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Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Dennehy in Long Day's Journey Into NightThe Poison Talking
By Una Chaudhuri

Long Day's Journey Into Night
By Eugene O'Neill
Plymouth Theater
236 W. 45th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200






They're back. And they're at it again. America's First Family, the everlasting Tyrones, back in their summer cottage on the beach, back to face the grim music of their disappointments and despair, and back also to challenge us to account for ourselves, our hopes and dreams, our betrayals and breakdowns. In the masterful revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night at the Plymouth Theatre, the appalling difficulty of the play yields a rare theatrical experience, four hours of self-disclosure of an intensity that renders the distinction between actor and character altogether academic. Under Robert Falls's sure direction, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Dennehy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Sean Leonard and Fiana Toibin, give performances of historic caliber and consequence, laying bare a new layer of this play's endless insights into the American cultural imaginary. As the country embarks on a possibly disastrous political journey, this mother of all American plays speaks of the limits--even the pathology--of self-involvement.

The main insight of O'Neill's play is the idea that hell is not just--as Sartre famously had it--"other people": it is other people to whom one is tied with bonds of blood and biography. Hell is family. Hell is that welter of indestructible memories and stone-etched resentments, the ceaselessly repeated exchanges of anger, sorrow, need, disappointment, frustration, and shame that is the dark language of kinship. "Written in blood," as O'Neill himself described it, Long Day's Journey Into Night was also written in that first, horror-stricken understanding, given by psychoanalysis, of the explosive tensions and crippling toxicity of what later came to be called, without irony, the nuclear family. With its unflinching ear for the cruel insinuations and shocking outbursts of family talk, Long Day's Journey towers above such later classics of the genre as Pinter's The Homecoming and Shepard's Buried Child by virtue of its painful and patently autobiographical honesty. This day in the life of an aging couple and their two sons lays bare the author's own struggle to wrest creativity from family pathology, art from illness, truth from failure.

The power of the play, it has often been said, is largely due to its intense inward focus: although the text states that the action occurs in 1912, the play does nothing to bring that action into relation with any public events of those tumultuous times, nor of those (including a world war) in which the play was written, 1939-40. The Tyrones seem a world unto themselves, hermetically sealed off from everything else.

And yet a keen awareness of the larger world was one reason O'Neill gave for imposing the notorious twenty-five-year posthumous ban on publication of the of the play (and unlimited ban on production): while often remarking that this was the finest thing he had ever written, he added that it was not a work he wanted to bring to the world "in this crisis-preoccupied time." His wife and executor, Carlotta, did not honor these requests. The play was published three years after O'Neill's death and premiered the same year, 1956, in Stockholm, Sweden. The young director of that production, Bengt Ekerot, regarded the play as the definitive accomplishment of the Ibsenite-Chekhovian paradigm of psychological realism, in which everything emanated from impulses deep within the characters, nothing from the world around them. By contrast, the first--and now legendary--American production, directed by Jose Quintero, set the emotional mass of the family's interactions within a larger framework suggested by the play's diurnal structure as well as its major symbolic image: the fog. Quintero asked for a design that would "bring nature into the set" and show the characters' journey in relation to "the various speeds and moves that the sun experiences as it makes its long voyage across the sky." David Hays, the designer, responded with a set built around three large windows, through which the play's powerful non-human actors--the sun, sea, and fog--entered to shape the family drama into a tragedy of radical non-belonging.

In the half-century since those premieres, the play has become a monument of both psychological realism and poetic symbolism. The forms of behavior and rhythms of speech that constitute the family's pathology have been brilliantly observed to the point of clinical diagnosis. At the same time, the halting lyricism of the young poet's self-accounting--"stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people," says the character Edmund--is matched by a paradoxical landscape of open sea and enclosing fog, the romance of the one contrasting bitterly with the carceral effects of the other. In the acclaimed 1988 Stockholm production directed by Ingmar Bergman (which visited BAM in 1991), the impact of environment on the inner life of the characters was literalized through the expressionist device of still images projected behind the stage: the facade of the house, a closed door, the fog enshrouded house, at the end a radiant tree. Bergman also disrupted O'Neill's insistent unity of place by setting the last act on the verandah of the cottage, placing Edmund closer to the outside world. Few productions have pushed the play toward a more specific social context, although European ones have frequently looked for the characters' universal humanity through an understanding of their American context. The director of the first Italian production (Milan, 1956) asked if "anyone who looks closely at Edmund and James" would not be reminded of "the two sons of Willy Loman, Miller's traveling salesman? Their fall/failure takes place on the same terrain."

Robert Sean Leonard and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Long Day's Journey Into NightWilly Loman might easily come to mind in the widely acclaimed production currently on Broadway, if only because Death of a Salesman was the last, and hugely successful, collaboration between the play's director Robert Falls and one of its stars, Brian Dennehy. Dennehy indeed brings a kind of white-collar pathos to the role of James Tyrone, highlighting the money-anxieties of the potato-famine Irish immigrant over the bluster of the bardolatrous actor. His petty self-delusions are no match for his wife's titanic regrets, which inexorably drag the men around her into the depths of despair. As played by Vanessa Redgrave, Mary Tyrone dominates this excavation of O'Neill's subterranean labyrinth of regret and recrimination. Her performance is so detailed and so riveting that it changes the basic question of the play, the one rooted in its retrogressive action: why is she so hurt, angry, damaged? Watching Redgrave go from flirtatious playfulness to sadistic sarcasm to terrifying attack and finally back to childlike innocence, one finds her husband's explanation--"it's the poison talking"--utterly unsatisfying. Watching her flutter and start and fidget and--in one heartbreaking moment--literally climb the walls, one wonders: what is the poison really saying?

What is this masterpiece of American drama saying at this "crisis-preoccupied time," so different from the one in which it was conceived? Are those elusive forms--modern tragedy, American tragedy--more possible in the aftermath of our recent horrors, and can O'Neill's family saga be a resonant echo chamber for the nation's sorrow? The set of this production, designed by Santo Loquasto, suggests something of the trajectory the meanings must now follow. The set tells a story of radical otherness, framing the anguished subjectivity of the characters within an immense and eloquent objectivity. The stage is dominated by a vast expanse of dark wood, the walls of the Tyrone family house stretching endlessly upward. The naturalistic living room, neither cozy nor cold, neither shabby nor elegant, lies low to the ground, weighed down by the mass of darkness rising above it. As they tower above the anguished action of the play, these mammoth walls signify ceaselessly: they are the walls of a tomb, the hull of a ghost ship, the trunk of a gigantic tree. Over time (and of course it is a long, long time, over four hours) they become the overarching and inflexible contours of the human condition, simultaneously amplifying and dwarfing the anguish of the frail creatures beneath them. Under their impassivity, the Tyrones's self-analysis, pathologically rigorous as it is, is revealed as inadequate to the complex challenge of living maturely in the real world.

Edmund laments that he was born a man: "I would have been more successful as a sea gull or a fish." Invoking the non-human world of mute creatures and silent things, the poet longs for an alternative to the destructive "talking" of the poisoned self. Although this production eschews a transcendence of the kind signified by Berman's radiant tree, its courageous pursuit of everything that lies beneath the "talking" brings another kind of resolution into view: the exhaustion of inwardness and the turn to the outside world, with hope and humility.


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