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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 0


Strange Interlude, and the Quest for Truth

Thierry Dubost
University of Caen (France)

In Strange Interlude, one of O’Neill’s challenging works, the playwright addressed the question of truth when he staged the epic story of Nina Leeds. Starting from Nina’s rejection of lies, he displayed a multi-faceted quest for truth. Its very nature was questioned by characters who - confronted with self-delusion, human frailty and their lack of freedom - gradually realized the complexity of their relationship to truth. In this uncommon play inner monologues, together with Freud’s theory enabled O’Neill to pursue further his reflection on truth, to the point of eventually calling into question the relevance of accepted western philosophical perspectives. 

In nine-act Strange Interlude, act one corresponds to an opening scene in classical drama. It serves as an introduction to the conflicts later developed in the  play, among which is Nina's loathing of a society that prevented her from becoming a woman. Her revolt results from what she characterizes as a basic social abhorrence of truth. Nina violently states the causes for her rejection, and the intensity of her bereavement gives further weight to her claims according to which people's lives are plagued by their adherence to a fundamental misconception of what life should be:

Nina. Say lie - (She says it drawing it out) Liiie! Now say life. Liife! You see! Life is just a long drawn out lie with a sniffing sigh at the end! (1)

The "sniffing sigh at the end" illustrates her gloomy outlook but, venting her anger, she implies that she seeks a more positive social contract. Indeed, in act one, both her dissatisfaction and her departure initiate a search for something different, an existence devoid of a corruption due to unacceptable social demands. Her uncompromising attitude, with its clear-cut opposition between truth and lies, becomes the starting point of what is staged as an epic quest, calling into question, beyond Nina’s own experience, other individual and social understandings of what truth is.

Although the concept of truth is not analyzed as such in the play, it stands out in a clair-obscur way, because Nina believes that pointing one's finger at the lies of the world is a way of revealing the truth. In her view, truth might correspond to "something held or accepted as true,” as "the absence of pretense or imitation(2)". Other protagonists hold different views, and use the word signifying "consistent with fact or reality.” Whatever meaning characters take into account, the central role of truth in act one and its importance in the presentation of people’s lives remains a striking factor.

Conflicts appear at different levels, and the discord between Nina and her father paves the way for a metaphysical reflection. The universe in which Nina would like to live, as well as the one she rejects, is based on contrasts between right and wrong, good and evil, truth and lies. Starting from these oppositions, she - like other people - tries to give a meaning to her life. In this respect, despite her challenging attitude, she remains a representative of Western Thought, in which dichotomies between antagonistic concepts prevail.

Life is a lie, and to live is to lie. One could summarize the opening act, saying that Nina refuses a fake paradise, and then leaves in order to start again in another environment where the rules will possibly follow opposite principles. Nina's words testify to her revelation. She states she has become aware of an original deception; consequently, she cannot claim to exist as long as she accepts to live obeying rules that rest on fake values. Nina’s outburst is no marginal issue, and it takes different aspects in the play. It also poses the question of self-delusion, and of people’s capacity to face and discover the truth.

Sam. Tell her you've decided... for her sake... to face the truth... that she can't love you... she's tried... she's acted like a good sport... but she's beginning to hate you... and you can't blame her... she wanted children... and you haven't been able... (3)

According to Nina's harsh standards, her husband's attitude commands respect because once he realizes his failure, he accepts to pay the price for his deficiency. Yet although Sam wants to face the truth about himself, both his pessimistic and then optimistic delusions regarding paternity call into question his capacity to discover the truth. Sam's extreme blindness is uncommon; still, taking into account his depiction in the play - as an ordinary person - he merely represents human inability to come to terms with truth.

Sam’s relatives and friends partly share his incapacity. Some cannot cope with reality, as an echo of truth, while others look for it to no avail.

Marsden. Well, then, a little truth for once in a way!
(Timidly) I'm afraid of - of life, Nina

Marsden’s insight is more acute than Sam’s. While Sam Evans easily deludes himself into believing he is Gordon's father, Marsden, who cannot live in a fake paradise, only reaps limited benefits out of his restricted self-delusion. He finds himself caught between opposite forces, and while he opts for honesty, duplicity temporarily becomes a means of survival. In the long term however, Marsden's partial awareness of what he hides proves less efficient than Sam’s innocence, and truth is finally disclosed. The revelation of his fear to Nina was a first step towards meeting the challenge he has to face, namely putting an end to his escape policy, and coming to terms with the truth.

As the action unfolds, the link between lies and life evolves, and most characters - Nina included - have to resort to lies. Lying seems to be part of people's fates, in so far as they cannot fight against it, whatever their initial wishes may have been. Sam is oblivious to his dramatic plight, but Nina, Mrs. Evans and Darrell have to resort to make-believe in order to help him. Their forced original lie prevents them from being themselves, and Nina - who craves to reveal her adultery to Sam - cannot do so. The relationship between happiness and telling the truth soon becomes more complex than Nina's original anger had suggested. Hiding the truth stands in the way of some characters' happiness, but for Sam mendacity means bliss.

Deceit should not automatically be associated with fate or altruistic attitudes. As time goes by, Nina's reasons for being untrue lose their sacrificial nature.

Nina. You must remember the happiness we've known in each other's arms! You were the only happiness I've ever known in life!

Darrell. (struggling weakly - thinking)
She lies!... there was her old lover, Gordon!

In the opening act, Nina points an accusing finger at her father and at the puritan moral code that prevents people from telling the truth, but in the course of the play, she often lies for personal motives(6). In Strange Interlude, O’Neill wanted to depict an exceptional woman, and he turns Nina’s confrontation with truth into a major existential issue. Through her incapacity to come to terms with truth, the audience understands that such a difficulty is inherent to human nature, and that she, like Sam, embodies human frailty.

The main difference between Strange Interlude and traditional plays is that, by systematically resorting to inner monologues, O’Neill enabled the audience to have access to what he exposed as the truth. Spectators become omniscient, since the workings of the characters’ minds are not simply revealed but precisely described.

Professor Leeds. And there you have it, Charlie - the whole absurd mess! (thinking with a strident accusation)
and it's true, you contemptible...!

(Then miserably defending himself)

No!... I acted unselfishly... for her sake!...(7)

Monologues enable O’Neill to depict the battles waged in the minds of his characters. Here, Professor Leeds dare not quite acknowledge why he asked Gordon not to marry his daughter. He may not have been conscious of his motives when he acted, but the prevarication he resorted to builds a mental prison for him, that will only disappear after he has confessed. As soon as he faces the truth, he reaches the intimate peace of regained unity and the transformation of inner monologues illustrates this change. When Professor Leeds, (or even Charlie and Nina in the last scene) speak to other characters, monologues are less frequent, and the internal division that characterized them disappears. It follows that inner monologues play a double role concerning truth. First, they are means of exposing internal tensions experienced by characters who suffer from the separation of their acts from their true feelings. Then, for the audience, this intimate disconnection reveals how far protagonists are from the truth, whether it be about themselves or their relationship with the world.

Professor Leeds, who is the first character to experience Nina’s magic cure - accepting to tell the truth - has some doubts about the possibility of acting so genuinely:

Professor Leeds. Let us say I persuaded myself it was for your sake. That may be true. You are young. You think one can live with truth (8).

Professor Leeds does not share his daughter's view, that living is lying. However, he admits that there is a connection between the two things, stating that the link mainly has to do with man's capacity for living with the truth. One cannot live with the truth, even if one is vaguely aware of it, simply because it cannot be told. Lies become a kind of necessity, not so much because the characters feel like inventing fake stories, but because these protecting screens help people survive.

Some characters who cannot endure truth seek other roads to happiness, because they do not share the results of Professor Leeds’ late discovery. For them, deception brings a temporary relief, but Marsden challenges the efficiency of such escapes, and he summarizes the impossibility of any such liberation.

Marsden. My running away was about as successful as his... as if one could leave one's memory behind (9).

During performance, the actors' monologues illustrate this clash between a wish to hide the truth and an everlasting trial, but in reality, the truth cannot be concealed. The protagonists play a permanent hide-and-seek game with truth, but they are never in a position to control it. They are sought when they think they are safely hidden and vice versa - the main idea being that truth will out - no matter when and how.

The dual aspect of inner monologues indicates that the character is partly cheating. Whether it is with himself or with the other protagonists does not matter. Thanks to this technique, O'Neill enables the audience to understand that the ever-recurring duality, revealing the conflict between two opposing sides of individuals, causes happiness to be unobtainable. Memory is associated with guilt, but eradicating the past is impossible, therefore everyone has to come to terms with it, in order to face truth and find himself. We previously noted that truth had to give way to lies for different reasons, some of which did not result from the characters' own choice. The opposite is also true. Protagonists are sometimes faced with a reality they had rejected, but which comes to their minds unexpectedly. This is the case for Marsden and the sexual thoughts he cannot accept, but other characters also discover unpredictable mental ideas.

Darrell. It's nothing to hope - I meant, to worry over! (then violently) God damn it, why did you make me say hope?

Nina. (calmly) It may have been in your mind, too, mayn't it?

Darrell. No! I've nothing against Sam. I've always been his best friend. He owes his happiness to me.

Nina. (strangely) There are so many curious reasons we dare not think about for thinking things! (10)

O'Neill painstakingly uses Freud’s theory, and implies that truth will out at one stage or another, no matter what the characters may do in order to shirk from it. Unfortunately, his simplistic Freudian approach does not work very well. Here, for instance, Darrell’s speech no longer corresponds to his feelings. By then, Darrell’s possessive love for Nina has vanished, and his hopes concerning Evans’ death seem irrelevant.

Whether characters endeavor to face the truth or attempt to flee leads to similar results. Truth cannot be ignored, and trying to hide it makes it appear when the person least expects it. Consequently, there is a total opposition between flight and quest, because when the characters try to escape, they meet with what they wanted to avoid. Conversely, Nina's attempt to find truth shows how difficult it is to discover the truth about oneself.

Another point is that characters may not be able to face the truth about themselves, should they discover it too soon. Moreover, while getting away from lies might be a way of freeing oneself, it proves a hard task because people gradually become prisoners of the web of lies they have spun.

Marsden. That's what I've been, Nina - a hush-hush whisperer of lies! Now I'm going to give an honest healthy yell - turn on the sun into shadows of lies - shout "This is life and this is sex, and here are passion and hatred and regret and joy and pain and ecstasy, and these are men and women and sons and daughters whose hearts are weak and strong, whose blood is blood and not a soothing syrup!" Oh, I can do it, Nina! I can write the truth! (11)

At the end of his existential journey, Marsden can finally cope with reality, and hopes to come to terms with life through his writing. As an authorial representation, Marsden is worth studying, not so much for what it could reveal of O'Neill's biography, as for the definition of his literary project. Creating a work of art would then mean that the characters would represent real human beings, and that a writer would be a person who can write "the truth” (12). Here, Marsden states that through a renewed approach of his characters’ existence, he will reveal what people are unable to perceive, and writing might become a means of curing people of their blindness. In this respect, Marsden's attempt is consistent with O’Neill's admiration for Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, which had enchanted him because it proved that there could be "a modern theatre where truth might live" (13).

When we investigate O'Neill's experimentation with a succession of anti-realistic devices, then we need to recognize that, in part, the experimentation arises from the dramatist's search for ways of creating "real realism" on the stage (14).

"Real realism" means what is true. Unfortunately, as was shown by Darrell’s supposed deadly wishes regarding Sam, after reading Freud and Jung, O’Neill gives the impression of having believed that ultimately he could reach the inner truth of individuals. This is exemplified when the characters speak, and then inwardly comment on what they have just said. The difference between their feelings and their speeches reveals the gap between appearances and reality. Even if O'Neill did not quite assimilate thoughts with truth, but saw truth as the mixture of what people say and what they feel, his attempt at reaching "real realism" proves inefficient.

In Strange Interlude inner monologues supposedly correspond to the truth, a device that deprives spectators of the pleasure of guessing what masks hide. Apparently, the technique fulfills Marsden's purpose, according to which the author's part consisted in "writing the truth.” However, O'Neill's inadequate understanding of Freudian theory recalls Darrell’s initial naïveté in act two. As a doctor, he believed his scientific knowledge provided him with omniscience, only to discover at the end of his life, that he had to distance himself from his former beliefs. In act nine, Darrell even questions the reality of his paternity although, scientifically, there is no room for doubt.

Darrell. Besides, I'm quite sure Gordon isn't my son, if the deep core of the truth were known! I was only a body to you (15).

He distances himself from his scientific creed, in favor of a psychological outlook on a question that was at the core of the play. His paradoxical attitude proves coherent with that of other characters as if, after a long quest, once truth was found or told, it lost its importance.

Various philosophical or religious creeds appear in the play, but it seems that - eventually prevailing among them - are Eastern perspectives. Starting from an acute conflict analyzed in western terms, Nina moves on to an Eastern perspective, where wou wei, spontaneous inaction prevails. Once she finds her Way, differences between truth and lies disappear since they become one common thing. At the end of the play, both Charlie and Nina reach a higher plane, and the quest for what is true disappears since they have found a truth that they need not express because they feel it.

When O’Neill wrote Strange Interlude, he disclosed what was happening in the minds of his characters. To do so, he resorted to inner monologues that he sometimes used in a very didactic form. He showed that people's deliberate attempts at reaching truth proved fruitless because the result of their quest did not solely depend on individual will. In this way, O'Neill put himself in a position where he could give his audience a clue as to what truth was, and illustrated how it could be found. In the course of the play, he repeatedly indicated that trying to gain access to truth hardly ever enabled his characters to reach it, while escape strategies led to opposite results. Eventually, his authorial figure, initially embodied by Marsden came to be also incarnated by Darrell, whose scientific certainties are finally called into question, in the same way as O’Neill’s are.

Through his characters’ epic quest, O’Neill completed his reflection on truth, and showed that truth could not be discovered as such, but that it could be felt. Beyond that unsurprising conclusion, the vicissitudes of the characters’ lives result in changed philosophical perspectives. These alterations not only concern the illusory nature of people’s attempt at self-assertion as a way of reaching the truth, but also radically challenge duality as a relevant system of interpretation of the world. Both for characters and for O’Neill’s authorial commitment in the quest for truth, initial Western certainties seem to give way to Eastern wisdom, if not as a definite clue to people’s search for truth, at least as a renewed outlook on life.

(1) Eugene O'Neill,  Strange Interlude. The Plays of Eugene O'Neill,  vol. 3 (New York;  The Modern Library, Random House, 1982)  40.

(2) Oxford Dictionary.

(3) Eugene O'Neill,  Strange Interlude  op. cit.,  92.

(4) Eugene O'Neill, Strange Interlude  op. cit.,  42.

(5) Eugene O'Neill,  Strange Interlude  op. cit.,  173.

(6) And O’Neill insists that society is also concerned by a tendency to hide the truth, to the point that at times, Marsden shows that its very survival depends on its capacity to make people believe in false creeds. Marsden. I didn't fight... Physically unfit... not like Gordon... Gordon in flames... How she must resent my living! thinking of me, scribbling in press bureau... louder and louder lies... drown the guns and the screams... deafen the world with lies... hired choir of liars! Eugene O'Neill,  Strange Interlude  op. cit.,  14.

(7) Eugene O'Neill,  Strange Interlude  op. cit.,  11.

(8) Eugene O'Neill,  Strange Interlude  op. cit.,  20.

(9) Eugene O'Neill,  Strange Interlude  op. cit.,  112.

(10) Eugene O'Neill,  Strange Interlude  op. cit.,  170.

(11) Eugene O'Neill,  Strange Interlude  op. cit.,  176.

(12) Engel rightly relates Marsden's declaration to O’Neill’s objectives as a playwright: In effect, he would become what an author should be: he would do precisely what O'Neill had done himself in writing Strange Interlude. Edwin Engel,  The Haunted Heroes of Eugene 0'Neill,  (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1953)  221.

(13) Doris Alexander,  Eugene O'Neill's Creative Struggle,  (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992)  15.

(14) John H. Houchin, "Introduction,"  The Critical Response to Eugene O'Neill,  Ed. John H. Houchin.  (Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1993)  5.

(15) Eugene O'Neill,  Strange Interlude  op. cit.,  174.



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