"BLACK BREAD" VS. STRANGE INTERLUDE: O'NEILL PARODIED
Something Edmund Wilson failed to include in The Shock of Recognition (1943) was a parodistic synopsis of O'Neill's Strange Interlude (1928) by a young Scots novelist, Eric Linklater, born March 8, 1899 in Aberdeen. Linklater collected the Americana in his Juan in America (1931) while on a Commonwealth (U.K.) Scholarship in the U.S. during 1928-30. Since Strange Interlude, opening on January 30, 1928, at 5:15 p.m. at the John Golden Theater in New York, was destined to become a landmark due to its length and theme, it finds its way into the thinly disguised semi-novel&travel fiction as "Black Bread," successor apparent to Abie's Irish Rose as a melodramatic smash, and packing them in nightly at the "New Artists' Theatre." Juan, the picaro/naif of Linklater's novel, is told it is the most play for the money in New York. (Incidentally, Strange Interlude's 1929 Massachusetts run--in Quincy because of Boston censorship--made an obscure ice-cream stand famous: Howard Johnson's, due to its proximity, caught the supper-break audiences.)
Linklater, after serving as a private in the Black Watch in WW1, had been Assistant Editor of The Times of India, Bombay (1925-27) and Assistant Professor of English Literature at his alma mater, Aberdeen University (1927-28), before his U.S. junket. He was later the author of a continual stream of light comic novels, including Poet's Pub (1930)* and the better known Laxdale Hall (1951), and various plays. His autobiography, The Man on My Back, appeared in 1941, and he reported on 1951 in A Year of Space, a travel-diary. He died in Aberdeen, after having served as Rector of the University, on November 7, 1974, at the age of 75.
It appears that Alexander Woolcott had Linklater's company in disliking Strange Interlude in its first run. According to the Gelbs' O'Neill (1962, p. 662), Woolcott panned it in the New York World a week after it opened, in his "Second Thoughts on First Nights" column. Most critics loved it, though, and it won O'Neill his third Pulitzer Prize.
Linklater's parodistic synopsis has never appeared in anybody's Great Plots, any more than the Marx Brothers' one-reel "Strange Innertube" appears in anybody's Great Screenplays. Note the injection of a racial motif in Linklater's parody--part of the landscape of 1930s Americana as then interpreted by a Scots comedist. The feminist content of Strange Interlude might salvage it for our time, but it evidently provoked extreme reactions among O'Neill's detractors in his own time, among whom Linklater ranks notably.
* 2 copies available @ Box 162, Waban, MA 02168.
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FROM ERIC LINKLATER'S JUAN IN AMERICA
[The following section of Eric Linklater's Juan in America (London: Jonathan Cape, 1931) appears on pp. 80-84 of Book Two ("The Land of Infinite Possibility," pp. 63-202). The resemblance between "Black Bread" and Strange Interlude, and between Knut Blennem and Eugene O'Neill, may be minimal, and the treatment of miscegenation certainly passes beyond the borders of the indecorous. But the parody deserves a glance by all O'Neillians, if only for historic reasons, and is herewith offered as a "Christmas bonus"! --Ed.]
Black Bread was the sensation of New York. Its author, Knut Blennem, was recognised to be the leader in histrionic innovation and the adaptation of stage practice to modern theory. It was he who had said: "Psychology is our generation's gift to the world. Psychology has revolutionised philosophy, art, science, and society. Psychology has made men like gods. It was psychology that taught me to write plays."
Ecstatically the critics had lauded his play. Their columns had been stuffed to bursting-point with superlatives and semi-naive confessions of the emotional havoc which it had wrought in their semi-naive but critical minds; for emotional havoc is much sought after in America. "Here is a play to tear your heart out," said one. "Pity caught at my throat and choked me," said another. This one's soul was slashed with anguish, that one's wrung with terror, and still another's turned in his breast like a babe in torment. When this was its effect on critical hearts and souls, what was the reaction of ordinary people likely to be? Juan asked the girl who sold cigarettes on the mezzanine floor of the Hotel Connecticut.
"Say," she answered, "it's a panic, it's a wow!"
And so wherever it was mentioned Mr. Blennem's name went up like a balloon on shrill blasts of adulation. For this play was to-day's asseveration of its powers, and before such powers as these it was clear that the so-called Immortals of yesterday were nothing but flops, four-flushers, and false alarms. For one and all they had died without ever hearing of psychology.
Black Bread was the story of the woman Kathleen and her three lovers, Sidney Bush, Walter Hood, and Gerald Tomkins. A secondary plot dealt with the affection entertained by Livia (Kathleen's sister) for Walter Hood; a vain affection. There was not very much action in the play. Every half-hour the scene shifted. Kathleen was introduced on the verandah of her home in the Adirondacks. She was talking to Sidney and Gerald. Then she was shown in bed, talking to Walter. Then in the living room, the dining room, on board a train, in an art gallery (some enlightened observations were offered here), a corridor, a garden, and a bathroom. But wherever she was she talked, and Walter, Gerald, and Sidney very often replied to her. But more often they wrote in their diaries. For this was the revolutionary device invented by Mr. Knut Blennem for discovering to the audience the true and secret thoughts of his dramatis personae.
It is notorious that we speak no more than half-truths in our ordinary conversation, and even a soliloquy is likely to be affected by the apprehension that walls have ears. Only to our diaries do we tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and by writing a play whose characters were all habitual jotters-down of errant thought, Mr. Blennem was able to show in the fullest detail his masterly psychological insight.
No less admirable than the original concept of dramatic diary-makers was Mr. Blennem's device for revealing to the audience, piecemeal and as they were written, the endless confessions of his characters. A frame of white screens surrounded the stage, each one clearly marked by a name, as Walter, Sidney, or Kathleen. And as each character wrote in his diary, what was written appeared on the appropriate screen, flashed on to it by a projector of the kind used in cinemas.
For example, Kathleen would say to Walter: "I am weary to-day. I feel the life under my heart." (For she was pregnant.)
And Walter would answer: "The weather is growing sultry. There are more and more clouds in the sky."
But in his diary he would scribble this, and this would flash on to the screen: "The woman frightens me. I feel the dark power of her soul, and my soul struggles feebly in the whirlpool of her ens. She has engulfed me. Will she never tell me if I am the father of her child, or if Sidney begot it; or perhaps Gerald?"
For all three men were Kathleen's lovers, and all three knew that she was pregnant, but none (perhaps not even Kathleen herself) could say who was the father of the coming child.
In sharp contrast to Kathleen was Livia, who had no lovers, and her diary revealed with great sincerity her sex-starved--indeed famine-stricken--soul. She was in love with Walter, but he was frightened of her and always, when he was staying in Kathleen's house, slept with his door locked. This offended Livia who wrote in her diary: "An open door is God's blessing to a wall. He who bolts a door will deny his Master. Dear heart, and his bed so broad!"
After several acts in which Kathleen grew more and more mystical and her lovers wrote quicker and quicker, the baby was born, unexpectedly, in a florist's--"In the beauty of roses did I labour. Between white roses and dark roses was my baby born. In the scent of many flowers he first smelt life"--so the mother-triumpahant, some time later, described her ordeal. But not before a scene almost too dramatic, and very harrowing to conservative opinion in the audience.
The baby was black.
Sidney, Gerald, and Walter were all quite white. They had hereditary taints to prove their impeccable ancestry. And there was only one other male character in the cast--Kathleen's negro chauffeur, Ham.
Ham, the gigantic Nubian, was the baby's father.
Their feelings intolerably wounded, Sidney, Gerald, and Walter make ready for a lynching, and Ham is apparently willing to submit. But before removing his collar he sings a few verses of "Swing low, sweet chariot," and the noise brings Kathleen to his defence.
She is wearing a dressing-gown which Gerald at once declares (through his diary) to be symbolic. It has a black and white chequer-board design. With Ham crouched at her feet, shapeless, inhuman, looking indeed rather like an outcrop of black basalt, Kathleen declares: "I sing the song of miscegenation. Black shall mate with white, negro with northerner, and the strength of Africa run hot in Nordic veins. Zion shall lie down with the Lap and the pledge of their love be fertile over the earth. In my heart are many mansions, and every nation is my guest--Eskimo, Teuton and Gael; Slav, Polynesian, Trinobant . . . .
There was a majority of women in the audience. The spectacle of Kathleen with her court of four men exalted them, for they had no more than one man apiece (if that) and he, perhaps, was tongue-tied, and gravel-blind to their deserts, and weak in the back, and given unduly to sleep. But there, on the visible stage, was a woman with a man at every point of the compass, a man in every corner of the room, so that wheresoever she might turn there was one to cosset and comfort her, and foment the unhealing wound of Eve. So should all women be accommodated, thought the esurient ladies in the audience, and loudly clapped their hands; and such husbands, lovers, and male dinner-partners as were present clapped too, without enjoyment indeed, but realising--as good Americans--that when it comes to culture women know best.
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