First staged in 1956, three years after his death, Long Day’s Journey into Night is Eugene O’Neill’s masterly dramatization of his dysfunctional Irish-American family background. Written with great psychological subtlety, the play is a deeply moving account of how, despite loving intentions, domestic relationships can imprison those involved and drag everyone down together.
The drama takes place over one long summer’s day in 1912 in the Tyrone family Connecticut home, moving from the hope of morning light to the despair of midnight darkness. James Sr, a wealthy, well-known actor who sold out on his young theatrical potential, is desperate for his wife Mary to continue her recovery from drug addiction, as are his elder son Jamie, a failed actor playboy, and his younger poet son Edmund (based on O’Neill). It seems that Tyrone’s meanness is blamed for hiring a dodgy doctor who first gave Mary morphine after the pain of Edmund’s birth, and now the stress of him contracting tuberculosis is in danger of sending her over the edge again.
O’Neill superbly sets up the intimate dynamics between husband and wife, parents and children, and siblings where, like Ibsen, events from the past cast their shadows on the present and, like Strindberg, intense emotion has a destructive impact. The play’s great strength is in showing everyone’s point of view, so that we alternate between sympathy and condemnation as different aspects of the characters’ lives are revealed, especially in the superb, extended final scene where all repressed feelings are spilled out in a whisky confessional of Catholic guilt.
Anthony Page’s beautifully modulated production doesn’t overdose on doom-laden claustrophobia, with occasional shafts of wry humour relieving the unremitting misery, so that we fully feel the pathos of love gone sour. Lez Brotherston’s wooden-panelled living-room set filled with bookshelves, a bust of Shakespeare and old theatre photographs suggests a bohemian elegance, while the shifting mood is enhanced by Mark Henderson’s evocative lighting and Gareth Owen’s maritime sounds of swooping seagulls and mournful foghorns.
David Suchet gives an impressively rounded performance as James Tyrone, a patriarch over-concerned with ‘the value of a dollar’ having risen from poverty to self-made success, but inside aware of his failings towards his wife and sons. Laurie Metcalf is also fully convincing as the mentally fragile Mary, gradually unravelling from genteel charm to ghostly mania as she gets high in her own narcotic world. Trevor White gives the cynical Jamie a self-loathing awareness of how his dissolute example has undermined his beloved younger brother’s health, with Kyle Soller lending the self-destructive Edmund a vulnerable sensitivity.
By the time O’Neill came to write the play his parents and brother were long dead but, as in a classical Greek tragedy, the cycle of suffering carried on into the next generation of the family, with his two addict sons committing suicide and estrangement between him and his daughter. Rarely has personal disaster been sublimated so successfully into art as in Long Day’s Journey into Night.