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Long Day's Journey Into
Thirteen/WNET.presents Great Performances on.PBS
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!"
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.
- Arthur Lazere