Theatre

Why do critics claim to adore the waffle-fest that is Long Day’s Journey into Night?

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

It’s considered the great masterpiece of 20th-century American drama. Oh, come off it. Long Day’s Journey into Night is a waffle-festival that descends into a torture session. Who would choose to spend time with the Tyrone family? Dad is a skinflint millionaire. Mum is a wittering smack addict. They’ve produced two layabout sons. One is a dipsomaniac with a moustache; the other has TB and a cough. These doomed narcissists chase each other around the family mansion in a spiral of vicious, self-regarding gossip. It’s like being trapped in a broken cable-car with four prattling drunks who hate each other. And I’m not convinced they drink that much. A bottle and a half of whisky, or a little over, is consumed in the course of a day. Which translates into seven glasses of wine between four adults. That’s not addiction. That’s a boozy afternoon.

Each of the Tyrones has just two modes of expression: boasting about themselves or carping about the other Tyrones. At least I gleaned one insight from these hyperactive gasbags: the definition of a bore is someone who values his past more than your present. That’s not a line from the play, just a random observation from your yawn-stifler in the stalls.

The central role of James, the patriarch, is attempted by Jeremy Irons who unfortunately can’t do accents. ‘Constitution’ begins in New England and ends in the Home Counties. He finds the ‘r’ in ‘Mary’ and in ‘deliberately’, but not in ‘more’ or ‘Ireland’. He gives the wrong vowel width to ‘was’, ‘that’, ‘on’ and ‘month.’ He doesn’t even try to Americanise ‘thought’ but swipes at it hard, rhyming it with ‘sport’, and ending on an explosive ‘t’, heavily aspirated. He sounds like the Duke of Edinburgh doing a bad impersonation of Wallis Simpson. On stage he’s fussy, twitchy and unsettled. He wears the tatty suit of a classics master but he looks more like Hitler on hunger strike. He has the gaunt arrogant face, the long flick of side-parted hair, the matchbox-sized moustache. His wife (Lesley Manville) looks like Meryl Streep covered in icing sugar.


Rob Howell’s set wants to win the Turner Prize. At the rear, he creates a huge foreshortened funnel of parallelograms made of plastic, stained dark blue. This geometric hallucination clashes horribly with the brown period furniture. Howell clearly regards himself as an artist in his own right and he publishes a manifesto in the programme notes advising designers to ignore playwrights’ stage directions. That’s silly. A designer who feels duty-bound to disregard his chief collaborator can only produce bad art. And here it is.

So why do critics adore, or claim to adore, this tosh? Because of the acting profession. The script contains dozens of highly charged speeches involving rapid shifts of emotion that allow thesps to show their range. It’s very popular with students auditioning for drama school. But the play lasts nearly four hours and these jittery screeds become tiresomely predictable. A character starts in equilibrium, rises to near-hysterics, blurts out a nasty secret, is seized with remorse, tries to make amends with timid charm and sentimental jokes, and then returns to equilibrium. After a short pause, another character steps in and repeats the cycle. The writing is almost mechanical.

Gundog is set in the heart of nowhere. There’s no storyline, just a lot of malicious banter exchanged between dim bumpkins. ‘U fick or what?’ ‘Kinda shitty whenya finka bout it.’ The actors mutter or scream their lines while standing ankle-deep in a mud-slide. Little happens. Lambs are born. Farmer So-and-So kills himself. A soulful migrant shows up and is tortured by racist countryfolk, twice. Two white sisters interrogate him at gunpoint. Later, a white boy aims a rifle at his skull while yelling. The soulful migrant is full of forgiveness and humanity and he teaches the racists, in his Romanian accent, to appreciate the loveliness and serenity of nature. ‘Piss is steelness,’ he instructs them.

On press night a plucky Royal Court usher tried to generate some atmosphere by emitting solo gusts of laughter — wha-ha-ha-ha — at unfunny lines. One spectator broke cover and escaped, after a mere 85 minutes, followed by envious glances from the prison-yard. I pity the poor actors stranded in a first draft of a script that wouldn’t even work on radio. And the playwright deserves sympathy for being betrayed by the Royal Court. A dramatist is a small businessman (unlike the Court staff, who are salaried functionaries of the state) and he needs to learn to value his customers, not treat them with contempt. If they feel swindled or dispirited after sampling his wares, they’ll spread the bad news. He’ll go bust. The Court, of course, will continue unaffected. This show is an immensely eloquent advert for the abolition of state involvement in art.

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