When O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" was first done, in 1954, the Tyrone family, which consists of three alcoholics and a morphine addict, seemed odd. Now they're almost a quintessential American family.
The two sons, after all, are dropouts, disappointments to their father's dreams of upward mobility. He was a penniless Irish immigrant who became a matinee idol, then abandoned his own ideals, settling for commercial success. It's like a parable of America, bewildered by its legacy of wealth and idealism, narcotizing itself against the goadings of remembrance and responsibility.
At heart it is about people who lie to themselves and turn to alcohol and drugs when they can no longer believe their lies. Perhaps because he is anatomizing a family rather than trying to modernize myth, it is the one play in which O'Neill's language fulfills its ambitions.
Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, who have helped several generations of Americans understand O'Neill, give this play an astonishing immediacy and humor. They draw you into the Tyrones' tragedy as soon as they make their entrance, full of hope and high spirits. Our knowledge of what is to come gives the moment poignancy.
Robards, who made the father a brooder 12 years ago, now shows us his theatricality, even in the flourish with which he turns on a light. In his craggy face and body, there is also the lingering Irish peasant at the heart of Tyrone's grasping behavior.
Dewhurst, whose voice and eyes seem drenched in sorrow, makes Mary Tyrone's struggle to maintain control of herself wrenching. In her final entrance, she has retreated hopelessly to the past, a sign she can no longer fight, a choice that somewhat defuses the overal impact.
(In the final moment, the stage is so bright you would swear the actors' agents had set the lights to make sure no client's face would be in shadow, weakening even the fine idea of having Robards hold the lost wedding gown as if it were their lost child.)
Campbell Scott, who is emerging as an important young actor, handles his scenes with Robards with great power and will doubtless grow into the poetic sea speeches. Jamey Sheridan has the needed charm and strength as his brother. Jane Macfie is funny as the maid.
Strikingly mounted, the play moves naturally and effortlessly under Jose Quintero's wise direction. A work that can seem labored and elephantine here soars and dips, like a lark wounded but unable to stop singing.
The emtional static of a lost/found 1912 conversation crackles across the cavernous morning sunshine of a shabby New England living room.
People shudder in remembered pain, and we are off on that savage adventure of the soul at midnight - Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night."
But come, let us first praise famous men - O'Neill, and then Jose Quintero and Jason Robards, for the two of them are come together in praise of the first, and stars burst untidily but gorgeously in a muddy sky.
It is a twist of fashion for the reputations of even the most distinguished artists to languish somewhat initially after their deaths - but such posthumous neglect has never affected Eugene O'Neill.
Since his death in 1953, O'Neill's fame has flourished, and now in this year, which marks the centenary of his birth, it has never stood higher.
Earlier this year in New Haven, the Yale Repertory Company presented in repertory O'Neill's two great family plays, the comedy "Ah, Wilderness," representing that idealized, Norman Rockwell-like family O'Neill would like to have had, and that black-shadowed "Long Day's Journey into Night," which is his thinly disguised picture of the family he had in bleak reality.
The company, led by two of the world's most distinguished exponents of O'Neill, Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, under the direction of Quintero for "Long Day's Journey" and Arvin Brown for "Wilderness," has now come to New York for a season, which officially opened last night with this splendidly authoritative and richly evocative "Long Day's Journey."
It had all the resonances of the past combined with the promises of the future. Here is American classic theater at its greatest, and dealing with an indisputable American classic.
It was, as Ken Tynan perceptively noted many years ago, the critic Stark Young who first caught the peculiar power of O'Neill by pointing out that "what moved us was the cost to the dramatist of what he handled."
Tynan also quoted Young on a later play, about which Young wrote: "Even when we are not touched by the feeling itself or the idea presented, we are stabbed to our depths by the importance of the feeling to him, and we are all his, not because of what he says but because saying it meant so much to him."
That was Young on "Dynamo" in 1929, and although the O'Neill of "Long Day's Journey" was a far more assured playwright, here producing one of his three final masterpieces, that feeling of personal cost, of art being rough-hewn out of the sandstone of a hard-fought life, remains the play's final potency.
This is the third time, counting the play's premiere production, that I have seen Quintero tackle this play - his earlier James Tyrones were Fredric March and (in London) Anthony Quayle. And on each occasion, he seems to have refined the acting, made the play sparser, colder yet more passionate, and heightened its darkening shadows.
He now perfectly judges not just the play's momentum, but its moment, that time in the space of feeling of which O'Neill says - echoing, perhaps unconsciously, Eliot - "the past is the present, it is the future too."
And he can skate over, so nimbly, those loosely flapping wedges of narrative exposition where O'Neill tells us the story of his tortured young manhood, and can concentrate on the spirit of O'Neill's ghosts.
Quintero also now has the sensibility, and perhaps courage, to seize the humor in the text, and stress the bitter funniness of a play a little nearer "Ah, Wilderness!" than people once thought.
The staging has the atmosphere of a genre painting - there is Ben Edwards' setting, a cheerless, barn-like room, parsimoniously under-furnished for a year-long summer, with windows opening on an unwelcoming outside porch beyond which can be seen the mists of a New England sea.
Then there are Jane Greenwood's immaculately observed and prissy costumes, the evolving lighting by Jennifer Tipton carefully tracing the seismograph readings of the play, and even the sound, those threatening fog-horns, provided by Alan Steib.
And into this setting for frozen disaster steps the acting - wavering like life, shaking like O'Neill, struggling to the misty statement of a playwright's personal truth.
Robards - who at the premiere years ago played the elder son - needed to be great and is. The bum of a son with the map of O'Neill on his face has grown up to the cantankerous, eroded nobility of the elder James Tyrone, hack actor, miser and victim.
With his long skull-face, his chiding voice, his awful unease and black Irish bog-misery, Robards insinuatingly dominates the play.
His sheer rightness, the man's very claims to the role, force you to forget that whole litany of actors, March, Quayle, Richardson, Ryan, even Lemmon, even Olivier, as his whole performance insists "I am O'Neill's James Tyrone."
Dewhurst also dominates, but by presence rather than character. Her Mary Tyrone lacks the lost fragility of the play's last line meant to open memory to compassion: "I fell in love with James Tyrone, and was so happy...for a time..." Yet her patrician good looks, that self-deprecating imp-grin, even her way of biting her under-lip with regret, suggests Mary's dope-fiend grandeur and denials to perfection.
Moreover, the curt monotony of her voice, rising and falling very slightly in rhythmic pulse, strikes the right antiphonal note to Robards' sonorous tones of histrionic fustian, and the naturalistic outbreaks of the sons.
And the sons themselves are fine, Jamey Sheridan, bluff, angry, mean and thwarted as the elder son; Campbell Scott, magnificently evasive, his face turned away in pain, like a wounded sea-bird, as O'Neill's sensitive portrait of the man as a young artist, catch the mood of the play on its broken wing. And a word also for Jane Macfie's bouncily probable maid-servant.
Taken warts and all - which included at the final preview sometimes strangely muffled voice projection - this is O'Neill as O'Neill should be. Who could wish more for a man's centennial!
When people see a ghost, they are anticipating death, and that is unmistakably what Jason Robards feels as the thick fog of despair rolls into the Tyrone household for keeps in Eugene O'Neill's ''Long Day's Journey Into Night.''
Mr. Robards, in the role of the family patriarch, James, is sharing midnight whisky, recriminations and confessions with his son Edmund when he hears the dreaded sound of his wife, Mary, thrashing about offstage in a morphine stupor. James had hoped against hope that Mary would be well again. In the moment, he must recognize that the hope, like the young convent girl he married so long ago, has vanished - and that Mary is, as Edmund has warned, ''nothing but a ghost haunting the past.'' Once the recognition arrives, Mr. Robards's eyes seem to retreat into their sockets, the wind seems to leave his body, his physique seems to shrivel within his regal but frayed smoking jacket. We don't yet see the ghost he sees - the final spectral visit of his wife is still minutes away - but such is the apparitional reach of Colleen Dewhurst's Mary and the horror in Mr. Robards's expression that we experience the alarming, involuntary shudder of a glimpse into the grave.
Mary Tyrone is not the only ghost to be seen in ''Long Day's Journey,'' as revived in repertory with ''Ah, Wilderness!'' as part of the First New York International Festival of the Arts. O'Neill's autobiographical play gives us a quartet of haunted Tyrones - each character haunted by O'Neill's own family, which was itself haunted by failed promises and blasted dreams and all the rest of what Mary calls ''the things that life has done to us.'' The production at the Neil Simon Theater is shadowed by theater history as well. Mr. Robards and the director, Jose Quintero, restored O'Neill's reputation three decades ago with their legendary Circle in the Square revival of ''The Iceman Cometh.'' Their partnership continued with the triumphant 1956 American premiere of ''Long Day's Journey,'' then crested again, with the luminous addition of Miss Dewhurst, in the 1973 Broadway restoration of ''A Moon for the Misbegotten.''
Given the rare constellation of talent - and the further astrological constellation of the O'Neill centenary - one almost inevitably arrives at this ''Long Day's Journey'' expecting to find salvation in the guise of what is nearly everyone's first or second favorite American play. The rewarding, if imperfect, production actually at hand is best approached with more rational expectations. Like other renditions of this work, Mr. Quintero's staging illuminates one parent-child axis - Mary and Edmund - more brilliantly than the other. But the evening is never less than essential theatergoing. One cannot assume that there will be another chance to watch these three great theater artists explore the writer who has been their consuming passion for virtually their entire professional careers.
A somewhat subdued first act aside, an exploration is what this ''Journey'' proves to be. As life does more things to all of us, O'Neill's play takes on new colorations and meanings with repeated encounters; it's unlikely that Mr. Quintero has the same view of the text now that he did over 30 seasons ago. The current version has the bare-bones simplicity and sepulchral darkness of the director's 1985 ''Iceman Cometh'' - as befits the abstract, dreamlike, classically unified quality of the nominally realistic late O'Neill masterworks. The production's acting revelation is Miss Dewhurst's extraordinary, almost shockingly unsentimentalized Mary. One sees just how little the author forgave his mother and understands just what Kenneth Tynan meant when he said that Mary, while ''on the surface a pathetic victim,'' was ''at heart an emotional vampire.''
Miss Dewhurst has a rending tragic dimension, to be sure. When she is left alone in her shabby summer home to contemplate her loneliness, the panic and longing on her pained face seem so lacking in focus that we see the internal chaos that drives her to drugs. Yet this Mary, for all her ethereal beauty and maternal silver hair, is no Dewhurst earth mother - she's a killer, forever twisting the knife in old familial wounds. The actress makes us constantly aware of how Mary repeatedly plays one son against the other and follows her strangled pleas for help with manipulative denials that she needs any help at all. Her declarations of love come with a nasty sting (''I know you didn't mean to humiliate me,'' she tells James by way of thanks for her second-hand car) or with a cruel infliction of guilt (''I never knew what rheumatism was until after you were born,'' she tells Edmund so he can take the blame for her addiction to the painkiller).
Campbell Scott, the impressive Edmund, is her born victim. With his pasty face, jet-black hair and long, delicate fingers, the soft-spoken Mr. Scott is the image of the Irish-American artist as a consumptive young man, absorbing each shock into his burdened soul until he just can't take it anymore. His belated, angry lashings out at his mother, brother and father drive the final act. It is when Mr. Scott rises over his seated father, berating him for the miserliness that will send the son to a state sanitarium, that Mr. Robards's eyes and phlegmy voice take their final plunge into his lifetime's reservoir of shame.
Explaining the sources of that shame - the bitter childhood poverty at the hands of ''the Yanks,'' the sacrifice of his Shakespearean acting ambitions to ''money success'' - Mr. Robards, as always, gives resonant, ruefully comic voice to every barroom pipe dreamer in the O'Neill canon. Before the illusion-stripping final act, however, the actor, like the unreconstructed matinee idol he plays, relies a bit too easily on his trademark vocal and facial gestures; the performance wants for shading. As Jamie, the profligate son Mr. Robards created in 1956, the talented Jamey Sheridan lacks his theatrical father's air of Broadway dissipation. Mr. Sheridan is still the earnest, self-righteous Arthur Miller son he was in the last revival of ''All My Sons'' - an injured straight arrow taking to drink rather than a sneering cynic greasing his own skids into hell.
Such a Jamie can't quite provide the histrionic bridge to Mary's final mad scene, but Miss Dewhurst, her skin now as parchment-pale as the old wedding dress she clutches, completes the journey into night nonetheless. We see what Edmund meant when he talked about being ''a ghost within a ghost'': Breaking through Miss Dewhurst's drug-ravaged face is the skeletal image of the demure, innocent girl she once was. ''The past is the present - it's the future, too,'' is how Mary earlier explains the affliction of living every day with the painful awareness of who one is. While death can disperse the ghosts of the Tyrones, their agony, accessible to any family, will eternally claw at us from the play O'Neill wrote in tears and blood.