After a week of previews, we opened the show on Monday night. By the time you’re reading this, the reviews will have come in. The relationship between a critic and director is quite a unique one. In this case, I have put 25 years of my life into understanding, planning, editing and creating this work … all to have critics develop an opinion, steering the minds of potential audiences, mostly and typically based on only one evening’s performance.
But it’s always been that way and as an artist you must develop a thick skin because often a work like Strange Interlude needs to be produced despite what anybody says. I must say, I am quite pleased with most of the reviews this time out, particularly because many of the critics wrote thoughtful, smart and incisive responses recognizing the texture and substance of this complicated and monumental production.
Most reviews are positive, some more critical. As a director, I do try and be respectful of the opinions of the critic when there is a clear and true understanding of the work on the stage.
Yet the show goes on, entering its next phase of life, and it’s one without me. This will be my final blog on the production process of the show, and I’d like to conclude with some final thoughts on the play.
Much like Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill was a genius who learned as he wrote. He never repeated himself stylistically in the way that a lot of writers do. He tried comedy, romantic plays, sea plays, he took classic plots such as Phaedra and the Oresteia and transformed them into Desire Under the Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra.
Strange Interlude is a very modern play for its time—it’s influenced by Freud and Jung, by James Joyce, it tries to expand the nature of theatre in America and the world. O’Neill’s ambition was always to write something tremendously profound, and he never stopped searching. When I think of O’Neill, I know that the language is always going to be poetic and that he is always attempting to do something monumental with his drama. O’Neill believed in the theatre. He wanted to transform the world with it. He may have been afraid of many things, but he was not afraid of failing.
The theatre has changed in many ways since the 1920s. There are parts of this play that are written in a wonderful, flamboyant style. Some of the language probably now seems floridly linguistic if not over-the-top. There’s something unbelievably courageous about this play. Our production in its current shape is rich in incident but it also has emotional texture. I think if O’Neill were here today, I would tell him “I did all this with your intentions in mind, and in your style.”
I was determined to retain O’Neill’s use of the stream of consciousness. If the play is not psychologically complicated, it becomes a sort of melodrama. The thoughts are the engine of the drama. The actors struggled with this style at first, but they told me that once they got comfortable with the material—and this is a hard play to learn—it would be fun to play.
Perhaps the biggest surprise from the preview process has been learning about the amount of humor in the play. It has been fascinating to track the changes each night with an audience. On Tuesday night’s preview, I was disturbed, because the first three scenes were so dramatic and the audience was so silent that I knew they were eventually going to laugh at an inappropriate place. This happens sometimes with intense dramas, people can just burst out unconsciously at the first odd line that is said.
So we had to go back and find moments to release tension, to let people know that they’re not in church, that it’s okay to laugh. Obviously, the character of Marsden has comic potential, especially some of his Puritanical lines about Nina’s promiscuity early in the play—“All those men! It’s revolting!”—but O’Neill has put him there for exactly that reason. He’s supposed to be somewhat ridiculous, in order for the audience to release and then come back to the subject at hand. In that first scene, Nina and her father are having the most important arguments of their life, but it doesn’t have any weight without Marsden’s levity.
The deeper humor of the play comes from the chance to get inside the characters’ heads, to see the difference between what they’re saying and what they’re thinking. There’s a wonderful moment where young Gordon is looking at Ned in the middle of the play and the audience can hear his confused thoughts, “Why do I like him now?” We laugh because we recognize that kind of behavior in ourselves, when we find ourselves suddenly liking someone we thought we detested. That laughter comes from acknowledgment, and that’s a good kind of laughter. I was worried at first that the audience wasn’t getting it, or that there was a generational divide at play. But then I realized, how can we expect them not to laugh, since we’re asking them to get inside of the characters’ heads?
We get laughs at every performance now, and at this point the actors are no longer thrown by it. When I saw the show on Thursday night’s preview, I thought, I must have paid all these people! They kept smiling and laughing and they would gasp at the surprising moments—they even cheered at the end. As a director, that’s all you can hope for. You should want people to listen to the play, but you also have to give them a chance to react.
The serious aspects of the play are landing with the audience as well. It’s quite an extraordinary moment at the middle of the play where Nina is surrounded by her men—“my lover, my husband, my father, all their desires converging in me”—I imagine that must be one of the most fulfilling and simultaneously difficult moments in a woman’s life. Everybody’s fantasy is to attain this sort of completeness, but it can be very difficult to manage, which is what happens to Nina in the play. She doesn’t learn until late in her life that true peace means giving up the search for completeness, which is doomed to fail. As she says at the end of the play, “All of the sons of the father were failures.” If you look for happiness, you will fail.
In its own way, Strange Interlude is a story of America. It’s O’Neill’s critique of that very American desire to attain happiness through the accumulation of things—family, sex, love, money, fame. Expecting happiness to come from these external things is not possible. They cannot bring you happiness, only temporary release. I suspect that that’s what O’Neill, in the long run, has in mind.
What is happiness? O’Neill never answers that question, but he does show us all the internal turmoil of the search. The only thing you can hope to find is some kind of peace with death, which has everything to do with the end of this play. Camino Real by Tennessee Williams is about the same thing, giving up and resigning yourself to what life is. All we can hope is to arrive at the last stop on the streetcar with a sense of peace.
This weekend, a friend told me about an Italian production of Strange Interlude that played off this idea of the play as a journey. It was set entirely on trains, with the last scene taking place on a boat. I’m glad I didn’t know about that, since we would all be down at Union Station! But it is a lovely idea.
The journey between birth and death is just an interlude, as Nina says, in the cosmic display of God the Father.