In response to the opioid addiction sweeping the nation, a first-generation-American playwright writes a searing, emotional story about how the epidemic personally has affected his family. The writer was Eugene O’Neill and his largely autobiographical masterwork, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, was written in 1912.
The Pulitzer-Prize winning drama is playing at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, Calif. through July 1, after debuting at London’s West End and then a run on Broadway in New York.
Director Richard Eyre’s acclaimed Bristol Old Vic production stars an all British cast headed by Oscar winner Jeremy Irons (Brideshead Revisited, Reversal of Fortune) and Oscar nominee Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread), who play James and Mary, the patriarch and matriarch of the troubled Tyrone family.
Matthew Beard (The imitation Game, Netflix’s Kiss Me First) plays Edmund, the youngest son, while Rory Keenan (BBC’s War and Peace, Benedict Arnold) is the first born and Edmund’s older brother, James, Jr.
If the premise of Long Day’s Journey with its leitmotif of drug addiction seems eerily cotemporary, you don’t know the half of it until experiencing the play itself. Even though the dialogue was written over a century ago, the language is thoroughly modern American vernacular and the family dynamics at the root of the story amazingly timeless. Put these characters in togas, spacesuits or jeans and T-shirts and the authenticity of their dialogue would still ring true.
O’Neill was a master of observation and how to translate everyday conversation into literature. The play takes place one day as the family vacations in a dilapidated summer home bought by James, a successful and now retired actor who acknowledges he sacrificed his artistic career in pursuit of money. At the heart of the action is the 800-pound “dope fiend” (to use her own words) lurking in the shadows of virtually every scene – Mary’s morphine addiction.
However, her addiction is hardly the extent of the Tyrone family problems. Older brother James, Jr. is an alcoholic and probably has syphilis from his frequent visits to the local brothels, while younger brother Edmund is dying of tuberculosis.
Each of the family members despise what they’ve become, as well as one another, and all willing ride forward into a verbal blood bath that takes no prisoners. Yet, the familiar, familial ties that bind prevent them from leaving. At one point James Jr. tells his younger brother, “I love you more than I hate you,” which pretty much describes the entire Tyrone family dynamic.
Edmund, essentially, is an autobiographic portrayal of the playwright himself. In the hands of 29-year-old actor Matthew Beard, the character is a “bundle of nerves, just like his mother,” which is how Jeremy Irons’ character describes his proverbial son. Tall and lanky with a boyish face and an unkempt mop of black Irish hair, Matthew/Edmund, indeed, seems to inhabit a permanent state of adolescence.
A poet at heart and by ambition, Beard’s character has the disease often associated with artists. “Consumption,” which was what TB was called up until the early 20th century; characterized by a constant slight fever and toxemia that allegedly helped the sufferers to see life unfiltered by societal conventions and unhindered by ethical constraints.
Among those “consumed” by the disease reportedly were writers Franz Kafka, Charlotte Brontë, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, W. Somerset Maugham, Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson – and Eugene O’Neill himself.
The show tops out over three hours or, in other words, the dramaturgical equivalent of an ultra-marathon We caught up with Matthew Beard before a recent performance for the following interview.
Monsters and Critics: The role of Edmund in the play is largely thought of as an autobiographical depiction of O’Neill. Did you research his life for the part?
Matthew Beard: There are some pretty good biographies of Eugene O’Neill and I read quite a few. From them I took what I needed to build his character, but what I found most interesting is his depiction of Edmund as his alter ego. The truth is very much limited.
For example, by the time O’Neill was Edmund’s age, he already had abandoned a wife and child but there’s no mention of that in the play. So, there’s no doubt he was selective in his own autobiographical details, while he was brutally honest with his other family members.
Monsters and Critics: Edmund is often thought as the “nice one” in a family whose members are extravagant in their emotions and animus toward one another. Was that a challenge in playing his character?
Matthew Beard: In the production history of this play, Edmund is often pulled apart as the weak link in the cast of characters because all the others are so eager to talk about the flaws and foibles of themselves and everyone else in the family.
Edmund traditionally is more of an observer of the action. But in our production what’s nice is how our director, Richard (Eyre), pulled out all of the characters, both their good and bad points, including nice guy Edmund.
Edmund’s main character flaw is that he’s adrift in his life. In the play, we learn he’s been abroad for a while and has just returned home only to find nothing has changed. He signals his attention to be an artist and poet, but he’s trapped by his family.
I think many Millennials can relate to how they want to get on with their lives, but financially they can’t afford to, so they remain stuck at home. In Edmund’s case his illness further complicates his independence. All this makes him a bit too adolescent for someone his age.
Monsters and Critics: A central theme of Edmund’s character is guilt. He has the original sin of being, in effect, the cause of his mother’s morphine addiction because of his difficult birth. How did that figure into your portrayal of the character?
Matthew Beard: Edmund is always in a state of denial that his mother is actually an addict. Whenever it’s mentioned in the play, he’s there to deny it. It’s obvious to everyone else when Mary is in a morphine fog, but he doesn’t see it. And the other characters know that he’s vulnerable in this way and use it to sting him, to hurt him, whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Monsters and Critics: It’s ironic that the play’s leitmotif – opioid addiction – is once again in the news. Did this figure into the director’s interpretation of play?
Matthew Beard: I hadn’t realized it until we came to America with the play how relevant the topic was today. Even though the play was written in 1912, we will have audience members approach us after the performances to tell us how much the play meant to them on a deeply personal level. As actors, it’s very inspirational to know that the work that you’re performing is very moving to your audience.
Monsters and Critics: Edmund, of course, is dying from another chronic disease, tuberculosis, made worse by his heavy drinking. Did research regarding how the disease affected its victims figure into your portrayal of the character?
Matthew Beard: Yes, the most discernible symptom of the disease, which affects the lungs, is coughing brutally, so I had to learn to do that every night, multiple times, without wrecking my insides.
But beyond its physical symptoms the disease was linked in the public’s mind to a reckless, louche lifestyle. It was condemned as a moral weakness in polite society, not unlike syphilis.
Of course, now we know that the disease is primarily spread by coughing and spitting, so it makes sense that those artist types who frequented bars packed with people, and when the style of the day was to spit your chewing tobacco, would be prone to the disease.
O’Neill himself picked up tuberculosis because he tended to frequent taverns and theaters in lower Manhattan at the time.
Monsters and Critics: Audiences will soon see you in the Netflix TV series Kiss Me First, set in a near future world where VR dominates. What was that like changing gears from a period drama to a sci-fi thriller?
Matthew Beard: Yes, half the series is set in the real world and the other half in a video game second life. My character runs a dark web virtual landscape. And, actually, viewers won’t be seeing me in the series at all, but rather my animated avatar.
But I have to say it eerily looks like me. It was great fun playing the villain for once. I really like one project being completely different from any other.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, Calif. through July 1. All photos courtesy of Lawrence K. Ho.