On this date sixty years ago, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night premiered at the now defunct Helen Hayes Theatre on West 46th Street. Directed by Jose Quintero, and starring the quartet of Frederic March, Florence Eldridge, Jason Robards and Bradford Dillman, it received every award possible and had an impact on the American theatre in ways that reverberate to this day. In conversation with Harold Prince in 2013, he told me that he saw the play five times in the first ten days. Unlike Prince, I've never seen any single production of it more than once, but in my nearly fifty years of theatregoing I have seen it on six separate occasions, as well as in three filmed or taped versions.
The original cast of Long Day's Journey: Bradford Dillman, Jason Robards,
Florence Eldridge and Frederic March (1956)
As its title bears out, Long Day’s Journey Into Night takes place during the course of a single day at the Tyrone family's modest seaside home in the late summer of 1912. Its father, mother and two sons, all based on O’Neill’s real-life counterparts, include James: a cheap and vindictive old man who uses braggadocio, bluster and alcohol to cover up a lifetime of misspent opportunities; his wife Mary, a morphine addict still in mourning over the death, decades earlier, of her youngest child; eldest son James Jr. (Jamie), a wastrel who formerly held promise but, due to drink, has ruined his life; and Edmund, who is O’Neill himself: poetic and sickly, as well as a talented writer with a grim, if not morbid, outlook on life—and death—exacerbated by his being diagnosed with tuberculosis.
In various combinations, scenes are played out among the four with lies told as well as truths, all while Mary painfully descends further and further into a drug-induced haze, panicked by the news of Edmund’s illness and the thought of losing another son.
This was one of the final plays by the Nobel Prize-winning playwright who, while working on it, was suffering from a Parkinson’s-like disease. Writing by pencil, he was not only in excruciating pain from the physical exertion it took, but by its emotional toll. Upon completing it, O’Neill made sure that his wife, Carlotta, understood that he did not want Long Day’s Journey produced until twenty-five years after his death. However, in 1956, less than three years after O’Neill had died, his wishes were overridden when Carlotta gave permission for the play’s premiere in Stockholm. Shortly thereafter, a production of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh had been done on a shoe-string budget Off-Broadway, bringing that play into a prominence it failed to achieve in its original Broadway production some ten years earlier. The director, Jose Quintero, was summoned to meet with Carlotta O'Neill, and was given permission to do Long Day's Journey on Broadway.
Quintero brought along Jason Robards to play Jamie in Long Day's Journey, who even though far too young when he played Theodore "Hickey" Hickman in Iceman, had made a personal triumph of it. Robards would go on to become the foremost interpreter of O'Neill, playing most of the major roles in his plays in the course of his more than forty year stage career. Though not even born when Robards played Jamie in Long Day's Journey, I did get to see him play James Tyrone, Sr. in a 1976 production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that was searing in its intensity, particularly due to the performance of Zoe Caldwell as Mary, the best of the many actresses I have seen play the part.
The 1976 Brooklyn production with Kevin Conway, Michael Moriarty,
Zoe Caldwell and Jason Robards.
Robards, who died in 2000, had a deep and abiding love for O'Neill. He was perhaps never more effective interpreting the playwright's words than on the day he performed a monologue from Long Day's Journey outside in the cold while protesting the imminent demolition of the once beloved Helen Hayes Theatre. This was in 1982, when a sad state of affairs led to the destruction of not one, but three theatres between 45th and 46th streets to make way for the Marriott Hotel. Even though the current Marquis Theatre was built on its premises, it lacks any of the warmth of the theatres it replaced: the Hayes, the Morosco and the Bijou. Just before the final say of the New York State Supreme Court, Robards and other actors of his ilk, bellowed into the wind, voicing their objections to the project in the best way they knew how: by standing on a flatbed truck and using the words of the playwrights whose shows played these hallowed houses, among them Death of a Salesman and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Thankfully, a sort of make-shift documentary was made chronicling the protest called The Rally to Save the Theatres, featuring dozens of the actors who took part in the event. I was able to view what may be the one-and-only copy at the Lincoln Center Library in New York City in its Theatre on Film and Tape Archive. With the weather worsening, Robards takes to center stage and performs a monologue from Act IV of Long Day’s Journey into Night that has to be seen to be believed.
John Corry, reporting for the New York Times, was there and wrote eloquently the next day of what transpired: “By the reckoning of most people on the street, and of the other actors on the stage, Mr. Robards offered one of street theater's finest hours. Glancing only once at his hardbound copy of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, he did the lengthy speech in which the father, an actor, tells his younger son that by surrendering to commercialism he had ruined his life. ‘I’m so heartsick. I feel it's the end of everything,’ Mr. Robards said. He was only reciting from the play, of course, but as he spoke he turned and glanced at the Morosco.”
I quote Corry verbatim and at length deliberately because he gets it exactly right. Watching the film, I was near tears. Robards is simply magnificent and, as if on cue from God, at the mid-point of the speech, snow flurries begin to swirl about his head, his wispy white hair blowing in the wind. Reaching a crescendo, there’s no denying the colder it got, the hotter he becomes. Seeming to invigorate him, his voice gets stronger and his commitment to forge ahead more fervent, the weather be damned.
Viewing it brought to mind the line of Tennessee Williams from A Streetcar Named Desire: “Sometimes — there’s God — so quickly.”
Ron Fassler's Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is coming soon from Griffith Moon Publishing: https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/