By Scott Ross
By critical consensus at least, Long Day’s Journey into Night ranks as the Great American Play. But one needn’t necessarily be a critic, or susceptible to the official canon, to attain reverence for Eugene O’Neill’s ultimate (in both senses of the word) cri-de-couer. One need only read or — preferably — see it.
Autobiography abounds in our native theatre, of course, whether by hint or inference. Seldom, however, has an American playwright drawn so extensively on his own past and family as O’Neill does here, nor to such coruscating effect. Although it may be argued quite convincingly that the author is not as hard on himself, via his dramatic alter ego, as he is on his mother, father and older brother, there is supple evidence that he did not let himself entirely off the piercing hook on which he transfixes the wriggling, doomed, damned Tyrones — who are all the more pitiably human in that they know precisely how doomed, and damned, they are.
Before his Parkinson’s-like cerebellar cortical atrophy completely debilitated him, O’Neill somehow managed to complete More Stately Mansions, A Touch of the Poet, A Moon for the Misbegotten, The Iceman Cometh and this, his masterwork, all between 1939 and 1942. Such a prodigious — indeed, Herculean — undertaking is commensurate, if in a smaller way, to Shakespeare’s comparable achievement. And this during a time in which the playwright had been largely ignored, if not exactly forgotten, by most of his contemporaries. Had his own wishes in the matter of publication been adhered to, his late masterwork might not have been discovered until 1979. (Imagine!) Thankfully, O’Neill’s widow, the formidable Carlotta Monterey, ignored her husband’s instructions, and the first production of Long Day’s Journey made its appearance in America a mere three years after his death, the same year its director, José Quintero, mounted his production of Iceman, re-establishing it as a somewhat ponderous yet undeniable force and spearheading O’Neill’s redemptive posthumous rediscovery.
Long Day’s Journey into Night, “this old work of sorrow, written in tears and blood,” as the playwright described it in his dedication of the manuscript to Carlotta, is an act both of excoriation and extirpation. Even, if you like, of exorcism, although I doubt attempting to forgive his family in this manner for its many sins, both of omission and commission (a fine distinction for a lapsed Catholic like O’Neill) was entirely or even partially successful. Some psychic wounds are simply too firmly embedded ever to be eradicated. Nowhere near as ambitious, formally, as Iceman, the play is nevertheless entirely successful, and satisfying, on its own less expansive virtues. Indeed, more successful; its very autobiographical specificity allows it to achieve something beyond the O’Neill of The Iceman Cometh. From the parochial — a family in perpetual Strindbergian combat — Long Day’s Journey into Night emerges, finally, as wholly universal.
There has been some careless talk of turning the play into an opera but this, if not sacrilegious, is surely redundant. O’Neill may not have become the poet of his youthful ambitions (his stand-in, Edmund, remarks, when father James suggests he has the makings of a poet, “No, I’m afraid I’m like the guy who is always panhandling for a smoke. He hasn’t even got the makings. He’s got only the habit.”) but he certainly had the innate musicality. The play itself is operatic, both in its length and its breadth, but the four individuals in it form an intimate chamber ensemble of a twisting complexity that breaks the boundaries of formalization: Now a quartet, now a series of duets, now a solo, then more duets, another trio and finally, devastatingly, a quartet once more. And in each movement the same recriminations and self-delusions are raised, the same accusations aired and hurts inflicted, the same apologies given, the same uneasy truces reached, and tremulously maintained. Less perhaps a string quartet then, than an endless battle fought among four armies of one, none of its generals ever admitting ultimate defeat or surrender, each limping off to lick his or her wounds before (to use O’Neill’s phrases) stammering and stumbling on to the next bloody engagement. The parts, too, as with the best dramatic work, are orchestral, ranging between winds and strings, the players alternating on first one instrument and then another. Sonorous tubas exchange themselves for keening oboes or whingeing bassoons as mood dictates. Or are these four antagonists polymorphous/polyphonic singers, basso-profundo giving way to lyric soprano, tenor and baritone to alto?
You’ll have to excuse my very mixed metaphors; this play, like the greatest works of art, has a way of making you thinks in those terms, knowing that mere descriptive prose can never begin to do the job. “I couldn’t touch what I tried to tell you just now,” Edmund says to James, in the exchange cited above. “I just stammered. That’s the best I’ll ever do, I mean, if I live.”
O’Neill himself does not stammer here, if his characters occasionally do. Journey is not Iceman, where the bluntness of the argument (and the bibulousness of its speakers) militates against poetic expression. The participants here are at once more intimate and more estranged, and the dialogue reflects the intelligence of the Tyrones as well as the parameters of their various educations. Mary, the mother, has only her convent schooling; father James, a once-celebrated actor, has at least absorbed the texts of his beloved Shakespeare; the sons, Jamie and Edmund, have their Harvard experience and the realist/romantic verses of the poets Jamie once held dear, whom Edmund still does and of whom his older brother now despairs. While the lines they speak are too prosaic in themselves to soar as O’Neill may have wished, the total effect of them is of a great epic poem of aching melancholy, its author (again in Jamie’s words) mastering a “faithful realism, at least.” And as he goes on, “Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.” O’Neill here is their greatest, non-stammering stammerer.
Although I have seen the 1962 movie adaptation four or five times since my early 20s and never, alas, the play itself, I have never been as moved by it as I was while watching it again last night. Anyone, of any age past, say early adolescence, can grasp Long Day’s Journey into Night at least in part, just as a person of 14 or 15 might enjoy Waiting for Godot for its wit or even possibly for a certain nihilistic cynicism; there is, after all, no one as romantic, or as cynical, as a teenager. But you have, I think, to have lived long enough, and been broken enough times on the rack, to feel the full and anguished weight of the thing.
What the film’s producer, Ely Laundau (later the founder of the American Film Theatre) and its director, Sidney Lumet, accomplished goes far beyond merely transmogrifying a great play to the more immediately realistic strata of the movies. While there was some, slight, editing of the text about which the purist might reasonably quibble, I don’t see how anyone could argue against the cast, a quartet of exceedingly rare sublimity. Seldom has a movie, let alone a play, been so suffused with crystalline greatness in its principals.
Katharine Hepburn was somewhat in flux in the early 1960s. She’d reached that dangerous age, Over Forty, at which not even the greatest of her contemporaries, Bette Davis, hoped for much. She’d been doing a lot of Shakespeare on stage, and not many movies, and the astonishing beauty she had conveyed from the early ’30s was, inevitably, waning. With what gratitude must she have ripped into Mary Tyrone! There is no vanity in her performance, no special pleading other than Mary’s own. Indeed, there are moments when Lumet and his extraordinary cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, make her look (and in close-ups!) positively, and shockingly, ugly. That’s a calculated move, I suspect; Mary repeatedly bemoans how haggard she’s become with age, and we may sit back in disbelief thinking, “But she’s exquisite!” Those shots, then, have the power of a shock-cut. More, the overwhelming blow of truth: No woman of 55, not even Katharine Hepburn, can fully escape the ravishes of time. Moreover, since it is Mary’s quarter-century of morphine addiction that is the corroded heart of the matter in the play, some physical deterioration simply has to be accommodated.
Hepburn’s rightness is not merely one of physiognomy. If you’ll forgive another musical metaphor, Hepburn plays Mary like a cello: Adagio at the start, agitato creeping in; breaking the surface with shattering rubato, then temporizing, modulating, rallentando; a space of religioso here, a smattering of maestoso there; a burst of presto followed by an uncanny largo — and always, always, non troppo. She does not tip her hand. It is only gradually that Hepburn reveals the extent of Mary’s addiction, and its hold on her moods. (Her deep love for, and concern about, Edmund is plain, but simmers with resentment, as it was his difficult birth that put her on the path toward the hop.) While agitated, especially when dancing around the topic of Edmund’s possible tuberculosis, Hepburn hints at the volcano, seemingly dormant, but pulls back before it can activate. When she finally explodes, as she must, the effect is shattering, as when, at luncheon, in the midst of a bitter denunciation of the quacks who led her down the vertiginous track to dope-fiendom, she suddenly hurls crockery to the floor with both hands on the line, “I hate doctors!” In a long career of great performances, I don’t think she ever did finer work than she does here.
The same is true of Ralph Richardson’s James Tyrone. For an heroic actor with a voice whose distinction was only slightly less than that of his great coeval, John Gielgud’s, Richardson was cursed with a face whose plainness was his gravest disappointment. And while he made far too few movies, those in which he stars benefit immeasurably from his presence. As fine an entertainment as Carol Reed and Grahame Green’s The Fallen Idol (1948), for example, would be infinitely less without him — perhaps even unthinkable. His James Tyrone is, as it were, the worm’s-eye view of the man; yet for all his pettiness of spirit, mean constriction of mind and (explicable if not salutary) miserliness, we sense as well the dignity of James, his buried kindness, and the potential greatness of the actor whom Edwin Booth once praised and who, but for the wickedly gleaming lure of a sure-fire financial success (never named but surely the same Count of Monte Cristo whose massive receipts made James O’Neill even as it imprisoned him) might have rivaled, or even surpassed, his mentor in artistry. Richardson is magnificent.
Jason Robards, Jr. was Jamie in the 1956 American premiere, and reprises his defining performance here, hard on the heels of his resplendent Hickey in the Lumet-directed NET production of Iceman. (He would later portray the somewhat older, even more dissipated Jamie in the 1973 A Moon for the Misbegotten revival.) Whether or not Robards’ interpretation of the role had deepened or changed in the six years between productions I leave to those who saw both. On the screen, however, he is electrifying. Trite encomium, but none else will do. For Robards, like Hepburn (and indeed their co-stars) builds slowly, although Jamie’s disgust — at himself as much as his familial relations — is present from the beginning; it needs only the long-delayed lubrication of an epic alcoholic tear to liberate itself fully. Jamie is not being disingenuous when he proclaims, in the explosive fourth act, his endearing love for Edmund, and his barely concealed hatred and jealousy. That both emotions reside in the same, despairing and disparaged, heart makes Jamie among the most fully-developed characters in modern drama, and Robards anatomizes these ever-warring, obsessive, sentiments with the skill of a surgeon and the agonized passion of only the greatest actors. He is equally effective in open misery as he is in bitter cynicism; when Mary makes her final descent (in both senses of that word) Jamie’s caustic, “The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!” is at once appalling and utterly comprehensible. He deserves both the slap he receives from Edmund and the reward for honest endurance of the insupportable which, for him, will never be forthcoming..
Dean Stockwell is, among the four, the most tragic figure. I mean by this not his role as O’Neill’s stand-in but the stunning way in which, after this exceptional performance, his film career all but dried up, and that on the heels not only of Edmund but of well-regarded work in Sons and Lovers (1960) and both the stage and screen versions of Meyer Levin’s Leopold and Loeb play Compulsion. (In the latter, incidentally, he appeared with another highly gifted young actor whose mature years were largely unremarkable, Bradford Dillman. In an interesting coincidence, Dillman was Edmund in the March-Eldridge Long Day’s Journey, and would later make a superb Willie Oban in the 1973 American Film Theatre version of The Iceman Cometh.) Unique among former child actors, Stockwell blossomed in his 20s; by contrast, it would take the splendid Roddy McDowall, six years Dean’s senior, far longer to be taken seriously… although McDowall’s later career would prove far rosier than Stockwell’s.
The young actor is just about everything one could wish of an Edmund Tyrone. His diminutive stature, as well as his good looks, which teeter on the brink of prettiness, make it instantly clear why he is doted upon, and protected, by the family. “Mama’s baby, Papa’s pet,” Jamie sneers at him, just as Mary more than once reminds Edmund that he is a baby, and wants to be petted and fussed over. What neither his mother nor his brother quite grasps but which the seemingly oblivious elder James does, is that Edmund is far from infantile. At 24 he is already a veteran of wanderlust, an avid sailor whose fondest memories are of being lost to himself on the sea, and a would-be suicide (in a flophouse that would serve as the model for Harry Hope’s saloon in The Iceman Cometh and in which the more mature O’Neill will locate a mother-hating young man who will complete the act his real-life counterpart could not.) Himself only slightly older than Edmund in the play, Stockwell exhibits an astonishing, heartbreaking hold on the character. He is at once boyish and wise (or, as he and Jamie would have it, “wised-up”), striver and defeatist, a man-child for whom the future holds both infinite possibility and a crushing weight of guilt and resentment for which this, his magnum opus, will be only partial expiation. It’s all there in Stockwell’s precocious performance. See this, and weep for the artistic promise that was, inexplicably, never fulfilled.
The movie of Long’s Day’s Journey into Night was not a success at the box-office (total receipts: $500,000) but the entire cast deservedly received the Best Actor and Best Actress Awards that year at Cannes, and Hepburn was further nominated for an Academy Award®, although they all ought to have been. The film was cut after its release from 174 minutes to 134, and even now its “restored” version only runs 170. At least in the current edition there is some mention of the brother the older Jamie may or may not have deliberately infected, who died in infancy and the mention of whose name hits one with the force of a thunderclap: Dear God, what could O’Neill have meant by naming that baby Eugene! That, as with the nihilists Heine and Nietzsche, he is saying the best of all fates is never to have been born? That the playwright wished, on some level, it had been himself who was spared the burden of life, and of relation to this family?
Throughout, Lumet directs with the acute sensitivity that would make him one of our finest, and most humane, filmmakers. He does not obtrude. He observes, with heart and mind wide open, the vengeful perambulations of the Tyrones, never editorializing yet also never missing a beat either of their love for each other or their perfectly aimed barbs of psychic murderousness. Kaufman’s photography is luminous, both shadowed and acute, and reaches a kind of breathtaking apogee in Mary’s final, morphine dream monologue wherein the camera pulls further and further back as darkness envelopes (to quote once again from O’Neill’s dedication) “all the four haunted Tyrones.” There is nothing, at this point, that James, Jamie or Edmund can do but either ignore her, or watch, helplessly, as she moves father away from them. The fog has swallowed them all. Yet, shockingly, just at the height (or depth) of Mary’s opiate-induced transcendence, Lumet and Kaufman return to a sudden close-up Hepburn’s face as the dream-state begins to end and reality comes roaring back. The unexpected edit brings us all — the Tyrones, and those who watch them, as fascinated as children gazing at the frenzied beats of a butterfly impaled on a board — back to the soul-crushing truth of lives hopelessly burdened by a past they can neither change nor forget, for the play’s final, devastating lines: “Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.”
How perfect the choice of those last three words! Fond memory succeeded, hard on, by a dying fall, like the emotional obverse of Tennessee Williams’ “Sometimes — there’s God — so quickly!” Obliterating light, and hope, and the promise of a dawn that, swallowed up in indifferent fog (neither annealing nor malign but merely obliterative) will now never come. O’Neill may not have become the lyric poet of his aspirations, but he found a more instinctive, naïve, native poetry in the everyday. And although the ending of this, his supreme effort, is unutterably, ineffably sad, yet it is also, like the play itself, cause for celebration. Muted, perhaps, and acclaimed by a voice made ragged with weeping, but the hard-won cheer is the most cherished of all, and the most deeply felt.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross