Clashing Currents: The Tectonic Force of Long Day's Journey into Night

Posted on Jan 04, 2013 at 1:07 p.m. by

By Quinton Skinner, Director of Communications

The clashing human currents of Eugene O'Neill's American classic Long Day's Journey into Night notoriously resist settling for the sorts of glancing blows delivered by dramatic works of less intensity and arduous rigor. The four primary characters in the Tyrone family are like titanic icebergs, the sound of their collisions reverberating through the previous century (and into this one) like echoing floes across an expanse of bottomless water during a time of deep freeze.

And like icebergs, of course, much of the damage wrought by the Tyrones-upon themselves, upon one another, presumably upon most anyone with whom they have come into contact by the time of the events depicted-takes place below the surface. Entangled in mutual dependence, their breath clogged with the unique vapors of dreams on their downside or possibly doomed never to come to pass, these characters wield cudgels of bitter years and lacerating longing every time they open their mouths to speak to one another.

Anyone who has seriously taken pen to paper or hit the keyboard has inevitably, at one time or another, washed up on the shores of tepid, paltry or untrue writing and fallen back on the sturdy maxim: write what you know. It leads the writer to the logical next question: what precisely is it that I know? And it's in the answer to that elusive query that logjams and creative blockages are either ossified or shattered. Flow and truth are summarily relegated to the realm of fond fantasy or, when stars align, ushered in with all the power of reality intersecting with and exploding through the written word.

Here's the essence of the greatness that O'Neill wrought in Long Day's Journey into Night, a play of such literary power that it can lay claim to containing some of the great character studies in all of the canon. O'Neill fused the particulars of autobiography with his own volcanic talent, writing what he knew and aligning the experience with his skill as a transmitter of almost unbearable truth, bringing forth something that was apparently too much to share with the world while his shadow was still cast upon it (he famously wished for the play to be kept on the shelf for decades after his death; his widow effectively opted to disregard his intentions).

One of the criteria of great writing is that it inevitably confronts truth. It represents an act of courage on the part of the writer, the sort of boldness that by necessity we spend most of our waking hours maneuvering around in order to present a unified and reasonably placid face to the world. It's telling that O'Neill wished for his great play to be hidden from the world for so long: There are truths that a writer wishes to keep from the public, or from one's family and friends. Some truths are so powerful that the anonymity of decades might seem the only proper protection.

Long Day's Journey into Night sees a single family through the course of a short span of time that touches upon the cosmic scope of our own small and limited existence; into the past, the future, and the galaxies of possibility and regret that comprise every life.  It's a dramatic work that dodges compromise and softening at every turn, preferring the realm of the subterranean and the tectonic. Small wonder that its contained fury still lands with so much impact and force.

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