ON DIRECTING LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
[Mr. Raphael offers the
following report of the careful thought that preceded his directing of
Long Day's Journey Into Night at the University of Virginia
last December and January, and of the results of that thought in the
production itself. --Ed.]
Experimenting with form, wrestling with style, extending the "dramatic possibility": such phrases are often used to describe the plays of the early and middle years. And, all too often, O'Neill is praised for maturing or for finally "coming around" to realism in his last efforts. Such praise is, at best, simplistic. Long Day's Journey is dialect and chant become suggestive lyricism and a subtle linguistic web. It is also the actual masks of The Great God Brown become the Pirandellian visage of personality. But most importantly, it is all of the theses and devices of the other plays interfaced with the writer's own "ism"--the critical tension of the purely O'Neill, the "duality" as a metaphor and a concrete achievement. It has been reported that O'Neill often emerged from the daily labors of facing his dead and writing this play exhausted and in tears. While it is certain that he waged an emotional battle with his own human history, I have always held the private belief that part of the immense struggle was devoted to perfecting the skills necessary to finally fuse all of the variables previously explored within his imagination. This play lives because the tension in that process can be communicated theatrically. It becomes the emotional experience of the characters while remaining the energy of the writer.
Frequently, the glib and the untutored will refer to Long Day's Journey as the only play of O'Neill's which shows any real facility with language. Actually, the striking, even daring quality of the language of this play exists in a variety of forms throughout the canon. What is unique in this work is that the playwright has made stage dialogue yield poetry while continuously disguised as conventional speech. Here the "tension" lies in a masterful "duplicity" and in an organic understanding of the illusion of reality. For example, in Act Four, in a long monologue, Edmund tells of his memories of the sea. Tyrone compliments his son for having "the makings of a poet" and Edmund "sardonically" replies, in a frequently quoted passage, that his is just stammering; that the best he can hope for is "faithful realism." Ironically, this is the great accomplishment of the play--a seemingly faithful realism which is actually a perfect synthesis of naturalistic language and poetry. Stage speech is neither street chatter nor the stuff of the dinner table; yet, it must appear so while conveying infinitely more specialized intentions. O'Neill's ear for dialect, his preference for the exotic and the low-colloquial and for the quasi-poetry of slang and rhythmical prose suddenly become compressed, unselfconscious, and part of the narrowly channeled energy that forms the fiber of the play. All of the usual color and eccentricity related to characterization lurks beneath the "faithful realism" to which Edmund refers. Jean Chothia, in the introduction to her linguistic study of the plays of O'Neill, Forging a Language, provides a straightforward treatment of this concept of "verisimilitude and dramatic artifice." She calls attention to the conventions of stage dialogue and the fact that it operates by "duplicity" in terms of the imitation of real speech. Courageously, O'Neill lays artificially representative speech alongside Swinburne, Baudelaire and Rossetti, and allows each form, to comment on and complement the other. The reader and the listener become aware of the poetry in each, and again a tension is created between language which has the appearance of reality and, in Gassner's usage, "the theatrical."
During a reception following the opening of my production in December of 1980, the technical director of our theatre commented that he had never seen more accurate, verisimilar, naturalistic lighting. Moments later, the resident choreographer complimented the same lighting designer, Michael Rourke, on the "mystical quality" of the lighting and his ability to realize the subtextual character relations through color and subtle shifts of illumination. The two observations were in fact quite compatible rather than mutually exclusive: they reflected a conscious plan in the scenic and lighting design which realized visually the realistic-theatrical tension in the script.
In the early design conferences, set designer David W. Weiss, Mr. Rourke and I agreed to a mix based on three objectives: 1) a visual setting faithful to period, to certain aspects of the O'Neill biography, and especially to O'Neill's stage directions on the passage of time and the movement of the sun; 2) a "point of view" environment linked to Mary's objections to the summer house as cold, cheap and unhomelike; and 3) an expressionistic structure that would serve to make of the stage a psychological mechanism. It was my hope that, under the influence of changing light both inside and out, and in relation to the pictorial composition of the performers, the house would, though not literally move, achieve the plastic qualities of some of O'Neill's earlier, more formalistic scenic images.
David Weiss's solution revolved around a special treatment of the groundplan, the flats, and a false proscenium arch. We utilized an exceptionally sparse setting with the absolute minimum of furniture and furnishings. Each object became a territorial hieroglyph, a spatial anchor, representative of individual family members; furthermore, the overall impression was never one of warmth, comfort or planned interior decoration. The flats, untopped by a ceiling piece, rose up some twenty feet, fading gradually from a striking wallpaper pattern to absolute black and giving the impression of extending into infinity. In addition, the "walls" were joined at ninety degree angles. Despite the relief of a variety of entrance and window treatments and the natural relationship of the furniture pieces to each other and the room, the scale and symmetry effected a kinetic severity that repeatedly accented the conflicts of the play. The entire setting was embraced by a false proscenium arch designed to look like the frame of a theatre in which James Tyrone might have played The Count of Monte Cristo. While visible throughout the performance, the arch received specific lighting only twice--in an opening preset before establishing the morning illumination of the first scene; and at the very end when, following Mary's last speech and James's final movement, a blackout of the room itself left only the arch in a cold white light. As a theatrical metaphor, the arch made a permanent statement; and in the last few seconds it sustained the tension of the scene and created a feeling of ambiguity as to the "ending" of the drama. While the family had passed like an island into the black and fog, the theatrical statement became etched in the audience's imagistic memory.
It is certainly possible to light this show with between twenty and thirty cues for all four acts. Our lighting design employed more than 80 cues. At least one of this number, with the assistance of highly sophisticated equipment, was completed over an elapsed time of sixteen minutes. As indicated earlier, the basis for the design was an accurate tracking of the passage of the sun--direction, intensity, length of the shadows cast, color, quality, etc. This also included the haze and the evolution of the fog visible in its increasing thickness through a large bay window. With careful picturization and the staging of specific moments in relation to the source of light, a seemingly objective and natural element contributed a visual rhythm and a source of emotional punctuation. The sunlight became as much a conspirator as the fog. On a second level, a subliminal plot led the actors with light by carefully varying the intensities within the acting areas and continuously isolating the islands of furniture and people. This provided a selective focus almost cinematic in technique. The conclusions of scenes and acts were notable for making this isolation suddenly obvious by blacking out all but the remaining figure. Sometimes with the text and sometimes in a Pinteresque silence, the performer played out his or her action in relation to the tempo of the final fadeout which served to stress and externalize the character's inner monologue. In one instance, where O'Neill scripted the inner monologue, I cut the literal statement in favor of achieving his intention mimetically. (At the end of Act II, Scene ii, Mary's lines read, "It's so lonely here. You're lying to yourself again. You wanted. to get rid of them. Their contempt and disgust aren't pleasant company. You're glad they're gone. Then Mother of God, why do I feel so lonely?" Lighting, blocking, and the actress's physical expression replaced certain lines so that, while the intention was expressed, the passage simply read, "It's so lonely here. Mother of God, why do I feel so lonely?")
Movement along the theatrical continuum from the illusion of reality to overt theatrical statement was particularly effective from Mary's last entrance through the concluding beats of the play. Mary's piano playing was preceded by a shaft of light emanating from the hall (to indicate her entrance into a parlor) which fell across the central table at which the men were seated. The diagonal column traversed the stage like a beacon in the fog. Seconds after the piano playing stopped, as Edmund looked back toward the portieres, Mary's gnarled and groping hand appeared in the entranceway. This disembodied limb was slowly followed by the rest of her until she stood, weaving, white hair flowing to her knees, completely back lit and an adequate motivation for Jamie's bitter reference to the entrance of Ophelia. The last nightmarish moments utilized movement motivated in part by O'Neill's own sketch, and employed the established lighting convention by tracing Mary's path in a gentle glow. She finally came to rest on a chair placed at the downright limits of the set, almost against the arch--a chair in which no one else had sat during the entire play. Separated in space by a circle of light, Mary seemed to float away from the rest of the family until finally she too dissolved in darkness. In a play about time, the actors' transitions communicate the dramatic tension of choice and decision but also delineate philosophical statements on the past, the present, and the future. The acting moments were enhanced by and fused with the artificial manifestation of time in the recognizable movement from day to night and in the apparent suspension of time as controlled by use of the theatrical "specials."
Much has been written about O'Neill's use of natural elements to develop both visual and aural imagery. The plaintive cry of the foghorn and the warning bells of yachts at anchor in the harbor are natural to the setting and also of extreme importance symbolically to character exposition and biography. At the opening of Act Three, O'Neill requests that a foghorn be heard at "regular intervals." Of the forty-eight cues in my sound script, 41 of them comprised an incidental score for foghorns and bells. Each cue in isolation was easily identifiable as the sound of a foghorn or the peal of a bell; but, utilizing a nucleus of five different horn blasts and the ring of three different bells, the technician accomplished an acoustic modification with each individual cue by varying the intensity, frequency and duration in recording. (In playback he also made small adjustments in direction.) In Act Four, Edmund speaks of "hearing the fog drip from the eaves like the uneven tick of a rundown crazy clock. . . ." The aforementioned process allowed me to pair a section of text with an orchestration of the sounds and to surface the quality of sound as it existed in the individual character's imagination. The technique is by no means revolutionary, nor did I assume that audiences were cognizant of the intention. However, it contributed to the objective/subjective duality and supplied the "productive mingling of realism and theatricalism."
The ultimate success of my production depended upon the obvious--good acting. To use the late Tyrone Guthrie's word, you can't "jolly" this play. Regardless of how unique the setting and how excellent the production values, essentially the actors are clothed only by the text, in a single setting, toe-to-toe for three hours, and dependent upon their craft skills. Everything abstract about this play and everything within the director's reading must become whole in their playing. Long Day's Journey requires the very best of naturalistic acting--truthful, intricately motivated, and abounding with all the detail and idiosyncrasy that communicates a family ensemble. At the heart of the duality which provided the basis of my conception lies a convincing transformation and the audience's ability to seize on the truth of the performances. However, within each of O'Neill's characters lies an ambiguity--a contradiction which serves as its own duality within the performers themselves. All of the members of the Tyrone family live very close to the skin--accusing and apologizing, attacking and forgiving, telling truths and fantasies within the same beat. The director's job is to present these contradictions, not to eliminate them. Awkward prose notwithstanding, Jose Quintero evidences great insight when he observes,
Doris Falk also writes about a "tragic tension." She asserts that, in addition to locating O'Neill's philosophy of the human situation in the perpetual pull of opposites, the plays reveal a psychoanalytic premise which serves as the key to the exploration of character and to the playwright's own inner conflicts. For Ms. Falk this particular "tension" is the potential link between the dramatic values of O'Neill's plays and their theatrical efficacy. As an acting coach, I encouraged my cast to find their characterizations in the text itself and to avoid the volumes of biography and critical comment. As a director, I also found more than the usual impetus to depend upon the playwright, believing the structure, style, and dialogue of Long Day's Journey to be an apt and complete prescription for staging the play. My production sought both to capture O'Neill's dramatic impulses and to show that his play--in its language, its visual imagery, and its sensitive character development--is an explicit and powerful statement of his ideas on "how the theatre works."
--Jay E. Raphael
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