Hello, I am Michael Kahn, the Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Welcome to my new blog, “Stage Interludes from Michael Kahn.” Every Wednesday for the next eight weeks, I am going to be writing an installment of this blog about our current show, Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, which I am directing.
Strange Interlude is a play I have wanted to work on for a very long time, longer, in fact, than I’ve been at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. I was approached in the mid-1980s to direct Strange Interlude on Broadway (with a very famous actress as Nina Leeds), and for various reasons those discussions fell through. I was very, very disappointed and thought I had missed my chance. I came to Washington, D.C., the next year and I didn’t work on another Eugene O’Neill play for the next ten years. When I wanted to direct a play from the modern canon alongside Shakespeare, I went back to O’Neill. I chose Mourning Becomes Electra, and it was a great success here in Washington. I think people were stunned when it was over. They didn’t realize how powerful a playwright Eugene O’Neill could be. And now, here we are, with Strange Interlude in STC’s 25th Anniversary Season. I like to think of it as a gift to myself, and a gift to the Washington theatre community.
I have always been drawn to O’Neill’s plays. I have directed Beyond the Horizon and Mourning Becomes Electra (twice!). What else? I directed Ile (one of the “sea plays”) in college, a long time ago. I don’t remember it being very good! Long Day’s Journey Into Night a long time ago, starring José Ferrer (and I have a great story about that show for another time). And A Touch of the Poet at Arena Stage.
I think that Eugene O’Neill is an extraordinary playwright. He is America’s greatest dramatist, and his ambition – the denseness, the very human weight of the stories that he tells – makes him very exciting. Every time you see an O’Neill play, it is like climbing up to the top of a mountain. And when you get to the end of the evening, I think everyone has had a cathartic experience. It can be hard work but it is also incredibly rewarding. He was a very serious, weighted playwright. In his ambition and the cumulative power of his plays, O’Neill compares with Shakespeare.
But I also believe that O’Neill’s work benefits from a slight bit of editing. When I worked on Mourning Becomes Electra, both times, I was given permission from Carlotta O’Neill and the lawyers at the O’Neill estate to edit the play for production. I had to write to them for five years to get the permission! It was the first time, in fact, they allowed anyone to edit the play, and I took it very seriously. They’ve given me the same permission to work with the text on Strange Interlude, and it’s a project I’ve been working on for the last year and a half.
O’Neill needs editing because on a fundamental level he didn’t quite trust actors. There’s a famous story about the rehearsals for Strange Interlude. O’Neill was talking to Lawrence Langner, the founder of the Theatre Guild, and he said, “If the actors weren’t so dumb, they wouldn’t need asides; they’d be able to express the meaning without them.” O’Neill was fond of writing down every thought in the minds of his characters, and in Strange Interlude he wrote those innermost thoughts into the dialogue, spoken aloud. This novel use of “asides” is one of the most famous theatrical experiments of the 20th century, but it’s also O’Neill insisting that he control the subtext of every second, even in performance. In an O’Neill play, the action – the characters’ thoughts – are continually doubling back on themselves, more like a novel than a play. I think it was because he didn’t think that actors could show these changes of behavior without words. He thought he had to explain everything, at every moment, that they were doing and feeling. But when you can make things go forward instead of backtracking, you end up unearthing a story of incredible weight and complexity. This is a very careful process. I won’t cut any author’s work until I know it by heart, and have worked out all the acting moments.
So I have been carefully editing Strange Interlude over the past year and a half. O’Neill’s original play was written in nine acts spanning more than thirty years, and it originally ran six hours, with a dinner break. I’ve kept the nine-act structure and the leaps forward in time, but it’s now nine scenes instead of acts, with many of the asides from the original play excised. We just started rehearsing on Thursday of last week, and I’m fairly happy with the progress we’ve made. The play’s now reading about three hours, and I expect that to slim down further.
It’s a funny thing. The asides in Strange Interlude do stop the action from moving forward, but a lot of the theatrical interest of the play derives from seeing the characters speak the thoughts that they are having at that precise moment. It’s unlike anything else in the theatre. We have a phenomenal cast, and they’ve all done their research, so we’ve continued to fiddle at the rehearsal table, putting in a new phrase here, taking one out there. I have a rule of thumb: an actor can have an aside back if it contains a crucial piece of information that we’ve cut, or if I don’t have to eat a cookie to get through it. With O’Neill, it is always important to power through the stage directions and ellipses and interior thoughts to get to the vital beating heart underneath it all.
Which reminds me. I didn’t want to work on Strange Interlude because of O’Neill’s distrust of actors, the process of editing of his plays or his tendency toward theatrical experiment. Simply put, I think Strange Interlude is a brilliant play, one of the most ambitious depictions of the American experience written between the two world wars. The characters in this play are all driven by life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As O’Neill understood, these seemingly simple ideals were anything but in those turbulent early decades of the 20th century.
Until next week,
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Strange Interlude opens March 27th and runs through April 29th, 2012 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC.