Last week I discussed the careful editing process which Eugene O’Neill practically demands from his theatrical collaborators. Like all of O’Neill’s plays, Strange Interlude is profound and intuitive and also a little over-written. This week, I’ve finished tableworking the play with the actors and we’re on our feet now, continuing to explore. The first week of staging can be a complicated time, and we’ve been taking it slow, learning carefully about the play. We make new discoveries every day.
I’ve known about Strange Interlude almost as long as I have been alive. My mother had been married to a bookseller before she married my father, so my home growing up in New York was full of old books, including all the old Boni and Liveright first editions of O’Neill’s plays. I can still remember picking up Strange Interlude when I was very young. I didn’t understand a thing, only that it was an epic. I saw José Quintero’s revival at the Actors’ Studio in 1963 with Geraldine Page as Nina. It was the first revival since the 1920s. I think it was then that I realized how much I loved the play, and how much I needed to do it someday. My chance has finally come.
The biggest challenge we’re currently faced with – and I think it’s one we’ll be confronting until we open – is how to perform the play’s famous “asides.” Strange Interlude is filled with these moments, unique in the modern theatre, when the characters will pause and speak their inmost thoughts aloud. What are these strange interludes?
Let’s look, for example, at a speech from Charles Marsden, who talks first in the play. Charlie is one of O’Neill’s surrogates, a bourgeois novelist who, like Trigorin in The Seagull, makes mental portraits of the other characters. He’s also a bit of a mama’s boy. He’s known Nina, the protagonist, his entire life and always loved her, but he’s too cowardly to act on it. Here, he paints a portrait of himself, and it’s not pretty.
- MARSDEN: (thinking) Poor old Charlie! … damn it, what am I to her? … her old dog who’s lost his mother? … Mother hated her … no, poor dear Mother was so sweet, she never hated anyone … she simply disapproved …
- (aloud, coldly) I’m all right, Nina. Quite all right now, thank you. I apologize for making a scene.
There are a few things to note here. One is that these are not really asides, in the classical sense. In Shakespeare, an aside is always separate from the action and the other characters. Most of the time, it is an idea or plan that is already fully formed in the character’s mind. It is old news, and it’s delivered in all the traditional ways: an actor running to the forestage, turning their head, standing in a pool of light and soliloquizing. O’Neill’s constructions are thoughts happening in the present tense. They are pictures of the mind in action. And the most important ones – the ones we’ve kept – are moments in which the internal thought is different from what the characters are saying, moments when they are making important discoveries about themselves and each other.
I think O’Neill was fascinated by the mind, by the truths we tell ourselves and the lies we tell others. When he was writing the play, he had just undergone Freudian therapy, and he had been reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, the stream-of-consciousness novel. Those influences are part of Strange Interlude’s intellectual ferment, its sense of richness and denseness. Over the last year, while reading through O’Neill, I’ve also been reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I had read it twice already, but when I was younger I just saw my own unhappy love life reflected back to me. The second time I read it I became fascinated by its depiction of social rituals, the masks we all wear in our lives. Now, when I read Proust and O’Neill, I see this fascination with life itself, as it’s lived in the present moment. Like Shakespeare, O’Neill was a playwright that truly experimented. He may not have always succeeded, but he had this astonishing ambition of what a play could be.
O’Neill’s language is prose, but it’s also rhythmic, weighted. It’s poetry. It’s just as complex as Shakespeare’s blank verse. He demands a great amount of breath control from actors, and when he writes an exclamation point, he wants to hear it. It’s not contemporary American English, but a kind of compromise with the romantic, 19th-century language of the theatre of his father, James O’Neill, who became famous for playing the Count of Monte Cristo. O’Neill was not writing for method actors, but for exclamatory ones, and in his plays you can see him pulling them into a more modern, psychological mode through the sheer force of his will. Add to that the play’s asides, and the audience has a considerable amount of work to do. Just as with a Shakespeare, or any play with complex language, the first few moments in the theatre teach the audience how to listen in a new way.
There’s a lot of melodrama in O’Neill. He was never all that far away from the 19th-century theatre of his father. But he was also an avid reader and he introduced American audiences to many continental ideas. This play is very rich for actors, and also very challenging. I think actors love doing O’Neill, when they get the chance to do it. All of the actors who have worked with me on an O’Neill know they are working on a major artistic event in their lives. After all, next to Shakespeare, who’s richer than O’Neill?
Until next week,
 Tablework consists of the “work around the table”: a readthrough with the actors, designers and dramaturg present at the rehearsal table. Then going slowly through each scene, stopping and starting, asking questions, changing lines and so on. I love sitting around the table, but I’m almost always anxious to start staging after the first week of sitting and talking.