Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Portland theater: "We don't seem to be able to avoid unpleasant topics, do we?"

By Barry Johnson

One more post on "Long Day's Journey Into Night"?  Well, yes. I suppose one good measure of a production is the degree to which it sticks with you, makes you want to talk about it.  This one is still rattling around my brainpan, and I'll take one more stab at it before moving on to something else.

What specifically? I've already "reviewed" the play and "reported" on a panel discussion involving its director and co-producer, Andrew Upton and Allen Nause. But something they said about the meaning of the play made me realize that my understanding of it -- meaning simply, what is important about Eugene O'Neill's play to me, personally -- is different, maybe different enough to warrant an airing here (and if not here, then where else for goodness' sake?).

At the start of his review of the show, The Oregonian's Marty Hughley quoted from the play, epigraph-style: “None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”

I think this really is the key to O'Neill's "philosophy" or "psychology."  He believed that as individuals, we are like bits of refuse floating on the ocean, and though we might figure out how to take the swells more or less successfully, we'd never recover our original state -- the fine antique chair, say -- that we'd lost. We are never really "whole," whatever whole means. We are deformed by our passage through the world, among each other, and nothing else is really as important as that deformation.

Now, imagine you're a historian trying to figure out what really happened to the Tyrone family, based on what each of the family members says in "Long Day's Journey Into Night."  The central spine of the narrative is uncontested: James Tyrone is a successful actor who dabbles in real estate deals. He married a young woman, Mary, who'd gone to convent school and played the piano well. They traveled the country together as he took a successful show on the road, year after year (and passed on the opportunity to do other sorts of theater, which he now thinks would have been rewarding). They had three children, one of whom died, with crushing consequences for Mary. The other two grew up and became unhappy, living the life they did on the road, watching their parents battle and suffer. When we meet them, they are self-medicating with alcohol (the men) or morphine (Mary).

The historian, having assembled this narrative, might leave happy. (Well, not too happy, if we are to believe O'Neill.)  But for the characters in the play, for the Tyrone family, it's just a skeleton, as bare as the stage in the production at the Newmark Theatre. What's important is how they explain the stipulated narrative to themselves and each other because it's the key to how they explain themselves.   They fight for their own version of reality, because they believe it contains the essential elements of their own identities.

We follow their blame game all the way up the ladder to James Tyrone himself, who is the only character strong enough to take all that abuse. And he's the only one of them to accept personal responsibility for decisions he's made.  But do we really blame him, we in the audience? Of course not. We understand how he came to be deformed in this particular way, how his own upbringing, such as it was, made him tight with a dollar, for example, and how the American culture and its frontier capitalism, might make an artist make certain choices against his grain.

The biggest point of contention about this "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is William Hurt's portrayal of Tyrone, the last domino in the family. My old colleague and friend Bob Hicks gave us the most useful description of Hurt's Tyrone to date on Art Scatter and it's worth reading in full. He thought Hurt missed out on an important aspect of Tyrone's character, his actorly charm and bluster. "Hurt’s Tyrone is stripped down to the core — except that maybe, by sacrificing the man’s charm, it ignores a vital element of what that core is."

Except that stripping "Long Day's Journey Into Night" down to the core is exactly what this particular production is about, as Nause pointed out in the panel discussion. All the "frou-frou" is gone. It's Greek in its intensity and focus. In a typical exchange, one family member is seated and another is leaning over him, bearing down, unrelenting.  There's no room for charm or blarney or hooey. Hurt's performance isn't about ego, as Hicks quotes a local playwright as saying, it's the opposite; he submerges himself as an actor into Upton's experiment with the play.  If Tyrone's charm is important to you, there are excellent examples of this on film. There's Sir Ralph Richardson, for example, in the first film version, or Jack Lemmon's take in a made-for-TV version 25 years later.  

I found the experiment a gripping success. Upton said that the purpose of new adaptations in general at the Sydney Theatre Company was  "about blowing the cobwebs and the dust of expectation off something." Hurt does that, but it's simply part of the overall point of the show. He gives us a plain,  suffering Tyrone, a deformed Tyrone.  Charm isn't the deformation, either. It's a tactic and our families are immune to it, if we think about it a minute. Hurt lays it aside, and we get Tyrone straight and unadulterated.

Go back to the historian for a moment. Despite the special pleading and the obvious distortions, even falsehoods and not to mention omissions, the historian wouldn't "argue" with the meaning any of the characters apply to the skeleton, the way they flesh it out. In a sense, they are all "true." And insofar as they are true, they are also inescapable. The tragedy of the characters emerges from their inability to escape their stories or maybe escape the forces that determine their stories.

Upton argued at the panel that the primary forces at work on the Tyrones were economic and social. In the Wild Capitalist West of America, Tyrone's miserliness is a reasonable response.  And within the nuclear family in which they all live, that miserliness becomes oppressive. So does Tyrone's career in general. But then just about any character trait can, too, I suppose, even calmness.  In our own families we can be accused of not getting upset enough about something!

Looking for another viewpoint of O'Neill, I read an essay about him by Marxist critic Charmion Von Wiegand in "New Theatre and Film: 1934-1937," edited by Herbert Kline, a collection of essays by Leftist critics. Her criticism of O'Neill was that he was a captor of his class, the petit bourgeois intelligentsia, and his plays reflected their voluntary exile to the ivory tower of art or the sanctuary of religion. His world view was dismal, reflecting the decaying capitalist society in which he found himself. But he couldn't make the jump from bourgeois comfort to join the battle of the proletariat against the plutocrats. "It never occurs to O'Neill to desert his own class and to align himself with the working class," she writes.

Some of this is useful, I think. Von Weigand grasps that O'Neill's theater is based on an old, non-Marxist conception of human life. She quotes O'Neill on his early play, "The Hairy Ape": "The subject here is the same ancient one that always was and always will be the subject for drama, and that is man and his struggle with his own fate. The struggle used to be with the Gods, but is now with himself, is own past, his attempt to belong."  Although the quote (and the essay) predates "Long Day's Journey Into Night" by more than a decade, it's a reasonable summary of it. Each family member struggles with his or her fate, not the economic forces that should be their focus, according to Von Weigand.

Fate brings us back to the Greeks, of course.  Fate is more than the sum of the "accidents" that affect our lives, for better or worse, it's more like the sense of dread that hovers over us and eventually plucks away everything we hold dear.

At the panel, Nause and Upton speculated a little about why O'Neill had decided to lock "Long Day's Journey Into Night" from view, ordering that it could only be read 25 years after his death.  The general opinion is simply that it was too autobiographical, but still, what playwright would sit on a masterpiece like "Long Day's Journey"?  "It's funny to think of him not knowing how great a play it was," Upton said, and decided that O'Neill must have known.

Some plays are unplayable, my friend Vernon Peterson suggested to me today; they are better read than staged. And he said that "Long Day's Journey Into Night" might be just such a play -- its length, its intensity, the cascading words we can't quite keep up with. I don't agree, but I think O'Neill might have. Maybe he thought the four hours of humans mostly at their worst was more than audiences could stand. That the constant tension was intolerable. That this vision of life was too monstrous. That the suggestion that there was no escape, not even joining the class struggle, was too dismal.  Maybe he figured that we couldn't deal with Fate. He'd spare us and himself that particular smack in the face.

It turned out that I needed "Long Day's Journey" for the insistence of its characters. Each has to tell his or her side of the story. Each is "true," but they'll never be able to arrive at a compromise solution, a description we all accept. There are times and places when intersubjective truth-finding breaks down, and especially among the sub-atomic particles of the nuclear family, maybe. The characters drink and take pills to anesthetize themselves, but they are resolute about their stories. We can see how those stories are deforming them, limiting them, and if we are honest for a second, we see ourselves making the same excuses, avoiding blame and accusing others. For our Fate.

Note: The video is from Sidney Lumet's 1962 version of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," with Ralph Richardson as Tyrone.


MightyToyCannon said...

Count me as a fan of your extended discourse on "Long Day's Journey Into Night." Your posts have added much to my thinking about this play.

I saw the show on Tuesday night and am still processing my thoughts, which are mixed. It was an experience I'm glad to have had, and I recommend others attend, especially if you are a theater aficionado and/or geek.

I have few quibbles with this particular production--a feat of which ART should be very proud. What is bubbling in my brain are thoughts on the play itself. Setting aside its reputation as The Greatest American Play Ever, how does it resonate in contemporary culture? In a world that bombards us with confessional memoirs and Mel Gibsonesque vitriol, are we inured to stories of family strife, recriminations, regrets, etc? Does "Long Day's Journey" have the same emotional freight and capacity to surprise that it did when in premiered over five decades ago? Or is a beautiful museum piece to be studied and appreciated as such? I haven't come to any conclusions on these questions, but promise to get back to you.

After watching the video you embedded, I spent a good part of of evening watching snippets of the film version starring Ralph Richardson, Katherine Hepburn, Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell. I ended up with a much greater appreciation of the cast in ART/Sydney co-production. I love Katherine Hepburn, but her depiction of Mary Tyrone was like fingernails on a chalkboard compared to Robyn Nevin's performance. I was also glad for William Hurt's interpretation. His mumbled and rushed delivery seemed inconsistent with a character who is an accomplished stage actor; but, really, does that detail matter? Here he is a tired and beaten man--the regrets he expresses in what I call the "I coulda been a contender" speech could apply to anyone and everyman--for example, a travelling salesman named Willy. I was glad he didn't pad the part with Richardsonian or Olivieresque flourishes.

A final note: I also spent too much time reading reviews from earlier productions, such as this review of the American premiere written by Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times:

MightyToyCannon said...

Please disregard the four deleted comments. I had a switchy trigger finger when posting the original.

While I'm here, though, one more note: I spent too much time last night reading reviews of earlier productions of the play. Here's a link to Brooks Atkinson's review of the American premiere:

Barry Johnson said...

Thank you, MTC, and welcome to the deep dark obsessive corner!

Speaking of obsessive, don't you think that O'Neill's persistence puts this on a different level than our Mel Gibson/Lindsey Lohan/Tiger Woods/etc. celebrity flits? He's relentless, and he gets to levels of conjecture that my quick glance at Mel's latest escapade doesn't reach, mostly the why of it all.

I'm totally with you on the 1962 version. How tame it is by comparison. I like this "Greek" version so much better, and Hurt's performance far more than Richardson's, which seems so aestheticized next to Hurt's.

Can't wait to read more of your reflections on this!

MightyToyCannon said...

Our mutual friend at Art Scatter has received some passionate comments about Mr. Hurt's performance:

Barry Johnson said...

Yeah, the anti-Hurt sentiment is pretty widespread, it seems, at least among the theater community. I've made it pretty clear, I hope, why I'm not among that number (the anti-Hurt-ites, I mean).

I think this is a much more radical interpretation of the play than maybe it seems at the outset, and Hurt's performance is central to that conception. And by the way, it makes the widely praised performance of Todd Van Voris possible, by establishing a context for it. Nevin's performance is sublime, but it's also the least variant of the four main roles.

I'm not attempting to persuade anyone, least of all those who commented on Art Scatter. I'm just describing what I saw and how I reacted, and in the process suggesting, perhaps, why I needed the production I got.

Kim Meils said...

Mr. Johnson, count me as another one of your LDJIN fans. I can't sum it up as eloquently as you did, but I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment regarding Mr. Hurt's performance. I was enthralled by the play and wish I could have seen it more than once. I was puzzled by all of the negative criticism, especially the criticism aimed at Mr. Hurt. You were able to put into words exactly how I felt about his performance. I felt sad leaving the theater hearing people complain and quickly judge the play. I sat very close, so I didn't have a problem with his speech. I could see the emotions play across his face and thought he did a great job.

James Tyrone may have been an actor, but he was at home on summer vacation and that's when he could really let his guard down. How do we know what an actor would be like in real, everyday life? He had the weight of the world on his shoulders, so who would feel like putting on a show all the time? I also didn't care for Ralph Richardson's performance in the film version after watching Mr. Hurt in person.

I liked the idea of stripping the play down to a "Greek" interpretation. When I'm paying $75.00 for a ticket, I'm there to watch the actors, not the props or the scenery. I want to see the interaction between characters. This is an intense play and it was great to focus only on the actors. Oh, and to all the people who said it was too long, what were they thinking when they bought a ticket? Look at the title. You know it's an O'Neill play and you're in for a long and bumpy night.

I have also noticed that many of Mr. Hurt's performances arouse an either you "like him or you don't" attitude. He is not a conventional actor. His interpretations are always unexpected and often require repeat viewings in order to understand where his characters are coming from. I think he is a very thoughtful, yet controversial actor. I love his films, I love his audio books and I loved this play. His work always leaves me enriched. Thank you for taking the time to analyze and write about it.

Barry Johnson said...

Kim, Thank you so much for bringing me back to this play, a few weeks later. Know what? I still agree with us! Hurt's Tyrone and Upton's "Long Day's Journey" are deeply entwined and both lead us to considerations of the deepest sort. Hurt's gift is to rip us immediately to the present, his character's present, and live it alongside him. At least for the two of us. And that's a pretty wonderful thing to be able to do.