Monday, July 08, 2013

Long Days

I've recently been doing some work for Digital Theatre Plus, the education wing of Digital Theatre, which is sort of the Netflix for theatre, offering pay-per-view downloads of professional productions. Digital Theatre Plus commissions playwrights to deconstruct other playwrights' work, and produce in-class resources for schools, colleges and Universities studying the plays on their site.

My first one is now available online. They gave me Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, which turned out to be quite a big job! (40,000 words, in fact). Here's a blog I wrote for them on how I found the process, and what I discovered about the play along the way....
Laurie Metcalf and David Suchet in the 2012 production
Taking on an education pack commission, to deconstruct Eugene O’Neill’s classic play Long Day’s Journey Into Night, was a bigger job than I anticipated. It was also far more rewarding.

Fiona Lindsay
, Director of Digital Theatre Plus, had said, with deceptive simplicity, that they wanted a playwright to take apart another playwright’s work, to “look at the architecture, and what makes the play tick”.

The truth, as I was to find out, was that the ‘architecture’ of Long Day’s Journey Into Night was the entire life one complicated, unhappy man; its foundations alone stretched back to a time before he was born. As for what made it ‘tick’, this was rather like taking apart an antique pocket watch, constructed with intricate detail by a master craftsman.

Like all great plays, a simple exterior turns out to house some fiendishly complex mechanics.

It is a play in which nothing is as it seems. Set at the height of summer, yet we never leave the house (and out the window there is nothing but cold, wet fog). Set amid a family, yet this is not a play about security nor love, but guilt, recriminations, paranoia and hatred. Set over barely one day, yet in its four lead characters it encompasses several lifetimes. As day becomes night, and as the past becomes the present, it is almost as if time is running backwards.
Eugene O'Neill
Eugene O’Neill captures with cruel precision each one of ‘the four haunted Tyrones’ and with them, of course, his own unhappy family. In taking us back to his youth, he also reveals the seeds of many of his other plays. In the two mismatched brothers we can clearly see Beyond The Horizon. In his brother Jamie’s alcoholism is revealed A Moon For The Misbegotten. In Edmund’s tales of the sea we get a glimpse of Anna Christie. In the offstage bars and whorehouses we hear the chink of The Iceman Cometh. While in everything the play is not, is written its mirror-image companion piece Ah, Wilderness! It is a play which could only be written at the end of a life.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night
is also a paean to some of O’Neill’s greatest influences. We can see Strindberg in its psychological depth, Ibsen in its moral uncertainty and Chekhov in its refusal to offer us a neat or comforting conclusion.  More obviously, during a drunken battle of wits between father and youngest son, we get direct quotes from Nietzsche, Wilde, Dowson, Baudelaire, Kipling, Shakespeare and the Bible. Literature overshadows both the play and the life from which it sprang; the source of O’Neills father’s wealth – and also his unhappiness – was a stage adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

This complexity makes the play rich to analyse, and a perfect choice for students of the craft. Studying the play myself, it sometimes felt as if I’d spent all day drinking whisky in that living room with that crazy, unhappy family. But that is testament to the extraordinary, detailed reality which O’Neill manages to create.

Staggering down the stairs at the end of the day, I sometimes thought of Eugene O’Neill exiting his own study at the end of a day’s writing – often in tears, as his wife’s memoirs testify. I’m glad to say it never quite got to that stage for me. But it is sad to think that O’Neill never really escaped that cycle of unhappiness depicted in his plays. But his loss is our gain. It is hard to think of a body of work written with more rawness, tenderness or truth than his.

Fin Kennedy’s education pack on Eugene O’Neill’s
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is now live on Digital Theatre Plus. (Note that this is a truncated version; for full access, a full license to the site must be purchased).

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