A few weeks ago, we had the option — at Vancouver Film School — to attend its playwrighting class. I think general electives are helpful for even those who don’t want to specialize in what they offer because having a general base is invaluable…
So I thought I should brush up on some of the classic plays history has to offer.
I moved backwards to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Before I started, I looked at its wikipedia page. I spend countless hours reading about the context and mythology behind a lot of art, and so due to the history surrounding this play and its author, I couldn’t help myself. I learned it was published posthumously, and that O’Neill wanted it read 20 years after his death, no sooner… But it was opened a mere two years after his death and it premiered the following year. So that’s a bummer for Eugene.
To be brief, the play centres around a dysfunctional family comprised of a wealthy, but cheap former actor (James Tyrone), a stay-at-home-wife who had bigger aspirations and was and is addicted to morphine (Mary Tyrone), an elder brother who’s got a temper and a drinking problem and learned all the wrong lessons from dad (Jamie Tyrone), and the younger brother, who learned all the wrong lessons from his brother, takes after his mom, and has recently come down with a disease more serious than he initially lets on (Edmund Tyrone).
A lot of emotion is wrought from the Tyrone family, as well as from the setting itself. They live in a coastal town and over the course of the one day this play details, a fog blankets the house. My interpretation of the fog is it symbolizes the way the drugs cloud Mary’s mind. It could also symbolize the family’s inability to really understand one another. It could just be fog.
Although these characters are fleshed out with well-defined arcs and very real, relatable problems, when I finished I felt I’d missed something, or at the very least that the impression it had left on me was not the seismic one it had left on the world when it premiered.
I decided to skip forward about 60-odd years and read another Pulitzer prize-winning play: Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles. It’s about a young man (Leo Joseph-Connell) in his early ’20s who, upon arriving in New York City at the end of a long (and ultimately tragic) cross-country bike trip, stays with his grandmother (Vera Joseph), someone he hasn’t seen for years and with whom he has a strained relationship. I immediately identified with this play much more than Long Day’s Journey Into Night for a variety of reasons: a major central character was closer to my age, he spoke like me, and it was realistic-to and reflected my time.
The fact that this didn’t happen with Long Day’s Journey Into Night is really too bad. I wish I identified with both. Language and what society deems important have changed drastically over the last half-century and because of that, a lot of what must have been compelling to audiences then is not compelling at all now. To be even clearer: the stage directions and the dialogue come off as a little trite, and exaggerated.
I don’t know to end this so I’ll just say —
In 60 years, the tiny moments, decisions, and sentences that struck me as I read 4000 Miles will leave its new readers feeling empty, out of touch, and unsatisfied, no matter how successful Herzog was in her reflection of the early 21st century — and there’s no way to fix that.
Even if you gain context from a wikipedia article.