The American Family Bares All In Long Day’s Journey Into Night

The truth is, Eugene O’Neill scares me to death. And the thing that scares and disturbs me so deeply about his greatest play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night , isn’t connected to what it means to us-we can take that for granted-but what it meant to O’Neill.

No autobiographical drama about a man’s family has come from the broken heart of a dramatist with such pitiless honesty as this play “of old sorrow, written in tears and blood.” The description is O’Neill’s when he dedicated the original script to his wife on their 12th anniversary. So personal was the play to him that he gave instructions for it not to be produced until 25 years after his death. She remembered him emerging from his study, red-eyed and gray with exhaustion, as he wrenched the past out of him to confront and purge the wreckage of his parents, his brother and his younger self in the guise of the Tyrone family’s tortured lives.

The unbearable past haunts everything in the play, even a past that long ago seemed fleetingly full of innocent potential, like Mary Tyrone’s. “The past is the present, isn’t it?” goes Mary’s renowned question, to which she knows the answer: “It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that, but life won’t let us.”

This is a family drama of scorn and blame, and love stripped naked of all illusions. This is no Iceman Cometh , where the handy oblivion of booze and pathetic pipe-dreams cauterizes unlivable life. We have the booze in Long Day’s Journey , of course. It loosens the tongue. All three men in the play are alcoholics in their self-obliterating way.

James Tyrone, the patriarch and driven matinee idol who sold out for empty success, was borne into Irish-Catholic guilt and a pauperism that turned him into a foolish, cruel miser. The eldest son, Jamie, deadening himself with drink and Broadway whores, is the sneering, failed version of him. He followed in the daunting footsteps of the belittling, famous father for a while on the stage and all but killed his life.

Then there’s the younger brother and fledgling writer, Edmund (the stand-in for O’Neill), whom Jamie worships and hates as the favorite son. In a concluding blood-letting scene between the two brothers that is terrible to witness, Jamie turns on Edmund, confessing that he never wanted him to succeed:

“Made my mistakes look good. Made getting drunk romantic. Made whores fascinating vampires instead of poor, stupid, diseased slobs they really are. Made fun of work as a sucker’s game. Never wanted you to succeed and make me look even worse by comparison, wanted you to fail. Always jealous of you. Mama’s baby, Papa’s pet!”

During the course of the play, two key events happen that will release the floodgates of family hatred: Edmund will learn he has consumption-a potential death sentence-for which his father is too cheap to get the best medical treatment; and Mary Tyrone will return to the morphine addiction that began with the difficult birth of Edmund.

The innocent convent girl who fell for the handsome young actor, James Tyrone, is both matriarch and monster. It’s a mistake to imagine her as a sweet, tragic victim. No one in the family puts anyone down as much as she-or, with one flippant remark, is able to induce more crippling guilt in Edmund for being born. Was she ever happily married to Tyrone? She is a woman who’s been robbed of life by her husband’s life. Her disappointment is disguised, yet still palpable. And now she’s a pale ghost of herself in a fog of drugs and frightening aloneness. “None of us can help the things life has done to us,” she says pathetically, and we believe her. “They’re done before you realize it.”

Mary is the shadow over the entire play, as the New England fog itself shrouds the Tyrones’ home. But the feared, embittered ham James Tyrone remains at its center. “Then in the spring something happened to me,” go the last words of the play spoken by Mary as if in a dream. “Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone.”

If we have gone thus far with the great play-and at four hours in length, O’Neill will always test us a bit and compel us to stay with him-those last few lines from Mary are so beautifully, nakedly simple they actually capture her entire life. “Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone.” O’Neill’s magnificent achievement is to do this with all four protagonists in a single day-the journey into night that will convey the truth about them all.

Harold Bloom eloquently summarized the enduring effect Long Day’s Journey has on us and the terrifying contribution of O’Neill : “He is the elegist of the Freudian ‘family romance,’ of the domestic tragedy of which we all die daily, a little bit at a time. The helplessness of family love to sustain, let alone heal, the wounds of marriage, of parenthood, and of sonship, have never been so remorselessly and so pathetically portrayed, and with a force of gesture too painful ever to be forgotten by any of us.”

I would add only: There but for the grace of God go us. And that, when all is said and tragically done, the play is about love. It’s about love-“until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be,” as Mary Tyrone understands, “and you’ve lost your true self forever.”

And, by now, you will have sensed my reluctance to report the disappointment I felt in Robert Falls’ unbalanced new production on Broadway. Though some of my colleagues have been inspired by the cast-Vanessa Redgrave in particular-it gives me no pleasure to say that I could sense neither a family onstage nor a performance that is honestly and truly moving. If O’Neill cannot move us, nobody can.

To be sure, Ms. Redgrave is affecting-how could this great actress not be? She captures the flickering mood changes of Mary as well as a certain manipulative danger, but her tempo is deliberately slow (a habit she has fallen into), her delivery consciously flat, it seems. I have seen her tread the high wire without a safety net many times. And sometimes her performances can vary wildly-even, astonishingly, within the same night. She exhilarates or perplexes us. In her company, we are never safe , at least. The star’s innate unworldliness led us to hope for one of her great performances as Mary Tyrone. But Ms. Redgrave is more fey than deeply disturbing. She is flying solo.

She’s acting up a storm. O’Neill made highly detailed, near-neurotic stage directions. They’re his crucial subtext, the linchpin to the play. “She begins a desperate battle with herself,” he writes about Mary at the close of Act I. “Her long fingers, warped and knotted by rheumatism, drum on the arms of the chair, driven by an insistent life of their own, without her consent.” The drumbeat signals, dramatically enough, the morphine breakdown. But Ms. Redgrave adds an unnecessary beat of her own-ending the scene melodramatically instead by playing an imaginary piano on the table before her.

It’s the wrong, showy choice, I’m afraid, externalizing what O’Neill has already spelled out. Again, at the close of Act II, Mary Tyrone is left alone and in a devastating moment confesses she’s glad to be rid of the others, who are watching her with contempt and disgust. “She gives a little despairing laugh,” O’Neill writes, and the curtain should descend on her cry of loneliness. But the director has indulged Ms. Redgrave, I can only assume, by ending the scene with her hugging the wall.

It isn’t that O’Neill’s stage directions are necessarily sacred. It’s more that, in such moments, the text itself is utterly complete.

Brian Dennehy made a good enough Willy Loman in the Robert Falls production of Death of a Salesman , but there’s no emotional texture to him here, only the leaden, blustery atmosphere of a defeated bully. Where’s the grand 19th-century ham in his Tyrone? James Tyrone was a near-great actor who destroyed himself and his family. But we wouldn’t know it from Mr. Dennehy’s performance.

Robert Sean Leonard’s Edmund dutifully gets the consumption, but not the poetry, not the passion that O’Neill surely had as a young artist in the making. Edmund is also supposed to be only 23, but with respect to Mr. Leonard, he looks a fair amount older, whereas Jamie is supposed to be the older brother by a decade. It’s an important lapse, taking us further away from the heart of the play.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Jamie poisoned with failure blows his big scene in generalized drunkenness, but at least he injects some primal heat into the evening. If only everything had been as fine and as heartbreaking as his uninhibited delivery of the Swinburne poem that O’Neill quotes at the close, when Mary Tyrone’s life has become a living death:

Let us go hence, go hence; she will not see.

Sing all once more together; surely she,

She too, remembering days and words that were,

Will turn a little toward us, sighing; but we,

We are hence, we are gone, as though we had not been there.

Nay, and although all men seeing had pity on me,

She would not see.