|Written by||Eugene O'Neill|
Prof. Henry Leeds
Mrs. Amos Evans
|Date premiered||January 28, 1928|
|Place premiered||John Golden Theatre|
|Setting||Small university town in New England; various places in New York|
Strange Interlude is an experimental play in nine acts by American playwright Eugene O'Neill. O'Neill finished it in 1923, but it was not produced on Broadway until 1928, when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Lynn Fontanne originated the central role of Nina Leeds on Broadway. It was also produced in London at the Lyric Theatre in 1931. It was included in Burns Mantle's The Best Plays of 1927-1928. Because of its length, around five hours if uncut, the play has sometimes been produced with a dinner break or on consecutive evenings. The play's subject matter, very controversial for the 1920s, led to it being censored or banned in many cities outside New York.
Strange Interlude makes extensive use of a soliloquy technique, in which the characters speak their inner thoughts to the audience.
The plot centers on Nina Leeds, the daughter of a classics professor at a college in New England, who is devastated when her adored fiancé is killed in World War I, before they have a chance to consummate their passion. Ignoring the unconditional love of the novelist Charles Marsden, Nina embarks on a series of sordid affairs before determining to marry an amiable fool, Sam Evans. While Nina is pregnant with Sam's child, she learns a horrifying secret known only to Sam's mother: insanity runs in the Evans family and could be inherited by any child of Sam's. Realizing that a child is essential to her own and to Sam's happiness, Nina decides on a "scientific" solution. She will abort Sam's child and conceive a child with the physician Ned Darrell, letting Sam believe that it is his. The plan backfires when Nina and Ned's intimacy leads to their falling passionately in love. Twenty years later, Sam and Nina's son Gordon Evans is approaching manhood, with only Nina and Ned aware of the boy's true parentage. In the final act, Sam dies of a stroke before he can learn the truth. This leaves Nina free to marry Ned Darrell, but she declines to do so, choosing instead to marry the long-suffering Charlie Marsden, who proclaims that he now has "all the luck at last."
The meaning of the title is suggested by the aging Nina in a speech near the end of the play: "Our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father!"
Many who have never read Strange Interlude or seen it performed will nevertheless associate the title with the unusual soliloquy technique employed by O’Neill to delve into his characters’ psychology. Throughout the play, the characters alternate their spoken dialogue with monologues and side comments, many in stream-of-consciousness style, expressing their unspoken thoughts.
The play begins with a long soliloquy by the writer Charles Marsden (whom Nina Leeds patronizingly dubs “Dear Old Charlie”). In this monologue, Marsden lays bare his ambiguous passion for Nina and his own conflicted attitude toward sex:
In Act Two, Marsden is introduced to Sam Evans, who will eventually marry Nina:
Later in Act Two, Dr. Ned Darrell, who is treating Nina for nervous disorders, arrives, and he and Marsden size each other up:
In Act Eight, set during a rowing competition twenty years later, Nina has difficulty coming to terms with the fact that her beloved son Gordon is now a grown man with a fiancée, Madeline:
(Quotes from the text of Strange Interlude at the Gutenberg Project.)
Produced by the Theatre Guild, Strange Interlude opened January 30, 1928, at the John Golden Theatre. The original production was directed by Philip Moeller with settings by Jo Mielziner. The nine-act melodrama ran five hours, beginning at 5:15 p.m., breaking for dinner at 7:40 p.m., and resuming at 9 p.m.
- Tom Powers as Charles Marsden
- Philip Leigh as Professor Leeds
- Lynn Fontanne as Nina Leeds
- Earle Larimore as Sam Evans
- Glenn Anders as Edmund Darrell
- Helen Westley as Mrs. Amos Evans
- Charles Walters as Gordon Evans, as a boy
- Ethel Westley as Madeline Arnold
- John J. Burns as Gordon Evans, as a man
Five members of the original cast — Powers, Helen Westley, Burns, Ethel Westley and Walters — were still with the play when the production reached its one-year anniversary, and they had not missed a single performance. Powers was compelled to leave the cast at the end of March 1929 due to exhaustion. The original Broadway production ran 17 months.
Strange Interlude was adapted by Hollywood only once, in 1932. The MGM film, which starred Norma Shearer as Nina Leeds and Clark Gable as Dr. Ned Darrell, was a shortened and toned-down version of the play. Voiceovers were used for the soliloquies.
A 1963 Actors Studio production directed by Jose Quintero was issued by Columbia Masterworks Records in 1964. The company included Betty Field, Jane Fonda, Ben Gazzara, Pat Hingle, Geoffrey Horne, Geraldine Page, William Prince, Franchot Tone, and Richard Thomas. The album set was five LPs and was nominated for a Grammy in the category Best Documentary, Spoken Word Or Drama Recording (other Than Comedy).
A 1988 television version directed by Herbert Wise was based on a 1985 London stage revival and starred Edward Petherbridge as Charles, Glenda Jackson as Nina, and David Dukes as Ned (with Kenneth Branagh in the small part of Gordon Evans). This version follows O'Neill's original text fairly closely (except that it eliminates most of Act 7, a scene set when Gordon Evans is 11 years old), and allows the actors to speak their soliloquies naturally in the manner of the stage production. A British production in 2013, starring Anne-Marie Duff, reduced the running time to 3.5 hours.
- Groucho Marx parodies this play in the 1930 Marx Brothers film, Animal Crackers. On the first of three "interludes", he says, "Pardon me while I have a strange interlude", whereupon he walks over to the camera and makes ersatz philosophical comments to himself and the audience.
- The 1932 film Me and My Gal parodies the film version of the play released the same year, which used voiceovers instead of soliloquies. Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett talk about having seen "Strange Innertubes", then have a romantic talk that parodies the technique.
- MAD Magazine satirically combined the play with the television show Hazel in a piece that ran in the 1960s ("A Strange Interlude With Hazey").
- The fledgling Howard Johnson's restaurant chain received a boost in 1929 when the mayor of Boston banned a production of Strange Interlude from his city. The Theatre Guild moved the production to suburban Quincy, where it was presented with a dinner break. The original Howard Johnson's restaurant was near the theater, and hundreds of influential Bostonians discovered the restaurant, leading eventually to nationwide publicity for the chain.
- In the 1974 film, We All Loved Each Other So Much, Antonio and Luciana attend this play; then Ettore Scola uses the soliloquy technique several times in that film.
- Atkinson, Brooks (January 31, 1928). "Strange Interlude Plays Five Hours". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-10-24.
- "Strange Interlude". The Playbill Vault. Playbill. Retrieved 2015-10-24.
- "One Year of 'Strange Interlude'". The New York Times. January 27, 1929. Retrieved 2015-10-24.
- "Powers Leaves Cast". The New York Times. April 1, 1929. Retrieved 2015-10-24.
- Atkinson, Brooks (June 18, 1963). "Critic at Large: A Theatergoer's Impressions on Seeing 'Strange Interlude' After 35 Years". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-10-24.
- "IBDB Reference". IBDB. Retrieved 25 January 2013.
- "1964 Grammy Awards". Metrolyrics.com. Retrieved January 25, 2013.
- Strange Interlude, nationaltheatre.org.uk; accessed August 6, 2015.
- Groucho Marx, Margaret Dumont, Margaret Irving (1930). Animal Crackers (video/mp4) (Motion picture). Retrieved 22 May 2014.