Experimental Form

Posted by on April 24, 2012 in culture | Comments Off on Experimental Form

Last weekend, we attended a production of Eugene O’Neill’s play Strange Interlude at the Shakespeare Theatre.  The play is relatively early O’Neill – it was finished in 1923 and first produced in 1928.  It tells the story of a woman, Nina, who loses her fighter-pilot fiance two days before the World War I armistice and who spends the rest of her life trying to recapture the perceived perfection of her life with the dead man.

As written, the play runs 5 hours; it was originally performed with an intermission dinner break.  The production I saw was cut to 3 hours 20 minutes (plus two intermissions.)  The play is structured somewhat oddly — there are 9 “scenes” (rather than acts), corresponding to the nine months of human gestation.

But the most noteworthy aspect of Strange Interlude is its narrative form:  Each actor speaks his or her lines (as in a normal play), and each actor also speaks his or her thoughts.  In this performance there was no visual or aural distinction between what was dialog and what was thought; for the most part, though, that was made clear.

The effect was … interesting.  So much of what we perceive as acting is the conveyance of emotio; we’re accustomed to studying an actor’s face, body language, and tone to decipher how his/her character feels about something.  In this play, the actor states those underlying emotions explicitly:  “I hate him.  I think he’s fake and phony.  Hello there, how are you today?”

At times, the effect is comic.  (The strongest laugh line in the play was one character saying/thinking, “What am I doing here?” — a sentiment apparently echoed by a lot of the audience.)

But at times, the effect is enervating.  We hear someone think about something, then say that something.  A number of the lines feel doubled up, repeated unnecessarily.

And yet, I find myself intrigued by the form.  I wonder how it would work in a short story — we often already provide some of the interior monologue, but to reproduce all of it like that…  I’d never try it for more than a short story — essentially this is a gimmick, and most gimmicks get boring after a short time.  (At 3 hours, 20 minutes, the play was too long, by at least half an hour.  I can’t imagine how I would have felt about the 5 hour version!)

So — we arrive, at last, at a question:  What novels or short stories have you read that experiment with form?  And do you think those experiments were successful?

Mindy, musing.  Or maybe just procrastinating, because it’s time to start outlining a new novel…