The Tyrones as TV Family: O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, Primetime

By Jones, Edward T | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1994 | Go to article overview

The Tyrones as TV Family: O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, Primetime


Jones, Edward T, Literature/Film Quarterly


As part of the 1988 centenary celebration of Eugene O'Neill's birth, PBS aired the made-for-cable television production by Jonathan Miller based on his stage presentation from 1986 of Long Day's Journey Into Night. The other available television version is also British directed, Peter Wood's adaptation of Michael Blakemore's acclaimed production for the National Theatre of Great Britain in 1971 which was first broadcast in the mid-seventies on American commercial television. While neither of these versions demonstrates the visual power of Sidney Lumet's 1962 film version of O'Neill's masterpiece, they exhibit, despite almost opposite styles of performance and mise en scène, the way the intimacy of the television medium itself can enhance major themes and the ensemble quality of the play to a degree that traditional theatrical realization may not always achieve. In the year when so-called "dramedy" restored naturalistic television drama to American broadcast television, Long Day's Journey Into Night may have rung more true and forceful than it ever had before in this medium, perhaps because character and dialogue currently are enjoying a rebirth on the home screen.

The National Theatre's version, beautifully nuanced and textured through skillful alternation of interior and exterior set-ups, makes extensive use of the Ty rones's front porch on their house in New London, Connecticut. Framing, with possibly a nod to Lumet's earlier film, figures prominently and effectively in this production. In contrast, Miller's exclusively interior setting is appreciably more claustrophobic. There is almost no deep external space in Miller's world; it is only within the four haunted Tyrones that such depth is possible, as Miller presents the play. The suggestion of a world elsewhere gives a tentative hope in the National Theatre's presentation which is missing, no doubt deliberately, from Jonathan Miller's interpretation. Peter Wood chooses two-shots and occasional deep focus to underscore the relationships between characters; Miller more typically isolates the characters in close-ups. Low-angle shots in the National Theatre's version sometimes telegraph expressive emotions largely avoided in Miller's more detached, somewhat darker version of O'Neill's play.

The National Theatre's ensemble boasts Lawrence Olivier as James Tyrone and an enchantingly beautiful and subtle Mary Tyrone in Constance Cummings. The sons are played by distinguished, if perhaps overly mature actors for the characters' supposed youth, with Dennis Quilley and Ronald Pickup respectively as Jamie and Edmund. Their years of experience in the theatre contributed no doubt to the depth of their portrayals. This cast consequently shows more star turns than Jonathan Miller's, yet these superb performers work together for an ensemble effect. Of course, we enjoy seeing the late Lord Olivier, whose career choices were the opposite of James Tyrone's, create a failed Shakespearean actor who, by his own admission, could have been the finest performer of his age. His Tyrone proves a precious amalgam of Archie Rice from John Osborne's The Entertainer, which Olivier had played definitively on both stage and screen, and the leading man Olivier once had been in Hollywood, together with the hint of the unconsummated potential James Tyrone shared with the consummately artistic Olivier.

The National Theatre's production shows how O'Neill's characters have been shaped by the poetry and prose they have learned. All of the Tyrones are performers, including Mary, as Jamie facetiously notes on several occasions. They face the crossroads of their lives on that August day in 1912 with lines of dramatic and lyrical verse coming to mind and lips. This British cast fulfills this dimension of the family far better than its American counterpart in the Miller production. While Mary has fewer allusions, her family roles frequently partake of an established repertory not unlike her husband's. …

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