It seems unlikely that anyone ever emerged from the performance of an O’Neill play saying happily, ‘Laugh! I nearly died.’ Robert M. Dowling’s fine biography helps to account for this: the life behind the writing of those plays was not conducive to a hilarious outcome. To have survived the life he lived would have been remarkable enough, let alone turning out some of the century’s most searing dramas.
For some, O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) remains one of the unforgettable theatrical experiences. Two moments remain indelibly fixed on my mind. One features sixty-three-year-old Laurence Olivier as James Tyrone in Michael Blakemore’s 1971 production. His Tyrone, always complaining of wasted electricity, is cautiously standing on a table to change a light bulb, then jumps off it backwards, capturing the former matinée idol’s bravado along with his age and parsimony. The other was of the great actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, in the 1958 London production, as drug-dimmed Mary Tyrone, who enters in the play’s last moments with her wedding dress over her arm, saying quietly: ‘Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.’