This is a family story of addiction with all its fragmentations and energy-draining disputes.
O’Neill’s own upbringing is the basis of the play. It was so close to home and raw that he requested it not be performed until 25 years after his death. His widow, Carlotta, chose to honour his brilliance as a dramatist rather than his dying wish. Three years on, in 1956, it was on the stage. It secured his reputation as America’s foremost playwright and earned O’Neill a posthumous, third Pulitzer Prize.
It is around Mary Tyrone’s morphine addiction that the myriad anxieties and tensions swirl. Her husband and two sons all drink way too much whisky. O’Neill’s own mother developed the same dependency from being given morphine to ease the pain of his difficult delivery into the world. As a teenager, he found out about her habit and her neurosis over childbirth. She was ‘cured’ only by menopause which took away childbearing and its fears.
In ways perhaps only a family can be, the protagonists are by turns brutally honest, even plain vicious, and then over-sentimental and imploring each other for understanding and forgiveness. The past and what might have been (if it weren’t for you) are recurring and unresolved themes. Mary had known intense happiness with her husband James and waxes lyrically and endlessly about her perfect wedding dress.
It’s a happiness long gone, after following him everywhere to cheap hotel rooms instead of setting up home. This itinerary echoes O’Neill’s own father’s on-the-road acting career which saw him play the Count of Monte Christo 6,000 times. So in the play, Jeremy Irons plays an actor who could have been a great Shakespearean lead, had he not settled for less.
The men of the family alternate between exchanging strong words in vino veritas and declaring their indelible bonds, according to how much whisky they have had. Yet they seem to think their drinking is just fine; it is Mary’s morphine intake that is the real issue.
Mary is extremely affected by her predicament and especially the suspicions around her. She concludes that ‘the only way (to deal with it all) is to make yourself not care’ and ‘the only past, when you are happy is real’. Mary had originally wanted to be either a nun or a pianist. Her hands are now too arthritic to play, she says, and that’s also why she needs the morphine. She concedes the nun ambition is probably done with.
The resentments and frustrations constantly exchanged sum up the draining emotions and confusions of active addiction. At times I felt like marching them all off to the nearest Al-Anon meeting.
These are only actors of course – albeit brilliant ones – but if you might feel triggered by watching people drink and dash off upstairs to take drugs, then this might not be for you, although I thought the real cigar and pipe smoke really enhanced the play’s atmosphere.
This is a true tragedy because these are not random characters; people who find each other just because they are drunks and addicts. It is paramount that they are family.
Buffeted by three dysphoric drinkers, Lesley Manville as Mary gives a spot-on portrayal of the capricious addict. You feel for all of them as the natural love which they are too entangled to express is ever more lost to their demons.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill is at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London until 7 April