintrusively enhances the verbal poetry of the play. Director Wellington is not afraid of long pauses, of moments of silence that function to frame the richness of the text. By the time Mary recalls wistfully, "I fell in love with James Tyrone and was happy for a time," the Tyrones’ long day’s journey has become the revealed heart of every family’s journeys of the soul.