Thursday, July 15, 2010

Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Andrew Upton at Sydney Theatre, June 29 – August 1, 2010

Reviewed by Frank McKone, July 14.

If you have read about O’Neill’s personal life you will understand the significance of the title of this long play, which ran 3 hours 40 minutes (including a 20 minute interval).  Alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide were subjects he could not avoid, though he did put off writing this gruelling story until 1941, as the Parkinson’s-like neurodegenerative disease known as cortical cerebellar atrophy began to take hold, preventing him from writing ever again, until his death in 1953.

Some commentators see O’Neill as taking up, for the first time in America, the Chekovian tradition of realism, but this is not true of most of his work.  His characters and plots are full of symbolism, even though he employs apparently naturalistic forms of dialogue.  In fact, each of his plays is an experiment in theatrical form.  He was an innovator, an inventor never fully satisfied with his last creation. 

Before Long Day’s Journey Into Night only his structured study of racial discrimination in All God’s Chillun Got Wings produced a drama of ordinary internal family relations.  But Long Day is a searing journey to the centre of the night which, in my opinion, has not been undertaken by any other playwright since Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.

I’ll come back to themes later, but my first concern is whether or not Upton and his cast – Robyn Nevin as wife and mother Mary, William Hurt as husband, father and actor James Tyrone, Todd van Voris as eldest son James, and Luke Mullins as younger surviving son Edmund, and not forgetting Emily Russell as Mary’s household employee Cathleen – would have had any hope of satisfying the author who claimed, I believe, not to wish to see his plays on stage because he could always do a better production in his own imagination.

If the performance I saw had not been a matinee, requiring us to accept only two curtain-call appearances before the cast took a break to prepare for the evening,  I’m sure the demands of those calling for a standing ovation would have been granted by the whole audience on a third appearance.  Despite Edmund’s disparagement of James Tyrone’s old-style Irish Catholicism, almost certainly true of Eugene O’Neill’s attitude towards his actor-father James O’Neill’s religion, it would not be hard to imagine the author, looking down from theatrical heaven, with satisfied eyes.

The acting was, as we expect from STC, superb. 

Emily Russell’s small but crucial role is a great example.  In a family full of delusions, Cathleen is a normal person, seeing the funny side of situations, wanting to please but standing up for herself, recognising the realities of her job as household help and maintaining a commonsense relationship between her drug-affected employer and Bridget, the terror in the kitchen whom we never see but get to know well.  After a first act which takes us out to interval wondering if we can cope any more with the twists and turns of bickering, accusations, regrets and unsuccessful attempts to express love, Russell opens Act 2 with a large and ebullient Cathleen bringing out a vivacity in Mary so enjoyable to see that we can believe that Mary can perhaps achieve her sanity.  Yet it is Russell’s Cathleen who suddenly has to step back as she realises that Mary’s responses to normal enjoyment of life are abnormal.  Cathleen knows how to deal with Bridget the kitchen tyro, but this is beyond dealing with.  Russell loses nothing of Cathleen’s open personality, but by the time she leaves the stage we know what she knows, and we wonder how on earth this family will end its days.

As the long drunken evening winds it misty way around the men, each little gust of interaction sometimes seeming a little warmer but trending icy overall, we wait in dread.  If we ever see Mary emerge from the spare room again, what will we see?  It is Robyn Nevin’s triumph that, after perhaps an hour off-stage, in the dead of night her Mary is such a sad, sad figure that when she stands so still and speaks we are completely absorbed.  When she stops speaking we are silent.  No-one breaks as the lights slowly dim, and we even feel a bit tentative about beginning to applaud when the lights come up to relieve the intensity with appreciation for such actors.

Of course, without three men to match, no woman could produce such a Mary.  Each one had his element of surprise.  Tyrone, the “great” actor, was not the expected booming theatrical cliché voice.  Often he spoke too fast to pick up all the words, sometimes seeming as if William Hurt was not quite in control of his role.  But think of the complexity of an actor playing the role of an actor who only feels himself to be in control when he is acting before an audience.  At “home” he has no audience, only a wife and sons who see through him.  He is at home on the stage, or used to be in his hey-day, but he is no more than an illusion in this house which even looks like a run-down one-night stand hotel room.  And we are watching William Hurt in this illusion on stage before us, his audience.  So Hurt was right to show us Tyrone unable to maintain the cliché, too mentally messed-up to sound out the booming foghorn voice.

James was a visual surprise to me.  I had never imagined him as rotund as Todd van Voris appeared.  I suppose my cliché expectation was that he would be a drunken broken down version of his tall square-shouldered theatrically heroic father, as William Hurt appeared.  But this was the son who deliberately rejected his father’s appearance of athleticism, even though he showed that he was, at least when sober, a more sincere actor than his father.  And, in his cups, this James was a capable clown – until his cups overflowed, spilling his insecurity all over the floor in the final scenes, and the clown could only watch the horror of his mother, and do nothing.

Even though I knew the story of O’Neill’s tuberculosis, and thus Edmund’s “consumption”, and expected a sick looking Luke Mullins, his slimness looked so thin against van Voris’s roundness that at once his cough said what we needed to know.  So casting was not just a matter of finding actors who could act, especially actors who could act actors when they were acting and when they were not, as well as actors who can act characters who are always pretending, sometimes deliberately but often subconsciously.  Casting was also about design to create images of the characters which tell the story visually.  And this was very well done.

The design, too, of the claustrophobic ugly room, looking cheap and yet also reminiscent of the sort of ship’s cabin that O’Neill himself would have inhabited as a rough merchant seaman, set the atmosphere to dead astern.  But rather than hold us in this confinement for three hours, lighting and gaps in the wings allowed us to see out a little and place this dead centre in the beginnings of a context: the hedge out front, the verandah, the dining room, the street which led to the pub.  But there were only small disturbing sounds from the spare room upstairs, where Mary had her “naps”.  This was just sufficient for us to survive our time with this family – well done again.

The play operates on three levels, and Andrew Upton has allowed O’Neill’s writing to reveal them all.  First, conflicts within each of the personalities become apparent in more and more detail as the second level, conflict within the family between the individuals, grows apace.  These are the levels at which we respond to the action on stage as we watch.  The intricacies of the interactions make this play one of the greatest written in the 20th Century and an outstanding play historically.

The third level is not made explicit on stage, yet is shown in clues – put there by O’Neill – which may be cryptic.  This is an American play.  What does it say about America?  Upton, as director, has not only made sure the first two levels are fully developed, but he has been careful to put issues before us which are core questions in American culture.

The “ould country” is Ireland, and the accents of the two generations, compared also with the original Irish of the immigrant worker Cathleen, bring out the issue of change which we know so well in Australia.  This is fine voice design which, like good lighting, is done so well that it is not noticed.  But it establishes the credentials and credibility of this production, and I bet that O’Neill’s ghost is pleased.  This is because the theme of the migration to America and the consequential belief in the “American Dream” is crucial to appreciating O’Neill’s sense of tragedy. 

It is not just a story of characters who fall into the traps of alcohol and morphine addiction, for whom we may feel sorrow as they effectively commit suicide (as O’Neill’s sons did in real life – one only three years before O’Neill himself died).  It is the story of the failure of America to know itself – to understand that the Dream is a delusion, that America is not the great heroic nation it believes itself to be, that America cannot impose dictates upon others while maintaining its belief in freedom, that even within its own culture the dream of never-ending success for everyone is an impossible dream.

We see the effects of the American Dream played out in the news every day, and even in Australia (where we tell ourselves that we don’t accept authority, with a philosophy of “no bullshit”) we follow America into unwinnable wars and people constantly talk of achieving their dream.  O’Neill’s play is a warning: the dream is a self-destructive delusion. 

Yet the irony is that to create this drama on the stage so effectively, as Upton and his team have done, is to prove that O’Neill’s “dream” can be fulfilled – perhaps better even than in his imagination.  Watch Cathleen, the minor character of no apparent importance but the only one who will survive.

If you have to miss the Sydney season, your next opportunity is at the Newmark Theatre, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland, Oregon USA, August 13-29, where it will be followed by Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness in September.