Eugene O’Neill completed Strange Interlude in 1923, before the sweaty, sex-soaked Desire Under the Elms, before his experiments with masks in The Great God Brown, both of which can be seen flickering beneath this great play’s fascinating surface. O’Neill was still a young writer, who had most recently indulged his fascination with the symbolists in the rough, pistoning The Hairy Ape, and in Strange Interlude he took a queer aim at the grand family tragedies of Ibsen and Chekov, his more considerable European peers, and as this magnificent new production demonstrates, blasted them to pieces.
It builds slowly, even tediously, as young Nina pines for her lover, the Adonis-like Gordon who was lost in the war, and whose love for her was never consummated. Her father schemes with his old friend, the mummy’s boy Charlie, and a slick quiff of a Doctor. The story follows Nina’s frustrated attempt to drag a life together from the pieces that she is presented in those first minutes, to navigate the lassitude of changing passions and oxidising ambitions across twenty or so years of her life.
O’Neill’s ‘gimmick’, which he was evidently pleased to have invented and is at first intensely irritating, is to allow the characters to break away mid-sentence and present a miniature soliloquy, a snap-shot of their motivations or the reactions they have concealed beneath the platitudes of polite conversation. It feels impossibly naïve, proof that digging your own grave is a kind of ground-breaking too, and yet by half way through the play’s considerable running time, it becomes a device of rare and wholly unexpected power.
Director Simon Godwin has snipped many of the more purple streaks of prose from the asides, the flights of poetic fancy that made it an easy mark for the Marx brothers or MAD magazine to needle, but many of them remain awkward, and many more add nothing to our understanding of the characters. They are an occasionally pathetic and often comic reinforcement or reiteration of what we know or more or less know to be the characters’ thoughts and feelings. What they do instead is provide a kind of cheat-sheet, York Notes on the inner lives of the characters that perform an emotional alienation that allows us to perfectly perceive the conventions of the family drama, or the love triangle, or the tragic marriage, just as O’Neill kicks against them, they reveal the scaffolding of dramatic structure in the action of collapse.
It’s not a trick, and it’s not flash. It’s awkward and troublesome. But it’s not an act of mindless vandalism or cold experimentation, it’s a tool that allows O’Neill to write characters and situations which feel more truthful and less yoked to the convenience of narrative and narrative closure than any in his oeuvre. It is Nina’s stated ambition, as it is surely all our stated ambition, to make others happy because she tells herself that happiness is essentially denied to her. However that noble cause is hopelessly muddled and perverted by her own desires, by the convenient lies she tells herself and others tell in her cause, and of the selfish martyrdom of truth-telling that passes for bravery in the her life and the lives of those around her.
O’Neill’s great theme is truth itself, how it is constructed and how it has attained a value greater than happiness even in the absence of God, who Nina places galaxies away and only her foolish husband Sam feels able to call to, buffoonishly, for mediation. The lives of his characters are a furious mess of desire and pompous self-sacrifice, their motives not suspect but condemned because they are constantly spoken. There is a tragic aptness to Nina’s path from object of desire to wife, to lover, to mother – the four ages of womanhood under the ever-present weight of patriarchy – but even this is displayed as the result of seemingly random chance. O’Neill wields the comic timing and unfortunate coincidence of farce as a symbol for the universe’s erratic stage management of our lives. There is none of the cathartic calamity of a pure farce or a pure tragedy, Nina’s conviction that our lives are ‘strange interludes’ is borne out by incompleteness at every turn.
Godwin’s production is deeply sumptuous, with a set from Soutra Gilmour that becomes frankly decadent in the last acts. His main cast are superb too, with Anne-Marie Duff hitting just the right notes as Nina to keep her often cruelly obtuse actions within the realm of the plausible, never letting histrionics capsize her story. There’s a touch of Mrs Doubtfire to Charles Edward’s performance as the fey Marsden, and Jason Watkins steals the show entirely as Sam, building from prize pillock to prize pillock living the American Dream with great humour and humanity.
There are a few rough patches, including a bad child actor and a worse wig – which proves unfortunately distracting during a superbly gothic confrontation between Nina and Sam’s creepy mother (a nicely understated Geraldine Alexander) and truthfully there are passages that are just plain boring, if taken on their own. Taken as a whole, however, Strange Interlude holds its own with the very best of O’Neill’s writing.