Eugene O’Neill (YGtCTO Words #85)

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Play written by Eugene O’Neill

In high school, they really wanted to cover as much literature as possible, so the textbooks tended toward anthologies. The pages were thin and the print was small, but they sure could cram a lot of stuff between those covers. No doubt following directives from above, the teacher marched through the requisite poems and stories and gobbledygook. Plays featured because, well, Shakespeare.

Yet, each teacher seemed to have these outliers that they assigned. These were actual stand-alone books that sat on your desk and stared back at you, feeling important. I must have stared at that cover of Long Day’s Journey Into Night for weeks. I can’t claim to entirely understand it, but that guy on the cover looked kind of cool to me- the professor who knows a lot and expects a lot and has kind of had it up to here with everything, but might just manage to keep it together one more year just for your benefit.

Eugene O'Neill

As opposed to a few other assignments, I broke down and read the contents. I should say that I devoured the words inside. I was devastated.

There is a weird moment
when we consume art and we suddenly realize that we are in the presence of greatness. It is a type of transcendence. In many ways, it may simply be the recognition that this experience will not happen again. Absolutely, we may be blessed to have a similar experience with something else, but this moment with this object will not come again. Ever afterwards, interaction with that piece of art will be in the shadow of the first exposure. You may develop a deeper understanding and a richer appreciation, but the initial impression is when the imprint is made and we decide to carry the memory with us forever.

You don’t study American theater in college without reading a lot of Eugene O’Neill. The breadth of his writing is staggering. O’Neill accomplished what Shakespeare did, in my opinion. Something in his work is open to just enough interpretation that the plays feel universal in the hands of current creative artists. He attacked subjects with such imagination and emotion and intelligence that this final play of his comes across almost as an afterthought to his output. I recently re-read his sea plays and a new collection of critical essays. Then I watched Reds again. You might not recall that significant parts of the film take place in Provincetown and feature Jack Nicholson as O’Neill.

When I first saw the film so long ago, I was still under the influence of that book cover. The portrayal of the man bothered me, probably because he lost out in the love triangle, but maybe because he seemed somehow… unimportant. Of course, the movie wasn’t about him. This time around, I rather appreciated the presentation. O’Neill feels like the one with his feet planted on the ground.

What’s it all about?

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 46 more to go.

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