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TNR Film Classic: 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' (1962)

A life's journey into past.

Long Day’s Journey into Night


Eugene O'Neill's Long Day’s Journey into Night is the full statement of the early autobiography that he had disguised and used partially in several  plays. Beyond the Horizon (1918) is about two brothers, one of whom is tubercular; the doomed couple in All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1923) have his parents' first names; other plays contain further references and derivations. In 1941 O'Neill was at last able to write it all out nakedly (though not for production in his lifetime)—all contained in an August day in 1912 at the summer home of the Tyrones, a day during which the parents and their two sons are flayed open to reveal their hate and need of one another. 

After O'Neill's tortuous peregrination to this play, it is interesting that he was not factually accurate about his past. There is no artistic reason, of course, why be had to be, but the alterations and omissions are revealing. Some examples: the father is berated for his stinginess about the house and about the care of his younger son's illness; but the New London house cost James O'Neill $40,000, a ducal sum in those days, and the record of his spending on the boy's illness contradicts the latter charge. The play disregards the fact that the younger son (the author, called Edmund here) had already been married and was a father; or that the older son was absent in a sanitarium for alcoholics when the doctor confirmed that Edmund had tuberculosis; or that the mother had been through the traumatic experience of a breast operation for cancer. 

It is notable, too, that all the family except Edmund have grievous character flaws. James is a miser and egotist. Mary is a morphine addict. Jamie is a boozer and corrupter. But Edmund has no faults. He is that classic attractive figure, the consumptive young poet. It could easily be argued that Long Day's Journey is a work of self-defense, with the facts of O'Neill's life given incompletely and with some warped emphases in order to justify his dissipated life; that he thought he had to lead a wild life, like Baudelaire and Strindberg, in order to be an artist, and wrote this play as post facto vindication for his acting-out of an attitude. 

But whether or not this is true, the work has strength. To me, it is not, as Mary McCarthy called it, "the greatest realistic drama since Ibsen" (thus dismissing Hauptmann, late Tolstoy, early O'Casey), but it is a large dramatic engine whose components are carefully assembled before your eyes and which grinds its way to its conclusion with the inexorability that is the mark of the totally committed artist. Few would call O'Neill a writer of the first rank or a thinker of any consequence or an illuminator of the soul to an unusual degree; but he was here so tenaciously dedicated to a revelation of his truth that the play generates authority even when it is not completely compelling. 

And now this extremely long, one-set drama has been placed on film. Why? Among the praised plays of this century, is there one less suitable for filming? The project seems to be the work of what can be called the TV mind. One of the chief "serious" functions of television has been the adaptation of plays of merit, lopping and cramming them into fixed time and limited space, for which the carpenters expect gratitude because TV has brought Something Good to a vast public. Ely Landau and Sidney Lumet, producer and director of this picture, who are well known for their "good works" in television, have now brought Something Good to films; and in the transposition have converted a viable play with tedious stretches into a turgid film with affecting episodes. 

About 95 percent of the original script has been retained, and, inevitably, there is power in its moments of highest intensity, which would hold us even as a phonograph recording or a chalk talk. But in the main, when this version must live or languish as a film, it languishes. This theatrical whale has been stranded on the beach of another medium; it is robbed of whatever grace and integral movement it had in its natural element and is left with only its size and some hints of majesty to impress us. 

Since the play is essentially unadaptable to film and, anyway, since no real adaptation has been attempted, Lumet has tried to supply the missing cinema motions with movement of the camera. This not only fails, it is frequently intrusive. His work with the actors is much more successful. 

As the father, Ralph Richardson provides a sound performance, instead of the affected distortion that he often palms off as originality. One cannot quite believe that his face ever set feminine hearts aflutter or that he is more than occasionally Irish (when he remembers the brogue); but he drives hard and honestly for the center of this warped, grandiloquent man. 

Katharine Hepburn, as his wife, brings understanding and artistic plan to the part. She is simply miscast. Besides looking too young to be the mother of Jason Robards, Jr., her personality and temperament do not encompass this Irish-American woman whose religious-chromo dreams have wrecked her life. (For it is not cheap doctoring or an uncongenial theatrical life that have made Mary Tyrone a drug addict; it is her guilt at having betrayed a nun's vocation.) The whole tenor of Miss Hepburn's being—her Yankee accent itself—is unsympathetic to this lace-curtain part. An actress of lesser talent and perception, better suited to the role, might have had greater effect. 

Robards has already been saluted, deservedly, for his performance on Broadway of the sardonic, sporadically remorseful Jamie. He repeats and deepens it here. Edmund is played by Dean Stockwell, an actor with an only partially mobile face and negligible emotional power. 

None of them is helped by a blatant, one-level sound-track, incongruous piano music, or (particularly at the end) by low-grade high-jinks in the photography. 

This piece originally ran in the September 24, 1962, issue of the magazine.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.