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‘A play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood’


With Long Day’s Journey into Night, Zuidpool has adapted one of the most legendary plays in the Western theatre canon. Journalist Jan Dertaelen spoke with the makers Koen van Kaam and Jorgen Cassier.

Eugene O’Neill didn’t mince words, calling Long Day’s Journey into Night ‘a play of old grief, written in tears and blood’. Reading this autobiographical masterpiece from the closing years of the Nobel Prize winner’s career is like watching O’Neill look into his own soul. O’Neill had retired from writing for some time already, but for this play he picked up his pen again.

Jorgen Cassier: ‘O’Neill had indeed given up writing for some time when he started working on this play. I find that quite fascinating, artists who keep going after they’ve already retired from their craft, who have the strength to launch themselves yet again into their art, with often unprecedented results. This play was actually destined for the vault. O’Neill had stipulated that it was not to be made public until twenty-five years after his death. He wrote it towards the end of his life and only for himself.’

Koen van Kaam: ‘He had a very problematic relationship with his own children and loved ones and he wanted to explore what was behind that. To do so, he had to go back to the family in which he himself had grown up. In this play, he stages the Tyrone family, which is clearly modelled on his own family: the embittered father who was once a promising actor, the solitary mother with her morphine addiction, the cynical brother who couldn’t be got off the booze. His parents and brother had long since passed away, but in this text he tried to bring their spirits back to life. He wanted to confront his demons and find out where it had all gone wrong.’

‘The writing process was a hellish ordeal. He worked on this text for two years and during that time he was unmanageable. There were nights when he would come out of his writing room crying after writing another half-page. His wife then had to calm him down and often the only way to do that was to make him drink. I can understand why he thought afterwards that it had to be put in the vault. But his wife had it published two years after his death, because she didn’t want O’Neill to sink into oblivion.’

Growing up in that dysfunctional family left a trauma in him that he was never able to process. Is it fair to say that he perpetuated that family dynamic when he had children of his own?

Jorgen: ‘He was very much like his own father: aloof, mostly absent, barely approachable. With the difference that his father still invited his children to the summer house, while Eugene didn’t even want to see his children anymore. That’s another reason why he wanted this text to be placed in the vault: it’s quite presumptuous towards your own children to wail about your own miserable childhood when you know very well that you in turn gave them a terrible childhood too.’

In which character can we recognize O’Neill himself?

Jorgen: ‘He identified mainly with Edmund, the youngest son. “I must always be a little in love with death”, he says at some point, and that could have come right out of O’Neill’s mouth. At bottom, Edmund wants nothing more than to disappear, to dissolve in the fog.’

Koen: ‘Edmund’s life story reads like O’Neill’s own biography. By age 18, O’Neill had fled the parental home, looking for a place where he could come home. On his travels at sea and through South America, he tumbled into depression and started drinking so heavily that it nearly killed him. After a failed suicide attempt and a tuberculosis infection, his parents had him admitted to a sanatorium. It was only then that he began to take writing seriously. In the play, Edmund has just been told he has TB. So it is set in that difficult period before his career begins.’

Jorgen: ‘When Edmund talks about being a writer, he says, “I just stammered”. In that, too, you can hear O’Neill’s own voice echoing. I don’t think he regarded his writing very highly. He embraced his work, of course, and he attached importance to it, but I don’t think he considered it on a par with world literature. On the contrary, I think he always found that his writing was just ordinary.’

Koen: ‘And of course that was also his goal: he wanted to bring theatre closer to reality, to write down what he saw happening around him, how people talk, how they behave. His pride lay mainly in the fact that he was the first to draw the American story into the theatre. With plays like The Hairy Ape, O’Neill kicked off American theatre history in the 1920s. Before that, it was rather British.’

The play reads like an emotional ride through hell: the dialogue is unforgiving, full of reproach and bitterness, but at the same time the characters do what they can to express their affection, tenderness and compassion.

Koen: ‘It’s not easy to deal with that on stage. We found that you shouldn’t highlight that connection but do just the opposite: the more loveless the characters are with each other on stage, the more you begin to feel the affection. If the actors start looking for love in their performance, they just end up at a dead end.’

Jorgen: ‘The greater the frustration of one character towards the other, the stranger it is that they still sit together and continue talking.’

Because they know they’re condemned to each other? That an even greater loneliness awaits them out there in the world?

Koen: ‘Those are questions you only ask yourself the moment you no longer understand why they all keep sitting there together. Indeed, these people are, to put it mildly, not quite fit to function in the outside world. They know each other inside out. They know what they no longer have to expect from each other and yet they stay there, in the construct they made themselves.’

Jorgen: ‘Of all the stories the characters tell, I only believe very few of them. There might be an element of truth somewhere, but otherwise these stories just contribute to the image they want to create of themselves. The others are well aware of this, but instead of shattering those stories, they confirm them. That’s a sign of affection, realizing that someone can’t go on without their own illusions and therefore allowing them to do so. Even though the dialogue sometimes seems harsh, there’s also mildness towards each other’s dreams and illusions. When, at the end, the father acknowledges in his drunken stupor that he is a horrible miser, it doesn’t come as a sudden insight. Everyone has heard him say this umpteen times, and they let it happen.’

Koen: ‘O’Neill had a keen eye for the illusions people surround themselves with, the way they construct their identity and the world around them. Thanks to those constructs, order seems to emerge from chaos, but at the same time they keep you from seeing the world as it really is. He always fiercely opposed the fact that these illusions are assumed to be true. O’Neill only saw constructs, he sensed them in everyone. He wanted to shatter those constructs and expose their artificiality.’

‘It’s only in his last works that he reached the conclusion that everything is indeed a construct but that people can’t live without these constructs. And therefore that there’s no point in denying them to people. This is an insight you don’t find in his earlier work. You notice it in the way he writes about his parents and brother in Long Day’s Journey into Night: he explores how these people have become fused with the illusions and identity constructs they created themselves. His short preface states that he wrote this play “with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones”. So he found pity and understanding, and ultimately granted people their illusions.’

You do get the feeling that the characters are trapped in their identity constructs. They seem completely stuck in them. Is there any kind of evolution in the play after all? Are they going through a change?

Jorgen: ‘The main evolution is the extent to which they give in to their addiction – from an aperitif to a nightly binge, and from a very small amount of morphine to a near overdose. The terror of addiction is a major theme in the play. How addiction gets in the way of your humanity. How it can drive you so far that you even turn against your own family in order to feed your addiction.’

Koen: ‘O’Neill presents us with characters who find themselves in a state of motionlessness, as it were, a situation where no movement is possible. Like a still from a film, an image that has been stopped. He had a troubled relationship with his parents, and that relationship hardly changed until their deaths. When he won the Pulitzer Prize, his father did finally recognize his talent as a writer, but shortly afterwards both his parents died. So basically, nothing changed. The situation he describes here is the one in which the relationship with his own family stopped.’

Jorgen: ‘So there is not much catharsis in that. In the US, this play is considered the quintessential American tragedy, but we disagree. The characters are tragic, but it is certainly not a classic tragedy. For that you need a hero, someone who has reached a respectable height and who can fall low. You don’t find that kind of character here.’

Koen: ‘The only tragic element is that of fate. You see people make an effort to avoid their fate and yet walk straight into it. But there is no catharsis in what O’Neill has written here. For him, the catharsis was purely in the act of writing.’

Language always plays an important role in your work. How do you engage with that in this performance?

Koen: ‘Each character uses a different language. Three of the four actors speak in their mother tongue, i.e. Dutch, French and Levantine Arabic. Edmund is played by a Fleming (Tijmen Govaerts) who we asked to perform in English.’

Jorgen: ‘We were looking for a theatrical form to add to this material. Having each character speak in a different language spontaneously creates a sense of isolation. As a spectator, you understand much more quickly that these people are disconnected entities. They are all on their own island, and they are alone there. Language guides your thinking and shapes your identity. Because they each speak in a different language, you see how they talk past each other and how problematic communication between these people actually is.’

‘People who speak in their own language also bring with them their own theatre tradition. And there are big differences between them, with interesting clashes as a result. This also reinforces the idea that all the characters are stuck in their own artificial constructs.’

Koen: ‘We made a rather far-reaching adaptation of the original text. Precisely because of that multilingualism, but also to avoid any kind of long-windedness and to reduce the language to its absolute essence. These people share the same blood, the same bone marrow. Not everything has to be said aloud. To a large extent, it’s precisely about what’s not being said. About the state they’re in. About that which lurks beneath and between their words: the disappointment in themselves and in others, the reproaches and accusations, the jealousy and regret, the doubt and self-hatred, the affection and love. O’Neill managed to write a play like an echo chamber in which all these conflicting emotions collide and resonate.’

[translated from Dutch by Patrick Lennon]