A Strange Interlude for television

5th June 2013

Eugene O’Neill’s remarkable play Strange Interlude opened at the National Theatre today to some strong reviews. Michael Billington for the Guardian praises the ‘excellent’ production (directed by Simon Godwin) and awards the evening 4 stars. Even at three hours twenty minutes, it’s well worth seeing, with some great performances (including from . Moreover, productions of the play come along comparatively rarely – the last on the London stage was in 1985. Which makes it all the more remarkable that back in 1958 there was a BBC Television production shown in peak-time on two Sunday evenings. In September last year I wrote about this production for the Screen Plays: Stage Plays on British Television blog and I am taking advantage of the National Theatre success to post a slightly revised version here.

In the first three months of 1958 BBC Television presented a series of plays under the title World Theatre. (There is some uncertainty about whether the formal title is World Theatre, which appears on the screen, or Television World Theatre, which is how many contemporary reviewers refer to the series.) This series contains what must be the most adventurous – some might say eccentric, or even obscure – choice of theatre plays that the medium has ever embraced.

My Screen Plays colleague Amanda Wrigley has posted here and here about one of the presentations from this strand, Euripides’ Women of Troy, and I discussed another, Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House. For each of those productions, only a partial recording is preserved in the archives, but Eugene O’Neill‘s Strange Interlude exists, in two parts, at a full duration of more than three hours (on stage it can last for five or more). It is a truly remarkable – although far from entirely successful – production, using voice-over by the characters in a way that I suspect is unique in television drama.

Among the other dramas in the World Theatre series were the familiar Henry V (which survives) and The Cherry Orchard (lost), but there were also presentations of The Captain of Koepenick by Carl Zuckmayer, in a Rudolph Cartier production (lost); Christopher Fry‘s The Dark is Light Enough, with Edith Evans, for whom the author had written the play (lost); The Judge by H. C. Branner (this production too is lost, and the link is to Wikipedia in Danish, and so probably requiring the ‘translate’ function); Jean Giraudoux‘s Amphitryon ’38 (lost); and Nikolai Gogol‘s The Government Inspector, starring Tony Hancock (again, this survives and is being digitised for viewing). Strange Interlude was the climax to the season, broadcast in two ninety-minute-plus episodes on the consecutive Sunday evenings of 23 and 30 March 1958.

O’Neill’s prize-winning play

First performed in 1928 (although apparently completed in 1923), Strange Interlude was the play that won O’Neill the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The cornerstone of a four- (or five-)way love tussle is Nina, a professor’s daughter in New England who at the start is mourning the loss of her fiancé during the recent war. She is courted by the older Charles, has an affair with a passionate doctor, Ned, and marries the hearty but ineffectual Sam, whose mother confides is likely to be afflicted by the family’s hereditary insanity.

The time-scale stretches across more than twenty-five years, during which Nina’s son – the father is Ned, but Sam believes the boy to be his – grows up and leaves home with his own fiancé. As such a schematic description suggests, there are elements of Ibsen-like realism here, but there is also an explicitly poetic and mystical quality. For much of the time, the relationships twist and turn at breakneck speed, and yet  the hurtling, manic quality of the changing attitudes creates an unquestionable power.

Richard Burland and Malcolm Bradbury in their From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature offer a useful characterisation of O’Neill’s drama – and of his influence:

Many of O’Neill’s experiments have come to seem dated and forced, but his reputation as a dramaturgic pioneer seems secure. Like the European masters he admired [these included both Ibsen and Strindberg], he worked to open the range and possibility of dramatic discourse. His language is often clumsy and his thinking the urgent profundities of the autodidact, but he took the opportunity of staged thought more seriously than any American ever had… (New York: Penguin, 1992, p. 329)

The key experiment in Strange Interlude is that for perhaps half of the long play the characters are speaking their thoughts as interior monologues. Yet unlike the modernist experiments with fragmentary stream-of-consciousness in, say, the more-or-less contemporary sequence of novels Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford, these monologues are logical and linear. On stage, apparently, this is achieved by the actor simply speaking them with a different pitch or tone, which must be complex enough, especially in certain comparatively rapid exchanges.

An innovative television technique

Strange Interlude, from The Listener
On television, it might have been imagined that the characters could speak similarly directly into the camera, but director John Jacobs chose to record this interior track as voice-over, and to alternate in the drama between the characters speaking in the normal way and having reflective ‘silent’ shots over which the voice-over is played.

Although initially surprising, the technique quickly becomes entirely acceptable – and it helps the play achieve a remarkable sense of interiority. There is even a sense that, as the anonymous critic for The Times wrote that the transmission of the first part revealed the play ‘for the first time in its proper medium […] the interior monologue exploits the medium’s most potent asset – exact delineation of the act of thought’. (‘BBC Television: Strange Interlude’, 24 March 1958, p. 3)

A caption at the end of each part confirms that the production was made as a telerecording – that is, scenes were shot ‘as live’ with multiple cameras and the mix was preserved on 16mm film by a camera shooting directly at a monitor. Interestingly, in the only such journalistic comment about the telerecording technique I have yet come across, the critic for the Guardian wrote, ‘It is a pity that the production has to be a telerecording, for the quality is poor, and this gives the scene the look of a second-rate film and is a distinct drawback.’ (Anon., ‘Television notes: O’Neill still compelling’, 24 March 1958, p. 7) I think I had assumed before this, that the inferior quality of a telerecording would not have been noticeable on the small monochrome sets of the time, but this is clearly not the case.

Diane Cilento as the young Nina

William Sylvester and Diane Cilento at the end of the drama

Recording each of the main scenes individually, and joining them together by film edits, also meant that significant costume and make-up changes, as the characters age, could be managed. But at this date it must have been a considerable technical challenge to play, as I assume was done, the numerous ‘voice-over recordings’ into the as-live production. For it seems highly unlikely that sound mixing at the time would have been sufficiently sophisticated to allow this to be achieved in post-production, and in any case the timings and cues are precise enough to indicate that the actors in the studio can hear the thoughts of themselves and each of the others.

As the critic for The Times observed,

Once the idiom had lost its experimental obtrusiveness one became aware of the variety of dramatic purposes it is made to serve; it acts as an ironic contradiction of the surface dialogue; as soliloquy; and it enables two characters with a secret to communicate in the presence of a third. (‘BBC Television: Strange Interlude’, 24 March 1958, p. 3)

Other aspects of the drama

I can think of no other television drama, whether previously written for the stage or not, that has used extensive voice-over in any comparable manner. In other ways the production for television is comparatively conventional, with cramped sets and three-camera coverage that frequently makes use of developing long takes, some of which exceed two minutes from the same camera.

The performances too, while occasionally reaching for a heightened intensity, have the intimate pitch of most television drama. The three central men are played by Noel Willman, who is the older, fussy Charles Marsden, and who was in 1962 to direct the acclaimed Broadway production of Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons with Paul Schofield; by William Sylvester, who is the handsome, steadfast doctor Ned Darrell, and is most familiar to us now as Dr Heywood Floyd in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; and David Knight, who is the hapless husband Sam Evans.

The central role of Nina is taken by Diane Cilento who, as a title card at the end of the closing credits of each part makes clear, ‘appears by permission of British Lion Film Ltd’. She had been signed to British Lion by Alexander Korda in 1955 and had by 1958 achieved considerable success both in films and on the stage. Ivor Brown in The Listener was most taken with Ms Cilento’s performance, despite the shortcomings of the role:

[She] brought great intensity, as well as great beauty, to the agonising of Nina. But nobody, I fancy could wholly recommend the desperate lady to our sympathies. At times she is more tiresome than tragic. (‘Sealed lips’, 27 March 1958, p. 554)

Glenda Jackson played Nina on the only other occasion on which television has tackled Strange Interlude. Directed by Herbert Wise, a 1988 mini-series was based on a stage production of three years previously. This was made for the PBS series American Playhouse and for Channel 4 in Britain. As can be seen in (presumably unauthorised) excerpts on YouTube, including here and here (with Kenneth Branagh in the small part of the grown-up son, Gordon), the actors apparently speak the interior elements as if they are performing them on stage. I have not yet been able to locate a full copy of this but, especially following the BBC version, I am very keen to see it. There is also a 1932 film with Norma Shearer and Clark Gable.

Two footnotes that I found intriguing about the 1958 production: one is that the director, John Jacobs, was in 1964 to become Head of Drama at Anglia Television, succeeding the BBC pioneer George More O”Ferrall.  The other is that, unbelievable as it may now seem, twenty minutes of the second part of Strange Interlude clashed with the simultaneous broadcast of another Eugene O’Neill drama, The Emperor Jones, produced by Ted Kotcheff for ABC’s series Armchair Theatre on ITV!

Lead image: Anne-Marie Duff (Nina Leeds) and Charles Edwards (Charles Marsden) in the new National Theatre production. Photo by Johan Persson.

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