Wednesday 23 May 2012

Long Day's Journey Into Night

Last night at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue I saw what my friend Matthew described as "a journey into the depths of human misery". He wasn't joking. Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night", completed in 1941, is a torturous visit into the darkness of an Irish-American family, based to a large extent on O'Neill's own experiences.

The play centres on the Tyrone family; father James one time great actor haunted by the shocking poverty of his childhood; his wife Mary, in the terminology of the day is a "dope fiend" addicted to morphine after being treated by a quack doctor during childbirth; older son James Junior a heavy drinking womanising spendthrift and Edmund the younger son, also a heavy drinker and suffering from what was then known as "consumption".

All are haunted by childhood experiences. The father, convincingly played by David Suchet cannot escape the fear of returning to the poverty of his childhood and despite declaring "I am not a miser", he is one. His miserliness is the root of many of the family's problems, opting for the cheap doctor to treat his wife with a morphine "cure" and choosing to send Edmund to a state hospital rather than a more expensive better equipped facility. James Junior is haunted by the childhood experience of seeing his mother inject morphine for the first time and the realisation of what was wrong with her.

Mary is also deeply troubled. She can't forgive herself for the death of a child that came between her two sons but also blames James Junior for the child's death from a childhood disease passed between the children. Mary is also resentful of her younger son as the morphine "treatment" followed his birth and she openly says that if he hadn't been born she would not be an addict.

The characters veer from vicious, violent, hatred towards each other to deep affection and reconciliation, often in a very short space of time and all seem trapped in a cycle of recrimination and blame. There is much symbolism in the play. The father refuses to have more than one light bulb burning at a time  - "why make the electricity company rich?" he regularly asks. The darkness is real and physical but also symbolic of not wishing to see things as they really are and of hiding from the truth. His need to constantly acquire additional property is symptomatic of his fear of being made homeless again as he was twice in his childhood. His being trapped into continuing his destructive and isolating behaviour is referred to in his comments about playing the same role night after night for many years, telling Edmund that no-one wanted to see him in any other role. In life as on the stage. 

Isolation and loneliness are key themes in the play. Both James Senior and Mary speak of being lonely. Mary combats the loneliness through drinking with the maid Cathleen, cheekily played by Rosie Sansom, before casting her off once the effect of the morphine kicks in telling her she doesn't need her anymore. James tells Edmund he has been lonely sitting up waiting for his sons to come home once Mary has gone to the spare room to roam about through the night as she drifts further away from them. James Junior visits a brothel and chooses the fattest prostitute threatened with dismissal for being unpopular so that he can have company and because she too is lonely. There is no end to or escape from loneliness for any of them.

The play follows a single day in the life of the family. It does not resolve any of their issues and the final scene sees the four of them looking into the audience each with their own pain, loneliness and fears. Perhaps Mary best sums up their weaknesses in the second act she when she says "None of us can help the things life has done to us. They're done before you realise it, and once they're done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you'd like to be and you've lost your true self forever''.

O'Neill never intended the play to be performed and also gave express instructions that it should not be published until 25 years after his death. He died in 1953 and his estranged third wife, Carlotta Montery inherited the rights to his works. She chose to disregard his wishes and eventually had the play published by Yale University press in February 1956. The first production of the play took place the same month in Stockholm, performed in Swedish at the Royal Dramatic Theatre which had already staged several of his other works. The Swedes apparently felt his work was similar to that of Strindberg and knew him well enough from his Nobel Prize for literature awarded in 1936. Perhaps they liked the constant references to the fog outside the house! The first English production took place on Broadway in 1956.

O'Neill described Long Day's Journey Into Night as a " of old sorrow, written in tears and blood". Much of the play relates to his own and his family's experiences. Like James Senior, he purchased the rights to a play "The Count of Monte Cristo" and became typecast, unable to escape the role, was no longer offered classical roles and slipped into regret and bitterness. It is believed that Mary Tyrone was partly based on Carlotta Monterey who liked to regale friends with love-hate tales of her relationship with O'Neill in the same way Mary veers from love to hate in her feelings for her sons.

Good performances from the already mentioned David Suchet and from Kyle Soller in the role of Edmund, the only "hope" for the future - but even this is lost when his consumption is confirmed. Not for the feint hearted or the easily depressed, but this is a great and moving play. Three hours in length (including the interval) it demands concentration but quickly draws the audience into the web of the Tyrone family and involves us in their journey into darkness. 

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