Written in the Winter of 2011 for Michael Kahn’s production of Strange Interlude at the Shakespeare Theatre. The first major revival of O’Neill’s nine-hour epic in 20 years. I have no doubt that Michael’s courage as an artistic director inspired the National Theatre’s production in the fall of 2013. -DL
One’s outer life passes in a solitude haunted by the masks of others; one’s inner life passes in a solitude haunted by the masks of oneself. […] Strange Interlude was an attempt at the new masked psychological drama which I have discussed before, only without masks. – Eugene O’Neill, “Memoranda on Masks,” 1932
Eugene O’Neill spent his entire life searching for a new language of the theatre. His experiments augured a newly ascendant modern movement in the American drama, and his plays express the modern experience in powerful, mythic strokes. A 20th-century writer, O’Neill nonetheless possessed a classical sense of tragedy. Preoccupied with masks and faces, illusion and reality, his plays move invariably toward an unmasking, those moments when a character stands revealed to others and to themselves.
During the 1920s, O’Neill’s most prolific period, he sought to literalize these recognitions, using masks in plays such as The Great God Brown and Lazarus Laughed. But it was the manner in which O’Neill developed a language of concealment and discovery without the use of external devices that would prove most influential in his later work. Strange Interlude, which appeared on Broadway in late 1927, made explicit this shift between the social mask and the underlying face. Inner conflicts of character were presented as spoken asides, alternating with external dialogue. For audiences still unfamiliar with Sigmund Freud and James Joyce, the play seemed to open up a new landscape of the human spirit, introducing them to a wholly new way of thinking about themselves. It was the greatest financial success of O’Neill’s career, an international event that led him down the road to becoming America’s greatest dramatist.
Like all of O’Neill’s plays, Strange Interlude is a strange brew of the old and the new, a dramatic marriage between ancient tragedy and modern experiment. Like Aeschylus, one of his idols, O’Neill uses an epic canvas, telling a story that spans multiple generations and weaves history together with myth. But the play is unusual for its female protagonist, Nina Leeds, its psychologically explicit asides and its quasi-scientific structure, patterned after the female life-cycle. O’Neill got the idea for Strange Interlude, which he would later call his “woman play,” in 1923, when an aviator told him the story of a young woman whose fiancée had been shot down immediately before the armistice, before their marriage could be consummated. In the play, the shattering death of Gordon Shaw in 1919 thrusts Nina into a confusing postwar world. The play’s time-scheme of 25 years – spanning Nina’s loss of virginity all the way to her “second pause” – constitutes Nina’s strange interlude, her never ending search for happiness and fulfillment. Intent on symbolism, O’Neill also structures the play in nine acts: one for each month of a woman’s pregnancy.
With her deeply sensuous personality, fragmented and divided among the social roles of daughter, wife and mother, Nina Leeds is one of O’Neill’s greatest dramatic creations. Like Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night, Nina is surrounded by men, each of whom reflects a different sexual and psychological “type”: the father (Professor Leeds), the celibate (Charles Marsden), the husband (Sam Evans), and the lover (Edmund Darrell). Behind all of them hovers the ghost of Gordon Shaw, the all-American youth, an image of male innocence and wholeness whom Nina seeks throughout the play. As Nina says at the turning point of the play, “My three men! — Husband . . . lover . . . father . . . and the fourth … I should be the happiest woman in the world!” By dividing her love among four individuals, Nina finds a way to unite the roles of wife, lover, daughter and mother, broken apart when Gordon Shaw was shot down. This is Nina’s moment of unmasking, when the masks of her tortured inner life unite to form a unified self.
Strange Interlude has been said to possess an “intellectual framework” fashioned by the writings of Sigmund Freud, which were just starting to crash on these shores of the Atlantic in the 1920s. O’Neill had read Freud and Jung. He was undergoing psychoanalysis while writing the play. He was also reading James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness novel, Ulysses. There can be no underestimating the power with which the play introduced such continental ideas to an American audience.
But O’Neill was just as avid a reader of the continental drama, and Strange Interlude seems to possess just as strong a kinship with that body of writings that shifted the focus of the drama onto women. Like Ibsen’s A Dollhouse (1879), Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888), and Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays (1895), Strange Interlude fundamentally depicts a woman’s search for spiritual meaning in a world still fashioned by men. Like Nora or Julie or Lulu, Nina is not an independent woman but an interdependent one, her fate tied inextricably to the ambitions, dreams and desires of the men in her life. Her long march toward happiness charts the slow realization of this truth, which remains a tragic truth of many women’s lives today.
Late in his life, O’Neill would write of painful truths and tragic revelations inspired by real life, in the great autobiographical plays which shape his modern reputation. But he would never again conceive a play of such tragic grandeur and also such directly contemporary appeal. He would also never again structure a play explicitly around the psychology and mythology of the eternal feminine. O’Neill’s synthesis of the tragic and the modern – his Promethean ambition to create a modern drama that stands side by side with the classics – constitutes the core of his importance to the American drama. As he wrote, in 1925: “The theatre should give us what the church no longer gives us – a meaning. In brief, it should return to the spirit of Greek grandeur. And if we have no Gods or heroes to portray we have the unconscious, the mother of all gods and heroes.” In Strange Interlude, as in his later plays, the mind is locked in an eternal conflict with the spirit, and God the Mother is as powerful a figure as God the Father.