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A Strange Sensation

Illustration of Edward Petherbridge, Glenda Jackson, Brian Cox and James Hazeldine in 'Strange Interlude' by Al Hirschfeld (1985). Copyright The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. Al Hirschfeld is represented by the Margo Feiden Galleries.

In the 1930 film Animal Crackers, Groucho Marx schmoozes two women at the same time. In the midst of his amorous advances, he steps forward and in a brooding voice says, “Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.” He peppers the rest of the scenes with weighty asides: “Party? Party? Here I am talking of parties. I came down here for a party. What happens? Nothing. Not even ice cream. The gods look down and laugh. This would be a better world for children if the parents had to eat spinach.”

This parody of the asides in Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude confirms the play’s status as a cultural icon of the 1920s. Though he had already written more than 20 plays with considerable success, Eugene O’Neill became Eugene O’Neill after its premiere. The storm of accolades and arguments surrounding the play helped lead to a coup for the Theatre Guild and for O’Neill. Strange Interlude ran for 426 performances on Broadway and toured nationally several times. The published script sold 100,000 copies by 1931, and O’Neill sold the rights to MGM for a film version. The play also earned O’Neill his third Pulitzer Prize, and more importantly, made him the modern equivalent of a millionaire.

It was the talk of New York: a gargantuan show with daring new theatrical devices and scandalous subject matter. Audiences clashed over the play’s merits and pitfalls, but it remained on the tongue of every theatregoer, and laid siege to the pen of each columnist. A Chicago Tribune reviewer described the opinions of some audiences—“A freak play, overwritten, pretentious, and as bloaty with self-pride in its sheer bulk as a seven-foot prize fighter”—even while declaring it the most significant event in American drama that century.

What in this play had hit a nerve? To begin with, as is often the case, controversy bred interest. The subject matter seemed scandalous: promiscuity, abortion, adultery and the deep recesses of the human mind. The play was banned in Boston, driving the demand up even more for tickets in other cities. The length of the play fascinated audiences. Clocking in at six hours with a start time of 5:15 p.m., including a dinner break, Strange Interlude was a test of both endurance and cultural acuity. It soon became a very fashionable way to spend an evening, complete with an opportunity to be seen in your favorite restaurant. Socialite and philanthropist Otto Kahn even went home during his dinner break to change into evening clothes.

New ways of thinking permeated Strange Interlude. Freud and Jung’s revolutionary ideas about the unconscious and the powers of psychoanalysis appeared for the first time in English in the late 1910s and early 1920s, engendering an entirely new conception of the mind that was just beginning to take hold in America. O’Neill was a voracious reader—of Freud and Jung, among others—and Strange Interlude’s exploration of hidden drives and forbidden desires, couched in a theatrically exciting new form, fascinated a general public that was still unfamiliar with them.

Even while Strange Interlude was introducing new psychological ideas, it was also at the vanguard of a new literary movement. Modernism focused on the inner lives of characters and strove to create new literary forms to express them, and the current of experiment swept up O’Neill right alongside Joyce, Stein, Hemingway and Eliot. The structures that organized the world before the catastrophic war no longer seemed relevant, and artists needed to find a new language to represent a changed world. According to his journal, O’Neill was reading Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness novel Ulysses as he was writing Strange Interlude.

Digesting Joyce, Freud and others, O’Neill seized on stream-of-consciousness, writing in his journal in 1926: “Perhaps have the whole play nothing but thinking aloud…the thinking being more important than the actual talking—speech breaking through thought as a random process of concealment, speech inconsequentially or imperfectly expressing the thought behind…” In this way, the famous asides of Strange Interlude were created. In the 1928 premiere, director Philip Moeller instructed the actors to freeze during these moments, allowing Marsden to express his prudishness, Nina her scorn and Ned his unhappiness, while flowing freely between dialogue and thought. Although O’Neill may not have been the first to use this device, his asides became a sensation. Some thought them awkward, some tiresome and some transformative. But no one could deny that it was a theatrical experience that was unlike any they had seen before.

O’Neill had erected a new structure out of a tangle of Freudian thought and literary experiment, melodrama and allegory: a novelized theatre. The asides change the relationship between the characters and the audience; think of Hamlet, the most beloved Shakespearean character, whose brilliant soliloquies allow the audience to be constantly privy to what happens in his mind. In reading a novel, too, one develops a personal relationship with the protagonist: the reader knows their feelings and sees their motivations, whether he agrees or disagrees. It is an intimate bond. In Strange Interlude, O’Neill attempts to create this bond in the theatre, between audience and character. The characters’ inner lives are as important to the action as their outer lives, incorporating complex levels of consciousness that were rarely seen onstage. Though theatregoers can argue over the form

O’Neill constructed, it changed American drama, giving a glimpse of the playwright that O’Neill was to become.

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