Strange Interlude, though a very long drama, was enormously successful. The curtain went up on its nine acts at 5:30 p.m.; the evening included a supper break after the fifth act, and the final curtain did not fall until after 11 p.m. There were two touring companies and a London production for the play, which brought Eugene O’Neill his third Pulitzer Prize. In book form, the play became a best seller. Later there was a motion picture (starring Norma Shearer), and, in the middle of posthumous revival of interest in the playwright, a restaging of the play in 1963.
While its psychology came to seem somewhat dated, the play appeared fresh, experimental, and exciting in the 1920’s. Its major dramatic departure, the soliloquies (in themselves scarcely new to the theater), are as long as the regular surface dialogue. The action freezes when they are delivered. The technique is a way of dramatizing the fears, drives, and obsessions below the surface of human lives that rarely see the light of day. The technique also enables O’Neill to present one of his favorite themes, that of identity conflict or division, a theme evident in many of his plays, including The Emperor Jones (1920), The Hairy Ape (1922), All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924), The Great God Brown (1926), Days Without End (1933), and A Touch of the Poet (1957). At times, as in The Great God Brown, O’Neill employs masks to suggest sharp conflict between our public and our private images. In Days Without End, he divides his hero literally in two, employing two actors to present the two sides of his hero. Sometimes, as in Days Without End, O’Neill seeks to heal the divisions, but elsewhere, as in A Touch of the Poet, he presents them as tragic facts of life.
The technique also suggests another favorite theme of O’Neill—that of the past reaching into and controlling the present. As the characters deliver their soliloquies, they seem to live not only in the moment but also in their remembered pasts. Thick heaps of time surround and control them. Past and future are always present. This theme is also present in other O’Neill plays such as The Emperor Jones, Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956)....
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