Menu Bar

 

Commentary
by Margaret Loftus Ranald

"Anna Christie" was well received by the critics, and it established O'Neill as a major playwright, even more than did Beyond the Horizon of the previous year. Both plays were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in drama. Nonetheless, there were some critical complaints about the verbosity of the second act and the rather obvious dramatic contrivance of the fourth. O'Neill, however, was unhappy with the entire play, despite its success, because some critical comment insinuated that he had sold out his talent for a quick success and that the happy ending was tacked on as a commercial afterthought. He was particularly stung by that kind of comment and wrote at considerable length in the New York Times specifically denying the allegation. Later, when his plays were being collected, he wished to have "Anna Christie" suppressed, considering it one of his worst failures because he thought he had failed to communicate to his audience the serious meaning he had intended. In response to the "happy ending" allegations, he pointed out that at the end of the play Mat agrees with the superstitious forebodings of Chris, and it is this rather negative note that precipitates Anna's "Gee, Mat, you ain't agreeing with him, are you?" and the "determined gaiety" with which she raises her defiant toast to the sea. With similar foreboding, the curtain falls on Chris's melancholy musing.

 

Part of the reason that O'Neill was so dissatisfied with "Anna Christie" is that it was really a third draft of a play he had intended to be otherwise. The original draft, entitled Chris Christophersen (note change in spelling of the surname among drafts after O'Neill learned about Swedish surnames), had tried out in Atlantic City under the title Chris and closed in Philadelphia. A second draft, entitled "The Ole Davil," moves closer to "Anna Christie," but in that text Chris's gloomy premonitions are not taken seriously. The titles of the first and third drafts indicate quite clearly the change of emphasis the material under-went in the shift from Chris to Anna as the central figure. And certainly, one cannot really complain about the best feminine role that O'Neill had written up to this time. In Anna, O'Neill has portrayed a woman with courage and independence, to some extent a victim but at the same time a woman who has the courage to confront and even defy life.

 

This statement brings one to the sea, "dat ole davil sea," with which O'Neill had been preoccupied from his earliest plays and toward which he had a distinctly ambivalent attitude. The sea is for its followers a most jealous mistress, and she destroys those who refuse to follow their destiny in her company. In Bound East for Cardiff this aspect is particularly well shown, as Yank is destroyed (it is implicitly suggested) because of his disloyalty to the sea. Yet, in In the Zone (a play of the S.S. Glencairn group and another play that O'Neill subsequently considered a pot-boiler), the sea is for Smitty a means of escape and renewal to some extent. Even in O'Neill's first Broadway success, Beyond the Horizon, the sea plays a major part. In that play, Robert Mayo refuses to follow his destiny, represented by the sea, and as a result his life is destroyed. For Anna Christie, the sea plays the opposite role. She has been brought up away from the sea, and as a result she is rootless, unwanted, exploited, and unloved. It is only when she discovers her true milieu, the destiny of her family from time beyond memory, that she is cleansed. For Anna, the sea is affirmative, life renewing, even welcoming, curative, and loving. She willingly gives herself up to its dictates and accepts its premises. Therefore, for her the sea is ennobling.

 

For Chris, on the other hand, the sea is fickle, demanding, and hostile. He continually fights against its will and excoriates it for its acts. As a result, one can believe that his premonitions will indeed be fulfilled. Even Mat Burke, who glories in his strength as a stoker, is ambivalent about the sea at the end of the play, and Chris may very well have understood why, when he maintains that a stoker isn't really a sailor at all. Thus, in a moment of happiness, Mat's glimmer of understanding that the sea can both give and take away is important, particularly when one realizes that he and Anna were brought together as the result of the sea's will. Mat had lived through a shipwreck in order to meet Anna, but who knows what else may happen. In a sense, Anna Christie reminds one of Shakespeare's Miranda in The Tempest, itself a sea play. As Miranda gazes upon the denizens of civilization she says, "0 brave, new world, that has such creatures in it," to which her father, Prospero, replies with a caution: " 'Tis new to thee." Similarly, Anna, having discovered what she takes to be her true place, can drink defiantly to the sea "no matter what," because she sees herself a part of it, while Chris, like Prospero, cautions, "You can't see vhere you vas going, no. Only dat ole davil, sea—knows." The ambivalence between the sea as ever renewing, ever cleansing, and malevolently destructive thus quite clearly under-lines the conclusion of the play, so much so that it is hard to understand exactly why it was taken as a "happy ending." O'Neill, in a letter to the New York Times (December 18, 1921), maintained that the moment one mentions marriage, all listeners forget what occurs later; but Travis Bogard (1972, p. 162) makes the interesting comment that there is perhaps some doubt about which ending was actually used for the original production, the one customarily printed or that of "The Ole Davil" which does indeed end in laughter.

 

Overall, the play succeeds by its portrayal of the character of Anna, whose first line, "Gimme a whiskey—ginger ale on the side," is an actress's dream. To be sure, there are stereotypical characters—Marthy Owen, for instance, is a development of the "prostitute" with a heart of gold. To some extent, Anna is a younger edition of the same character, but her independence and refusal to admit of a double standard for her and Mat distinguish her from the rest of the sisterhood. And of course, she has also a symbolic significance within the O'Neill canon as a character who is not afraid to embrace the truth of her destiny, "no matter what," when she perceives it. Furthermore, Anna is reformed less by Mat than by her experience with the sea, and then by one of its denizens, the stoker himself. O'Neill does become rather melodramatic and contrived in his fourth act when he brings on a revolver and in so doing breaks one of the so-called rules for the "well-made play"—if a revolver is brought onstage it must be fired. Similarly, there is rather clumsy use of coincidence in both Chris and Mat shipping on the same boat for Cape Town, though that is not beyond the realm of possibility. Last, the curious interlude of Anna's religion seems a concession to humor rather than dramatic necessity, even though it does force Mat to trust Anna's word, without an oath.

 

© Copyright 1999-2008 eOneill.com