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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 7


The Evil Particles of Desire in
O’Neill’s Strange Interlude

Adel Bahroun
University of Kairouan, Tunisia

If desires gain their meaning in the unconscious, and if conscious expressions of desire are reducible to a system that is not recoverable by consciousness, then conscious understandings of desire are by definition always deceptive.          –– Butler, Subjects of Desire 127

O’Neill’s Strange Interlude is a modern theatrical piece mapping the particles of sexual desire. They shape the atomic structure of existential life through a revolutionary process. O’Neill creates a female character, Nina, launching her thoughts on love and sex in a territorializing field. Nina invests her desire in a schizophrenic manner, bringing to the fore its evil substance and abandoning its subjective essence. She is the (post)modern American woman who is struggling for the liberation of desire from the traditional theatrical schemes and representation. Her inclinations to experiment sex with three men in order to accomplish the form of a male desire is, in fact, a call to schizophrenize modern subjects and drive them into violent sex against the codes that limit the will. After the death of her fiancé, Gordon, Nina’s successive attempts to exercise her free will in order to fulfill a new standard subjectivity increase her consciousness of the vanity of human efforts.

In this paper, the focus is on the flows of desire and freedom as active evil potentials, driving the subject into neuroticism and schizophrenia. The issues of desire, its evil particles and free will are tackled from existentialist perspectives (the theories of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus) and postmodern prisms (Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari). Throughout these theories, I will heighten the point that sexuality is not only a practice for existential appropriation, but also a process of liberation from the evil particles of the impulsive passionate body. The playwright presumes that desire lies at the kernel of the unconscious and is atomically shaped and energized by evil particles. These become the deplorable flows subduing the subject across the flaws of existence. The subject struggles not only for a state of well-being, but also for becoming.

The particles of desire are ingrained in the will to live, forming the substantial intensities of life and the constituents of subjectivity. Desire, a sexual intensity, is deflected from its essence for its rise coincidentally turns into (down)fall in its momentary ecstatic machinic transformation. In the sexual reciproque, the subject is connected to the other like a machine, becoming other desiring machines. Whether driven by passionate urge or a sense of malaise, the subject gets along the desperate track of the sexual want. O’Neill’s modern thought on evil between the two world wars, in Strange Interlude, is articulated in the great access to the freedom of choice and sexual discursive practices. Sexual cathartic experiments in a confined existential world lead the human subject to bad faith. Freedom in sexuality is an evil energy, making the subject suffer from anguish and nausea.

Sexuality sounds to be an existential trap, directing modern subjects towards each other in order to have a particular relation to the world. Darrel admits desperately: “her body is a trap!...I’m caught in it! … She touches my hand, her eyes get in mine, I lose my will!...(Strange Interlude 728). The body is the shell where evil particles interact to form an atom, obliterating the efficacy of the will and the legitimacy of reason. In this existential scene, Nina and Darrel are the damned lunatics, whose quest is beyond reach. They are the victims of their submission to the "gaze," which Sartre highlights as "an itching of the flesh which may fortuitously direct us on the other's flesh." Sartre contends that "Desire is by no means a physiological accident". These existential claims are developed by Ann Foreman in Femininity as Alienation: Women and the Family in Marxism and Psychoanalysis (81). Sexuality is a reaction to the female's beauty. This O'Neillian thought is reminiscent of Lawrence’s statement in Sex and Literature: "Now sex and beauty are one thing, like flame and fire. If you hate sex, you hate beauty. If you love living beauty, you have a reverence for sex … Sex and beauty are inseparable like life and consciousness" (52).

O'Neill's dramatic episodes in Strange Interlude are a survey of the subject’s sexual experience, seeking a new mode of subjectivity under the dispensation of the absurd fate. But, the tragic sense lurking at the heart of sexual acts is that desire is performed like a machine, putting the subject on the trail of absurd fuss. The machinic functioning of desire alienates the subject from the natural essence of life. In this respect, O’Neill’s perception of the subject’s existential alienation coincides with Murchland’s viewpoint: "We are said to be alienated from nature, our past, God, society and its institutions, work, friends and neighbors, our emotions and sexuality and in the end ourselves" (4). O'Neill's dramatic schema is drawn on the modern tragic pattern, that sexuality is an evil libidinal energy casting the subject in the hell of absurdity, such as the case of Nina in Strange Interlude.

Desire is a continuous conscious stream, which overdetermines the subject’s daily struggle for self-realization. Indeed, O’Neill, like Sartre and Butler, perceives desire as a force working through the subject’s character. Desire cannot be subdued; it is always wandering in variable absurd territories. Thus, "the desire to desire is a willingness to desire precisely what would foreclose desire, if only for the possibility of continuing to desire” (Butler 79). Above all, Desire for existential appropriation, throughout the discontinuous phases of the life stage, is a mutation from the condition of being into non-being –into nothingness.

The dynamics of desire and consciousness pit O'Neill's existential subjects on the course of recognizing the awful absurdity of their predicament. They express their discontent, frustration and despair. Despite their free will, they fall in the gulf of void, confronting their separation and estrangement. Henceforth, they are admitting the inability to console with a fragmented world, which is devoid of values and autonomy. The free will/desire turns into condemnation to the pursuit of evil, and not happiness. Thus, sexuality intensifies the tension between desire for appropriation and existential malaise. Desire for acting freely is doomed to be an evil determinant. The idea of the isolated and 'estranged self' brings us close to the meaning of the absurd fate, intensifying the power of the playwright’s dramatic inspiration.

O’Neill maps out the figure of sexual desire in a postmodern model. Nina, Darrel, Marsden and Evans in Strange Interlude are determined to victimize each other for sexual want(s). They act beyond the values inherent in their culture. Sex appeal and pleasure make O'Neill's theater a hollow space of nothingness and foolishness, where the body seems to be not only the site of momentary appropriation, but also the atom where evil particles of desire circulate. Nina tells Darrel: "We act like such brainless fools- with our love" (Strange Interlude 764). Nina uses Men – bodies – as tiny particles in order to construct the atoms that give her well-structured hope in desire, living and breathing, appropriately, on earth. She is obsessed with the flows of consumerist desire in sex. Her absolute desire is to charge her body with particles of sex. But, the latter engraves her in the shell of evil and ecstasy, defeating her will to get beyond the arbitrary level. Marsden resumes O’Neill’s views on sex and love: "This is life and this is sex, and there are passion and hatred and regret and joy and pain and ecstasy…"(Strange Interlude 795).

O’Neill seems to get through the sartrean trail of existential thoughts, that freedom is an evil energy through which nothingness prevails and enters the world. In this respect, Martin Esslin contends that "man is an evil being. Man is the being through which nothingness enters the world. Man is nothing because he has the liberty of choice and therefore is always that which is in the process of choosing himself to be a permanent potentiality rather than actual being" (156). O’Neill’s subjects are granted a big potential of freedom to fulfill an authentic subjectivity, and attain, therefore, the essence of human existence. But, certain contingent necessities stand as barriers that deter them from accomplishments, entangling them in loose absurd circuits. Freedom is a luring force in the infinite. In fact, the lack of freedom seems to be equal to the great access to it. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche highlights a philosophical view of will: "Will is not only a complex of feeling and thinking, but above all an emotion: and in fact the emotion of command. What is called 'freedom of will' is essentially the emotion of superiority over him who must obey: 'I am free, "he" must obey' (19). In both conditions, the subject is unable to seize his will and control his desires.

O’Neill objectifies the potential of freedom as a burden that breeds other burdens, which is reminiscent of the Greek paradigm that evil breeds evil. The free will is mostly performed in various evil acts. Its side effects formulate the specter of human fate and the contingencies in which the subjects are wearily swallowed in an infinite absurd world. The actions of freedom cannot lead to resolution or redemption. Free will leads nowhere but to dystopia. O'Neill's protagonists find the substance of freedom in 'speculating' and discoursing upon the futility and vanity of their existential efforts to be themselves, missing the pathways of becoming.

In Strange Interlude, Nina's experiments with sexual desires increase her awareness of the absurd dystopian meaning of life. She cannot find the right path to break free from the sickness and meaninglessness of modern life. She is "sick of sickness" (Strange Interlude 673). At the end of her existential strife, she surrenders exhausted seeking peace. She wearily admits: "I want to rot away in peace! ... I'm sick of the fight for happiness!..." (Strange Interlude 759) Nina seems to be unable to act beyond the confined state and bad faith. At this level, the playwright stages Nina as a 'pattern of the bad faith' that Sartre advances in Being and Nothingness:

We shall say that this woman is in bad faith. But we see immediately that she uses various procedures in order to maintain herself in this bad faith. She has disarmed the actions of her companions by reducing them to being all what they are; that is, to existing in the mode of the in-itself. But she permits herself to enjoy his desire, to the extent that she will apprehend it as not being what it is, will recognize its transcendence. Finally, while sensing profoundly the presence of her own body – to the degree of being disturbed perhaps – she realizes herself as not being her own body, and she contemplates it as though from above as a passive object to which events can happen but which can neither provoke them nor avoid them because all its possibilities are outside of it. (67-68)

Nina's "beautiful body" arrests her in the shell of evil impulses making her long for gratification with different bodies, like phantoms. The whole process of sexual experiments is a chain of dystopian traps where the effects of love, passion, ecstasy and pain are fused, as puddles, to make any attempt of escape from disgust and agony an insane act. Despite free will, Nina fails in her successive endeavors to shape a permanent authentic character and identity, to be atomized, because the particles of desire (re)charge her to invest her energy in an absurd style. She acts like a professional prostitute whose sexual hunger cannot be redeemed by sexual acts. In Contour in Time, Travis Bogard argues that "the concentration on Nina's life might suggest that O'Neill saw her as a supreme "temptress", a femme fatale in the tradition of the mighty seductresses of stage and fiction" (310). Nina indirectly raises a controversial question in (post)modernity, whether desire can lead her to a state beyond dystopia:

NINA: …(with an extravagant suppressed exultance) Why, I should be the proudest woman on earth! . . . I should be the happiest woman in the world! (Strange Interlude 75)

Nina is stronger and more than a sexually desirable woman, and "her understanding of the struggle is, appropriately, expressed in sexual terms" (Berkowitz 41). She yields to her burning desire and damnable conceit and freedom in a world of inertia and estrangement. Her ‘self’ is fragmented like the world of America between the wars. Thus, "Like the United Sates after the war, Nina turns to frivolity and aimless activity to fill the void", argues Brenda Murphy (141). Her life is schematically drawn as strange interludes where the feelings of evasive mess make her an outcast in a dystopian space. In this respect, the modern definition of subjectivity falls in the gap and gasp of doomed desires despite free will. "Life is just a long drawn out lie with a sniffling sigh at the end! (she laughs)" (Strange Interlude 668), says Nina in great agony. She reaches a logical conclusion, saying that "lies have become the only truthful things "(Strange Interlude 668). This metaphysical paradox highlights the illusory closure of the life experience and its absurd circuits.

Then, the tragic irony in Strange Interlude is that existential endurance in sexual terms leads to a cyclical vacuity that lies at the core of the hidden currents of life – "the dark intermingling currents that become the one stream of desire", says Charlie Marsden (Strange Interlude 756). The discontinuous charges of sexual desire with variable particles of sexual potentiality -“three loves”- make the subject territorialized. Charlie Marsden asserts that "her (Nina's) child is the child of our three loves for her" (Strange Interlude 756). The child, Gordon, does not know his real father. He is the product of the assemblage of the evil practices of a mad desire. He loves his mother's friend, Sam, but he hates his father, Ned, unknowingly. Sexuality traps O'Neill's subjects not only in uncertainty and uncanny alienation, but also in an endless struggle against the evil nature of desire. Thus, "Nothingness effects a withdrawal, a detachment of the self from being, and therefore a suspension of universal determinism" (Maccan 118).

The particles of desire seem to be oriented by the brain power for trivial satisfaction. Desire makes human beings consciously alien to each other, fooling themselves and each other to fall in counterfeit love. Nina admits desperately: "Yes, our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father" (Strange Interlude 817). Thus, "throughout the play, Nina draws strength from her identification with this female God (God the Mother), but in the end she must acknowledge a force larger than hers that mocks her attempts to create and control her fate" (Berkowitz 41). Nina successively attempts to believe in "God the Mother". She implicitly raises the idea that she is "God the Mother". This proclamation heightens the sense of absurd nihilism in the play. Nina fails to have faith in God's will as she loses her will as well by the end of her existential strife.

Furthermore, Strange Interlude creates a theatrical stage for the battle of the American woman to liberate sexual desire from evil containment. Thus, Nina is the modern woman who is powerful enough to invest her desire and lure the other into a trap. She wants to escape the traumatic past through the investment of her sexual energy, rejecting any sort of subjection to male domination. Yet, she appears on the stage weary, drawing the sympathy of the audience. Nina admits that sexual experience is a game. She is complaining: "Gordon's spirit followed me from room to room… poor reproachful ghost! Oh Gordon I'm playing the game but I was really sick" (Strange Interlude 697). Nina is disappointed by the death of Gordon, which marks the loss of her dream of happiness. Because she cannot be the wife of Gordon, she wants to be the mother of a child whose name is Gordon. This medium of compensation makes her lovers/lechers victims of her vile sexual desire. Indeed, in modern America, sex is a mode to resist existential malaise, but it is not an ultimate solution to reach a utopian state.

In modern America, between the two world wars, sex is a big dilemma in the head of the subject. It is a kind of tranquilizer forming the specter of the utopian endgame. Nina’s quest is more than self-satisfaction and purgation through sexual cathartic experiences. Like any alienated American woman, Nina is recurrently tempting men to fall in love with her momentarily, and then sends them away to receive them again with a new energetic passion for sexuality- "to kiss and cry and love each other again" (Strange Interlude 764)). Nina is more than a sexually neurotic woman. Her awareness of the existential mysterious void and the absurdity of life pushes her to, cunningly, play the game of sexuality with more than three men. O'Neill seems to construct more than one plot in the play to display the strange interludes of a vile woman who believes in volitions, endurance and identity through lies. Nina's central function is 'temptress'. She entraps Sam Evans, Ned Darrel and Charles Marsden in the snare of recurrent desperate sexual desire(s). O'Neill expresses the subject's existential uncertainty and ill-being through Marsden's discourse:

She's the old queer Nina now … the Nina I could never fathom … her three men! …and we are! …I? I am not ordinary! …our child … What could she mean by that? Child of us three? On the surface that's insane … but I felt when she said something in it … she has strange devious intuitions that tap the hidden currents that become the one stream of desire … I feel, with regard to Nina, my life queerly identified with Sam’s and Darrel’s … her child is the child of our three loves for her … I would like to believe that … I would like to be her husband in a sense … and the father of a child, after my fashion…(Strange Interlude 755-56)

Eugene O’Neill seems to be a sexologist, dramatizing the protagonists' subjection to the flows of absurd sexual desire. It seems that each man fills Nina with particular sexual particles, but without being redeemed. Redemption in sexuality is an illusory game. Nina affirms arrogantly: "My three men! I feel their desires converge in me! … to form one complete beautiful male desire which I absorb… and am whole" (Strange Interlude 756). For Nina the three men, lechers, form the atomic structure of a male desire, and yet she is not filled with the lacked/missed/lost energy. The revived need to (re)in vest the bodily energy in sexual purgatory practices make the particles of sex reproduced. I can assume that this O’Neillian philosophy reveals the degree of the absurd process of sexuality to get beyond mess and madness.

Nina gives her body until the latter aches. She seems to be madly addicted to sex with different bodies. But for what? Existential appropriation! She seems to be the best O'Neillian female character advocating cynic vision of well-being. Sex is an existential force working through the subject's will and producing the constituents of subjectivity and the determinants of fate.

NINA. (again with the strange intensity) I must pay! It's my plain duty! Gordon is dead! What use my life to me or anyone? But I must make it of use – by giving it! (Fiercely) I must learn to give myself, do you hear – give and give until I can make a gift of myself for a man's happiness without scruple, without fear, without joy except in his joy! When I've accomplished this I'll found myself, I'll know how to start in living my own life again! (Strange Interlude 647)

Nina's sexual desire is revived at different existential moments with the (three) men she has fancied in her life. Here, it is worth quoting Lawrence's statement: "Again, they talk of sex as an appetite, like hunger. An appetite; but for what? An appetite for propagation? It is rather absurd" (51). She wants Ned Darrel as a lover, Charlie Marsden as a father and Sam Evans as a friend. But, there is no standard identity of husband. Nina’s experiments with sex ridicule the standard notion of husband-wife relationship in the modern American society. This ridicule is a cast in a world where the subject's body-life is tickled with desperate desires and the fallacy of solitude:

NINA. (more and more strangely triumphant) My three men! … I feel their desires converge in me!... to form one complete beautiful male desire which I absorb … and am whole ...They dissolve in me, their life is my life … I am pregnant with the three! ... husband! … lover!…and father! And the fourth man! …little man! … little Gordon! He is mine too!… that makes it perfect! … (Strange Interlude 756)

Love is mutated into 'sex in the head', altering the natural figure of desire in O’Neill’s textual time, during the period between the two world wars. Love between couples becomes devoid of its meaningful emotions and relations. Thus, "romantic imagination! It has ruined more lives than all the diseases! Other diseases, I should say! It's a form of insanity!" (Strange Interlude 725), argues Ned Darrell after experiencing sexuality with Nina and other women. The (post)modern subject is acting like a romanticist imbued with the desire for happiness and tempted by more investments to get beyond the absurd reality. Eugene O’Neill dramatizes the subject’s experimentation with freedom in the modern American polis. It increases one’s access to the void of existence and evil thoughts.

In modern America, rationality in the direction of the sexual power is an abuse of the apparatus of sexuality itself. More than that, Nina seems to be a social stereotype in the modern western world. For her, at least three men can produce in her the right feelings of a satisfactory male desire, especially when she gets the fourth man at home – a child is born from the three desperate desires. Here, I think that despair, an ineluctable event, may give birth to 'something'. The latter is the ‘evil destiny’ which Nina constantly attempts to deplore. She utters (drowsily): "I want children. I must become a mother so I can give myself. I am sick of sickness" (Strange Interlude 673). Nina’s successive attempts to change the prospect of her doom reveal her inanity. Indeed, she anguishly expresses her existential despair and challenge of a bad fortune after the death of her fiancé, Gordon Shaw:

NINA. (again with the strange intensity) I must pay! It's my plain duty! Gordon is dead! What use my life to me or anyone? But I must make it f use- by giving it! (fiercely) I must learn to give myself, do you hear- give and give until I can make that gift of myself for a man's happiness without scruple, without fear without joy except in his joy! When I've accomplished this I'll have found myself, I'll know how to start my own life again! (appealing with a desperate impatience) Don't you see? In the name of the commonest decency and honor, I owe to Gordon! (Strange Interlude 647)

In Strange Interlude, then, heterosexuality is a trap alienating the subject from the right process towards a utopian state. Sexual desire becomes more than natural necessity or response to beauty. It seems to have an ideal function to let the subject get beyond the contingent hazards of living and the triviality of condemnation to Love. Sexuality becomes a code word to evade doom.

Nina’s endgame, a quest for utopian life, reveals her keen enough to make three men turn around and catch the same bait. She exposes her flesh to repel men. Thus, "when a woman's sex is in itself dynamic and alive, then it is a power in itself, beyond her reason. And of itself it emits its peculiar spell, drawing men in the first delight of desire" (Lawrence 101). Darrel, like Sam and Marsden, is a mad desirer of Nina. None of them can control his will when he finds himself caught in the same magnetic space with Nina. Sexual want is an endurable necessity, acting within the subject like a machine. There is no free will of desire. In Contour in Time, Travis Bogard comments upon what ails the existentialist protagonists in Strange Interlude:

Darrel on occasion fighting her, may hold that Nina has "used" his desire, yet he knows he cannot escape her, that he has no will … Thus although he may try to make a life for himself away from Nina, her need is stronger than his and he returns to fulfill his function of making Nina "happy", even though the active sexual phase of their life together is past. (311)

For a while, Darrel is driven by passionate emotions to fall in the lure of "gaze". Then, he retreats disappointed by the insane stream of desire:

DARREL. (beginning to be angry) By God, I won't! She'll find out! smiling! … got me where she wants me! … then be as cruel to me as she is to him!... love me?... liar! Still … love Gordon. Her body is a trap! … I'm caught in it! … she touches my hand, her eyes in mine, I lose my will! … (furiously) By God, she can't make a fool of me that way! … (Strange Interlude 728)

The cited discourses reveal the protagonist' inability to control his/her will. They show the arbitrary and absurd thinking of the protagonists about love and sex. Indeed, Nina is libidinous and man in her surrounding is libertine.

NINA. (with intense longing) I love you! Take me! What do I care for anything in the world but you!... let Sam die! (720)

NINA. (triumphantly between kisses) you love me, don't you? Say you do Ned!

DARREL. Yes! Yes!

NINA. Thank God!... Oh Ned! You made me so happy! (Strange Interlude 720)

DARREL. (kissing Nina) Oh! And now, Nina, I love you so! And now I know you love me! I'll never be afraid of anything again! (729)

NINA. Ned doesn't love me! He's gone!...gone forever! … Like Gordon! …no not like Gordon! Like a sneak, a coward! … oh I hate him! (731)

MARSDEN. I hate Nina…that Darrel in this room! I feel their desires. (723)

Love and sex become the reigning forces that prevent the modern subject from achieving adequacy with the world. In particular situations, the subject is confronted by necessity, bad faith and falsehood. There is no constant form of subjectivity. The subject's decision to escape from fate to fate manifests in the coincidence of desire with the freedom of choice, culminating in a sense of nausea. Freedom of desire cannot release the subject from disillusionment. Thus, throughout their sexual experiences the subjects are conscious of the absurd production of free desire in strange sexual phases:

NED. Sam's wife should find a healthy father for Sam's child at once.

MARSDEN. "Her child is the child of our three loves for her." (Strange Interlude 756)

NINA. He needs lots of fresh air … little Gordon … he does remind me of Gordon … Something in his eyes …. my romantic imagination … he (Ned) gave me my baby. the baby certainly doesn't look like him …everyone says he looks like Sam … how absurd! … but Sam makes a wonderful father … and I don't feel wicked … I feel good. (Strange Interlude 733)

The degree of ironic tragedy in Strange Interlude is that desire entangles the subjects in a recurrent situation of confusion and uncertainty. There is neither autonomy nor order that may allow the existential patient reach appropriation. Nina is pregnant with three men (husband, lover and father). Gordon will live like a son of bitch, alienated from the natural source of birth.

In modern America, the subject invests freedom in sexuality as a field of consumerism. This coincidence between freedom and consumerist desire asserts not only the deflection of subjectivity from its dynamic essence, but also the impossibility of appropriation in an inane absurd world. The subject’s struggle for self-realization and freedom seems to be overdetermined. Indeed, O’Neill’s protagonists are experimented with evil forces. Sexuality makes the subject evolve in a vicious circle of libertinage. In the Deleuzian perspective on desire and sex, the subject struggles to emancipate desire as a driving force to be oneself and not to belong to others. O’Neill’s protagonist is the postmodern subject who has to set himself free from violent desire and manipulation. Then, the deviation from the modern to the postmodern figure of desire is a mutation from subjective desire to its revolutionary essence. O’Neill explores the machinic working of sexual desire and "a revolutionary healing of mankind," as expressed by Mark Seem in the Introduction to Anti-Oedipus (xxi).

If Freud and Lacan psychoanalyze the subject’s potential for sexuality, Deleuze and Guattari schizophrenize the subject to liberate the particles of desire in the body. They, also, get along with Lawrence in criticizing Freud’s assumption on sex. Thus, "the great disaster of our civilization is the morbid hatred of sex. What for example, could show a more poisoned hatred of sex than Freudian Psychoanalysis" (Lawrence 52). Indeed, O’Neill invites the audience to get beyond the Freudian understanding of sexuality as a subjective potential. In the postmodern Deleuzian paradigm, Sexuality is the performance of consumerist desire. It has to be explored through a prism that emancipates it. It is a field of libidinal investment and production of new subjectivity. Basically, it is a source of becoming, which is a genuine process of transformation and mutation.


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