Friday, February 13, 2015

Long Day's Journey Into Night: Considerations on Darkness

That's Eugene O'Neill in the 1936. He didn't write Long Day's Journey Into Night until 1941, and it wasn't published until 1956. It was his last great play, and most would argue, the greatest play he ever wrote: a tragic triumph of American realism.  O'Neill instructed that the play not be published until 25 years after his death (he died in 1953) but his wife used a legal loophole to circumvent these restrictions.

Long Day's Journey Into Night is an autobiographical piece. Well, at least it is emotionally autobiographical. The characters in the story are based around O'Neill's life. James is his father (a promising actor in his youth). Mary is his mother (a morphine addict). O'Neill is the embodiment of their children (he actually had to go to a sanitarium for tuberculosis, it's where he really started his play-writing). In Long Day's Journey Into Night, O'Neill was writing his life. He was exorcising his demons onto a page and presenting them to the world; while, at the same time, making sure he would never be around to view the results. 

The question I have is... why? 

Why did O'Neill write it, and why should you, or any audience, see this on-stage diary of one man's broken family? What is the purpose? In my interviews with the cast of this show I asked them all the same question: what is the benefit of presenting such a dark, challenging piece? It's painful, it's brutal, it's depressing, it's long (full disclosure, the show runs over three hours). What's the point?

I think O'Neill's reasons and the audience's reasons go hand in hand. I believe O'Neill wrote this play as a form of closure for himself. The tragedy of this story is that the family refuses to engage with the things that destroy them. Closure, true closure only comes from facing the things in our life that hurt us. You have to walk through the darkness to reach the light. A show like Long Day's Journey Into Night forces us to consider all possible shades of existence, and engage with the shadows that lie just under the surface of our lives. We live in an imperfect world, it would be a lie to deny it, so we face it, every day, in our own ways, and are, I think, made better for it.

There's a term that's been used in the theatre (and the classroom) for over 2,000 years. It's called catharsis. You may have heard the term, vaguely defined, having to do with a mixture of pity and fear at the end of a play. The term has always bothered me. The standard definition has always been so incredibly unsatisfying. It wasn't until just recently, when I began considering Long Day's Journey Into Night, reading the play and looking through articles that I finally stumbled on, what I believe, is a much clearer meaning for this very old word.

Catharsis is the feeling of relief and release that comes after you make your way through the worst part of a painful experience.

A horrible separation. 
A destructive addiction
A depressive season. 
A loss of faith. 

It's that massive psychological moment when you suddenly realize that the beat goes on and you move forward into the world, hopefully tempered and strengthened by the experience. A piece of you may be broken, but the whole of you stands stronger than you did before. 

If something can't be a happy memory, it can be a lesson learned.

Theatre is a safe medium, the characters on-stage experience these painful moments, and you the viewer are invited to empathetically engage with them. At Threepenny, we don't believe that theatre can change the world, but we do believe that theatre can change a person. It can help them experience and consider things in new ways. I, personally, believe that the most important goal of the theatre is to make you feel. That is the purpose of a play like Long Day's Journey Into Night. O'Neill wrote from his gut. He was all about feeling. We hope that you will feel something, and that it will, in a small way, affect you.

We walk you into the darkness in a safe way. The show is long, but O'Neill designed it that way. The length allows for a full integration of the senses. As you fall into the play and your mind wanders your emotions will hopefully synch with the those of the characters.  Don't worry about catching every last little detail, don't stress, just let the show fall over you. If we've done our jobs you will feel what they feel. You will hope as they hope. You will fail as they fail, and, at the end, when you exit the theatre, perhaps you will have been affected and enriched, if only a little bit.

We'll have chocolate and wine waiting.

Thank you for reading. Long Day's Journey Into Night opens TONIGHT at 7PM at TheatreWorks. As always, it's set-your-own-admission with a suggested donation of $15 dollars. Hope to see you there.

Learning Never Ends

1 comment:

  1. Is changing a person not changing the world?