Three Journeymen

Written by Mimi Kramer on . Posted in Posts, Theater.


I coined a new term during Act IV of the current revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night. "Subjunctive" acting: I’m not sure how useful it is. I’m not even sure how seriously I mean it. I was watching Brian Dennehy and Robert Sean Leonard (as James and Edmund Tyrone) go head to head—to whatever extent Eugene O’Neill’s characters ever actually go head to head—and thinking about how all through the play we’d been looking at two acting styles, one from Dennehy and Vanessa Redgrave and another from Leonard and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I was thinking how antithetical they were: the one where everything is played on the surface, the other where everything is allowed to churn up from below. I was also wishing that Dennehy wouldn’t always bare his teeth when Tyrone becomes angry.

Actors have a term for this sort of performance. They call it "indicating," because the actor is signaling to the audience what the character is supposed to be feeling. It occurred to me that Dennehy’s style of acting was indicative in another, almost grammatical, sense—the way linguists speak of the indicative mood as the mood that governs statements of fact: what is, what has been, what will be. This is as opposed to the subjunctive mood, which is the mood of uncertainty and ambiguity. Dennehy’s performance—Redgrave’s, too, to a lesser extent—was all about manifesting what’s explicitly stated in the script: anger, agitation, fear, reproach and so on. Leonard’s and Hoffman’s performances were all about evoking what was longed for or what might have been. It’s the difference between taking the script at face value—reiterating what the characters say is going on—and mining it for something else, something between the lines that cannot be expressed in words or ideas.

There’s nothing untoward about actors in this play embodying different styles—in fact, it’s oddly fitting. Long Day’s Journey was O’Neill’s great ambivalent act of literary rebellion against his famous actor-father. James O’Neill Sr., who had performed with some of the leading tragedians of his day, became a national celebrity playing the eponymous hero of Charles Fechter’s The Count of Monte Cristo, a play that O’Neill took on in his mid-30s, bought the rights to and went on performing in until his mid-60s. The betrayal had less to do with what O’Neill revealed about his father in the person of James than his disclosure, in the figure of Mary Tyrone, of the long-kept family secret about his morphine-addicted mother, Ella. The ambivalence lay in the fact that having written Long Day’s Journey (the play was finished in 1941), O’Neill suppressed it throughout the remaining 12 years of his life and asked that it not be published until 25 years after his death (a wish that his widow waited a mere three years to violate).

On some level, though, even in O’Neill’s mind, the play must have been about two antithetical forms of theater—the grandiose, melodramatic style that his father represented and the new sui generis form he himself invented, thereby making the former obsolete. We see this in that very Act IV scene in which the old has-been and hack laments to his future-great-artist son about "that God-damned play I bought for a song and made such a great success in" and how "it ruined me with its promise of an easy fortune." We see it in the speech that Edmund counters with, in which he describes being reborn through his experience at sea—a reference not only to O’Neill’s own early sea-addled plays but also, surely, to the big scene in Monte Cristo, where the prisoner Edmond Dantes made his watery escape and emerged bedraggled yet reborn from the waves to declare, "The world is mine!" Finally, we see it in O’Neill’s swapping names with a real-life older brother, a child named Edmund who died in infancy so that his own alter ego would bear the name of the character his father so famously played.

The revival of Long Day’s Journey at the Plymouth is the hardest sort of production to review—neither great nor terrible, better in some ways than you’d expected, wonderful in some ways that you’d counted on and disappointing in some ways that may change. It reunites Dennehy with Robert Falls, artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theater, who directed him in a much-touted revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in the late 1990s. In view of the way that production was received—particularly by the New York Times—some sort of follow-up vehicle for Dennehy, similarly epic and highbrow, seemed almost inevitable. Actually, though, you don’t have to regard Mr. Dennehy as the world’s greatest actor to want to see this production. I admit to being among those who greeted his Willy Loman with something less than ecstasy, but I was curious to see his version of Tyrone. Dennehy may be a big, old ham (I mean that in the nicest possible way), but then so is Tyrone. Moreover, Dennehy is the right sort of ham to play him. (Jack Lemmon, who starred in the landmark Jonathan Miller production 17 years ago, was precisely the wrong sort of ham—too urban-intellectual, too contemporary-neurotic, too Jewish.) I also wanted to see Redgrave’s Mary and Leonard’s Edmund.

Mostly, though, I wanted to see Hoffman perform the role of Edmund’s dissolute, cynical-sentimental older brother, Jamie—and that surprised me, because it isn’t really a very big part. It made me wonder if we don’t approach this play in much the same way that James O’Neill’s fan base flocked to see The Count of Monte Cristo, or the way that era’s ballet and opera audiences must have approached certain famous but uninspired works—not so much to see a particular story reenacted as to see certain particular roles performed and how certain great performers will embody them.

This strikes me as quite different from the way we approach other plays in the American canon, and it doesn’t necessarily place O’Neill in the best possible light as a dramatist. Most plays that we regard as classics are works that we approach for their totality. When we attend a performance of, say, or Death of a Salesman or A View from the Bridge, it really is the play we’re going to see. Our ability to be moved by Emily’s failure to connect with Mother Gibbs in the graveyard scene or by Willy’s title speech about Dave Singleman (who died "the death of a salesman" aboard the New York New Haven & Hartford) or to be shocked when EddieCarbone kisses Rodolfo on the lips—these things rely on what has come before.

I honestly don’t think that’s true of Long Day’s Journey. It has some wonderful set-pieces—that one of Tyrone’s about the old play, Jamie’s story about Fat Violet and the scene in which he confesses to Edmund his true feelings about him, perhaps the closing lines of Mary’s curtain speech. But most of the play—like so much O’Neill—consists of characters saying the same thing to one another over and over and illustrating what other characters have said about them. Again and again Tyrone complains about the boys’ fecklessness and lack of ambition. Again and again they complain about his miserliness. Again and again Mary remarks on the fact that he never provided her with a real home. That James, Sr., is willing to spend any amount of money on worthless land and none on his family; that the old man’s frugality was what led in the first place to Mary’s addiction; that this time everyone really thought she had it licked; that she seems to be backsliding and everyone hopes it isn’t so. We hear these things stated or referred to incessantly. O’Neill was a man who, if he thought a thing worth saying, thought it was worth saying 18 times. The thing about the memorable elements in the play—the things that don’t get repeated—is that they could be appreciated or enjoyed just as easily out of context. That’s a terrible indictment, if you think about it.

There’s a reason for it, though. Hardly any engagement ever takes place between the characters in O’Neill’s plays; consequently, there’s no buildup of the interstitial energy that the alchemy of theater relies on. As a dramatist, O’Neill avoided conflict like the plague. For all the recriminations and indictments flying around, no one in Long Day’s Journey is ever called upon or allowed to answer anyone else—not really. The play consists entirely of characters making speeches. Even when others are present they speak in soliloquy. O’Neill would probably have claimed to be saying something about modern man’s existential condition, but it’s a trite point, one arguably not worth four hours of our time. The truth is that O’Neill had no interest in or facility with dialogue. But dialogue—the agon—is what theater is about.

What was brilliant about the infamous overlapping dialogue in Jonathan Miller’s 1986 revival of the play was, first of all, the way it echoed the actual rhythm of family life. With characters constantly interrupting and cutting across each other, Miller suggested that the scenes we were seeing played out had actually been in progress for many years—the same arguments and accusations. It also allowed for the possibility of subtext: For if characters weren’t talking for the reasons they thought, it had to be because there was something else they wanted.

It’s difficult for anyone who saw that revival and found it revelatory to revisit the play in any more conventional form—and Falls’ production is nothing if not conventional. It has a suitably claustrophobic and oppressive set, all dark wood and wicker furniture and so literal that it’s hard to believe it was designed by Santo Loquasto (he also designed the costumes). Everything is laid out as O’Neill called for, every look, every pause, every scripted gesture or piece of blocking dutifully in its place.

What’s wonderful about the production are Hoffman’s and Leonard’s performances and ultimately Redgrave’s. What’s disappointing is Dennehy’s—at any rate, at the matinee I attended, there was a little too much of Dennehy’s John Wayne Gacy in his portrayal of Tyrone. One wanted him to realize that there is such a thing as anger that isn’t rage and such a thing as rage that isn’t psychotic. But this may come as the production settles down. He’s an actor of sufficient stature and force to make that sort of thing unnecessary.

Leonard, as always, is nimble-minded and understated. It’s the most thankless role I’ve seen him in, and he acquits himself with his characteristic grace and intelligence. Not being a magician, he can’t make Edmund’s big speech about the sea seem like anything other than the adolescent twaddle it is, but he makes listening to it bearable—and God knows that man can recite verse. (One could listen to him for hours. One wishes one might.) Hoffman is less well-schooled in that regard; he seems less comfortable with all the Dowson and Swineburne that Jamie has to get through, but his gorgeous, melancholy grunge-rock voice—like a great hinge opening up to uncover some deep well of sorrow—gives his prose speeches almost the ring of poetry. These really are two of the finest actors of their generation.

The real star of the production turns out to be Redgrave. I don’t know how she brings it off, because a good deal of her work in the first three-quarters of the play seems obvious and heavy-handed—indicative, if you like. But she uncovers a truth in Mary so glaringly right and revelatory that you can’t believe you never guessed it before: the rage of this woman. Perhaps it’s a function of all the indicating she’s done earlier in the play. Perhaps that’s the point—that it is phony, the self-recriminations, the hysterical fears. In the vacuum that occurs when she finally turns it off, we get to see the sadistic satisfaction—joy, almost—in the suffering she has the power to inflict on these men who have made her suffer. Perhaps it’s just a function of being a great actress.

Long Day’s Journey into Night
at Plymouth Theatre, 236 W. 45th St. (betw. B’way and 8th Ave.), 212-239-6200

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