Though a performance of Strange Interlude ran from 5:30 P.M. to after 11 P.M. (including a one-hour dinner intermission at 8 P.M.), this play became O'Neill's greatest hit to date, giving 426 Broadway performances in its first production and gaining his third Pulitzer Prize. The subject matter of the play created a furor, and predictably, the work was banned in Boston because it dealt with abortion, adultery, and homosexuality. In addition, it developed the Freudian and Jungian themes that O'Neill had earlier used in Desire Under the Elms. In Strange Interlude the subconscious is really the focus of the action. The external plot action of the play is eminently simple and can be condensed into very few lines, but the complex interweaving of thought and action, some-times in opposition, is what gives the play both its extraordinary length and its strength. To be sure, some of the Freudian comments and explanations of Strange Interlude (though denied by O'Neill) may seem simplistic today, but in 1928 they were daring, shocking, and offered new material for the serious commercial theatre.
Also, in trying to combine a novelistic theme with drama, O'Neill made use of a new theatrical device, the interior monologue, in which he may have been influenced by the novels of James Joyce. In effect he set himself the task of developing a play which would be viable on two distinct levels, the interior and the exterior, and to do this he developed the old Elizabethan device of the soliloquy to its logical (and some suggest its undramatic) conclusion. Some of the interior monologues of individual characters run almost one page of the printed text, while, at times, for several printed pages the reader/audience is presented with a series of interacting monologues, each delivered for the information of the audience rather than the characters, who can only guess at the thoughts of others in the room. This technique exploits what Bertrand Evans (1960, p. 8) has called the gap of "discrepant awareness," for here the audience knows a great deal more than any or all of the characters and is therefore in a judgmental situation, particularly since it knows the complete truth. The conventions of the Elizabethan soliloquy are carefully observed: each of the characters tells the truth about himself or herself insofar as motivations, emotions, and general understanding of situations are concerned. To be sure, some characters have limitations of comprehension, Sam and Gordon Evans, for instance, and there are critics who would disagree with Darrell when he blames Nina for his own failure in medicine. Overall, the characters are devastatingly honest, something that often leads to the most intense dramatic irony—and also to clumsiness when a remark is made in a monologue and then repeated openly to one of the other characters.
The staging of these interior monologues presented a notable challenge. Whereas the Elizabethan soliloquy was delivered with a character alone on the stage, here the audience is asked to distinguish between conversation and thought, almost the way one is expected to do in a novel where the structural conventions are notably different. The original director, Philip Moeller, hit upon what might be called in film parlance the "freeze-frame": when one character is engaged in an interior monologue, all other characters "freeze" in place. This was very effective on stage, and even in an exchange of interior monologues it was apparent to the audience that what it was hearing was spoken thoughts rather than dramatic conversation. Of course this device gave rise to parody, most notably that of Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers where he and S. J. Perelman (the scriptwriter) adopted the somewhat inflated language that O'Neill on occasion used for these musings. But the fact remained that Strange Interlude succeeded in communicating on various levels and also in making a tremendous emotional impact on its original audiences.
One aspect of the material of the play is most noteworthy: it is O'Neill's only full treatment of the American Ivy-League, business-oriented, Long Island, Park Avenue set, and it also seems to represent his major memory connection with his freshman term at Princeton. The unseen hero, Gordon Shaw, with the athletic prowess and honor code by which he lived and died, is clearly based on that quintessential Princeton hero, Hobart Amory Hare Baker (1892–1918) who ex-celled in every sport offered at Princeton, joined the American Expeditionary Force and was killed in a flying accident shortly after the World War I armistice. His life seemed to epitomize the romance of American college life, and his fate partook of the same aura that surrounded the death of such as Rupert Brooke (who actually died of sunstroke and was buried at Lemnos) and the central figures of both A. E. Houseman's "To an Athlete Dying Young" and Laurence Binyon's "Recessional" poems. Onto this archetypal figure O'Neill grafted the tale of a girl whose fiancé had died in circumstances similar to those of Baker. She had a nervous breakdown and later married, not for love but in order to have a child and wring some happiness from life. The knowledge of this young woman seems to come from about 1923, long before O'Neill began this play. However, and possibly because he was in effect an outsider in this Scott Fitzgerald-like world, O'Neill reveals himself as frequently uncomfortable with the "Gordon-Shawethic" in its glorification of the athlete, the surface quality of such a mind, its materialism and its lack of real sensitivity. Almost as self-justification, the playwright continually has characters remark that college athletes have their greatest success in their youth; after that, almost everything is downhill, and they rarely achieve success. In some respects this ethic represents a deep flaw in the play itself: the central ideal is so adolescent, so empty, that it tends to tarnish the other characters of the play. Darrell sees through the Gordon-myth, yet he is partially destroyed by it. Charles Marsden also perceives its futility, but since he is drawn as a hypersensitive, mother-ridden non-sexual being, his comments are biased. Neither Nina nor Sam ever rises above dedication to this ideal, and in that fact their weakness as human characters lies.
The most important person in the play is Nina Leeds, and the entire action, both internal and external, revolves around her relationship with six men: her father, the professor; her unseen lover-ideal, Gordon Shaw; her husband, Sam Evans; her actual lover, Ned Darrell; her son, Gordon, who re-creates the ideal of Gordon Shaw; and Charles Marsden, the gentle, mother-obsessed, latent homosexual who finally takes on the role of father for Nina. In effect, for six different men, O'Neill has drawn four different relationships, father, lover, husband and son; and through Nina's reactions to each he has drawn what is, in his view, the progress of woman. But the woman he portrays is ultimately a destructive personality, to some extent a Strindbergian character, yet, as Doris Alexander has also suggested (1953, pp. 213-228), she also partakes of Schopenhauer's idea of the will to live.
Nina, violently deprived of her fiancé, has a mission in life: the fulfillment of her procreative function and also the perpetuation of her ideal lover, Gordon Shaw. Even the nine-act structure suggests the nine months of pregnancy. Thus she marries Sam, who shares her admiration for Gordon, but then she makes use of Ned Darrell, Gordon's friend, to beget the healthy son (both mentally and physically) that Sam is unable to provide. However, throughout the play Nina is also seen as the victim of some kind of hostile will in the universe over which she has no control, and so she is forced as the feminine embodiment of this force, this life-force (though not in the Shavian sense), to make use of all the men in her life to achieve her end as woman. Thus, she ruins Darrell's life by turning him aside from his career as neurologist and forcing him into the furtherance of her life-mission (though some critics and Darrell himself in. the play seem to think that his weakness is also responsible). She also contributes to the early death of her father through her devotion to Gordon Shaw and her abandonment of him, her father, to pursue what she sees, neurotically, as her salvation through a promiscuity which horrifies Darrell.
To some extent, one must allow that as a wife Nina succeeds because she does indeed save Sam from the insanity that has destroyed other members of his family. Yet at the same time she is a contributor to Sam's stroke at the end of the play. In the role of wife, Nina is closer to the ideal that O'Neill had already depicted in Servitude, but her self-sacrifice is far from a voluntary one, being imposed upon her by forces over which she has no control. But Sam is a character who can be manipulated, and through apparent submission, Nina remains some-what in control. However, she fails to control in the case of her son. She has wanted him so that she can mold him and possess him utterly, but she is defeated by the Gordon Shaw ethic which she thinks she espouses. In that view of masculine superiority, athletic achievement, and material success, Sam, the nonparticipant, is a truer role-model than Nina realizes. In dedicating her son to this view, Nina loses him, as she of course must, to another woman, and O'Neill here imposes a curious contrast between Gordon Evans and Charles Marsden, the timid, mother-controlled bachelor who waits quietly until Nina is ready for the asexual, protective, paternal relationship that he is able to offer her. At the end of the play, Golden Boy Gordon Evans flies off into the clouds, recalling the Gordon Shaw who fell out of the sky in flames; but the young Gordon is moving toward some kind of achievement, while Nina, finding herself now superfluous, turns back to Charlie Marsden, as if to a father. At the surprisingly early age of forty-five she has aged markedly and wishes now merely to "rot in peace." For her, as Hamlet put it, "the heyday of the blood is cold"; and all passion spent, she is content merely to rest.
The ending of the play, then, is curiously romantic, indeed inconclusive, as Nina in effect goes off into a golden sunset and reverts almost to a state of childhood, defining the struggles of life as a "strange interlude" of pain imposed by God the Father. It is in her anguished complaints against God the Father that Nina attempts to find belief in God the Mother who understands the nature of pain, while God the Father becomes the hostile Schopenhauerian will who merely imposes it. But Nina does to some extent endure (in the Faulknerian sense), and so she and Charlie manage to ride out the storms of this strange interlude with some peace.
The victims of this play are Darrell, who has allowed his intellect to be turned aside by his emotions, and Professor Leeds, who appears so briefly that the audience has little time to gain sympathy for him. Sam, though initially a victim, is eventually saved in a material sense in that he achieves happiness on earth, which throughout the play is denied to all the other participants until the final act. But this is gained at the expense of sensitivity and results in the slightly vulgar display of recently acquired wealth. Sam is a decent Babbitt, with good instincts, but wedded to pursuit of an essentially materialistic and adolescent ideal. Actually, the true central character of the play is really Gordon Shaw, the ghost at Sam's marriage and in Darrell and Nina's bed on those glorious afternoons they remember.
All the men of the play define themselves in relationship to Nina, the woman-force who controls them all and who brings such disparate characters together under one roof. Each man attempts to rid himself of this relationship, but each finds himself trapped; even Sam thinks he has not satisfied Nina's expectations and considers offering her a divorce, though Nina never knows this. She is sensual, restless, questing, looking not for sexual freedom or equality but rather for control, only to find that what she really wants is protection.
Basically, then, the true action of Strange Interlude is psychological and philosophical. O'Neill was particularly daring in his attempt to display the innermost thoughts of his characters on the stage, not, he insisted, in a Freudian manner, though there does seem to be some influence of Freud. On the whole he is successful, and the varied reactions of the four men who represent the basic relationships between the sexes are admirably differentiated with good use of dramatic irony. The antennae of these characters are all sensitively attuned to the subconscious (even those of Sam and young Gordon), and through the sometimes open opposition of what is thought and what is said, the play derives a density of meaning which might otherwise be impossible of achievement in drama.
Two curious aspects of this play which often pass unnoticed are the use of milieu and time. When one realizes the extraordinary social upheavals that took place during the years covered by this play, 1919-1944, it is astonishing that no notice is taken of any of them. But then one must realize that O'Neill in 1928, when this play was first produced, was projecting his action some sixteen years into the future; he was no visionary, and his play world remains static. Hence the characters in the play are isolated from external events. They seem to live in a world removed from reality, a time warp in which everything material remains static and only the characters grow old. This notion of the unchanging nature of the world and the development of human characters is signified by the repetitive furniture arrangement throughout the entire play. No matter where the characters are, and no matter how they change economically or emotionally, the world around them is the same and has little impact on them. In effect, both chronological time and milieu are irrelevant. What matters is the internal conflict of each character, doomed to come to some kind of rapprochement with existence inside an isolated, circumscribed group. Thus the specifics of Sam's business and his success in it are unstated, as is the actual college which Gordon attended. Even the jazz age does not matter, and there is no thought of the impending stock market crash: the hermetically sealed world alone has importance here.
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