Before global warming set in, fog used to be more frequent around New London, Connecticut, and anyone who spent time at the O’Neill Center in nearby Waterford knows what it’s like to be walking on the beach when the fog rolls in. All visible elements disappear, including people standing a foot away from you, and your only approximate gauge of direction is the sound of the foghorn booming through the gray-white cottony haze. Walking rapidly is not advised, but neither is standing still: The fog may not lift till morning, and possibly not even then. Move steadily but cautiously toward your destination; if you are lucky, a light from somewhere will become visible up ahead.
The spiritual equivalent of this isolating condition, described in one of the best-known speeches of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, is the starting point of Eugene O’Neill’s greatness as a writer. The light he used to find his way there was his own—after many misguided attempts to follow external signals that led him up a variety of wrong paths—and his ultimate destination was his starting point: home. The spiritual fog at home, in O’Neill’s childhood, was as dense as the physical fog outside; in his maturity, he turned the harsh light of his clarity on the “fog people” who were his flesh and blood, revealing them, and himself, for what they were. “[W]here truth is untrue and life can hide from itself,” Edmund Tyrone tells his father, is where he wanted to be, because, “Who wants to see life as it is, if they can help it?” Not by accident, O’Neill gave this character the name of the dead person with whom he had long wished to trade places: James and Ella Mary O’Neill had had a previous son, named Edmund, who died in childhood. In the play this child is named Eugene.
Oddly, the specificity of O’Neill’s fogland is what makes it universal. Few families, in America or elsewhere, have boasted a father who was a nationally acclaimed celebrity and a mother who was an agonized morphine addict. But every family has someone in it who wants to hide from life where truth is untrue; what Tolstoy forgot to mention, in the famous apothegm that opens Anna Karenina, is that unhappy families are all our own. To see Long Day’s Journey on Broadway, the week after Gypsy with its antithetically terrifying parent, is to be reminded forcefully of the greatness that Broadway normally lacks—which is the greatness of universality, not that of celebrity. After all the tinny showbiz hoopla about stars and their glamour, what actually matters is the text, which can hold its own, in a nonobstructive production, as long as the performers are adequate or better. You should see Long Day’s Journey Into Night, not to drool over Brian Dennehy and Vanessa Redgrave, but for O’Neill’s sake, the same reason you should have seen it when Brian Murray and Frances Sternhagen, or Jack Lemmon and Bethel Leslie, or—was it really that many years ago?—Robert Ryan and Geraldine Fitzgerald, were James and Mary Tyrone. Frederick March and Florence Eldridge were before my time, but I have seen Ruth Nelson, who understudied Eldridge and toured in the role, and it is hard for me to get subsequent Marys into focus. All of that, however, is less important; O’Neill and what he achieves in this play are important. First things first.
We owe it to ourselves, as well as to O’Neill, to get our priorities straight. Though never as dismal as movies and television, most new specimens of which could be erased tomorrow without anyone noticing, the theater is largely tiresome these days. It is tiresome because it has largely been pursuing false goals, trying to dress up worn-out tastes and thin material in directorial gimmicks, animated by the gossip-column figures of the moment. Another deconstruction, another “revisal,” another attempt to give an old two-dimensional celluloid object some factitious three-dimensional life, another lump of imported Euro-chic (these days usually some piece of our own cultural junk shoddily refurbished)—what’s astonishing is how rapidly it all becomes stale; no period in art has solidified into cliché more rapidly than the one following the end of Modernism.
And on Broadway, where all concepts of art are based on money, and, as Shaw’s Saint Joan said, “What was done last time be thy rule,” the eagerness to follow someone else’s lead—London’s, Hollywood’s, the twilight world of TV marketing’s—is endemic; the rattiest hole-in-the-wall playwrights workshop has more sense of creative enterprise. A comparatively innocent piece like Hairspray or Urban Cowboy (I am deliberately choosing works at opposite ends of the success spectrum) stands out in contrast like a prize of virtue: These people actually worked together to make something a little different from the original movie; they didn’t settle for mere recycling. Praise, at today’s Broadway prices, should be able to run higher. And yet, most Americans believe—the publicity machines have carefully schooled them to believe—that Broadway is the theater. In fact, all too often, Broadway is the three-dimensional performance medium that has less than any other to do with the theater.
In this regard, Broadway’s sorry state has gloomy similarities to the sorry state of American life in general. People who are dishonest with themselves about their shortcomings are just as dishonest about the shortcomings whom they elect to political office. Even Broadway in the age of the Roundabout isn’t as badly off as our civil liberties in the age of Ashcroft, or our corporate ethics in the age of Enron. O’Neill of course knew all about the way these things knit together: The detritus of political and fiscal hucksters washes up in The Iceman Cometh, and in Long Day’s Journey you can learn how money poisons art from James Tyrone’s last-act confession, the one starting with “That God-damned play.” (Shouldn’t every Broadway producer be made to memorize this speech and audition with it before joining the League?) Dennehy, whose overall performance is solid but monochrome, must have a sharp personal sense of this speech; it is one of the moments he rises to most strongly.
Such moments are, to my quibbling taste, rarer than they should be this time around. Act I (I am using O’Neill’s act and scene divisions, annoyingly mislabeled in the Playbill) is the best, with all four actors etching their presences in firmly, yet all holding back to let the tension build. Then, slowly, Robert Falls’s production begins to unravel: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Jamie starts to rise in pitch and floridness before he’s had a drink. The rhythms of Vanessa Redgrave’s Mary get skitteringly disconnected from the text, till by the end of Act II (“Mother of God, why do I feel so lonely?”), she’s literally climbing the walls, stretching her long arms up the paneling of Santo Loquasto’s set. This is arresting—Redgrave’s tall, charismatic figure makes any gesture arresting—but, like much of what she does, far from relevant. (O’Neill’s stage direction is, “She gives a little despairing laugh.”) Dennehy and Robert Sean Leonard hew to the play’s line, but Dennehy’s variety is sparse, and Leonard’s quiet, steadily building Edmund, though the only one of the quartet to sustain his role fully to the end, is often overshadowed by the more flamboyant, less well-integrated work around him.
But, as my pal Bill Shakespeare used to tell me, the best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if your imagination amend them. (Burbage’s business partner wrote that; imagine trying to write its equivalent for one of today’s overtouted Pacinos or Simon Russell Beales.) “The play’s the thing,” Bill summed up, and so it is, if an author can write one strong enough to catch our consciences in it. Always assuming, of course, that when we get out of our present downward spiral, we still have consciences left.
One of the few heartening signs, in this respect, is the virtually universal loathing produced in the press by the Roundabout’s current display of its total lack of artistic conscience, The Look of Love. Love, look away. Burt Bacharach and Hal David will never be my favorite songwriters, but in their defense I have to say that their songs, carefully wrought within their circumscribed style, deserve better than to be dumped onstage, uninvestigated and juicelessly conveyed, at the mercy of some inexplicable “concept” by four people who, collectively, don’t appear to have as much talent as you can find in two bars of Bacharach chord progressions. The evening starts with a show curtain on which is painted, stage left, a disembodied eye. The look of love may be in your eye and mine, but you won’t find it in this unintentional evocation of Un Chien Andalou, or in anything that goes on once it rises. Why is the Roundabout, a Broadway producing firm that rarely raises its sights above commercial exploitation, granted nonprofit status to produce this kind of Vegas-lounge dreck? Shouldn’t its funders compel it to keep its money-grubbing hands at least minimally clean?