Like Before Breakfast, Ile is the account of a marriage in which one of the partners is destroyed by the other. In Ile, however, the marriage is not viewed as a Strindbergian shackling of hateful opposites but almost with sympathy. Basing his play on a true story of a wife who had sailed with her husband and had lost her mind after enduring a long and hard voyage,21 OíNeillís play presents Annie Keeney as a fragile woman who has gone with her husband to sea despite his protest that a whaling ship is no place for a woman to live. She has dreamed of her husband as a Viking but has learned the truth of her romantic illusion when she is locked in an icebound sea for an interminable winter, surrounded by mutinous sailors and isolated from her kind and her comforts. Captain Keeneyís harshness is bred in him by the qualities of the ship which he must master. He can do no less than what he came for: to fill his ship with oil. Her plea that they return moves himóhe is no monsteróbut his acquiescence is momentary, for at the moment he gives in, the ice to the north breaks, whales appear and he goes forward after the oil. Mrs. Keeney escapes into madness.
Ile is unlike the Glencairn plays in that the sea is not intended to be the center. That the ice opens when it does is a matter of circumstantial convenience at best. What is new in this play is the driving action of Keeney, who superficially resembles a lesser and domesticated Captain Ahab. In Keeney, for the first time, OíNeill draws the character of a man who commits a decisive act of will. Except perhaps for Olsonís abortive effort to leave the sea in The Long Voyage Home, all of OíNeillís important characters had been bound, will≠less, incapable of decision, acquiescent to their fate. Keeney is a change.
He is not presented as the villain of melodrama. The portrait is carefully sympathetic, and the strongest possible case is made for his pursuit of the oil. His pride, his manhood are bound up in the drive; without the oil he is nothing, and, although she becomes an object of pity, Mrs. Keeney can be blamed for her failure to understand this essential characteristic of her husband.* Even so, his will verges on the compulsive and irrational. Like his wife, Keeney is not far from madness.
OíNeillís treatment of the theme is somewhat overstated, yet the direction of his exploration was essential. The question the play asks in the context of his other work is whether manís only happiness lies in acquiescing to the forces of his environment, or whether he has in himself the power to control or to defeat his fate. By thrusting Captain Keeney to the edge of megalomania, OíNeill answered his question negatively. All Keeney can accomplish is destruction, but in Ile, the answer is not yet complete. Will, here, is not set in a convincing pattern of destiny such as he wove in The Moon of the Caribbees. However, he was shortly to bring the two concerns together, and when this was done, the design of his early tragedy would be complete.
* Sheaffer (385) suggests that Mrs. Keeney is the earliest image of OíNeillís mother in the plays.
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