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May 6, 2016

Long Day’s Journey into Questions

Alas, the famous original production of LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT was before my theatergoing time. So although I can’t officially offer an eyewitness report that would verify all the good that’s been said and written about it, I can report something else.

Since 1968 I’ve seen seven productions of Eugene O’Neill’s mammoth masterpiece; the current Roundabout Theatre Company revival is the finest.

Not long into the drama, Mary Tyrone insists that her son Edmund has just “a summer cold” in order to see how her husband James and son James, Jr. will react. The look that Jessica Lange gives the second time she mentions the “cold” tells us that she’s not quite in as much denial as we’d inferred. Where there’s life, there’s hope, and Mary prefers to live with it instead of facing incontrovertible facts.

Gabriel Byrne portrays James, Sr., who’s made a living by doing the same unchallenging role for so long that he makes Carol Channing’s stint in HELLO, DOLLY! seem like Dean Jones’ in COMPANY. Byrne adopts an old actor’s ravaged voice that is so right for this character. I won’t say that he was influenced by what he saw of John Barrymore in various films, but if I read an interview in which he said he was, I won’t be surprised.

James, Sr. is portrayed as super-stingy, but in one way he’s generous. He lavishes loving praise on his wife, letting us learn that he still sees radiant beauty in her. Byrne makes us easily believe that even after all these years – and all these struggles that Mary has had – he nevertheless loves her dearly.

Good – because he’s one reason she’s in the situation she’s been in for some time. And what precisely IS that situation? For the longest time, O’Neill treats it as the addiction that dare not speak its name. Not until two-and-a-half hours have passed – a time when other Broadway shows are just letting out -- does O’Neill finally use the term “dope fiend.” Until then, however, he, like all smart playwrights, lets US first suspect and then be certain of the realities.

Notice, too, how Lange’s voice gets higher after she gets high. The star is wonderfully poignant when she looks at her aged hands and says that rheumatism – a much more respectable disease than drug addiction – is responsible.

Michael Shannon amuses as James, Jr. when he complains about the maid’s loud voice. “That’s what drove me to drink,” he says in a way that makes us say “Shhhurrrrre.” Shannon’s delivery divulges that James, Jr. is half-kidding himself and half-hoping he’ll be believed by all who are listening. But as Lizzie sings in 110 IN THE SHADE, “Mister, you’re not foolin’ me.”

Junior says to Edmund about their Dad “Life has made him that way, and he can’t help it.” Perhaps; because both father and son are actors, they work in a world of make-believe, and that may well be why make-believe is carried on once they’re home.

This is the great-granddaddy of all dysfunctional family plays. Long before day turns to night, we see each blaming another for a fault so that any discussion of his or her own flaws can avoid being discussed. When Mary accuses her husband of drinking too much, he rebuts “I have never missed a performance in my life.”

Hmmm, is that why we have so many actors calling in sick and having their understudies go on? Could we avoid that fate if our actors started drinking more?

Now here’s another question: O’Neill died on Nov. 27, 1953. Included among his instructions to his widow was the dictum that LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT would not be produced until 25 years after his death. But Mrs. O’Neill disobeyed and let the play go to Broadway fewer than three years later. LONG DAY’S JOURNEY wound up winning the 1956-57 Best Play Tony and the 1957 Pulitzer Prize.

But what if Mrs. O’Neill had honored her husband’s wishes? It would have impacted these two prizes in two different ways.

What would have won the 1956-57 Best Play Tony? My guess would be Terence Rattigan’s SEPARATE TABLES. It suggested that a rooming house’s boarders could forgive an indiscretion committed by one of their own because they liked him so much.

It was actually inspired by Sir John Gielgud’s 1953 arrest for some untoward act in a men’s room. Once the news broke, Gielgud suspected that his career was over. But the next time he took to the stage, the audience cheered and gave him a standing ovation (in the era when NO ONE got standing o’s). The theatergoers could separate the man from the artist, and his personal life was of no consequence to them.

Remember that this was a startling 16 years before Stonewall and in an England where Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe was violently homophobic and wanted people “of Gieglud’s kind” prosecuted to the full extent of the law. (Fyfe was also Rex Harrison’s brother-in-law; did Harrison plead to keep Gieglud out of jail?)

I digress. Another possible Best Play Tony-winner in a LONG DAY’S JOURNEY-less 1956-57 season would have been Jean Anouilh’s THE WALTZ OF THE TOREADORS, a terrific play about a stale marriage. As a far less elegant playwright (Neil Simon) once wrote (in PROMISES, PROMISES), “Some married men between the ages of 45 and 55 find single girls between the ages of 21 and 30 more attractive than some married women between the ages of 45 and 55.” That’s General Saint Pe, who embarrasses and humiliates himself while thinking that young women would still find him attractive. All the while he’s trying to pull the steel wool over the eyes of his wife who knows very much what’s going on and has her own counter-attack in mind.

Roundabout should revive this one, too. It’s time for Broadway to be reacquainted with Anouilh. He had 14 new plays on Broadway in 18 years (1946-1964), but in the ensuing half-century-plus, he’s only had three revivals, including a 1973 reprise of THE WALTZ OF THE TOREADORS. Paging Todd Haimes!

The third 1956-57 Best Play Nominee was Graham Greene’s THE POTTING SHED, about which I know nothing. Anyone want to revive it for me?

And what would have happened in the race for the 1957 Pulitzer Prize had Mrs. O’Neill kept her drawer shut? Not until 1983 did the Pulitzers start announcing first and second runners-up, so we’ll just have to guess.

It won’t be easy. None of the three Best Play Tony nominees would have won, for they’re of European origin and the Pulitzer only goes to American plays.

Frankly, aside from LONG DAY’S JOURNEY, 1956-57 was a terrible season for homegrown dramas. Of the 44 (yes, 44!) produced in the Pulitzer time-span, 38 ran fewer than 100 performances. What’s more, among the longer-runners were AUNTIE MAME and THE TUNNEL OF LOVE – not serious enough fare for the rarefied Pulitzer committee. Thus the prize might well have gone to the slightly erudite, 388-performance hit VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET by Gore Vidal. (Do NOT judge it by the inane Jerry Lewis film version.)

Had Mrs. O’Neill honored the time-ban, what would have happened in the 1978-79 season when LONG DAY’S JOURNEY would have premiered. I daresay that Bernard Pomerance and Sam Shepard are very happy that the Widow O’Neill didn’t play by her husband’s rules, because the former’s THE ELEPHANT MAN wouldn’t have taken home the Tony and the latter’s BURIED CHILD wouldn’t have won the Pulitzer, either.

Whatever the case, tens of thousands of theatergoers who died before 1978 had to be grateful Mrs. O’Neill gave us LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT when she did. We’re all lucky that we can still see it – especially in a production as wondrous as the one we’re getting now.

         — Peter Filichia



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