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In Pursuit of Happiness: Michael Kahn’s Journey to Strange Interlude

Illustration of Michael Kahn by Al Hirschfeld (2001). Copyright The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. Al Hirschfeld is represented by The Margo Feiden Galleries.

Opening on Broadway in 1927, Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude shocked audiences with a plot line that incorporated abortion, adultery and eugenics. For STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn, the play’s power comes from an even more complicated topic: happiness. “Everyone wants it,” he says. “That’s what the play is about, people trying to find happiness, trying to figure out what it is and where they’re going to find it.”

Kahn first came across the Pulitzer Prize winner as a child. “My mother had been married to a bookseller before she married my father,” he explains. “So our home was full of books, including first editions of O’Neill’s plays and, among them, Strange Interlude. I read it when I was very young and I didn’t understand a thing, except that it was huge. Years later I saw Geraldine Page play Nina and I realized that I love the play, that it was this Mount Olympus that needed to be climbed.”

Before assaying Olympus, Kahn tested his strength with O’Neill’s other works. He directed Mourning Becomes Electra with Jane Alexander at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1971, then with Kelly McGillis at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in 1996. His production of Beyond the Horizon at the McCarter Theatre was filmed for PBS’s Great Performances in 1976. A year later, he was in Boston directing Jose Ferrer and Kate Reid in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

It was in the early 1980s that Kahn suggested Strange Interlude to The Roundabout Theatre as a follow-up to his highly successful A Month in the Country. “I was encouraged to send the script to Glenda Jackson,” Kahn remembers. Jackson declined the Roundabout offer but was soon playing the role in a London production that came to Broadway in 1985.

“It was very disappointing,” Kahn says, “I thought there would never be another revival of Strange Interlude. It had been done.” It wasn’t until he was planning the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 25th Anniversary Season that Kahn returned to the script that he loved.

“Like all of O’Neill’s plays, Strange Interlude is profound and intuitive and a little over-written,” he says. “It was originally six hours long and was done with a dinner break.“

Having gained permission from the O’Neill estate to edit the script, Kahn spent a year studying its every nuance. “O’Neill, coming out of the life he had, and his theater family, writes with a vestige of melodrama,” Kahn admits, “but he also writes with passion and understanding and daring. Before I cut a word, I wanted a complete understanding about why it was there.“ The result is a play he hopes is more accessible to modern audiences, and roughly half the length of the original.

While working on Strange Interlude, Kahn returned to another literary masterpiece of epic proportions. “I had read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time twice before,” he says. “The first time I was very young and completely involved with how unhappy the characters were, and how unhappy my own love life was, and that’s what I saw in the book. Then I read it again when I had more of a social life in New York City, and I became fascinated by the depiction of the rituals and masks of society. Reading it now, I’m keenly aware of how much I didn’t understand before. It’s especially interesting to read it alongside O’Neill. Each of these authors came to a point where they wanted to examine what life is, to examine what consciousness is.”

In Strange Interlude, O’Neill gives voice to his characters’ stream of consciousness. As with a Shakespearean aside or soliloquy, the audience becomes privy to an interior drama in which a character’s thoughts often contradict what is said in dialogue. O’Neill’s extensive use of the device was revolutionary, but Kahn finds the portrayal of Nina Leeds, the central character, even more groundbreaking.

“When great playwrights write about women, whether it’s Medea or Hedda Gabler or Blanche du Bois, they focus on a very small portion of their protagonist’s life, and usually toward the cataclysmic end of that life,” he explains. “O’Neill had a much more challenging and original idea, which was to show a woman’s life over three decades and to pick out its key events. It’s like going through your photographs and choosing the moments that changed everything. O’Neill lets us see what happens over a lifetime.”

Nina’s life spans one of the most volatile periods in the nation’s history, encompassing world wars, the advent of new technology and a radical shift in social norms. “It’s about America, the American dream,” Kahn says. “Everyone in this play is striving for happiness. And each of them believes there is a way to get it—through work, through achieving success, through children, through sex, through service to others or through possessing someone.”

When asked if anyone in the play actually finds that happiness, Kahn pauses to consider. “I think we need to discover the answer to that question,” he says. “At the end of the play, there is a cleansing of a sort. The frantic pursuit for happiness ceases. They have this bittersweet ability to say yes, I’ve given up the struggle.”

Kahn is speaking of the older characters, whom we’ve watch struggle toward a hard-won contentment, but a more vital happiness remains a possibility for the drama’s younger players. “The play begins with news that the man Nina loves, a World War One pilot, has been shot down,” Kahn points out. “It ends with a young pilot, named for the one who died at the beginning, flying up into the sky with the woman he loves. Happiness—whatever you think that is—remains the engine of the play.” He shrugs. “Ultimately, it’s about us.”

Norman Allen’s work has been commissioned and produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Kennedy Center, the Karlin Music Theatre in Prague  and the Olney Theatre Center. As former playwright-in-residence at Signature Theatre he premiered Nijinsky’s Last Dance (Helen Hayes Award, Outstanding Play) and In the Garden (Charles MacArthur Award) with subsequent productions throughout the United States, Europe and South Africa. He has written on the arts and culture for WAMU-FM, The Washington Post, Smithsonian magazine and other national publications. His work for the theater is published by Playscripts, Inc.

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