Menu Bar

Prior   The End of Experiment: Strange Interlude   Next


The Theatre Guild produced both Marco Millions and Strange Interlude in January, 1928, and thereafter, Eugene O’Neill sealed himself in an association that was to last for the rest of his active life in the theatre. The Guild in earlier times had not endeared itself to O’Neill. Five of his plays—The Straw, “Anna Christie,” The First Man, The Fountain, and Welded—had been rejected by the board of directors, and it was chiefly his desperation at finding a producer for Marco Millions that again led the playwright to consider signing with them. There was, however, a certain inevitability in the alliance. The Theatre Guild had begun as a Greenwich Village little theatre in rivalry with the Provincetown Players. For three years, between 1915 and 1918, the group, calling itself the Washington Square Players, had presented bills of one-act and full-length plays, including in October, 1917, the premiere of O’Neill’s In the Zone. The repertory displayed an eclectic, intelligent selection of the best works of American authors and a significant number of plays by important foreigners. Suspending operations during the war, the organization reformed in December, 1918, as the Theatre Guild and began the series of productions that was to include virtually every important author of Europe and America. At least to mid-century, the Guild’s offerings constituted the most important production record in the history of theatre in this country. No play was meretriciously commercial and none was shoddily produced. The Guild’s subscription audiences extended from coast to coast, and, through its tours, the organization educated the nation in the important drama of the era.

Rapidly emerging from a tangle of success and failure as America’s first dramatist, O’Neill turned to the Guild as an organization able to provide him with what even in the Provincetown days he had needed, a fully professional theatrical company which, at the same time as it adhered to the best production standards, did not represent the “Broadway Show Shop.” With the failure of the Triumvirate to find a way of producing Marco Millions, O’Neill’s disaffection with that organization became complete. Strange Interlude was offered to Katharine Cornell, who rejected it in favor of Somerset Maugham’s The Letter. At this point, Lawrence Langner* visited O’Neill in Bermuda to discuss the possibility of producing Marco Millions. There he read Strange Interlude, and returned in high excitement to browbeat his co-directors into accepting both plays. Although Marco Millions suffered in production because of the Guild’s necessary economies, Strange Interlude was felt to be by one critic** the best production any of his plays had received. O’Neill, although he occasionally uttered exasperated diatribes against the quality of his actors, seems to have been generally well satisfied with the Guild’s results. In turn the Guild’s loyalty to O’Neill was well repaid at the outset, for the relatively short run of Marco Millions*** was amply offset by the commanding success of Strange Interlude.

For a play of such special character as Strange Interlude the popular reception was unexpected. With the curtain at 5: 15 p.m., an hour’s dinner intermission after Act V, and a final curtain after 11:00 p.m., the producers, however emboldened to the production of marathon plays by their presentation in 1922 of Shaw’s Back to Methuselah, were understandably concerned that their audiences might prove incapable of such theatrical longevity. O’Neill’s subject matter and its treatment, together with his implacable refusal to permit laugh lines, only increased their concern that an audience might refuse to put up with the experience. O’Neill, who in the past had repeatedly attempted to discover how much an audience could bear, found them able to stand up to all he offered, and Strange Interlude achieved a success no other American play had equaled. Such distinguished actresses as Pauline Lord and Judith Anderson headed touring companies, and a London production was organized. The published play became a national best seller—the first time a drama had attained that honor.**** O’Neill received his third Pulitzer Prize for the work. It was filmed by Metro-Goldwyn­Mayer in 1932.***** In all, according to Langner, O’Neill made about $300,000 from the production, and the Guild realized a similar sum.

To account for such a success at a remove of over forty years is difficult. O’Neill’s story of the loves of Nina Leeds and her four men, Sam, her husband, Ned Darrell, her lover, Gordon, her son and her avuncular friend, Charlie Marsden, seems sprawling, over-explicit, coarse in texture. Such plot as there is—Nina’s discovery, after she becomes pregnant, that her husband’s family has a history of hereditary insanity, that she must have an abortion and, in order to have a child, must take a lover—seems now morbidly clinical. To some reviewers in 1928 it seemed the same—naïve in its use of psychological theory, overly long and unclear in its theme. To the bulk of its public, however, caught up in the headiness of the climactic boom year, 1928, Strange Interlude appeared as a work which dealt seriously with facets of human nature not yet fully explored. To readers of philosophers or psychoanalytic theorists, and to those who had had a chance to explore a smuggled copy of the French edition of Joyce’s Ulysses, Strange Interlude offered nothing new. Yet Freud, Jung, Joyce were not the house­hold words in 1928 that they later became. To a public relatively untutored in such matters, Strange Interlude unquestionably appeared as a revelation—a kind of primer of new thought, couched in language and action that opened new vistas in their understanding of human drives.

Yet there were other reasons for the success beside the subject matter. The length of the play was interesting. Going to dinner in medias res appealed to the chic as a thing to do of social importance.****** As a dramatic technique, the asides and soliloquies offered something for easy discussion and for prediction concerning the future of the theatre. They brought Art Theatre experimentation before a substantial public for the first time, and the public responded eagerly.*
****** Moreover, the play’s narrative, which dealt so frankly, even clinically, with matters of abortion and adultery, gave the play a succès de scandale whose results, including a celebrated banning in Boston could be measured at the box office. ********

Many such reasons could be adduced for the success. They are at best only ancillary to the heart of the matter, which is that in Strange Interlude the American public was given its first glimpse of the dramatist O’Neill was to become. Hints of the power that were now apparent could have been gathered from Desire Under the Elms, but that play in its first appearance commanded no such attention as Strange Interlude. The productions of the Triumvirate were always somewhat special, surrounded with pretensions to “Art” that no doubt put off many of the great central body of playgoers. About the Triumvirate was the sense, if not the fact, of the amateur. Despite their sincerity and their frequent excellence, their productions were a little out of the current—off-Broadway and therefore “unprofessional.” It was not until the Guild placed Strange Interlude and its author squarely in the middle of the competition, definitely on-Broadway and thereby in the center of the theatre of the United States that O’Neill’s full range as a dramatist became apparent.*********

Although O’Neill in the beginning had conceived Strange Interlude, as he had Marco Millions, Lazarus Laughed and Dynamo, as a production for the Triumvirate, he himself, in working on the script, sensed a difference. Now he responded to a desire to achieve work of far greater complexity and scope than he or any other American dramatist had hitherto achieved. In early October, 1924, preparing copy for a collected edition of his plays, he wrote to Macgowan that he was becoming reacquainted with many of his plays that he had forgotten. In a letter to Macgowan dated September 21, 1924, presumably commenting on the same task, he noted that “I’ve made a discovery about myself in analyzing the work done, etc. in the past six winters which has led me to a resolve about what I must do in future. But it’s too long to write about.” What he did was to review his achievement from the time of the writing of Beyond the Horizon, and the implication is less that he found it wanting, as that he discovered a new direction.

What that direction was can be inferred from his comments on the writing of Strange Interlude. The play gave him trouble. He wrote Macgowan on August 7, 1926, that it could not be ready for the coming theatrical season. After a number of false starts, which he destroyed, he realized that the drama would require much more work than any earlier play and would need interminable revision before it was surely complete. “The point is,” he wrote, “my stuff is much deeper and more complicated now and I’m also not so easily satisfied with what I’ve dashed off as I used to be.” In June of the following year, in correspondence with Joseph Wood Krutch concerning the unrevised, but essentially final draft of the play, he agreed with Krutch about the “slightness” of most modern plays and commented, “To me they are all totally lacking in all true power and imagination—and to me the reason for it is too apparent in that they make no attempt at that poetic conception and interpretation of life without which drama is not an art form at all but simply tricky journalism arranged in dialogue.” Of his two works-in-progress, he stated that “by using one or the other or both of the techniques employed in these two I feel that one can do anything one is big enough for in the drama, that there is no theme too comprehensive or difficult to handle in the theatre. But ‘techniques’ is a word worn groggy and it only blurs what I’m trying to say. What I mean is freedom from all the modern formulas that restrict the scope of the theatre to the unreal real and the even more boring unreal unreal. Which sounds a bit scrambled. Well, I’m a bum explainer—and Strange Interlude is clearer about it than I am.”1

By the “unreal real” O’Neill evidently meant the routine Belasco-style Broadway fare which imitated the surfaces of life without revealing any human truth. The “unreal unreal” apparently refers to the multitudes of shoddy productions in experimental styles that followed O’Neill’s own experimentation, but which were experimental to little purpose beyond theatrical trickery. Filled with a new sincerity of purpose, O’Neill in Strange Interlude as well as in Lazarus Laughed moved to create a drama that would probe deeply, would be meditative in its themes, would have both scope and intensity, and would aim toward the highest tragic stature. Strange Interlude achieves none of these goals. That it approaches them suggests why audiences in 1928 were stirred by it to an unusual responsiveness. The opening of a new reach promised high excitement.

Strange Interlude was the first work of O’Neill’s full maturity, and into it, O’Neill poured more of his developing self than he had earlier been able to do. The dominating figure of Nina Leeds is very different from any woman he had created before. She contains many of the qualities of the Strindbergian heroine which, Anna Christie excepted, had been his characteristic heroine. What is new, however, is the sympathy with which she is now viewed. The depiction of Nina develops in a direct line from the portraits of Eleanor Cape, Ella Harris, Abby Putnam and Cybel, but O’Neill, devoting more of his sympathy as well as his attention to her, discovers qualities in her possessiveness which Strindberg in his naturalistic plays did not admit. In Welded, the woman and man united could create a force like the God-force sought by his poet-heroes. In Strange Interlude, it is not a question of finding such a right relationship. It is enough to find the source of life and identity in the woman herself. O’Neill now posits that the woman is the God-force, and in finding her, the man can achieve a sense of belonging he can obtain nowhere else in life. Her possessive greed for his love provides his means of belonging. Significantly, perhaps, O’Neill’s more positive attitude toward women developed at a time when he was falling in love with Carlotta Monterey and when his relationship with Agnes Boulton O’Neill had reached its end. A very different marriage was in prospect for him, and something of the wished-for harmony of that relationship is reflected in the attitude of each man in the play toward Nina. She is for them all the source of life, and well-being.

Nina, however, is not a portrait of Carlotta Monterey. As he took an increasingly subjective view of women, he was led not to portray any woman he married, but rather, in creating the figure of a woman who would be sufficiently desirable to hold a life-long sway over the men who were nearest to her, he turned to another source. The point rests on slim and circumstantial evidence, but it can be argued that Nina Leeds, so set about with ambiguous complexities of sympathy and alienation, is the first real portrait O’Neill attempted of his mother.

Some slight evidence is contained in the physical description of Nina and of Mary Tyrone, O’Neill’s portrait of his mother in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Nina at the age of twenty is described as having a good figure with “slim strong hips.” Mary at fifty-four has a “young, graceful figure ... showing little evidence of middle-aged waist and hips.” Nina’s straw-blond hair frames her face, and Mary’s “high forehead is framed by thick, pure white hair.” Nina, too, has a high forehead and her face is “striking, rather than pretty, the bone structure prominent.” Mary’s face is thin, pale and like Nina’s “with the bone structure prominent.” The lips of Nina’s “rather large mouth (are) clearly modelled above the firm jaw,” while Mary’s mouth is “wide with full, sensitive lips.” Of Nina’s blue eyes, O’Neill writes they are “beautiful and bewildering, extraordinarily large,” while Mary’s dark brown eyes are “unusually large and beautiful. . . .“ O’Neill comments that Nina’s “whole manner . . . is strained, nerve-racked, hectic, a terrible tension of will alone maintaining self-possession.” Mary reveals from the outset a similar “extreme nervousness.” Such resemblances might well be thought to be no more than coincidence, but in the action of the two plays confirmation can be found. For much of the later scenes in Strange Interlude the significant action centers on the concern of the men with Nina’s well-being. Someone arrives; Nina is offstage. The question is asked as to her health and general state of mind. The reply is either negative or positive, and the response of the men is either contented or discontented, according to Nina’s emotional and physical condition. In the same way, the happiness of the male members of the Tyrone family depends on Mary’s health. Furthermore, both Mary and Nina move between well­being and fulfillment and an irritable, ill-concealed nervousness that racks them as much as it does the men. There is a legion of differences, but the unaware, trance-like timelessness in which Nina lives for much of the play bears at least an emotional resemblance to Mary’s elegiac, drifting movement in her morphine-induced trance.

Such evidence is no more than suggestive, for Strange Interlude is not fully an autobiographical study. Like its immediate predecessors, it was written with Macgowan’s dicta in mind. Indeed, Macgowan in The Theatre of Tomorrow predicts the return of the soliloquy and the aside:

The soliloquy will return again as a natural and proper revelation of the mind of a character. Even the aside may redevelop as a deliberate piece of theatricalism. It will not be the slovenly device of a playwright for telling us something that he is too lazy or inexpert to impart in any other way, but a frank and open intercourse between the actor and his audience, a reaffirmation that this is a play which is being acted, a remarkable game between these two. (243)

A few pages farther along, discussing the content of the drama of the future, he notes that  

It will attempt to transfer to dramatic art the illumination of those deep and vigorous and eternal processes of the human soul which the psychology of Freud and Jung has given us through the study of the unconscious (248)

and he cites as promising examples Alice Gerstenberg’s Overtones, Hervé Lauwick’s They and H. L. Mencken’s skit The Artist, each of which through the use of soliloquy and aside project the inner thoughts of the characters. Strange Interlude, however, is more than a product of theatrical theory. O’Neill’s claim for its increased depth and complexity was surely valid and was a sign of his own maturation.

In the later courses of his life, O’Neill was to make one more wide-circling physical orbit before his explorations led him at last to his truth. By the end of 1926, he had settled in Bermuda, but was shortly to leave with Carlotta Monterey for a voyage that would take him around the world, and then would bring him to rest for a time in France, where, when his divorce from Agnes Boulton O’Neill became final, he would marry Miss Monterey. Although a reflexive restlessness was to lead him from France to Georgia, to California, and thence to New York and Boston before he died, the outer movement of his life, to a certain degree, became at last irrelevant. The significant turn under the shelter of his third marriage was inward, toward the center of self. Out of that self, O’Neill for thirteen years had spun fictions, some of which may have seemed to resolve problems or clarify complexities that beset his own life. In reviewing his works, he necessarily reviewed his life’s problems and the remedies he had sought. Undoubtedly he found truth in what he had written, but it was, if the phrase is possible, a fictive truth—solutions to imagined situations, which did not resolve his own inner discordance. Insofar as it bore on the sexual and artistic competition in his marriage with Agnes O’Neill, the positive ending of Welded, for example, is no more than a passionately expressed hope, incapable of realization. Few such solutions are offered: the majority of his works, by so much as they related to his life, are expressions of pain and loss without genuine resolution attempted. That this should be so is understandable. The death of his father, mother and brother between 1920 and 1923, each under unusually painful circumstances, might well have shattered one who touched life less lightly and had less to know about himself than O’Neill. Whatever special combination of psychological and spiritual disorder with imaginative power that led O’Neill to a life as a playwright led him also in the end to an illumination that was truth without fiction.

By 1926, as he approached forty, with a new marriage before him, with the demands of the Triumvirate fading in importance, and with a mitigating space of time dulling the pain of the loss of his family, O’Neill’s work began to change. Characteristically, he turned to search more deeply within himself. It is the personal “depth” rather more than the “complexity” of Strange Interlude which marks its importance.

The play is not without a limited complexity. As Desire Under the Elms was built on Nietzschean substructures, Strange Interlude was erected on foundations supplied in part by Freud and by Schopenhauer.********** Back of the play lie Strindberg and Nietzsche as well, and clearly O’Neill’s own studies of marriage and of sexual relationships evolved in Welded, Desire Under the Elms, All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Great God Brown proved formative to the play. The soliloquy and the aside were a natural evolution from the depiction of the repressed inner personalities in The Great God Brown and had been anticipated earlier in the contrapuntal monologues in Welded. The continually evolving sense of the woman as the consuming end of all man’s desires—of the woman as earth mother, of the discovery of God in marriage—had been found earlier in the endings of Welded and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, in the relationship between Abby and Eben, and in the portraits of Cybel and Margaret. Essentially, however, the play is not more complex, despite its length, than many of its predecessors. Again, its power lies in its sense of depth, in an almost obsessive inner turn, corresponding to the turn O’Neill’s own life took at the time of the play’s composition.

No claim can be made on behalf of the play’s profundity of character study. The men, to put the matter bluntly, are not interesting either as types or as more fully realized human characters. O’Neill has divested them of any particle of the theatrical glamour that had surrounded so many of his past heroes. Surprisingly, none of them has a touch of the poet about him, unless Darrell’s vague leanings toward a career as a research scientist may be so categorized. Sam Evans carries in him something of the qualities of O’Neill’s typical materialist, but he is not depicted as a visionless man and treated as a figure of contempt as others were. Nina’s speech about her four men, Darrell, Sam, Marsden and her unborn child, forming “one complete, whole male desire,” suggests that the men in Strange Interlude are really partial aspects of a whole male personality and that O’Neill has divided that being, as he later split a single personality, into two. Yet even “reassembled,” it is difficult to see that a more than ordinary creature would result.

Nor is Nina much more profoundly developed. An audience is compelled to focus its attention on her through the obsessions which the men share as to her welfare. She is patterned after the Strindbergian destroyer, but O’Neill casts over her a veil of sympathy which removes the sharpness and the sting. There is no point in the play—even in the scene in which she wills her husband’s death and attempts through an outrageous lie to break off her son’s engagement—where a spectator is able to criticize her actions, except by divorcing himself entirely from the conditions under which the play operates. This is to say that as Nina’s life is revealed, she reaches no point of development at which she must take a stand and in so doing offer herself to judgment. She makes no moral choice by which her character can be evaluated.*********** As a result, the only real development in Nina is physical, from youth to age. At the end, she is the character she was at the outset, and, while what that character amounts to has been told with novelistic detailing, it has not proved to be especially individuated. Nina is the precursor of a long line of neurotic heroines in the American theatre, but compared with many of her daughters, Blanche DuBois, for example, she is strangely faceless.

Therefore, not depth, but yet a sense of depth, a purely emotional, irrational theatrical effect, is what Strange Interlude offers. The play tells a narrative in time, and moves in the day-to-night, spring-to-fall cycles which O’Neill continually found suggestive, but unlike the earlier plays that developed cyclic progressions, this work is really without forward movement.************ It is precisely titled: its days, its lifetime form an interlude.

The indications of time in the narrative are precise. The play begins three weeks before college opens on an afternoon in late August, 1919. Act II is set in the fall of 1920 and Act III in the “late spring” of 1921. Act IV is seven months later, and Act V in April, 1922. Act VI is summer, 1923; Act VII, eleven years later, is laid presumably in the fall of 1934. Acts VIII and IX, ten years later still, are set in 1944. The play thus covers a span of twenty-five years. O’Neill, writing in 1926, projects the play eighteen years into the future, but the point passes without notice. No more revealing evidence is needed to demonstrate O’Neill’s tendency to look at life without reference to a society, to tell his story only in terms of personality. Although some small account is taken of the immediate post-war world in the first two acts, thereafter, the play stalls in 1926, and reflects only the boom years immediately preceding the great stock-market crash, a point touched in a soliloquy of Marsden’s, when he describes Sam as a “typical, terrible child of the age”:

. . . don’t think of ends . . . the means are the end . . . keep moving! . . . It’s in every headline of this daily newer testament . . . going . . . going . . . never mind the gone . . . we won’t live to see it . . . and we’ll be so rich, we can buy off the deluge anyway! . . . (122)

Nina, whose age in the play ranges from twenty to forty-five or forty-six, has gone through her change of life some time before the opening of Act VIII,************* in which she appears as a very old lady, with completely white hair, her face old and “worn-out.” In Act IX, O’Neill describes her as looking “much older.” While Nina’s unexpected aging might be medically possible, nothing in the play explains it unless it be her longing to “rot in peace.” Her physical age overrides her chronological age as O’Neill moves at the end of play into a further future than he accounts for logically, a compression into a few moments of the rest of Nina’s life. Time becomes a matter of emotional movement, independent of calendars and clocks, from everything, indeed, except the autumnal season.**************

Within the time scheme of the narrative, of course, there are many events. There is a story to be told; the plot has a certain intricacy. Yet O’Neill appears to have heeded the complaints that the apostles of the Art Theatre made against plays that moved with efficient compression through a series of artificially induced tensions and resolutions to climactic moments at pre-determined points in the narrative structure. In Strange Interlude his refusal to compress or to provide stereotyped dénouements is notable. The narrative has no theatrical culmination unless it resides in the moment in Act IX when Nina almost involuntarily tells her son that Darrell is his father. Viewed as a climax, however, it is a minor happening. There has been no preparation for it, and since it occurs without Nina’s willing it, it hardly provides a moment of fulfillment in the usual theatrical sense. Furthermore, the son does not understand what his mother has said. The moment slides away, and nothing that could cause crucial change has occurred. In a limited sense, Strange Interlude could be called “anti-drama,” in that it avoids the normal narrative structure of the plays of its time. Certainly, it is a far cry from the sort of playwriting advocated by George Pierce Baker.

If, in the largest view, nothing happens, then the play’s power must reside in another temporal and emotional continuum—in the realm of feeling expressed by the asides and soliloquies. Many have suggested the possibility of performing the play without the asides, relying on the actors to supply the emotional base for what is expressed in straight dialogue. His experience with Welded had taught O’Neill that actors would ride rough-shod over any pauses, “compress” their dialogue, and fighting silence, inject the adrenalin of their personalities into anything that they did not quickly understand.*************** In availing himself of a novelist’s privilege of permitting his characters to express unspoken thoughts, he was ensuring that his actors would project more than a single facet of character.

But there was more to it than this. The director, Philip Moeller, staged the asides and soliloquies in a way that was precisely right. Having experimented with a variety of devices, such as designating an area on stage to which the characters would move to speak their thoughts, he settled for a simpler device, freezing the action while the aside was being spoken. The asides, therefore, blended smoothly with the dialogue, yet emerged from another dimension of “physical quiet” as Moeller expressed it. The effect achieved was of eddying moments in time, small pools of feeling set out of the main current of narrative in an extraordinary counterpoint of movement and stasis, of time and timelessness, of sound and silence. Strange Interlude has two time “schemes,” but it is the timeless emotional pattern which provides the sense of depth and which the play in its final moments enters, in defiance of temporal logic.

The quality of a still life created by the play’s dual time patterns accounts for the real substance of the work. The nontemporal world lies out of time in simple being—a kind of eternity of feeling without motive or volition. The action of the characters on this plane is not unlike that of the sailors in The Moon of the Caribbees. In Nina and the men, despite their sophistication, there is something of the same drifting movement, through a series of shapeless, unfinished experiences. The inner plane of Strange Interlude, like the earlier one-act is in essence a plotless play, in that it relies on mood divorced from significant narrative development.

As in many of the earlier works, an act of will is seen as essentially destructive, leading often to a kind of madness. In Strange Interlude, all acts of will come to nothing, as Nina’s revelation of her son’s parentage has no consequences. The one important act of volition in the play—Darrell’s decision to father Nina’s child—is so strangely phrased as to make it appear as something far removed from the drives of either conscious or subconscious purpose. In the scene at the end of Act IV, when Nina confesses to Darrell that she has had an abortion and asks him to father her child, both characters seem will-less, as if they are moved by something outside themselves, and in such a way that neither can be held responsible for the decisions they are making. Nina begins by speaking sarcastically, refusing to admit any personal relationship with Darrell, calling him more often “Doctor” than “Ned.” Her voice takes on a “monotonous insistence,” almost as if she were in a hypnotic trance. Under the pressure, Darrell, too, assumes “a cold emotionless professional voice, his face like a mask of a doctor.” He stops calling her “Nina” and refers to her in the third person as “Sam’s wife.” As they speak, a sharp division of their personalities occurs, and each thinks of the other in terms of a role, “Sam’s wife” and “Doctor,” and each plays the roles assigned. It is as if the scene were played by four, rather than two actors:

NINA  . . . This doctor is nothing to me but a healthy male . . . when he was Ned he once kissed me . . . but I cared nothing about him . . .

The same impersonal mode of address is reflected in her heard dialogue:

This will have to be hidden from Sam so he can never know! Oh, Doctor, Sam’s wife is afraid.

Darrell follows her in the indirect mode of address:

Certainly Sam’s wife must conceal her action! To let Sam know would be insanely cruel of her—and stupid, for then no one could be the happier for her act! (85-6)

A kind of scientific detachment overrides their problem. They are like strangers, speaking of mutual friends. Such drives of their wills as exist are buried in the unreal roles they play, and it is not until after Darrell has pointed out that the father must be someone who is not unattractive to Nina, that almost involuntarily Nina says that “Ned always attracted her.” Her words which rise to the surface of their talk still maintain her role playing, but it is enough to bring the double image into single focus. Shortly Ned is able to think “he is Ned! . . . Ned is I! . . . I desire her! . . . I desire happiness! . . .“ and to add gently, “But, Madame, I must confess the Ned you are speaking of is I, and I am Ned.” To which she replies, “And I am Nina, who wants her baby.” The role and the reality of both rejoin as the decision is made, but during the moments leading to decision the action of their wills is projected outside the two. It is as if they had made no deliberate choice affecting themselves.

In the sea plays, O’Neill has held that the sailors had no power of will, indeed no existence that was not in some way bound up with the life force moving in the sea. In Strange Interlude, the men hold a similar relationship to Nina. References to Charlie Marsden’s mother, like those to Darrell’s casual mistress and his research associate, suggest that the men have other points of contact, but none is strong or vitally dramatized. The men are defined only in relation to Nina, as if she, like the sea to the crew of the Glencairn, were the source of their being.**************** By the same token, Nina has no life beyond the men. Her relation to Sam’s mother is contained in a single scene, one of the most moving in the play, expressed in terms of profound mutual suffering, but once its course is run, Nina moves on alone. Her relationship to her son’s fiancée, Madeleine, produces an intense hatred, born of hysteria and jealousy. Yet, when Madeleine goes with Gordon, Nina is again left as she has always been, the sole central object of the devotion, now vestigially offered by Charlie Marsden, which her men have always paid her.

In the temporal narrative, the cause of that devotion is said to be sexual attraction. Her failure to give herself to her fiancé, the dead aviator, Gordon, brings her into conflict with her father who had counseled her against marrying him. In defiance of his dominance she gives herself to wounded men in the hospital where she is a nurse. Her marriage to Sam, her pregnancy, her abortion and her love affair with Darrell hold the action to specific sexual concerns, and when her son appears in the play as a young boy, his relationship to her is colored by sexual intuition: he catches her kissing Darrell and develops a hatred of him because he has taken Nina’s love. In the final scenes, Nina’s attempt to break the marriage of Gordon and Madeleine is again seen as a matter of sexual jealousy, and after Sam’s death, her marriage to Marsden is specifically stated to be possible because it is sexless.

The concentration on Nina’s sexual life might suggest that O’Neill saw her as a supreme “temptress,” a femme fatale in the tradition of the mighty seductresses of stage and fiction. In fact, Nina has none of the traditional tricks of the vamp, nor is she especially beautiful or flirtatious. Such light conversation as she is permitted is arch but without vivacity or charm, and, while both she and Darrell speak and think with longing of the afternoons when they made love, little that is overtly sexual takes place between them. The reality of Nina’s sexuality is revealed mainly by the desire of the men.

There can be little question but that she feeds on the desire each of the men feel for her. Her own description of the process at the end of Act VI is explicit:

My three men! . . . I feel their desires converge in me! . . . to form one complete beautiful male desire which I absorb . . . and am whole . . . they dissolve in me, their life is my life . . . I am pregnant with the three! . . . husband! . . . lover! . . . father! . . . and the fourth man! . . . little man! . . . little Gordon! . . . he is mine too! . . . that makes it perfect! . . . (135)

The predatory sexual need is recognized by the men. Marsden notes Nina’s “strange devious intuitions that tap the hidden currents of life . . . dark intermingling currents that become the one stream of desire,” (135) and he feels caught up with Sam and Darrell as one of her lovers, one of the fathers of her child. Darrell, on occasion fighting her, may hold that Nina has “used” his desire, yet he knows that he cannot escape her, that he has no will.***************** Thus, although he may try to make a life for himself away from Nina, her need is stronger than his, and he returns to fulfill his function of making Nina “happy,” even though the active sexual phase of their life together is past.

Depending on whether or not she is receiving the devotion she finds essential, Nina is shown in one of two states of being. The first, the dominant mood she reveals in Acts I, II, IV, VII and VIII, is neurotic, tense, frustrated and vindictive. The second, the dominant phase of the other four acts, is contented, almost wholly at peace, as if she were moving deeply in the mainstream of life, filled with a current of vitality flowing in her like the power of nature itself. Notably, when she is in this mood, the men surrounding her are happy in her contentment. When she is in the other mood, they too are frustrated, and, in the case of Marsden and Darrell, attempt to break free from her power over them. Their well-being, in other words, is wholly bound up with hers. At the same time, it must be noted, that when she is completely fulfilled, Nina’s life exists on the non-temporal plane of the play. Her satisfaction lies within her, is expressed in her thoughts, not her actions, and is described in terms of such recurrent forces as the tide and the seasons. On the other hand, when she is not filled with such profound contentment, her neuroticism causes her to move in the temporal plane with actions that are essentially destructive of life, without belief or feeling, denying desire. Then she reveals a cruel and capricious willfullness, a power to hurt not only the men but herself. It is not that her need for the male desire is less, but that she is unable to receive it, as if she had been somehow made incapable of thirst, even though she is unsatisfied.

In this condition, lonely and afraid, she speaks most frequently of the ruling force of life as God the Father, a possessive deity, but one who is essentially indifferent. She says:

I tried hard to pray to the modern science God. I thought of a million light years to a spiral nebula—one other universe among innumerable others. But how could that God care about our trifling misery of death-born-of-birth? I couldn’t believe in Him, and I wouldn’t if I could! I’d rather imitate His indifference and prove I had that one trait at least in common! (41)

Yet she is incapable of identification with such a God. She cries out to Marsden:

The mistake began when God was created in a male image. Of course, women would see Him that way, but men should have been gentlemen enough, remembering their mothers, to make God a woman! But the God of Gods—the Boss—has always been a man. That makes life so perverted, and death so unnatural. We should have imagined life as created in the birth-pain of God the Mother. Then we would understand why we, Her children, have inherited pain, for we would know that our life’s rhythm beats from Her great heart, torn with the agony of love and birth. And we would feel that death meant reunion with Her, a passing back into Her substance, blood of Her blood again, peace of Her peace! . . . Oh, God, Charlie, I want to believe in something! I want to believe so I can feel! (42)

As he had earlier in Desire Under the Elms, O’Neill here sees man’s religious experience in terms of an opposition of God the Father and God the Mother. For Nina, when God the Mother rules, she can believe and feel; when God the Father takes command she can do neither. The indifference of God the Father leaves her empty but the life rhythms of God the Mother enable her to feel desire. For the men, when she is in the latter phase, Nina is more than a sexually desirable woman. She is, insofar as she can be so represented, God the Mother in her own person. The point is made explicitly:

Not Ned’s child! . . . not Sam’s child! . . . mine! . . . there!. . . again! . . . I feel my child live . . . moving in my life . . . my life moving in my child . . . breathing in the tide I dream and breathe my dream back into the tide . . . God is a Mother. . . . (109)

And again,

There . . . again . . . his child! . . . my child moving in my life . . . my life moving in my child . . . the world is whole and perfect . . . all things are each other’s . . . life is . . . and this is beyond reason . . . questions die in the silence of this peace . . . I am living a dream within the great dream of the tide . . . breathing in the tide I dream and breathe back my dream into the tide . . . suspended in the movement of the tide, I feel life move in me, suspended in me . . . no whys matter . . . there is no why . . . I am a mother . . . God is a Mother . . . (91)

In Lazarus Laughed, O’Neill had shown God the Father as indifferent to human happiness, and as valuing man as he related to the eternal process of life. By so much as Lazarus shares these qualities he becomes God the Father incarnated on earth. In Strange Interlude, the other side of the pantheon is explored as Nina, in her inner world, becomes God the Mother, at war with God the Father, yet, in the end forced to accept the fact that her incarnation can exist only in the strange dark interlude “in the electrical display of God the Father.” (199)

The dramatization of the quality of that interlude is dependent on the double time pattern. To use O’Neill’s term, in narrative time, all the characters live in “unreal reality,” moving meaninglessly toward their end. On the timeless plane, without reference to motive and action, their existence takes on an aspect of eternity, becomes in a measure an abstraction of relationships, both to one another and to the essential force which determines their lives. Nina’s identity as the Mother God is dependent on her existence in a world of feeling, on simple, almost vegetative being, on, in short, her presence in the world defined and dramatized by the asides and the soliloquies. In the last act, the asides occur much less frequently, as Nina moves toward her end, and, in the autumnal garden, relaxes into a long peaceful twilight. Her sentient being comes to the surface, the two time patterns combine, and the need for maintaining their duality lessens as the play’s two realities merge and become identical. Time, at the end, no longer defines the external pattern. Life slips into an afternoon’s sleep, and desire passes from the daughter of God the Mother.

The main contour of the drama, in its essential meaning, is similar to many less expansive works in O’Neill’s past. Nina’s attempt to discover and to belong to the force from which she takes her life, and the attempt of the men to belong to the God in her, is at heart O’Neill’s primary theme. Its development in Strange Interlude is less poetically conceived than it had been in The Emperor Jones or The Hairy Ape, and O’Neill does not resolve it on the note of alienation and destruction that marks even the ending of Desire Under the Elms. Indeed, Strange Interlude, for all its novelty, is not obviously “theatrical.” O’Neill has sought deliberately to control his tendency toward melodrama, to write in a more Chekhovian vein of a life pattern that does not end climactically, but simply wears away, decays in “smokeless burning.” The play, of course, is not Chekhovian. O’Neill at this point in his career distrusted realism, and sought to give his play generality, symbolism and universality by direct expository means. He failed. Philip Moeller and Kenneth Macgowan spoke of the “new kind of dialogue” which the asides produced,****************** but the effect inevitably led toward a psychological case study, rather than toward important theological statements. O’Neill in his “Memoranda on Masks” spoke of the possibility of using masks to “express those profound hidden conflicts of the mind which the probings of psychology continue to disclose to us.” At the same time, he spoke of masks as giving “a chance for eloquent presentation, a new form of drama projected from a fresh insight into the inner forces motivating the actions and reactions of men and women . . . a drama of souls     and he described the value of masks as being “psychological, mystical and abstract.”2 In these comments a tension is suggested between that which is purely “psychological” and that which is “mystical and abstract,” a theologically oriented “drama of souls.” In a second article O’Neill said that Strange Interlude was “an attempt at the new masked psychological drama . . . without masks—a successful attempt, perhaps, in so far as it concerns only surfaces and their immediate subsurfaces, but not where, occasionally, it tries to probe deeper.”3 O’Neill’s attempt to probe deeper led him inevitably toward theological, rather than psychological, considerations, and it is perhaps here as O’Neill suggests that Strange Interlude fails most signally. Although the essence of the theology is there, it is “masked” by the psychological intimations of the new dialogue. What is mystical and abstract in the work is obscured by the implication of purely psychological exploration. To write a religious drama, O’Neill needed to depart further from realism as he had done in Lazarus Laughed, and as he was to try twice again to do in Dynamo and Days Without End. Luckily, the failure of Strange Interlude to project its theology adequately did not mar, perhaps was the reason for, the play’s success. Certainly, his two further attempts to write of man and God directly were failures, ones which led him to give over the attempt to find God and to take what amounted to a wholly new view of man.

* His principal associates on the Guild’s Board of Directors were Lawrence Langner and Theresa Helburn. Langner, who had been schooled in the handling of temperamental playwrights by his acquaintance with Bernard Shaw, saw to it that the Guild in all its branches collaborated with O’Neill’s demands. In return, O’Neill proved unusually cooperative with them. Langner’s account of their work together in The Magic Curtain is an important record of O’Neill’s whole-hearted collaboration with the producers during the rehearsal period of his plays.

** Joseph Wood Krutch, The Nation, February 15, 1928. In 1927, O’Neill had written to Krutch regarding the proposed production of Strange Interlude and inveighed against the American theatre, hoping only that the Guild would do no worse than the Provincetown Players and the Triumvirate had done for certain of his plays. He told Krutch that he had come to expect bad productions.

*** At this period, in order to build a permanent acting company, the Guild was attempting a repertory system. None of their plays were kept before the public for the full extent of their possible run. The incredible popularity of Strange Interlude put an end to any repertory ambitions the Guild had.

**** O’Neill’s relations with his publisher arc discussed by Walker Gilmer in his biography Horace Liveright (New York, 1970), 175-84. Strange Interlude’s success was the fulfillment of a long association between O’Neill and Liveright. From the publication of Beyond the Horizon in 1923, through that of Dynamo in 1929, the publisher had brought out thirteen volumes containing twenty-four of O’Neill’s plays. Regular publication of his work was an important clement in the development of his international reputation, as Gilmer points out. According to Gilmer, the association of O’Neill and Liveright was mutually satisfactory. Liveright unprotestingly had all of Strange Interlude reset because the author made so many changes on the galleys. Content with such special treatment, O’Neill worked in harmony with his publisher. For his part, Liveright could count on an immediate sale of ten thousand copies of any successful O’Neill play, a figure sufficient to classify the dramatist as one of the firm’s most popular authors. Limited editions, expensively priced, sold out quickly, and Strange Interlude sold one hundred thousand copies, for which O’Neill is reputed to have received $250,000.

***** The film was delayed by MGM’s refusal to buy the play until settlement of a suit brought against O’Neill and the Guild by a woman who, under the pen name of Georges Lewys, had written a work entitled The Temple of Pallas-Athenae. Miss Lewys, in reality Gladys Lewis, author of Call House Madam, charged that her mildly erotic novel had provided the basis of O’Neill’s plot. Judge John M. Woolsey, who shortly was to lift the ban against James Joyce’s Ulysses, decided without difficulty in favor of O’Neill and the Guild and fined the plaintiff a substantial sum. The decision with its penalty against the plaintiff is said to have proved a deterrent to similar irresponsible actions.

****** Otto Kahn, demonstrating typical panache, went home during the dinner intermission to change into evening clothes.

******* Parody is some measure of success. The asides were endlessly a subject for amused burlesque, most importantly, perhaps, by Groucho Marx, whose dead-pan, eyes-to-camera delivery of irrelevant notes and comments on the farcical action may have been derived in part from the staging of the asides in the Guild production. At least in Animal Crackers, his second film, he directly parodied the O’Neill asides. For what it is worth, I remember a two-reel, slap-stick comedy about taxicabs entitled Strange Innertube. See also Erik Linklater, Juan in America (London, 1931), 81-84.

******** The production was taken to nearby Quincy for the benefit of the Guild’s Boston subscription list. Langner notes that the profits from the sudden influx of patrons to a small Quincy restaurant during the dinner intermission was sufficient to enable its owner Howard Johnson to begin his career as a national restaurateur. The banning put Strange Interlude into the category of censored works. One which Horace Liveright published and defended against censorship in 1925 was Maxwell Bodenheim’s Replenishing Jessica. The book is a tawdry account of its heroine’s “replenishment” at the rate of a love affair per chapter. Its opening paragraph conceivably could have influenced Strange Interlude: “Sometimes rooms are filled with all of the words that people do not say to each other. The unspoken words hang in the air, like an impalpable contradiction, or else they hover in a richly unseen friendliness that strengthens the more faltering sounds from the lips of the speakers. The man and woman in the room feel this presence and often help it with their silences.”

********* O’Neill’s previous “on-Broadway” successes included Beyond the Horizon, “Anna Christie,” The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape. All but “Anna Christie” had come to Broadway after “experimental” productions, including the special matinees of Beyond the Horizon.

********** Miss Doris M. Alexander in “Strange Interlude and Schopenhauer,” American Literature, XXV, May, 1953, has explored the relationship of the play to Schopenhauer’s The Metaphysic of the Love of the Sexes. Stressing that Schopenhauer’s concept of the Will To Live, a blind life force mastering the course of men’s lives, would prove congenial to O’Neill, she demonstrates that the treatment of love in the play parallels in broad outline and in many specific details the view expressed by the philosopher: e.g., that the love affair between Nina and Darrell reflects Schopenhauer’s opinion that men and women fall in love in order to serve the species and beget children, but that love is an illusion whose expectations cannot be satisfied and which leads to ultimate unhappiness and degeneration. In Miss Alexander’s view, Sam, in his seemingly healthy materialism is a direct exemplification of the Will To Live in its rawest form, and, at the play’s end, Nina and Charlie Marsden have successfully denied the life force, Marsden through his sexual chastity, Nina through having gone beyond sexual desire after the menopause. Miss Alexander’s argument is essentially correct; O’Neill read Schopenhauer, along with Nietzsche and Freud, while he was writing the play in 1926. It may be suggested, however, that although he used him, he did not entirely accept Schopenhauer’s evaluation of sexual experience. If Marsden, for example, has denied the Will To Live, why is he a figure without wisdom, deservedly held in contempt until the final moments of the play? Nor is it entirely clear that love for Nina has ruined Darrell’s life, as Miss Alexander claims. If so, the degeneration is as easily explained without reference to Schopenhauer. An audience trained by plays and films in which the ruin of a man was effected by a fatal woman who drained him of his will power would understand at once. O’Neill has evidently used the philosopher, but the play’s public knew more about Theda Bara and Gloria Swanson than Schopenhauer.

*********** The exception is her decision to have a child by Darrell. However, since the moral choice is known to none but Darrell, no judgment of her action can occur, even from the audience.

************ As Timo Tiusanen notes, in the ground plan for the interior scenes, O’Neill requires that the furniture be placed in the same arrangement regardless of the location of the room. (O’Neill’s Scenic Images, 218) The device, in a minor way, is intended to suggest that nothing changes from year to year or place to place.

************* O’Neill suggests that Nina has gone through menopause at the age of forty. Cf. Nina’s aside in Act VII, 138: “I’m thirty-five ... five years more . . . at forty a woman has finished living . . . life passes by her . . . she rots away in peace!” Cf. also Sam’s aside in Act IX, when Nina is forty-five: “I thought once her change of life was over she’d be ashamed of her crazy jealousy.” (160)

************** The effect is comparable to the aging of Miriam in Lazarus Laughed, who grows older as Lazarus grows younger. O’Neill calls for Darrell to look youthful in Act VII, but by Act VIII, his age is evident.

*************** O’Neill commented to Lawrence Langner during the rehearsals of Strange Interlude that “If the actors weren’t so dumb, they wouldn’t need asides; they’d be able to express the meaning without them. (Cf. The Magic Curtain, 236)

**************** Nina’s son, Gordon, seen briefly as an adult in the last act is an exception. He is breaking from Nina to go with his fiancée. Sam’s relation to his mother in Act III is limited to a brief, almost perfunctory scene of exposition, preparatory to the scene between Mrs. Evans and Nina.

***************** Cf. “her body is a trap! . . . I'm caught in it! . . . she touches my hand, her eyes get in mine, I lose my will! . . . (105)

****************** Macgowan called the asides a device that “was more than soliloquy, and it did more than expose the thoughts of people. It was a living and exciting dialogue of a new kind. To the dramatic contrasts and conflicts of ordinary spoken dialogue O’Neill added the contrasts and conflicts of thought. There was the speech of Nina against the speech of Charlie, the thought of Nina against the speech of Nina, the thought of Nina against the thought of Charlie, and sometimes the speech of one against the thought of the other.” Kenneth Macgowan, “The O’Neill Soliloquy,” The Theatre Guild Magazine, February, 1929. (Reprinted in Cargill, 452.)


© Copyright 1999-2007