Alan Downer, my drama lit professor in college had a favorite aphorism for bloated, intellectual empty drama, "The elephant labored and brought forth a mouse." I could hear Downer saying this this while watching the National Theatre of Great Britain's expensive revival of Eugene O'Neill's 1924 drama, STRANGE INTERLUDE. Though the play was well staged, beautifully designed and well acted save for one awful casting mistake, my general reaction was "Why bother." To some extent that is often my response to O'Neill revivals.
Historically Eugene O'Neill was of great importance to the history of American drama, which was for the most part frivolous and formulaic before he came on the scene. He imported European techniques such as expressionism and was a restless experimenter. Unfortunately, he also wrote terribly clunky dialogue and his characters are more often ideas than simulacra of complex human beings. For the most part, his work is so solemn that audience now find it funny. STRANGE INTERLUDE is a prime example of what is wrong with O'Neill's work. Over almost five hours we watch our central character Nina draw men to herself in an effort to find happiness, but happiness is always an impossibility in O'Neill's work. Devastated by the wartime death of her fiancé, Gordon, who was an ideal of masculinity (smart, athletic, heroic, handsome), she moves back into her intellectual father's home until she realizes that she has to find some meaning for her life through service. She becomes a nurse to war veterans, but is impelled to offer them non-medical solace. She attracts two very different men: Charles Marsden, an older classic Mama's boy who is repulsed by sex, and Ned Darrell, a handsome medical researcher. Neither of them want marriage, so they push Nina into a marriage with Sam Evans, a nice guy who is anything but intellectual. Sam worshipped Gordon and is thrilled to catch his former girlfriend. From this point, the play descends into Freudian soap opera. Nina, pregnant with Sam's child discovers from Sam's mother that there is a strain of hereditary insanity in the family and that Nina should abort the child. Mrs. Evans also advises Nina to become impregnated by another man so she and Sam can have a happy child. I doubt if THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS ever came up with a scene as silly as this one. Nina, of course follows Mrs. Evans advice and has a child by the handsome scientist, Ned Darrell, who falls in love with her. Of course she and Sam name the child Gordon after that dead ideal of manhood. All this and we're only a third of the way into the play. For the rest of its Wagnerian length (cut by an hour in this production), we follow Nina's relationships with the many men in her life, all of whom are her satellites and acolytes.
O'Neill's new technique in STRANGE INTERLUDE was to have the characters voice their thoughts as well as their dialogue. In other words, they speak their subtext. Since nothing very subtle is going on, the actors are constantly stating the obvious. More than anything else, this and the silly, portentous utterances ("Yes our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father!") account for the laughter the play now elicits. There are no characters in STRANGE INTERLUDE. Like a medieval allegory we have cardboard personifications: Mama's boy, cold scientist, all-American boy. Since Nina only gains any identity through these cardboard men, she is not a very interesting character. And the whole thing is so humorless and repetitive that it is funny. O'Neill must have had a very low opinion of his audience to feel he had to restate the obvious. Nineteenth-century French hack playwright Auguste Scribe told his proteges that important ideas should be repeated three times to make sure the audience got them: O'Neill seemed to believe repeating them thirty times would be more effective.
The National Theatre spend a lot of money on this hollow, pretentious play. The audience applauded the grand, revolving sets more than the actors. Nina's costumes were lovely. Director Simon Godwin took a grand opera approach that only made the play seem more hollow. The actors tried their best. The wonderful Anne-Marie Duff did all she could to make Nina a character. Charles Edwards and American actor Darren Pettie, actors I have admired in other roles (Pettie most recently in the superb DETROIT at Playwrights Horizons), seemed at sea here, but what can you do with that awful dialogue? Pettie acted like he thought his lines were as silly as we in the audience did. Jason Watkins, who can only play creepy, was woefully miscast as the supposedly normal (though carrying crazy genes) Sam Evans. Sam is supposedly to be a great success in advertising, but Watkins made him infantile.
Critics who admire O'Neill more than I have explained the audience's laughter at this revival and a recent one at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington by claiming that contemporary audiences have found a rich, dark comedy in STRANGE INTERLUDE. I think we laugh because it is an overwrought play that has long passed its sell by date. We are laughing at the play, not with it.
STRANGE INTERLUDE. Royal National Theatre Lyttleton Theatre. July 4, 2013.