BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, February 17, 1985
When he began outlining ''Strange Interlude'' in the summer of
1926, Eugene O'Neill thought of it, significantly, as ''My woman
play.'' As with many of his earlier works, he was digging into
his own most secret and turbulent feelings to dramatize a tragic
vision of life.
That sort of revealing self-expression was traditionally the
province of the novelist and - in O'Neill's day - a handful of
avant-garde European dramatists. Until O'Neill's arrival on
Broadway six years earlier with ''Beyond the Horizon,'' such
psychological terrain had never before been staked out by an
That summer O'Neill was living with his second wife, Agnes,
and their two small children, Shane and Oona, in a rented
cottage on a lake in Maine. Also present were O'Neill's
16-year-old son, Eugene Jr., and Agnes's 11-year-old daughter,
Barbara, both from earlier relationships. The cottage was called
Loon Lake and O'Neill, taking ironic note, wrote to a friend
that it made him ''suspect God is becoming a symbolist or
O'Neill was a highly disciplined writer and - in spite of
frequent domestic interruptions and although he was suffering
from one of his persistent colds - he tried to keep to a daily
writing schedule. To his close friend, Kenneth Macgowan, he
''I did most of a second scene two separate times and tore
them up before I got started on the really right one!''
There was going to be more work on ''Strange Interlude,'' he
said, ''than on any previous one - much more - with no end to
the going over and over it, before I'll be willing to call it
done.'' He added: ''The point is my stuff is much deeper and
more complicated now and I'm also not so easily satisfied with
what I've dashed off as I used to be.''
As always, he had fallen in love with his current
work-in-progress and was ready to denigrate even
such innovative earlier works as ''Anna Christie'' (for which he
won one of his four Pulitzer Prizes), ''The Emperor Jones,''
''The Hairy Ape,'' ''Desire Under the Elms''and ''The Great God
But O'Neill found it difficult to concentrate on ''Strange
Interlude'' at Loon Lake. Never easy in the role of
paterfamilias, he complained to Macgowan that he ''could do with
less children about,'' and more adult company. ''Children in
squads, even when indubitably my own, tend to 'get my goat,' ''
Also, he had recently quit drinking, which left a void.
''It's not that I feel any desire to drink whatever,'' he told
Macgowan. ''Quite the contrary, I rather wonder that I ever had
sought such a high-priced release. But it is just like getting
over leprosy, I opine. One feels so normal with so little to be
normal about. One misses playing solitaire with one's scales.''
Given the circumstances, it was almost inevitable that
O'Neill would find escape into a fortuitous romance. In August
he met Carlotta Monterey, a beautiful, recently-divorced
actress, who had appeared in a small role in ''The Hairy Ape''
four and a half years earlier, and who happened to be the house
guest of a lakeside neighbor of the O'Neills. Once again, he
began playing solitaire with his scales.
Carlotta was O'Neill's age - 38 - and had been married three
times, most lately to the celebrated New Yorker cartoonist,
Ralph Barton. She was self-possessed and unencumbered by
children (she had a daughter she seldom saw) and O'Neill found
her company a relief from Agnes, harried by motherhood and
domestic responsibilities; Carlotta took full advantage of the
The actress, Florence Reed, also a lakeside neighbor of the
O'Neills, witnessed the burgeoning romance. She recalled that
Carlotta ''was miraculously immaculate, and a wonderful
''There was nobody like her,'' she said. ''Agnes's house, on
the other hand, always seemed to smell of diapers and lamb stew,
and there was always a lot of noise from the kids. It drove
O'Neill almost out of his mind. He finally built himself a
plywood shack near the water, about a hundred yards from the
house, to get away from the noise and the smells.''
By the time, a few months later, that O'Neill began seriously
to focus on ''Strange Interlude'' he had become deeply involved
with Carlotta and was suffering pangs of guilt toward Agnes and
''What Gene craved more than anything else was order,''
Carlotta said some years after O'Neill's death. ''He reached a
point where he couldn't work any more in his surroundings.'' She
sometimes assumed the pose that her intense relationship with
O'Neill was based on practicality, not romance - ''what Gene
needed was someone to manage his life for him,'' she liked to
say. But she also enjoyed portraying herself as O'Neill's
''wife, mistress, mother, nurse and secretary,'' roles in which
O'Neill himself cast her.
The choice between Agnes and Carlotta was a wrenching one for
O'Neill. In November he returned to the winter home he had
established in Bermuda with Agnes, and wrestled with his
''I'm not what you could call perfectly at peace with God,''
he wrote to Macgowan. ''. . . I envy those simple souls to whom
life is always either this or that. It's the this and
that desire - more than desire, need! - that slowly poisons the
soul with complicated contradictions . . . Do not mistake my
rebellious cries for whinings. Beauty, either here or there is
worth whatever price one has to pay for it, here or there . . .
Oh very much so!''
''I encouraged Gene's relationship with Carlotta,'' Macgowan
admitted years later, ''because I thought she would keep him
sober, which I didn't think Agnes could do.''
In the midst of his personal melodrama, O'Neill continued to
shape his ''woman play.''
''I am intending to start work on 'Strange Interlude'
tomorrow - the 31st - hunch - one year on the wagon, my boy!''
he wrote to Macgowan on Dec. 30, 1926. ''I am going to drink
fifty lime squashes watching the new year in.'' Earlier, he had
told Macgowan, ''with all that's inside me now I ought be to
able to explode in 'Strange Interlude' in a regular
In large part the play's ''bloodletting'' revolved around its
male protagonist's struggle between creative freedom and sexual
enslavement, the very struggle O'Neill was trying to resolve in
his personal life. He swung, as did his hero, Edmund Darrell,
between sympathy for the instinctive, enslaving female, and fury
at her power.
A psychoanalyst friend of O'Neill's, Dr. Louis Bisch, had
studied O'Neill's early plays up to ''Strange Interlude'' and
concluded that ''they all showed antagonism toward women.'' He
deduced from this that O'Neill ''had a deep antagonism toward
his mother, which was carried over to his relationships with
Irresistible to women since his youth with his black-Irish
handsomeness and his aura of poetic tragedy, O'Neill, it is
true, tended to regard himself as a victim of female
possessiveness and guilt; indeed, he reveled in the melodrama of
sexual conflict, both in his plays and in his life, until the
day he died.
The female protagonist of ''Strange Interlude,'' Nina Leeds,
became O'Neill's Everywoman. Nina is, by turns, an innocent
lover of a noble boy, a guiltily mourning fiancee, an embittered
daughter, a wanton, a self-sacrificing wife, an ardent mistress,
a possessive mother, a mean mother-in-law and, finally, a
Nina represented aspects of a flock of women with whom
O'Neill had dallied, and on whose characters he had drawn for
earlier plays. But most of all she embodied O'Neill's mother,
who was the most enduring and haunting female presence in his
Ella O'Neill was the first woman to make the young Eugene
feel guilty. O'Neill grew up knowing that his mother had become
a drug addict after the doctor attending his birth prescribed
morphine for her post partum pain, and he never escaped the
shadow of that guilt. O'Neill confided to Carlotta Monterey that
there was ''a lot of my mother in Nina Leeds.''
''Strange Interlude'' was only one of many plays haunted by
Ella O'Neill's presence, a presence that finally emerged naked
and undisguised in ''Long Day's Journey Into Night.'' O'Neill's
mother, Ella Quinlan, was the pampered daughter of an indulgent,
possessive father. So was Nina Leeds. Ella was a sheltered girl,
pulled into the rough-and-tumble world of the touring actor by
her famous husband, James O'Neill. In ''Strange Interlude,''
Nina is dragged into a cruel confrontation with life.
O'Neill saw Ella - and Nina - as bitterly disappointed wives,
and as grieving mothers of sons whom they loved, but who never
tried to understand them. He felt a terrible guilt at having, as
he believed, failed his mother. Through the character of Nina
Leeds, he was trying, belatedly, to understand his mother and to
express her tragedy. Nina is saturated with O'Neill's anguish
about his mother.
Publicly, O'Neill acknowledged as his inspiration for the
character of Nina a story he had heard in 1923. He made notes
for ''Strange Interlude,'' he told an interviewer, after hearing
in Provincetown from a World War I aviator about a girl whose
aviator fiance was shot down just before the Armistice. ''The
girl had gone to pieces from the shock,'' O'Neill said. ''She
had married, not because she loved the man, but because she
wanted to have a child. She hoped through motherhood to win back
a measure of contentment from life.''
O'Neill drew a self-portrait, as he did in many of his major
works, when he described Edmund Darrell, the most durable of
Nina Leeds's several male antagonists:
''. . . dark, wiry, his . . . dark eyes analytical. His head
is handsome and intelligent. There is a quality about him
provoking and disturbing to women, of intense passion.''
Edmund was also the name O'Neill, 10 years later, gave to the
more readily identifiable younger brother in ''Long Day's
Journey Into Night,'' who is described thus:
''. . . thin and wiry . . . big, dark eyes . . . high
forehead . . . with dark brown hair . . .'' Edmund was the name
of an O'Neill brother who died in infancy three and a half years
before Eugene was born, and O'Neill liked the symbolism of using
his dead brother's name to fictionally represent himself - a
man, so he believed, who ''should have been born a seagull,'' a
man whose birth destroyed his mother's life.
Edmund Darrell's love-hate conflict about Nina Leeds
accurately reflected O'Neill's dilemma over Carlotta Monterey.
''The curse of being an extremist,'' O'Neill wrote to
Macgowan, while struggling to choose between Agnes and Carlotta,
''is that every ideal remains single and alone, demanding
all-or-nothing or destruction . . . Emotionally I'm still up in
the air.'' And, mimicking an earlier autobiographical
protagonist, Eben Cabot, of ''Desire Under the Elms,'' O'Neill
added, ''It hain't purty.'' (Eben, too, had his problems with
''Sometimes I almost hate her,'' Edmund Darrell says of Nina.
''. . . if it wasn't for her, I'd have kept my peace of mind. .
In the end, however, O'Neill succumbed to Carlotta, as Edmund
Darrell succumbs to Nina Leeds (although Darrell, unlike
O'Neill, manages to avoid actually marrying his beloved).
Late in 1927, shortly before ''Strange Interlude'' opened on
Broadway, O'Neill introduced Carlotta to his intimate friends.
To one of them, Norman Winston - a patron of the Provincetown
Playhouse, where O'Neill had made his early reputation - he
confided that women were jealous of Carlotta because of her
beauty. He seemed, to Winston, to be sexually obsessed by
Carlotta. O'Neill told him that he and Carlotta had decided to
go away together.
Waiting just long enough to see ''Strange Interlude'' become
a smash hit, O'Neill and Carlotta, traveling incognito, sailed
for Europe, where, a year and a half later, they were married.
They lived largely in seclusion and despite a couople of lapses,
O'Neill remained sober. In the next 14 years, until illness
ended his ability to write, he produced the masterworks on which
his reputation rests today.
While ''Strange Interlude'' won for O'Neill his third
Pulitzer Prize (the first was for ''Beyond the Horizon'') the
play pales, in retrospect, both in form and feeling, beside the
far more maturely crafted and searingly revelatory ''Long Day's
Journey Into Night.'' But for its day it was a daring and
triumphant challenge to the conventions of the Broadway
showplace. ''I worked harder on it than on any other play I've
written,'' O'Neill said not long after its completion.
Trying to explain its novelistic thrust, he complained to the
critic, Joseph Wood Krutch, that ''even the best of modern
novels'' were ''padded with the unimportant and insignificant''
and their authors were ''mere timid recorders of life.''
But as quite often happened with O'Neill, he overestimated
the intrinsic literary value of his current pet play. O'Neill
was smitten not only with the epic scope of ''Strange
Interlude'' - it comprised nine acts and unfolded over a period
of 25 years - but with his decision to have his characters speak
their hidden thoughts in ''asides'' to the audience, a variation
on his use of masks in the earlier, experimental ''The Great God
''Strange Interlude'' was inspired partly by the new vogue
for psychoanalysis, of which O'Neill was acutely aware, having
himself undergone psychoanalytic treatment to help him break his
destructive drinking habit. And some of these Freudian asides,
nearly 60 years later, need cutting, if the play is not to sound
O'Neill denied being influenced specifically by Freud. To a
friend who commented (not adversely) on the ''complexes''
paraded by the characters of ''Strange Interlude,'' he replied
that although the play was ''full of psychoanalytical ideas,
still these same ideas are age-old to the artist, and any artist
who was a good psychologist . . . could have written 'S.I.'
without ever having heard of Freud, Jung, Adler & Co.''
Characteristically, three years after the production, when
O'Neill had moved on to the newer challenge of ''Mourning
Becomes Electra'' - this time experimenting with a contemporary
version of a classic Greek tragedy - he denigrated ''Strange
Interlude'' as ''an attempt at the new masked psychological
drama . . . without masks - a successful attempt, perhaps, in so
far as it concerns only surfaces and their immediate subsurfaces,
but not where, occasionally, it tries to probe deeper.'' Indeed,
he had, even earlier, belittled his use of ''asides,'' telling
his producer, Lawrence Langner, ''If the actors weren't so dumb,
they wouldn't need asides; they'd be able to express the meaning
Nevertheless, ''Strange Interlude'' demonstrated for O'Neill
that the Broadway audience would accept a play that was as long
as a novel, thereby paving the way for his equally long
''Mourning Becomes Electra.'' ''Interlude'' helped O'Neill win
the Nobel Prize in 1936 and it was a milestone on the upward
climb toward the final masterworks, ''The Iceman Cometh,''
''Long Day's Journey Into Night'' and ''A Moon for the
Misbegotten.'' (He remains the only American dramatist to have
won the Nobel Prize.)
O'Neill completed ''Strange Interlude'' in March 1927 and
gave it to the Theater Guild to produce. After Katharine Cornell
turned down the play in favor of Somerset Maugham's ''The
Letter,'' a rising young actress named Lynn Fontanne was cast as
Nina. (Her husband, Alfred Lunt, who was playing in O'Neill's
''Marco Millions,'' had irritated O'Neill by referring to
''Strange Interlude'' as ''a six-day bisexual race.'')
The play was directed by Philip Moeller, who desperately kept
trying to lighten it up. But O'Neill was worried about too much
comic relief and during one rehearsal, when Moeller begged him
to insert a line of comedy, O'Neill answered:
''I'll tell you what to do. Just turn slowly around after the
character has spoken, drop your pants, and disclose to the
audience your backside painted an Alice blue. That should do