Whenever someone tells me (s)he is about to read a work by Eugene O’Neill, I worry. I make sure to tell him/her to have someone hide all sharp objects within a five mile radius. For those planning on reading Strange Interlude, I would caution readers to stash all the blunt ones, as well. While I cannot deny O’Neill’s genius, there’s no ignoring the depressing nature of his work. In 1936, the Nobel Prize committee presented O’Neill with the award in Literature, “for the power, honesty and deep-felt emotions of his dramatic works, which embody an original concept of tragedy.” Strange Interlude exhibited all these traits.
Eugene O’Neill was the first and, to this day, only American playwright to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Four of his works earned him the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Strange Interlude did so in 1928. While I found the overall story unique and creative, I didn’t think it one of O’Neill’s best. I certainly wouldn’t put it in the same category as Beyond the Horizon or The Iceman Cometh. The first time I read Long Day’s Journey into Night, the drama engrossed me so much, I felt like I had a drinking problem when I finished. While interesting, Strange Interlude lacked the same impact.
As typical of O’Neill’s plays, a number of lines struck me as very philosophical. In the first act, Marsden thinks, “The square thing…but we must all be crooks where happiness is concerned!…steal or starve!…” (Page 76). In Act Two, Nina says, “Life is just a drawn out lie with a sniffling sound at the end.” (Page 104) I already warned my readers to hide all sharp and blunt objects. Lines like these serve as a good sampling of the overall tone of the play.
Like in Beyond the Horizon, O’Neill jolted the audience with a major plot twist. After entering into an unhappy marriage to Sam Evans, Nina decided to have a child in the hopes it would improve their relationship. She then discovered insanity runs in Sam’s family. Therefore, she got a friend, Dr. Edmund Darrell, to, ahem, serve as the child’s biological father. They would allow Sam to raise the child thinking it his own. Even he didn’t know about the insanity in his ancestry. Before readers applaud Dr. Darrell for graciously giving up his time to serve as the, ahem, biological father of Nina’s child, this wasn’t the altruistic act in may appear to be. It turns out the doctor loved Nina as well. I thought this mix made for a compelling drama. I turned the pages in anticipation of the emotional catastrophe to come.
I thought the repeated, and I emphasize repeated, asides by the various characters rather annoying. As any author knows, the hardest part of writing drama is that the audience or reader doesn’t know the inner thoughts of any character. O’Neill chose to remedy this through numerous soliloquies. I found them distracting after a while. Granted, unlike Gao Xinjian, at least he didn’t reject the Stanislavski system. That would’ve made the incessant inner monologues insufferable.
At the end of the play, Nina explained the title. “Strange interlude! Yes, our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father.” (Page 255) Yeah, not real life-affirming stuff, yet it showed the essence of O’Neill’s work. I’d recommend Strange Interlude to people already familiar with O’Neill’s plays. It’s a good drama, but not one of his best. Keep in mind he penned masterpieces such as Beyond the Horizon and The Iceman Cometh. Even as a critic, I admit it’s not entirely fair to fault him for not consistently crafting work up to their superlative level.