Heroes have no part in the works of the great Irish dramatists, always heroines. St. Joan apart, in Shaw they are comic, in O'Casey, tenderly tragic. So, too, but despairing so, In Eugene O'Neill's works. O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night (The Old Vic) has been recorded for screening. A world audience will see It; it is a document posterity will cherish. In it viewers will see a masterpiece and also England's craftsman-actor, Olivier, at his quiet and unselfish best.
The dramatist was an IrishAmerican, born in an hotel on the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street, the very centre of American's theatre district. He was baptised Eugene Gladstone O'Neill. The middle name is evidence of the political sympathies of James, his father. The time was October. 1888.
James O'Neill was a successful actor of a kind once called a matinee Idol, strikingly handsome, naturally talented, rich and miserly. Born in 1846, "straight potato famine" Irish, James was brought to (he 1 lifted Stales when an infant. His childhood was poverty-stricken. Our own great Mr. Ernest Milton, now in honoured retirement and Sir John Gielgud's boyhood exemplar, who acted with O'Neill, has said he had greatness in him. But he settled for becoming something of a histrionic pop-star.
Long Day's Journey is almost undiluted autobiography. Ironically, Eugene changed the family name to Tyrone, that of the principality ruled by Niall of the Nine Hostages, the first O'Neill. For himself the dramatist chose the name Edmund, given his stillborn brother.
Ills masterpiece is a pilgrimage of losing despair played out during a summer day in the family home.
Mrs. Tyrone (O'Neill) was "lace curtain Irish," a gentle girl who never was at home with players. Unhappy, she became a drug addict. When Edmund was born James hired "a cheap. quack" who gave her the
"medicine". It* was morphine. And in It she found permanent solace.
When the play opens Edmund is 23 and his mother has just been given an apparently successful "cure." But her brilliant younger son is threatened with tuberculosis and Jamie. the older son, is a lecherous, loquacious drunk. James, the celebrated actor, now 65, to his educated sons is a guilty, rather stupid peasant.
All through the day, losing each other, hating each other, with black vitriolic Irish passion, they talk. And warily they watch Mary, mother and wife, a middle-aged consent girl, as she veers guilelessly back to the easeful oblivion of "the medicine."
Good acting is common in our theatre. Great acting is more rare than rubies. It calls for a great part and an actor to match it. 1 could count on two hands the great performances I have seen in a career that goes back to my 14th birthday. Miss Ctinstance C'ummings has taken from me one of my four spare fingers.
She gives the character a pathetic glow. radiantly banal, like a luminous repository madonna. She is Ophelia, gently berserk, and a girl Peter Pan frozen in the counsel of "Mother Elizabeth ... I wanted to be a nun ... I prayed to the Blessed Virgin . . . Then in the spring . . . I fell in love with James O'Neill and was happy for a time. The player conquers the heart.
So it ends and the great actor watch that crouching Irish upper lipafter a marvellously detailed, sad, comic, tragic performance, huddles to the side or the stage to give the actress
her due, the high-light. Mr. Denis Quilley is the wastrel, recalling Auden's line on "the Irish charm that hides a cold will to do harm." Superb craftsmanship. As Edmund, Mr. Ronald Pickup, in a long duologue, beautifully conveys love and hate for a bemused father.
Quite a theatre has been made in the Waterloo Road.
W. J. Igoe