When we asked award-winning playwright Fin Kennedy to write our study guide for Long Days Journey into Night we had no idea that the text that would be returned would be such a heartfelt and poignant exploration of not only Eugene O'Neill's work but of his life. Fin Kennedy has explored Long Day's Journey into Night with the precision of a surgeon in the operating room. Here's what he had to say about the process:
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, Creative Producer 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 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.