New York Times, February 19, 1956
'Long Day's Journey Into Night': Plaudits for O'Neill
By GEORGE WILLIAMSON
Local critics, who are usually hard to please, have unanimously acclaimed the play. They call O'Neill the world's last dramatist of the stature of Aeschylus and Shakespeare.
The fact that some critics intimated that O'Neill ranks somewhere above Ibsen and Strindberg evoked sharp-edged editorial comment in a major Stockholm daily. The editorial recalled O'Neill's admitted debt to Strindberg.
Because of the autobiographical nature of the play the critics say it will give literary historians new insight into O'Neill's previous works. The characters closely parallel the family of James O'Neill, the playwright's father.
The four-and-a-half hour tragedy is a conflict between human disintegration and the cohesive effect of family love. It is a play of sympathy and forgiveness despite all the petty shortcomings and pathetic decay of the four main characters. There is no protagonist.
The action through four acts takes place in a single room on the day in 1912 that Eugene O'Neill, in this case Edmund Tyrone, discovered that he had tuberculosis and was committed to a sanatorium.
There is no plot, but the dialogue reveals characters through a series of accusations, self-blame and self-justification. In the end no one is to blame.
The mother is a morphine addict who blames her condition on the birth of her younger son, Edmund. The parsimonious drunkard father is blamed for having forced his older son into the theatre, where he failed. The older son is accused of leading the younger astray. The last hope of the sick, soul-searching Edmund, the love and comradeship of his older brother, is crushed in the last act by the revelation of the elder's hate and jealousy. All hopes of the three men seem crushed by the mother's final flight into a morphine dream.
It is the human compassion of the drama that raises it from something autobiographical into something universal. It raises it from the ingrown pessimism of much contemporary drama into an unfolding of love and understanding. The final scene of stark, almost unbearable hopelessness dissolves all conflicting emotions of hate in a catharsis of compassion.
The world première itself is in many ways an act of gratitude. On his deathbed O'Neill asked that his unpublished drama be performed first at Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theatre, which has staged more of his plays than any other theatre in the world.
With the presentation of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," the Dramatic Theatre has performed ten O'Neill dramas since 1923. O'Neill seems to have felt that the Swedish audience appreciated his work more than the American. Swedish critics say he was not a prophet in his own country. Especially the success in Sweden of "Moon for the Misbegotten" just a few months prior to his death in November, 1953--and the earlier failure of the play in America--seem to have motivated his death-bed wish.
Swedes seem to enjoy O'Neill because of certain similarities to their own great playwright, August Strindberg. While the mood of the theatre is continually changing in America, the Swedish audience still demands several Strindberg plays every year.
When O'Neill received the Nobel Prize in 1936, his acceptance speech, which was read at the ceremonies in Stockholm, indicated a great debt to Strindberg. He said: "It was the reading of Strindberg in the winter of 1913-14 which gave me the first version of what modern drama can be and the first impulse to write for the theatre myself." Likewise, the performance itself is an expression of gratitude. Karl Ragnar Gierow, the producer, has thrown the Dramatic Theatre's top talent into the task.
The performance of the actors was permeated by a sense of responsibility to do a job commensurate with the honor they admittedly felt bestowed on them. The mother was played by Inga Tiblad, the leading lady of the Dramatic Theatre; the father by Lars Hanson, who has played in five O'Neill plays; the older brother by Ulf Palme and the younger brother by Jarl Kulle.
O'Neill, as an expression of his gratitude, did not want the Royal Dramatic Theatre to pay royalties on the play. In accordance with this wish Mrs. Carlotta O'Neill, his widow, arranged that the royalties from all performances in Sweden be distributed as a grant to actors at the Dramatic Theatre. This goes for all future performances here as well as the first run of five weeks, which it is estimated will bring about $5,000 in royalties.
Mr. Gierow, producer of the play, said this week:
"We are very happy that the criticism was so favorable. There has never been such unanimous acclaim of a drama in Sweden. But we are not surprised because the high quality of the play was obvious from the script."
When Mr. Gierow was in the United States last September working out details of the rights with Mrs. O'Neill he also secured rights to another unpublished O'Neill drama, a one-act character comedy called "Hughie." It is expected to receive its world première here next fall. "Hughie" was finished in 1940 about the same time that "Long Day's Journey Into Night" was completed. It has two characters but is mostly a monologue set in the entrance hall of a second-class New York hotel.
"Long Day's Journey Into Night" will be published in book form in America by Yale University Press tomorrow.
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