Writers, especially new writers, are often told write what you know, which must have been Eugene O’Neill’s motto. The Irish-born American playwright of Long Day’s Journey Into Night clearly had no compunction about heavily mining his life experiences and those of his parents, as the play is very autobiographical. The quadruple Pulitzer Prize winning playwright doesn’t spare himself or any of the protagonists who are easily identified as his mother, father, a brother, himself, his son and wife. So why did he instruct his second wife not to allow it to be performed for 25 years after his death?
Lesley Manville is a triumph as Mary the morphine-addicted wife, married for 36 years to the heavy drinking James and mother of their alcoholic and dissolute son Jamie and consumptive son Edmund. Mary has the self-pitying selfishness and paranoia of a morphine addict. She is cruel and self-delusional with the occasional flash of insight. She has the air of a fragile genteel lady living in the wrong era, Edwardian, instead of the Victorian era in which she was born. She is eternally disappointed by her life and is herself a source of disappointment, due to her relapses into addiction.
The Tyrone family, headed by the incredibly talented Jeremy Irons as James Tyrone, is one of the most dysfunctional families depicted in a play. There is a self-destructive trait running through the Tyrones. They feed off each other’s insecurities and vulnerabilities and appear to love each other, but they do not like each other.
Mary blames everyone else, mostly James, for being a self-described dope fiend, citing various incidents as pushing her into addiction, including the lifestyle of the wife of a touring actor, living in cheap hotels across America. The querulous tone in Manville’s lyrical American accent as Mary displays Mary’s well-honed passive aggressiveness, in which she could run a masterclass. Most of her barbs are aimed squarely at James. She is both understanding and critical when she says to James: “I know you didn’t mean to humiliate me.” Mary makes repeated references to James’ poverty-stricken background again appearing to be sympathetic when she comments to her son “don’t feel contempt for your father because he is close-fisted, when his father left his family, James had to work in a machine shop at the age of 10.” But of course she does blame James, particularly for using a quack hotel doctor when she was in labour having Edmund, as that doctor gave her morphine which set her on the path to morphine addiction. As James says to Jamie, “How was I to know that he was that sort of Doctor?” Another typical exchange between Mary and James is when James says to Mary “can’t you forget” her response is stinging “No, but I forgive so there’s no need to feel guilty.”
James is so stingy, due to having been raised in poverty, he can’t even bring himself to put his son in a private sanatorium to treat Edmund’s tuberculosis to try to save his life. James is insightful and fully aware of his behaviour, referring to his childhood when abandoned by his father at 10 years old he had to work 12 hours a day in a machine shop to help support his siblings, whilst his mother scrubbed floors. They never had enough food or clothes and they lived under his mother’s fear that they would get sick and die in the poorhouse. This was how and when he learned to be a miser, which he claims he cannot unlearn. He is protective and paternal towards Mary whom he treats like a child and dearly loves. James boasts that he was one of the greatest artistic talents and could have been a great Shakespearian actor having “got rid of an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife.” Instead, he opted to earn a fortune in repetitive roles.
Rory Keenan as Jamie shines as the smart, lazy, drunk, who is still traumatised by seeing his mother inject morphine. He is completely aware of his own faults and those of his mother and father. He cannot stop himself from acts of self-sabotage. Jamie declares to Edmund that he never wanted Edmund to succeed “I did my best to make you fail” and had always been jealous of him. He also blames Edmund as him “being born put mama on dope.” He acknowledges that Edmund is Mama’s baby, papa’s pet. As James says, deliberately misquoting Shakespeare, to sum them all up, “We are the stuff that manure is made of.”
Long Day’s Journey into Night tickets are available now for the run at Wyndham’s Theatre ending April 7th. Book seats now to ensure you have the best seats at the best prices.
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