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What is a “Strange Interlude”?

If there’s one thing critics can agree on about Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, it is to disagree. The mammoth nine-act play received a litany of hosannas during its 1927–1928 heyday, but there were always strongly dissenting voices, pointing out the play’s tendency toward melodrama and potential for camp, puzzling over O’Neill’s innovative use of asides or simply wondering what all the fuss was about. O’Neill himself seemed to be of two minds. He was capable of burnishing the play’s merits, appraising it as one of his finest works, then turning around and diminishing its accomplishments, all in one breath. In the intervening three-quarters of a century since the play’s heyday, it has continued to meet with a paradoxical combination of adulation, witticism, vituperation and befuddlement. Still, after all has been said and done, there is no consensus. No one agrees on what Strange Interlude is, or more importantly, what it’s about.

What do you think of O’Neill’s Strange Interlude? Email me: DLichtenberg@ShakespeareTheatre.org.

What the Critics Said

Alfred Lunt (1927): A six-day bisexual race.

Alexander Woolcott (1927): A play in nine scenes and an epicene.

Barrett H. Clark (1928): What is this Strange Interlude? It is many things, almost as many things as it has been called.

Walter Winchell (1928): Another Eugenic O’Neill Baby.

Burns Mantle (1928): To many, Strange Interlude is by far the most significant addition to American drama made within the memory of this generation. To its opponents, it is a freak play, overwritten, pretentious, and as bloaty with self-pride in its sheer bulk as a seven-foot prizefighter.

John J. Daly (1928): Relentless as death itself… the novelty of it all first grips the mind—and then the slow-moving vehicle, like a long, heavily laden train, captures the imagination…

Eugene O’Neill (c. 1928): I know what it is. It’s a four-decker with nothing but ham! (On being told a restaurant serves a Strange Interlude sandwich).

It trends on fanaticism, it seems to me. Myself, I wouldn’t stand up 4 1/2 hours to see the original production of the Crucifixion!

Malcolm Nichols, Mayor of Boston (1929): A disgusting spectacle of immorality and advocacy of atheism, of domestic infidelity and the destruction of unborn human life.

Quincy Mayor (1929): A beautiful play, worth a hundred sermons.

George Bernard Shaw (1930): Strange Interlude was such a success that the Theatre Guild begged me to write my next play in eight acts.

Groucho Marx (1930): Pardon me while I have a Strange Interlude… Strange how the wind blows tonight. It has a flinty voice reminds me of old Marsden. How happy I could be with either of these two if both of them just went away.

Eugene O’Neill (1946): I’ve had about as much of a certain kind of success in Interlude as could be hoped for. You might add, as much as my stomach can stand!

Hamilton Basso (1948): A saga of sex, sorrow and soliloquies.

Robert Brustein (1963): [I was] shaking with suppressed rage, four days after the event…it may be the worst play ever written by a major dramatist.

Richard Gilman (1963): Quarter-baked Strindberg, tenth-rate Freud…[Strange Interlude is] the most atrociously ill-written and ill-conceived play of our time, the falsest ‘masterpiece’ in the theatre.

Susan Sontag “Notes on Camp” (1967): Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is “too much.” Titus Andronicus and Strange Interlude are almost Camp, or could be played as Camp. The public manner and rhetoric of de Gaulle, often, are pure camp.

Clive Barnes (1985): How can a play so bad be so good? Or at least so utterly engrossing? …This is a theatrical landmark, yet even more importantly, it is mesmerizingly entertaining.

Frank Rich (1985): Theatrically gripping, Strange Interlude can be catalogued with such other one-of-a-kind American cultural artifacts of its age as [D.W. Griffith’s] Intolerance, [John Dos Passos’] U.S.A., and [George Gershwin’s] Porgy and Bess. It speaks to us from the century’s boom time, when our culture, like the author, was at once naïve and inordinately ambitious. While it’s remotely possible that others might uncover more in Strange Interlude, do figure that another century will be here before we find out.

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