Stage Directions Only
A Long Day's Journey into Night is much shorter if the actors just perform the stage directions. But would it make any sense? Or could it make more?
Eugene O’Neill won a posthumous Pulitzer for this autobiographical play about the fame, shame, illness and drink that plagued his family. He didn’t want it published or performed until after his death, and/so he wrote deeper and more detailed stage directions than I have ever seen in a play.
Stage directions let the writer talk directly to the actors and director. They’re how writers try to clarify their vision, and exert as much control as possible over performance. It’s unfashionable to write heavy-handed stage directions - Shakespeare wrote none at all. How an actor should perform a scene is meant to be clear from the dialogue - and/or open to creative interpretation. Some actors take great pride in ignoring stage directions, or do the exact opposite.
I read the stage directions in Long Day’s Journey into Night and thought two things.
How could anyone possibly play them? e.g “Suddenly and startlingly one sees in her face the girl she had once been, not a ghost of the dead, but still a living part of her.”
Could you do this play without the dialogue? With the actors simply speaking the stage directions? And could this highlight, emphasise and deepen the relationships and themes? Or not?
Only one way to find out: let’s play. This is the a wee bit of Act I. I’ve edited it for effect.
JAMES TYRONE It is the living room of our summer home on a morning in August 1912. It is around 8.30.
MARY TYRONE The family has just finished breakfast. My husband and I enter together from the back parlour, coming from the dining room. I’m Mary Tyrone. I’m fifty-four, about medium height. What strikes one immediately is my extreme nervousness. My hands are never still. They were once beautiful hands, with long, tapering fingers, but rheumatism has knotted the joints and warped the fingers, so that now they have an ugly crippled look.
JAMES TYRONE I’m sixty-five but look ten years younger. The stamp of my profession is unmistakably on me. Not that I indulge in any of the deliberate temperamental posturing of the stage star. But the actor shows in all my unconscious habits of speech, movement and gesture. My arm is around my wife’s waist as we appear from the back parlour. Entering the living room, I give her a playful hug.
MARY I smile affectionately. Teasingly. I come forward to stand by the right of table.
TYRONE I follow her with hearty satisfaction.
MARY I laugh and sit in the wicker armchair at right rear of the table.
TYRONE I come around the back of her and select a cigar from a box on the table and cut off the end with a little clipper.
JAMIE/EDMUND (OFFSTAGE) From the dining room our voices are heard.
MARY I turn my head that way.
TYRONE I joke but with an undercurrent of resentment. I light my cigar and sit down in the rocker at right of table, which is my chair, and puff contentedly.
MARY I’m a trifle acidic.
TYRONE I’m defensive.
MARY I smile now with teasing affection. Then I pat his hand.
TYRONE I’m huffy. Then placating.
BOTH We pause.
JAMIE/EDMUND Our voices are again heard
EDMUND I have a fit of coughing.
MARY I listen worriedly. My fingers play nervously on the tabletop. Quickly. As if I wanted to dismiss the subject but can’t.
TYRONE I give her a quick, worried look.
MARY I force a quick smile. With sudden tenseness.
TYRONE I put a hand over one of her nervously playing ones. My voice is suddenly moved by deep feeling. I lean over and kiss her cheek impulsively.
MARY I turn my head away. I get up restlessly and go to the windows at right. I turn back. Affectionately amused. I come to him, laughing, and pat his cheek playfully.
TYRONE My vanity piqued—I am testy.
JAMIE/EDMUND A burst of laughter comes from the dining room.
MARY I turn my head, smiling.
TYRONE I’m grumpy.
MARY I’m teasing. I laugh—with a pleased, relieved air.
TYRONE I ignore this—resentfully.
MARY I ignore this without conviction. I go to the back parlour doorway and call.
EDMUND I call back, “We’re coming, Mama.”
MARY I go back to the table.
TYRONE I grumble.
MARY I sit down beside him, and pat his hand.
JAMIE/EDMUND We’re their sons
JAMIE James, JR.
EDMUND and Edmund.
JAMIE/EDMUND We enter together from the back parlour. We glance at our father and our grins grow broader.
JAMIE I’m Jamie, the elder, I’m thirty-three. The signs of premature disintegration are on me. I am dressed in an old sack suit. My fair skin is sunburned a reddish, freckled tan.
EDMUND I’m Edmund. Ten years younger than my brother. It is in the quality of extreme nervous sensibility that my likeness to my mother is most marked. I am plainly in bad health.
MARY I turn smilingly to them, in a merry tone that is a bit forced. My hands flutter up to my hair.
JAMIE I look away guiltily.
TYRONE I’m hearty.
EDMUND I wink with a kidding grin.
MARY I’m reassured and smile at him lovingly.
JAMIE I quote my father, putting on a ham-actor manner.
MARY/EDMUND We laugh.
TYRONE I’m scathing.
JAMIE I shrug my shoulders and sit down in the chair on her right.
EDMUND I’m irritable. I slump down in the chair at left of table next to my brother.
TYRONE I ignore him.
MARY I’m reproving.
JAMIE I’m bored.
TYRONE I’m contemptuous.
MARY I put an arm around his shoulder—coaxingly. To the boys, I change the subject.
TYRONE I make a painful effort to be a good sport.
JAMIE I’m dry.
EDMUND I grin.
MARY I’m worried.
EDMUND I ignore this.
MARY I smile.
TYRONE I scowl.
MARY With amused dismay.
JAMIE I’m malicious.
MARY I’m tactful.
EDMUND I grin at my father provocatively.
MARY I’m shocked and amused.
TYRONE I’m sour, but with a trace of admiration.
EDMUND I chuckle.
TYRONE I’m appreciative, before I think. Then I growl. But I am full of eager anticipation.
MARY I can’t help laughing.
JAMIE/EDMUND We laugh.
MARY I’m shocked but giggling.
TYRONE I laugh—then stop abruptly and scowl.
MARY I tease.
TYRONE I frown.
EDMUND/ JAMIE We laugh.
TYRONE I turn on Jamie.
JAMIE I’m about to make some sneering remark to my father, but I shrug my shoulders.
EDMUND I jump up with sudden nervous exasperation. I go to the front parlour, disgustedly… I disappear.
TYRONE I look after him angrily.
EDMUND I can be heard coughing as I go upstairs.
MARY I add to the conversation, nervously.
JAMIE I’m genuinely concerned.
TYRONE I give him a sharp warning look, but he doesn’t see it.
MARY I turn on him resentfully.
TYRONE I give another warning glance at Jamie— and speak easily.
MARY A look of contemptuous hostility flashes across my face. I stop short, overcome by a fit of acute self-consciousness as I catch their eyes fixed on me. My hands jerk nervously to my hair. I force a smile.
TYRONE I put my arm around her— with guilty heartiness, and give her a playful hug.
MARY I’m half reassured.
TYRONE With Irish blarney, I give her a kiss.
MARY My face lights up with a charming, shy embarrassment. Suddenly and startlingly, one sees in my face the girl I had once been, not a ghost of the dead, but still a living part of me.
JAMIE My face has cleared, too, and there is an old boyish charm in my loving smile at my mother.
MARY I laugh and an Irish lilt comes into my voice.
I don’t know. What do you think? Worth taking further?