Monday, March 5, 2012

Long Day's Journey into Night (1956*)

     I feel somewhat dirty when I'm hypercritical of Long Day's Journey into Night (published in 1956, but written in 1941-42).  I like the idea of an obtuse, intensely personal story being told in play format being a masterpiece.  Sure, mine isn't (and not just because it is in a sloppy screenplay format).  The problem that O'Neill has is that his play has not aged well.  More than that, because it was considered groundbreaking, many other authors have tackled similar stories and done so with much more ambition and clarity.  Compare Shepard's Buried Child to Long Day's Journey into Night and ask yourself which one has an element that better encapsulates the breakdown of family harmony in light of a secret.  O'Neill's work feels dated by the time it is published.
     Maybe that is exactly the problem.  The idea that a mother who has a morphine/heroin addiction is some kind of unbearable, unfaceable truth feels so suburban, so white middle-class.  It speaks of a lack of awareness of the world of the late 19th Century America; Sear & Roebuck used to sell heroin kits through the mail, legally, as a means to help people get off of morphine.  Clearly there was no shortage of usage.  So the entire crux becomes one of a reluctance to talk about what is actually wrong with Mary (and I'm sympathetic, because I did something similar – though much more awkwardly – in Without Distinction).  Well, that and how the Irish-American family of the era (there are no daughters, so we don't get to see them devalued as people) is not a particularly supportive unit.
     I saw this performed in 2002, though most of the cast was replaced when the production finally made it to Broadway.  At the time, the inconsistencies in the performance really bothered me.  Only Brian Dennehy failed to disappoint, and if he didn't look like he wanted to strangle his cast-mates, I would have tried to make it to the stage and ask him what the hell happened to make everything fall apart.  The rest of that cast was Pamela Payton-Wright as Mary (she was beyond awful, downright cringe-worthy), Steve Pickering as older brother Jamie (he was fine until the final act when he actually needed to be prompted for a line and nearly walked into another actor trying to hit his mark), David Cromer as younger brother Edmund (bad throughout, but consistent in that he wasn't so bad as to steal focus from Payton-Wright's disaster on stage), and Susan Bennett as a completely forgettable maid (so much so that I had almost no recollection of the scene where she has a fair amount of dialogue).  Really, the worst live show I've ever seen.  And I didn't know why.
     I think I do, now.  Long Day's Journey into Night isn't just reluctant to be about what it really is about, it is horribly overwritten when it comes to the directions for the characters.  All of them are in a constant, unflagging conflict with themselves.  While O'Neill was trying to show that there is an inner turmoil they cannot share (because of fear or pride?), the hurt always slips through and poisons the relationships with each other.  That is a powerful message utterly ruined when every other line a character has is there to show the duality.  It feels like watching a clan of supremely functional schizophreniacs who have to navigate a shared reality while beset with their own personal hells.  And not in an interesting way.
     What bothers me most about the play is that it has no sense of timelessness, which it should.  It is about the tensions that can destroy a family, how withholding love is more dangerous than any active hurt one can dish out.  But O'Neill has a need to make it so personal that it defies the audience (or in this instance, the reader) to give a damn.  Most of the plays I read last year were over 2300 years old and spoke to the human condition in an enduring manner.  O'Neill's play is less than 100 and is essentially a relic, and not a pleasant or fun one.  There may be something meaningful happening to the characters in the story, but O'Neill demands that the audience make all of the connections themselves, and dares them to give a damn in the end.  Quite frankly, I didn't.  And that is how I felt in 2002 as well.

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