The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: Strange Interlude

Norma Shearer, Alexander Kirkland, and Clark Gable in Strange Interlude (1932)

While the best of O’Neill’s Greek tragedy-inspired plays and realistic plays were in the future, we now come to the culmination of his experimental plays. Strange Interlude was the third play to win him a Pulitzer Prize and the last one he’d win while alive (he won his fourth and final Pulitzer for his posthumously-performed play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night). It’s also one of his longest plays at roughly 5 hours. Most stage versions today shorten it to 3 1/2 hours (and there is an American Playhouse performance of a little over three hours at Scarecrow Video), but there’s also a movie at under two hours, made in 1932.

The movie stars Norma Shearer and Clark Gable and proves that O’Neill’s plays tends to attract great actresses. Shearer plays Nina, whose great love Gordon died in World War I in a plane crash. Charlie (Ralph Morgan) is a slightly older gentleman who is in love with her, but too shy to tell her how she feels. Nina decides to go help the men in a military hospital, but returns home when she receives news that her father is dying. She comes back too late, and with two men: Sam (Alexander Kirkland) and Ned (Gable), the latter of whom is a doctor. Ned hints to Charlie that Nina’s been sleeping around and recommends that she marry Sam, who’s in love with her, though she’s not sure she’s in love with him. After they marry, they both want children, but Sam’s mother (May Robson) tells her in secret that they must never have children of their own, as insanity runs in the family. She’s shielded Sam from this information, and Shearer’s acting makes the tragedy more pronounced in the scene where Robson tells her that she can’t have Sam’s child (insanity), she can’t divorce Sam (will cause him to go insane), and she can’t be childless (Sam will think he doesn’t love her and might trigger his insanity). She ends up sleeping with Ned and getting pregnant. She then realizes she’s in love with him and wants to tell Sam the truth, but Ned preempts her by telling Sam that he’s going to be a father. Throughout the years, other situations occur where they could tell someone what happened, but one of them always stops the other. The child, named Gordon, grows up to hate Ned, not realizing that he’s his real father, and the movie ends with Sam’s death and Gordon leaving home. As the movie began with Charlie, her father, and her, it ends with her and Charlie, content to be there for each other, as they have been there throughout their lives.

The trickiest thing about Strange Interlude is that the characters give stream-of-consciousness soliliquys of what they’re thinking, in between what they’re telling other characters. In the movie, it’s handled with voice-overs and the camera focusing on their faces, so that we can see their lips aren’t moving. It works rather well, and we always know who is doing the thinking by where the camera is trained, even if we don’t recognize the actor’s voice. The old makeup used to age the actors also works well (as does their acting), though Shearer is in a class by herself (Morgan comes close).

Even if I never see a stage version of Strange Interlude, I feel this movie contains its essence, even if some of the themes that made the play controversial are only hinted at or removed (such as Nina aborting Sam’s child before having one with Ned). But luckily, as I mentioned, there’s a semi-staged version available at Scarecrow, and while it’s not the original 5-hour version, it’s more than an hour longer than the film version.

Edward Petherbridge and Glenda Jackson in Strange Interlude (1988)

The American Playhouse Version of Strange Interlude is based on either a new presentation of the work that came out in 1988 (in celebration of O’Neill’s centenary) or a 1985 revival. The box says the former, IMDB says the latter. Regardless, this version came out in 1988 and, like the play, is split into two parts, with each part running a little over 1 1/2 hours, though Act Seven is missing (in which an 11-year-old Gordon is celebrating his birthday; it’s included in the film version). This version stars Glenda Jackson as Nina and Edward Petherbridge as Charlie, reprising their stage roles from the revival. In the other main roles, you have Ken Howard as Sam and David Dukes as Ned. Jose Ferrer plays Nina’s father (and has an extended scene thinking about his own death that wasn’t included in the film version) and Kenneth Branagh plays her son, Gordon, in what amounts to a few minutes onscreen.

While the movie version starts with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, Movement 2 playing over opening credits, this version starts with footage of dogfights and a plane crashing, with words from a telegram superimposed over the images, announcing that Gordon has died. This version then follows the same chronology as the movie (except for the omission of Act Seven), while striking a balance in its framing and lens choice of seeming like a movie and a play at the same time (whereas the movie version, with its use of soft focus around the edges, gives the film a more dreamlike and cinematic experience).

Everyone is excellent, and you get more of the soliloquies, as well as topics that couldn’t be covered in a film, even a pre-code one. In the play (and this version), Nina is pregnant with Sam’s child when she finds out from his mother that she can’t keep it. In the movie, she isn’t feeling well in the scene after Sam’s mom tells her about the insanity that runs in the family; in this version, it’s clear her sickness is due to her abortion. God and religion are discussed, and we get longer interactions with Nina and Ned before they decide to have a child on Sam’s behalf. Finally, Charlie actually asks for Nina’s hand at the end, and we get the line that gives the play its title, when Nina says, “Strange interlude! Yes, our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the father!” (O’Neill 221).

My only criticism of this version is Glenda Jackson. She might’ve been nominated for a Tony onstage (and does great work of getting into the character’s psyche), but she looks and acts too old to be playing the young Nina (she was in her early 50s at the time). Shearer, on the other hand, looks and acts young enough in the early scenes and looks and acts old enough (with the help of makeup) in the later scenes. Since both are great actresses, though different in their approaches, I give the nod to Shearer. I do think, however, that David Dukes makes a better Ned than Clark Gable, though it’s more a question of acting styles than acting ability. I also slightly prefer Ken Howard over Alexander Kirkland as Sam, though there the difference is slighter.

Since the American Playhouse version is less truncated that the movie version, that would be my recommendation for the better adaptation. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find, and Norma Shearer makes a more convincing Nina. Plus, while it includes more from each act, it’s missing all of Act Seven, which the movie version includes. And while neither version is the full-length version that won the Pulitzer Prize, they both include its genius, as well as the great final line of the play, “God bless dear old Charlie…who, passed beyond desire, has all the luck at last!” (222)

Works Cited

O’Neill, Eugene. Three Plays: Desire Under the Elms, Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra. New York, Vintage Books, 1959.