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In November, 1921, “plainly showing all the outward evidences of belonging to the world’s oldest profession,” Anna Christie, in the person of Miss Pauline Lord, entered Johnny-the-Priest’s saloon and spoke one of the memorable lines of the American drama: “Gimme a whiskey—ginger ale on the side. . . . And don’t be stingy baby.” (14) Only the year before she had first appeared on the stage in the person of Miss Lynn Fontanne as a respectable British typist, whose greatest oath was “By jimminy,” and who eagerly refreshed herself after the fatigues of an Atlantic crossing with a cup of her father’s scalding tea. Anna’s decline and fall was as rapid as it was remarkable.

The date was March 8, 1920, the place Atlantic City, and the play, then titled Chris Christophersen* was heralded by the Atlantic City Press. An advertising flyer puffed the premiere by stressing O’Neill’s achieved reputation, based on the success of Beyond the Horizon and on the recently published Boni and Liverwright edition of the one-act sea plays:

A new play by Eugene O’Neill, a young playwright who is already proclaimed by the leading critics of New York as not only one of the foremost of living dramatists writing the English tongue but as one of the most striking individual literary figures that America has produced in the present generation is announced by George C. Tyler.

Despite its publicity, the play was in trouble from the first. Personal problems prevented O’Neill from giving it the attention it urgently needed. During rehearsals, he had been ill with flu. In February, his father had had a stroke, and it was learned that he was dying of intestinal cancer. Shortly before the opening, word reached him that his wife was seriously ill in Provincetown and required his presence. Among the many medical demands, that of being a play doctor was not one he could readily fulfill.

In the author’s absence, Tyler did what he could with the script, cutting its sprawling length so sharply that the curtain rang down before 10:30. Nothing sufficed, and the play closed in Philadelphia. Plans to publish it were forgotten, presumably because within the year O’Neill was at work turning Anna from typist to trollop and in the process altering both structure and theme in the light of the perceptions that his work on Beyond the Horizon and The Straw helped to mature.

He produced three versions of the work, Chris, The Ole Davil and “Anna Christie.” The Ole Davil, when severely edited and provided with a new ending became substantially the final version of the play. Curiously, although “Anna Christie” was a success from the first, O’Neill reacted to it much as he had to In the Zone, mis-trusting his achievement so that at one time he debated excluding it from a collection of his best plays. In letters to editors and critics, he fought a long defense of the play attempting in arguments by which he himself appears to have been only half convinced to make it something other than it is: one of the few comedies in the naturalistic mode.11 Chris, on the other hand, was a play he liked in spite of its faults. He reluctantly gave up the old man as the central figure, and to the end, attempted to force Chris’s view of the sea as a malevolent force, an “ole davil,” onto the play as a whole. Chris was a character he understood, but Anna, when she emerged as a woman uninvolved in a Strindbergian matrimonial web was strange to his stage, and Mat Burke, whose power and confidence made him anything but a neurotic dreamer, was a figure altogether new. Writing as truly as he could, O’Neill let Anna and Mat find their way to happiness, then loudly announced he mistrusted their future. Remembering, perhaps, some of Baker’s enthusiasms, he fought his own sense that their marriage was a “Henry Arthur Jones compromise,” and he maintained that what appeared to be happiness was only another trick of the sea controlling the destinies of its children. He even tried to make evidence of tragic fate what is in the context of “Anna Christie” an inevitably comic point, the marriage of Catholic Mat to Lutheran Anna.** In short, he did all he could, in the final revisions, to make the play what Beyond the Horizon was, a tragedy of frustrated destiny, when, in fact, “Anna Christie” as it finally evolved reached a conclusion in the happiness and fulfillment essential to comedy.

Back of his dissatisfaction lie four matters which perhaps serve to explain why he never quite came to terms with the play. First is the memory of a play, Chris’s play, that he never managed to write. Second are certain conflicts of meaning in the play’s theme that came from his source material. Third are the defects in structure of Chris Christopherson. Fourth, his own ambitions—his correct, but perhaps too self-conscious sense of his importance to the American theatre that led him and his critics to consider facile and unworthy all but the most hope-undermining spectacles.

In his one-act sea plays, with a minimum of narrative, he had been able to reveal his sailors at a crucial moment when the sea’s control of their lives is felt strongly. His technique enabled him to portray men he had known with unusual verisimilitude. For such a play, Chris was excellent material. In his days on the waterfront, O’Neill had roomed with a man who was the original of Chris, a deepwater sailor who hated the sea, and who finally undertook to leave it. Yet knowing no other life, he was forced to accept a job as a barge captain, sailing the coastal waterways at the edge of the ocean. He spent his time ashore at Jimmy-the-Priest’s saloon, drinking nickel whiskey and razzing the sea. One night, in October, 1917, he fell overboard and drowned in New York Harbor.***

What O’Neill would have made of Chris’s death is clear from the Glencairn plays. Yank, Driscoll and Olson all hate the sea, try to leave it and are prevented from doing so. The story of the old deepwater sailor who became a barge captain, like the others, offered evidence of the sea’s way with those who seek to betray it. It was material ready-made for another one-act play.

In the first scenes of Chris, O’Neill wrote what was substantially that play. The setting, “Johnny-the-Priest’s” saloon, is filled with longshoremen, sailors and derelicts. If Chris differs from the others, he does so because of his energy, which appears now as drunken humor, now as an obsessive hatred of the “dirty ole davil,” the sea. Like Robert Mayo, Olson, and Yank, he hopes to live on the land, but, finding there no life, he has made for himself a crustacean existence, moving between land and water, clinging to his barge as to an intertidal rock.

Neither Anna nor Marthy Owen appear in the first version of this scene. Instead, there come two sailors, Mickey and Devlin, whom Chris had known when he was bosun on the windjammer, Neptune. They are dismayed to learn that Chris has fallen so low as to captain a coal barge. Had he deserted the sea entirely, they would not have blamed him so much as they do when they learn that he has chosen such a contemptible limbo. They tell him bluntly that he must go with them to find a “tall, smart daisy of a full-rigged ship with skys’ls—a beautiful, swift hooker that’ll take us flyin’ south through the Trades.” (18) Chris refuses their offer violently, and goes drunkenly home to his barge as the scene ends.

Here, in outline, is a one-act play about Chris, an adequate companion piece to the stories of the Glencairn crew. Add to what he wrote the news of Chris’s death, and the demonstration of the sea’s power to reclaim its flotsam is complete.

Although it was ready to hand, O’Neill rejected this play, probably because of his weariness with one-acts and his ambitions to master longer forms. In the beginning, this may have been the entire conscious motive for giving Chris a daughter and a different destiny. Certainly, neither Anna nor Mat formed part of the original conception. Chris and whatever he was to mean stood firmly at the center. Yet as he had worked through his theme in the short sea plays and in Beyond the Horizon, he perhaps saw implications of his concepts that needed testing.

The problem arose from Chris’s view of the sea as a malevolent force whose sole aim was to destroy those who came within its reach. To a degree, Chris’s view was like that which O’Neill had earlier expressed in the Glencairn plays. The sea was fate and a sailor could not escape its power, but that the fate was inevitably destruction, as Chris maintained, was less certain. O’Neill had said it was when in Thirst he described the sun as “the great angry eye of God,” and he had showed Olson’s end as a trick of the “ole davil sea.” Yet, in yearning toward the sea, Robert Mayo had found in it the source of his hope for salvation. Even though it was an unrealizable dream, was it a lure toward destruction? O’Neill’s own experience, as the words of Edmund Tyrone express it, had shown him that there were moments when being possessed by the sea was the supreme good for some men. Was the ecstatic identification of man and sea only an instance of man’s being possessed by a devil who cheats will by calling to impulses a man cannot control. Is it witchcraft or is it blessing? In Chris and the revision that followed its failure, O’Neill questioned Chris’s view and developed his own conviction that human beings could find happiness by living simply in the sea’s drift, empowered by its surge.

In Chris, the exploration of the question confounds itself in ambiguity. Anna comes to her father’s barge, cool, poised, ambitious. Night school, shorthand, college courses, a career are what she contemplates. Her father persuades her to take one trip on the barge, and she finds in the quiet, foggy journey a kind of peace, and senses in the sea a power which to her is strange but not wholly alien. Nothing disturbs her calm of spirit. Even when the barge breaks loose from its tow and drifts into the steamer lanes, she cannot think that the sea that has proved so unexpectedly welcoming will lead to her destruction.

Her belief is justified, for although the barge is rammed and sunk by the freighter Londonderry, Anna and Chris are rescued. Almost at once, Anna finds herself attracted by the handsome second mate, Paul Andersen. Chris, in a rage that Anna has fallen in love with a sailor, attempts to murder Andersen. He fails, and the play ends with Chris returning to the sea as bosun on the Londonderry, and with Paul, fired by Anna’s ambition, determined to study for promotion so that, exercising a captain’s privilege, he may sail the sea with his Viking bride.

The story was evidently inspired by O’Neill’s reading of such romances of the sea as Peter B. Kyne’s “Cappy Ricks” stories in the Saturday Evening Post. The excess of narrative alone destroyed any hope for a mood-piece about Chris. Indeed, after Anna appears, strong in her direction toward self-fulfillment, Chris can no longer hold stage center. His is a character defined by its lack of will, and if it is to be truly limned, he must take no action. Like the drunks in The Iceman Cometh, he must sit passively, complaining and doing nothing. His antagonism to Anna’s betrothal is part of his chronic hatred of the sea, but the attempted murder falsifies the portrait of the man O’Neill had known. Notably, Chris is so incapable of action that he must be goaded to attack Paul by a malicious steward—one of O’Neill’s few “villains.” Chris’s acceptance of the marriage comes as he crouches, strangely passive despite the knife in his hand, and overhears a long love scene. In the melodramatic climax, he is reduced to much less than the obsessed, brooding man O’Neill had known—the man who was ripe only for death. To force him as O’Neill did to violent self-determining action for the sake of his narrative is to betray his character.

Not only is Chris made less impressive than he should have been, but Paul is caught up in an insoluble dilemma. Paul, like Chris, is a refugee from his destiny. Both men had, in the seaman’s phrase, “swallowed the anchor.” Paul defines the term as meaning “to loose your grip, to whine and blame something outside yourself for your misfortune, to quit and refuse to fight back any more, to be afraid to take any more chances because you’re sure you’re no longer strong enough to make things come out right, to shrink from any more effort and be content to anchor fast in the thing you are.” (III,ii,p.6)

Paul’s contentment with his berth as second mate is his weakness. His job, like Chris’s barge, is an ethical tideflat. It lies between the responsibility of the officers and the physical labors of the crew. It is a peaceful world, where a man, freed of ambition, can follow the course of his life without pressure as a “citizen of the sea.” Anna’s love, however, fires him, as their impending marriage moves Chris, into a less phlegmatic pattern of action, and the play ends rosily.

Andersen’s phrase “citizen of the sea” points toward the conflicting element of the theme. Anna, like her later, fallen counterpart, has known nothing of the sea. Yet in the fog, drifting on the barge, she talks as the sailors talked in the first scene, urging Chris to return to deepwater sailing and to his right element. She, unlike her father, has neither fear nor hatred of the sea. If something happens, she feels it will be God’s will. To this Chris cries out in protest: The sea is not God! But as he speaks, the foghorn of the Londonderry is heard for the first time, and shortly thereafter, both she and her father are adrift, and Anna has met Paul Andersen. Clearly, although O’Neill has tied a heavy weight to an orthodox love story, his implication is that the sea is God, that its ways are not to be resisted and, considering the ending, that its ways are benevolent.

Anna and Paul share an identification with the sea, responding to its power as if that response were an inheritance of their blood. They, like all who are her citizens, belong to the sea and permit her to transmute her energy into will through them. Such citizens are necessarily will-less, but their drift is at the sea’s direction, and their reward is the special, elemental belonging that the worship of a nameless God makes possible.

Chris fails because its two central thematic conceptions refuse to merge. Is Andersen, as a “citizen of the sea,” to be condemned because he has “swallowed the anchor”? Is it not enough to belong in total identification with the God, or must one take arms against the sea as Andersen decides to do and struggle to shape an individual destiny? Andersen’s resolution is evidently makeshift. In the perspective of Beyond the Horizon and the desire of Robert Mayo to belong to a large elemental force, Andersen’s “citizenship” is not to be denied its value. Yet O’Neill causes him to renounce it, and substitutes instead—the year is 1919—a “go-getter,” dismissing his earlier considerations of the sea as a force of destiny with the easiest of compromises—the happy ending based on self-reform to gain the affection of a pretty girl.

Unsuccessful in formulation, the importance of Chris is its demonstration that O’Neill was attempting to think his way through the ethical and theological problems that his conception of the sea raised. Again, perhaps, he had been led into the thematic trap by Conrad. Both the belief in the controlling power of the sea and certain of the details of Chris’s portrait had been developed with assistance from Conrad’s stories. Paul’s dilemma is also Conradian in character. In The Shadow Line, The Secret Sharer, The Heart of Darkness, to name only a few, Conrad’s heroes are faced with a problem similar to Andersen’s, the necessity of making a moral choice, even of creating that choice should circumstances not readily present one. The simple life for them is to go with the sea, to succumb to the pull of the Congo jungle, to ride in the direction the element moves them. Repeatedly Conrad’s heroes pull back from this, sensing that without some firm, conscious moral commitment, they are less than they should be. External passivity is countered by internal moral action as a man seeks a decisive issue to prove his manhood and to resist the sea. Paul’s decision reflects a similar concern to take charge of his life and to reap reward. In O’Neill’s context, however, there is nothing of Conrad’s finely honed ethical tension, in part because Andersen is incapable of any but the palest moral perception, but more importantly, because O’Neill’s view of the sea had by the time he wrote Chris shifted away from Conrad’s.

In the beginning, he could accept Conrad’s metaphor of the sea as a mother, but at least by the time he wrote The Moon of the Caribbees, to belong to the sea had become an almost religious devotion. Although he could experiment with Chris’s view that the sea was a devil, in truth he felt that its force was God-like, or at least that by committing themselves to it, men came as close to God as life permitted. Conrad never went so far as O’Neill. The sea was the context of moral struggles to him, one which isolated, clarified and made them heroic. O’Neill, seeking the total commitment to life Edmund Tyrone describes, felt in the sea a continuity of being that in time came to form the basis for a theology of belonging.

Through 1920 and into 1921, O’Neill worked on the revisions of Chris Christophersen, and in the process brought the play into line with the concepts that had been set forth most coherently in Beyond the Horizon. In revising, seeking the simplicity of narrative of The Moon of the Caribbees and Beyond the Horizon, he eliminated most of the picaresque story elements—the ramming of the barge and all that followed. Then, to strengthen the mood, he darkened the play, and in an effort to bring the question of the sea’s power into focus, he put the sea into the title role: the play became The Ole Davil.

Certain hints for the new plan were perhaps derived from Edward Sheldon’s Salvation Nell, which O’Neill had seen about 1908 and to which he acknowledged an indebtedness.**** The first scene of Chris is a simple box set showing only the bar. For The Ole Davil, he needed also to show the back room where the ladies could enter. To accomplish this, he moved the barroom to one side and presented a divided scene, bar and backroom separated by a partition. This setting was substantially like that of Act I of Salvation Nell, also divided between bar and the “Ladies’ Buffet.” In its time, Sheldon’s setting was something of a sensation. Aided by his star and mentor, Minnie Maddern Fiske, Sheldon turned his barroom into a realistic triumph, offering an authentic Bowery bar on stage. The total effect was one of complete realism, and became a nine days’ wonder. O’Neill’s memory of it may well have guided him in solving a technical difficulty—that of bringing Anna on in the first act.

He may also have been caught by Sheldon’s sentimental tale of Nell’s rise from near-prostitute to the captaincy of a Salvation Army unit, which, while it is not at all the story of “Anna Christie,” still has points of contacts in the main line of action leading to a happy ending following reform of character.

Whatever the debt to Sheldon, the real influence on the development of The Ole Davil and “Anna Christie” was O’Neill’s own work in Beyond the Horizon, particularly the clarification he there made of his themes. In Beyond the Horizon, he had studied the effects of the land on a citizen of the sea. The frustration of Robert Mayo, his failure in both his life and his work, his death by consumption are all roughly parallel to the exposition of Anna’s career before she comes to the sea. The rootless, bitter woman of the first act is what the land has made of one who is the sea’s creature. Although she is unable to bespeak her needs, an inarticulate longing has pulled her toward the sea and the redemption it offers. With Chris, in the first version, O’Neill discovered that when a derelict, essentially will-less, was given motivation that caused him to take part in a narrative action, he must move up from the bottom on which he lies. He could fall no further. So with the second Anna. Conceivably she could have been brought lower. She could have lost Mat or, because she displays signs of tuberculosis, she could have died of consumption. However, such an end, in her case, would have offered one more dreary image of the wages of sin, and, since O’Neill did not think of her as a sinner, the point was not worth making. The real morality lay in her discovery of the sea, her purgation and her rise to cleanness and hope. Whatever the sea was to do to her was better than what the land had done, because she belonged to the sea, not the land. Redemptive and gentle, the sea is good and Chris’s view is wrong.

Chris is also refuted by the presence of Mat Burke, the Irish stoker devised to replace the Conradian weakling, Paul Andersen. For Mat, as for Chris, there was a living original. O’Neill depicted him as the powerful Driscoll in the Glencairn plays and, under somewhat different guise, as Yank in The Hairy Ape. “He was a giant of a man,” as O’Neill described him: “He thought a whole lot of himself, was a determined individualist. He was very proud of his strength, his capacity for gruelling work. It seemed to give him mental poise to be able to dominate the stokehole, do more than any of his mates. . . . He wasn’t the type (to) just give up, and he loved life.”12

Although O’Neill did not verify the identification, in his friend’s character lies the source for Mat Burke, more poetically visualized in his powerful love of life in “Anna Christie” than in the other plays***** Mat is a true “citizen of the sea.” In his energy, the thematic ambiguity that confused the portrait of Andersen is eliminated. Mat is like a personification of the sea, and he brings to crucial test Chris’s conception that the sea is evil. It is his voice, hailing the barge from the storm-swept open boat, that in the second and third versions answers Chris’s frightened protest, “Dat ole davil sea, she ain’t God!” His strength is comparable to that of waves and tides, and he glories in the power that enabled him to bring his shipwrecked comrades to safety by his sheer strength. His nature is defined by his instinctive belief in the power and vitality he shares with the sea. To his force, as to the sea, Anna responds, and he, in turn, goes to her with an instant recognition that she possesses the same cleanness and, in her way, the same strength.

So long, therefore, as he and Anna maintain the simple directness of mutual recognition and response, they find happiness. On the land, where alien forces have influence, they lose themselves and one another, until they are able by an act of groping but aware self-renunciation, to assert their love and come again into a right relationship with the sea’s force. Their quarrel and separation is land-induced, and only by a deliberate acquiescence to what the sea has wrought in bringing them together are they able to shape their destinies. By accepting one another, they go with the sea, perhaps to the quick, clean death by drowning Mat speaks of, but surely to happiness.

The ending of The Ole Davil, reducing Chris to a subordinate role, makes the point clearly:

CHRIS  (who has been staring at his beer absentmindedly, moodily with a sort of somber premonition) It’s funny—you and me shipping on same boat dat vay. It’s queer. It ain’t right. Ay don’t know—it’s dat funny vay ole davil, sea, do her vorst dirty tricks, yes. It’s so.

BURKE  (with a hearty laugh of scorn) Yerra! Don’t be talking! The sea means good to us only, and let you lave her alone. She’ll be welcoming you back like a long-lost child, I’m thinking.

CHRIS  (shaking his head: implacably) Dirty ole davil!

BURKE  (shouting to ANNA) Will you listen to the old bucko, Anna? He’s after putting up his fists to the sea again.

ANNA  (. . . laughing) Oh, for gawd’s sake! (119)

The Ole Davil ends in laughter, and Chris’s brooding is seen not as prophecy, but as the personal idiosyncrasy it really is.****** In this ending, too, the belief is asserted that one should not “put up his fists” against fate, but rather trust that the sea means no harm, especially to its lost children like Anna and Chris. This is the belief that makes happiness possible, but, oddly, it is the one that O’Neill repeatedly sought to deny, both in his final version of the ending, which gave Chris the last brooding word, and also in his subsequent published comment on the play, where he maintained that the play is only the gawdy introduction of an unwritten tragedy.

The final version of the ending returns the focus to Chris, after the lovers are united. Then, discovering that he and Burke are to ship out together, Chris says that “it ain’t right. Ay don’t know—it’s dat funny vay ole davil sea do her vorst dirty tricks, yes. It’s so.”

Burke agrees with him, “I’m fearing maybe you have the right of it for once, divil take you.” The two men lapse into gloom and stare out into the foggy night.

Anna protests, pouring out a round of beer and crying “Cut out the gloom . . . Come on! Here’s to the sea, no matter what! Be a game sport and drink to that! Come on!

She and Burke drink the toast to the sea, but Chris remains looking into the night, “lost in his somber preoccitpations” and muttering the curtain line: “Fog, fog, fog, all bloody time. You can’t see vhere you vas going, no. Only dat ole davil, sea—she knows!” O’Neill adds a stage direction: “The two stare at him. From the harbor cames the muffled, mournful wail of steamers’ whistles.” (78)

This ending is a compromise between the two possibilities explored in Chris and The Ole Davil. Chris’s dark mood colors the happiness of Anna and Mat and raises their own apprehension. Characteristically, Anna readily accepts the sea and its potential dangers, but the men are less courageous, more fearful of the future. Yet nothing here says that Chris’s premonition of trouble is real. At the core lies another truth: “You can’t see vhere you vas going,” a phrase whose meaning negates the possibility of prediction of any destiny and makes trust in the sea the only possible human course. It is by no means inevitable that the sea will betray trust or that the ending will be tragic.

O’Neill was pushed to his defense of the final version as a tragedy not only by his own uncertainty, but by many critics who found the play depressing, felt its narrative forced, but agreed with the comment of one reviewer that “It is to be suspected . . . that a story which so logically travels the path of tragedy has been tampered with in order to give it at least a hopeful if not quite happy ending.”13 The consensus was repeated in magazine articles in the ensuing months, and the ending was continually called “contrived” or “the worst anticlimax I have ever seen in the theatre.”4

In defense of his ending, O’Neill wrote at length to the New York Times, saying, “In the last few minutes of ‘Anna Christie,’ I tried to show the dramatic gathering of new forces out of the old. I wanted to have the audience leave with a deep feeling of life flowing on, of the past which is never the past—but always the birth of the future—of a problem solved for the moment but by the very nature of its solution involving a new problem. . . . It would have been so obvious and easy—in the case of this play, conventional even—to have made my last act a tragic one. It could have been done in ten different ways, any one of them superficially right. But looking deep into the hearts of my people, I saw it couldn’t be done. It would not have been true. They were not that kind. They would act in just the silly, immature compromising way that I have made them act; and I thought that they would appear to others as they do to me, a bit tragically humorous in their vacillating weakness.”15 To George Jean Nathan, he wrote: “The happy ending is merely the comma at the end of a gaudy introductory clause, with the body of the sentence still unwritten. (In fact, I once thought of calling the play Comma.)”16

Neither his justifying commentary nor his attempt in the play’s final version to give the three characters a sense of foreboding “that although they have had their moment, the decision still rests with the sea which has achieved the conquest of Anna,”17 was sufficient to turn the play toward tragedy. “Anna Christie” remains a story of love finding its way over parental and societal opposition, a fact which, in this context, testifies to the benevolence of the sea.

To say why O’Neill so mistrusted what he had done is not entirely possible. In his mind there remained the death of the Chris he had known—a death similar to that he had devised for Robert Mayo, in flight from the sea. Nagging, too, was the fate of the original of his Mat Burke. Driscoll, so full of the strength of life, had inexplicably killed himself, leaping overboard in mid-ocean. The mystery of his suicide was, by O’Neill’s admission, part of the genesis of The Hairy Ape. The death of the two men may well have caused him to feel that he had somehow betrayed their characters in devising different destinies, and that, since the play’s finished theatrical form did not coincide with the facts of his experience, the play’s philosophical pattern was, somehow, a lie.

Then too, at the time of the revisions, he was seeking guidance from George Jean Nathan, guidance he was attempting to follow both in general and specific matters. Nathan and his associates in the critical smart set looked with mistrust on anything that smacked of the popular theatre. Under his tutelage, O’Neill was ambitious for tragedy, impatient with anything that suggested a routine popular success. Conceivably this desire to turn the plays toward darkness led him to be wary of his conviction that men somehow identified themselves with natural forces, sometimes to the point of entire commitment. At this point in his development, the dissolution Edmund Tyrone seeks was only a matter of sensibility, lacking any firm basis in philosophical or theological doctrine. As a formulated philosophy, when he came to accept the idea of a Dionysian immersion in life as Nietzsche extolled it, the belonging he sought to describe in both “Anna Christie” and Beyond the Horizon became something more philosophically trustworthy than a “vague romantic wanderlust” or the ephemeral response to the sea felt by a lost girl on a fogbound barge.

Yet what O’Neill did in the final version of his comedy-in-spite-of-itself was to set forth positively what Beyond the Horizon had stated by negative implication: that men are by a quality in their blood united with a vital force that is their origin and end. Taking many forms, called by many names, the force gives men their identity and integrity, and it is the source of their power. To belong to it completely is to know fully happiness and peace, and once man has sensed the possibility of such unity, belonging becomes the end of his questing. Sometime, tragically, men refuse their destinies, and fight against being possessed. They seek identity in separation, in nay-saying, in flight from their source, and they make their lives disastrous because they attempt to live against the lines that the impulses in their blood have charted. Among the characters in O’Neill’s early plays, only Mat and Anna trust the divinity to which they belong and willingly live out the full course of their fate without rebellion. For them it is enough to trust. To belong to one another is to belong to the sea, and in that, although he fought the conclusion through three versions, O’Neill could not finally deny there is happiness.

* The short title, Chris, is used in the early reviews and by O’Neill in most of his references to the play. The spelling of the family name was changed to the Swedish form, “Christopherson” in the second version, The Ole Davil. The play was originally called Tides.

** In The Ole Davil, Anna is converted to Catholicism.

*** Cf. Sheaffer, 202. O’Neill told a more theatrical story describing how Chris stumbled home from the saloon on Christmas Eve, fell to the ice as he tried to board his barge and froze to death. While Chris undoubtedly had a counterpart among O’Neill acquaintances, he also has a literary progenitor in Captain Harry Hagberd in Conrad’s Tomorrow. Hagberd was a retired coasting skipper who had never taken to the sea and pursued his calling within sight of the land. Describing him, Conrad wrote “Many sailors feel and profess a rational dislike for the sea, but his was a profound and emotional animosity—as if the love of the stabler element the land had been bred into him through many generations.” When it became possible, he left the sea and did what he could to prevent his son from becoming a sailor. Of his son’s hoped for return from the sea, he says “ ‘ . . . the sea can’t keep him. He does not belong to it. None of us Hagberds ever did belong to it.’ Cf. Conrad, Tomorrow, 249, 251.

**** In his review of “Anna Christie,” Kenneth Macgowan compared Pauline Lord’s performance to that of Mrs. Fiske as Nell. Cf. the New York Globe, Nov. 3, 1921.

***** Captain Hagberd’s son in Conrad’s Tomorrow displays some of the restless energy and powerful self-assurance of Mat Burke. He says at one point that he should have been born “in the open, upon a beach, on a windy night,” and sings the “Song of the Gambucinos. . . . The song of restless men. Nothing could hold them in one place—not even a woman.”

****** There is perhaps some doubt which ending was used in the original production, that of The Ole Davil or of the script as printed. Reviewers speak of the action ending in laughter, which is the ending of The Ole Davil, not “Anna Christie.”


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