A harrowing performance: it is rare to see a play that distils so poignantly and so bitterly the life of the playwright himself into less than three hours. Eugene O’Neill, perhaps America’s greatest playwright, wrote Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 1940. However, he pledged never to publish it until twenty five years after his death, and even then banned it from ever being performed. His widow overrode both intentions, and audiences today can still sense its heavily autobiographical nature, infusing the play with an overwhelming and unsettling pathos.
Unfolding in one single day in August 1912, Long Day’s Journey Into Night captures the deeply dysfunctional Tyrone family in Connecticut. All four members of the family battle with addiction: the three males are alcoholics while the mother nurses a severe morphine addiction. The conflict ensuing from these addictions drives each family member mad; from regret, resentment and denial. The play endlessly jumps between contrived buoyancy and laughter, as the family strain to delude themselves that they are unaffected by their problems, and cutting arguments and despair. The latter dominates the last hour, percolating the audience with a sense of futility and oppression, furthered by the claustrophobic lack of set-change.
David Suchet, of Poirot fame, delivered an excellent performance as James Tyrone, the father. Whilst his American accent was somewhat patchy, he effortlessly performs James’ character as a ‘stingy old miser’, whose preoccupation with money leads him to sacrifice the health of his son Edmund, by sending him to a state sanatorium for his likely fatal consumption, rather than a pricier private one. The two brothers Edmund and Jamie are extremely well played by Kyle Soller and Trevor White respectively, who render the predictable and wasted life of the alcoholic, and portray a heart-rending and soul destroying concern for Mary Tyrone, their mother. Edmund is clearly the young Eugene O’Neil: thoughtful, poetic and unassuming, while his brother Jamie represents the boorish yet secretly tender American jock. However, Mary, played by Laurie Metcalf, provides a somewhat tiring performance. Her mental instability, evolving from her transformation into what her sons callously name a ‘dope fiend’, manifests itself in breathless winding speeches of regret, worry and accusation. Although this works well in writing, this dreary verbal monotony casts a negative shadow of boredom on an otherwise fantastic performance.
The play also reflects the great influence O’Neill had on Arthur Miller. In both Miller and O’Neill’s works, the potent theme of the lost American Dream is resonant. The all-encompassing delusion regarding one’s failure and insignificance in the face of the idealistic thriving individual is pertinent to James Tyrone, as he woefully dwells on what he could have achieved.
This performance was the closing night, perhaps helping to create a particularly intense and despairing atmosphere. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is undoubtedly challenging to execute night after night for so many weeks. The sheer emotional turbulence the cast must carry on behalf of their characters is visibly exhausting. Despite this being the play’s last performance in London, I highly recommend reading the play.