Treading the Boards with “Strange Interlude” at Erlanger’s Biltmore Theatre, Los Angeles, March 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It was an event of notable proportions in the Angel City’s theatrical world when Eugene O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude” came to Erlanger’s Biltmore Theatre for a near month-long run in March 1929. The 1928 winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, the play, which debuted on Broadway at the beginning of that year and was still in its first run when The Theatre Guild of New York sent a second company out to Los Angeles, generated both high praise and passionate derision for its frank content about lost love, sex, infidelity, mental illness, abortion and other topics.

The play was also notable for its nine-act structure and extraordinary length, in which the Los Angeles run started at 5:30, had a dinner intermission from 7:45 to 9, and concluded at 11 p.m., as well as its striking use of stream-of-consciousness soliloquies in which other characters froze while the actor performing the monologue and side comment delved deeply into the psychology of that character.

Los Angeles Express, 4 March 1929.

“Strange Interlude” was also heavily anticipated by many Angelenos and advance coverage included advertisements, such as one that proclaimed that its appearance was “a milestone in theatrical history” and that it was considered to be “the most significant contribution ever made to the American theater.” Another made specific reference to the fact that it was “the Play in Which the Characters Voice Their Thoughts,” demonstrating the novelty of a core component of the presentation.

Another notable piece was one in the Los Angeles Times titled “Origin of Drama Traced” and which discussed how O’Neill came to write the play. At the beginning of 1924, it was related that the playwright had over 40 play outlines in process and worked on several that were finished while the idea for “Strange Interlude” simmered in his mind. The article noted that “all this time, O’Neill was evolving the idea of a complete epic history of a woman’s life.”

The main thrust was to depict a young woman’s devotion to a man, only to have the relationship ended by his untimely death. Then she was to go through stages of degradation, regeneration, a marriage lacking love though with affection, an affair that brought the love craved, and motherhood. The story, however, was to be about all women through “a single particular woman who should herself experience all these phases of experience as the Eternal Woman.”

Los Angeles Times, 5 March 1929.

To achieve the full spectrum of this concept, the playwright knew he would have to extend the usual structure of plays to more than four acts, which, of course, meant a much greater running time. He also thought of using the device of the Greek chorus to explain jumps of time between acts while during intermissions a man would step out before the curtain to explain changes to the characters, but abandoned these in favor of a recurring character who would handle these elements. Finally, he settled on the idea of the soliloquy in which main characters would express their deepest psychological workings through often steam-of-consciousness dialogue, much as these thoughts often happen in real life. The chorus/man before the curtain/recurring character was redesigned into a major figure in the piece.

Nina Leeds, played by Pauline Lord, is the young woman rebelling against a domineering father and whose fiance is killed during the First World War. She is loved by novelist Charles Marsden (the reconstituted chorus/man before the curtain/recurring character acted by Ralph Morgan), but she turns to a series of affairs before marrying, because she thinks she ought to, a likable, but simple man, Sam Evans (Donald Macdonald). Pregnant with his child, she learns of a strain of mental illness in his family and decides to have an abortion and concocts a “scientific” scheme with a doctor, Edmund Darrell (Harry C. Bannister), to have a child and pass it off as her husband’s. Complicating the situation is that she and Darrell fall in love. Twenty years pass at which time Sam dies before learning of the true parentage of his son and though, Nina is free to marry Darrell, she chooses instead to wed Marsden, who carried a torch for her through all that time.

Express, 5 March 1929.

Not surprisingly, reviews were mixed. Edwin Schallert, the long-time drama critic of the Times, joked that, despite the long evening, no one in the audience brought their lunch, “nor did anyone age materially during the presentation of one of the longest stage pieces that has even been given, except the actors” because of the long time span of the play. As to those who viewed the marathon performance, Schallert wrote “it drew an interested and capacity audience. This had been anticipated through its wide advance heralding.”

The critic added that not since the staging of “Parsifal,” the three-act opera by Richard Wagner that, with two long intermissions, could last some six hours, “has showgoing here been so much of a ceremonial, and may one add also, generously, an ordeal.” He noted the novelty of sitting in the theater and hearing rush-hour traffic from streetcars and autos as well as “the hum of the city” at the early hour of the play’s start.

Referring to the play as “from the inner recesses of the soul,” Schallert accounted it as “a splendid dramatic experience” and, while it may not have been “the glorious fulfillment that its author imagined,” it was “noble and genuine nonetheless” and “it deserves respect.” Discussing the experiences of Nina, the critic observed “no account is taken by her of the moral equation” as she pursues her several affairs, loveless marriage and “the bargain coldly entered into” with the doctor and her choice of Marsden as her second husband two decades later is for “quiet and peace.”

Los Angeles Record, 8 March 1929.

Schallert noted that “the play is elaborately motivated but runs quietly and smoothly from situation to situation of its development” As to those portions where the communication between characters is paramount and then followed “moments when thought becomes the dominant thing,” he said “it is an odd double-patterning.” The asides, Schallert added, constituted “a novel device.” What some might consider a “lumbering” pace, he felt was a matter of “a heavy load on commensurately heavy wheels,” so that the total effect “is one of great power.” Moreover, “the sordid foundation for the play” was leavened by a distinctive “note of spirituality.

Schallert singled out Morgan (whose brother, Frank, was a prolific character actor in film, best known for being the Wizard of Oz in the 1939 classic) and Macdonald as “the most consistently good” of the cast. Bannister was given “large credit . . . for his drawing of the difficult character.” As to Lord, though, the critic felt that she was not “an ideal Nina” because, though she got better toward the end, she “deficient in nuance and to some extent in feeling. He concluded by averring that there was a “failure of the players adequately to differentiate between the soliloquizing and direct conversation at timesm” though he acknowledged that these transitions were “inherently difficult.”

Record, 22 March 1929.

Monroe Lathrop of the Los Angeles Express, however, had harsher commentaries in his review titled “O’Neill Drama An Allopathic Dose of Gloom.” He opined that the weight of the Pulitzer Prize meant that the play “came . . . with a kick or two for the jaded among us.” As for its length, he noted that “it begins at 5:30, takes its audience through several acts of habitual O’Neill neurotics, then gives folks 75 minutes for a clean bath of fresh air—or for dinner, if appetite retains the edge.” He felt, when it came to the audience, that “there are a lot of people who will try anything once.”

While Lathrop noted a few gushing reviews of the play, he mentioned ones that called it a “sordid mess” and offering “paltry thoughts in endless boredom,” He added that there were some theater-goers who might “run with the hares” because it was a fad on Broadway and that some might feel the asides and soliloquies “stamp it as the work of a genius who brooks no limitations.” Summarizing the purpose of the play as simply “life is hell,” the critic observed that for the entirety of the piece “not a cheerful thought is uttered” and that effect is ultimately that “Strange Interlude” was “an orgy of twisted sex manifestation.”

Record, 29 March 1929.

Averring that the plot was Ibsenesque, meaning redolent of the intense dramas of Henrik Ibsen, the Danish playwright of “A Doll’s House” and other classic works, Lathrop intoned that “O’Neill is no Ibsen” as lacking the “mastery of succinct expression.” The problem with O’Neill was that he needed five words for every one of “a good dramatist” in order to get his message across. Admitting that the freezing of other actors when one delivers their deep-seated soliliquies was “undeniably interesting as a novelty,” the critic quickly added “to think that it will ever get popular is preposterous.” This was because “O’Neill is a cult just now and can get away with it.”

The situations in the play were “flapdoodle” and Nina’s desperation to have a baby “by somebody, anybody” was, apparently, the device “upon which the Pulitzer committee bestows its wreath.” Ibsen’s rebellious, neurotic and bitter characters at least “represented great forces at work in society,” but “O’Neill’s are marionettes who speak nothing but his morbid love to ponder the abnormal.” The structure did not, claimed Lathrop, require acting but good “diction and elocution . . . in this long drawn-out lamentation.” Still, the performers “have been rigidly trained for this ordeal.”

Lathrop had more praise for Lord’s work as it proved towards the end to be “rising finely to situations that flash dramatic sparks,” while Morgan demonstrated “intelligence and polished technic [technique].” Bannister and Macdonald were lauded with the former “making the best use of O’Neill’s asides.” The critic seemed more sympathetic to the plight the actors faced in working with the structure, given his obvious distaste for the play.

A week into the run, there was an afternoon seminar held at the theater to discuss “Strange Interlude” and the several speakers found elements to criticize if the overall views were positive. Upton Sinclair, famous for his 1906 novel The Jungle and an important member of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and an editor of its The Open Forum publication, he cracked that he “was told that they were hoping to find someone who would express an unfavorable opinion of the play,” and, because “I have a general reputation for disapproving of everything,” he was probably expected to be a naysayer. To this, he answered “I am very sorry to have to cause disappointment, but I cannot disapprove of the play—entirely.” He otherwise called it “one of the greatest [plays] of our time, wise and true.”

Schallert lionized the playwright as “a man who builds out of the soil and erects a lovely minaret of beauty.” Novelist Paul Jordan Smith opined that there was nothing new in the ethical issues raised in “Strange Interlude” and offered that the neurotics encountered were not unfamiliar or inauthentic, but, rather, “precisely the people who do live in one’s neighborhood and whom one meets every day.” William Isett, pastor of the Union Church at Carthay Circle west of downtown, said he would be fine with his two young boys seeing the play regarding its moral content, but not with girlfriends. Asked to explain why, he noted “the education and general traditions of our civilization are such as to prevent discussion of that point between the sexes.”

Mrs. Leiland Atherton Irish was struck by how O’Neill “could so well probe into the heart of a woman as he has done in depicting the character of Nina Leeds.” A pair of psychiatrists also weighed in, with Dr. Aaron J. Rossanoff offering praise to the playwright for “the truth of his diagnosis of the principal characters in the light of the latest theories of psychiatry” and that more such frankness was needed in life. Dr. S.M. Marcus observed that the characters reflected the necessity humans have for “following unconscious urges of biological inheritance.”

The attention given to the play was such that director Philip Moeller wrote a lengthy explanation for the Times about his approach to helming the production, noting that the daunting task of working with such a long and complex work meant that “I sat up a lot of nights in puzzled thought.” He called “Strange Interlude” an example of “a series of Silences Out Loud” and made the notable observation that there is a relationship between the actors and the audience, especially with the asides and soliloquies, that led him to state,

I do not think the average audience realizes that much more of a play is acted by them—yes, I mean actually unconsciously acted by them!—than they know. Sometimes they do this for three and now and then for four acts. Would they do this for nine? Would they “assist” us for as long as this?

Reading this quote reminds of John Cage’s controversial experiment with “4’33”,” in which a pianist sat a piano for that length of a time without playing a note, as the idea was to determine what the audience would “play” in response. Moeller emphasized just how challenging it was for the actors to learn all the lines for nine acts performed at one time, not to mention the challenges of moving from traditional scenes to the asides and soliloquies.

He considered having a special part of the stage just for these latter as well as special lighting for those parts of the performance, but decided against these. While on a train between New York and Baltimore, an abrupt halt convinced him that the approach to take was the “freezing” of characters when the asides and soliloquies were to take place. This not only worked well for the actors in rehearsal, but for the audiences, as well, as it “has an element of true and inevitable simplicity.” Consequently, Moeller concluded, “I must feel grateful for the railway train that suddenly stopped and suggeted it to me.”

The Los Angeles Record of the 22nd, under the banner of “Hung Jury” printed opposing readers’ letters concerning “Strange Interlude” with Henry Henkel praising it for the “greater depths and meanings” he took away from a second viewing and that it “has enough ideas to keep your head whirling for months.” He was particularly struck by a line uttered by Sam Evans’ mother about how “being happy is the nearest people can come to knowing what is good—that happiness is goodness.” Denying desire “and repressing all fine, beautiful human impulses” were harmful and people would be better off refraining from prohibitions and “dont’s.” He ended by calling it a great play “that ought to influence the thoughts of everybody in this enlightened day,” calling on everyone in the Angel City to see it.

Martha Labrum tore into the play, however, saying it arrived with a great deal of “ballyhoo” and received witness praise (a la Henkel). She derided those “who bow down to the ‘greatness’ of Eugene O’Neill because they think it is ‘smart’ to do so and are afraid to have an opinion that may differ from that of their friends.” Labrum claimed that she had heard people saying that
“Strange Interlude” was considered by some to be “the greatest drama every written in English, as if no one remembered Shakespeare. She added that the focus on happiness was just “bare-faced promiscuity, or very near it” by “an unbalanced woman such as I, for one, am glad to say I have never met”—she must’ve read what Paul Jordan Smith said. She concluded that the idea that Nina was somehow honorable for some attendees meant “it is for such as these that censorship is necessary. They need to be protected against themselves.” Labrum subscribed herself “yours for old-time decency.”

As the play ended its run, there were news reports that Rabbi Herman Lissauer of the Temple Emanu-el was devoting his entire sermon on Friday the 29th to a discussion of the play. It was noted that “when he saw the play last week, Dr. Lissauer declared that he found it ‘one of the most significant dramas of the decade—a play of startling import,'” and added that he meant to make a thorough analysis of its qualities.

With regard to the program, it stands out for its elegant front cover and plethora of ads, many in the rapidly popular Art Deco style, for fine cars, clothiers and jewelers, restaurants, the promotion of O’Neill’s “Lazarus Laughed” at the Pasadena Community Playhouse, and the occasional outliers like the one for Madame Anna Till, a “noted psycho-analyst and vocational director.” In any case, there is no doubt that O’Neill’s provocative play made quite an impression on many Angelenos just months before the onset of the Great Depression and was a landmark in the theatrical history of the Angel City.

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