Looking at these two works now, one is so struck by the similarities, it is remarkable to consider their differing fates at the time of their appearance. As it happens I finished reading The Awakening the same day as I went to see Strange Interlude, so the points of comparison stood out. Both are American, experimental in form, controversial in content.
Both feature female characters who are constrained by the society in which they live – or perceive themselves as being thus constrained. Edna and Nina are adored by a variety of men and exploit that as suits them. They are both unusual characters who question the social conventions around them.
Edna, in The Awakening, is never a ‘good’ mother or wife, increasingly dissatisfied with the expectations of society, she begins to take steps to live her own life. She more or less abandons her children, she moves out of her house once she has developed a capacity to earn money via her art, she takes lovers – all this whilst her husband attempts to keep up appearances, hoping as a doctor has advised him, that Edna’s behaviour is an aberration that will correct itself.
Nina, having lost her juvenile love in WWI, becomes a nurse of wounded soldiers and starts sleeping with them – maybe that will make them feel better. That nothing is going to assuage the guilt she carries for the death of her beloved, is the rationale for all her actions. She then marries a well meaning dullard she doesn’t love, so that he can provide the children she needs in her life as a sensible substitute to look after – doubtless even she can see that sex with every injured US soldier isn’t going to be possible. Deliberately marrying other than for love, she then finds out that her husband’s family has hereditary madness, this after falling pregnant. Her husband is in blissful ignorance of both these things and she continues with scheming to keep it that way. Abortion is no problem, and then taking a secret lover in order to provide a baby with better odds of being born sane. Science in this period raises such moral issues as eugenics.
Chopin writes in the 1890s, O’Neill in the 1920s, so some thirty years later, but nonetheless, both are writing of scandalous, controversial topics. Both writers were known. Yet Chopin’s novel was generally critically reviled and forgotten until it received a feminist stimulus in the second half of the twentieth century. Interestingly, from that special interest beginning – ‘it is good because….’ – it has become considerably elevated to more like – ‘it is good’ fullstop. O’Neill’s play was as long as Chopin’s novel was to the point, six hours or so, it was very difficult technically due to his experimention with asides to the audience, a substantial aspect of the play. Undoubtedly he was better known to his audiences, having already won two Pulitzers. Still, although it too received censorial treatment here and there, including banning, it was nonetheless a huge hit.
It is impossible not to wonder about the different immediate fates of these works. Yes, O’Neill was more famous than Chopin, but this does not strike me as sufficient explanation by any means. Male fares better than female? Maybe, but the US by then had lots of hugely popular female writers. Perhaps it is relevant that the 1920s in the US was in general a freer period than before and after.
I wonder, however, if the ways in which these stories end has something to do with it. Nina is a morally ambiguous character. She claims always to be acting to further the happiness of others (at the expense of the happiness of others, we might observe), but even if this claim were true, it means she is doing so through methods that we can scarcely feel happy about. Lying to her husband, a secret abortion, a lover who she keeps even after she no longer needs him for his original purpose. And one can also question if it is true that she is acting in a noble way to further the happiness of others. She is a person who wishes to suffer, this is established right at the start of the play. She never wavers from that, maybe even keeping her lover is to exacerbate her pain. Even after her husband dies and her son, guessing the situation, gives his approval of her marrying her lover, she does no such thing, but instead marries the man who has been her substitute father and a figure to be gently mocked and used over the decades. No straightforward bliss for Nina.
Edna has a husband who is willing to put up with her bad behaviour to an extent we can admire from a distance. She has two lovers, one of which is also a love. Having established her independence, now living on her own, earning enough to support both her and the woman she has to do the ‘work’, having foisted her children on her own mother, and two lovers at the begging, she suddenly decides to kill herself. Frankly, if I could get Nina and Edna close enough, I’d knock their heads together, hope that brought them to their senses. The ending of The Awakening has no good explanation. I understand, from reading around, that it is due to an inability to otherwise be free of constraint. But there is no such thing as freedom from constraint and Chopin certainly doesn’t think there is. How do we avoid the conclusion that this is not a strong woman, but a weak one, maybe even a mentally ill one? It is simply not sufficient to say she was the victim of her society. The author herself lived in an almost entirely female society as far as immediate family went and was not exactly conventional in her own dealings with men. Appreciating the reasons why The Awakening is so highly regarded, it has shortcomings that leave me in doubt overall about it. One must also have doubts about a writer who withdrew the moment her work was criticised. It was not only criticised for content, but also for style and I am sure if Chopin had listened to some of that criticism and acted upon it, she might have ended up an important writer beyond the current justifications for her canonisation. What we can conclude is that Chopin was no driven writer, if she so easily withdrew from it.
Of course, Strange Interlude is nothing if not six hours of shortcomings. The National Theatre’s current production of it is cut down to a mere three and a half hours or so and one can only suppose that it has been pruned with an agenda. There is an imbalance between tragedy and comedy which I doubt exists in the original, the one that was so hugely popular when it first appeared. If The Awakening was reviled, Strange Interlude was both pilloried and parodied. Most famously in Animal Crackers, you can see the relevant segment here. And there is Spencer Tracy with Joan Bennett in My and My Gal here.
One would have to conclude that O’Neill’s use of the aside to the audience is a failed experiment. One wonders, having observed the somewhat strained and stilted dialogue in Southbank the other day, if this is a consequence not only of O’Neill’s melodramatic over-the-top, verbose style which is always present, if here even more so than usual, but also because of this experimental format. Perhaps it is a consequence of the need to differentiate between the natural thoughts of the characters as they are expressed out loud to the audience and the composed ones which are actually aired between the characters. O’Neill needs both a practical distinction so that we can tell what is going on, and an emotional one. I thought this was a difficult task for the actors, which they carried off with aplomb.
There is also a hilarious literary parody by Eric Linklater as it appears online at The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter. Juan has been advised to see Strange Interlude because it will be the most play for his money.
FROM ERIC LINKLATER’S JUAN IN AMERICA
Black Bread was the sensation of New York. Its author, Knut Blennem, was recognised to be the leader in histrionic innovation and the adaptation of stage practice to modern theory. It was he who had said: “Psychology is our generation’s gift to the world. Psychology has revolutionised philosophy, art, science, and society. Psychology has made men like gods. It was psychology that taught me to write plays.”
Ecstatically the critics had lauded his play. Their columns had been stuffed to bursting-point with superlatives and semi-naive confessions of the emotional havoc which it had wrought in their semi-naive but critical minds; for emotional havoc is much sought after in America. “Here is a play to tear your heart out,” said one. “Pity caught at my throat and choked me,” said another. This one’s soul was slashed with anguish, that one’s wrung with terror, and still another’s turned in his breast like a babe in torment. When this was its effect on critical hearts and souls, what was the reaction of ordinary people likely to be? Juan asked the girl who sold cigarettes on the mezzanine floor of the Hotel Connecticut.
“Say,” she answered, “it’s a panic, it’s a wow!”
And so wherever it was mentioned Mr. Blennem’s name went up like a balloon on shrill blasts of adulation. For this play was to-day’s asseveration of its powers, and before such powers as these it was clear that the so-called Immortals of yesterday were nothing but flops, four-flushers, and false alarms. For one and all they had died without ever hearing of psychology.
Black Bread was the story of the woman Kathleen and her three lovers, Sidney Bush, Walter Hood, and Gerald Tomkins. A secondary plot dealt with the affection entertained by Livia (Kathleen’s sister) for Walter Hood; a vain affection. There was not very much action in the play. Every half-hour the scene shifted. Kathleen was introduced on the verandah of her home in the Adirondacks. She was talking to Sidney and Gerald. Then she was shown in bed, talking to Walter. Then in the living room, the dining room, on board a train, in an art gallery (some enlightened observations were offered here), a corridor, a garden, and a bathroom. But wherever she was she talked, and Walter, Gerald, and Sidney very often replied to her. But more often they wrote in their diaries. For this was the revolutionary device invented by Mr. Knut Blennem for discovering to the audience the true and secret thoughts of his dramatis personae.
It is notorious that we speak no more than half-truths in our ordinary conversation, and even a soliloquy is likely to be affected by the apprehension that walls have ears. Only to our diaries do we tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and by writing a play whose characters were all habitual jotters-down of errant thought, Mr. Blennem was able to show in the fullest detail his masterly psychological insight.
No less admirable than the original concept of dramatic diary-makers was Mr. Blennem’s device for revealing to the audience, piecemeal and as they were written, the endless confessions of his characters. A frame of white screens surrounded the stage, each one clearly marked by a name, as Walter, Sidney, or Kathleen. And as each character wrote in his diary, what was written appeared on the appropriate screen, flashed on to it by a projector of the kind used in cinemas.
For example, Kathleen would say to Walter: “I am weary to-day. I feel the life under my heart.” (For she was pregnant.)
And Walter would answer: “The weather is growing sultry. There are more and more clouds in the sky.”
But in his diary he would scribble this, and this would flash on to the screen: “The woman frightens me. I feel the dark power of her soul, and my soul struggles feebly in the whirlpool of her ens. She has engulfed me. Will she never tell me if I am the father of her child, or if Sidney begot it; or perhaps Gerald?”
For all three men were Kathleen’s lovers, and all three knew that she was pregnant, but none (perhaps not even Kathleen herself) could say who was the father of the coming child.
In sharp contrast to Kathleen was Livia, who had no lovers, and her diary revealed with great sincerity her sex-starved–indeed famine-stricken–soul. She was in love with Walter, but he was frightened of her and always, when he was staying in Kathleen’s house, slept with his door locked. This offended Livia who wrote in her diary: “An open door is God’s blessing to a wall. He who bolts a door will deny his Master. Dear heart, and his bed so broad!”
After several acts in which Kathleen grew more and more mystical and her lovers wrote quicker and quicker, the baby was born, unexpectedly, in a florist’s–“In the beauty of roses did I labour. Between white roses and dark roses was my baby born. In the scent of many flowers he first smelt life”–so the mother-triumpahant, some time later, described her ordeal. But not before a scene almost too dramatic, and very harrowing to conservative opinion in the audience.
The baby was black.
Sidney, Gerald, and Walter were all quite white. They had hereditary taints to prove their impeccable ancestry. And there was only one other male character in the cast–Kathleen’s negro chauffeur, Ham.
Ham, the gigantic Nubian, was the baby’s father.
Their feelings intolerably wounded, Sidney, Gerald, and Walter make ready for a lynching, and Ham is apparently willing to submit. But before removing his collar he sings a few verses of “Swing low, sweet chariot,” and the noise brings Kathleen to his defence.
She is wearing a dressing-gown which Gerald at once declares (through his diary) to be symbolic. It has a black and white chequer-board design. With Ham crouched at her feet, shapeless, inhuman, looking indeed rather like an outcrop of black basalt, Kathleen declares: “I sing the song of miscegenation. Black shall mate with white, negro with northerner, and the strength of Africa run hot in Nordic veins. Zion shall lie down with the Lap and the pledge of their love be fertile over the earth. In my heart are many mansions, and every nation is my guest–Eskimo, Teuton and Gael; Slav, Polynesian, Trinobant . . . .
There was a majority of women in the audience. The spectacle of Kathleen with her court of four men exalted them, for they had no more than one man apiece (if that) and he, perhaps, was tongue-tied, and gravel-blind to their deserts, and weak in the back, and given unduly to sleep. But there, on the visible stage, was a woman with a man at every point of the compass, a man in every corner of the room, so that wheresoever she might turn there was one to cosset and comfort her, and foment the unhealing wound of Eve. So should all women be accommodated, thought the esurient ladies in the audience, and loudly clapped their hands; and such husbands, lovers, and male dinner-partners as were present clapped too, without enjoyment indeed, but realising–as good Americans–that when it comes to culture women know best.
But if that is the case, the last point Linklater makes, why then did Chopin’s book, in which Edna also has a man at every compass point or near to – surely three ain’t bad – suffer such an ignomonious treatment at its first appearance? It may be that it is because Nina ostensibly does what is best for others, and that it is merely coincidental that she is in fact always doing what she wants for herself. Perhaps the audience did not even notice she was fulfilling her own wishes; while Edna never does a thing for anybody else. Not only does Edna do only what she wants – and it is always for herself – but she trashes everything a late nineteenth century woman might hope for. It is one thing to trash the status quo, but in gaining her independence from it, acquiring lovers, income, her own chosen solitude, none of this is good enough for her either. In killing herself, she trashes the idea of freedom from the status quo as well. She leaves her audience with nothing.
And maybe there is another point. It is true that not only the experimental nature of Strange Interlude but also its content makes it easy to mock. O’Neill was at least at times on the side of its detractors. When told that there was a restaurant which had a Strange Interlude sandwich on the menu, he is reported to have replied:
I know what it is. It’s a four-decker with nothing but ham!
Nontheless, it is also true that whilst The Awakening is unrelentingly earnest, with not a whiff of humour sullying its tone, Strange Interlude is both tragic and comic. In a nice discussion of the play which is well worth downloading here RF Gross in concluding his argument that this is a camp work obersrves:
Strange Interlude is not a joyless failure, but is a play that offers many pleasures that audiences have been more inclined to enjoy than have the critics….Critical theory has been much more devoted to trying to explain why we should respect or reject plays than to explaining why we are fond of them. In contrast, a camp approach begins with affection, since “camp taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles.” Camp reading admits the critic’s attraction to the work in all its idiosyncrasies. Because of this, it is a useful corrective to much of our cold, detached and suspicious criticism….It allows us to address certain types of spectatorial pleasures, which we have been ashamed to admit, especially within the works of canonical playwrights.
One final point. I find it odd that The Awakening has attracted so much feminist analysis despite its own unfeminist nature, whilst as far as I can see, Strange Interlude, a famous play by one of the world’s best playwrights, with a strong female lead surrounded by weak men has not received any feminist attention. Why is that? Gross suggests that it is why critics – male – were sometimes so enraged by it at the time and yet it has been ignored by the feminist critical industry. If anybody has thoughts on this, they would be appreciated!