Long Day's Journey Into Night presents a big problem. Big, because the play is long--four acts and four hours long. A problem, because as the posthumous work of Eugene O'Neill, the acknowledged "Great American Playwright," it merits serious consideration as a major dramatic event almost irrespective of what is faults as an individual work of art may be.
And certainly Journey abounds with little faults. For one thing, the element of dramatic construction is almost completely lacking. When O'Neill wants to get a character off stage for any reason, the character just leaves, with nothing said about why he should. For another, the language is often pedestrian, particularly in those places when it is meant to soar as poetry. Yet these shortcomings pale nearly into insignificance in the light of the playwright's grand intention, which is at once to write a genuine tragedy and also to explain how his tragic view of life grew out of the problems of his own tortured family.
But I still cannot help feeling that there is something wrong with this play, and that, despite the grandeur of its conception, it never quite succeeds. At the end of the four hours, none of the pity and horror that a tragedy can project, actually develops, and I felt only a profound exhaustion. The people on the stage simply did not appear to matter very much at any time during the evening, even though the four members of the O'Neill family, thinly disguised under the name of Tyrone, are a fairly interesting lot. The head of the family, an aging and miserly actor, has sacrificed all his promise as an artist by playing only one role for many years, simply because it was lucrative. His wife is a dope addict, his elder son a drunken and brutal philanderer, and his second son, a tubercular writer who has as yet shown little promise, only a sense of despair.
The play has little action; it merely follows the four through one day in their lives and, in a series of conversations, lets then reveal to each other and to the audience just how wretched and hopeless they are. But as they continually scratch each other raw then draw back to apologize, the main thing that becomes clear is that none of them is really responsible for his actions. The father's miserliness is the result of an incredibly impoverished childhood, the mother's dope addiction is due to the stupidity of a quack doctor, and the sons' faults are blamed on the fact that neither, with such parents, ever had anything resembling a home. Thus, although they blame each other and themselves at great length, their misfortunes, including the tuberculosis of the second son, have all been imposed from without. While it may be a pathetic spectacle to watch a group of people suffering in a situation which seems intent on squashing them, I can not consider it as tragic. It seems to me that a tragic hero achieves nobility precisely from the fact that he is in part responsible for his actions, no matter how small the element of responsibility may be.
And so, as the Tyrones pursue each other around their little circle of despair, the play fails to call up any much stronger feeling than exhaustion. Certainly the actors are not at fault. Frederic March and Florence Eldridge, as the parents, work at the very limits of their great abilities, and the performances of Jason Robards Jr. and Bradford Dillman seem scarcely less impressive. The failure here must be laid to the playwright, whose talent, great as it was, just did not match his even greater ambitions.