Critical Essay on Strange Interlude

O’Neill believed that serious drama should probe the depths of existence and examine the role of human beings in the universe. It should reveal what the history and development of religion also revealed: the inner life of man. O’Neill’s work is therefore informed by various philosophical and religious ideas that he gleaned from his wide reading. This is especially apparent in Strange Interlude, which reveals his interest in Eastern religious thought, especially Hinduism and Buddhism, and his interest in the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, whose work has much in common with Indian thought. O’Neill read Schopenhauer with enthusiasm when he was young and re-read him shortly before he wrote this play. What O’Neill absorbed from Schopenhauer was a pessimistic vision of human life, in which suffering, rooted in the endless striving of human will and desire, was inevitable. The only way to end suffering was to end desire.

The character in the play who most embodies desire is Nina Leeds. The play revolves around her relationships with the various men in her life: father, father figure (Marsden), romantic ideal (Gordon Shaw), husband, lover, and son. It is her need to fulfill every aspect of herself as a woman that drives the plot. The goad for this obsession on the part of Nina is her anger and guilt, which she feels because she allowed the moral taboo against pre-marital sex to thwart the flow of her desire for Gordon Shaw. With Gordon’s death, her desire for a child by him can never be fulfilled. Her attempt to compensate for this loss is what drives her on throughout the long ‘‘strange interlude.’’ All her men are a part of this passionate quest, which is at times touched with a kind of mysticism. Nina is searching for what, in popular parlance, might be called her ‘‘inner goddess.’’ She wants to believe in a deity that is more in harmony with her being as a woman than the distant, punitive God the Father of Judeo-Christian tradition. For Nina, this female deity is associated with procreation, and with the great rhythms of the cosmos. One of Nina’s happiest moments comes when she is pregnant with Darrell’s child. In her soliloquy that begins act 5, she becomes a part of God the Mother in a vision of unity and peace:

my child moving in my life . . . my life moving in my child . . . the world is whole and perfect . . . all things are each other’s . . . life is . . . and this is beyond reason . . . questions die in the silence of this peace . . . I am living a dream within the great dream of the tide . . . breathing in the tide I dream and breathe back my dream into the tide . . . suspended in the movement of the tide, I feel life move in me, suspended in me . . . no whys matter . . . there is no why . . . I am a mother . . . God is a Mother.

The imagery here suggests moon goddess, fertility goddess, and earth mother all rolled into one— all aspects of the cosmic feminine that historically have been excluded from orthodox Christian thought. In addition, nestling unobtrusively in Nina’s meditation are concepts that show O’Neill’s interest in Eastern mysticism: the oneness of all things (as opposed to the separation between God and His creation in Western thought) and the ultimate reality of life that is unchanging and eternal, lying beyond the senses and beyond desire and thought. According to the Upanishads, which constitute some of the core texts of Hinduism, this state of pure, silent consciousness, known as Brahman, is also the essence of the individual self. To know Brahman is to know the eternal nature of the self. This is a state of knowingness, in which, as Nina intuits, questions die, because questions are only the products of the restless intellect and cannot be answered at the level at which they are asked. The answer to the...

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