Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Written in Tears and Blood

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Written in Tears and Blood

Article excerpt

Long Day's Journey Into Night Apollo, booking until August Oedipussy Lyric, Hammersmith, until 21 April Great title, Long Day's Journey into Night.

The sombre, majestic words are suffused with auguries of doom. 'A play of old sorrow written in tears and blood, ' was O'Neill's description of the script, which is inspired by his personal background. We're in a beautiful seaside mansion where a prosperous New York family, the Tyrones, are living in great splendour. But beneath the gorgeous surface everything's going to hell. The oldest son is a washed-up actor who can't keep away from the local knocking-shop. The younger boy, a preppie drifter, keeps coughing TB spores into his hankie. The mother, still grieving for a lost child, is hooked on morphine. And the whisky-soaked dad is a millionaire who can't bear to switch on a spare light bulb. 'Are we giving a ball?' he shouts at anyone who turns on the overhead lamp.

We spend 18 punishing hours in the company of these champion bickerers. The tone never varies. Defeat pervades every word and every gesture. Even the climate seems to have caught a dose of Irish-American misery. The desolate lowing of a foghorn resounds across the mist-bound shoreline like the death moan of a stricken elephant.

O'Neill's script brims with symbols and portents. 'O how thick the fog is, ' says mum as she peers through the window at a peasouper, 'and I can't even see the road.' She's talking about her life, of course, not the prospects for a nice walk.

There's no plot, just a lot of bad family history dredged up and slung around in great gobbets of eloquent venom. O'Neill's technique soon gets repetitive. He arranges each scene like a rigged boxing match.

Two characters are brought together, and one hoses down the other with bucketfuls of acidic hostility which climaxes in some blurted-out family indiscretion. The blurterout, instantly regretful, pleads forgiveness and adopts a pose of craven remorse that soon wears off and triggers another cycle of resentment and revelation.

These whopping slabs of overheated abuse make audiences yawn. But they have the opposite effect on actors. They bring actors to life. Every luvvie who ever went to Star School has dreamed of laying on an epic O'Neill meltdown in front of a thousand devotees. The speeches are great feats of dramatic literature, crammed with raw emotion, and often requiring rapid shifts of mood in the space of a phrase or two. Actors adore that kind of challenge. …

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