The great American actor John Barrymore’s landmark Freudianized Hamlet, which appeared on Broadway in 1922, provided a reading of a classic play in terms of Freud’s Oedipus theory. Not only were Freud’s views on Hamlet available to Barrymore but so also was Ernest Jones’s Hamlet and Oedipus (1910). As well, Barrymore had extensive conversations with Jelliffe. The play was directed by Arthur Hopkins and designed by Robert Edmund Jones, both of whom had a pronounced interest in Freud. Jones executed “an austere scenic scheme of a vast stairway with three platforms. A great arch, through which the sky might be seen, formed a soaring background.” All was bathed in a “fluidic lighting” and Hamlet’s Father’s ghost was indicated only “by a spectral play of light upon a wind-stirred background drapery.” Here was a setting reflecting the mysterious depths of the mind. Barrymore’s blunter intention, however, was to create a Hamlet “so male that when I come out on stage they can hear my balls clank.” Hamlet’s “subconscious,” he believed, was dominated by one thought: “That bastard puts his prick in my mother’s cunt every night!” The attractive actress who played Gertrude was five years younger than Barrymore and the two played their scenes “as tormented love scenes." Critics quickly recognized the Oedipal interpretation, and debate ensued about the “dark imageries” that “exist in every heart.” It could not be known at the time that, if Barrymore’s Hamlet appeared to reinforce Freud’s and Jones’s reading of the classic as evidence of the universality of the Oedipus, events in Barrymore’s own boyhood suggest another possible reading. As an early biographer was to write, “One might turn psychologist long enough to wonder if the Barrymore lad’s sex initiation, with the guidance of his father’s paramour [later his stepmother], were not the source of the now mature artist’s daring conception of Hamlet as an incestuous prince.”
According to David Sievers, along with the plays concerned with “flaming youth,” one of the most immediate effects of Freud on Broadway was a plethora of plays about the possessive or dominating mother, whose victim could be either son or daughter: “Matriarchy Rampant,” as he puts it. Such presentations of matriarchal dominance were clearly influenced by Freud and were popularly discussed under the rubric of the Oedipus complex. It was notorious and scandalous that during his own lifetime Freud came to be savagely disappointed with America and American Freudianism. “America is a mistake,” he once declared and he suggested to Max Eastman that he write a book entitled “America, the Miscarriage of a Nation." This was not just Freud’s Old European dislike of American democracy. His particular objection to America was that it was a “victim of the mother complex.” American Freudianism, professional and popular, tended to blame the domineering mother. The central difference between Freud and his American followers was that Freud had colored the incest wish masculine. American Freudianism unconsciously convicted its revered founder of being a mother’s boy.
The figure of the matriarch quickly became a stereotype. The irony of the twenties’ relatively direct and frequent emphasis on maternal incest and its relatively infrequent or indirect presentation of father-daughter incest (let alone male-to-male incest) is obvious. The matriarch is often a scapegoat, made to bear all the disfunction of family life in a patriarchal culture (the matriarchs are usually rich and unburdened by an effective or live husband).
“And a man’s foes shall be they of his own
household.” Matthew 10.36.
Nevertheless, that “civilized morality” Freud identified, “the dominant American ideal until 1912” did much to render mother-son relations traumatizing. The leading idea of civilized morality was purity. Churches were active in its promulgation. Women “who were over-represented among the converts, believed…it was the special mission of their sex to uphold the moral standards of society.” As well, there was an accompanying physio-logical argument, to which we have seen even Freud was subject.
Semen and female sexual excretions (“the delicious juices of life”) wasted energy – which was conceived as a limited material stock—needed for the economic and moral life: “precious energizing substances,” a physician wrote, “must not be lost." Civilized morality, in which clergy and the religious, medical men and feminists concurred, involved delayed marriages, small family size and purity within marriage. A slogan of The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was “The White Life for Two” (hence the irony of those lovely, corrupt twenties girls in white in The Great Gatsby).
According to Freudian historians—even Nathan Hale—civilized morality was the illness, Freud the cure. As Hendrik Ruitenbeck put it, “Psychoanalysis and Puritanism…stand in basic conflict." Damn braces, bless relaxes: how familiar is this story? Civilized morality may be said to have “repressed sexuality,” but it might be more accurate to say that it traumatized sexuality. Civilized morality began with the strict supervision of children, often accompanied by the aggressive use of religion.
One of Boris Sidis’s patients said “‘I have blasphemed the Lord’—‘he is worse than a loving mother.’” This—almost wholly maternal—regulation of childhood and youthful sexuality was frequently the vehicle of shaming, unwarranted intrusion, even anger and sadism. Katharine B. Davis conducted one of the first surveys of women’s sexuality: “Mothers, in particular, seemed so perverse in their teaching that Davis labeled them one of the more unfortunate sources of information.” Similarly the ideals of purity and the prolonged engagement kept sexuality circulating within the emotional circuit of the family of origin, setting up structures of emotional incest between father and daughter(s) and mothers and son(s) and between siblings. Mothers, unfulfilled and trapped within the domestic ideal they had helped to create, turned their children into vessels of their own aspirations. “Civilized morality” was the night battle of the genders, children its main victims.
Sievers mentions a number of anti-matriarchal plays with titles like Mamma’s Affair (1920); Makers of Light (1922), a tragedy in which a seventeen-year-old boy falls in love with his schoolteacher; Lovely Lady (1925); Tragic Eighteen (1926); and Strictly Dishonorable (1929). Another work in this vein is Martin Flavin’s early play, Children of the Moon (1924) which had a clear influence on Strange Interlude.
The most successful of the 1920s matriarch plays—excepting O’Neill’s work—was Sidney Howard’s The Silver Cord (1926, Broadway, published 1928). The play is described as a “Comedy in Three Acts,” and Howard praised the actress, Laura Hope Crews, “our chief comedienne”, who played the mother, Mrs. Phelps, for enriching the role with both “tragic irony” and “deftly ironic satire” (1). Nevertheless the play is hopelessly uneven in tone. While Mrs. Phelps is comically shameless, she is also appalling, and her behavior attracts savage speeches of condemnation from the younger characters.
Nor is The Silver Cord subtle. The matriarchal Mrs. Phelps is a wealthy widow who has brought up two dependent sons. Both sons, Robert and David, have recently obtained young women; one is newly married, the other engaged. Mother struggles to nip both budding relationships. She succeeds in intimidating and then driving away one girl, Hester; indeed, Hester’s fiancé, Robert, under his mother’s command, even fails to attempt to save her after she has fallen into a lake. Aptly, at the play’s end he is described as “Engulfed forever” by his mother (Act 3, 204).
The mother is entirely dominating, ruthless, self-pitying and guilt-making. Like Ella O’Neill, she explains that she “nearly died when David was born.” (Act 1, 47) Her behavior to her sons is overtly sexual throughout. She has Robert lie with his head in her lap and kisses him “fervently, on the lips” (Act 1, 56); she arrives in David’s bedroom in the middle of the night in a revealing negligee and reminds him of how they used to play Kings and Queens. Women of her generation, she tells Christina, “made a profession of motherhood….For twenty-four years, since my husband died, I’ve given all my life, all my strength, to Dave and Rob.” (Act 1, 34). Of course, she has robbed them of theirs. David, the other son, an ineffectual architect, is saved from becoming his mother’s interior decorator thanks to the courage of his New Woman wife, Christina, who is both a scientist and reassuringly pregnant. After Hester is driven out, Christina launches a fierce attack on both Mrs. Phelps and David. She observes that David had to be three thousand miles away from his mother (in France, after the war) to marry her. Her metaphors are derived from the War:
Calling herself a “scientific Nemesis,” Christina then turns on Mrs. Phelps herself:
When Mrs. Phelps finally admits her fault, she says that her marriage was empty, “Only a woman who has lived without romance knows how to value it….I found it in my two babies.” (Act 3, 197) It is noticeable that no one in Howard’s play, not even Mrs. Phelps, is significantly unconscious.
John Howard Lawson, in his Theory and Technique of Playwriting, saw Howard’s failure clearly:
But Lawson was talking about incest, “the incest wishes that underlie the mother’s fixation on her sons,” not Howard’s sensational “son-devouring tigress” (Act 3, 193).
It is notable that O’Neill did not set off or rapidly jump on the bandwagon of the Broadway Matriarch play. O’Neill came from psychological places too painful and real to add to this new genre of the domestic comedy or well-made play. In Diff’rent (1920), he had presented an older woman who makes approaches to a young man, but she is not his mother. As has been demonstrated in Chapter 8, this does not mean that the traumatizing mother-son relation is absent in early O’Neill—rather, it is so overwhelmingly present that he had to find indirect expressionist means to represent it. Thus it was some time after other playwrights had been overt with the theme that O’Neill turned his explicit, weightier attention to the explicit treatment of mothers and sons. Even then, he never attacked the American matriarch in the way of his more facile contemporaries.
The play of O’Neill’s that most fully treats the idea of Matriarchy is Strange Interlude (1928). Of all of O’Neill’s plays, Strange Interlude draws the harshest criticism from Joel Pfister for its “pop psychology” and its promotion of a cult of psychological depth. In fact, following a theme of Lawson’s, Pfister implies that the now-bourgeois Theater Guild had distorted American modernist drama away from social conflict to psychological isolation and inflation. While it is true that O’Neill’s characters (especially in their asides) provide a great deal in the way of pop psychological commentary, which—as with Howard—suggests that nothing is, in fact, significantly unconscious, Pfister fails to recognize the location in the play of O’Neill’s real sense of unconsciousness and its relation to social structure. For Strange Interlude is, in fact, precisely O’Neill’s attempt to write the failure of the dominant psychology of his time.
Strange Interlude is highly eclectic in its psychological influences, but those influences are organized in a significant order. The play begins with the traumatic impact of World War I. In speech after speech, O’Neill emphasizes the terrible waste of young men’s lives. Repeatedly, there seems to be an echo or reminiscence of Pound’s young soldiers who “walked eye-deep in hell/ believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving.” With Pound, O’Neill also emphasizes the bankruptcy of a civilization that has come to this terrible destruction. The learning of Professor Leeds (“The Professor of Dead Languages is talking again… a dead man lecturing on the past of living men.” Act 1, 2.644), along with Charley Marsden’s inability to write about war-torn Europe are as much a cultural indictment as Pound’s lines, “For two gross of broken statues,/ For a few thousand battered books.” (“Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,”1920, IV).
The other part of O’Neill’s foundational characterization is that both older men are guilty of a kind of jealous death-wish towards the young aviator, Gordon, whose airplane crashed the day before Armistice Day. Both are motivated by what are essentially incestuous feelings towards Leeds’s daughter, Nina (Charley is in loco parentis). If this recognition of incest has something to do with Freud, yet it must be stressed that O’Neill’s accusation of the generation of the fathers is exactly the reverse of the direction Freud had taken: Nina’s sexual desire has been entirely directed towards her young lover, Gordon; the perversity comes from the fathers. Professor Leeds is motivated by a jealousy of Gordon that has been expressed through the hypocrisy of moral purity. Playing on Gordon’s misplaced sense of honor, Leeds prevents him from consummating his relationship with Nina before his departure for war. Because he is killed in the war, Nina and Gordon will thus never have the chance to consummate their love, nor does Nina have the chance to bear his child. Marsden’s jealousy is based on his resentment that Nina does not recognize him as a sexual object. These sins of the fathers represent the sins of the fathers who sent the six million young men to death in World War I. Their revelation marks the bankruptcy of the patriarchy in Strange Interlude. Leeds’s confession at the end of Act 1 is forced out of him by Nina’s anger, sexual candor, and agonized confusion. Flaming youth cannot flame, except in rage, because he flames of war have turned Gordon into “mud and ashes.” Nina (in a manner reminiscent of Ibsen’s great feminist play) departs her father’s home at the end of Act 1. Act 2 opens with the scene of his unoccupied desk (from the “point of view” of the feeble Marsden), a symbol of his literal death and the death of the moral authority of the fathers: “You look frightened, Charlie. Do I seem queer? It’s because I’ve suddenly seen the lies in the sounds called words. You know—grief, sorrow, love, father.” (Part 1, 2.667-8)
Freud has been revised and used to make a point about twentieth-century history. The central psychological point of Strange Interlude, however, is not Freudian. From the beginning, Nina is already a member of the lost generation and a victim of the widely recognized phenomenon of civilian war trauma. In the stage directions, her voice is described as “a bit uncanny,” her “wounded spirit” as swinging between “fierce self-contempt” and “strange intensity” and her face as a “pale expressionless mask, drained of all emotional response,” that smiles “mechanically.” She also regresses to the condition of “a little girl.”(Part 2, 642, 648, 668, 670). This is the language of trauma and dissociation. In particular, Nina’s promiscuity is not attributed to Freudian libido but to a mixture of shame and anger over her betrayal of Gordon. Essentially it is a flight from the full impact of what she has done and lost. The result is a second overwhelming and traumatic experience. Nina’s behavior is radically dissociative. O’ Neill suggests substantial dissociation: Marsden does not recognize her as the same person, and within the course of Act 2 she manifests herself as, on the one hand, hardened and cynical, and, on the other, an innocent child. Her regression to this child-like state occurs in a kind of mesmerized condition that makes her vulnerable to the hypnotic suggestions thought up by Darrell and insinuated by Marsden.
Indeed, the whole play moves in a kind of trance, and Nina, at the center, is its trance maiden. Hypnotists employing trance maidens played on the erotics of woman’s sexual vulnerability. Nina’s sexuality, so strongly proclaimed to the figure of the Father in Act 1, also becomes passive, unconscious, directed and regressive. The part of Nina is one of the great erotic roles of western theater. Yet this erotics is constantly thrown in question.
We need to recognize how O’Neill constructs Nina as focus of desire or, rather, reveals her construction. The stage directions at her first appearance are themselves a kind of doubling, revealing her as extraordinarily sexually desirable, “tall with broad square shoulders, slim strong hips and long beautifully developed legs” with eyes that are “beautiful and bewildering,” and then as a “psychological wreck”: “Since Gordon’s death they [her eyes] have a quality of continually shuddering before some terrible enigma, of being wounded to their depths.” She is “strained, nerve-racked, hectic,” her composure maintained by “a terrible tension of will.” (2.642) These two perceptions point to the dissociative force of the dominant male vision of women and the sadism of the play’s erotics. The overall sense created by Strange Interlude of men hanging around her like moths around the flame is subtly deconstructed. The men manipulate Nina much more than the other way round. The play is, as O’Neill makes clear from the beginning, to do with inappropriate male responses, characterized by passivity and possessiveness alongside sexual disgust and mistrust, especially when faced with a woman’s active sexuality and/or the results of her trauma. Both her Father and Marsden are disgusted and appalled by Nina’s candor, and Marsden is appalled again by her acting-out. Crucial in this respect is Darrell, whom Marsden identifies as a would-be Freudian. Despite (or because of) his understanding of her condition, he has made a sexual advance to her, and, thinking himself rebuffed, has grown cautious. Though she is traumatized, Darrell thinks of “the raw truth about her promiscuity.” (2.663) Attempting to maintain a sense of male and scientific superiority over what he sees as female erotics, it is he who recommends that Nina be married off while she is critically ill to someone for whom she has no feelings at all. By the end of Act 2, Darrell and Marsden (with the figure of the dead father behind them) have made her entirely subject to the male will. What they will for her, out of their own sexual denial and timidity, is marriage and motherhood to an unthreatening rival. They impose a half-life on her so that they can continue to have erotic access to her. In so doing, they further divide someone already dissociatively split. With Marsden, Nina talks about her “playing the silly slut,” confessing “the war has blown my heart and insides out” (2.671-2) and into acceptance of the proffered role. Yet Marsden thinks of her as “the little filth.”(2.673)
In Act 3, O’Neill has recourse to a crude device from somatic psych-ology: the gothic horror of hereditary madness. Sam’s gray-haired mother gets the role (an actress’s graveyard) of anguished announcement to Nina: “Her big dark eyes are grim with the prisoner-pain of the walled-in soul.” (2.680) The Evans men have madness in their blood. Sam, the women agree, must never know. Nina, who is pregnant by Sam, must have an abortion. But still, the insane old mother goes on, the boy-man Sam must be further protected. To keep the madness away, so that he can feel himself to be a man, he needs to believe he can father a child. Nina is driven—inexorably?—to have an affair and get pregnant for his sake.
Though it may appear otherwise, this is not just O’Neill’s awful penchant for Hardyesque irony. For one thing, the blows to Nina are terrible and rapid. She must abort a child she wants. She is married to a man she cannot love and she cannot leave him. Further, she must have a child to please and deceive him. Thus in each of the first three acts of Strange Interlude, Nina is appallingly traumatized. Second, of all the male pressures in the play that keep Nina shattered, Sam represents the worst. Innocent and increasingly complacent in a way that in the end infuriates the audience and the other characters, Sam embodies the argument that men are always boys and will go mad without women’s sacrifice. It is part of O’Neill’s perception that the crazed voice that carries this to her is a mother’s, a mother old enough to be Nina’s mother. The scenes between Mrs. Amos Evans (she has no first name) and Nina represent the female transmission of the insane patriarchal proposition that a woman’s life must be entirely for a son and that man is always, even as man and husband, son. It is, of course, an extension of the irony that Sam becomes the satisfied, successful man, whose wealth vitiates the lives of his rivals. Here is the man who would regard psychology as nonsense or for weaker types, a smug version of James’s “once born.” Yet he is throughout the object of a combination of pity and hatred from those around him.
The idea of matriarchy as a stage in civilization (placed historically between polygamy and patriarchy) derives from the writings of J. J. Bachofen (1815-87), particularly The Law of the Mothers (Das Mutterrecht, 1861). Bachofen influenced the anarchist and mystic Otto Gross (1877–1920) who in turn influenced Jung. Jung, in his absorbent way, blended Bachofen, other Germano-pagan material and Goethe’s mysterious “Mothers” in Part II of Faust to create the archetype of the Great Mother in The Psychology of the Unconscious (American edition, 1916). The idea of Matriarchy was not an adjunct of women’s emancipation, but a conservative masculine myth, a defense against the instabilities of the modern.
In O’Neill, however, Nina herself introduces the idea of a Mother God:
Later, in the terrible conference with Mrs. Evans, Nina cries out “I don’t believe in God the Father!” to which Sam’s mother responds, “And I don’t believe in him neither, not any more.” It is as though we had come upon a coven of witches. (Act 3, 2.609)
Nina herself is nothing like Jung’s archetype. For one thing, much of the plot of Strange Interlude depends on abortion and contraception (the feminists of early Modernism had done their work). When Nina approaches Darrell with the proposition that he become her lover, she is still in a state of somnambulism-- essentially operating under instructions. It may appear a Freudian irony that it is only with enormous justification that she and Darrell can act on their simple sexual desire for each other, but the language nevertheless comes from the earlier psychology. Darrell responds to her “in his ultra-professional manner – like an automaton of a doctor.” (Act 4, 2.709) Darrell decides to seek only his own happiness: he believes that Gordon is still in her mind. But as they make their agreement, Nina’s thought is only the suggested “I shall make my husband happy.” (Act 4, 2.713)
Part of what creates Nina as a force in the play is male fear. Sam in his less confident moods (he depends on Nina) fears her contempt at his failure. Generally he sentimentalizes and idealizes her. Good old Charlie Marsden is important in this respect. He is the play’s Broadway mother’s boy who cannot write good books because he cannot recognize the part sex plays in life. But the men all are essentially possessed by the tenets of civilized morality. Darrell’s whole professional attitude to Nina is a defense against feeling (described as “lust”). He is possessed by the old civilized morality idea that sex (and marriage) spend mental power and would thus ruin his career. O’Neill suggests that what, in fact, ruins his career is his inability to take Nina and his son and make a life that is not vitiated by the need to sacrifice to Sam what both he and Nina repeatedly place in their own way. This sacrificing—I must give my life to some other who is really not important to me—points to the kind of bizarre perversions of the idea of love in which the civilized morality ethos indulged. As well, Acts 4 and 5 provide a dramatic examination of the collapse of the relation between analyst and analysand and, particularly of the counter-transference. Darrell is the would-be psychiatrist, and Nina takes her place in the long line of female hysterics from Leonora Piper through Miss Frank Miller to “Anna O.,” “Dora” and others. Darrell abuses his client, as Jung and Ferenczi—to speak only of major cases—had done. O’Neill’s dramatic argument may appear to be a crude way of denying the patriarchal nature of this structure: the (traumatized) woman is, when it comes down to it, the more powerful. Yet it is consistent with the overall argument of Strange Interlude that psychoanalysis should reveal its dependence on the feminine unconscious as it apparently had in the progression from Freud to Jung. Psychoanalysis, in this view, becomes simply a defense, a way to regulate the inevitable return to the mother of those without real autonomy. Nina cannot be read as the dramatic equivalent of the inspirational lovers of circles of psychoanalysts and other savants like the Contessa Franziska zu Reventlow (1871-1918) or the more famous Lou Andreas-Salome. Her wishes, and those of the men, are too normal, too ordinary.
Indeed, once she enters into sexual relations with Darrell, falls in love, and becomes pregnant, she becomes quite ordinarily sensible. She cannot imagine why she and Darrell and their child should not pursue a life together. This time Charlie interferes, but it is essentially Darrell’s fear that she will betray him, or still loves Gordon, or that she will make a fool of him that leads him to betray her. Once again, the end of an Act leaves Nina traumatically shattered.
She is left with Sam (“Poor boy!”) and the child. Only now she says “Not Ned’s child!....not Sam’s child!...mine!” and returns to the assertion that “God is a Mother” (Act 5, 2.732). It is not until the next Act, when Darrell returns repentant and hoping to reverse his decision that Nina has grown indifferent enough to insist that the men play a part in her life. Here is what could be regarded as the testimony of her matriarchal power:
Doubtless some of the audience of O’Neill’s time – Pfister’s bourgeois audience—derived some satisfaction from the “paradoxes” and “im-moralities” of this female gesture. But, as Nina remarks, “only I’d better knock wood…before God the Father fears my happiness!” (Act 6, 2.756). The matriarch, as we have seen, is a bricolage of trauma, and we are only half way through O’Neill’s play. “Matriarchy” itself proves the strange interlude.
Eleven years later, in her Park Avenue apartment, Nina is, as she was “in the first act of the play,” a divided self. The narcissistic euphoria of the previous act has gone. Again her appearance is split. Whilst she is still in the “full bloom of her womanhood,” there is a sense of “great mental strain” in her face, “her expression set and mask like” (Act 7, 758). Nina and Darrell, old lovers, are an emotional reality, husband and wife, no longer passionately in love but deeply attached to each other. Simply, though, they cannot be together, and both experience enormous pain from the fact that young Gordon, Darrell’s son, has suspected enough of their relationship to make Darrell the object of an abnormal “Oedipal” hatred. In this emotional quandary Darrell has let his career slip away. In fact, he is rich, thanks to the simple beneficiary of everything, Sam. Clearly O’Neill intended his audience to recognize the course of the twenties as the play proceeds from the War and flaming youth to lost ideals, cynicism and wealth.
Gordon is, in fact, the problem in a double sense. For Nina has put too much of her shattered life in young Gordon, who, encouraged by the idiotic Sam, has made the first Gordon his ideal. The result is that he is growing up to be an essentially fatherless, athletic, selfish ass. Confronted by Sam’s fatuity, which is the world in which she and Darrell have chosen to live, Nina can only think, “with intense hatred,” “Oh, Mother God, grant me that I may some day tell this fool the truth!” (Act 7, 2.777) She will not. Ten years later, on a white yacht, the now-aged Nina rages with jealousy against the young woman who will take her Gordon away. Everything now falls into a strange repetition —a looking on at one’s life that is the reverse of the Proustian recovery of time. Nina watches Madeline watch young Gordon as she watched Gordon. Darrell wants his own son to lose a race as he has always wished Gordon away. For the first time, he admits this jealousy. Shortly after Nina has said to him, “Oh, if only I’d gone away with you that time when you came back from old Europe!” he responds with: “Besides, I’m quite sure Gordon isn’t my son, if the real deep core of the truth were known! I was only a body to you. Your first Gordon used to come back to life. I was never more than a substitute for your dead lover! Gordon is really Gordon’s son!!” (Act 8, 2.792-3) Whether this is an accurate description of Nina’s feelings or merely his suspicion remains doubtful. At any rate, as the conclusion approaches both Nina and Darrell want young Gordon to know that they are his parents. Young Gordon cannot believe anything so terrible of them. O’Neill leaves the representatives of an age that, however imperfectly, could bear psychological knowledge to ruefully contemplate the unconsciousness of the rich young consumers of the younger generation. Strange Interlude is a parable for the psychological twenties. At the play’s end, young Gordon flies off overhead with his lesser Nina to peace.
Old and yet grotesquely girlish, Nina herself is finally left to Charley. Charley’s feelings for his mother attained some dignity, especially at her death. After that, we are told, he took in his rejected sister and found in her another cherished companion. His patience is part of what makes Strange Interlude seem like a long paean to unfulfillment. Yet it is not simply that. With a kind of ghastly persistence, Charley always, in his own way, gets the girl. As, at the end, he drives Nina towards regression and death, he takes a kind of revenge on her for having always been cast as the sexless one. A misogynist, irritable, nasty, determined to thwart, Charley is a Nietzschean Christian in pursuit of power. He thinks of all women as whores. In a way his long-deferred incestuous desires are rewarded, because he is now again the mesmerist and Nina his trance maiden. Instead of invoking sexuality in her he revokes it, ridding her of her memories of Gordon. Yet there is something both pedophilic and murderous about the play’s ending. Nina is being mesmerized into her death. Shantih, shantih, shantih, the end seems to say, but it is far more disturbing than blessed. Neutered God the Father has his revenge. The analyst who had spoken of lust, now older, Schopenhauerian, speaks of death. Strange Interlude, in turn, speaks of the end of a decade and the drift of psychoanalysis, and the critical language it employs in its long expose is primarily dissociationist.
For no account of Strange Interlude can ignore its stagy representation of the stream of consciousness (and its overall evocation of unconsciousness) through the use of asides during which the action is otherwise frozen. Other than traditional stage practice, O’Neill’s dramatic sources for this mode of presentation may include Hasenclever’s Beyond (staged Provincetown, 1925) and Rice’s The Adding Machine. Whatever their origin, though the asides in Strange Interlude may at first seem incredibly clumsy, audiences come to terms with them as a narrative medium. In the male characters, especially, trite criticisms demonstrate the persistence of petty egoism that, in belittling others, simultaneously belittles itself. These unspoken denigratory thoughts, rather anxious than cruel, accompany the play's overall ironies of deception and disappointment. True, a number of the characters talk and think in terms of popularized psychology, but then, that was a feature of the age. We need to discriminate between O’Neill and his characters. Especially later on, as the characters age, there is persistent talk of the dream-like quality of life. This has a Schopenhauerian (though also Shakespearian) quality, but the essential unreality of O’Neill’s dramatic means of representation with its eerie suspension of will (abulia) underlines the play’s core perception of dissociation. Characters freeze on stage. They speak, out loud and to themselves, in strange spaces of their own. The distances between them are immense. The effect is automaton-like, and, after a while, all the characters, indeed the entire play, seem to move along in a strange, dissociated trance. If this is the stream of life, life, as we usually think of it, is elsewhere.
Lawson wrote of O’Neill’s “repeated efforts to dramatize the subconscious.” These led, in his view, to O’Neill’s “interest in the problem of dual personality,” which is expressed in the asides of Strange Interlude and the doubling of The Great God Brown (1926) and Days Without End (1934). Despite his knowledge of Freud, it is dissociationist psychology that is in Lawson’s mind in these observations. “Nina Leeds,” Lawson says, “is a replica of Hedda Gabler” except that “Nina lives in an emotional trance”. The play’s main emotion is a sense of “foreboding.” Lawson also remarks that the asides in Strange Interlude are often “superficial,” and the characters are “simply drawn.” Their “deeper use,” he suggests, “is to blunt the edge of conflict. What might be a clear-cut scene is diluted by needless explanations and by annotating the emotions.” He comes to the interesting conclusion that “both the asides and the length of Strange Interlude are dictated by a psychological need—to delay, to avoid coming to grips with reality.”  Lawson meant this as a criticism, but what he observed is not O’Neill’s failure, but his success. Strange Interlude is an extraordinary evocation of dissociation, Nina’s post-traumatic “trance” certainly, but also the dissociation in which the play’s men choose to live out their lives, one in which they are trapped by the culturally built and legitimated demand on the mother that Nina is not.
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