Dr. Alexander Pettit in Conversation with Paul Meltzer about Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Undermain in Dallas

Alex is the witty and scholarly Distinguished Teaching Professor specializing in Modern Drama at the University of North Texas who has published considerably on Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill (1888-1953), haunted, independent, lifelong struggler with alcoholism, is widely considered the greatest American dramatist. He was deeply influenced by the Scandinavian realism of Ibsen and especially Strindberg, his work marking the main break from the heightened melodramas of the preceding century in which his father was a leading stage figure. O’Neill’s was a restless quest for theatrical truth. He was celebrated in the 1920s, winning Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize, his experimental, expressionistic works regularly staged on Broadway. But today O’Neill is best remembered for the gritty realism of his later writing, when he turned to autobiographical material based on his family and his dissolute youth.

Alex and I had just recently watched Long Day’s Journey into Night at the literally underground Undermain Theatre in Dallas. Usually regarded as the greatest of O’Neill’s plays, Long Day’s Journey brings us a bleak day in the life of the Tyrones, closely modelled on his own family—the father a well-known actor stuck for decades in a middlebrow drama, the ailing younger brother of 24 based on himself, the sardonic older brother, and centrally, the secretly backsliding, morphine-addicted mother.

Dr. Pettit was covering the play for The Eugene O’Neill Review, as was I for PlaysToSee.com. Finding at intermissions that we had some contrasting views on the production, we decided to have lunch together the following Tuesday and talk it over before co-teaching our UNT Emeritus College seminar on the play. Here’s some of what transpired.

AP: If Long Day’s Journey into Night is the triumph of the naturalistic O’Neill, it’s also, it seems to me, the fullest and most honest embrace of the melodramatic in O’Neill. A lot of scholars of O’Neill have found it a cause for embarrassment, as if it somehow snuck into O’Neill’s work when he was being unwary. I think that’s a little naïve. O’Neill grew up in a household that paid the bills from melodrama, his dad’s famous play Monte Cristo, to quote from Long Day’s Journey “that goddamned play I bought for a song” that enslaved him commercially. Long Day’s Journey has a very strong melodramatic strain—the spectral drug addict, the gothic, the fixity of character…

PM: The father is the equivalent of a star of a TV drama today. He’s filled with interesting contradictions. He’s portrayed by the somewhat adolescent Eugene O’Neill stand-in character Edmund as a miser, and possibly the cause of the mother’s addiction because of a cheap quack doctor that he got during the difficult delivery of Edmund, so that he’s got that feeling of guilt associated with his own birth.

AP: Boy, that’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it! And what a pleasant play it is! Remember, it’s a play about addiction more broadly. One of the ironies of the play that I think O’Neill certainly means us to see is three guys getting really, really drunk and worrying about Mom/wife’s addiction problems. There’s a whole lot of addiction going on in that play!

One of the most poignant comments that I think O’Neill makes about addiction in this play is that one’s own addiction is never one’s own fault. The responsibility for addiction flutters around the whole play and never alights on the addict himself or herself. And of course the whole family is addicted to their theatricality—their lies, their routines, their gestures of forgiveness or condemnation. It is a family that’s held together by addiction.

PM: And this of course is very shameful at the time, although not so uncommon. And this shame is connected with this being the play O’Neill said could not be published for twenty-five years after his death—which is not what occurred–and that he also intended never to be produced.

So let’s talk about James Tyrone, the matinee idol, age sixty-five at the time of the play.

AP: First and foremost, he’s an actor.

PM: So clearly there’s something a bit theatrical about him. But he’s also this guy who pulled himself up by the bootstraps, Irish immigrant, father gone by the time he’s ten and he had to work to support the family. Had no idea he’d ever be able to do anything as grand as be a star. So you’ve got that contradiction of humble and proud—Irish origins and sacrifice and fear of financial ruin because he’d seen it up close, combined with being a big personality.

AP: Absolutely. And knowing that he’s a big personality, and being irritated when his family doesn’t recognize that he is a big personality. Bruce DuBose, with director Katherine Owens, I think did an absolutely wonderful job with the James Tyrone character in the Dallas production. This James Tyrone never forgot that he was on stage—twice, before his family and before us as well. There’s always of course the meta thing going on in Long Day’s Journey, because it’s a play about an actor acting. And I would think that that would be a role that one would relish all the more for that. DuBose has a beautiful voice, a stentorian voice, a sort of voice one could easily imagine filling a hall before footlights.

PM: I would be totally happy hearing him for the same amount of time reading the phone book!

AP: His gestures were theatrical, melodramatic.

PM: But I believed there was a real person making these theatrical gestures.

AP: The boys—and I say boys but they’re 24 and 34—the boys are always taking potshots at Dad the Actor.

PM: No one’s a star in their own home.

AP: Precisely, as they remind him constantly!

PM: Thinking about Ralph Richardson in the 1962 film, I never really got that he was a matinee idol. It was almost incidental. He might as well have been an architect or something. A lot of things that Katherine Owens made very present I think are often treated as incidental. Coincidentally, they drink. Coincidentally, they’re theater people. It’s like the focus is on that it’s a family. But it’s a particular family.

AP: It seems to me that Jason Robards pointed the way to where we are now with respect to acting O’Neill. Richardson’s tradition is different. His moves are different. His intonations are different. This is your area, not mine, but that’s not right for O’Neill.

PM: DuBose brings the Irish roots that come out more when he drinks. So you can see the Shakespearean and the garrulous Irishman merging.

AP: And DuBose is good with Irish drama generally. We saw him in a previous performance at the Undermain in a lead role in a recent Conor McPherson drama, The Night Alive. He does Irish beautifully.

PM: Let’s talk about Edmund, the Eugene O’Neill stand-in character.

AP: Ms. Owens, the director, said something very interesting in the talk-back session, that she didn’t want to be weighed down by biographies of O’Neill.

PM: But there’s so much biography that’s already there, in the material.

AP: There’s still part of me that wants that character on stage more clearly to be carrying all of the baggage that O’Neill himself was at that age. Because we know that! It’s a well-known life. This is not a secret.

PM: But I think she’s got the right to restrict her interpretation to the material.

AP: Absolutely. But the problem is, for me at least, she didn’t have an actor in that role who could convey the past of his character with the credibility that the role demands, even if we just limit that to what’s in the text. It’s hard to imagine him at sea.

PM: Well okay, I agree with part of that, and I disagree with part of that. First of all, I did really believe he was having those feelings. My empathy was engaged. Blann was to me a believable son, a believable younger brother, and I thought he was really interacting. In many ways I thought he was not right for the role. He seemed like this sort of bluff, hearty, centered…

AP: He looked a bit like a gym rat, didn’t he?

PM: Yes, and Eugene O’Neill himself was athletic and in good shape. But within the context of just what’s in the play itself, he’s tubercular enough to require going to a sanitarium, at least has the appearance of having a severe cold. We did get the cough, but he seemed full of vim. And more critically to the character of Edmund, is whether he really has the touch of the poet. I thought the one kind of passage where the reality of this human being dropped away…

AP: Absolutely, that was his finest moment on the stage! That was one of the best scenes in the production. I loved the scene where Jamie and Dad were swapping poems. And I thought Blann did a magnificent job reciting the Dowson, reciting the Swinburne.

PM: I think I’m saying the opposite. For me that was where my sense of reality dropped out.

AP: Really! I can’t agree! I loved him in that scene. I thought he was a foil for his dad, beautiful.

PM: I thought the scene worked great, mostly on the strength of the dad. But particularly in the reciting of the poems, he did not strike me as a person who loved words. He struck me as a person who adopted a pose of “I’m reading a poem now.”

AP: But isn’t he doing that? Dad has all these not unreasonable suppositions about the sorts of things I read. And I’m kinda trying this out around him for the first time. You know, he’s the actor with the high canon taste in poetry. I’m the serial failure who likes this weird decadent stuff. Let me see what I can get past him. I think Edmund did best when he was in close proximity to his father.

PM: That was the best scene, when they were alone together.

AP: Absolutely! Before that scene it’s very much Mary’s play. In this scene, it becomes Tyrone’s play.

PM: So I agree with you that Jamie was quite solid and, quoting myself, I said he was a native speaker of the hip slang of the day.

AP: I’ll have to steal that for my review.

PM: I won’t charge you much. However, I would criticize him for being a centered, likable guy. We know this is based on Jim O’Neill who comes up again in the last bit of his life as Jim Tyrone in Moon for the Misbegotten, a hollowed out walking dead. And we don’t really see any portent of that. He doesn’t seem a self-hating character, and the self-hatred is in the text.

AP: It is.

PM: “Let’s not talk about me, Dad; I don’t like the subject very much either.”

AP: Right.

PM: We saw a kind of stable character you would expect would have a decent job actually, not a total playboy.

AP: Sure. And I agree that the production dials down his self-hatred. It’s also worth remembering though that one of the reasons O’Neill returns to that crucial character in his life, his older brother, in Moon for the Misbegotten, is that O’Neill was convinced he hadn’t gotten his brother right in Long Day’s Journey.

PM: He wrote Moon for the Misbegotten later?

AP: He did, and I know we share a love for that play. And part of the reason I think we really need to look at the plays together is that it takes him two swipes to get at Jamie. I also think his attractiveness is very important, most noticeably when he staggers home in Act Four and begins a series of beastly speeches about his own self-destructiveness and also..

PM: …giving warning to Edmund to “watch out for me”. I believed him. I suffered a little from having seen Phillip Seymour Hoffman in that role.

AP: Aw, that is a tough one!

PM: Here’s an actor who ultimately died from addiction, right? He had some deep places to go to. And he just pulled your heart out in that scene. The Jamie here was a believable guy performed believably.

One thing we missed on Edmund—why would you think that a gym rat like that couldn’t have been a sailor? They even gave him sailor pants!

AP: I just thought Edmund just seemed a little too pale and cheerful for it to me.

PM: You couldn’t picture him with a little sailor’s whistle and mopping the decks and all?

AP: Like a sailor in Monty Python. (General laughter.)

PM: Okay, let’s talk about Mary.

AP: My response to Mary changed fairly dramatically during that production. Act by act that role becomes tougher, and I responded less positively to her act by act. Let’s start with the end first.

PM: When she is fully aglow with morphine.

AP: Fully aglow, and comes down the stairs, or in the cramped and wonderful space at the Undermain comes out from backstage. I missed the stairs, but nothing you can do about that there, right? That magnificent curtain speech, along with Tom’s curtain speech in The Glass Menagerie, is in my opinion about the best writing in twentieth century American drama. It’s very short. And it follows a really strong scene with the three men. When Mary re-enters, she has about two minutes to knock the ball out of the park. There is no room there for anything less than a spine-tingling event. I didn’t get that in this performance.

PM: What did you get?

AP: I say this with empathy–I think we need a mature actor for that role. She holds up these actually beautiful hands and says “Oh my hands! It’s hard to believe they were once beautiful!” And they’re lovely.

PM: I think we agree she seemed somewhat too young and beautiful for the 55-year-old Mary Tyrone.

AP: Absolutely! And that’s a problem I think in that last scene where she has to convey age and the ravages of addiction. You ask me what I got in that scene. I felt that I got a walkthrough, an almost gracious surrender to the extraordinary achievement of the immediately preceding scene. Mary’s speech felt rushed and uncommitted. I also think, again, from the non-actor’s perspective, I cannot imagine a harder assignment as an actor.

PM: You keep saying “You’re an actor.” I don’t do stage. That stuff is way too hard. I’m just a guy who goes on TV sometimes. I’m completely respectful of anyone who does it.

AP: Look, London theatregoers will know the Jessica Lange Mary Tyrone about which she wrote really nicely in her preface to a new edition of Long Day’s Journey edited by William Davis King. There aren’t a lot of actors playing ball at that level. There is no room at that moment in the play for anything less than absolute sublimity.

PM: It’s kind of the King Lear of roles for women.

AP: Lear has way more opportunity! Mary has to nail it then.

PM: Yes, that’s true, but it’s the fulfillment of an arc, or descent, that is utterly foreshadowed from the first instant. Now for me the indelible one who owns the role is Vanessa Redgrave.

AP: Oh, I can imagine.

PM: Her performance took advantage of the fact that contemporary audiences know a little bit more about addiction. We were aware from minute one that she was Jonesing. But that’s in the script. At the end of the first act there’s nervous drumming of fingers, which I don’t think I saw here.

AP: No, there was no drumming. There was flexing of fingers, but no drumming. When Katherine Hepburn did the role she was suffering from Parkinson’s at the time. A magnificent actress who had done so much for so many years was literally trying to hold onto her own body, and the way that interacted with the part of Mary was unforgettable.

O’Neill knew an awful lot about addiction. In the long stage descriptions, we always have a fairly precise sense of just how far Mary is from her last fix and how desperately she needs the next one. I think that’s a sort of physiological and psychological timeline in the play. And that’s something else I didn’t get. Jessica Lange talks about spending a lot of time with drug addicts, getting to know something about the particulars of their own addiction. I think that probably paid off for her. I didn’t get the Jonesing thing!

PM: She had strong line readings and committed physicality, but somehow what’s missing is the symphony of sublimation Mary is. Everything is about getting the family to go away in some way that is acceptable in 1912 so that she can go upstairs and get her fix. All those layers need to be there.

AP:   I think young acting old is probably one of the toughest assignments on stage. It’s why so many student productions are so ghastly. I remember a student production a number of years ago of The Cherry Orchard where Firs walks across the stage at the end of the play, and it felt like it took forty-five minutes for this sophomore to hunch over, shuffle, and walk nothing like an old person ever walks.

PM: Not that it was done fundamentally uninterestingly or unintelligently, but there was not a sense of strategy.

AP: And strategy matters! Every addict has one goal. If you’re standing between her and the staircase, she’s going to flatten you!

PM: She’s got to use all those wiles to make it plausible to do the thing that she never wants to admit she’s doing.

AP: Absolutely.

PM: And I never really got the layers either of her trying to plausibly deny it. Her true statements and her deceptive statements sounded about the same.

AP: A critic in the mid-nineteenth century pointed out that the characters in this play speak in two voices, the voice of rage and the voice of placation or pleading. They pivot. You’re a no-good loafer/Have another drink. There are hundreds of those pivots in the play. And I think to some extent the success with which someone delivers these lines is going to be defined by their consciousness of those pivots.

PM: It’s like Shakespeare. You have to play the oppositions.

AP: Great way to put it. And I thought Dubose did that consistently. He had more vocal ways of doing it.

PM: He made it unmistakable. “You can go anywhere you like…

AP and PM: “Within reason.” (Laughter)

AP: That has already entered the canon in my own house talking about my wife’s birthday. Anything you want–within reason. She’s used to a bit of James Tyrone in me I’m afraid.

I think her finest scene, and another scene for which Catherine Owens is to be commended for not having cut, is the scene with Cathleen, the serving girl.

PM: I’m so glad you brought it up, because I think this is an easily forgotten role, well worth noting.

AP: I thought the two women played that scene beautifully together. That’s when I most connected with her.

PM: To me, Cathleen was just so alive, she got laughs just because of her simple humanity.

AP: She was also in the Undermain’s production of the McPherson play. A wonderful role. She’s clearly a terrific young actor, very exciting, who I’m looking forward to seeing more from. But she gets some very funny lines. And O’Neill is good at writing very funny lines! The description of the monkey Smythe, the chauffeur, who is just this repulsive, wizened harasser.

PM: But we believed she was talking about a real person when she was talking about him.

AP: We could see him, fog and all! And we have Mary’s sense of humiliation being paraded about in the second hand car.

PM: Of course a Packard was a pretty fancy car.

AP: I know! But the neighbor’s car is a Mercedes. Yes, Katherine Bourne is a gem, and I’m quite excited about following her in this area.

PM: In summary, I conclude, for all the quibbles I can make, people should really see this.

AP: Absolutely. Run, don’t walk. In the talk-back session, Katherine Owens told this almost devastating story about a production in Houston that she found quote “boring”. The mere possibility of this play being boring is terribly upsetting. This production was never boring. I thought the direction was magnificent top to bottom. I thought the cast when it was strong was superbly so, and when it didn’t rise to that level, it was not distractingly so. Support the Undermain—it’s a wonderful theater!

PM: Fly from London to Dallas! Thanks, Alex.

AP: Thank you, Paul.