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Uplifting heartbreak

Recently, I went to see Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night at the Wyndham Theatre in London, starring Brian Cox of Succession fame. As you can imagine, tickets were hard to get hold of and loads of people had turned up to see this incredible actor perform in the flesh.

I went for a different reason.

Nearly two decades ago, an inky-fingered teenage literature student in a dusty library picked up a tattered copy of O'Neill's The Emperor Jones and leafed through its pages. It changed his life.

Like John Keats when he first looked upon Chapman's Homer, that teenager was transported to another world, the possibilities of the wide vista of English literature gaping open in front of his wondering eyes.

Yes, that teenager was me, and I went on to do my Masters dissertation on the plays of Eugene O'Neill, analysing the craft behind each of his 42 (!) plays. While O'Neill's plays are usually gut-wrenchingly sad and explore some of humanity's weakest, most cruel moments, they are also uplifting and cathartic. And his adoption of expressionism, a form of theatre where the external set of the play reflects the inner turmoil of the protagonist, really appealed to me as a student. It gives you plenty to write about in exams, at the very least.

So when I saw that Brian Cox was to play one of the leading roles in Long Day's Journey, O'Neill's last and arguably finest play, I jumped at the chance. Long Days' Journey is O'Neill's semi-autobiographical play about his troubled family. It lays bare his mother's battles with painkiller addiction, the self-destructive tendencies of his brother and his father's penny-pinching ways -- a legacy of the extreme poverty of his youth -- that robs their family of health and happiness. If they all hated each other, it would have been more bearable. But it is precisely because they all clearly love each other that the manner in which they hurt one another is so unbearable. So heartrending is the account that O'Neill stipulated it only be staged 25 years after his own death (which it duly was in 1952). Such is the privilege of the audience that goes to this production. We get to watch the play that O'Neill himself never did. And on this particular production by Jeremy Herrin -- they absolutely killed it.

Cox, with his stentorian voice and his incredible stage presence, overwhelmed the production in its initial stages, but as the play wore on, Laurie Kynaston as the character based on the playwright himself came into his own. As the play wore on, Patricia Clarkson as the "morphine fiend" mother stole the show with a heartrending performance.

I once thought O'Neill's plays were dated. But each time I watch a production -- as much to relive my student days as anything -- I feel he still has something to offer. There's something about the human condition that he seems to be able to articulate in a unique way. There were many people on my row who had come to see Brian Cox, and I think they were taken aback by the emotional heft of the play, but many of them said they were blown away by it. As long as it still has the power to move people, I think this fine playwright still deserves an airing.

As for me, when I got home, I sat down in front of my bookshelf, fished out the few plays that I have carried around with me for all these years, and began to read. The Iceman Cometh, The Emperor Jones, Desire Under the Elms, and, of course, Long Day's Journey Into Night.

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