Theater revivals of dramas, comedies and musicals offer a unique service by measuring the staying power of a given stage work and determining how useful its longevity can be. Shakespeare’s canon passed the test centuries ago. Others haven’t been so lucky.
America’s serious engagement with theater, and with drama in particular, is only about a century old, an infancy compared to the stagecraft of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, who served as a sort of tutor for Shakespeare in the late 16th century. Its turning point came with Eugene O’Neill, a playwright who was aware of what preceded him but looked instead to create an American style steeped in our history, our culture and our dreams.
When O’Neill wrote his Mourning Becomes Electra, he may have borrowed from Aeschylus’s The Oresteia, but he set his trilogy during the U.S. Civil War, filled it with modern psychology and unleashed his characters’ betrayals and torments in an American landscape of wealth and privilege that can neither defend nor protect them.
That play is about family, as are quite a few of O’Neill’s dramas. Some of his families are blood-related, others formed from a bond of circumstances, like the denizens of Harry Hope’s Saloon in The Iceman Cometh. O’Neill’s plays are defined by family, and American drama, from Arthur Miller to Edward Albee, Sam Shepard to August Wilson, followed suit.
But O’Neill is the only U.S. playwright to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is the rare writer whose third act in life produced several masterpieces, including the autobiographical Long’s Day’s Journey into Night in which the Tyrone family serves as a thinly veiled version of the O’Neills in 1912 on the eve of Eugene entering a sanatorium to be cured of tuberculosis. The play allowed O’Neill the opportunity to engage his deceased father, mother and brother in conversations, arguments, accusations and confessions for the last time.
The play earned a Pulitzer Prize, considerable accolades, a film adaptation and a plethora of revivals over the decades. Its final line of dialogue, spoken by Mary Tyrone, has been cited by many as the most poignant conclusion of an American drama: “I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.” It’s those last three words that make the line so devastating and that sum up the play, the characters and their fate as if it were a Greek tragedy.
But Greek tragedies don’t seem to be on the menu of the current New York revival of the play off-Broadway, which has reportedly chosen a different path in restaging O’Neill. A New York Times review, which liked the revival, refers to it as an “interpretation for a new age of disease and lockdown.”
“All it takes,” the newspaper explains, “to turn [a character’s] tuberculosis into Covid is the discreet suppression of the word ‘consumption…’” The O’Neill estate, we’re told, approved such changes, which also include cutting “about half the text, [and] reducing its running time from nearly four hours to slightly less than two…”
Heavily editing a play so that it can fit a production’s intention might be hinting that other options should be explored. Those involved may have been better served in choosing a play by, say, Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter in which the room is already a metaphoric haven/prison for characters forever wary of exits or entrances.
Interest in the latest version of Long’s Day’s Journey into Night may prove fleeting. Revivals with a timely slant usually have a very limited shelf life because they fit only the era in which they were revived. We’ll have to wait for the next one to see if history and context are restored. In the meantime, we can only hope the final line of the play survived the cuts in the latest production.