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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 0


The Inescapable Father:
O’Neill’s Strange Interlude

B. Thiessen
Trinity Western University

It has been said that Eugene O’Neill’s “apotheosizing of the maternal female character is unquestionably a dominant motif throughout his canon” (Barlow in Bagchee 7).  This is especially evident in Strange Interlude, where, even though three of the four central characters are men, the action centres so completely on the female protagonist that O’Neill called it his “woman play” (Gelb 589).  The character of Nina, whose name is Spanish for “girl,” “is presented as both woman and Woman” (Berlin 101), and indeed O’Neill’s characterisation of Everywoman supports Ms. Barlow’s argument. Charlie Marsden informs the audience that, even before the action of the play, Nina tried “mothering” her father after her own mother died (O’Neill 71).  Clearly, Nina is the dominant personality in her family, but she comes to blame her father for the death of her beloved fiancé, Gordon Shaw (O’Neill 85).  Throughout the rest of the play, the audience follows Nina’s unsuccessful efforts to rectify Professor Leeds’ actions, first through her own maternal attempts and ultimately in her forgiveness of her father.

Throughout most of the action, Nina tries to undo her father’s selfish mistake by replacing Gordon.  Nina’s first attempt to resurrect Gordon takes her to Ned Darrell’s sanatorium, where she tends to injured war veterans.  Because of her trauma over being denied Gordon’s love as a sexual partner, Nina tries to compensate by having sex with several men.  In abandoning herself to her physical desires, like a “stupid driven animal” (O’Neill 109), Nina is simultaneously trying to forget her love for Gordon in addition to trying to make herself feel shame, or any other emotion.  Before leaving, Nina explains, “I must make (my life) of use – by giving it” (O’Neill 83).  Remembering O’Neill’s definition of being “motherly” as being “nurturing, caring for, and protecting others; being willing to subordinate one’s own dreams and concerns to the loved one’s desires; and being willing to forgive any and all transgressions” (Barlow in Bagchee 8), the audience can see that Nina also tries to “give herself” maternally during this episode.

When Nina’s efforts at the sanatorium fail to console her, Doctor Darrell realises that Nina needs “someone she cares about to mother and boss and keep her occupied” (O’Neill 101).  The doctor “prescribes” a marriage to Sam Evans, a mutual friend from college.  If Nina does require a childlike companion to care for, it is obvious why Darrell chooses Evans.  Upon meeting him, Marsden describes Sam as an “overgrown boy” (O’Neill 93).  Later, Darrell calls him “a big kid” (O’Neill 102), and Nina refers to him as a “poor sick baby” (O’Neill 132) and “poor little boy” (O’Neill 168).  Although Evans wants to marry Nina and “take care of her” (O’Neill 95), he is initially completely dependent upon his wife.  His happiness depends on Nina’s happiness in the third and sixth Acts, when she finds some degree of contentment in making Sam happy and successful.  Conversely, Evans’ distress in the fourth and fifth Acts reflects Nina’s own when she realises that her newlywed husband cannot father a healthy baby.   Like all children, however, Evans grows up, and his increasing self-confidence makes him independent of Nina by the end of the play.

Evans’ supposed son is similar to his “father” in many ways.  When Nina finds she cannot satisfy her maternal desires with wounded sexual partners, nor with a childlike husband, she recalls her old desire to mother a baby – provide the world with a little Gordon for the next generation.  This desire to create new life is heightened by Gordon’s premature death.  The audience recalls Nina’s words of finding her identity by giving herself when she says, “I must become a mother so I can give myself” (O’Neill 109).  Again with the help of Darrell, Nina eventually does have a son and names him Gordon, reminding the audience that her perpetual goal is to replace her first lover.  Ironically, just as Professor Leeds tries to keep Nina to himself by keeping Gordon Shaw away from her, Nina desperately attempts to keep her son from marrying; but he, like Evans, grows up and becomes independent of his mother.  Madeline is successful in taking Nina’s son away from her in an airplane, again hearkening back to her father’s success in sending Nina’s lover away.  It is no coincidence that Gordon’s marriage coincides to Evans’ death.

Like the male Evanses, Ned Darrell also leaves Nina in the final Act.  His departure is far more significant to Nina than that of her husband.  Although she is fond of Sam (O’Neill 101) and is grateful to him for acting as father for her child, Nina never really loves him.  Instead, she chooses Darrell as a romantic interest.  By taking a lover, Nina makes a fourth and final attempt to fill the void left in her life by Gordon Shaw’s death.  Nina is attracted to Darrell’s strong will, superior intellect, and physical good looks (O’Neill 149).  However, it is debatable whether or not Nina actually loves Darrell more than she does Evans.  Darrell insists that he does not love her, and that she does not love him (O’Neill 162), but it is clear both that Darrell is struggling with his own desire for Nina and that Nina sees Darrell as an elusive, forbidden lover, much like Gordon.  Nina defies God by having an affair with Darrell, hoping to compensate for her failure to defy her father by having Gordon.  Regardless, Darrell shifts from being completely independent of anyone, as he is when he is introduced, to becoming as dependent on Nina as Gordon and Evans.  It is again significant that, unlike her doomed efforts in controlling her son’s destiny, Nina is successful in breaking off Darrell’s engagement to another woman, causing her lover unhappiness by the same means that her father used to cause her grief.  Darrell’s regaining of his independence, and his subsequent exit, leaves Nina alone with Marsden.

Abandoned by her husband, son, and lover, Nina seems to have lost her struggle “through a purgatorial compromise between the ideal and the actual” (Carpenter 71), and she herself finally abandons all hopes of regaining the ideal that her long-lost Gordon has come to personify.  Nina admits to Marsden that she was wrong to hope for happiness (O’Neill 254), realising that it is impossible for her to escape from the deeds of Professor Leeds by seeking other men. In the end, Nina can only repent for her actions and resign herself to accepting her fate, as she agrees to marry Marsden.  At this point, Charlie has become the only remaining man in her life, like her father wanted to be.  Whereas Nina formerly divides her love among four men – husband, father figure, son, and lover – Marsden himself fills the roles of the husband, father, and son.

Nina’s action of marrying Marsden shows that she has grown out of her passionate girlhood.  In the seventh Act, Nina muses that Marsden would be “a perfect lover when one was past passion” (O’Neill 206).  Ten years after that thought, Marsden says that the “distressing episode” of Nina’s marriage and maternal efforts was one “in which our souls have been scraped clean of impure flesh and made worthy to bleach in peace” (O’Neill 254) – effectively stripped of irrational passion.  The “interlude” of which he speaks is a time of purification, during which both Marsden and Nina grapple with their desires, and learn that they only result in despair.

This interlude also serves as a period of punishment, which Nina herself requests: “I’ve got to be punished, Charlie, out of mercy for me, so I can forgive myself” (O’Neill 107).  Although Nina asserts that she desires punishment so that she can forgive herself, the audience understands that she desires forgiveness from her father, now dead, by the fact that she slips into calling Marsden “Father” (O’Neill 109), and from her statement that “now Father is dead, there’s only you” (O’Neill 107).  It is clear that Marsden comes to represent Professor Leeds from the second Act on, and that Nina’s eventual marriage to him mirrors her final forgiveness of her father.

Although it is ironic, considering O’Neill’s own abandonment of his children, that a paternal figure should be the last to leave Nina, evidence of Charlie’s paternal role is abundant.  From the very beginning, it is clear that Marsden is connected to the Leeds family, as he is an old friend of the Professor’s.  Nina’s father reflects that Charlie is “like one of the family”(O’Neill 77).  At their first meeting, Darrell compares Marsden’s relationship with Nina to that of an uncle (O’Neill 101), and reminds Charlie that he is “the last link connecting (Nina) with the girl she used to be … The only person she still respects – and really loves” (O’Neill 100-1).  Even Evans sees Marsden as being like Nina’s guardian after her father’s death (O’Neill 96).

Marsden himself recognises his paternal qualities.  He is fifteen years older than Nina – nearly twice her age in the first Act.  His affection for Nina is never lustful, and only barely reaches into the romantic, although he does recognise her physical beauty.  And, of course, Marsden works to protect Nina as best he can, although he finds out about her affair with Darrell too late to interfere.  His silent confession of love for Nina echoes that of a father: “This is my love … she is my girl … not woman … my little girl … and I am brave because of her little girl’s pure love” (O’Neill 107).

Marsden is not merely a paternal figure, though; he resembles the Professor himself in character.  Professor Leeds is described as being timid, conservative, and studious (O’Neill 72), characteristics revealed most obviously in Marsden’s vocation of hiding from the world behind his writing “long-winded fairy tales for grown-ups” (O’Neill 232).  Also like Nina’s father, Charlie needs Nina to look after him, like his mother and sister did before her.  Marsden’s mother is mentioned in every Act, usually by Marsden himself, proving his dependence on her even after her death.

Indeed, Marsden needs a mother more than even Sam Evans does when Nina agrees to marry him.  Evans has become independent of his own mother before the action of the play, while Marsden is separated from his mother (and later, his sister) only by death.  And while Evans grows increasingly independent, Marsden remains static as the years pass onstage.  Nina recognises this dependence when she describes his ideal wife as being a matronly old woman (O’Neill 173).  Thus, Nina’s acceptance of Marsden as a husband betrays not only her renewed desire for a paternal figure, but also her continued desire to adopt another “child.”

Tragically, for all that Marsden becomes, he fails to replace Gordon Shaw’s primary role as Nina’s lover – her soulmate. As her father and other male companions consistently fail her, Nina comes to believe that no man left on earth can fully understand the needs of her soul as Gordon could.  Similarly, Nina feels that a God who is a Father could not understand her, either, and so adopts a worship of a sympathetic Mother God (O’Neill 106, 153), who gives life to the world through Her own pains.  Nina believes that, just as a woman’s nature is not knowable to mortal men, no paternal Deity can understand a mother’s plight, regardless of how benevolently He might deal with men.  However, after the final failure of her men, Nina sighs, “The Sons of the Father have all been failures” (O’Neill 254).  The capitalised “Sons” and “Father” reveal that Nina believes that the fall of Adam, which brought suffering to all God’s wingless children, has not been adequately addressed even by Christ.  Her view of God shifts back to exclude the idea of eternal life, adopting instead the belief that death brings a reunion with the most powerful force in the universe.  Nina’s ultimate desire for peace and death is a result of her belief that God is only knowable through death, not life.

When Nina realises that she can not find happiness through caring for men as she cared for Gordon, she attempts to return to her way of life before she met Gordon, by abandoning her passion and living alone, in peace with her father.  Still, Nina cannot escape her revelation in the second Act, that “life is just a drawn out lie with a sniffling sigh at the end” (O’Neill 104), and she returns to that initial belief.  Just like O’Neill’s inspiration for the character of Nina, who had hoped that motherhood would bring her some inner peace and contentment in life (Alexander 103), Nina is disappointed.  Frederic Carpenter’s interpretation of O’Neill’s recurring conclusion can be readily adapted and applied to Nina: “Because (woman’s) dream is impossible and because (woman) by nature is materialistic and sinful, (her) very attempt to realize (her) dream in this world must lead (her) into the evil which (she) seeks to escape” (73).  The “interlude” of being married to Evans, although intended to serve as the corrective punishment that Nina requests of “Father Charlie,” brings increased pain with few exceptions.  Mrs. Evans says, “Being happy, that’s the nearest we can ever come to knowing what’s good” (O’Neill 126).  But, since Nina – indeed, the whole world – has not been good, it follows that she can never regain her happiness.


Alexander, Doris.  Eugene O’Neill’s Creative Struggle: The Decisive Decade, 1924-1933.  University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State UP, 1992.

Barlow, Judith E.  “O’Neill’s Many Mothers: Mary Tyrone, Josie Hogan, and their Antecedents.” Perspectives on O’Neill: New Essays.  Ed. Shyamal Bagchee. Victoria, British Columbia: University of Victoria Press, 1988.  7-15.

Berlin, Normand.  Eugene O’Neill.  Modern Dramatists Series.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982.

Carpenter, Frederic I.  Eugene O’Neill.  Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1964.

Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb.  O’Neill.  New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962.

O’Neill, Eugene.  “Strange Interlude.”  Three Plays.  New York: Vintage Books, 1995.  65-255.


Broussard, Louis.  American Drama: Contemporary Allegory from Eugene O’Neill to Tennessee Williams.  Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

Floyd, Virginia, Ed.  Eugene O’Neill: A World View.  New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1979.

Krutch, Joseph Wood.  Introduction.  Nine Plays.  By Eugene O’Neill.  New York: Liveright, Inc., 1932.  xi-xxii.

Manheim, Michael.  Eugene O’Neill’s New Language of Kinship.  Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1982.

Miller, Jordan Y.  Playwright’s Progress: O’Neill and the Critics.  Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1965.



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