Art, Glitter, and Glitz: Mainstream Playwrights and Popular Theatre in 1920s America

By Arthur Gewirtz; James J. Kolb | Go to book overview

1
(Re)Claiming O'Neill's Strange Interlude
as a Modernist Theatre Text

Thomas P. Adler

thinking aloud being more important than actual talking—speech breaking
through thought as a random process of concealment, speech inconsequen-
tial or imperfectly expressing the thought behind.

Eugene O'Neill, “1921–1931 Notebook”1

we sit together in silence, thinking … thoughts that never know the other's
thoughts.

Edmund Darrell in Strange Interlude, act 72

Whatever else might be said of it, the New York premiere of Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude (produced by the Theatre Guild on 30 January 1928) was a Broadway event of the first magnitude. A five hour play in nine acts, with a break between parts 1 and 2 for dinner (or for a change into formal evening attire for socialites so disposed), it ran for 426 performances, became a bestseller in its printed form, and won for the dramatist his third Pulitzer Prize in a little over ten years. Reviewers at the time recognized O'Neill's attempt to bring to the drama something of the psychological complexity of the novel through his experimental use of spoken thoughts in asides and monologues—achieved by having the other actors on stage freeze in position3 during these passages of what Egil Tornqvist calls “audible thinking.”4 The reviewers' assessments of the playwright's achievement, however, varied significantly. Joseph Wood Krutch, for example, reacted ecstatically, if hyperbolically: O'Neill's innovative technique, without which his story simply “could not be told,” contributed “depth” and “solidity” that previously “no play has ever had,” resulting in a “great” work that “treats modern life in a fashion convincingly heroic.”5 Brooks Atkinson, on the other hand, balancing the claims of the moment with those of posterity, concluded skeptically that Strange Interlude was neither a “distinguished play” nor a “permanent addition to theatre.”6

O'Neill's drama has been given star-studded revivals both here and abroad, first by the Actors Studio in 1963 in a production with Geraldine Page captured on long-playing records, and then in England in 1985 in a production featuring Glenda Jackson later seen in New York and taped for public television. Writing about the first of these, Robert Brustein, blaming audiences for still being susceptible to the spell of pretentiousness, found it “lacking in any poetry, intel

-3-

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