An American Tragedy

An American Tragedy Eugene O’Neill’s tortured, autobiographical masterwork, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, has returned to Broadway with an all-star cast
Robert Sean Leonard in Long Day's Jurney Into Night.
Robert Sean Leonard in Long Day's Jurney Into Night. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

“It's one of the truly great works of art ever written by an American," director Robert Falls says. "In the course of one 'long day's journey into night' — each word is foreboding and accurate — Eugene O'Neill captures the entire life span of a family, all its dynamics, from birth to that very moment on the stage. It's a portrait of a family bound together in love and hate. And it doesn't come around on Broadway all that often."

Well, Long Day's Journey Into Night is back on Broadway (at the Plymouth Theatre), with Robert Falls directing a monumental cast: Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Sean Leonard.

O'Neill's highly autobiographical masterpiece (the playwright called it a "play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood") takes place over 16 hours on a hot and pain-filled summer's day in 1912 in the home of the Tyrone family — James Tyrone (Dennehy), the father, a celebrated and hard-drinking actor; his wife, Mary (Redgrave), a morphine addict since the difficult birth of their youngest son; Jamie (Hoffman), their eldest, a failure and an alcoholic; and Edmund (Leonard), the youngest, a victim of both tuberculosis and high artistic ambitions.

The Tyrones are almost an exact replica of O'Neill's own family; the playwright actually entered a sanitarium in 1912 for treatment of tuberculosis, but recovered and began a career that led to such classics as The Iceman Cometh and A Moon for the Misbegotten.

O'Neill wrote Long Day's Journey between 1939 and 1941 but mandated that it not be produced until 25 years after his death. "He had to write it," his wife, Carlotta, wrote. "It was as if he were bedeviled. In the writing he was tortured. After his day's stint he would come out of his study with sunken cheeks, eyes red from weeping, and physically and mentally exhausted." After his death in 1953, Carlotta decided that the play deserved to be produced. It opened on Broadway in 1956 with a cast that included Frederic March and Jason Robards, directed by Jose Quintero. It won the Pulitzer Prize and became an instant classic. The last Broadway revival was in 1988, with Colleen Dewhurst and Robards.

For Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the key to Long Day's Journey is the playwright's compelling honesty. "There is in his writing a fearlessness and an amazing courage to put himself through the wringer and to tell the truth. His vision and his pursuit of the truth are not unlike that of the great Greek tragedians. He modeled himself after Aeschylus and Euripides in his desire to create tragedies out of American themes, out of personal family themes. He really captures what being human is all about, and he does it in a way that few dramatists have — perhaps only the Greeks and Shakespeare."

Brian Dennehy says that James Tyrone, much like O'Neill's father, betrayed his talents by picking up an old melodramatic chestnut of a play — for O'Neill's father it was The Count of Monte Cristo — and appearing in it thousands of times. "Toward the end of his life he realizes he's made a mistake," Dennehy says. "He has given up the possibilities of a really great career as a Shakespearean actor to make a lot of money. But he was poverty-stricken as a child, and his pain and his distrust of his own success were such that he became a miser and he alienated himself from his family. And he was besieged by guilt, by an awareness that he had done something wrong. And I don't know whether he ever finds out what it is."

Robert Sean Leonard says that his character, the stand-in for O'Neill, "is trapped. One of the basic rights a child has is to be taken care of. And part of being taken care of is being given the freedom to be whomever and whatever you're going to be without fearing that you're going to damage your parents. Your parents have to be stronger than you are. But Edmund knows at an early age that his mother is weaker than he is and that it's his fault — his birth is to blame for her morphine addiction. And this means that he's crippled as a person."

But then, in the final act, "Edmund embraces his mortality, his possible imminent death," Leonard says. "Amazing things happen when he comes back after walking along the beach and sits down with his father. He slashes his moorings. He walks back in with the freedom to say what he feels. And at that moment he begins his ascension from the pit; he starts on his way to becoming the great writer that O'Neill became."