Saturday, August 21, 2010

A user's guide for "Long Day's Journey Into Night" insomniacs

By Barry Johnson

Todd Van Voris and William Hurt in "Long Day's Journey Into Night"
Some theater demands conversation. Let's reverse that: We can't help talking about some theater. Talking about it gives us a chance to clarify our thoughts and to check them against the thoughts of our companions.

So, for example, in the case of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," the Eugene O'Neill epic now playing in a provocative production at the Newmark Theatre, you might simply want to know whether everyone else understood what William Hurt was saying, because he achieves some land speed records with the dialog of patriarch James Tyrone. Or maybe it's deeper than that -- what was that particular four hours (not really, more like 3:30 plus intermission) of intensity actually about, pray tell?

The most casual and recent visitor to Arts Dispatch knows this observation is coming from direct personal experience, because I've been prodding and probing the play here since I saw it a week ago, doing a little more reporting on it and a little more research, and then attempting to apply it to the re-reading of the  play that director Andrew Upton, the artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company which originated the production, has devised.

But I know from the advanced analytical devices encrusting this site that I'm not alone. Every night another 900 or so of us see the play, and the next day we're sorting out the Tyrones -- James, his wife Mary and his sons Jamie and Edmund. I think that's because it resists the conventions of our own dramas. This epic doesn't have a happy, therapeutic ending. And this production offers no quarter -- to the cast or to the audience. Whatever the cause, each night's performance brings a new bunch of readers to Arts Dispatch the next day, mostly to read the initial review, according to the advanced analytic devices encrusting the site, but also the ancillary posts.

Maybe this little link summary will speed things up:

The "review":  I woke up early Sunday morning after seeing the play last Saturday and wrote about what I'd seen and what I'd been dreaming about, really. It definitely shook me up.

The panel: Monday night I went to Artists Repertory Theatre to hear Upton and Allen Nause of ART, the Sydney company's co-producer, talk about "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and other cross-cultural productions. They were illuminating about many topics, and I tried to make sense of it all.

The revisitation: After some reading, conversing, re-living, reporting and debating, some re-description was necessary, necessary I tell you, necessary. Is "Long Day's Journey" about family crises, alcoholism and/or the malign influence of money? Or is it about Fate itself? Oops. I gave it away. I also tried to come to terms with Hurt's performance, the subject of much debate and some derision.

I wasn't the only one considering this play in text, however.

Marty Hughley at The Oregonian: Hughley registered some disapproval with Hurt's performance, specifically its audibility, but more importantly, I think he was onto something with this sentence at the top of his review: "this rendition of the towering American drama delivers the brutal emotional realism of the text, yet tilts the frame just enough to open it up to something spectral." He doesn't develop what he means by spectral or in what senses this production fits that definition, but I like the thought.

Bob Hicks at Art Scatter: Hicks described the setting perfectly from where I sat: "It was also one of those moments of coalescence when a particular piece of art mattered, whether individual people happened to “like” it or not. One way or another, people were thinking, and arguing, about it — some of them, I imagine, into the wee hours of the morning, when they may or may not have been wearing off a Tyrone-size hangover." He goes into the matter of Hurt at much greater depth at the end of his account, which is quite good.

Alison Hallett at the Portland Mercury: It just didn't seem to be Hallett's cup of tea, this play and this production. She found Hurt "underwhelming" and the whole thing "a long-ass play, and a damn difficult one—I know I wasn't the only audience member who contemplated nodding off as a way to escape Journey's relentless dysfunction."  We'd argue with her, but then we already have!

Ruth Brown at Willamette Week: I'm not exactly sure what Brown means here, but I think she might be right: "if you’re ever going to digest this shocking depiction of the playwright’s tragic home life, this is the version to see." As Hughley did, she praises Robyn Nevin's portrayal of Nevin, but she's one of the few dissenting voices on local actor Todd Van Voris's work as Jamie. I wish she'd had a few hundred more words to work things out for us (which also goes for Hallett -- please, dear editors, give the reviewers some space!).

Anne Adams at Culturephile: Adams likes to chop complicated subjects down to size in a series of carefully considered observations, and that's the approach she takes with "Long Day's Journey." It's especially effective if you've seen the show or read some of the other reviews. Good stuff.

Lloyd Bradford Syke at Curtain Call: I have no idea what the "politics" of Australian theater reviewing are, but I found this review of the show's Australian incarnation intriguing in several ways. Yes, Hurt is an issue to Syke, too, and I'm not sure he wrestles sufficiently with what O'Neill's driving at (I wouldn't!), but it's good to get a take from the originating continent.

So, more than enough to feed your own flames after the show ends!  But look, I'm not promising that this is the end of it for me. Not a bit.


MightyToyCannon said...

Barry, you've grown as addicted to analyzing and discussing "Long Day's Journey Into Night" as Mary Tyrone is to morphine. Fortunately, you haven't started babbling yet.

Thanks for the links to the other reviews. What's odd is that I agree with all of them--even those that contradict each other. For example, I concur with the complaints about Hurt's interpretation and performance, but I also think the choices he made in portraying this outsized role were interesting.

The comments that have been left after the various published reviews have been impassioned. Most seem to be made by people who know the play well and have strong ideas of how it should be interpreted and performed. I'd be curious to hear from any audience members who came without any previous experience with, study of or preconceived notions about it.

Barry Johnson said...

Is there a "Long Day's Journey Into Night" therapy group somewhere? I think you're right -- I don't "disagree" with other descriptions of the play, really, even those that don't jibe with mine. I get what they're saying. And for all I know my reaction is and will continue to be a total "outlier" in the universe of reactions.

Yeah, mostly theater "people" have been commenting around the web. And other views would be interesting to hear. But theater people are more likely to get worked up about it, I imagine, given its enduring place in the American theater canon (which really we should reassess at some point, yes?).

For theater people in Portland this is serious business. It confirms their own approach to theater or argues against it. It can get political and it can get personal. As Bob Hicks wrote, it "matters." Which is cool. And revealing. Bring it on!

MightyToyCannon said...

Yes, theater people are most likely to get worked up about it. My own thinking has been about: (a) The play itself as a work of theater; and, (b) this production and the craft behind it. Which is to say, I've been engaged in a technical analysis, rather than contemplating the play's themes or its emotional content. Perhaps my heart is too calcified and my mind is too jaded, but the Tyrone family's bitter cycle of regrets and recriminations did not move me. I wasn't shocked. I didn't leave with any new revelations about myself, family dynamics or humanity. I left the theater thinking about the production rather than the ideas embedded in the play. That's all okay, because there's plenty to mull over, but I wonder how it works as theater and as storytelling for an audience member who isn't steeped in theater, and who isn't attending with preconceived ideas and the foreknowledge that it is The Greatest American Play Ever Written. Does it have an "enduring place in the American theater canon" because it is a museum piece worthy of study? Or does it still have relevance to a contemporary audience?

Barry Johnson said...

Yes, well said. How does it "operate" on someone relatively "untainted" by previous theater experiences and undoubtedly saturated by television and film experiences.

I wasn't moved by the family dynamic so much, the family history and psychology, as by the idea of O'Neill himself struggling with this material, struggling with his own difficult view of the world, trying to make sense of the world through different eyeballs, encountering those stubborn impenetrable spots -- in himself, other people, the world. And then maybe by his compassion for us, stuck just as he is with problems we can size up let alone solve.

MightyToyCannon said...

Aha, there's another example of how context affects our perception of the work. Knowing that "Long Day's Journey into Night" is closely autobiographical, and that the character of Edmund represents Eugene O'Neill himself, certainly deepens our appreciation and analysis of it. (Isn't it curious that Mary's dead baby is named Eugene in the play?)

So this is what my thinking comes down to: How much of our reaction to any work of art is shaped by its context and how much is just the result of pure experience? My reaction to "Long Day's Journey" was influenced almost entirely by context. I've interpreted it through a variety of lenses: history of American theater; the playwright's back story; the craft of making theater, etc.

I've even viewed it through the eyes of an arts administrator: Did they need to ship the set from Australia, or could it have been built here? How will ART's core audience feel about being in the Newmark instead of the more intimate ART space? What is the market for $75 tickets? Will tickets sell in the second half of August, or has Portland shed itself of the notion that nobody goes to the performing arts in the summer? How does ART's decision to undertake a major, international collaboration fit into Michael Kaiser's prescription for the arts in a time of recession? (I'll get back to that question at another time).

Even the pure experience of watching Robyn Nevin's transcendent performance is shaped by my past experiences of performances by other actors. Side note: I thought Todd Van Voris' performance was very good, but only in the way that I expect competent, professional actors to perform. More colloquially, it didn't blow me away.

All of this leads me to a thread of thought about the role and value of critics in providing the kind of context that deepens our understanding and appreciation of what we're about to see or have just seen. With this play, you and your colleagues have delivered masterfully in that regard. I recommend that anyone seeing this play take the time to read the reviews you've cited. Make the play an object of research and study, before and after. Read reviews of previous productions. Watch clips of the movie version on YouTube, or order up a copy from NetFlix. Also, go with a companion with whom you can debate it at length--preferably late into the night with a bottle of whiskey shared between you. Just don't come to blows.

Bob said...

Barry and MTC, this conversation just keeps getting richer and richer. Well done! I love the idea that one can "agree" with viewpoints that are at odds with one another: there are so many different windows onto any work of art, your view depends on which one you're looking from (and maybe what kind of spectacles you're wearing). The fact that this production has sparked so much intelligent discussion surely is meaningful. As a side note, I never intended my Art Scatter post to be a review in a formal sense: It was just a discussion of certain elements of the production and play that I found interesting. An essay, in other words, as I think Barry's various posts have been. I didn't discuss set, costumes, even 40 percent of the performances, because they weren't where my mind was going. I'm happy that other commentators did.

Barry Johnson said...

I think that's right, MTC/Bob. We can view things through a number of different prisms. We are always part of a complicated "context"; we never see anything "pure". Our views are moderated by everything from our digestive tracts to our feelings about a famous actor to our commitment to a particular point of view on a play, theater in general, art, society. At our most lucid, maybe we can sort this stuff out.

As this implies, I don't think it's all, um, rational. My particular needs at the moment, which are often contradictory themselves, will trump just about everything else. And when I describe something about a play -- over a late supper, on the bus, or in a post -- those needs start to leak out.

Fortunately, we all have the descriptions of others to keep us from thinking that our view is somehow "universal" or the "last word." And to teach us a little something maybe, if we're ready to listen. Which sounds somber and cognitive and somehow mind-numbing, when actually it's exciting and funny. Which is why we all keep doing it!

And you never know, sometimes your most bizarre idea is something that somehow someone else needs exactly at that moment...