Menu Bar

 

Character Analysis
by Margaret Loftus Ranald

"JOHNNY-THE-PRIEST." He keeps a saloon near Street, New York City. His voice and manner "are soft and bland. But beneath all his mildness one senses the man behind the mask—cynical, callous, hard as nails." He is loosely based on the real-life character of James J. Condon, Jimmy-the-Priest, the keeper of a Fulton Street rooming house in New York City where O'Neill stayed after his voyage to Buenos Aires. Johnny-the-Priest also appears in the two preliminary versions of "Anna Christie," Chris Christophersen, and "The Ole Davil."

 

CHRISTOPHERSON, Christopher ("Chris"). The seaman father of Anna Christopherson.  He is short and squat, about fifty years old, "with a round, weather-beaten red face from which his light blue eyes peer short-sightedly, twinkling with a simple good humor." His mouth is large, partially hidden by "a thick, drooping, yellow mustache," and its expression is "childishly self-willed and weak, of an obstinate kindliness." His neck is thick, his arms heavy, hands freckled and hairy, his legs are short and stumpy and his feet large and flat. His voice varies between "a hollow boom" and "a shy, confidential half-whisper with something vaguely plaintive in its quality."

Chris comes from a family of seafarers in Sweden, yet he hates the sea because he perceives only its malevolence. He long ago left his wife in Sweden, and some fifteen years ago she came to the United States and left their daughter, Anna, with her relatives in Minnesota, where she died. Chris is glad that Anna has been brought up inland, away from "dat ole davil, sea." These words run like a refrain through Chris's character, and he blames all his misfortunes on the hostility of the sea. However, despite his detestation and fear of the sea, he cannot drag himself away and is currently the captain of a coal barge—a great decline for one who had formerly been a boatswain. As the play opens, he is living with Marthy Owen aboard the barge when he receives a letter from Anna saying that she is coming to see him "right away." Chris wants her to stay with him on the barge, and Marthy cheerfully says she will move on.

 

When Anna arrives, it is clear to everyone except Chris that she has been earning her living as a prostitute. Her father treats her as if she is quite innocent, offering to buy her sarsparilla and then port wine, when the audience has already seen her order "whisky—ginger ale on the side." She goes with him on the barge, and Chris is concerned because she seems to be falling in love with the sea—a fate he doesn't wish for her. As they are talking on the fogbound barge in the outer harbor of Provincetown, Massachusetts, four survivors from a wrecked steamer hail them. Three of the men are seriously ill, but Mat Burke, the stoker, has managed to survive in surprisingly good condition.

 

As Mat Burke falls in love with Anna, Chris becomes both angry and frightened. He does not want his daughter to have anything to do with a seaman, especially a stoker, whom he regards as less than a true sailor. He wants Anna to have a small home on land divorced from any connection with "dat ole davil, sea." He is firmly convinced that Mat is not good enough for his daughter, and he does his best to prevent their marriage. Once he attempts to fight Mat, but the powerful younger man easily disarms him of his knife. Finally, Anna reveals to both Chris and Mat that she has been a prostitute, information that devastates Chris and enrages Mat. After Mat leaves, Chris goes on a drunken binge and signs on as boatswain on a vessel bound for Cape Town, South Africa. He is at first so eager to kill Mat that he gets a revolver, but then he doesn't even buy bullets. Eventually, as he sees Anna's sorrow at Mat's departure, he forgives her for her past and begs her to forgive him. He blames the sea for what has occurred in the past and says that if she wants to marry Mat, he will not mind.

 

At the conclusion of the play, Mat and Anna are indeed going to be married, and Chris and Mat discover that they are to be shipmates on the voyage to Cape Town. Yet even in this moment of joy, Chris is troubled by his distrust of the sea. He believes that the meeting of Mat and Anna was a trick of "dat ole davil" and that she has more mischief in store for them. His gloomy premonitions even infect Mat momentarily, and the play ends with Chris still concerned with whatever the inimical element will bring. Even Anna's defiant toast, "Here's to the sea, no matter what!" fails to arouse him.

 

Chris is a character who was based on real life, an acquaintance of O'Neill who was drowned in New York Harbor, under circumstances which have been retailed differently. However, Chris is also a character who has affinities with some of the characters to be found in the S.S. Glencairn plays. He is one of those persons in thrall to the sea but always fearful of it and always rebellious against the total commitment that it exacts. His character remains constant throughout the three versions of "Anna Christie." In Chris Christophersen (produced under the title of Chris) he is given the signature tag of the song "My Yosephine, long time ay vait for you," and in the second revision "The Ole Davil," his continual repetition of the title and variants like "Dat ole Davil Sea," becomes tedious.

 

CHRISTOPHERSON, Anna. She is the title figure, for she has adopted this name instead of her given one. She is the daughter of Christopher Christopherson, the captain of a coal barge. When she first appears, "she is a tall, blond, fully-developed girl of twenty, handsome after a large Viking-daughter fashion but now run down in health, and plainly showing all the outward evidences of belonging to the world's oldest profession. Her youthful face is already hard and cynical beneath its layer of make-up. Her clothes are the tawdry finery of peasant stock turned prostitute."

 

Anna had been taken by her mother to live with relatives on a farm in Minnesota, where she remained after her mother's death. Her father, Chris, wished her to remain there so that she would avoid contact with "that ole davil, sea" which he considers a malevolent, destructive force. However, his planning went seriously awry because after her mother's death, Anna was treated like a slavey poor relation and was seduced by a cousin when she was sixteen. After that, she took a job as a children's nurse and was further exploited, so that she eventually began to work in a house of prostitution, was arrested, and later hospitalized. After these experiences she writes to her father and comes to New York to live with him under the impression that he is a janitor.

 

She is rather disappointed to discover that he is the captain of a coal barge but is reassured by Marthy Owen that her father is a good man. Chris is overjoyed when he sees her at Johnny-the-Priest's saloon and is so blinded by his affection that he does not realize her true occupation, something that the other denizens of the bar instantly note. She moves onto the barge with Chris, and by the second act of the play she has undergone a transformation because of her association with the sea. Her health appears to have returned and she feels cleansed, free from the evils that she had found in her life on land. For her, "dat ole davil, sea" is curative because it is clearly her spiritual home. Like all her male ancestors, she must follow the sea, and like all her female ancestors, she will marry a seafaring man. This is her destiny, and Anna discovers this in the course of the play.

 

First, she and her future husband, the stoker, Mat Burke, need to develop a tolerance of their respective past lives. He resents her having been forced into prostitution, and she asks whether he has been any better in the way he has acted when on shore. She attacks the double standard of morality and objects when both Chris and Mat treat her as "a piece of furniture." She needs another chance: "Don't you see I'm licked? Why d'you keep kicking me?" In her final reconciliation with Chris and proposed marriage to Mat she is returning to the primordial rhythm of her seafaring ancestry. She willingly accepts this destiny, because for her the sea possesses a curative, ennobling power. By living inland she had been fighting against her fate, and therefore she has sinned. Anna has discovered hope partly through love, but more through the healing power of the sea which has given her Mat, and has also prepared her to love him by showing her the futility of her former life. It is this emphasis on the power of the sea over Anna that makes her different from the conventional prostitute figure with the proverbial heart of gold. She is a symbolic character, one who seizes on her destiny, "no matter what!" once it has been revealed to her.

 

The character of Anna is the development of her role in two earlier drafts, Chris Christophersen and "The Ole Davil" (the latter an unproduced and unpublished version). In the first of these (note altered spelling), the emphasis is clearly on Chris, and the character of Anna is totally misconceived. Her mother was a clergyman's daughter, and since her death Anna was brought up by her cousins in Leeds, England. As a result, when she arrives by steamer (steerage), she has an English accent, has trained as a typist so as to ensure her independence (possibly by gaining a college degree), and knows nothing at all about the sea. Her transatlantic crossing has not shown her anything out of the ordinary. However, she has been unhappy with her cousins, who everlastingly spoke of farming. Obviously, she is distinctly out of place on the coal barge, and therefore her sudden discovery of the glory and magnificence of the sea seems a trifle unmotivated and romantic. It is also hard to imagine such an Anna wishing to take care of Chris as he is portrayed in this play. Even her marriage to Paul Andersen seems contrived and exceedingly romantic, despite its air of practicality. Paul says that he will get his master's ticket so that Anna can travel with him, but in Buenos Aires she wishes to remain "forever sailing here and there, watching the sun rise and sink into the sea day after day—and never do anything but love the sea." This sounds more like a permanent Caribbean cruise than the life of a seafarer as perceived by Chris elsewhere in the play. In effect, Anna is a most unlikely daughter for Chris because she seems to belong to a totally different social class, and O'Neill clearly recognized the problem because of the way in which he includes some banter about Chris's bad tea and his Swedish accent, which Anna tries at first to correct. One really wonders how and why Anna's mother had married Chris. O'Neill also has to devise Paul Andersen as an unusual character to preserve credibility in his marriage to Anna.

 

In "The Ole Davil," the emphasis changes, and though O'Neill tries to keep it on Chris, it has shifted to Anna. The major change in Anna is that she is now the prostitute down on her luck who is familiar from "Anna Christie." The circumstances of her early life have changed, and so has her social class; hatred of men because of her mistreatment appears here, as does her memorable opening line. Anna is also given a much longer conversation with Marthy Owen, whose character is further developed. In general, the character in "The Ole Davil" is that of the Anna Christie of the final draft. There are, however, some notable differences. At the end of the play, Anna does not take Chris's anger against "the ole davil" seriously, and neither does Mat Burke, the man she is going to marry. They treat the entire restatement of the theme as a joke, and the play ends in laughter and the mutual discovery that Chris and Mat are to be shipmates. Anna in this draft is also more practical than in Chris Christophersen, something that arises from her changed social status. She will get a little house somewhere and live on the money that Chris and Mat send her. Despite her background, this Anna is infinitely more independent than the Anna of Chris Christophersen. Her hatred of men is adequately motivated because of their exploitation of her, and so is her refusal to be ordered about by Chris or treated as an object by Mat. She has a sense of her own integrity which is reinforced by her cleansing experience with the sea. To be sure, this also has elements of the romantic, but it is better motivated because of the sordid nature of her earlier experiences. It is easier to imagine this Anna as the daughter of Chris than her prototype, and similarly, her marriage with Mat Burke seems better motivated and more suitable than the match with Paul Andersen. This second draft of the character is immeasurably superior to the portrayal in Chris Christophersen, even though O'Neill has not quite solved the problem of central emphasis. Quite clearly, the character of Anna is stealing the play, but in one way O'Neill makes no alteration: he always allows her a happy ending, though he always claimed that it carried tragic potential.

 

OWEN, Marthy. The live-in companion of Chris Christopherson on his coal barge. She is about forty or fifty with a "jowly, mottled face, with its thick, gray hair piled anyhow in a greasy mop on top of her round head." She is flabby and fat, speaking "in a loud, mannish voice, punctuated by explosions of hoarse laughter." She has some teeth missing and breathes wheezily, but somehow her eyes indicate that she has retained a lusty, gusty attitude toward life. She is dressed in a man's cap and jacket, "grimy calico skirt," and oversize men's brogans. She is a variation on the character of the prostitute with a heart of gold, but she insists that Anna Christopherson is wrong in her assessment: "You're me, forty years later." She quite willingly leaves the barge when Anna appears and takes a great deal of trouble to inform Anna that her father Chris is "as good an old guy as ever walked on two feet." She obviously has affection for Chris, but she has been buffeted about by life long enough to realize that nothing is permanent.

 

She also appears in the two earlier versions of "Anna Christie," and her physical description remains constant throughout. In Chris Christophersen, she is first discovered on board the coal barge, and she seems to have anticipated Chris's wish to be rid of her; and, as in the later drafts, they part friends. One interesting little touch which appears only in Chris Christophersen, however, is that as Marthy passes Anna on her way off the barge, she pretends to be a saleswoman of seafaring goods in order to save Chris from embarrassment.

 

In "The Ole Davil" her role is increased to almost the same extent as in "Anna Christie." She is now the expository figure who is used to explain to Anna what kind of person Chris actually is. This situation indicates the change between the two versions. The bar room banter exposition has been greatly reduced, and Marthy is used for this purpose, informing both the audience and Anna of Chris's past and his good qualities. With the change in Anna's social class and profession, O'Neill can now bring the two women together in conversation, and Anna can also use the occasion for an account of her own past. Marthy is obviously a "Tugboat Annie" type of character, as Frances Marion clearly realized when she wrote the movie version and insisted on Marie Dressler for the role.

 

BURKE, Mat. He is a powerfully-built young stoker of about thirty. He is about six feet tall, "his face handsome in a hard, rough, bold, defiant way." On his first appearance, he has just survived a shipwreck and has been rowing alone for the past two days because his three companions were too exhausted to help him. He takes pride in the fact that with his own strength he was able to defeat the sea which had wanted to claim them. When he meets Anna Christopherson on board her father's coal barge which has rescued them, he is overwhelmed with admiration. This affection speedily ripens into love, and at their very first meeting he proposes marriage, because he has had such little chance to meet "a fine dacent girl—the like of yourself, now." The two obviously have something in common in their love of the sea. Though he hates some of its aspects, Mat knows that otherwise he would be "digging spuds in the muck from dawn to dark." He is confident that with his strength he can meet all adversity.

 

What he is unable to meet is the shock to his idealism when he discovers Anna's past. He had said that as long as she had not been married to anyone else nothing mattered, but the knowledge that she had been earning a living from prostitution appalls him. Finally Anna convinces him that she has indeed changed, but he makes her swear on his mother's crucifix that she has not loved any other man but him. Anna does as she is asked, but Mat is concerned that the oath may not be valid since she professes no religion. However, he realizes that his love of and need for her are such that he must and will take her "naked word."

 

In the final reconciliation scene, Christopher Christopherson, Anna's father, gives his consent, and Mat accepts the fact that even if Anna is a "Luthers", " 'Tis the will of God, anyway." However, even this moment of joy is tempered by Chris's gloomy premonitions of disaster. Who knows what the sea will have in store for them—all their plans of children and living all together in a little home may yet be frustrated. This is the subliminal message that makes Mat momentarily fearful along with Chris. However, he "banishes his superstitious premonitions with a defiant jerk of his head, grins up at Anna and drinks the toast she offers: Here's to the sea, no matter what?"

 

Mat Burke is a true child of the sea, reminiscent of Yank in the S.S. Glencairn plays and the later Yank in The Hairy Ape. He glories in his strength, and in his powerful physical build he considers himself almost impregnable against the assaults of the sea. He has found his place! Nonetheless he has a softer, romantic side, as he falls so quickly in love with Anna, and a superstitious, almost reflective aspect when he momentarily agrees with Chris's fears. After all, their meeting was the result of a shipwreck, and the sea can also take away what it gives.

 

Mat Burke appears also in "The Ole Davil," the second draft of the play that ultimately became "Anna Christie." His role is essentially the same, but O'Neill developed his lines with more careful recreation of dialect/brogue. One curious little difference is Mat's reference to the alleged cowardice of the captain of the wrecked steamer as he prayed for help. He speaks of the ineffectual quality of the "prayers of a Protestant pup," a comment which foreshadows of the scene in which Mat asks Anna to what religion she adheres. But though the whole matter of religion is treated more fully in "Anna Christie," this fore-shadowing comment does not occur, and hence the situation is contrived. At the end of "The Ole Davil," when Mat and Anna are to be married, the young people do not take Chris's anger at the sea seriously, and the play ends in laughter. In "Anna Christie," however, Mat briefly shares Chris's qualms.

 

© Copyright 1999-2008 eOneill.com