Last night I saw Eugene O’Neill’s play “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” starring William Hurt and Robyn Nevin, in Artists Repertory Theatre here in Portland. It is an amazing play–3 1/2 hours of family angst–and the production was outstanding, with Hurt and actors from the Sydney Theatre Company, the premier theatre company in Australia. The play’s characters come right out of O’Neill’s family.
It was an excruciating play to witness. I watched the family disintegrate–in spite of their wanting to do better, wanting to be better persons, they seemed caught in their family history, unable to escape their fate, unable to make a way for the next generation.
I believe Hurt was quoted somewhere as saying that he wanted to do this play because it was about “transformation.” But I saw little transformation in the play itself. O’Neill’s character was the younger son, who is stricken with tuberculosis. He is the poet, the young seer, the “truth teller” in the family–but nobody can really listen. The mother has been so wounded by being dragged from one dirty hotel room to another her whole married life, never having a home and never feeling loved by her husband, that she has succumbed to mental illness and drug addiction. The father grew up desperately poor; as an adult, he became a well-to-do actor, but remained a miser with his wife and children. He turned to drink after selling out, by doing one lucrative but unchallenging role for most of his career. The older son is a n’er do well and an alcoholic.
All the characters have a love/hate relationship with all the other characters. They say hurtful things, followed by “I love you!” They push away in anger, only seconds later to hug warmly. Over and over again the mother voices what I must believe is the deterministic philosophy of O’Neill: “We can’t help being the way we are; what has happened to us has made us this way.”
Is this true? To what extent are we forced by life’s exigencies into patterns that we cannot change? I think we are far more determined by environmental influences and by genetic disposition than most of us believe we are. We come out of the womb with certain personality traits hard-wired in, and a certain amount of brain power. And then how this vulnerable child is raised either opens the way to growth or closes off possibilities–generally some of both. In O’Neill’s play, you see negative family influences ravaging human beings. Because O’Neill’s play is a supremely American one, you also get some sense of how an undue focus on money (an American passion) can lead people off course–and the father’s story of poverty tells poignantly of class issues.
But there is more to the human story than what we are given in this life–there is also what we choose. How much choice is possible, I would not venture to say, but I believe that all of us have some measure of choice, and that makes all the difference. We can choose to say “no.” We can leave. We can bring nurturing people into our lives. We can speak our grievances out loud, and break the silence, as the stand-in for O’Neill does, in the play. The most tragic figure, to my way of thinking, is the mother. In the early 20th century, women’s roles were so circumscribed that only the very strongest could break through into another way–O’Neill’s mother was not strong; she loved a man who could not love and care for her; and the culture of the period gave her little option but to hunker down and make the best of it.
The one character who is redemptive in the play is the son who takes the part of O’Neill. The redemption is the play itself. He becomes a poet and a playwright and shines a light on what has been hidden. When art is done with great integrity, it is redemptive. The truth, as always, will set us free. What we know, what we can name, we can choose or reject. And therein lies the redemption.