Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Long Day’s Journey Into Night is his most well-known, but arguably still less famous than its supposed comparators: A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman. However, O’Neill’s magnum opus was written long before each of these but only published posthumously in 1956.
In collaboration with HOME, Manchester, the Citizen’s Theatre revives the play for a new audience, with ever-relevant themes and concerns. It shares much in common with Williams’ and Miller’s aforementioned masterworks: American domestic settings, dysfunctional families, ageing characters facing tragic demise, deceit, anger and addiction. O’Neill’s piece, though, is largely – and brutally – autobiographical, mirroring his own upbringing with an alcoholic actor father and morphine-addicted mother. Like Edmund in the play, he even had tuberculosis in his twenties and spent time in a sanatorium. It is surely these personal stimuli that propel the play and amplify its intensity.
And the intensity is prolonged. This is a demanding – and lengthy – play to experience and probably not advised for the casual theatre-goer looking for easy laughter or superficial entertainment. The subject matter itself is challenging to confront: the Tyrone family, already in a state of anguish, unravel in the course of a day as the mother, Mary, teeters on the edge of another crash into psychosis, and the surrounding male members of the family tear one another apart on the periphery. Additionally, the actors work at full pelt, physically manic and vocally pushed to extremes. It seems almost half of the dialogue is screamed across the stage, especially between father and son, James and Edmund. The danger here is that this loses impact at points, without many troughs between the peaks. The audience are bombarded with shouts and roars from beginning to end. Act IV is particularly exhausting with nearly an hour of bitter dialogue thrashed between James and Edmund in the middle of the night. Even the interesting stage design – transparent plastic sheeting in place of solid walls – means the audience is constantly aware of characters’ comings and goings and background lingerings without relief.
It all leaves a pressing atmosphere of pessimism and gloom, something the characters themselves joke about at times. We are given plenty to chew over – mental health, gender dynamics, failures of family and notions of duality within all of us. However, some of these subjects are driven home so heavily and repetitively it does make us question whether or not the three-hour-plus play might have been served better with careful abridging.