Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Long Day's Journey Into Night: A Play / by Eugene O'Neill

Of all the brooding playwrights hailing from the Modern/Post-Modern era, Eugene O'Neill might be the most tragic and morose. Like Ibsen, Pinter, Beckett and even Albee, O'Neill paints the portrait life as bleak as any, his characters full to the brim with disillusionment and despair usually enacting scenarios in which escalating cycles of conflict crush the soul. The son of an Irish immigrant actor, O'Neill was born on Broadway and raised in the shadow of the stage until his father eventually gave up the life and moved the family to Connecticut. On the surface, it wouldn't appear that his early years were all that bad. He was educated at Catholic boarding schools, spent his summers at the family's cottage home and attended Princeton before dropping out and joining the Navy. After contracting tuberculosis, he spent several years in recovery at a sanitorium whereupon he officially began writing and publishing his plays and poetry. A regular among the growing Socialist scene in Greenwich Village and other parts of the Northeast, O'Neill was well-known by a number of early American Communists, notably John Reed and Louise Bryant--the film Reds (DVD REDS) even speculates on a love triangle between the three. Even for an Irishman, O'Neill's life was particularly steeped in alcoholism and depression, themes overwhelmingly depicted in his plays like "The Iceman Cometh", about a New York City bar full of hopeless drunks too afraid to go outside, and even "A Moon for the Misbegotten", one of his lighter works focusing on the life of his older brother Jamie who died at the age of 45. "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is without a doubt his most autobiographical play, also perhaps his best one, evoking his family's thoroughly dysfunctional status just prior to O'Neill's entry into the sanitorium.

"If you can't be good you can at least be careful."

It seems a peaceful enough New England summer morning at the family cottage home of the Tyrones. Father James Sr. and mother Mary speak comfortingly to one another despite each's lingering preoccupations with the family's problems which include younger son Edmund's suspected tuberculosis and elder son Jamie's static life as a failed actor. A retired actor himself of moderately successful status whose long-running role in a single play provided financial stability but limited career opportunites, James has complicated his family's finances through faulty property acquisitions and poor decision making. Another far more hidden but much more devastating problem has been Mary's longtime drug addiction. Having just returned from another stint in rehab, she's strongly suspected by all three male Tyrones to have resumed her habit. Ironically James, Jamie and Edmund are each themselves alcoholics and their sly but honest attempts to find out info from Mary are received with cool retorts about their drinking. As the day wears on into evening, all four Tyrones escape the house for a while, the three males to get drunker and Mary to score a hit. When they return home near midnight all four are well-lathered up and ready for a fight.

O'Neill is regarded by more than a few of the well-informed as the best American playwright. While was never as popular as say Shaw or Noel Coward (both Brit contemporaries), perhaps not as structured as Miller, more subdued than Albee (a fellow Irish ex-pat) and certainly not as vociferous and loud as Tennessee Williams, he was one of the most keen observers of the human condition in all of literature. O'Neill's is perhaps not so much a style of representation as it is a personal tragedy from which he writes, a foregone conclusion of bereftness and desolation. But his hopelessness is far keener than any playwright before or since. Like with Pinter or Albee, there's an ominous repression of feelings and an inability to communicate emotions but nothing can remove the chronic, mutually bourne burden of doom from O'Neill's characters, something perhaps most well-manifested in "Long Day's Journey Into Night". The chief emotion among the Tyrone clan is a well-measured balance of rage and regret, thus making the sentiment most prominently evoked one of irrepressible misery. But their misery isn't something they're encountering for the first time, nor the second or even the last time. You get the sense that they're 'long day's journey into night' is exactly that--something they rise to reluctantly greet each day and violently retreat from with the onset of nightfall. There's a light at the end of the tunnel of their darkness but it's a familiar and unkind illumination, one they'd rather remain in the dark about than face. To face it means to confront a reality of fruitless immobility and recurrent misfortune. O'Neill never saw this particular play performed, never wanted to. Upon its completion in 1942, he sealed the manuscript in a vault with orders for it not to be viewed until after his death whereupon it debuted to obvious success. (812.52 ONEILL)

No comments: