Saturday, February 13, 2010

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O'Neill

Of O'Neill's 'four haunted Tyrones,' Mary impresses me the most on this reading. She's the best-written and most complex of the four, her lightning-fast changes of mood and personality in the middle acts presenting an extraordinary technical challenge to any actress brave enough to attempt the role. O'Neill pressures all four Tyrones until their masks shatter, until the bad actors they 'really are' are forced to reveal themselves, but Mary is the only one to show flashes of a tragic self-consciousness that has moved beyond impotent self-pity. And this self-consciousness, this position from which she is able to acknowledge that her only hope lies in accidental overdose, is the thing she must escape from. This is the knowledge from which she flees into morphine and Catholicism. (O'Neill was enough of a Marxist to know they are two forms of the same thing.) And by play's end both drugs bring her back to the beginning of her troubles, sitting in the living room that none of the Tyrones can ever truly leave, a one-room trap.

I'm also impressed on this reading by two seemingly contrasting elements in the play: its deep understanding of resentment and its Gothicism. O'Neill understands the dynamics of resentment inside families, and he understands the importance of resentment in the construction of the self, an importance that may be paramount. Our resentments might tell more about us than anything else. I'm tempted to say: if you want to understand someone, don't bother finding out what he loves, find out what he resents. As for Gothicism, the play is also a long day's journey from a rather flimsy surface realism to a deep and haunting Gothic Expressionism. As O'Neill strikes through his characters' (and his audiences') various masks, exposing them as the bad actors of their melodramatic little lives--every man his own James Tyrone, tragically trapped in a hack role that, for a few days in the distant past, seemed absolutely perfect for us--the play becomes increasingly Gothic, mirroring that most Gothic of all locales, the human mind. O'Neill gives us night and fog and even a madwoman in a distant room, the hoariest of all Gothic devices. And the last act's structural similarity to "The Fall of the House of Usher" is surely not accidental, given that Poe is one of the many writers named in the text. This idea that the psyche laid bare reveals itself as a house of Gothic horrors must have influenced the work of Ingmar Bergman, especially Persona (another journey into psychological night set in a sometimes fogbound house by the sea), Hour of the Wolf, and the middle section of Fanny and Alexander. O'Neill was highly regarded in Sweden in Bergman's formative years, and Long Day's Journey was premiered in Stockholm in a production directed by Bengt Ekerot, who played Death in The Seventh Seal, so it's somewhat surprising to discover, leafing through the chronology at the back of Bergman's autobiography, The Magic Lantern, that he didn't direct an O'Neill play until 1988. Unsurprisingly, the play was Long Day's Journey into Night.

3 comments:

argumentativeoldgit said...

Hello Brian, I came across this post by chance while browsing, and found it fascinating. I myself am fascinated by this particular play, and find myself being drawn back to it repeatedly (I wrote a blog post on it myself quite recently: http://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2010/06/20/long-days-journey-into-night/).

Your comments on the relationship between this play and the Gothic tradition I found particularly interesting: certainly, now you mention it, the motifs of the madwoman in the attic (or, at least, upstairs) and the fogbound house, are clearly Gothic in nature. The parallels with the works of Ingmar Bergman are also fascinating, but the influence may not, perhaps, have been direct, as behind both O’Neill and Bergman there stands the figure of August Strindberg. O’Neill did say quote explicitly that he felt closer to Strindberg than he did to Ibsen, and Bergman was definitely a Strindbergian raher than an Ibsenite: Michael Meyer (biographer & translator of both Ibsen and of Strindberg), in his biography (entitled “Not Prince Hamlet”), amusingly relates the occasion when Bergman came to London to direct “Hedda Gabler” for the National Theatre, and shocked Meyer by a number of dismissive comments about the play, and also about Ibsen in general. The influence of Strindberg, on the other hand, can be seen throughout Bergman’s work: indeed, Strindberg is mentioned specifically towards the end of “Fanny and Alexander”. (I myself am a big fan of Ibsen – see http://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/ibsen-the-master-builder/, but Strindberg I must confess to finding more puzzling.)

Thanks once again for this post,
Himadri

Joe Miller said...

What edition of this work do you have? I can't afford to shell out ten bucks for one play, and I was wondering if you knew of any cheap printings that bound several of his works together.

BRIAN OARD said...

I read the play in my old Norton Anthology of American Lit that I've had since my freshman year at college. The only volume I know of that contains this play and others by O'Neill is the excellent-looking but pricey third volume in the Library of America O'Neill set. There might be an older collection out there somewhere...