Essays: Olivier's Great Journey |
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Olivier’s Great Journey

THE two great plays ‘Ah, Wilderness!’ and Long Day’s Journey Into Night hold nearly everything that counts of Eugene O’Neill.

He had no talent for language whatsoever — a handicap which worked out in these two cases to permanent advantage. There is no bright surface on which an actor’s wit can speed and preen: unless he gets all the way to the secret he will come back with nothing.

The secret in ‘Ah, Wilderness!’ is the sweetness of youth and the secret of ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ is the savour of decay. That was as far as O’Neill’s dialectic ran: when he wished to express it poetically he had his characters quote lines from Dowson, in whom he detected bacteria-rich deposits of damnation’s corrosive flavour. Wedding cake eaten by sea mist, a tooth in Coca Cola. An ineluctable romance.

ATV filled an entire evening with the National Theatre’s Michael Blakemore production of ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’ thereby laying up a goodly store of professional credit. Olivier, the finest actor alive by a nautical mile, is the supreme modern master of words.

David O. Selznick used to send memos saying that he could understand Olivier’s whiplash delivery, but that nobody else could. Decades later, every mesmerised listener is still convinced that he can understand Olivier, but that nobody else can.

Olivier runs at the far limit of what we can apprehend and we are persuaded that it is only our attention which slows him into audibility: if we relaxed, he would accelerate into a scream. And yet in this play, whose every phrase seems chosen for its dead weight, and whose poetry resides in nothing that can be said, he undoes all expectation and finds the deep inner silence in which O’Neill’s father remained unreachable, even by memory. I didn’t see the performance on stage, but can’t imagine that his projection in the theatre could throw it closer to me than Peter Wood’s cameras brought it with an easy glance. A career-clinching interpretation. Magnificent.

Constance Cummings I thought very fine: she achieved, by taking flesh-transforming thought, the parody of transparent saintliness that this junkie mother must present — for here, too, and pre-eminently, O’Neill’s gaze is clouded and perfumed by romance. No problem about where she gets the dynamite. She practically secretes the stuff. In O’Neillian physiology, morphine floods the bloodstream as a matter of course: synthetic and gorgeous, an artificial paradise updated to the age of hypodermics, it’s a symbolic blast.

Gaping first and coasting later, Miss Cummings hour by hour thinned the marble veneer of her cinquecento skin and pumped the pulp behind it full of poisoned bliss. The men looked on, waiting for the crash. Ronald Pickup and Denis Quilley both realised, and both demonstrated, that the play’s fateful youths are not the last of the ancient Greeks but the first of the twentieth-century walking wounded. They looked implicated, as they should: O’Neill forecast uncannily that drug addiction would be the aestheticism of modernity — art for the artless.

‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ was the play in which booze went out of date as a brain sweetener, upstaged by the clinically refined destruction of pure powders. Another nostalgia, a further romance. O’Neill was the only decadent to be transitional.

A large occasion, this play, dwarfing all else, even its own ads. In my district these were, in order, Party Mix, K-Tel Hemdale’s promo for ‘The Amazing Mr Blunden,’ Katie Boyle plugging something called New Snappies Cling-Film, Tricity Contessa, Kraft Soft Margarine, Ideal Standard’s Concord H central heating unit, Keddies’ Sunshine Bargains, Fresh Fields Margarine in Table-Top Tubs, and Fry’s Turkish Delight — a Rich Red Secret, a Dark Eastern Essence slowly mingled with Smooth Milk Chocolate. Oh yes, it’s the copywriters who’ve got the talent. But O’Neill, you see, had the genius. And for one long evening lovable little Lew Grade had the moxie.

Owen MD (BBC-1) is back, still starring Nigel Stock, who is pretending to have retired from practice but might still, if pressed, rehang his weathered brass plate. Dullest and most endearing of the quack operas, it will rate right on.

The second part of A Thinking Man as Hero (BBC-2) didn’t change my mind about this project, which was worth a try, but was drearily carried out. Strangled in the tendrils of pretension, an ordinary half-hour play about adultery (and Anne Lynn was very good at the difficult task of finding something interesting about the character played by Keith Barron) died with a fitful drumming of the heels.

A new young dynamo called Steve cropped up, who was supposed to be obnoxious, but brilliant. Where his brilliance resided was a mystery. And, as before, the actual substance of Wittgenstein’s thought remained irrelevant.

What got quoted most were his statements about religion. Religion had absolutely nothing to do with Wittgenstein’s philosophy. He thought that religion was important, but said that there was no way of being philosophical about it. Fidgetingly selected from and falsely emphasised, Wittgenstein’s contribution to the modern intellect was pretty thoroughly betrayed. Trivialised hagiography — earnest, witless and wearying.

In Billy Smart’s Circus (BBC-1) there was a mad patrol of Italian clowns I’d never seen before — surprising ignorance in a confirmed circus-watcher. The dwarf had a hat that squirted crazy-foam when you pushed it down over his ears. Finally they were skidding everywhere on a mat full of Technicolor gunk, until somebody wrapped them up in it and took them away.

On The Old Grey Whistle Test (BBC-2) there was riveting film of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles singing ‘Tracks of My Tears’ — a Motown milestone. Rowena Cooper, a gifted actress, flowered in the fall as a worried mother in an episode of Menace (BBC-2). A bitty week. It was Easter that did it. If Colette’s your bag though, then it’s boom time.

The Observer, 29th April 1973