New York Times, March 1, 1964
By HOWARD TAUBMAN
Early in 1928
two of Eugene O’Neill’s plays opened on Broadway, “Marco
Millions” with Alfred Lunt as Marco Polo, the eternal, go-getting
Philistine, expired after three weeks. “Strange Interlude,” with Lynn Fontanne as Nina Leeds,
the neurotic female who dominates a variety of men, ran 17 months.
Since it is
always open season for second-guessing the past, it is a fair
question to ask how wise and just was the public of the twenties in
its evaluation of the two plays.
By great good
luck we are in a position to consider the two O’Neill plays from
the perspective of the theater as well as the printed page.
Last March the Actors Studio Theater began its formal
activities with a production of “Strange Interlude.”
Now the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center has mounted a
colorful revival of “Marco Millions” as the second production of
its first season in the inviting new ANTA Washington Square Theater.
conclusion is that “Marco Millions” is a good deal more
interesting than a meager three-wee run would suggest and the
“Strange Interlude” is less impressive than its thundering
success in 1928 would imply.
observation is that neither work ranks with the best of O’Neill:
“Mourning Becomes Electra,” “The Iceman Cometh” and
Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
My third finding
is the “Marco Millions” has dated much less than “Strange
To make these
judgments today is not to smirk patronizingly at the twenties.
Audiences then had their reasons and excuses for reacting as
they did. “Marco
Millions,” which I did not get to see, was handicapped, we have
been told, by a production that cut and marred the play.
“Strange Interlude,” which I did see, was dazzlingly
produced and performed.
Interlude,” moreover, was the vogue drama of 1928 and 1929.
Its inordinate nine-act length, which was supposed to be a
handicap, turned out to be an asset.
It became chi-chi to attend a performance that began at
cocktail time and provided for a long dinner intermission.
If you want a notion of how fashionable, some of the swells
at the opening wore street clothes for the first half and returned
in dinner jackets and evening gowns fort the second.
Both plays are
undermined by weakness of characterization.
The deficiency is more harmful to “Strange Interlude,”
for its entire purpose is to probe into the secret corners of human
Millions” mounts a blunderbuss of an attack against the
materialism of the West and does not pretend to be a searching
development of character.
As a gargantuan
dramatic exercise in a species of psychoanalysis, “Strange
Interlude,” it is clear now, is fatally flawed by the
incredibility of its central character.
Nina lacks the stature and fascination to be daughter,
sweetheart, wife, mother and mistress to so many different men.
O’Neill adduces for her devouring drive – that she never forgave
her father or the world for the unfulfillment of her love for a
young aviator who was killed – is patently unconvincing.
Nor can one believe, no matter how alluringly Nina is
embodied by a Lynn Fontanne or a Geraldine Page, that Sam Evans, the
good, foolish husband, Darrell, the passionate, noble lover, and
Marsden, the bloodless, constant admirer, behave as anything other
than creatures of the playwright’s will.
As for the
drama’s advance form, once a famous talking point, it now seems
pretentious and archaic. The
asides, which the characters speak to reveal their buried thoughts,
are banal and ludicrous, for they tell us nothing not made clear by
the action and the normal dialogue.
Interlude” was worth reviving.
Whatever his failings, O’Neill remains one of our leading
playwrights. A new
generation has a right to meet his work on the stage as well as on
the printed page, where it is more accessible but not nearly so
O’Neill felt, thought and wrote for the stage, not for the
memorable moment in “Strange Interlude” is a triumph of theater
magic. It comes at the
end of the sixth act. Nina
is at the zenith of her power over her three men.
There is a respite from the stresses of their tense
relationships. On the
surface all is tranquility, but there is an undercurrent of brooding
and contemplation in the men as they surround Nina.
Her unspoken, conquering exultation, heightened by word that
still another male, her son, waits for her, enriches a subtle
counterpoint of moods expected in irresistible stage motifs.
characters in “Marco Millions” are established, they hardly
change. For a moment
Marco as a youth senses, however callowly, a possibility of poetry
and beauty. But he
quickly learns to accept the values of men of affairs and transforms
himself into a prototype of the noisy, self-satisfied chap on the
make, and he remains unchanged despite a last glimpse of
inexpressible ecstasy in Princess Kukachin’s yearning eyes.
The Princess and
the exemplars of ancient Eastern wisdom, her grandfather, Kublai,
the great Khan, and Chu-Yin, the Cathayan sage – also remain
largely untransformed. For
“Marco Millions” is preoccupied with satire and spectacle.
The attack on
materialistic standards is savage as well as heavy-handed.
What O’Neill said was obvious then as now; it was also
pertinent and still is.
In the treatment
of an exotic atmosphere “Marco Millions” is evocative.
O’Neill rejoiced in being an alchemist of words, action,
setting, costume and music, and in “Marco Millions” he attempted
a stage mixture of mood and comment.
But here, alas, as in his finest plays, the impulse of his language to soar was frustrated. Poetry was not his forte, nor wit. His intensity of commitment, his courage to dig deeply into human motives and his affinity for the stage were the sources of O’Neill’s strength, and these endure.
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