It's well known that playwright Eugene O'Neill didn't want Long Day's Journey Into Night to ever be produced. The semiautobiographical drama, which paints a tortured portrait of O'Neill's family life, was finished in 1941, sealed in his publisher's vault in 1945, and was only intended to be published 25 years after his death. O'Neill's widow, Carlotta Monterey, eventually ordered its publication in 1956, three years after he died, and it went on to make its Broadway debut and win the Pulitzer Prize shortly thereafter.
"It is very much a piece of work that was written not to be performed," Jeremy Irons, the Oscar- and Tony-winning actor, says. "Because O'Neill was dead when it was first performed, nothing was altered. That means you have to be quite athletic to find the route through."
Irons would know. He's currently playing James Tyrone, the tyrannical patriarch, in a new staging of the drama directed by Richard Eyre at Brooklyn Academy of Music. "It was very difficult to learn," Irons explains. "There are a lot of gaps to be filled in with Tyrone. Getting the measure of him was a mountain to climb, constantly searching for what made this very complicated man cohesive." But once one has got that, "it is wonderful to play."
With Olivier winner and recent Oscar nominee Lesley Manville playing opposite him as the morphine-addicted Mary, the production first took shape in England at the Bristol Old Vic, before transferring to the West End late last year. Though Irons had worked with Eyre in film, he remembers being blown away by Eyre and Manville's last collaboration, Ibsen's Ghosts at the Almeida Theatre in 2013.
"I sort of regretted that I wasn't involved with it," Irons says of Ghosts, which came to BAM in 2015. "It was a production that really attracted me, and Lesley was superb. So when, a year later, Richard got in touch and said he was doing Long Day's Journey with Lesley, I jumped at it."
The role of Tyrone, a once-promising classical actor who spent his entire career resting on his laurels by touring in the same role ad nauseam, was one that attracted Irons because of its difficulty. He saw Laurence Olivier do it at the National in the 1970s and that performance stayed in his mind. "I think Olivier is on record saying it's the hardest part he's ever played," Irons notes, and he, too, thinks it is among the most difficult in his canon. "But one of the most satisfying, I have to say."
It's been two years since they first started putting Long Day's Journey Into Night together, and that timeframe has been vital to what Irons believes is his success. "I was not entirely satisfied by what I did in Bristol," he says. "I hadn't captured him as I wanted. What makes Tyrone quite difficult is that it is not until Mary develops her mania and addiction that Tyrone can really begin to find out how to deal with it. I was quite slow in coming to what we have now, and I found it useful to let it marinate for almost two years before we did it in London."
The key to success, he believes, is playing James and Mary as though they have a deep affection for each other. "Like all married couples, they really struggle, and to really find the depth of the play, I think the important thing is that they have to love each other. That's one of the things that makes it moving for an audience."
Their London run, this past winter featured two new actors playing their sons (Matthew Beard and Rory Keenan joined the company as Edmund and James Tyrone Jr.), which not only "allowed new freshness," according to Irons, but it gave the company the opportunity to clarify and simplify their past work. In coming to New York "and getting used to a slightly different-shaped theater," and then heading to the Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills this June, the production keeps growing. "Certainly, Richard feels that every night it seems to have something more, which is good. If you want to keep a production alive, it has to keep living."
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