Long Day’s Journey into Night - review

Are we all addicts, deep down?

Eugene O’Neil’s play has been re-mastered for 2012; performed at the Apollo theatre in London’s West End, at a time when the capital city is groaning with the pleasure and the pain of hosting the Olympic event. In such a context, one might imagine that the performance of such a play which takes place over 24 hours, a play where there isn’t all that much action - no blood is spilled and nobody dies; in light of the Olympic spectacle, we might suspect this particular production, and theatre more generally, might go largely overlooked.

And yet - some perverse form of kismet or weird twist of fate means that this isn’t totally true. For there remains something in this low key, intimate little performance which simultaneously has the flavour of the epic, of the Olympics, about it.  For those who are not aware of the story it runs as follows: in the course of the day in the life of a family: an opium-addicted mother, a real estate father, their intelligent but wayward children - a disillusioned prodigal son and his younger brother suffering from the early stages of consumption; in the period of 24 hours or less this grouping is turned inward, forced to confront one another, most often with a visceral full bodied hostility in order that the deeper truths of their familial reality come percolating out from the emotional depths. 

Now, the immediate trigger for this lies in the mother’s proclivity for opium. At first her vice is merely alluded to, as we watch the various members of the family tip-toe around her, trying desperately to allay their fears and elevate their hopes; the playwright here begins to inexorably graduate the tension with the meticulous touch of a guitarist tightening the string.  It very quickly becomes unbearable, and things burst asunder; if, for the time being, the mother remains untrammelled in her opium addled haze, all the surplus tension spills over, causing brother to savage brother, and father to rail against son.  

Though, ostensibly, it is the mother who is the addict, the effervescent irony lies in the fact that the males of the family; le pere et les enfants, are constantly consuming alcohol throughout, either sneaking it surreptitiously or glugging it with open abandon.  In a bizarre way, their very need to keep the mother (and wife) on the straight and narrow is what paradoxically justifies their own cycle of smuggled, furtive addiction.  In a neat riff on the same theme, the mother, who is always suspected of relapse by her loving but damaged family, relapses precisely because of the suspicion that is brought to bear upon her, because their love provides in itself too heavy a burden for her to carry.

And so we are in hell; only it is a hell of a highly specific type, one familiar to those families who are used to being pulled together and then rent apart by alcohol and drug addiction, and it is one which the playwright can only have known personally.  Indeed in O’Neil’s biography, we find that the play was only produced after his parents had died, such was the emotional resonance and truth it contained.  He couldn’t bear for them to have seen it

But the conflict in it, between family members locked in their own cycles of addiction which feed of one another, is reminiscent of conflict in families more broadly; that is, they (we) are all held together by a volatile combination of love and hatred, and these forces are constantly in effect beneath the surface.  Such tendencies are amplified and elucidated through the medium of extreme; the poet’s use of alcohol and addiction for instance – but this describes more generally the inexorable relationships of dependence which underpin all family units, and which are, simultaneously both wonderful and perverse. 

The actors who carry the most recent incarnation of O’Neil’s play rarely put a foot wrong.   Laurie Metcalf (most famous as Jackie in the US sitcom Rosanne) plays the character of the mother and wife Mary Tyrone.  She brings to the role a dash of Blanche Dubois – the luminous but ruined southern belle whose every movement is trailed by the nostalgia for a long lost past.  Her spouse is played by David Suchet who, in some ways equals her pathos, by depicting a man who has struggled so desperately to escape the poverty of his own childhood by saving money that he remains in some wise insensible to  the requirements of those he genuinely loves. Trevor White as the older brother Jamie retains a curious vulnerability even as he cynically decimates those around him with jaded, and, at times, viciously cruel irony, while his younger brother, played by Kyle Soller, is naive and hopeful and romantic even in light of his precarious, possibly fatal condition.

O’Neil is a playwright who seems to accentuate contradictions, driving them to the extreme, and this is where his play attains an almost Olympic resonance; in the 24 hours we observe these people we really are witnessing a marathon sprint, a 200 metres in which the intensity of alcohol and opium and repressed feeling and regret and searing love is laid bare, there to unfurl, as the heady, sweaty visceral dialogue between the characters renders raw and stark their genuine hearts.    

And what of the politics of this play? Does it merit the attention of a ‘left’ audience?  Most certainly it does not, because it is no way mechanical or didactic, and is clearly not contrived to strike a political note.  And yet, and yet…for me it seems to have simultaneously (and entirely coincidentally) a genuine political resonance.  

For, in the week that I have been writing this review, an interesting debate about drug addiction has opened up, and whose main protagonists have been Peter Hitchens and Russell Brand.  Without commenting explicitly on that debate, I would say that Long Day’s Journey Into Night confirms how, within us, we are all addicts of a certain type, albeit in terms of love or resentment, alcohol or food or exercise or work or whatever else.  And while it is clear that some of those addictions are more harmful than others, what this play demonstrates is that people rarely choose to become embroiled in the cycles of addiction they are involved in.  And the tragedy, and the humanity, often lies in that.