Hell Is Freudian Playwrights

Out of pure love for the theater (in his case, Mr. W's pure love for me) we steeled ourselves to see Strange Interlude at the Lansburgh. I have nothing critical to say about the performance. It was well cast, well acted, well directed, well costumed, and the spare set suited the story.

But Mon Dieu! does the stench of the culture of death hang about that play. You can feel the decay.

I confess I have two profound grudges against Eugene O'Neill.  The first is that what Wagner is to opera, he is to the stage: there's just no good reason apart from profound hatred of mankind to make anyone sit through meditations on the futility of existence for four hours. If you've got nothing to say but life sucks and then you die, which is a relief, at least have the decency to be a minimalist and let everyone go have a drink.

But there's a personal injury, too. Just before I went away to college, my dearly beloved high school drama coach and his wife made good on their graduation gift to me by taking me to see Jason Robards in The Iceman Cometh. It was another four hour assault, but at least it was Jason Robards, the nation's premier interpreter of O'Neill, reprising a role he created, and with the original director and staging. It was a tour de force performance, and worth it as a bit of theater history, even though the plot is everyone's miserable but able to bear it because they're drunk. Hickey (Robards) comes in and says life is great because he's sober, and browbeats everyone into going straight. This turns out not to be evangelical kindness but an act of malice; he wants everyone to be as miserable as he is. Over the course of four hours it's gradually revealed his beloved wife hasn't sadly died, he's killed her, and it wasn't a mercy killing, he hated her. He goes to jail and hopefully to the gallows, and everyone goes back to being drunk, except his two best friends, who kill themselves (well, one does, and the stage goes dark as the other ponders it.)

O'Neill is considered "the architect of American theater," which only tells us how much theater critics hate America (really, just on the face of it, could any body of work less embody the American spirit?) but that's not my gripe. My gripe is that while I was enduring this, my entire family was having a warm and laughter-filled dinner with my beloved paternal grandfather (who was in fine form), and it turned out to be his last. He went to bed after a happy evening with all his loved ones gathered around him and never woke up. It is part of family lore how wonderful that evening was, and what a blessing to have such a goodbye, and everyone speaks as if we all were there but I wasn't. Had the play been of decent length, I'd have stopped in for coffee later (I remember considering it, but deciding that the party would be breaking up since it was after midnight, so I just went home.)  Therefore, Eugene O'Neill and I are not friends.

But to Strange Interlude. Mr. W. was angling to leave after the first intermission and then again after the second intermission, but I found it sort of engaging in an historical snapshot sort-of-way. (And after all that Wagner & Prokofiev, he owes me.) The play is pure Freud with a touch of eugenics thrown in, and though O'Neill referred to this as his "woman" play, it could not have more backward and paternalistic ideas about women. For those reasons, its internal conflict is completely and utterly obsolete, like opening a time capsule.

The great love of a woman's life is shot down in The Great War. So deep is her regret at their not having consummated their love, she goes, I believe "hysterical" is the word, and all the men in her life agree only a baby will calm her down. So they marry her off to a guy who adores her but whom she doesn't love and she's happy for about 25 seconds when she gets pregnant. Then she aborts the child when she finds out from her mother-in-law that unbeknownst to her husband, everyone in his line goes mad. Then she sleeps with her doctor to conceive a healthy child to fool her husband with, but makes the mistake of falling in love with him, and a lifetime (and 4 stage hours) of Freudian archetypes follow as we watch her juggle her issues with the men in her life, who are nothing more than personifications of Father, Son, Eros.  The conceit of the play is that all the characters speak not only their lines of dialogue, but also their inner thoughts, so the real tension comes not from what happens, but from the internal war of id, ego and superego played out in front of us.

What fascinated me was that the audience laughed all the time -- the contrast between what each character actually said and his inner monologue was often quite funny, but I wonder if it was intended to be, or if it played that way in 1928 when the show debuted? See for example this contemporaneous review, which treats the story as if it were tragic and all the characters heroic. I can barely see why one might consider them so if Freud had just appeared upon the scene and we were all under his spell, and I think the review is completely accurate in capturing what happens and O'Neill's intent. But now the characters seem preposterous, their moral dilemmas are not dilemmas in any sense, you keep coming back to, "Geez, people really thought like this?" and therefore the play does not endure. It's just a museum piece, as when we occasionally stage an old Greek play using masks and kothornoi. The conventions have no meaning for us any longer. The only thing to say in O'Neill's case is that it's only 1928 and all the rot to come is completely telegraphed.

You know what's more enduring? Groucho's parody of this play in Animal Crackers (which does genuinely capture the American spirit, by the way.)