I do not go to the theater very often. The last time I saw a Broadway play was in 1988. And I have never seen Gabriel Byrne on the stage. I am a film fan. I like to watch films on my computer, taking screenshots and writing down quotes. I like to note camera angles. I like to control my experience of the story. I give the film my complete attention for that first viewing and then the film is mine. On a big computer screen. Usually alone, in my pajamas, with a coffee cup nearby and the lights off.
When seeing a play in the theater, the only thing similar to my personal film experience is the dark. Otherwise, there could not be anything more different.
I am wearing nice clothes. There are people all around me. There are even people above me, in the balcony. I am excited and I cannot wait for things to start. But I must. There is no mouse, no button to push. I must wait. The stage is before me, a parlor, furniture in place. Curtains are billowing in the breeze and there is the sound of the sea in the distance. I can almost smell the salt air. People are milling all about me, finding their seats. I must wait. I find that my hands are trembling. I am not used to waiting. And I am about to see Gabriel Byrne on stage for the first time in my life.
Then, suddenly, it is quiet. There is a soft light. Mr. Byrne and Jessica Lange are walking onto the set from off-stage, coming into the parlor, their arms around each other, smiling, talking.
I am no longer waiting. It has begun.
Photos by Stella
What follows is a deeper look at Gabriel Byrne’s performance as James Tyrone. His fellow actors–Jessica Lange as Mary, his wife; Michael Shannon as Jamie; and John Gallagher Jr. as Edmund, his youngest son–are all wonderful and deserve the spotlight, of course, but not just now. Today is for Mr. Byrne.
It is a commonplace, to say someone is born to play a certain role: on screen, on the stage, on television. “Oh, he was born to play So-and-So,” people say, as though that explains why the performance is so good, how the role was won, and who the actor is somehow.
Theater-goers might be inclined to say just this about Gabriel Byrne, who is currently riveting audiences at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece, his searing play about a “heart shot family” and their struggles to understand and love one another, Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
But here’s the thing: Mr. Byrne was not born to play James Tyrone. Well, perhaps he was, but it is more important to see that he has lived his life, enduring the sorrows and experiencing the joys we all know in life, learning about his family’s history, leaving his homeland to discover a new place to live and ply his craft, and now he can, through the prism of his uniquely Irish emigrant experience, make James Tyrone real for us. James Tyrone, I would argue, as O’Neill wrote him and meant him to be.
From the play:
JAMES TYRONE is sixty-five but looks ten years younger. About five feet eight, broad-shouldered and deep-chested, he seems taller and slenderer because of his bearing, which has a soldierly quality of head up, chest out, stomach in, shoulders squared. His face has begun to break down but he is still remarkably good looking—a big, finely shaped head, a handsome profile, deep-set light-brown eyes…
Yes to all of this, except the eyes are blue. When Mr. Byrne steps onto the stage, walking through the parlor doors with his arm around his wife, Mary, he stands straight and tall. James Tyrone is imposing, but in a relaxed way, and he is feeling relaxed because he believes the troubles of the past may have been overcome. You can see that he hopes so, anyway, and his love for his wife is tender and obvious. You can also see a tentative quality to his posture and hear a hesitation in his Irish lilt. Mr. Byrne is showing you, from the very beginning, that James Tyrone is not all that he might seem to be.
From the play:
The stamp of his profession is unmistakably on him. Not that he indulges in any of the deliberate temperamental posturings of the stage star. He is by nature and preference a simple, unpretentious man, whose inclinations are still close to his humble beginnings and his Irish farmer forebears…His voice is remarkably fine, resonant and flexible, and he takes great pride in it…
His clothes, assuredly, do not costume any romantic part…There is nothing picturesquely careless about this get-up. It is commonplace shabby. He…doesn’t give a damn how he looks…
He has never been really sick a day in his life. He has no nerves. There is a lot of stolid, earthy peasant in him, mixed with streaks of sentimental melancholy and rare flashes of intuitive sensibility…
Mr. Byrne’s voice is stronger than one might expect and he can be heard clearly in the theater. His Irish accent is authentic, making James Tyrone’s Irish heritage easy to imagine; he is just one step away from “the bogs.” His Tyrone likes the sound of his own voice sometimes, too, as he throws quips to his sons and gently teases his wife. He is a fine stage actor, is James Tyrone. Or he was, once.
Gabriel Byrne has spoken recently of his Irish parents: his father, who knew something about the fear of “the poorhouse,” and his mother, who recalled stories about the Famine and the effect hunger and starvation can have on people–what it really means to have nothing. “A simple, unpretentious man” might not describe Mr. Byrne today, but he has this quality in his past, in his family, in his history. And he knows about Eugene O’Neill and his father, who always feared that fatal change in luck, when everything was gone and the poorhouse beckoned.
Mr. Byrne channels this history in his portrayal. He gives James Tyrone a big, strong, blustering front that shields a self-destructive fear of failure and a recognition that he has never lived up to his potential–as a creative artist, as a father, as a man. Mr. Byrne’s Tyrone is by turns gruff and irascible and then lighthearted and joking with his two sons, though he is obviously worried about Edmund. He plays the role as a old man of sixty-five from the past: the would-be ruler of the house, the autocrat. His Tyrone pinches pennies by turning off lights (“We’re not giving a ball. There’s no reason to have the house ablaze with electricity at this time of night, burning up money!”) as he drinks away his money night after night. While he is terrified that he will lose his youngest son to consumption, as the ghost of his lost child hovers about him, he will not commit to providing Edmund with the best care possible. He cannot. You never know when the poorhouse will beckon, so best save if you can. “There was no damned romance in our poverty,” he cries to Edmund. And don’t trust the banks! Buy land instead. Something you can feel under your feet, something real and tangible–a call from the past to cling to the old ways. This way of seeing the world and the future is written on Gabriel Byrne’s face and carried in his body from the moment he enters the parlor in the first act. You watch him over the next four hours as life and circumstance chip away at his facade and interactions with his family break open his anger and resentment. He is volcanic. And broken. All at the same time.
Gabriel Byrne embodies the Irish emigrant experience in his portrayal, an experience O’Neill chronicled in many of his plays. Each of the characters–Jamie, Edmund, Mary, and James–has a soliloquy in this work, with Mary’s being the most recognized, as it occurs at the close and leaves us yearning for the past and in tears. Still, Gabriel Byrne achieves a kind of aching perfection in his. He reveals his regrets to Edmund, recalling his past as a stage actor with a bright artistic future, before he succumbed to “that God-damned play I bought for a song and made such a great success in—a great money success,” a play that squandered his talent while making him and his family comfortable. But he was afraid. “What do you know of the value of a dollar? When I was ten my father deserted my mother and went back to Ireland to die. Which he did soon enough…” His early life was one of hardship and deprivation. He longed for security. But: “What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder, that was worth— Well, no matter. It’s a late day for regrets.”
But there is much regret. He despises the man and the actor he has become. Life might be easier, in a way, but it is harder, too, when we turn our backs on who we are and what we might achieve. If only I had… “On my solemn oath, Edmund, I’d gladly face not having an acre of land to call my own, nor a penny in the bank—I’d be willing to have no home but the poorhouse in my old age if I could look back now on having been the fine artist I might have been.” If only I had…what? Chosen a different path? Recognized my talent and followed through on its promise? Been the man, and the artist, I could have been? Loved and supported my children in a way that would have truly helped them? Been a true partner to my wife, recognizing her pain and helping her as she battled her addiction? Ben Brantley calls Gabriel Byrne’s portrayal “the fine-grained portrait of a hope-stripped father.” And this rings true. But James Tyrone is not only a father to two sons, mourning the loss of a third. He is also a husband, an artist, a man. And he has failed, he believes. It is too late. Gabriel Byrne is mesmerizing as he cuts to the scorched core of James Tyrone.
James Tyrone is only one participant in the dangerous family dance that is this play. The sons, the mother, the father–all seek to cause as much pain in one another as possible, and then they apologize and tell a joke, recite poetry, and laugh and drink (or worse). It is a toxic dance–sometimes explosive, sometimes tender, never simple. Chairs are broken and children comforted. Contradictory and transparent, capable of humor one moment and anguish the next, both comedic and tragic, this family, in some strange synchronous orbit around each other, wounding and healing, remembering and forgetting, despairing and hoping. They cling to past wounds they cannot share and, when they finally do share them, it is from a desire to relive those harrowing memories, relishing the pain and the agony, rather than putting them away in the old photo album in the attic, consigning them to dust.
Harold Bloom observes:
No dramatist to this day, among us, has matched O’Neill in depicting the nightmare realities that can afflict American family life, indeed family life in the twentieth-century Western world…The helplessness of family love to sustain, let alone heal, the wounds of marriage, of parenthood, and of sonship, have never been so remorselessly and so pathetically portrayed, and with a force of gesture too painful ever to be forgotten by any of us.
With his work in this play, I believe Gabriel Byrne has created the definitive James Tyrone: proud, Irish, brilliant, broken by life, dimmed by failure. It is a shattering achievement. I am thrilled to have witnessed this actor I admire so deeply perform this role with such commitment, skill, and feeling. Perhaps he was born to play this role. I do not know. I am just glad he did and I was there to see it. I will never forget him. And I will always remember the play.
Excerpts from Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill, 2nd edition, with a forward by Harold Bloom, published by Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.