STRANGE INTERLUDE--STRANGE CRITICISM
A recent review of two London productions of O'Neill plays raises some important questions. In the Spring 1984 Newsletter, Mr. Albert Kalson reported that Long Day's Journey was well received by the London critics, but closed after a short run. Strange Interlude, on the other hand, drew large and enthusiastic audiences even though it "baffled" the critics. This led Mr. Kalson to an extended contrast and criticism of the two plays. Strange Interlude, he wrote, was really soap opera, but Long Day's Journey was "a dramatic masterpiece." The greater popularity of Interlude, he felt, was "surely because the spectators are never involved in Nina's pain and suffering as they are in the wounding of the Tyrones." Only the insensitivity of an audience nourished on "segments of Dallas and Dynasty" could explain the success of Interlude. Surely the critics, and the reviewer, could not be wrong.
This kind of criticism is not new. Fifty years ago Francis Fergusson attacked O'Neill for "lacking discipline," but recognized his "appeal to a vast audience." Twenty years later Eric Bentley tried to like O'Neill but failed, and therefore condemned him. Now Mr. Kalson reports the continuing appeal of Interlude to a large London audience, but calls it "an outdated dinosaur of a play." Unlike Mr. Bentley, he does not even "try" to like it. The chief difference between this recent criticism and the old is that now the target is no longer O'Neill, but only Interlude and the early plays.
To one who has struggled for over fifty years to answer such criticism, all of this is profoundly discouraging. And to one who has always liked and admired Strange Interlude, it becomes exasperating. The unconscious arrogance of critics who, in the face of contradictory evidence, declare their judgments to be "surely" right, arouses violent reaction. But beyond personal feelings, it expresses a form of cultural elitism. Even though it recognizes that large audiences continue to like Interlude, they must be lacking in taste and education. The finely trained critics must be right.
I have said that this kind of elitist criticism is not new, and that it has been answered by modern critics. I have expressed my personal irritation at it. But the fact remains that it will not go away. It is a hardy perennial whose roots reach deep into the distant past. Without explicit reference, it assumes the sanctified authority of the Aristotelian tradition in order to validate its personal assertions. In the continuing quarrel between ancients and moderns, it denies all value to the moderns. They lack "discipline."
All this recalls a similar experience of sixty years ago. In 1924 Irving Babbitt's course on the Masters of Modern French Criticism devoted almost three months to an exposition of Aristotle's Poetics. The next three months considered the French classical dramatists, and the Quarrel of Ancients and Moderns. Only the final third of the course reached the nineteenth century, where it praised those modern critics who best realized the old Aristotelian principles. I remember especially the lecture on Brunetière, who condemned every author who diverged from those principles. On the final exam I wrote a diatribe against Brunetière.
Some years later Irving Babbitt did me the honor of noticing my attribution of an Oriental influence on O'Neill, but only to reject it. Over the last fifty years I have devoted myself (often unconsciously) to answering Professor Babbitt's Aristotelian dogmas. Now Professor James Robinson has published his book on Eugene O'Neill and Oriental Thought, and Professor Beongcheon Yu, in his American Writers and the Orient, has devoted chapters both to Babbitt, and to O'Neill.
Professor Kalson's total condemnation of Strange Interlude recalls Brunetière's total condemnation of his modernist French authors. The absolute assurance of authority is the same. And the absolute rejection of opinions which do not recognize this authority is the same. One danger of all this lies, not in its appeal to traditional values, but in its total rejection of all other possible values. Another danger arises from the tendency of those, whose modernist values are thus rejected, to reject in turn all traditional values. For the traditional standards of criticism suggested by Artistotle's Poetics remain valid--within limits. Only when they are imposed beyond those limits do they do harm. Since Long Day's Journey observes the Aristotelian principles more fully than any other O'Neill play, whereas Strange Interlude ignores those principles almost completely, these two may illustrate the problem.
Most familiar are the three Aristotelian Unities. The unity of time directs that the drama take place within one day. The unity of place is obvious. The unity of action, in turn, focuses upon a single plot. And Long Day's Journey realizes these almost perfectly. The unity of time is emphasized by the title. The action takes place within the walls of the New London cottage. And the plot dramatizes the day's journey of the four Tyrones within these walls. No other O'Neill play observes so perfectly all the Aristotelian Unities. And Journey gains much of its power from the sharpness of focus and intensity of feeling which result from them.
The story of Strange Interlude, on the other hand, unfolds not in one day, but over four decades. It takes place in the different places in which Nina lives. And the only unity of action which it observes is that of Nina's biography. It has often been suggested that Interlude is more a novel than a play. Certainly it is not a tragedy, in any sense of the word. If it is judged only by the standards of Aristotelian criticism, it fails totally. By what standards, then, can it be said to succeed?
The great difficulty lies here: no standards of judgment different from those of Aristotle's Poetics have ever been clearly defined and generally accepted. In the absence of such standards, we may turn to Henry James's definition of the novel: "The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel ... is that it be interesting. The ways in which it is at liberty to accomplish this result (of interesting us) strike me as innumerable. They are as various as the temperament of man."
Let us examine the various ways in which Interlude accomplishes "this result of interesting us." For interest us it does. Even if we admit all its imperfections, it has proved its popularity in simple terms of number of performances on the New York stage. And this does not take account of its sales as a best setter. Whether one likes it or not, it has succeeded in interesting a vast number of people. It may even be argued that this is the most interesting of all O'Neill plays.
The first way in which Interlude succeeds beyond the normal and in spite of the traditional, is by means of its convention of spoken thoughts. Although this seems at first artificial, and sometimes merely superficial (as when the spoken thought contradicts the spoken word), it makes possible the realization of a depth psychology impossible to simple realism. And if the language of this depth psychology sometimes seems naively Freudian, it nevertheless emphasizes that the Freudian "complex" itself borrows the language of Greek mythology. By means of this new dramatic convention, Interlude achieves some of the dimensions of ancient myth.
The second way by which Interlude succeeds is by its dramatic realization of what is, in actuality, unrealistic. The central scene of the play describes Nina kissing each of her "three men," while each both observes and accepts his role as husband, or lover, or father figure. The scene seems unreal in act, and surreal in technique--if it were to be shown on Dallas or Dynasty, it would be hooted off the screen. But it succeeds in the theatre, partly because of the earlier psychological probings, and partly because its very strangeness suggests a universal truth, which may be called archetypal.
More than Freud, the psychology of Jung interested O'Neill, And Jung's theory of archetypes may suggest one principle which O'Neill used in his dramaturgy. One character or one situation is developed to its logical limits, and beyond. So Nina, in her single-minded struggle for self-realization, suggests the modern archetype of the liberated woman, and also the ancient archetype of the earth mother. Later, O'Neill projected the character of Hickey beyond the normal limits of belief, and then created a new kind of archetype in the character of Josie Hogan. This archetypal criticism has been used effectively by the poet William Everson (Brother Antoninus) to interpret some of the narrative poems of Robinson Jeffers.
Beyond the complexes of Freud and the archetypes of Jung, O'Neill developed a third way of interesting his audiences--that of comparative religion. In Marco Millions he explored the chief religions of the Orient. But his interest in Oriental religion was mostly comparative. He was fascinated by the conflict of the mysterious East and the materialist West, with their opposing values. The religions of India, of course, projected the values of a matriarchal society, contrasting with the patriarchal values of the West. In Interlude Nina suggested this dichotomy by means of her idealization of God the Mother. Fifty years ago DeVoto called these "one-syllable ideas, and mostly wrong at that." Now Mr. Kalson suggests that Nina's "odd journey from God the Father to God the Mother back to God the Father" may be excused in a play offered "purely in terms of entertainment."
From all this argument a certain pattern emerges. In a sense O'Neill wrote two kinds of plays. He used two kinds of technique to dramatize two kinds of subject matter. The traditional playwright wrote Anna Christie, Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day's Journey, using traditional techniques to dramatize familiar situations. But the innovative playwright also wrote imaginative plays for the theatre of tomorrow. For Marco Millions, Lazarus Laughed and Strange Interlude, he invented new techniques to describe strange characters in often unrealistic situations. Almost all the negative criticism of O'Neill has focused on these strangely imaginative plays with their untraditional techniques.
The chief task of modern criticism, I would suggest, is to explore and define the means by which O'Neill dramatized the infinite complexities of depth psychology, of comparative religion, and of myth. The critic of tomorrow would go beyond the Aristotelian tradition to develop what may be called myth-criticism (bearing in mind that Aristotle's Greek mythos is translated as "plot" or "story"). The stories which O'Neill told sometimes recall the myths and fables of the past, but sometimes imagine new myths for the future. The strangeness of Strange Interlude derives from its dramatization of these unfamiliar mythical archetypes and religious concepts. And its failure (in the eyes of traditional critics) derives from its sometimes self-conscious or intrusive use of these unfamiliar materials.
But, perhaps, the very failure of O'Neill to integrate perfectly the mythical elements of Strange Interlude made possible the supreme achievement of his later plays. In Iceman, for instance, he invented the archetypal figure of Hickey to give depth and universality to the American folk tale of the traveling salesman. What raises Iceman to a dimension far transcending that of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is O'Neill's naturalization of a depth psychology and archetypal significance which Miller's traditional naturalism can only suggest.
Finally, if O'Neill is compared to the great playwrights of the past, it is this archetypal power and psychological depth which most distinguishes him. When compared to Shakespeare, he obviously lacks the poetic beauty and graceful comedy of the great Elizabethan. But he shares with him the ability to dramatize the power of ultimate goodness and evil. His Hickey may even realize the ultimate nature of evil more perfectly than the motiveless malignity of Iago. And his Josie Hogan may realize the redeeming power of goodness more fully than the innocent devotion of Cordelia. O'Neill explored the complexities and conflicts at the heart of human nature. And, perhaps, he began this exploration with the fascinating imperfections of Strange Interlude.
--Frederic I. Carpenter
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