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O'Neill's Seething 'Interlude'
Returns to Broadway

 
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 American playwright.

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 something!''

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 confided:

''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 Brown.''

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,' '' he said.

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 situation.

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 housekeeper.''

''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 his children.

''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 conscience.

''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 bloodletting!''

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 women.''

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 resigned widow.

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 life.

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 illicit lust.)

''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 Brown.''

''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 na"ively dated.

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 without them.''

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 it.''

 

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