There’s a maudlin intensity to Eugene O’Neill’s New England classic. Did anyone ever better layer sorrow, fear, jealousy and resentment, smashing family members together like accelerated atoms? This is as rounded a brood and detailed a psychological portrait as one could hope for on stage. O’Neill’s admiration for Shakespeare, who was no slouch when it came to characters rich in ambiguity and prisoners of their personalities (both heroes and villains), is evident in the rasping form of retired stage actor, James Tyrone – the play’s embattled patriarch, whose ambition, born of immigrant poverty, has provided wealth and domestic security while decimating his family’s happiness.
Richard Eyre’s production, anchored by a gruff and melancholy Jeremy Irons as Tyrone, and Leslie Manville as his tragic, morphine-dependent wife, astutely positions the play as a zero-sum game in which moral condemnation of, or sympathy for the characters is relative to the damage they’ve vested on each other. It is, in other words, a realist play that dares to peel back the archetype of a successful American family and lay bare the spiritual void at its heart. One might see that as reactionary, a story that appears to advocate a more genial, more self-effacing existence – but that, O’Neill knew, is a dangerous counter-myth; propaganda from the old country.
A Long Day’s Journey into Night is fundamentally about the collision of Irish immigrant virtues, bound up with potent myths of nationhood, and the promise of America – wealth and status built on individualism and industry. The rustic and folkish is not compatible with vaunting ambition and enterprise. The tension creates victims. Over two and a half hours they get dissected. You can smell the blood.
O’Neill’s play has a fortifying layer of Ibsen; one feels for Leslie Manville’s Mary Tyrone, a nervous wreck given a ghostly aspect. An actress of a certain calibre is required to bring out the character’s despair, her sense of betrayal, the heartrending knowledge that the patriarchal order she’s established in her own household – a husband and two sons, has robbed her of her own ambition, and Manville is such a performer. Her family pity her, and we pity them.
Eyre’s production is astute enough to see that Mary’s tragedy is also her husband’s, and in turn, her children’s – the collateral damage from an ill-conceived and ideologically opposed union. It’s an even-handed horror show. Irons, in denial of the unfolding disaster, carefully reveals the disappointment that characterises James Tyrone’s dotage. His sons, in turn, are broken by parental error. All the while a translucent set gives the audience its structuring visual metaphor – a house made of glass, a home that’s all surface and no depth.
O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical story remains one of the great plays and this strong production does it justice. Don’t miss it.
A Long Day’s Journey into Night is booking at Wyndham’s Theatre until April 7th.
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