When Eugene O’Neill finished a draft of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 1941, he insisted the play never be performed and not be published until 25 years after his own death, so intimately autobiographical was its portrait of a dysfunctional Irish-American family. After he died in 1953, his widow cheerfully ignored his wishes, sent it to the printers, and it had its American premiere in 1956.
That first Broadway production was garlanded with a Tony award for best play, posthumously earning O’Neill his last Pulitzer Prize, and cemented the play’s reputation as a classic of 20th-century drama. It’s never been off the stage since – London’s last major production was in 2011, with David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf.
This Richard Eyre revival, starring Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville, started life at Bristol Old Vic  in 2016. It arrives belatedly in the West End with a few cast changes and a slightly longer running time, occupying Wyndham’s until early April.
But can Irons and Manville tease the tragedy out of this torturous masterpiece? Has ex-National helmsman Eyre fine-tuned his richly cast revival to perfection over its two-year hiatus? Does O’Neill’s magnum opus still pack a punch 62 years after its premiere?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Despair and denial
Long Day’s Journey is put on a pedestal next to Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire as a landmark of American literature, but does its depiction of a family rent asunder by alcoholism and addiction still hold sway over an audience in 2018?
That it does, for most critics, goes without saying. For Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★ ), it’s a work that “leaves you emotionally pulverised”, for Miriam Gillinson (Exeunt ) it’s “a sad, squeezing grip of a play”, and for Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★ ), it has “a naked emotional power that’s genuinely absorbing.”
“It ranks alongside Death of a Salesman as one of the 20th century’s defining dramas of American dreams and disappointments,” writes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★ ), “but whereas Miller accentuates the societal causes of human unhappiness, O’Neill forges a deeper, tragic sense of handed-on misery, an inescapable inheritance.”
“It’s a glacier of a play,” agrees Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★ ), “a monument of terrible force bearing down upon a tragic conclusion, but incredibly slow in its progress.”
“When Eugene O’Neill described Long Day’s Journey into Night as a “play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood”, he was not exaggerating,” remarks Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★ ). “After three and half hours of witnessing whisky-soaked recrimination and morphine-fuelled denial, you emerge drained but in that state of elation to which only true tragedy, confronted searchingly and honestly, can bring you.”
It’s not all despair and denial, though; there’s love here too. “The genius of the play, brought out with luminous wit and warmth in Richard Eyre’s production, is how so much fury is wrapped in so much fondness,” observes Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★★★ ).
“To that degree, the play is also a startlingly uplifting portrayal of human love, and despite its marathon length I doubt many can leave the battleground of experiencing it with only despair and impatience in their heart,” writes Ismene Brown (The Arts Desk, ★★★★ ).
Long Day’s Journey Into Night – A triumphant transfer
Eyre’s production was received well at its premiere in Bristol in 2016, but there were a few murmurings that it was underpowered and over-paced. Are the critics kinder to its London transfer?
Billington, who reckons the Bristol version was “raw and rushed”, certainly is. “It has added a quarter of an hour to the running time and acquired a rhythm that allows us to feel that we are living, like the Tyrone family, through a day and a night of alternating hope and despair,” he writes.
His praise for direction is matched all round, Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage,★★★★★ ) admiring how Eyre “finds a freshness and directness that touches the heart” and Matt Wolf (New York Times ) lauding how he hits “every note one could wish for on a spectrum encompassing dissolution and devotion, affection and an abiding frustration that has curdled into something resembling rage.”
It’s a revival that’s “beautifully judged” and “inexpressibly sad” according to Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★ ), “painfully intense” according to Alice Saville (Time Out, ★★★★ ), and “shatteringly good” according to Taylor.
“The production is wonderfully alert to the way the characters swing on an axis between love and hate, protectiveness and attack, desire for change and ingrained habit,” he continues. “So there’s at once a pulse of tragic inexorability and a (sometimes blackly comic) moment-by-moment precariousness.”
“They loathe each other, they love each other, then it’s dinnertime,” concludes Maxwell. “It’s a long night, but an electrifying one.”
There’s plenty of thumbs-up for Rob Howell’s semi-transparent set, too. According to Crompton, it “wonderfully creates a real sense of the Tyrone’s tatty summer home and yet also suggests the way that the sea and the fog that surround them as light turns to is a metaphysical as well as a physical state.”
Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Mr and Mrs Tyrone
There’s a few star-studded casts in London right now, but here’s one to match all of them. Jeremy Irons, making his first West End appearance in a decade, and Lesley Manville, recently Oscar-nominated for her role opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, top the bill as James and Mary Tyrone.
The critics are largely positive about Irons – he’s “much more secure in the role than he was in Bristol” according to Billington and “wonderfully mercurial” according to Saville – but there are reservations about his performance too.
“In merciful contrast to the Bristol Old Vic run in 2016, Irons now displays a sure grip on his Lear-like quota of lines,” writes Cavendish. “Plausible as he is, Irons gives the impression of a forlorn, sniping, refined man about the house rather than a prowling, growling survivor of too many nights on the road.”
There’s no disagreement about Manville’s Mary, though. She is magnificent by all accounts – “scorchingly brilliant” for Taylor, “utterly devastating” for Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★★ ), and “monstrously emotive” for Will Longman (LondonTheatre, ★★★★ ).
“She fills the theatre with an anger and a fragility so tangible that it’s almost too much to bear,” reports Maxwell. “It is startlingly strong, utterly uninhibited, finally devastating acting.”
“She’s all jitters and forced smiles that fade in an instant, and when she’s on stage she barely stops for breath as if afraid that silence will force her to confront her addiction,” writes Bano. “There’s something about her performance that’s like watching your own mother disintegrate into the parts of her sum.”
“There is no one as good as Manville at suggesting abiding sorrow,” agrees Crompton. “Even when she tries to be bright, there is disgust and self-loathing in her eyes. This is a performance of detailed genius and for all the excellence surrounding her, she makes it her play.”
“By the close, when Manville sits like a wraith among the men who are forced almost against their will to watch her drift away from them, it has found an emotional truth that is utterly devastating.”
Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Is it any good?
Richard Eyre’s revival has certainly improved since it’s Bristol run, arriving in London a monumentally moving work that has knocked the emotional stuffing out of the critics. O’Neill’s play is as powerful as ever, Eyre’s direction is intelligent and intricate, and, if there are a few question marks over Jeremy Irons’ performance, there are none at all over Lesley Manville’s. Four-star write-ups for the production, but hers is a five-star turn.