A revealing look at a ‘Strange Interlude’

Eugene O’Neill’s 1928 play, Strange Interlude, is one of the heavyweights of the American cannon – a Pulitzer Prize-winning, five-hour opus which spans 25 years of one woman’s life. The play’s nine acts are rarely staged in full, and indeed Simon Godwin’s new version for The National Theatre has been stripped back to a lean three hours. Despite this (relatively) fun-sized incarnation, Strange Interlude is earning serious acclaim from the critics, including 5 stars from the Telegraph‘s Charles Spencer.

The extract below introduces another critic named Charles writing from a different era. Charles Morgan was a contemporary of O’Neill’s and a much-admired playwright and novelist in his own right. He was also one of the most revered (and feared) critics of the early twentieth-century. A new book, Dramatic Critic: Selected Reviews (1922-1939), returns the spotlight to Morgan’s writings on the theatre and holds a mirror to English theatrical tastes in the inter‐war years, via some of the most influential stage plays of the 1920s and 30s. His review of Strange Interlude for The Times was first published in February 1931, and unlike his 21st century peers, Morgan was there to enjoy the full six hours…

Click the image to take a look inside Dramatic Critic, or read on below.
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4 FEBRUARY 1931, THE TIMES
Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill
Lyric Hammersmith

It is unfortunate that the “mystic premonitions” of Mr. O’Neill’s ninth act should add their weight to the sixth hour, for they are an encouragement to those who will say that five hours and more of playgoing are necessarily too many. They are not too many for the treatment of a theme that demands them, and it is right to say at once that Mr. O’Neill’s work has too much substance and challenge in it, and keeps the mind too continuously occupied, ever to become an inconvenient weariness of the flesh. He is telling the history of a woman’s emotional life from the girlhood in which her being was centred in her father, through the vicissitudes of marriage, passion and motherhood, until the late age in which, desire having failed, she reverts to the man, Charles Marsden, who has become in her mind her dead father’s representative and substitute. Nine acts are not too many for a history of the seven ages of woman.

The question is whether Mr. O’Neill has made the best use of so generous a canvas. Not content to submit to the limitations of dramatic dialogue which, since Ibsen, most dramatists have observed, he has taken up again the old instrument of soliloquy. A splendid instrument it is, a beautiful weapon of the imagination, not to be despised as it has been, but the man who uses it must submit himself to a new discipline as strict as that which he has overthrown. Mr. O’Neill has not commanded himself by any perceptible rule. Sometimes the actors are speaking what others hear, sometimes they are speaking their thoughts; this is clear and legitimate; but a closer examination of the soliloquies shows that they themselves are not always on the same plane, and that, whereas some of them enrich the dramatic illusion, many are but wordy impediments to it. What is the distinction? It seems to be this – that those soliloquies which admit us into the secret thoughts of the speakers are valuable, but those others (and they are many) which either criticize the external dialogue or, worse still, are used as a convenient way of informing the audience of external fact, are often dull and sometimes destructive.

Some of the plunges into Marsden’s and Nina’s minds are brilliantly illuminating; they enable us to perceive directly what the ordinary dramatic method could have revealed only by prolonged divagation: but Mr. O’Neill does not distinguish, and will often take the natural speed from a good scene by holding up the dialogue with soliloquy which, if not positively barren, yields nothing but information that might be better conveyed by other means at other times. It is easy to lay too much emphasis on this aspect of Strange Interlude for no better reason than it is new. There is no new principle, but extended soliloquy has not elsewhere been used on the same scale. It would, however, be a real misfortune if discussion of the technical apparatus were allowed to obscure the merits of the play. Until the last act, where drama wanders off in purple clouds and “mystical premonitions” are extremely uncomfortable, the story moves with the sweep and vigour that overcome all but the most stubborn technical obstacles. Nina and the men who influence her life appear as a composed group; the episodes of the tale hold together in a tragic unity; you are continuously aware, in spite of every extravagance of language and clumsiness of emphasis, that an eager and fruitful mind is expressing itself on the stage. When that is true, five hours are not too many. And the performance of the Theatre Guild is at once closely knit and highly sensitive to each phase of Mr. O’Neill’s emotion. Mr. Basil Sydney gives a carefully developed study of the lover who is deprived of his son; Mr. Ralph Morgan’s portrait of Marsden is one of the fullest and most consistent pieces of biographical acting we have seen on the stage; and Miss Mary Ellis exhibits the cruelty and tenderness and pitiable egoism of Nina with a beautiful control of emotional values.

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