Dread. This is an emotion we loath, rather than dislike. Apprehension, fear, dread. For all our efforts to avoid the later in our lives, how often do we seek this out in our entertainment? From reading Edger Allen Poe to Stephen King tales, from movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, or Alien, or The Empire Strikes Back, or The Blair Witch Project, or No Country for Old Men… how much is our desire to experience dread vicariously our motivation to “enjoy” these? If I mention the playrights Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, or Eugene O’Neill, the person with whom I converse will either have a glazed over look, or eyes filled with dread. When I wrote a friend about going to see (voluntarily) Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night, this was her reply:
Long Day’s Journey is indeed a long journey. It is incredibly brilliant, and incredibly depressing, and, did I mention long?… A good production is hard to watch and a bad production–leave at intermission.
Upon arriving home from Arena Stage, I replied:
Long Day’s Journey was worth staying through intermission!
What compels a theatre audience to stay for another two hours (that is just the second half of the play) of dread, rather than leaving a dreadful show? The creative team at Arena Stage had me spellbound before the lights even dimmed and the first lines of ambiguous bliss left the lips of the actors. When we entered the Kreeger Theatre, with its thrush stage and no curtain, we see the front room of a New England summer home. It is sparsely furnished with a central round table, several mis-matched chairs, and a settee to the left, front of the room. A high, light fixture hangs well out of reach, with an oddly strung cord coming out of one of the half-dozen lights, reaching down to the single desk lamp on the table. At the far end of the room, are tall book shelves with grey volumes, which do not appear to have left the shelves for years, and a small desk area with drawers for sundry items that the actors will use later. Chuck Fox, the Property Master, has assembled a sparse, make-do room, in which the cast will not retire for a summer’s vacation, but make-do with their squandered family resources.
Hosting these furnishes is Hisham Ali’s set. Rather than enclosing the room and entry ways with solid walls, he has built the frames and covered them in translucent scrim. This is a theatrical device that lets us see through the walls. Depending on the position of the lighting, we might see a wall (lighting from in front) or beyond the wall (lighting from behind. Mr. Ali and Lighting Designer, Michael Whitfield, keep us in a fog more most of the play. Both the outdoors and indoor are filtered with illumination, which accentuates the many lines about this house and family being “in the fog”. Seeing through the walls also allows us to see characters enter and exit from the central stair case, the front door to the left, and the back porch to the right. Though Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a series of duo scenes between different family members, punctuated with heightened tension when everyone is on stage. In many scenes, someone is lurking up the landing or outside a window. Just as we, the audience are eavesdropping through the 4th wall, other’s are listening in as various family members try to deceive each other.
The basic story line of the single day represented in Long Day’s Journey Into Night is that this family has assembled at their summer home. The first scene is just after breakfast with James Tyrone Sr (Peter Michael Goetz) and his wife, Mary (Helen Carey), exchanging loving remarks about how good they feel to be healthy, suggesting that some state of ill health has dominated the couple. Their adult sons, Jamie (Andy Bean) and Edmund (Nathan Darrow), are home supposedly to visit, but also as we will learn, because they are without work and living off their father’s largess. Jamie appears trim and healthy, but his habits of alcohol and prostitutes quickly arises, suggesting that he lives a risky lifestyle (for a hundred years ago, when many died from syphilis). Edmund has a “summer cold”, by Mary’s account, though James and Jamie suspect the worst in the pending doctor’s report. Cathleen (Helen Hedman), the house keeper, has several scenes in which she tends to household duties, tries to keep the family on course for the day, and comforts various family members during their histrionic and delirious outbursts. The cook and chauffeur carry out important household functions, but do not enter the stage.
During the course of the play, each character indulges in his or her downfall, drink, morphine, debauchery. In addition to the masterful skill of the actors to subtly transform their characters through gestures, facial expression, and tone of voice, the costume director (Joseph P. Salasovich) and costume designer (Susan Benson), along with wig designer (Paul Huntley), marvelously take us from casual, proper vacation attire to a disheveled stupor. Put these characters in this set, with the foggy light, and mussed up hair and rumpled clothes, the long day of bickering and worrying, takes us well into the night when Mary makes her final entry lost to the reality. But first, let me describe a few scenes that show how this cast and crew use their talents to bring O’Neill’s tightly constructed dialogue and biting humor together brilliantly.
After the morning discussions, in which James has bantered with each other family member about the appearance he wishes to have them keep to reduce the strain on Mary, he and Jamie go to the yard to work on the hedge. The fog which dominated the earlier scenes has lifted, and a gentle, filtered sunlight shines though the windows, but also on the outside entries, which we can see. Cathleen informs Mary that lunch will soon be ready. She steps outside, which we can see through the scrim walls, and calls for the men. Mary and Edmund have additional discussions about their health, with Edmund coughing badly. We wait in anticipation of seeing Jamie and James return. The discussions continue, we continue to look toward the front porch. By being able to see through the walls our sense of anticipation is heightened. Sometimes not knowing increases anxiety. Sometimes knowing, but not quite enough, is more dreadful.
Later at night, after James has returned from taking Edmund to the doctor’s visit, where they have learned that he has “consumption” and will need to go to a sanitarium for six months, he sits by himself with just the desk light illuminating a solitaire game that he plays. Mary is upstairs, wandering in her morphine induced state. Edmund returns home intoxicated from the bar that he and Jamie went to after the appointment. They argue over James’ insistence that they leave on as few lights as possible to “not make the electric company wealthy”. This is really an argument about how James has deprived his son’s of opportunity because he guarded his money too frugally. James acquiesces to turn on all of the lights over the table. In order to do this, because the light pulls are so high, he must stand on a chair. Later, after Jamie, in a greater state of drunkenness, returns home and another round of arguments about parental deceit and deprivation, James again stands on the chair to turn out the lights. This simple act of standing on the chair and reaching up, makes him into a huge figure, compared to the sons who sit, slumped in their intoxicated states. James, the renowned actor, strikes a dramatic pose through this simple act. Had the set designer lowered the light fixture for ease of reach from the floor, this image would have been merely a squabble about turning on and off the lights. O’Neill’s text is not about squabbles.
In another scene, Jamie and Edmund, continue their intoxication with the two bottles of whisky that James left on the table. They argue over why their mother is a “dope fiend”, and why they will always be failures in life, blaming everyone, including themselves. When Jamie makes a particularly insulting remark about their mother, Edmund strikes him, knocking him out of his chair. As they continue with their attacks, Edmund standing, Jamie sprawled on the floor, my eye are transfixes on the one whiskey bottle standing on the table, the other fallen, with its contents pouring out.
If this journey were not long enough, the final scene pulls all of these elements together. Jamie has passed out on the floor. Edmund lies in a heap on the settee, consumed. James sits by himself with the deck of cards from the game. Slowly, Mary descends the stairs, wide eyed but not seeing; mumbling about a time long ago; dragging her wedding dress. As she crosses the room, James gathers up the dress in his arms, wanting to keep it off the floor. Mary drifts to the corner of the room. James holds the dress in his arms, as he sits back into his chair. The dress is full, but empty. Does he hold the bride whom he carried over the threshold? Does he carry his wife, who is ill and dying? Does he carry a corpse of the dreams that have faded into a fog.
The dread of watching an O’Neill play is not just the extreme tortured lives of his characters, but our ability to identify with them. While few of us have such degrees of drama as in this family scene, we can identify with the sons who want to blame their parents for our failings. We can identify with the parents who have compromised their ambitions and desires to provide for the family. Like the morphine which enters the Mary’s veins, we may initially feel the distance and absence of our pain, but should we stay with the drug of this drama, we find that we do not escape our pain, but become what we dread.