Strange Interlude (1928), by American dramatist Eugene O'Neill, was a huge success when first produced by the Theatre Guild at the John Golden Theatre in New York City in 1928. It won the Pulitzer Prize and became the most successful American play to date.
The play covers a period of twenty-five years in the lives of mostly upper-middle-class East Coast characters. It centers on Nina Leeds, a passionate, tormented woman whose fiancé was killed in World War I and who spends the remainder of her life searching for an always-elusive happiness.
This is a very long play, lasting over five hours in performance. The story is not especially complex, and the length of the play derives from O'Neill's revival of two theatrical devices that had fallen out of use for nearly a century: the soliloquy, in which a character alone on the stage speaks his or her thoughts aloud, and the aside, which enables characters to reveal their thoughts to the audience but not to the other characters on stage. These devices, which O'Neill employed at length, enabled the playwright to probe deeply into his characters' motivations. The soliloquies and asides reveal the discrepancies between what the characters say and do, and what they really feel.
Strange Interlude was a controversial play because it dealt openly with such topics as adultery and abortion. Although it was rarely revived in the early 2000s, it was generally regarded as the first of O'Neill's works in which he revealed his full power as a dramatist.
Eugene O'Neill was born on October 16, 1888, in New York City, the youngest son of James (an actor) and Ella Quinlan O'Neill. O'Neill was educated at a Catholic boarding school and at Betts Academy in Stamford, Connecticut, before attending Princeton University in 1906. He was dismissed from Princeton a year later because of a poor scholastic record. In 1909, O'Neill married Kathleen Jenkins and went to Honduras to join a gold-prospecting expedition. He returned to New York in 1910, the year his son, Eugene Gladstone O'Neill Jr. was born.
In 1910, O'Neill sailed to Argentina, returning destitute the following year. He then shipped as a seaman from New York to Southampton, England, returning in August. O'Neill's personal life was chaotic, and he drank heavily. O'Neill was divorced from his wife in 1912. Later in 1912, he attempted suicide by taking a drug overdose. After his recovery, he discovered he had tuberculosis, and he entered a sanitarium, where he remained for six months. In the sanitarium, he read widely and conceived his desire to become a playwright. In 1913, he wrote his first play, A Wife for a Life, as well as eight one-act plays and two long plays.
O'Neill continued to write as he attended Harvard University from 1914 to 1915, during which time he completed one year of George Pierce Baker's playwriting course. The first of his plays to be produced, by an amateur group later known as the Provincetown Players, were Bound East for Cardiff and Thirst in 1916.
Greater success was not long in coming. In 1920, Beyond the Horizon brought O'Neill the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes, and in the same year, The Emperor Jones was staged internationally. In 1921, Anna Christie won a Pulitzer Prize, and the following year The Hairy Ape solidified his reputation as the foremost American dramatist. The financial success that went with this enabled him to buy a
farm at Ridgefield, Connecticut, where he lived with his wife Agnes Boulton, whom he had married in 1918.
From 1923 to 1927, O'Neill wrote some of his major plays, including Desire Under the Elms (1925), The Great God Brown (1926), Lazarus Laughed (1927), and Strange Interlude (1928), which won the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1927, O'Neill left his wife and two children for Carlotta Monterey, with whom he traveled to Europe and Asia. They married in 1929. Plays of this period include Dynamo (1929), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), the comedy Ah, Wilderness! (1933) and Days without End (1934).
In 1936, O'Neill won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first American dramatist to do so. O'Neill's two greatest plays were both written toward the end of his career: The Iceman Cometh in 1939 (produced in 1946), and A Long Day's Journey into Night, written in 1941, but not staged until three years after his death. It won O'Neill a fourth Pulitzer Prize.
Ill-health prevented O'Neill writing any plays during the last decade of his life. He died of pneumonia on November 27, 1953, in Boston, Massachusetts.
Strange Interlude begins in August, 1919, in the library of Professor Leeds's home in New England. Marsden has just returned from World War I in Europe, although he did not serve in the military. He and Leeds discuss Leeds's daughter, Nina, who has had a nervous breakdown following the death of her boyfriend, Gordon, in the war. Leeds believes that Nina has turned against him because he persuaded Gordon to postpone their marriage until Gordon had safely returned from the war. Nina informs her father that she intends to work as a nurse at a sanatorium for wounded soldiers. She still grieves for Gordon and feels this is her duty. Leeds opposes her wish and confesses that he was jealous of Gordon because he wanted to keep Nina's love for himself. But he finally agrees to let Nina go.
A year later, Leeds has just died and Nina returns, accompanied by Sam Evans, who is in love with her, and Ned Darrell, a young doctor friend. Evans tells Marsden, whom he regards as Nina's guardian, that he wants to marry her, but Marsden points out that Nina still loves Gordon. Darrell confides in Marsden that Nina has a morbid love of martyrdom and has been giving herself to the wounded soldiers in the hospital. He says that the best thing for her would be to marry Evans, which would help her regain her emotional balance. For her part, Nina is scared that she is no longer able to feel anything, including grief for her deceased father. She feels guilty about the way she has been behaving, and Marsden advises her to marry Evans, even though she does not love him. She consents.
Seven months later, Nina is pregnant, but she has not told Evans, her husband. Marsden guesses her secret but says nothing. He is jealous, since he also loves Nina. When Evans's mother finds out that Nina is pregnant, she begs her to have an abortion. She explains the long history of insanity in the family, saying that Nina should never have a child by Evans. Instead, she should take a lover, and raise the child as if Evans were the father. Otherwise the strain of raising a child would affect Evans's sanity. Once Nina has recovered from the shock of this information, she agrees to get an abortion.
Seven months later, Evans is trying unsuccessfully to write advertising copy. Nina, who has been ill since the abortion, is contemptuous of him, even though she has tried to love him. Marsden, and later Darrell, come to visit. Marsden is worried about his mother's health, and Darrell advises him to consult a doctor immediately. After Marsden and Evans depart on an errand, Nina and Darrell are left alone. Nina tells Darrell about her abortion and Mrs. Evans's advice to have a baby by another man. Darrell agrees, saying it is her duty to her husband. They agree that Darrell will be the father of the child, convincing themselves that this will make all three of them happy.
Five months later, in April, 1922, in a suburb near New York, Nina is happy to be pregnant, but has not told her husband of her condition. Evans is doing poorly in his career and believes she does not love him. He decides to grant her a divorce for her sake, but he lacks the courage to tell her. She despises him and treats him badly in front of Darrell, with whom she has fallen in love. Darrell desires her but tells himself he is not in love. Marsden enters, in mourning for his dead mother, and senses the attraction between Darrell and Nina. After Marsden exits, Darrell tells Nina he has a guilty conscience and wants to end their affair. But Nina says that only his love can make her happy. She wants a divorce so she can marry Darrell, but he will not hear of such a thing. Instead, Darrell tells Evans that Nina is pregnant and then says he is sailing for Europe in a few days. Nina is distressed at Darrell's sudden departure. She tries but fails to tell Evans that he is not the father of her child.
Over a year later, Evans has matured into a confident businessman, and Nina is happy with her son, Gordon. Marsden intends to ask his sister Jane to live with him, and Nina teases him about being a bachelor. He lets on that he has seen Darrell in Munich with a woman, which makes Nina jealous. Evans returns and talks of his business plans, hoping to encourage Marsden to invest in him. Darrell arrives and when he and Nina are alone, they embrace passionately. Darrell wants Nina to go away with him, but Nina refuses to leave her husband. When Evans and Marsden return, Nina sits them all down at a table, where they remain engrossed in their own thoughts, while Nina exults in the desire that all three men have for her. When she goes to bed, the eyes of the men follow her.
It is now 1934. In the Evans's apartment on Park Avenue, New York City, Gordon's eleventh birthday is being celebrated. Gordon resents the presence of Darrell, who has given up his medical career. Darrell has adopted biology as a hobby and set up a research station in Antigua. He is bitter about his continuing relationship with Nina, and Nina begs him to go away for two years. When they kiss goodbye, Gordon sees them, and this further alienates him from Darrell, and also from his mother. Gordon gets closer to his father instead. Nina notices this and resolves to get her son's affections back. She speaks disparagingly of Darrell to dismiss the importance of the kiss.
It is ten years later, in June, 1944. Gordon is competing in a college rowing race, and Nina, Darrell, Marsden, and Madeline Arnold, Gordon's fiancée, have assembled on Evans's cruiser to watch. Nina is jealous of Madeline for taking Gordon from her, and Marsden is in mourning for his sister, who died two months before. When Marsden, Madeline, and Evans go into the cabin for a drink, Darrell and Nina agree that their passionate relationship is a thing of the past. Nina tries to persuade him to stop Gordon from marrying Madeline. Darrell refuses. Nina then tries to get him to join her in telling Evans that he is not Gordon's real father. Meanwhile, the drunken Marsden confesses his love for Nina and his desire to marry her. Nina tries to tell Madeline about the insanity that runs in the Evans family, but Darrell prevents her. Gordon narrowly wins the race, but Evans, as a result of his excitement, has a stroke.
Several months later, Evans dies, and Gordon and Madeline mourn him. Gordon tells her that he believes his mother and Darrell were in love. Gordon still dislikes Darrell and slaps him hard across the face. He immediately apologizes and explains that in reality, he admires the fact that Darrell and Nina were in love but did not act on it out of consideration for Gordon's father. After Gordon leaves, Darrell asks Nina to marry him, but she refuses because she no longer loves him. Then, she admits to Marsden that she loves him, and they agree to marry. Gordon's plane circles overhead, and Nina calls out to him that he must be happy, but she realizes that her son was unable to give her happiness. Nina resolves to grow old in peace with Marsden. She falls asleep and Marsden watches her contentedly.
Madeline Arnold is the nineteen-year-old fiancée of Gordon Evans. She is pretty, tall, and athletic, with a direct personality. She knows what she wants and is accustomed to getting it, although she is also a good loser. She is popular with both men and women. Madeline is exasperated by Nina's hostility towards her, but she later admires the older woman for the way she nursed her husband after his stroke.
Edmund Darrell is Nina's lover and the father of her son, Gordon. A neurologist, Darrell first becomes acquainted with Nina at the hospital for World War I veterans where she works. He is shocked by her promiscuous behavior there, which he believes is due to a martyrdom complex that she has developed following the death of her fiancé, Gordon Shaw. Darrell suggests a marriage to Evans as a way of restoring Nina to a more healthy frame of mind.
Darrell has a scientific, objective mind, and analyzes life dispassionately. When Nina tells him that she wants him to father her child, but to raise it as Evans's, he agrees to the proposition because he believes it will be the best thing for Nina and Evans. He also considers it an interesting experiment. But he does not realize that in carrying out the plan he will fall in love with Nina. Their tempestuous affair goes on for years, and he is unable to end it, even though he wishes to. He loses interest in his career and eventually takes up biology as a hobby, setting up a research station in the West Indies. He resents the fact that Gordon Evans, his own son, is being raised by Sam Evans to resemble the dead Gordon Shaw. This leads him to dislike them both, secretly wishing for Sam's death, and for Gordon to lose the college race. After Sam Evans's death, Darrell realizes that he no longer cares for Nina, but he still asks her to marry him, because it is what Gordon, who has guessed that his mother and Darrell were in love, expects. Nina turns down the proposal, as Darrell had wanted her to. He then gives his blessing to the marriage of Nina to Marsden.
Mrs. Amos Evans
Mrs. Amos Evans is the mother of Sam Evans. She is a frail, tiny woman of about forty-five, but she looks at least sixty. When she learns that Nina is pregnant she urges her to have an abortion, explaining that there is a history of insanity in the family. She had married while ignorant of this history, and she and her husband had not planned to have any children. Sam's father eventually went insane, and Mrs. Evans believes the stress of having to raise Sam was the cause. She urges Nina to have a child by another man and raise it as if it were Sam's.
Gordon Evans is Nina's son. His biological father is Darrell, but he is raised as Sam Evans's son. He never discovers who his real father is, and he dislikes Darrell, whom he has to refer to as Uncle Ned. Gordon grows up to become a strong, athletic, capable young man who resembles Gordon Shaw, the young aviator killed in World War I. Engaged to the attractive Madeline Arnold, Gordon is bound for success in life.
Sam Evans is Nina's husband. They first meet, through their mutual acquaintance Edmund Darrell, when Sam is twenty-five years old. He is amiable but not very mature or accomplished, and he still looks and dresses like a college student. Sam falls in love with Nina, who, following Darrell's advice, marries him, even though she does not love him. Sam goes into the advertising industry but does not do well, making little money and moving from job to job. He feels insecure and knows that his wife does not love him. But when Nina gives birth to Gordon, whom Sam thinks is his own son, his life changes. Sam becomes more content and confident, and he starts to be more successful in business. Eventually he makes a lot of money, and Marsden and Darrell become wealthy through investing in him. Sam raises his son to be like Gordon Shaw, his old friend from college, and is rewarded when Gordon lives up to his expectations. Sam suffers from high blood pressure and dies seven months after having a stroke, which was caused by overexcitement as he watched Gordon win a college rowing race.
Professor Henry Leeds
Professor Henry Leeds is Nina's widowed father. He is a timid, intellectual man, a professor of Classics who tends to live in the past because he cannot face the realities of the present. He persuaded Gordon Shaw not to marry Nina until after he came home from the war because he did not want to lose his daughter. He also thought that Gordon was not good enough for Nina because his family was not wealthy or distinguished. Leeds was secretly glad when Gordon was killed. Nina realizes the negative role her father played in her relationship with Gordon and turns against her father because of it.
- Strange Interlude was filmed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1932. It was directed by Robert Z. Leonard and starred Norma Shearer as Nina and Clark Gable as Darrell.
Nina Leeds is Professor Leeds's daughter who marries Sam Evans. She is tall and athletic with straw-blond hair. As a young woman, she fell in love with Gordon Shaw, a college student and outstanding athlete. But her father persuaded Gordon to postpone their marriage until after the war. Because Gordon was killed in the war, their love was never consummated. Devastated by Gordon's death, and angry at their self-denial, for which she blames her father's interference, she has a mental breakdown. When she recovers, she feels it is her duty to become a nurse in a hospital for veterans. While she is there, she indulges in promiscuous behavior with the patients as a way of making up for the self-denial that she and Gordon had imposed on themselves. When she returns home after her father's death, she agrees to Darrell's suggestion that she marry Sam Evans, even though she does not love him. She is still not free of the memory of Gordon.
Married and pregnant with Sam's child, she agrees to have an abortion after Sam's mother explains the history of hereditary insanity in the family. Nina then deliberately has a child by Darrell and raises it as if it were Sam's son. She does this to make Sam happy and keep him from the madness that afflicted his father. But Nina falls in love with Darrell, and they have an affair that continues for many years, although it brings them no happiness. At one point Nina wants to divorce Sam and marry Darrell, but Darrell will not agree. Later, the situation is reversed, with Darrell wanting her to run away with him, but he is unable to persuade her.
Nina finds some degree of happiness as she raises her child, Gordon. She is never completely content with any of her relationships with men, whether the man is father, husband, lover, or son. By the time Nina is forty-five, she is dispirited and exhausted. Not only has she lost her one true love, Gordon Shaw, but her son Gordon has now left her to marry Madeline. She turns to Marsden, whom she has known since she was a child and regards as a father figure, and agrees to marry him. All her passion for living gone, she expects only a quiet life for the rest of her days.
Charles Marsden is a tall, slender bachelor who is thirty-five years old when the play begins. Marsden has a quiet charm, is always ready to listen and be sympathetic, and wants to like people and be liked. He is a successful novelist who writes comedies of manners. Always immaculately dressed, Marsden has a certain feminine quality about him. He may be a latent homosexual or bisexual, but he has shied away from the physical aspects of love ever since an unfortunate encounter with a prostitute when he was sixteen. He is somewhat afraid of life and this renders him less effective than he might otherwise be. It also means that Darrell, Sam, and later Gordon Evans have little respect for him. Marsden lives with his mother, to whom he is extremely attached. He is devastated when his mother dies of cancer.
Marsden is a friend and former student of Professor Leeds, and he has known Nina since she was a child. He is in love with her, and she is fond of him, but only in the way she might love an uncle. Marsden is jealous of Darrell because he guesses that Nina loves him, but as the years go by he waits patiently for Nina, always ready to be a friend. Eventually, she turns to him for protective companionship, which is the only kind of relationship he is able to offer her, and they marry. Marsden decides that they will return to Nina's childhood home, where they will live out the rest of their lives quietly.
Happiness versus Morality
Nina is motivated by an all-consuming search for happiness, and she believes that conventional morality is an obstacle to the attainment of it. It was conventional morality, instilled in her by her upbringing, that made her hold back from having a sexual relationship with Gordon Shaw because they were not married. Nina therefore rebels against this restrictive morality by becoming sexually involved with the veterans at the military hospital where she works.
After marrying Evans, she meets Mrs. Amos, who gives her a different perspective than that supplied by her father. Mrs. Amos believes that the greatest duty is to be happy. "Being happy, that's the nearest we can ever come to knowing what's good!" Mrs. Amos counsels Nina to ignore accepted notions of morality and take a lover who will father her child. Mrs. Amos is convinced that this will enable her son Sam to avoid the insanity that runs in the family. Nina accepts the argument that it is her duty to be happy, but she has guilty feelings about the prospect of committing adultery. Darrell talks her into it, though, by supporting Mrs. Amos's position. He urges her to "throw overboard all such irrelevant moral ideas." He argues that guilt arises only if a wife neglects her duty to provide her husband with a healthy child.
Ironically, the only character who attains happiness through the adultery of Darrell and Nina is Sam Evans. Darrell finds that his arrangement with Nina is not as simple as he thought it would be. He believes at first that a scientific mind such as his should be able to stay aloof from any emotional involvement. The scientist should use his rational knowledge to manipulate people for the sake of their own happiness. But his strategy fails when he falls in love with Nina. Their affair produces guilt and distress for them both.
Indeed, only for a short period in her life does Nina attain the happiness she so passionately seeks. This comes at the end of act 6, shortly after the birth of her child, when her husband, her lover and her older admirer (Marsden) all desire her, and when she believes she is in complete control of the situation. But this does not last, and she never fully shakes herself free of the memory of Gordon Shaw and the life they might have had together. She names her son after Gordon, but the young Gordon is not able to bring her happiness either, since he must inevitably leave his mother for another woman. Finally, Nina gives up the quest for happiness and accepts a quiet, peaceful life with Marsden instead.
Marsden interprets the twenty-five years that followed Nina's first involvement with Gordon Shaw as a kind of purgatory. Although purgatory is a Christian theological term that refers to a place where sins are expiated through suffering, the term can also refer to any place of temporary suffering. Marsden tells Nina to regard those twenty-five years "as an interlude, of trial and preparation, say, in which our souls have been scraped clean of impure flesh and made worthy." This is the "strange interlude" to which the title of the play refers, a time in which each character must go through a process of purification. Nina has to act out and exhaust all her passions and desires and break all her illusions about what life is or can be, before she can return to the peaceful, untroubled life that she knew as a child, thus putting an end to the "strange interlude."
The Two Aspects of God
At various points in the play Nina refers to the two aspects of God—God the Father and God the Mother. God the Father is stern, judgmental, and punishes sins. It is God the Father who instills guilt in people, and Nina blames Him for her marriage to Evans, which she entered into because she felt guilty and believed she needed to be punished. She sees this aspect of God as "a male whose chest thunders with egotism and is … thoroughly comfortless."
Against this, Nina sets her concept of God the Mother. She regrets that men created God in a male image, telling Marsden that
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.
God the Mother embodies love, the values of the heart not the intellect, and understands human suffering because she shares it. God the Father, on the other hand, is aloof and does not permit human happiness.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Are certain types of mental illness hereditary, as the play suggests, or was that an invention by O'Neill for dramatic purposes? Is heredity a factor in common mental illnesses such as depression? If heredity can contribute to mental illness, can this be predicted and prevented in individual cases?
- Write a short scene in which two people meet, perhaps on a first date. Use the technique of the aside, as O'Neill does in the play, to show the discrepancy between what each person is saying, and what he or she is thinking.
- Why is Sam Evans the character in the play who comes closest to attaining happiness? What is the cause of the anxiety, unhappiness, and neuroses suffered by Nina and Darrell? Is Nina right to blame conventional morality for her plight?
- Investigate Sigmund Freud's theory of the Oedipal complex, and show how the theory is relevant for the character of Marsden.
Soliloquies and Asides
The major dramatic devices employed in the play are the soliloquy and the aside. A soliloquy is when a character is alone on stage and speaks his or her thoughts aloud. A dramatist uses this device to give the audience direct information about a character's motivation or state of mind. The convention is that the character always speaks the truth as he or she understands it. Acts 1 and 2 both begin with long soliloquies by Marsden; Acts 1 and 5 with a soliloquy by Nina; and act 4 with a soliloquy by Evans.
A related device is the aside, a convention in which a character speaks his or her thoughts aloud but these thoughts are inaudible to the other characters on the stage.
Both the soliloquy and the aside were staples of Elizabethan drama but fell into disuse in the nineteenth century. When O'Neill revived them, he also expanded the possibilities of the aside. Traditionally, the aside was only a short speech, employed occasionally during a play. The asides in Strange Interlude, however, are not only much longer than their earlier models, they are also used much more frequently, so that they become a fundamental part of the structure of the drama.
O'Neill's use of this device enabled him to show not only the discrepancy between the inner thoughts of the characters and their outer words and actions, but also the contradictory nature of the thoughts themselves, according to which a character may think one thought followed by another that flatly contradicts it, followed by yet another thought in which the original idea reasserts itself. This technique has something in common with the stream of consciousness technique used in fiction (also sometimes referred to as interior monologue), which attempts to portray the continuous flow of thoughts and feelings within a character's mind. Those terms are better left to characterize fiction rather than drama, but O'Neill's development of the aside tends to give the play the flavor of a novel, especially when it is read rather than seen in performance.
When Strange Interlude was staged, while characters were speaking their asides, the other characters would freeze in place, thus making it clear to the audience that they could not hear the aside.
World War I
The United States entered World War I in April, 1917. Conscription was introduced, and the first U.S. troops arrived in Europe in June. By July, 1918, over one million American troops were in Europe. The war ended in November, 1918. The United States suffered a total of 320,710 casualties, including 116,708 dead. The fictional Gordon Shaw in Strange Interlude was based on the real-life soldier, Hobart Amory Hare Baker (1892–1918). Like Gordon, Baker was an outstanding college athlete, playing baseball, football and hockey at Princeton University. He enlisted in the army and departed for Europe in August 1917, and by April 1918 he was serving with the Lafayette Escadrille (103rd Aero Squadron). Just as in the play, in which Gordon Shaw is killed in an airplane accident, on December 21, 1918, Baker was killed when the plane he was flying crashed.
The Boom of the 1920s
Whereas Europe would take many years to recover from the four-year carnage of World War I, the impact of the war on America was less profound. There had been no fighting in the United States itself, American casualties were only a fraction of those suffered by the other belligerents, and the U.S. economy remained strong.
The 1920s was therefore an optimistic era, and there was an economic boom (which is the background for Sam Evans's business success in Strange Interlude). Fortunes were made, ordinary people had money in their pockets to spend, and unemployment was low. Part of the boom was due to the growth in "assembly line mass production methods that created more consumer goods and made them available at lower prices. A Ford automobile cost $290 (average earnings were $1,236 per year).
Also, consumers were able to acquire more because of the introduction of credit plans, under which goods could be bought and then paid for over an extended period of time. The growth of mass advertising through radio, magazines, film and billboards also boosted consumerism (so it is not surprising that in the play, Sam Evans goes into advertising and makes a fortune from it).
Another reason for the boom of the 1920s was the introduction of high tariffs on the import of foreign goods. This system, which is known as protectionism, meant that American goods remained cheaper than those of their foreign competitors, thus ensuring that American industries continued to prosper.
The economic boom ended suddenly with the unexpected stock market crash of October 29, 1929, a day known as Black Thursday. From 1929 to 1931, stock losses were estimated at $12 billion, and the worst depression in American history began. By 1932 there were twelve million unemployed. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the New Deal, a series of economic and social measures designed to alleviate the effects of the depression.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1920s: The movie industry based in Hollywood develops rapidly, and cinema replaces the theater as a means of mass entertainment. This last decade of the silent movie nurtures stars such as Charlie Chaplin.
Today: Hollywood retains its preeminence as the movie capital of the western world. Going to the movies is the favorite cultural activity of millions of Americans.
- 1920s: The Volstead Act becomes effective in 1920 and bans the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquor throughout the United States. Prohibition fails, however, because it is impossible to enforce. Alcohol is sold illegally in bars known as speakeasies. There are several thousand speakeasies in New York alone. Prohibition also produces an increase in organized crime, since large profits can be made from the sale of illegal alcohol.
Today: Alcohol abuse is a significant social problem. Alcohol is a contributing factor in thousands of traffic fatalities. In 2001, 17,400 people were killed in crashes involving alcohol, representing 41 percent of the 42,116 people killed in all traffic crashes. Alcohol abuse is also a factor in criminal behavior such as domestic abuse and other kinds of violence.
- 1920s: On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment becomes law, giving all women the right to vote. In the presidential election of 1920, women vote in patterns similar to men, dividing along party lines according to class, economic, regional, and other factors. In 1924, in Wyoming, Nellie Tayloe Ross is elected governor, the first female governor in the United States.
Today: In the presidential election of 2000, women make up 52 percent of all voters. Political analysts study the so-called gender gap, which reveals that women are more likely than men to vote for Democratic candidates. According to the Center for Policy Alternatives, a non-partisan policy center, if only women's votes were counted, Democratic candidate Al Gore would have won the popular and electoral vote in 32 states and tied in Colorado, giving him a landslide victory. In the elections of 2000, the number of female governors increases from three to five, the number of female senators from 9 to 13, and the number of female representatives from 56 to a record 59.
When first produced by the Theatre Guild at the John Golden Theatre in New York City in 1928, Strange Interlude was an unexpected success. The play lasted nearly five hours (not including the one-hour interval for dinner) and held the audience's attention throughout. It went on to become the most successful American play produced up to that time, with 426 Broadway performances in its first production. According to literary critic Travis Bogard, writing in Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, audiences at the time regarded it as a play "which dealt seriously with facets of human nature not yet fully explored" and which were just becoming more widely known in the work of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and James Joyce. However, not all reviewers shared the enthusiasm of the play-going public. Bogard points out that some regarded it as "naïve in its use of psychological theory, overly long and unclear in its theme." The play was also controversial and was banned in Boston because its content included topics such as abortion and adultery.
Strange Interlude was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1929, and when published, it became a national bestseller, the first time a play had attained this status. Over one hundred thousand copies were sold.
Largely because of its length, Strange Interlude was not performed frequently. But there was a production at the Hudson Theatre, New York City, in March 1963, which ran for 104 performances. Another revival on Broadway in 1985, starred Glenda Jackson as Nina.
In the early 2000s, Strange Interlude was generally regarded as the first play that revealed O'Neill's full power as a dramatist, although it was not considered the equal of his greatest plays, such as The Iceman Cometh and A Long Day's Journey into Night.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses the influence of Eastern religious thought, as well as that of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, on O'Neill's play.
O'Neill believed that serious drama should probe the depths of existence and examine the role of human beings in the universe. It should reveal what the history and development of religion also revealed: the inner life of man. O'Neill's work is therefore informed by various philosophical and religious ideas that he gleaned from his wide reading. This is especially apparent in Strange Interlude, which reveals his interest in Eastern religious thought, especially Hinduism and Buddhism, and his interest in the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, whose work has much in common with Indian thought. O'Neill read Schopenhauer with enthusiasm when he was young and re-read him shortly before he wrote this play. What O'Neill absorbed from Schopenhauer was a pessimistic vision of human life, in which suffering, rooted in the endless striving of human will and desire, was inevitable. The only way to end suffering was to end desire.
The character in the play who most embodies desire is Nina Leeds. The play revolves around her relationships with the various men in her life: father, father figure (Marsden), romantic ideal (Gordon Shaw), husband, lover, and son. It is her need to fulfill every aspect of herself as a woman that drives the plot. The goad for this obsession on the part of Nina is her anger and guilt, which she feels because she allowed the moral taboo against pre-marital sex to thwart the flow of her desire for Gordon Shaw. With Gordon's death, her desire for a child by him can never be fulfilled. Her attempt to compensate for this loss is what drives her on throughout the long "strange interlude." All her men are a part of this passionate quest, which is at times touched with a kind of mysticism. Nina is searching for what, in popular parlance, might be called her "inner goddess." She wants to believe in a deity that is more in harmony with her being as a woman than the distant, punitive God the Father of Judeo-Christian tradition. For Nina, this female deity is associated with procreation, and with the great rhythms of the cosmos. One of Nina's happiest moments comes when she is pregnant with Darrell's child. In her soliloquy that begins act 5, she becomes a part of God the Mother in a vision of unity and peace:
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.
The imagery here suggests moon goddess, fertility goddess, and earth mother all rolled into one—all aspects of the cosmic feminine that historically have been excluded from orthodox Christian thought. In addition, nestling unobtrusively in Nina's meditation are concepts that show O'Neill's interest in Eastern mysticism: the oneness of all things (as opposed to the separation between God and His creation in Western thought) and the ultimate reality of life that is unchanging and eternal, lying beyond the senses and beyond desire and thought. According to the Upanishads, which constitute some of the core texts of Hinduism, this state of pure, silent consciousness, known as Brahman, is also the essence of the individual self. To know Brahman is to know the eternal nature of the self. This is a state of knowingness, in which, as Nina intuits, questions die, because questions are only the products of the restless intellect and cannot be answered at the level at which they are asked. The answer to the question is to transcend the question altogether, exactly as Nina does in this brief moment of contemplation.
Unfortunately for Nina, she cannot maintain this state of being for more than a few moments. It dissolves as soon as her husband enters and she is brought back into the world of human interaction. Then the whole restless process, so well created by O'Neill in the characters' stream-of-consciousness asides, begins again as she thinks of her lover Darrell, wants a divorce from Sam, bemoans how she has sacrificed her life to him, and then immediately regrets all these thoughts as being unjust. This unremitting procession of unquiet thoughts is what Schopenhauer called the "endless stream of willing" to which all humans are subject and which ensures that no one ever knows contentment for more than a fleeting moment.
Schopenhauer saw the innermost nature of life as nothing more than the blind striving of an impersonal will-to-live, a "universal craving for life" which manifests most strongly in sexual desire, since this is how each species perpetuates its own existence. In Strange Interlude, Schopenhauer's notion lies behind the desire of Nina and Darrell to conceive a healthy child that will not be subject to hereditary insanity. As a man of intense passion who thinks he has made himself immune to love by cultivating the detached manner of the scientist, Darrell thinks that he can conceive the child as an experiment and not get drawn into an obsessive desire for Nina. He is, of course, quite wrong. Desire takes hold of him too, just as it has Nina, and buffets them both as it carries them along helplessly, like a boat swept downstream by a fast current.
All the characters, especially Nina and Darrell, but also Evans and Marsden, are helpless in this grip of desire. Their plight crystallizes in another of those fleeting cosmic moments when Nina seems to become larger than life and sees herself as an embodiment of the universal mother god who absorbs the many into the one. This moment comes at the end of act 6, when Darrell, Marsden, and Evans are all contemplating her with different degrees and kinds of desire. She is acutely aware of all their desires, and her desire dominates and absorbs theirs in a kind of maternal cosmic womb:
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!
But once again, it is perfect only for a moment. Salvation for Nina comes not in one of these inspired, mystical balancing acts, since life is continually in flux and cannot be frozen in one particular moment that happens to be pleasing to the desirebound personality. Only when Nina lets go of the whole business of desire can she be free. But in her case this comes not through some deliberate act of detached contemplation—the Eastern ideal—but when desire simply exhausts itself, leaving behind it only a longing for rest and peace. And this is where Charlie Marsden becomes important.
Marsden is different from the other male characters, Darrell and Evans. Although he has an emotional attachment to Nina, it is not a sexual one. Sexually, he is undeveloped, and in that sense he is always beyond desire. The reasons for his sexual abstinence are a combination of latent homosexuality, an unfortunate encounter with a prostitute as a teenager, a naturally refined sensibility, and a neurotic attachment to his mother. He is also, as he admits to Nina, afraid of life, afraid of grappling with the really deep issues. When he is in Europe in the aftermath of World War I, he is unable to write because the issues are too large for him to deal with: "how answer the fierce question of all those dead and maimed? … too big a job for me!"
One of the key images of Marsden occurs in act 1. It is thought by Nina, who in this scene regards him with a kind of affectionate contempt:
What has Charlie done? … nothing … and never will … Charlie sits beside the fierce river, immaculately timid, cool and clothed, watching the burning, frozen naked swimmers drown at last.
These words are prophetic on Nina's part, since the fierce river is the river of desire that eventually will pull everyone under. In contrast, Marsden sits apart from the river, observing it. This remarkable image surely owes much to Buddhist and Hindu beliefs about the enlightened man, established in the eternal nature of the self, detached from the stream of desire which he observes without being affected by it. In this view, "being" is more important than "doing," and this is exactly the attitude that enables Nina and Marsden to find some peace and contentment at last. "God bless dear old Charlie …" Marsden says to himself, alluding to how Nina has always regarded him, "who, passed beyond desire, has all the luck at last!"
The Eastern metaphysical framework does not explain everything about Strange Interlude, which also draws on Freudian and perhaps Jungian thought, as well. But it does give insight into an aspect of O'Neill's thought, nourished by his wide reading in comparative religion and philosophy, that was an important part of his life and work in the 1920s.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Strange Interlude, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
In the following essay excerpt, Manheim discusses the episodic sequencing of Strange Interlude and the relation of each part's themes and action to O'Neill's own life.
In Strange Interlude, the emphasis shifts away from Jamie, though when one recalls the very distorted Jamie of Lazarus Laughed, it is quite possible he may appear in guises here still more difficult to recognize than in that play. The emphasis in Strange Interlude seems again primarily on O'Neill himself trying to cope with all the deaths around him and, as always, with that one awful shock of his adolescence, his mother's addiction. Like so many others, the play explores his attempts to escape the pain associated with those events.
If in two previous plays O'Neill had been "much possessed by death," he was absolutely obsessed with it in Strange Interlude. While death, except in the early scenes, is not so explicit a subject of the play as it is in Lazarus Laughed, it is heavily in the background from beginning to end, tormenting all the characters in a variety of ways and directly affecting their responses and behavior. There are seven deaths referred to in this play, deaths of individuals closely related to central characters. There is the death of Professor Leeds's wife before the play opens, which the Professor finds himself unable to face. There is the earlier death of the airman Gordon Shaw, Nina's first lover, which Nina finds herself unable to face. There is the death of Professor Leeds himself, which Nina cannot "feel" anything in response to. There is the death of mad old Mr. Evans, Sam Evans's father, which his strange wife is still trying to cope with. Not long after, there is the death of Charlie Marsden's mother, whose apron strings Charlie could never cut and whose memory possesses him throughout the rest of the play. There is the death of Charlie's sister referred to in Act Eight, which Charlie responds to precisely as he had to the death of his mother. And finally there is the death of Sam Evans, which no one seems to know how to respond to. In addition, these deaths are all linked by the fact that the character closest to the deceased either has trouble feeling the death, or facing it—which amounts to the same thing in the context of the play. The incapacity to feel is presented as simply an early manifestation of the incapacity to face. And so with O'Neill himself toward the deaths around him. First he could not feel them, then he could not face them.
But while death is extremely important as a force which generates people's responses and behavior, it is not the immediate or surface subject of the action. Rather, the subject is a life story, the life story of Nina Leeds, told more as a novel might present it than as a play. It is also a disguised version of the life story of Eugene O'Neill, from the great disillusionment of his adolescence up to his involvement with his later wife Carlotta Monterey. Not for the first time and not for the last, O'Neill disguises an identity by changing the sex of the person intended, a simpler disguise than some because he might thereby treat certain topics more directly. The central agonies of Nina's young adulthood parallel the agonies that haunted O'Neill's existence. Although in the course of the play other characters reenact important aspects of O'Neill's attitudes and behavior, it is Nina who most comprehensively lives out the long-range fears, guilts, and frustrations which O'Neill felt were leading him to total despair.
The nine acts of this enormous play may be broken into four episodes, three relatively short, and one quite long. The first centers on Nina's relationship with her father and her response to his death; the second tells the strange tale of madness and death in the family of Sam Evans; the third traces the long, chaotic love affair of Nina Leeds and Ned Darrell; and the fourth predicts a desperate future. Although O'Neill divides the play into two major parts denoting a break of ten years, the natural story lines actually fall into the four I shall be discussing. And these four episodes follow the major preoccupations of O'Neill's adult existence: the deaths in his family, the addiction of his mother, his affair with Carlotta, and his fear of the future.
Professor Leeds, the subject of the first episode, is described in terms, and acts in ways, which suggest Mary Tyrone. The change in sex from mother to father is consistent with the change that makes Nina represent O'Neill. We meet the Professor as the play opens living on the same seacoast as Mary (New Haven substituted for New London), longing for a recently deceased (and, we infer, dominant) spouse, compulsively dedicated to the past, and unable to confront the problems of the present. He is described, like Mary, as "a fugitive from reality," "over-refined," and "temperamentally timid." He concentrates most of what he has to say in his brief appearance on his personal insecurity and on the guilt he feels toward his daughter, the recent death of whose lover both he and his daughter feel, quite irrationally, he has helped to bring about. The lover was an airman shot down during World War I, but Nina feels that had her father not prevented their marriage before the lover's departure, the lover might not, somehow, have died. Both see Gordon Shaw's death as the cause of Nina's recent nervous breakdown, and the Professor fears he may have been to blame.
Nina is described from the start in terms which suggest the young O'Neill both in appearance and in his struggle with disillusionment and guilt:
Her face is striking, handsome rather than pretty,
the bone structure prominent, the forehead high, the
lips of her rather large mouth clearly modelled above
the firm jaw …. Since Gordon's death [her eyes] have
a quality of continually shuddering before some terrible
enigma, of being wounded to their depths and made
defiant and resentful by their pain. Her whole manner,
the charged atmosphere she gives off, is totally at
variance with her healthy outdoor physique. It is strained,
nerve-racked, hectic, a terrible tension
of will alone maintaining self-possession.
Like Nina, the active, athletic O'Neill was "nerve-racked," not by the idealized image of a dead airman but by the equally idealized image of a dead mother. The Gordon Shaw theme parallels that motif of a lost ideal past O'Neill represented earlier in the image of childhood to which Jim and Ella Harris long to return. With the memory of Gordon Shaw representing O'Neill's distorted recollection of his mother "before the fall," the guilt of Professor Leeds then stands for his mother's guilt after she had revealed her great crime. The nervous breakdown Nina is recovering from is symptomatically no different from the whole set of reactions O'Neill experienced following the great trauma of his adolescence. Both feel inexpressible loss and inexpressible guilt, and both try to escape into a life of unabated debauchery. To parallel his own tuberculosis sanatorium, O'Neill includes a battle-fatigue sanatorium for Nina, where she "gives herself" to patients as O'Neill "gave himself" to whores and drink. O'Neill has combined in Nina's story the debauchery of his late teens with his experience in the sanatorium. Ned Darrell makes the point about Nina that she will shortly "dive for the gutter just to get the security that comes from knowing she's touched bottom," an idea which describes O'Neill's early adult life as accurately as any.
The second act of the play, which concludes this first episode, deals with Nina's first reactions to the death of her father and grows out of O'Neill's first reactions to the death of his mother. Nina keeps repeating in a voice "flat and toneless" that she is utterly unable to "feel anything at all" about her father—as O'Neill confessed that he could feel nothing at all about his mother's death. It is in response to this inability to feel that Nina decides to accept marriage. Since there is nothing, she reasons, that can replace her mutilated ideal, she decides that she must assume the outward characteristics at least of adult behavior, a compromise O'Neill felt he had made in his marriage to Agnes Boulton and in his early career. O'Neill's understanding of his own condition is suggested by the physician Ned Darrell's diagnosis of Nina. Ned clinically announces that Nina's inability to feel (like O'Neill's) is only a result of shock, that her feelings (like his) are actually very great. O'Neill writing Strange Interlude had come to understand, as he had not earlier, the nature of his supposed lack of feeling; and the play's opening episode reveals the nature of the understanding. But he was far from able to find hope in that understanding.
The second of the play's four episodes is much shorter and quite different in tone from the others. It is a melodrama in one act (Act Three) presenting the same disillusionment and fear of the opening episode from a different, less reasoned perspective. Now married to Sam Evans and pregnant, Nina is briefly happy at the prospect of becoming a mother. But she soon discovers the illusory nature of her new happiness, just as she had discovered the illusory nature of her old ideal. We meet Sam Evans's mother, who is described in the old familiar terms. She is
… very pale. Her big dark eyes are grim with the
prisoner-pain of a walled-in soul. Yet a sweet
loving-kindness, the ghost of an old faith and trust in life's
goodness, hovers girlishly, fleetingly, about the corners
of her mouth….
But despite the familiar description, it is not Mrs. Evans who reminds us of Mary Tyrone in this scene so much as it is the late, withdrawn, and unstable Mr. Evans described by Mrs. Evans, and the insane sister she also describes locked away in an upstairs room (the spare room motif), who sits laughing to herself without a care in the world. The mood of the play suddenly becomes gothic. Nina's emotion as she learns that her late father-in-law's "madness" is an inherited one is one of horror. Her flicker of hope at the prospective child is quickly doused. The effect of the family past is haunting to her. Thus the atmosphere of the brief second episode repeats the underlying elements of the first episode but strongly counters its reasoned, clinical tone. Both the clinical and the gothic were parts of O'Neill's complex perspective of the 1920s.
The solution proposed by Mrs. Evans—that Nina have an abortion and find a substitute father for her children—leads into the play's long and best-remembered third episode, which begins with Act Four and runs through Act Seven. This is on the surface a modish 1920s love story which in its time was undoubtedly rather titillating. The relationship between Nina and Ned precisely parallels the boiling affair between O'Neill and Carlotta. "Oh, those afternoons!" the lovers murmur through much of their anguished dialogue, afternoons certainly paralleling those O'Neill spent on his increasingly long and frequent trips to New York in the mid-twenties, ostensibly to work on rehearsals, but actually to yield to the very real attractions of a quite provocative actress. Here, of course, Ned Darrell is O'Neill, as his "dark, wiry" appearance suggests he sooner or later must be. But he is only O'Neill the attractive lover succumbing to a forbidden passion, not the O'Neill viewers of the plays know better, the terrified victim of an incomprehensible guilt. That O'Neill in this episode is the province of the enigmatic Charlie Marsden, a figure I shall consider in a moment.
The reason the Nina-Ned episode is so predominantly a soap opera is that, like O'Neill's earlier play on the subject of his marital and amatory problems, Welded, it is so engagingly superficial. It deals with that fascinating subject of people struggling with forbidden sexual attraction. It in no way deals with the conditions or causes which lead them to such activity. O'Neill did something here he would never do again. He dramatized effects—which so many second-rate writers do—rather than causes, and the results were immensely successful commercially. The popularity of Strange Interlude was in fact very much the popularity of soap opera.
These episodes are saved from utter banality, however, by Charlie Marsden, who keeps us in touch with the emotions O'Neill could not escape from, try as he might. In this episode at least, Marsden stands for O'Neill himself, more or less in the way William Brown did. Like O'Neill, Brown and Marsden are successful artists unsure of their own talents and plagued by the commercial appeal of their works. And both are, like O'Neill, overly sensitive, devastatingly self-critical, and unsure of their abilities as lovers. That last may seem strange in the light of O'Neill's active sex life, but extreme ambivalence in this area was a hallmark of all the O'Neill's. O'Neill's puritanical Roman Catholic upbringing was so full of taboos and his adolescent sexual experiences so fretted with fear and guilt that both his marriages were seriously affected by frequent periods of sexual disgust and inadequacy. The pervasive presence of that disgust in the plays is suggested by Charlie as he encounters Nina and Ned in the midst of their yearning for one another:
lust in this room! … lust with a loathsome jeer taunting
my sensitive timidities! … my purity! … purity? …
purity? … ha! yes, if you say prurient purity! … lust
ogling me for a dollar with oily shoe button Italian eyes!
These lines anticipate that potent atmosphere of sexual disgust particularly evident in the later plays: in the professional remarks of Cora and the Italian Pearl in Iceman, Edmund's recollections of his sexual initiations in Long Day's Journey, and Jamie's drunken sexual attitudes and behavior in A Moon for the Misbegotten. The Charlie Marsden we encounter in these scenes is the O'Neill who could be terribly, viscerally disturbed at the subject of sex even as he had, like his Ned Darrell, exceptional sexual appetites and, intermittently, prowess.
But more revealing still are other attitudes of Charlie Marsden's, especially in Act Six: his self-pitying lament for his dead mother and his contempt for himself as a writer, which are significantly related. He criticizes himself from the beginning of the play for being unwilling to dig deeply in his novels, afraid that he will "meet himself somewhere." In Act Six he links that fear, significantly, to the death of his mother:
I couldn't forget Mother … she haunted me through every city of Europe… (Then irritatedly) I must get back to work! … not a line written in over a year! … my public will be forgetting me! … a plot came to me yesterday … my mind … is coming around again … I am beginning to forget, thank God! … (Then remorsefully) No, I don't want to forget you, Mother! … but let me remember … without pain! … (I. 112–13)
O'Neill's recurrent periods of inability to write are well-known, and his desire to remember his mother "without pain" is the futile effort of all these plays. Charlie tells us more a bit later:
… but I might have done something big … I might still … if I had the courage to write the truth … but I was born afraid … afraid of myself… (I. 120)
If the audiences of 1928 were puzzled about the precise nature of that truth, those of Long Day's Journey some thirty years later would not be.
While Marsden and Nina represent O'Neill's anxieties about his art and about his past, Ned Darrell reflects the domestic O'Neill, revealing his guilt at having to confront his betrayed children. In Act Seven, Nina and Ned are still, in this many-years-later scene, the on-again off-again lovers, unable to part, unable to join, unable to be anything but deceptive and manipulative. Nothing new is provided about their relationship because O'Neill had nothing new to provide about his with Carlotta at that point. But what he adds, quite poignantly, is his fear concerning his children. The treatment O'Neill lets young Gordon Evans give Ned Darrell, his secret father, is treatment Shane O'Neill was not too young to have awarded his father on his infrequent trips home during the courtship of Carlotta; and it feels in the play like treatment O'Neill felt he deserved. As in other instances in which guilt and hurt can be felt most intensely in O'Neill's plays, the intensity here seems the direct result of immediate experience.
But it is still essentially unexplored experience—or experience at one remove from its source. O'Neill is here dealing with behavior and responses which are the result of earlier unrelieved agonies, and it is only when O'Neill deals more directly with those earlier agonies that the plays probe deeply into human experience. Notwithstanding O'Neill's characterizations of Charlie Marsden and little Gordon Evans, the long third episode is maudlin. If O'Neill went further in representing the "inner" lives of his characters than he had ever gone before, he did not go much further, largely because in this play he did not have much further to go. He was mired in immediate domestic problems and in a love affair, both of which grew out of deeper problems of his past; and while he sensed the connections between past and present, he understood neither. The tedious third episode of Strange Interlude sheds little real light on the nature of human relationships.
The last episode of the play (Acts Eight and Nine) represents O'Neill's attempt to achieve an idyll of withdrawal, a death in life, that condition later paralleled by Deborah Harford's in More Stately Mansions. It is written out of O'Neill's despair, of both past and present, and his desire to find the kind of escape the residents of Harry Hope's saloon find through their pipe dreams and their nickel whiskey, but which O'Neill never could find by such methods.
There are many elements of the play present in the last episode, not all of them successfully drawn together. I shall concentrate only on those clearly enough related to O'Neill's deeper feelings to make them relevant to this study. The end of the play can best be understood through its three central characters—Sam Evans, Nina Leeds, and Charlie Marsden—in that order. For out of these characters can be seen O'Neill's two alternative routes to the eternal oblivion his despair had led him to seek in all these plays.
To begin with, Sam is O'Neill's image of what is best in life. His life and death call to mind Larry Slade's dark quotation from Nietzsche:
Lo, sleep is good; better is death; in sooth. The best of all were never to be born.
Sam lives with his illusions intact and he dies a sudden death. Because he never knew the real conditions of his life—the madness in his family, his wife's true affections, the real paternity of his son—it could be said that he had lived a long sleep. Sam's life was a healthy pretense to O'Neill. Free from the burden of knowing reality, completely protected in his illusions, Sam has been able to achieve material success and bring security to those around him. These are qualities O'Neill envies him, and still more does he envy him his sudden death. And Sam's "son" Gordon is following directly in his supposed father's footsteps when he refuses to believe that his mother could ever be unfaithful, unable even to comprehend the news that Ned Darrell is his real father. The Evans men are of the genus that sensitive and disturbed people envy for the impenetrability of their illusions, though by the time he wrote Iceman O'Neill believed no one could be entirely protected from his ghosts.
More important in the episode is Nina, who represents O'Neill himself in the overall design of the play as a life story, but who from time to time suggests other important women in O'Neill's life. Her agonized exchanges with Darrell, for example, suggest Carlotta. In the last episode, through signals we are well acquainted with, she anticipates Mary Tyrone. At the point in Act Eight when her selfish clinging to her son is frustrated and she is prevented by Darrell from trying to break up her son's planned marriage, she becomes increasingly remote and her thoughts become vague and confused. She imagines Charlie to be her long-dead father and confesses the great sin of her life to him in tones which suggest Mary's narcotic withdrawal.
It is quite reasonable, of course, that at this point in the play, when Nina has become the mother of a young adult, she should follow the pattern of so many troubled matrons before and after her in O'Neill's plays. What is surprising is that the character who began the play as the author's representative should end as his mother's. In fact, she represents both at the end of the play. What we see O'Neill doing in this final episode is dramatizing that aspect of his fear in which he identified with his mother's desire to withdraw. As Nina, like Mary, seeks a death in life, an insulation from all feeling, so O'Neill, nervous and guilt-ridden like both, longed for such a release so much that he was willing to betray those closest to him to find it. The Nina of the final episode is a fusion of O'Neill's anxieties concerning his mother and his anxieties concerning himself and his future—a fusion which would be central in plays to follow, especially More Stately Mansions.
Nina's "strange dark interlude called life," then, is O'Neill's. The play is a not-so-brief abstract of O'Neill's emotional history—"a long drawn out lie with a sniffling sigh at the end," says Nina. Now unwilling to write in the courageous if essentially suicidal terms of The Great God Brown, O'Neill seeks an escape in this life, and he does so through a totally new version of his Earth Mother, his Cybel, the comforting bosom on which he "might cease upon the midnight with no pain." He assigns this role to the altogether surprising figure of Charlie Marsden. The ubiquitous Charlie has represented several facets of O'Neill's experience in this play, and there are many ways to approach him, almost all of them accurate but none of them complete. We have most recently heard him uttering O'Neill's most self-pitying thoughts and thus representing O'Neill's self-condemnation in these plays. But in this final episode, he becomes something quite different from the embodiment of O'Neill's uncertainty about his talent. The first overt indication of this larger function in the last episode is when he begins thinking to himself in terms one might associate with a narcotic withdrawal:
My life is a cool green shade wherein comes no scorching zenith sun of passion and possession to wither the heart with bitter poisons … my life gathers roses, cooly crimson, in sheltered gardens, on late afternoons in love with evening … roses heavy with after-blooming of the long, day, desiring evening … my life is an evening … Nina is a rose, my rose, exhausted by the long, hot day, leaning wearily toward peace. (I. 187)
He becomes the embodiment, in short, of escape.
In line with this function, Charlie becomes a kind of father figure to Nina. She has identified him with her father throughout the play; here she calls him father, and she yields to his love as a daughter would to a comforting father. Yet Nina has also throughout the play protested her rejection of fathers and father figures. She declares any number of times that she no longer believes in God-the-Father but has instead become a believer in God-the-Mother, the provider of nurture and comfort, a conception not far removed from O'Neill's Earth Mother, especially as she is represented in the goddess-like Cybel. So Nina's escape in the end into the embrace of a re-incarnation of her father seems contradictory—unless we recall (1) who her real father represented in the play, and (2) the androgynous terms in which Charlie earlier describes himself.
At the start of the play, when Nina could be identified simply as a young O'Neill disguised largely by a change in sex, the Professor by the same token could be identified as a version of O'Neill's mother. Nina, of course, rejects her guilty father and has difficulty facing his death, as O'Neill rejected his mother and had difficulty facing hers. In her despair late in the play, Nina seeks the forgiveness and comfort of a father—but not the still stained memory of her real father. What she seeks is that father with the stain of his guilt removed. And so O'Neill with the memory of his mother. He sought a mother with the stain of his real mother's guilt removed. Which is to say, he sought his Earth Mother, and created her in various versions in his plays. Possibly the strangest version of all is Charlie Marsden.
Several things Charlie does and says earlier in the play foreshadow this idea. He clings to Nina the way O'Neill's thoughts about the past clung to him, and he says he cannot decide whether he is a man or a woman. While the latter may suggest homosexuality, there is nothing notably homosexual about the Charlie of this play. He has lost his lust, he tells us, as the result of an encounter with a whore—an experience which fits a number of O'Neill's characters, most notably Jamie Tyrone, in whom it would be difficult to identify homosexual tendencies. The point O'Neill seems to be making about Charlie is simply that he is asexual, and that is precisely what he is supposed to be at the end: an asexual, protecting comforter for Nina in her dark, despairing wait for death. Nina's final gesture in the play is to fall asleep with her head on Charlie's shoulder. Her much-misunderstood declarations earlier in the play on behalf of "God-the-Mother" are thus finally realized in the triumph of "good old Charlie Marsden."
In dividing Strange Interlude into what I see as its four major episodes, I have sought to cut this sprawling play down to size. Its inordinate length, like that of plays to follow, grows out of O'Neill's persistent harassment by hostility and guilt, followed by panic and withdrawal. The first two episodes re-enact his familiar set of contradictory responses to his mother's addiction and his mother's death. The third and fourth reenact the escape, the third his escape through marital infidelity, and the fourth his desire for total oblivion. The play, like those immediately before and after it, is an extended set of variations on the theme of O'Neill's hardening despair.
Before going on to the other plays of this most desperate period in O'Neill's writing, however, I ought to say a word more about the play's interior monologues and their relation to the theme of kinship. Despite their frequent banality, they at times embody elements of the kind of dialogue O'Neill wrote earlier and would return to later. While the lines the characters speak to one another are usually deceptive or manipulative, the lines they think to themselves, when not simply self-pitying, often recall that antiphony of contradictory feelings O'Neill used so extensively in his earlier plays and would one day make basic to his language of human kinship. But although these rhythms do occur, the more important point is that they are almost always limited to the characters' thoughts. Rarely do the characters reveal their irrational reverses in feeling to others, and thus rarely are the characters in actual communication. Despite his obvious attempt to make the characters reveal their inner states, there is no true self-revelation in the play because the characters are rarely honest and direct with one another. Having told Nina that he loves her, for example, Ned Darrell thinks to himself that he is unsure that he loves her. It is quite convincing that his feelings might be so divided, but because of his fear of being hurt, Ned never makes this natural division in his feelings known to Nina. The result is the soap opera effect of pointless and ceaseless suspicion and distrust with no one the wiser or better off. There has been little real emotional confrontation, and there is little really "Freudian" about the play at all, despite the supposedly Freudian overtones of the interior monologues.
For contrast, such passages might be set beside encounters between father and son, mother and son, and brother and brother in Long Day's Journey. Whatever the characters in this later play feel is ultimately spoken aloud, and the result is a good deal of hurt and resentment but also a good deal of enlightenment. Only the figure of Mary, who finally must hide entirely behind her morphine screen, evokes the kind of despair that emanates from practically every scene of Strange Interlude. The men survive at the end of Long Day's Journey because they have made contact with one another—as do all three characters in A Moon for the Misbe-gotten. It is all a matter of whether the terrible extremes of human emotion are held in, breeding an aura of human separateness and despair, or whether they are released, breeding an aura of kinship. As O'Neill was far remote from any aura of kinship in his personal life of the late 1920s, so are his plays of that period.
Source: Michael Manheim, "Strange Interlude and Dynamo," in Eugene O'Neill's New Language of Kinship, Syracuse University Press, 1982, pp. 60–71.
In the following essay excerpt, Gassner discusses the staging of and the response to O'Neill's Strange Interlude.
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Source: John Gassner, Excerpt, in Eugene O'Neill, University of Minnesota Press, 1965, pp. 27–30.
Barrett H. Clark
In the following essay excerpt, Clark provides an overview of Strange Interlude, using his acquaintance with O'Neill to discuss the playwright's intent and the "dramatization of the motives of his people."
When I saw O'Neill in June, 1926, he told me about one of the new plays he was working on. The idea sounded preposterous: there were to be nine acts, and all the characters were to speak their thoughts aloud, with no regard for the ordinary conventions of the theater or of normal social intercourse.
"And why not?" he asked. "Everything is a matter of convention. If we accept one, why not another, so long as it does what it's intended to do? My people speak aloud what they think and what the others aren't supposed to hear. They talk in prose, realistic or otherwise—blank verse or hexameter or rhymed couplets." Then he went on to outline the story. The actual writing of Strange Interlude was done in Bermuda and Maine in 1926 and 1927.
The Theatre Guild contracted for the play, and early in 1928 it was produced. The Guild people have a way of doing things well. We know from the published letters of O'Neill that the Guild had turned down The Fountain when the prestige of a production by them would have helped immensely, and the royalties have eked out an income that was none too large; and there had been misunderstandings about other early MSS. But to the Guild O'Neill owes adequate, careful, and on occasion superb productions, and it is likely that if that group had not produced Strange Interlude and Dynamo, he might have had a hard time in those years finding other producers willing or able to take chances on them.
Let me begin my remarks on Strange Interlude by saying that the producers and director spared no pains or expense in doing ample justice to the drama. There have been few plays that required more tact and skill and imagination than this ambitious and subtle play in nine acts. Philip Moeller never directed anything that called for greater intelligence and a more sympathetic understanding. He brought into relief as much as was possible in a work that has so little that is conventionally theatrical. There is not much of that "pointing," straining after effect, that has marred certain other Guild productions.
Strange Interlude is many things, almost as many things as it has been called. The first point to make is that from 5:30 P.M. until after eleven, except for eighty minutes' intermission for supper, it holds the audience. Yet not primarily by means of theatrical trickery. It is not the story, which could easily have been condensed into three acts; it is not the strangeness of the asides and monologues (that novelty wears off in a few minutes); it is no more nor less than the triumph of O'Neill's art, his amazing gift for understanding and laying bare some of the complexities of the human mind and heart. He was clearly unwilling to make use of the traditional dramatic form which, in its latest manifestations, does not admit the aside and the soliloquy, and refuses to allow the dramatist much more than two or two and a quarter hours' time.
He had therefore, with a characteristic disregard of current fashions, elaborated what might otherwise have been a commonplace plot into nine acts, with a total playing time almost twice as long as what we are used to. There is more to hold the attention in Strange Interlude than there is in Parsifal. There is less "literature" but far more drama than there is in Faust. Strange Interlude carries four characters through their chief emotional crises during twenty-seven or -eight years. Nina Leeds, daughter of a college professor, loses her fiancé shortly after he goes to war to be an aviator. Her puritanical father has prevented the consummation of their union, which precipitates her decision to leave home. At first she becomes a nurse, then she seeks other outlets for her more or less imperfectly adjusted desires and aspirations. As she enters the main action of the play she has already begun to take on the appearance and characteristics of woman—with a capital W—to symbolize the Earth Spirit; she is a close relation of Cybel in The Great God Brown; she is mother, wife, mistress, adultress, materialist, idealist. Into her life are woven strands from the lives of many men: of Gordon (a romantic memory and an ideal); of the patient mother-ridden Charles Marsden; of Sam, her husband; of Edmund Darrell, her lover; and later of her son Gordon. For this woman no one man is enough. This epic creature, endowed with an inordinate thirst for life, takes on the proportions of a superwoman. With dreams that can never quite be fulfilled, held in check by inhibitions, forced onward by appetites, she is the incarnation of vitality, a creature that is driven to meddle in the lives of others in order that her own life may be filled to overflowing. No one is a match for her; nothing arrests her progress, nothing but old age. At last she is defeated by time and by that very spirit of youth (in the person of her son) that urged her on to rebel when she was young. The boy Gordon and the girl he is determined to marry leave her, even as she had left her helpless father.
This, essentially, is the "story" of Strange Interlude. There are several plot incidents, absorbing in themselves, but introduced principally to throw the character of Nina into sharp relief. I see in the play no "moral," no "intention," indeed very little of any definite philosophy. This in spite of what O'Neill and some of his interpreters have said on the subject. It was O'Neill's aim to expose imaginatively a chain of events in which a few people exhibit to us their thoughts and motives over a long period of years. Life offers us problems, joys, tragedies; it seems to take shape occasionally as a thing of beauty, but oftener as a senseless and cruel joke; yet it is an exciting process, a great adventure. The puppets we call ourselves are momentarily self-important with their little schemes for cheating death and avoiding unhappiness, but ultimately they lose bit by bit their desires and the fierce impulses of youth, declining slowly into a sunset period where peace alone seems worth having. Thus Nina seems to outgrow and cast off her sex, to embody and to be identified with the life instinct. Because she is conceived by the dramatist as a woman, each situation in her life is symbolized by a man, possessing something that she needs, has needed, or will need at last. In the case of Marsden we see her carefully appraising him in the first act and marking him out for use at some future time; at the end of the ninth act, when everything else has gone, she falls into his protecting arms, there to pass peacefully the remaining days of her life.
I have not yet touched on the essential element in Strange Interlude—the thing that makes it, with all its faults, a masterly creation. This is no more nor less than the dramatist's divination and dramatization of the motives of his people. As I have said, he could easily have told his story in three acts, but he extended it to nine in order that he might not have to say, "If I had had time, I might have told you everything essential about these people." He did have time, because he took it; he probably took a little too much time, not his own, but ours; there are places where he has insisted on making his characters explain to us what has already been clearly shown.
We are almost immediately let into the secrets of these characters: they tell us a great deal of what they think and feel. Not everything, of course, for that would be impossible and not at all necessary, but enough for the purpose at hand. The thoughts expressed aloud cannot at best constitute more than a fraction of those half-thoughts, hints and shadowings that haunt the subconscious mind, but they are enough for O'Neill. Shakespeare did much the same thing, and so did Goethe. O'Neill has tried to go a little farther, and has used the device somewhat more realistically. If he had been a Shakespeare or a Goethe he could have succeeded where they did, and with less ado. Simple and crude as it is, the device he uses is occasionally very effective. That is why there is no surprise in the ordinary sense; no suspense, and no curiosity of the sort aroused in conventional fiction. O'Neill knows that Strange Interlude is heavy with suspense, and for this reason he throws overboard most of the devices by which dramatists usually create it. He never releases the tension in his pursuit of the motives of human activity; this is his aim throughout. Like a surgeon he cuts deep, knowing always just what he is after.
While he has succeeded in showing a series of events each of which throws into relief some basic characteristic of one or more persons; and while he has conceived largely and written nobly, I feel that Strange Interlude is not the perfect work it might have been. For one thing, the shade of Strindberg hovers too close over it all: there is something strained, a bit diagrammatic and intellectualized in the character of Nina. She is rather too special—too much the female of the species. Woman as a beast of prey is Strindberg's invention, and I don't think O'Neill's vision of the world is as narrow and warped as that of the Swedish poet.
Technically, what of the asides and the nine acts? Is it always necessary in a play to express aloud what one thinks and feels? Cannot the actor occasionally show it? I believe that perhaps half of all the words not intended to be heard by the other characters might have been omitted without the loss of anything essential. O'Neill has overworked his device.
Finally, there is something lacking in the last three acts. They are somewhat repetitious, and might well have been condensed into one.
In these acts we notice again the dramatist's tendency to get lost in the mazes of his own rhetoric, not because he is trying merely to write for the sake of writing, but because he insists on exploring to the utmost the darkest corners of the mind and heart. In becoming familiar with the shape and color of words every writer has to guard against the temptation to create "mere" literature, or what looks like it, for he too often becomes the slave, as Stevenson and Wilde did, of the thing he thinks he has conquered. Throughout Strange Interlude, particularly in the asides, there are some lapses into "fine" writing. Of course, I am not insisting that one's thoughts ought not to be well expressed, but good expression does not of course mean "fine" writing, and some of O'Neill's fine writing is not good expression. In his attempt to avoid the banalities of surface realism he sometimes falls into another sort of error.
Source: Barrett H. Clark, Preface, in Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays, Dover Publications, 1947, pp. 111–16.
Bogard, Travis, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, Oxford University Press, 1972, p. 297.
Carpenter, Frederic I., Eugene O'Neill, Twayne, 1964, pp. 121–27.
O'Neill, Eugene, Strange Interlude, in The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, Vol. 1, Random House, 1964, pp. 2–200.
Ranald, Margaret Loftus, The Eugene O'Neill Companion, Greenwood Press, 1984, pp. 648–71.
Robinson, James A., Eugene O'Neill and Oriental Thought: A Divided Vision, Southern Illinois University Press, 1982, pp. 147–61.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation, translated by E. F. J. Payne, Dover, 1969, Vol. 1, p. 196; Vol. 2, p. 350.
Alexander, Doris, Eugene O'Neill's Creative Struggle: The Decisive Decade, 1924–1933, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992, pp. 103–28.
Strange Interlude is one of nine plays analyzed in detail. Alexander shows how O'Neill resolved his personal struggles through his plays.
Floyd, Virginia, The Plays of Eugene O'Neill: A New Assessment, Ungar, 1987, pp. 334–52.
Floyd traces the growth of the play from O'Neill's early notes and scenarios, and analyzes it act by act. She argues that the plot is weak, and the strength of the play lies in the characterization.
Mannheim, Michael, Eugene O'Neill's New Language of Kinship, Syracuse University Press, 1982, pp. 60–71.
Mannheim emphasizes the autobiographical elements in the play, which represent O'Neill's attempts to escape the pain associated with the deaths of many close to him, and his discovery of his mother's drug addiction.
Mannheim, Michael, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O'Neill, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
This volume of essays contains studies of O'Neill's life, his intellectual and creative forebears, and his relation to the theatrical world of his creative period, 1916–1942. There is also a production history on stage and screen.