Friday, July 20, 2012

When I first typed in this title, I made an error and wrote ‘Long Day’s Suffering Into Night’…. Perhaps not so surprising. Eugene O Neill’s play, currently at the Apollo Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue, is an unrelenting depiction of a dysfunctional and suffering family.

Yet, this does not necessarily make for tortured or traumatic viewing. It is a portrayal of what it is to be human, and thereby vulnerable, impotent in the face of suffering, a portrayal that feels real and authentic, with a relevance and universality that has transcended time.

Written in the early 1940s, the play was not published until 1956. O’Neill requested that it was not published until 25 years after his death. However, just three years after he died, his third wife transferred the copyright to Yale University, who proceeded to publish the play. The playwright received a Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1957 for what is generally believed to be his greatest work.

Set in Connecticut, the play, which is semi-autobiographical, follows one day in the life of the Tyrone family, parents James (David Suchet) and Mary (Laurie Metcalf), and their sons Jamie (Trevor White) and Edmund (Kyle Soller). From the opening moments, there is a sense of foreboding that emanates both from the highly anxious Mary and the anxiety her behaviour generates in the family. Only later do we realise that she is a morphine addict, and that she is on the verge of restarting the habit. The tension escalates, yet Mary’s is not the only tragedy. James Tyrone is an alcoholic, Edmund appears to be dying from consumption, and Jamie is eaten by hatred and jealousy.

Contradictions and inconsistencies abound in the family. The parents love each other, yet Mary also despises James. She blames her addiction on his meanness, which resulted in a ‘cheap quack doctor’ supplying her with her first taste of morphine after Edmund’s birth. Mary wants to both live and to die:

‘I hope, sometime, without meaning it, I will take an overdose.’

Jamie blames Edmund for his mother’s addiction, as its origin coincided with the younger son’s birth. Yet Jamie also states: ‘I love you more than I hate you.’

For Mary, the drugs, which she both denies taking and alludes to frequently, ‘kill the pain’, and allow her to ‘go back until you’re beyond reach’, to ‘only the past when you were happy is real.’ Her home is her prison, and her loneliness is palpable: ‘in a real home one is never lonely.’

James is a tragic figure. He refuses to accept that his meanness has been at the root of their suffering, yet, when challenged by Edmund, who accuses him of sacrificing his health and life for the sake of a cheaper state sanatorium, there is a fleeting sense that something has registered, and he crumbles. but fleetingly. He regains composure, reaches for alcohol, and blames his upbringing. Mary colludes with this, ‘life has made him like that’, but it is not a convincing story, or excuse.

The fog that envelopes the house, that ‘hides you from the world’ is also where Edmund wants to be: ‘to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself.’

The acting is convincing and impressive. The play ends with all four facing the audience. Mary has the last word, speaking of the time when she first met her husband:

‘I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.’

The happiness appears to have long dissipated. This is a family that speaks and shouts, yet cannot communicate or share their pain. They can only attempt to relieve it, alone, through a solitary path of self destruction.

CQ

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