The Irish-American dramatist and Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill is widely considered the father of modern American theatre. His most famous play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, has just opened at the Apollo Theatre in London.
Born in New York in 1888, the son of an Irish immigrant actor, O’Neill began writing plays in his mid 20s. He was heavily influenced by the theatrical naturalism of leading European dramatists such as Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg.
These naturalists aimed to show human society and relations as they actually were, untainted by the sentimenality and melodrama that characterised theatre at that time.
O’Neill was determined to introduce to the US stage a theatre which stripped away the pretences of popular culture and bourgeois manners. He wanted theatre to bring American society face to face with itself.
The humanism of European naturalism fitted well with O’Neill’s politics. He mixed in left wing circles in New York’s Greenwich Village, famously befriending John Reed, the founder of the Communist Labour Party of America. Jack Nicholson portrayed O’Neill in Reds, Warren Beattie’s 1981 movie about John Reed.
O’Neill shocked American society with plays such as All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Iceman Cometh, which dealt with taboo subjects such as mixed-race relationships and prostitution.
But it is the semi-autobiographical Long Day’s Journey Into Night which has come to be considered his masterwork.
O’Neill, who died in 1953, was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for the play in 1957—some 15 years after it was written, and a year after it was first staged.
The drama is set in a middle class family’s summer home in Connecticut, very much like the one owned by the O’Neills. The characters are broadly based upon members of O’Neill’s own family.
The fading Irish patriarch, James Tyrone, is an actor and sometime property speculator who has destroyed his own talent by constantly playing the same role in a long-running and lucrative production to which he owns the rights. His self-loathing can be measured in the trail of empty bottles left in the wake of his alcoholism.
The youngest son, Edmund, is left wing and poetic. Like the young O’Neill himself, he has contracted tuberculosis. The mother, Mary, is a long term morphine addict, while the older son, actor Jamie, resembles his father in his alcoholism, promiscuity and professional failure.
Anthony Page’s handsome production has arrived in London following a short tour. From the set and costume design to the performances themselves, it thoroughly faithful to O’Neill’s text.
From the very outset you feel the barely suppressed, shuddering misery of the Tyrone family as its many lies, self-deceptions and resentments threaten to burst through the facade.
In its atmosphere of impending psychological, emotional and material crises, it is very much like a Chekhov play—Uncle Vanya, perhaps, or The Cherry Orchard. But the role of drugs, whether alcohol or morphine, give the piece a strained and almost melodramatic dimension.
In that sense—and it may be the critical equivalent of farting in church to say this—the play is not quite the work of genius many hold it to be.
Although the tension between the restraints of its naturalistic form and the characters’ increasingly extreme emotions is often fascinating, it does sometimes seem like a less subtle version of Chekhov. It feels almost as if O’Neill is straining towards a different form that breaks with naturalism, such as the theatre of Federico Garcia Lorca or Edward Albee.
The greatest draw to this production is the fact that it stars David Suchet as James Tyrone. It is without question a superb performance. Suchet personifies the play’s inner conflict, shifting between verbose self-aggrandisement and agonising shame.
This comes to a powerful head in the final act, in which alcohol lubricates the painful truth-telling of a midnight conversation between James and Edmund.
Laurie Metcalf offers an unflinching portrayal of the destroyed matriarch, Mary, whose loves and fears recede into her history, buried under her addiction.
The moments in which James speaks of his love for her, as if he were speaking of someone already dead, resonate not only through Suchet’s performance but also through hers.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is on at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 7ES, until 18 August. For more information go to www.nimaxtheatres.com