Play Time: Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill

Strange Interlude covers a span of about twenty-five years in the lives of Nina Reeds and her three lovesick admirers—Charles Marsden, Edmund Darrell, and Sam Evans. At the beginning of the play, Nina is heartbroken over the death of the love of her life, Gordon Shaw, in World War I. Throughout the rest of the play, she is attempting to fill in the gaps left by Gordon with Marsden, Darrell, and Evans. There are plenty of twists across the nine acts of this five-hour play, but the most notable feature is the internal monologue device. Characters frequently stop to deliver their thoughts in a stream-of-consciousness style—not in a Shakespearean manner, where the actors seem to be taking the audience into their confidence, but more like the playwright has slowed down the action and opened up the mind of a character to show the audience their thought process.

This play deals with time in two ways—in micro and in macro. The micro is the internal monologues, which take individual, fleeting moments and expand them into sometimes multiple minutes of speech. The macro is the enormous scale of the play itself, which covers over two decades, comprises nine acts, and is typically presented with a dinner break in between acts five and six. The tension between these two levels of time is the tension, and dissonance, experienced by everyone—the brief, minute, immediate nature of the present set against the enormous backdrop of a person’s life.

Micro

O’Neill achieves this sense of immediacy in a few ways. First, the obvious, through the monologues. While there’s no indication of whether or not the rest of the scene freezes or slows down when a character’s internal monologue begins, it certainly seems to slow down. The monologues are full of ellipses and rambling sentences, questions and repeated ideas. The effect of this slow, languorous pace to the interior of the characters is that when the actual dialogue of the scene resumes, it feels rapid and instant, unrestrained.

Another contributor to the feeling of immediacy, and another effect of the internal monologues, is that there are hardly any pauses in the play. The word “pause” only occurs twelve times in the stage directions of Strange Interlude—for comparison, there are twenty-two pauses in Anna Christie, another O’Neill play of about a third the length of Strange Interlude. Where there might normally be a pause in a scene of dialogue, or in the middle of a character’s speech, instead there is the internal monologue. In most plays, pauses are a frequent, if brief, reprieve, in which the audience has a chance to observe the characters, and possibly anticipate what will happen next. In Strange Interlude, there is rarely any such reprieve. Characters are constantly spewing forth their thoughts into any space that might be a moment of silence. Just as they can not escape their own interior cogitations, neither can the viewer.

The third contributor to the sensation of forever plunging through the intersection of past and future is the fact that each act occurs in real time. There are no scenes within the acts, no transitions except for the ones between acts. Each act is about thirty minutes of sustained dialogue and action, with the only slowing down being the internal monologues. This may be one of the greatest methods by which O’Neill evokes this dissonance between micro, immediate time, and macro, cradle-to-grave time.

Macro

O’Neill gives the audience a sense of the macro time chiefly through the sheer enormity of the play. If an audience went to see this play at four, it would be night by the time they left. Watching Strange Interlude would take up almost a third of a person’s waking hours. It’s a brute force way to communicate scope, but it works. Even with so much focus on individual moments and the thoughts of the characters, arriving at the end of the play (even reading it over the course of a few days, as I did) is exhausting.

At the end, it feels like a generation has passed, and all the years have gone by in just a few seconds. If it weren’t so anachronistic, a good song to play as incidental music would be “Once in a Lifetime” by The Talking Heads. The disconnect that Nina feels when she exclaims, “love, passion, ecstasy … in what a far-off life were they alive! … the only living life is in the past and future … the present is an interlude … strange interlude in which we call on past and future to bear witness we are living!” (193) is the same disconnect that the audience feels at the end. Another contributor to this disconnect is that, unlike other long works of theatre (Shakespearean histories, operas, etc.), the cast of Strange Interlude is incredibly small, with only eight characters—and only Nina, Marsden, Darrell, and Evans in most of the acts. This narrow scope heightens the sense of interiority, and the contrast between the present and the full arc of the play.

Twenty-five years have elapsed, but the audience has only seen thirty-minute chunks of it, revolving mostly around four people. And yet, it is undeniable that twenty-five years have elapsed. The audience has seen these characters age, seen them engage in countless fights. The audience has watched them for hours, for long enough to feel that the opening scenes of the play are distant and foreign. Just as Nina can only grasp the visceral moments of the present, with the past and future mere intellectual constructs, the audience can only grasp these brief, small, thirty-minute clippings from over two decades of these peoples lives.

Conclusion

Although the play is exploring a hundred and one things other than how we experience time, this is a thread that runs throughout it, and the tension between our immediate reality and our abstract understanding of elapsed time is at the heart of that thread. It’s not something that is as immediately apparent as the psychological convolutions of Nina and her three lovers, but it is something that the audience is experiencing from start to finish. In the very few moments in which the play slows down enough for one of the characters to reflect, the audience can share in this feeling of bewilderment and disorientation. Certainly at the very end, as Marsden suggests to Nina that they “forget the whole distressing episode, regard it as an interlude,” (221) the audience is invited to look back, and wonder at the reality or tangibility of these characters’ lives and of their own experience viewing them, before they exit the theater and return to their own interludes.

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