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Two Moderns

ISSUE:  Winter 1929

Lazarus Laughed.
By Eugene O’Neill. New York: Horace Liveright. $2.50. Strange Interlude. By Eugene O’Neill. New York: Horace Liveright. $2.50. The One-Act Plays of Luigi Pirandello. Edited by Arthur Livingston and Blanche Valentine Mitchell. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company. $2.50.

There are only three great contemporaries in the drama-making world. They rank in this order: Shaw, O’Neill, Pirandello. The first is a puritan and an idealist, who has a genius for explaining life with an astounding lucidity, not undashed with a sprinkle of sly malice. The second is an emotional adventurer and daring experimentalist, who is willing to try anything once—in the theatre; and continues to do so, to the intense inner perturbation of his contemporaries. The third is a fantastic intellectualist, who sees all life as a puppet-show, and delights in dangling dementedly the bloodless mannequins of his fancy. Shaw’s career as dramatist reached its zenith with “Saint Joan”; and one is almost tempted to exclaim: “May he never write another play!”

O’Neill then bulks large on the horizon. Europe knows and admires him. Many foreign theatres have staged his plays—in England, France, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Japan. This American of Celtic slant, only, four decades along the road, is easily the foremost dramatist this land has produced. Yet the great metropolitan public still waits for the philosophic dream, the Life Drama, of “Lazarus Laughed,” to find embodiment in the colors and shapes of the theatre. A mere bagatelle of $60,000 alone stands in the way; and if Belasco and Gest turn it down, our hopes must centre in our greatest theatrical institution, the Theater Guild. “Lazarus Laughed” is a profound parable, narrated in a series of impressive spectacles. It is a new casting of the Christ story—shall we say a Lazarus myth, with the clash between, not Rome and Jewry, but between two attitudes toward life. Lazarus stands for Joy, Vitality, Affirmation; Tiberius, Caligula, Pompeia, Rome stand for Power, Self-indulgence, Degeneration, Fear. Lazarus brings to the world of his day faith and hope for mankind; with the laughter of a spiritual superman he would unloose the fear-fixation of humanity.

Love is Man’s hope—love for his life on earth, a noble love above suspicion and distrust! Hitherto Man has always suspected his life, and in revenge and self-torture his love has been faithless! He has even betrayed Eternity, his mother, with his slave he calls Immortal Soul!

Caligula’s world was no more ready for Lazarus than was Pilate’s world ready for Christ or Chariot’s for Joan. Torture, the stake, the cross!


Of another stamp—utterly modern, strikingly novel, titillatingly Freudian—is “Strange Interlude,” a crashing stage success. It represents the culmination of a method, a manner, a technic towards the attainment of which O’Neill has long been striving. O’Neill has a scorn of familiarity for the conventional “thrills” of acting; he confesses even to a contempt for the dramatic devices which delight the soul of the average playgoer. Plunging through the stark naturalism of the one-acters, sloughing off the brutal expressionism of “The Hairy Ape” and “Anna Christie,” he has emerged into a rarefied atmosphere of a gripping super-naturalism. We have always divined in O’Neill this struggle of his characters to let Life express itself through them. His dialogue has grown with time more self-revealing, more intimately mystic, less bound to the rigid categories of the allowed.

In comment on “Desire under the Elms,” O’Neill confessed: “I never intended that the language of the play should be a record of what the characters actually said. I wanted to express what they said subconsciously.” Fumbling still with symbols, which he strove to make do his bidding, O’Neill introduced the baffling mask of “The Great God Brown,” enabling the characters to revert to themselves, to express their secret thoughts and inner nature. The experiment was a fascinating failure, a promising experiment along the path to a new technic. This new technic he has perfected in “Strange Interlude.” In the limited edition of this play, the secondary dialogue is printed in a pale blue ink—a sort of shadow picture of the soul. These are not the rejected soliloquies of the classic drama, not the trenchant asides of Moliere, but the continuous flow of sub-conscious life phrased in words. The stream of consciousness flows on unimpeded by the inhibitions of convention and the restrictions of alien presence. The alter ego has its innings at last.

“Strange Interlude”—in nine acts, requiring a period from 5:15 until 11:30, with a strange interlude of an hour for physical sustenance and spiritual restoration, in the production—is a story of four lives and their mutual reactions and inter-actions. O’Neill’s intuitions sharply “tap the hidden current of life.” We wince again and again in sense of acknowledgment and confession. But there is weariness in the repercussion of the “thinking aloud”; and more’s the pity, not a little of it seems forced, vapid or futile. The story is neither memorable nor original; we are conscious of nothing but the desires of the characters. Lacking any quality of the ennobling, the play is tense with interest, passion, thrill. The climax is reached in the poignant mental asides of the four characters in turn, capped with the words of

Nina (more and more strangely triumphant): My three men! . . . I feel their desires converge in me! . . . to form one rounded complete beautiful male desire which I absorb . . . and am whole . . . they dissolve in me, their life is my life . . . I am pregnant with the three! . . . husband! . . . lover! . . . father . . . and the man! . . . little man! . . . little Gordon! . . . he is mine too! . . . that makes it perfect! … (with an extravagant suppressed exultance) Why, I should be the proudest woman on earth! . . . I should be the happiest woman in the world! …

But she isn’t: by her real lover she was never possessed; little Gordon is not the son of her Gordon. After the strain and stress of a life of thwarted happiness and unsatisfying eroticism, she sinks at last into the arms of Marsden—and of peace. In her father’s tone, Marsden speaks the ultimate consolatory word:


. . . So let’s you and me forget the whole distressing episode, regard it as an interlude, of trial and preparation, say, in which our souls have been scraped clean of impure flesh and made worthy to bleach in peace.
Nina (with a strange smile): Strange interlude! Yes, maybe our lives are merely strange, dark gaps in the electrical display of God the Father!

After the hectic passions of O’Neill, the thin intellectualism of Pirandello seems pale and anemic. It is a cerebral drama, full of ingenious and devious plays of the intellect. Intellect is exalted at the expense of passion. In his own way, Pirandello has done what Shaw did long before him; and boasts of the achievement in the words: “One of the novelties that I have given to modern drama consists in converting the intellect into passion.” Pirandello amuses us by turning things inside out, putting things hind part before. He makes the irrational appear rational, the abnormal appear normal. He effects the transformation with such engaging plausibility that we accept it as we accept the queer fancies of an imaginative child. In this volume, two plays stand conspicuous for their individual note: “By Judgment of Court” (“La Patente”), in which the “man with the evil eye” cashes in on the superstition of the public, making the public pay him a “tax on safety”; and “Sicilian Limes” (“Lumie di Sicilia”), a tragedy of rustic disillusionment, vibrant with tenderness and pathos.


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