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“Eugenic O’Neill” and Strange Interlude

Logo of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 1921.

In his review of the original 1928 production of Strange Interlude, critic Walter Winchell neatly identified the play’s central concern and O’Neill’s preoccupation with heredity by announcing: “Another Eugenic

O’Neill Baby.” (2) Here drama merges with eugenics—the idea of hereditary improvement by controlled selective breeding—in O’Neill’s name. Winchell’s easy recognition of the presence of eugenics in the play suggests that the play’s now-scorned melodrama about heredity not only was understood differently in early productions, but also that the ideas of eugenics had a special resonance for O’Neill. Winchell’s witticism ties O’Neill’s curiosity about hereditary experimentation directly to the playwright’s dramatic experimentation.

Eugene O’Neill maintained that the only subject for drama to address was “man’s struggle…with himself, his own past.”(3) As early as his first full length play, Beyond the Horizon (1918), O’Neill created a modern version of ancient tragedy driven by intermingled hereditary, environmental and psychological forces, rather than by a larger, more abstract concept of fate. O’Neill wanted “to develop a tragic expression in terms of transfigured modern values and symbols in the theatre which may to some degree bring home to members of a modern audience their ennobling identity with the tragic figures on the stage.”(4) Heredity, with its accompanying symbols, terms and controversies, is invariably one of these important modern values. Looking forward to the 20th century, sociologist Edward Ross announced, “heredity… is the new divinity that shapes our ends.”(5) O’Neill brings this belief to bear in his drama.

In order to contemplate explicit questions of heredity in the early 20th century, O’Neill had to take on questions of eugenics. Claiming to be dedicated to “the improvement of the human race through better breeding,” the American eugenics movement enjoyed unparalleled popularity between 1900 and 1930.(6) Predicated on the newly rediscovered Mendelian theory of heredity, eugenic rhetoric was pervasive and strongly emphasized biological determinism. The pressing historical and social contingencies that helped to produce eugenics included unprecedented levels of immigration; mass African-American migration to Northern cities; the women’s rights movement, and especially the related issues of reproductive rights and sexual freedom; rapid urbanization; and the First World War. The eruption of eugenic ideas responded to the resulting instability of national, class, gender and racial boundaries.

The eugenic popularization of Mendelian heredity provided a particularly stimulating environment in which to tackle questions about heredity and the past. For O’Neill, who was interested in developing complex relationships between the past and present on stage, eugenic insistence on the visibility and the force of the past in the embodied present offered a ready resource. O’Neill also shared with eugenicists an abiding concern with visibility and spectatorship. In eugenic theory, there is a vital tension between hidden truth (for eugenicists, usually ominous, recessive genetic secrets) and visible truth, or dominant genetic history displayed on the body. For eugenicists, this tension creates an unsettling vacillation between an assurance about what is clearly visible on the body and dread about what lurks unseen in the body. Of course, in theatre, a tension between hidden truth and visible truth is a playwright’s natural playground, affecting everything from dramaturgy, to stage design, to the place of the audience, to the theories and practice of acting. O’Neill both adopts and reconfigures ideas of heredity and eugenics in Strange Interlude in order to explore the influence of the past on the present and the power and limits of visibility.

Strange Interlude takes nine long acts to play out the hereditary scope of the story, which follows four central characters from 1919 to 1945. The practical reason for the play’s length is the copious use of an old stage convention—the aside—since the characters’ inner thoughts are often spoken out loud, unheard by the other characters, and interspersed with their audible dialogue. This device signaled an engagement with the new and sensational field of psychoanalysis, which contributed significantly to the play’s popularity.

At the same time, the primary concern of the play is the extensive, shaping past, and what will be transmitted to the future. When Nina appears in the first act, she is unhinged by the loss of her fiancé Gordon, a pilot killed in WWI, but even more so by her lack of a child. The play’s obsession with reproduction is evident in its nine-act length, and here anxiety about reproduction and how (and what) qualities are passed from one generation to the next rests on a eugenic storyline. The plot turns on a two-part eugenic conviction that is articulated in the third act. The first part, or the problem, is an unquestioned belief in congenital insanity, and the second, or the proposed cure, is the resulting necessity of breeding for eugenically healthy offspring. In addition, the play’s uneasiness about reproduction is steadily fostered by a diffuse collection of ideas and terminology common to eugenic rhetoric. These ideas are most often laid out in dichotomies, which include questions of health and sickness (both mental and physical) and visible surfaces and hidden depths.

O’Neill’s ambitious effort to grapple with these questions brought him unprecedented public acclaim. Opening on January 30, 1928, Strange Interlude was a national phenomenon. It ran for an impressive 17 months at the John Golden Theatre in New York, before two touring companies took it on the road for three more seasons. The play’s first printing of 20,000 copies sold rapidly, and the play held its place on the national best-seller list for many months, eventually earning O’Neill his third Pulitzer Prize. Moreover, the play brought O’Neill unparalleled financial reward: the production, combined with the movie rights, netted the playwright $275,000, the most money he ever made from a single play. Written about extensively in newspapers and magazines across the country, Strange Interlude raked in glowing reviews; the majority of critics hailed Strange Interlude as an unmatched dramatic accomplishment. Even J. Brooks Atkinson, who disliked the play, conceded that O’Neill, in his failed experimentation, was “performing the most vital service possible to American drama.”(7) Devotees or detractors, almost all critics agreed on the national importance of Strange Interlude

Strange Interlude and its critics also helped to contribute to the circulation and recognition of various eugenic ideas, while, significantly, emphasizing the contradictions within those ideas. O’Neill sets up and then repeatedly questions a powerful social myth of good and bad bloodlines in Strange Interlude. The bad bloodline belongs to Bessie Evans, and the good, to Gordon Shaw; both are looming, unseen figures whose genetic legacies influence the action of the play. But O’Neill produces versions of the past that are challenged and re-imagined in the present. The struggle over hereditary myths, which denies the possibility of an objective version of the past, dominates the play. In this way, O’Neill begins to forge a new dramatic form by using imperfect, contested versions of the past to disrupt and drive the action of the play. In debating the force of the past in the present, O’Neill gradually transforms the conventional dramatic structure of exposition, complication, climax and resolution. As O’Neill develops as a playwright, he places increased emphasis on looking backward at the chain of events that have led to the characters’ present until scouring the past in order to comprehend the present constitutes the action of his plays, an approach that culminates in his masterwork, Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1956). Finally, in Strange Interlude, O’Neill completely undermines the conventionally climactic revelation of paternity, that hallmark of 19th-century melodrama. When in the final moments of the play Nina bursts forth with the play’s 20-year-old guilty secret, her literal identification is understood only as a figure of speech. The declaration has no impact on the action and reveals nothing. Here, O’Neill both relies on the appearance of traditional dramatic suspense and mocks it. His new version of ongoing, irresolvable dramatic suspense lies in the audience’s struggle (alongside the characters) to determine which versions of the past are more or less true. Movement away from conventional dramatic structure means not simply that O’Neill was expanding the possibilities of dramatic form, but that the resulting plays place new demands on theatrical spaces to accommodate them, new demands on actors to inhabit them and new demands on audiences to make meaning from them.

The eugenic version of heredity mirrored and extended a cultural anxiety about how to decide what would be carried forward from the past to the present and the future. When J. Brooks Atkinson argued, “what prevents Strange Interlude from being a great play is just this cramping intrusion of the tenets of science,”(8) he confirmed more recent opinion about the play; his criticism is undoubtedly one of the main reasons that the play has not been regarded as one of O’Neill’s best since WWII. In 1928, however, the audience wanted to see precisely what Atkinson objects to, and often they wanted to see it more than once. In Strange Interlude, audiences were watching the characters’ repeated, constrained attempts both to contest and reinforce the causality of the past. Given the flawed forces of heredity in O’Neill’s play, arguably audiences were looking to theatre as much to contradict as to uphold the vision of linear causality that the eugenics movement asserted. What Strange Interlude provided was an active, repeated playing out, in the immediate present, of hereditary concerns, and eugenics fed both desires and anxieties about what would be transmitted to a postwar generation. At the same time, in drawing on the phenomenon of eugenics and exploiting its inherent tensions, O’Neill began to rethink the shape and effect of drama.

1 This essay is derived from my article, “’Eugenic O’Neill’ and the Secrets of Strange Interlude,” Theatre Journal 55:2 (May 2003): 215-234.
2 Walter Winchell, “Another Eugenic O’Neill Baby,” “Strange Interlude,” Clippings, Theatre Collection, Museum of the City of New York
(MCNY), New York City.
3 Cited in O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, ed. Oscar Cargill et al. (New York: New York University Press, 1961), 111.
4 Ibid.
5 Edward Ross, “Turning Towards Nirvana,” Arena 4 (1891): 737.
6 See Charles B. Davenport, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (New York: Henry Holt, 1915), 1.
7 J. Brooks Atkinson, “Laurels for Strange Interlude,” New York Times, 13 May 1928, “Strange Interlude,” Theatre Collection, MCNY, NY.
8 Ibid.

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