Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I came down here for a party, what happens? Nothing. Not even ice cream. The gods look down and laugh.

People ask me lately if I've seen the Grammys. No. Am I going to watch the Academy Awards? No. I just don't give a damn about prizes won for works of art. Of course I would love to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama - but only because it would pretty much guarantee I'd have a job in theatre - even if just as a college professor - the rest of my life and not have to toil among the Blueshirts.

But other than that, I don't give a shit about prizes. I've seen so many bad plays get prizes. This is especially true for off-off Broadway, but Broadway is not immune. Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz was extremely mediocre and won the Pulitzer in 2003. And I've already blogged about how utterly boring I found Talley's Folly by Lanford Wilson - and it's also a play that features a protagonist who basically stalks a woman into submission. Ugh.

And what about pre-1980 Pulitzer Prize winners? Well I'd never heard of the 1977 Prize winner The Shadow Box by Michael Cristofer. According to Wikipedia, it is about:
a trio of terminally ill patients, each of whom lives in a separate cottage at a hospice facility. Each is being interviewed about the process of dying.
Sounds like a thrilling evening at the theatre. It was made into a TV movie in 1980, won a Golden Globe, and apparently hasn't been heard from again, as far as I can tell.

Plays prior to 1940 are really obscure. Does anybody remember Zoe Atkins? It turns out she's the great aunt of actor Laurie Metcalf, won the 1935 Pulitzer Prize for her dramatization of Edith Wharton's "The Old Maid," which was made into a movie starring Bette Davis in 1939. I've never heard of it.

Also never heard of Men in White by Sidney Kingsley (1934); Alison's House by Susan Glaspell (1931) - although I have heard of Glasell; Street Scene by Elmer L. Rice (1929); In Abraham's Bosom by Paul Green (1927); Craig's Wife by George Kelly (1926); They Knew What They Wanted by Sidney Howard; Hell-Bent Fer Heaven by Hatcher Hughes (1924); Icebound by Owen Davis (1923). Eugene O'Neill won for Anna Christie in 1922. He also won for Beyond the Horizon in 1920 and Strange Interlude in 1928 - mocked to great effect by Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers (see bottom of this post.)

And then there's Miss Lulu Bett of which I saw only the first half last spring before I ran for it during intermission. That won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, and I can't imagine how bad the competition was, if that's what won.

Here's what the New Yorker said about Strange Interlude in the February 11, 1928 issue:
Time was when, in his darling bookroom, the poet drew forth some dusty, gold encrusted volume and took therefrom the fairest tale to make the heart of his dream structure. Now, praise be, he yanks down a work on psychopathology and turns right to the case histories. This procedure has been followed by Eugene O'Neill in his "Strange Interlude" which the Theatre Guild is doing at the John Golden Theatre. As a result it has an interesting story, but it is the method as well as the manner of "Strange Interlude" which makes it so infinitely discussed. Mr. O'Neill has featured in his work that step-child of modern drama, the Aside. Long sent to sit in the ashes of despite, Mr. O'Neill has discovered the Aside to be the Real Princess. As he has proclaimed this discovery in a nine-decker play naturally people are talking.

"Strange Interlude" seems to be an interesting stunt carried about four acts too far; not much more important than that.

The fable is that of Nina Leeds, a neurotic, egocentric woman whose first lover is killed in the war before any consummation of their passion. After an hysterical period in which she gives her revolted self to several wounded soldiers in a hospital where she is training, she marries Sam Evans, a devoted Dobbin, in order to have children. After the marriage she learns from his mother that his blood is tainted with hereditary insanity. Wishing, for Sam's sake, as well as her own, to have a healthy child which she can pretend is his, she comes to an arrangement with Sam's best friend, Ned Darrell, to have one by him, in all impersonality.

To my shame be it admitted that O'Neill's humorless dealing with this situation yielded me several Rabelaisian snickers.

The impersonality slips from the relationship between Nina and Ned. Loving each other desperately, they are too fond of Sam to endanger his sanity with the truth. Nina has also an old friend named Charlie Marsden who has suffered for years from a bad mother-complex. He replaces her dead father in her affections. As the son who is born to her and Ned grows up, she is very nicely fixed with paternal, husbandly, passionate and filial love to draw upon at will - like so many labeled taps at a soda fountain. Even so Nina isn't happy and constantly plays with the idea of revealing her secret to her husband and marrying Ned.

Twenty years or so pass and Sam dies and Nine, being no longer in love with Ned (she has spoiled his life and so made him a rather difficult customer), marries old Oedipus Charlie who can transfer his complex to her.

An interesting story as I have said, but not nine acts interesting. The only excuse for a play to be nine acts long is that not one speech can be cut. "Strange Interlude" has the effrontery to be repetitious. There's very little of the splendor of falling in or out of love in it, and a great deal of the sourness of clinging to an unhappy and moribund passion. Mr. O'Neill doesn't take up different aspects of the story; he takes up the same aspect at different times in the character's lives.

There is a lot of phoney poetry to which Mr. O'Neill is giving way more and more constantly. One is assured, for instances, that "Life is" a good many times. But there I go again. I guess I've mentioned before that the only kind of secret I don't care to hear is a cosmic secret. "Strange Interlude" teems with them.

And now to get down to the beatified Aside. In purporting to give voice to the thoughts of his characters, Mr. O'Neill lays himself open to comparison with James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and the other stream of consciousness novelists. It is a comparison he can ill support. The turbulent stream of consciousness Joyce photographs so perfectly finds itself, in "Strange Interlude," confined to neat concrete containers which are far more like summaries of the momentary situation as Mr. O'Neill wishes one to understand it than like what the characters are actually thinking at the time. They create the impression that Mr. O'Neill has done the groundwork which every dramatist must do so much to his own satisfaction that he hasn't been able to rub any of it out, or that, unwilling to trust anything to his actors, he is trying to do their work for them too

Never has a cast less needed such assistance; for "Strange Interlude" is almost flawlessly performed, and has been beautifully directed by Philip Moeller. I'll just sound silly if I tell you how superb Lynn Fontanne is as Nina, how excellent are Helen Westley, and Glenn Anders, and Tom Powers in their respective roles. As for Earle Larimore, as the simplex, sensitive, inarticulate Sam Evans he is possibly best of all.

Up to the dinner interval they held me absolutely, but at the end of the evening, in spite of them, my principal emotion was a vast relief that I hadn't any longer to listen to the love life of that particular set of characters.

The captain is so amusing. Isn't he chahhming?