Spasmodically during 1918 and 1919, O’Neill worked at the draft of another long play, Chris Christopherson, which George C. Tyler readied for production less than a month after Beyond the Horizon was finally scheduled. It failed lamentably, but at best it was an inept script, and one which can most satisfactorily be considered in relation to “Anna Christie,” the play it finally became, two years later. The important production was that of Beyond the Horizon. When it at last was staged, the fallow period came to an abrupt end, and O’Neill emerged as a full-fledged member of his profession. The Pulitzer Prize which it garnered the following year made his standing official.
Although it had a professional cast and was presented by a major commercial producer in an uptown Broadway theatre, Beyond the Horizon was at first approached tentatively. John D. Williams, once he could no longer look on the play as a vehicle for the Barrymore brothers, gave it little attention. He finally committed himself only to a series of three special matinees at the Morosco Theatre, where it was scheduled to play concurrently with the run of a successful Elmer Rice melodrama, For the Defense. Its cast, which included Richard Bennett, Helen MacKellar and Edward Arnold, was recruited from the Rice Company and from that of another melodrama, The Storm. Although hastily rehearsed and shoddily produced, it was nevertheless received with high praise from both critics and audiences. It opened February 3, 1920, and by February 23 it moved to the Criterion and thence, on March 9, to the Little Theatre for an extended run.O’Neill had sent the script to Williams in April, 1918. It had languished in the producer’s office until Richard Bennett discovered it and cajoled Williams into the trial production. Bennett’s contribution to the play’s success was, by his own estimate, extensive. In a letter to a friend, Felton B. Elkins, he suggests something of the scope of his labors. Elkins had sent Bennett a play hoping it would be brought to Williams’s attention. Bennett replied that Williams had promised to read the play but had not done so thus far. He continued:
Two months after the
play opened, he wrote again to Elkins expressing satisfaction in his
faith and his labors:
The extent of Bennett’s textual revisions cannot now be determined, but his work and his faith made theatre history. Although the play was so somber in tone, so unrelieved by comedy or melodrama that many reviewers predicted that it could never achieve a Broadway run, they were all immediately impressed with its quality, which in the United States had no precedent. The only American drama with which it was readily to be compared was The Great Divide, William Vaughan Moody’s melodrama of fourteen seasons earlier. In more contemporaneous theatre, St. John Ervine’s John Ferguson, which the Theatre Guild had staged in the spring of 1919, alone was comparable, but Beyond the Horizon was preferred to the British play as being of “larger aspect and greater force.”20 Perhaps the play seemed more impressive than it is. In retrospect, it blends into the landscape of many later works written by O’Neill and others; but in its time, it was a signal, the first view of the serious American drama, and the history of its reception is important.
Successful in understanding Robert Mayo, the reviewers were less able to comprehend Ruth and Andrew. Ruth was seen merely as a drag on Robert’s aspiration, a creature of instinct, who turned into a whining slut. Andrew, although he was understood as a complement to Robert, was not viewed as a dispossessed man, who, like Robert, is forced to seek salvation far from his native element. Significantly, in commenting on these two roles, the reviewers turned to a consideration of the performers, rather than of the characters, finding Miss MacKellar vivid and able, Edward Arnold too melodramatic to do justice to the play’s realistic style.
Satisfied with the play’s central character, its theme, its realism and its dialogue, the reviewers to a man found fault with the play’s structure. In effect, they sent O’Neill back to Baker’s classroom, objecting to the exposition as clumsy, and in particular faulting what they called a “chronic looseness of construction,” especially as it was evidenced in the division of each act into two scenes, one in the farmhouse, the other on an open road. The poor production perhaps occasioned their censure. In its original staging, the play ran close to four hours,23 much of which was spent in interminable waiting while the scenes were being shifted. Especially in Act III, the change of scene was thought to dissipate the emotional force of Robert’s death. Woollcott, who objected to the scenery as being painted “in the curiously inappropriate style of a German postcard,” took the play severely to task on this score, and other reviewers were no less outspoken. *
Despite the critical carping at technical problems, Beyond the Horizon made O’Neill an important American dramatist. At the time of the Morosco opening, his second long play, Chris Christopherson, was being readied for a March tryout in Atlantic City, and The Straw, for which O’Neill had the highest hopes, had been taken under option by George Tyler. In process also were Gold and a new work, The Silver Bullet, which was to become The Emperor Jones. The production, in short, was accompanied by a renewed sense of energy manifested not only in the number of plays O’Neill had in hand but also in an important development of his themes and techniques. The play seemed a work of a new and vital imagination, and its success was unquestionably valid. Certainly the play is the first major work of the O’Neill canon. It is fully characteristic. It is also a clearly “American” play, and thus an important “original.” Yet, as with many of the one-act plays that had preceded it, O’Neill relied heavily on the work of others for important seminal inspiration and general direction. Beyond the Horizon, like Bound East for Cardiff, is at once original and deeply derivative.
In 1926 in a letter
to Edward Sheldon, O’Neill acknowledged two important influences on
The debt to both
Sheldon and the Irish Players is evident in Beyond
After a stormy run in Boston, where Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World generated its customary riots, the players from the Abbey Theatre had come to New York in November, 1911, under the management of George Tyler. Riots were expected when the Synge work opened, and wisely the directors determined to hold back its production until audiences had had a taste of the Players’ quality. They opened, therefore, with a bill of short plays, including The Rising of the Moon and Spreading the News by Lady Gregory and a two-act tragedy by T. C. Murray called Birthright. O’Neill saw all the Players’ New York performances, and his general indebtedness to their quasi-poetic, yet realistic, style is important, if obvious. More particular is his debt to Murray’s play. His borrowing from it was extensive and continuous throughout his life.25
Birthright is a Cain and Abel story set on a small Irish farm owned by Bat Morrissey and his wife, Maura. Hugh, the elder of their sons, is to inherit the farm, while the younger, Shane, leaves to make a new life for himself in America. Hugh, in his father’s opinion, is less able to run the farm than Shane for he has other interests than farming. He is a poet, something of a dreamer, but also he is interested in sports and has become the village hero because of his skill at hurling. In sharp contrast to Shane, whose whole life is centered on the farm, Hugh likes dances and other forms of amusement. In Shane, Bat recognizes one of his own kind, but Hugh is alien to him. He feels that no one to whom the farm is not an entire way of life should inherit it, and, when Maura complains that he is hard on Hugh, he tells her what the farm means:
The difference in
the brothers is somewhat crudely dramatized. Hugh’s sensitive,
poetic nature is suggested when he disgraces himself by fainting while
shoveling a manure pile, and Shane’s affection for the farm is shown
by his concern for a mare who is the pride of Bat’s eye. When the
spectators at a hurley match bring Hugh home in triumph, they startle
the mare who shies and breaks her leg, despite what Shane can do to
calm her. The mare must be shot. Maura comments,
bitterly to the shooting:
Evidently, Birthright is a play that stirred O’Neill’s imagination deeply, and some aspects of his creative processes can be judged from the use he made of the play. He saw the play in 1911, and it provided him with the germinal plot idea for Beyond the Horizon, seven years later. O’Neill’s story of two brothers, one a poet, the other a true farmer, with the former due to possess the land while the latter must go to sea, is too close to the structure of relationships in Birthright to be put down as mere coincidence. Beyond the Horizon is a re-imagining of the elements of Murray’s play which by 1918 might well have been only a general recollection of a good plot idea.
The process, however, did not stop there. His imagination continued to feed on Murray’s characters. Some residue of its initial impact remained in 1924, when he wrote Desire Under the Elms, retelling again the story of the struggle of a farmer’s sons for the land. The long dialogue between Bat and Maura, in which Bat attributes his “hardness” to the qualities of the land is seminal to Ephraim Cabot’s great monologue on the same theme in the second act of Desire Under the Elms, and Ephraim, like Bat, feels that his wives were unfit to bear him the right kind of sons.
Years later, in 1935, it appears that when he was writing A Touch of the Poet, although by then he may have remembered nothing of Murray’s play, he found welling into his mind an image of an Irish peasant woman, waiting while her husband’s mare was being shot. In creating the character of Nora Melody, he may also have recalled how Maura waited for one of her family to return by keeping busy about the house during a long vigil in the night.
The evidence suggests that O’Neill had been so deeply moved by his first sight of the Irish Players in Murray’s work that the play embedded itself in his subconscious mind. A residuum of that emotion remained with him, letting half-forgotten images come to the surface whenever the connotative conditions were right,** and especially whenever he wrote of the land. Such a process may be no more than one of the usual processes of creativity, and, at its best, with O’Neill as with other writers and their “sources,” the germinal elements take radically different form and meaning when they are fully developed. Occasionally, O’Neill was trapped in slavish imitation, as when in Before Breakfast he imitated Strindberg and was caught less by a genuine commitment than by an intriguing concept, manner or style. More often, the process permitted O’Neill to respond emotionally and completely, and to re-see his source material in his own terms, as he did in his use of Conrad in Bound East for Cardiff and of Murray’s play in three of his major works.
To say that he
responded emotionally does not mean that he was incapable of
formulating consciously the “influence” on his work. What is
interesting is that he does not mention those works that, like Birthright
or Conrad’s tales, lay close to the center of his creative
impulses. Instead, in discussing the sources of Beyond
the Horizon, he casts back to an autobiographical experience.
The sailor O’Neill
describes is doubtless the same man who inspired the figure of Olson
in The Long Voyage Home, where
O’Neill first began to articulate the sense of a man’s
relationship with elemental forces. The thematic concept provides the
strongest link to Robert Mayo, whose connection with the Norwegian
sailor is somewhat tenuous. As O’Neill explained it:
The account of the genesis of the character is evidently aimed at public consumption. It shows O’Neill emerging as a public figure and capitalizing to an extent on his rough-and-tumble past. His ironic treatment of Robert Mayo as the victim of a “nice little poetic craving” is far from the way he is presented in the play. The uncharacteristic sophistication of the statement may well reflect the easy cynicism of such associates as George Jean Nathan with whom he had been corresponding.
In fact, Robert Mayo
is one of the many early self-portraits, and in describing him
O’Neill first uses the phrase that will become a significant key to
the description of his tragic hero:
In his lineaments, the faces of John Brown, the Poet in Fog, and something perhaps of Smitty, are to be seen clearly. Later heroes, all “touched” with poetry, will be cast in the same mold and will be similar in appearance. If O’Neill’s account is in any degree true, to turn his staunch sailor friend inside out meant that what he found as an opposite was himself. The publicity is little more than a mask, for in Robert Mayo, O’Neill explored his own truth.
In the play, O’Neill plunges Robert into a Strindbergian matrimonial drama, much as he had done earlier with John Brown and Alfred Rowland, and as he later was to do with other self-portraits, Dion Anthony, Curtis Jayson in The First Man, and Michael Cape in Welded. Ruth and Robert Mayo are shackled to one another in soul-destroying bondage of the sort that O’Neill had discovered in The Father and The Dance of Death. The primary effects are the same in Beyond the Horizon as they are in Strindberg. After the death of spirit, the man plunges toward physical death and the woman moves toward infidelity. That the tone of the play is not especially like Strindberg’s is partly the result of its merger with the Irish folk drama that supplied the basic narrative situation, and partly also because a third “source” somewhat diminished the Strindbergian overtones.
Legend has it that the title for the play came from a conversation O’Neill held with a small boy on the Provincetown shoreline. The boy wondered what lay “beyond the horizon,” and the phrase provided O’Neill with his title.29
Whether the anecdote
is true or not, any reader of the literature of the United States in
the first quarter of the twentieth century will recognize in the
title’s imagery what might be called the “Horizon Syndrome,” an
affliction that manifested itself in countless inspirational poems,
stories and short plays in precisely the way O’Neill used it—to
suggest boundless aspiration for a somewhat vaguely defined freedom of
spirit. To cite a single, potentially influential example: in
November, 1912, Edward Sheldon’s play, The
High Road, was produced in New York. It is the story of a farm
girl who is seduced by a traveling artist and leaves home. In the
course of her life she becomes a woman of some political
prominence.*** Early in the play, Sheldon gives full development to
the horizon imagery. The high road leads through apple country,
“winding like a ribbon,****
until it is lost in the far distance of the violet hills.”30 The
first act love scene between Mary Page and the artist, Alan Wilson,
provides an example of the inspirational motif:
Although O’Neill was clearly writing in a recognizable vein, Beyond the Horizon was rightfully received as a compelling original. As his first major play, it properly builds on all his most significant earlier work. His sense of a special relationship between man and his environment had emerged at the outset of his career in his perceptions about the sun and the fog and especially about the power the sea has over men’s lives. To this he added the relatively recent idea, derived in part from Conrad, of the power of hope to sustain men. Then, in depicting the details of Robert’s marriage, he drew upon his understanding of husbands and wives derived from Strindberg. Finally, in Robert and Andrew, he sketched the poetical self-portrait and its materialistic counterpart with which he had been occupied since Fog. What emerged finally was the memorable figure of a man “touched” with poetry, O’Neill’s true tragic protagonist. Robert was a man who was out of harmony with his environment, who could not “belong” and who therefore was condemned to live between hope’s eternal optimism and the inevitability of despair. Beyond the Horizon is thus a summing-up of O’Neill’s early years as a playwright; at the same time, the merging of his major thematic preoccupations produced a new structure which would serve as a base for further development. It is also true, as is often the case with the emergence of an important playwright, that the tragedy defined for its audiences certain formulations which they chose to accept as beliefs of their society.
In retrospect, the causes of the success of Beyond the Horizon are complex. To be sure, the play was a naturalistic tragedy in the modern mode by a young American playwright whose career had excited interest. Its production was a labor of love by important actors who had idealistically rejected wearisome commercial success as a testament of their faith in it. It appeared in a context of growing enthusiasm for the new theatre as an art form, and it was sufficiently well written to merit serious discussion. Yet, there have been equal successes under similar conditions. Jesse Lynch Williams’s Why Marry?, which won the first Pulitzer Prize in 1918, Zona Gale’s Miss Lulu Bett or Owen Davis’s Icebound, which received the award in 1921 and 1923 respectively, were in their ways equally impressive. Yet these plays are forgotten and Beyond the Horizon survives. It does so because, with great clarity and with the simplicity of a fable, its theme established a major tragic motif of American drama.
with nature has, of course, been a constant theme in literature under
a wide variety of formulations and interpretations. The concept of
natural man as being an exemplar of the good, or of reversion to
nature as indicating the brute in man, of man’s soul as being in or
out of tune with nature, or of man turning endlessly in space as the
victim of uncomprehending forces of his environment—none of these
has novelty. Yet O’Neill’s use of man’s desire to belong to
nature as the source of a tragic action was an important new variant
on an old theme. It was one that was to appeal to a great number of
American dramatists, following O’Neill’s lead, in the 1930’s and
1940’s, and it was to form a major motif of his own cycle on
American history, A Tale of
As developed by O’Neill tragic disharmony with nature is depicted most often in terms of private, personal loss in such figures as the Hairy Ape, Eben Cabot or Dion Anthony. Many of those who came after him broadened the scope beyond a purely personal focus to include social disorders and to picture man as a victim of suffocating societal pressures. Even here, however, from American authors, the explanation of the malady of both the individual and his society is the fundamental dislocation between man and nature.
For example, in Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest, the nomadic Alan Squier, after citing Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” explains that the poem refers to the intellectuals who have attempted to package nature. Nature, however, is hitting back, not through floods and holocausts, but through neuroses, and is “proving that she can’t be beaten. . . . She’s taking the world away from the intellectuals and giving it back to the apes.”32 Sherwood’s view of a blindly vengeful nature as the cause of the modern distemper prevails over all other indictments of society in the play. In Maxwell Anderson’s High Tor, the American is viewed as a stranger to his own land, a pessimistic base for a sweet-sour comedy. The action of Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted is interpreted by the commentary of a rationalist doctor and a simple country priest, but neither reason nor faith resolves the potentially tragic situation of the comedy. Instead, the grape farmer, Tony, whose capacity for simple charity and power of forgiveness are derived from his long-harmonious association with the earth, brings peace to the troubled relationships. As a final example, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman finds everyman’s problem to be caused by his divorce from the land. Willy remembers the grassy plains of the west, the music of the flute, the shadowy patterns of leaves, and his last action is the frantic, symbolic gesture of planting seeds in the sterile earth.
In the light of later developments, Beyond the Horizon proved a seminal play, establishing a theatrical pattern which endured for at least two decades. Inexpert as it was in many of its elements, in the whole it showed O’Neill to be a dramatist who could speak significantly to his audiences, by presenting them with a meaning which was accepted as an important truth, and in effect an aspect of national belief: that man will only be complete when he lives in a right relationship with the earth.
The cosmos of the play is equally divided between land and sea. If Andrew had stayed on the farm, if Robert had gone to sea, each would have held true to his essential nature and been able to live in harmony with the elements around him. The implication, therefore, is that Robert belongs to the sea and Andrew to the land. It is not enough to say that Robert’s longing for the sea is “too conscious, intellectually diluted into a vague, romantic wanderlust.” The phrase might have held true for Smitty, yearning toward the moon on the deck of the Glencairn, but Robert, in the cup of the hills, cut off from the horizon, is imprisoned, forcibly held back from joining the element to which he rightly belongs. His weakness and his romanticism are irrelevant; until he can unite himself with the sea, he can be no stronger. On land, the unyielding furrows are sterile, and, by the same token, Andrew finds no nurture at sea but travels unmoved to romantic shores, seeing only abused land. Andrew’s corruption is epitomized by his perverting the farmer’s instinct and gambling in wheat. Robert makes the point specifically: “You used to be a creator when you loved the farm. You and life were in harmonious partnership. And now—.” (161)
Andrew and Robert
stand sharply opposed, the poet and the materialist in the same
relationship as the figures had been set in Fog. The fact that the two, now, are brothers is suggestive.
O’Neill sees them—perhaps because he sensed in his relationship
with his own brother a similar radical opposition—positive and
negative images of what he called “longing and loss.” Despite the
gulf between them they are chained together, and, later, in more
complex plays he will repeat the same strange fraternal conflict—for
example between Dion Anthony and Billy Brown in The
Great God Brown and between the two halves of John Loving’s
personality in Days Without End.
In the action of Beyond the Horizon, there is no solace. Like the sailors of the Glencairn, Andrew’s wants are easily satisfied, but the source of his discontent remains unlocated. Robert, however, is different, for he is touched with a poet’s power of vision and is able to bring unspoken needs to a level of consciousness. He is able to articulate hope, to sense what lies beyond the farthest range of vision.
To be sure, in the play he does not frame matters in such terms. Admitting he is a failure, he says that he can justly lay some of the blame for his stumbling “on God.” (161) Yet it is hard to understand how God is to be blamed for Robert’s ruin. “God” in such a scheme can mean little more than such a hostile, “ironic life force” as destroyed the heroine of The Web. O’Neill, emerging as a poet, is no longer concerned with what is totally negative, as such derivative deterministic conceptions essentially were. To him, now, the real forces in the play are the powers in the sea and the land that, while they reject alien children, hold out promise of peace and harmony to those who truly belong. The promise is important. Robert claims it at the end of the play, mistakenly asserting that he has won it through “sacrifice”:
With these words he
dies, leaving Andrew and Ruth spiritually exhausted, “in
that spent calm beyond the further troubling of any hope.”
What Robert means by “sacrifice” is not clear. So that he can marry Ruth he drives Andrew from the farm, denies the power of the sea and proceeds then in a stumbling and incompetent course in a service, the land’s, for which he is not fitted. Ruth turns against him, their child dies and the farm fails. But Robert, who has made no choice beyond the initial determination, has not sacrificed, nor is there any indication that his death is a sacrificial atonement for his initial error. On the contrary, although his original action has caused suffering, his death is close to a blessing, both a release from pain and a reunification with the element that is rightfully his. Yank’s death in Bound East for Cardiff hinted at something of the kind. Now, it is clear, Robert’s death ends what Georges Bataille would call the “discontinuity” of his being.33 Discarding through death his individuating consciousness, ridding himself of the poet’s awareness of the need for belonging, he moves through death into the mainstream of continuous life energy. In Edmund Tyrone’s word, he has “dissolved” into the secret.Even if hope is not fulfilled in life, Robert’s destiny would be unlike that of the Glencairn sailors, restless denizens of a world they do not understand. Awareness breeds hope and its accompanying suffering. Yet for the poet such pain defines his end: in seeking to belong to the life force, he will yearn for entire forgetfulness, the relaxation of the tensions of desire and for the trustful loss of consciousness. Having been born, he is doomed to “discontinuity,” and, except in such transitory moments as Edmund Tyrone describes, when “the veil is drawn back,” he must live without belonging. Seeking to belong, however, suffering the lack of harmony, he will come to know, if not to achieve, his God, his home, his proper good.
* From this distance, it is impossible to reconstruct the pre-production history of the play in detail, but such evidence as is available suggests that Bennett may have called upon O’Neill to make drastic revisions in the structure of Act III. At some point after the opening, it appears that the play was staged without the final scene, concluding with Robert’s exit from the farmhouse and the quarrel between Andrew and Ruth. The program for the Morosco opening lists only one scene for Act III, the farmhouse, and in his précis of the play for The Best Plays of 1919-1920, Burns Mantle makes no reference to III,2. On the other hand, Woollcott and Kenneth Macgowan in their reviews of the opening matinee refer specifically to the difficulties in the division of Act III. It seems possible that after the opening, an attempt was made to telescope the two scenes, perhaps following a plan that had been accepted during rehearsals at a time when the original program was being printed. Later decision, after the program was printed, may have rejected the revision and the play was staged as written, while the program went unchanged. O’Neill’s comment on the matter of the scene division is instructive: “One scene is out of doors, showing the horizon, suggesting man’s desire and dream. The other is indoors, the horizon gone, suggesting what has become of his dream. In that way I tried to get the rhythm, the alternation of longing and loss. Probably very few people who saw the play knew that this was definitely planned to produce the effect. But I am sure they all unconsciously get the effect. It is often easier to express an idea through such means than through words or mere copies of real actions.” (Gelb, 411) Of a revival in 1926, Gilbert Gabriel in the New York American wrote that O’Neill’s stagecraft was better understood than at first: “We are used to his rondeau effects, we have accepted his reiterative chanties of fate as an artful and powerful dramatic means.”
** It is perhaps worth noting that when his second son was born in 1919, shortly after he completed Beyond the Horizon, he named him Shane.
*** In its general outlines, Sheldon’s play bears some resemblance to O’Neill’s scenario, The Reckoning, written in 1917. See above, 58.
**** O’Neill’s description of his first setting also calls for apple trees and for a road “in the distance winding toward the horizon like a pale ribbon between the low, rolling hills.”
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