A strange interlude of meta-language

Today I give you three of the greats to whom, this week, I am bowing especially low: Eugene O’Neill, Carol Ann Duffy, and Leonard Cohen. And when I pause to wonder if they would also admire each other I think yes, I believe they would, although we can’t ask Eugene O’Neill any more. But I bet if he’d survived to encounter their work he’d have loved it.

I’m collecting these three artists in one post because I saw O’Neill’s play ‘Strange Interlude’ yesterday (a brilliant production at London’s National Theatre, catch it if you possibly can) and read a terrific article in the programme about the author. (And I heard Carol Ann Duffy on the radio by chance today. And Leonard Cohen? He’s a constant for me.)

(Digression begins. One of the very good things about the programmes at the National Theatre is that they always contain background articles that are worth reading. I remember arriving early for a performance of Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’ about 20 years ago, and was thus able to study the programme ahead of the performance. This good fortune enabled me to take the intellectual high ground at the interval and explain chaos theory to my companions, all because of an extremely helpful programme article which they hadn’t had time to read. Digression ends.)

The article in the ‘Strange Interlude’ programme is by Hilton Als, and its excellence will be no surprise to anyone who, like me, reads Hilton Als in the New Yorker. His comments on O’Neill’s use of language in dialogue are gloriously illuminating, and Als sets his theories against the background of his first encounter with the O’Neill biographies by Louis Sheaffer, and his own journey to Atlanta years ago to visit his mother. And it was when Als entered “the theatre of [his own] family” that he recognised O’Neill’s play as a “a world of meta-language in the form of soliloquies that contrasted with the ‘real,’ and banal language we used to presumably communicate with others as we talked about everything and nothing at all. Language is a mask….”

At the end of the article Als imagines himself unmasking his own response to ‘Strange Interlude’ in thought-dialogue (meta-language, in other words) to Nina [the play’s main character]. He says: “Nina, I have loved you for a very long time, all the way back in Atlanta when I was still a boy visiting my mother, wondering where love had gone and would it ever come again, and here it was again in O’Neill’s plays which glistened in my mind in the dark night …and you, Nina, splitting the night with your talk and O’Neill’s language, each expressing something about the artist, and his muse, and their respective, family-haunted hearts.”

And what you might be thinking by now, if you grew up inside any family at all, might be something like – well, yes of course. That’s families for you, no question. So?

Well, the “so” for me is that I now understand that this kind of meta-language – the language of hidden truths, of the human heart’s masked memories and desires, the language of love and loss and anguish and delight – that’s the language of poetry and music and song. The language that dissolves masks. And it’s something that both Carol Ann Duffy and Leonard Cohen do, as well as O’Neill.

Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry always seems to me to live without masks, especially in the poem I heard her read today on Radio 3, in a repeat of last year’s ‘Private Passions’ programme. The poem is called ‘Music’. I can’t reproduce it all because I haven’t applied for the relevant copyright permission, and I can’t find the poem on the internet so I can’t provide a link to it, either. (The link to the BBC’s website for the ‘Private Passions proramme, however, is this, which includes the poem as well as a glorious collection of music, and you can listen to it all there for 7 more days.) But here’s an excerpt from her poem, to be going on with.

When the light’s gone,
it’s what the dying choose,
the music we use at funerals –
psalms listed in roman numerals;
solo soprano singing to a grave;
sometimes the pipes, a harp.
Do you think music hath charms?
Do you think it hears and heals our hearts?

And Leonard Cohen? Well, he trades in meta-physical as well as meta-language spades, in almost every song he has written, especially in recent years. Especially this one.


Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love.

Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love.

Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
We’re both of us beneath our love, we’re both of us above
Dance me to the end of love.

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love.

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance me to the end of love.

And for your further pleasure, here he is singing it.

4 Responses to “A strange interlude of meta-language”

  1. Andrew Bell Says:

    Yes, three very wise choices. I agree. They are all brilliant. I like Carol Ann Duffy when she wheels out that arch humour that runs through many of her poems.

    My wife and I saw Leonard Cohen a few years ago in concert and it was magnificent.

    Sadly, I’ve only read some of Eugene O’Neill’s plays and never had the chance to see one in production.

  2. admin Says:

    How kind of you to comment, Andrew. It’s interesting that you should mention Duffy’s humour – it’s another link amongst the three of them: Leonard Cohen is often witty in his lyrics, and ‘Strange Interlude’ is packed with jokes!

  3. Michelle Elvy Says:

    Oh I loved reading this and was especially happy to come to the bonus video of LC singing the song you posted. Great essay here. Wish I were someplace near the theatre — sounds like an inspirational outing.

  4. admin Says:

    Thanks so much for that, Michelle!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.