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In Warnings and Abortion, O’Neill hangs indecisively between two conceptions of fate, the one a consequence of social determinism, the other the product of psychological forces moving within the individual. The same tension is apparent in Fog, but in this play an explanation for the disjuncture is that Fog is the first “autobiographical” play. Here, for the first time, O’Neill gives way to his impulse to use the stage for self-portraiture, turning away from the explanation of human misery in the world to seek it in melancholy personal introspection.

Fog, like Warnings, is a sea tale, presented this time not realistically, but in a manner reminiscent of Strindberg’s symbolical plays. It tells of a Poet, a Business Man and a Peasant Woman drifting in a lifeboat on a fog-shrouded sea. The woman, who does not speak during the play, clutches her dead child. An ocean liner is on the way to rescue them, but as they hear its whistle, the lifeboat scrapes against the side of an iceberg. Fearing that the rescuers will themselves collide with the ice, the Poet prevents the Business Man from crying out for help. Ultimately the rescuers are guided safely through the fog by the miraculous crying of the dead child. As the castaways move toward the rescuers, they discover that the child’s mother, too, has died. At this point, the Poet turns back, and as the play ends, sits silently watching the dead with “eyes full of a great longing.”

Evidently conditioned by the uproar following the sinking of the Titanic a year before its writing, the play manages to project some of the reality of the situation. Its most notable achievement, however, is in the creation of an atmosphere appropriate to the supernatural conclusion. At curtain, the boat with its passengers looms darkly through the fog, “A menacing silence, like the genius of the fog, broods over everything,”  and, as the action progresses, a pale dawn accentuates the solitude of the figures. The iceberg, when it appears, is like “some horrible phantom of the sea.”  With such scenic effects, O’Neill’s imagination reaches beyond the capacities of any stage that might have been available to him, yet he is clearly justified in doing so by the use he makes of the setting. As he did in A Wife for a Life, he here tries to make it an integral part of his theme. The entire success of the play depends on the establishment of the mood of the sea, the fog and the ice. That mood, in turn, appears to have been sensed from a reading of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner.

In 1924, O’Neill was to adapt Coleridge’s poem for the Province-town stage. It was an unsuccessful, belated reflection of his youthful admiration for the work. Fog, borrowing Coleridge’s images of mist and snow and “ice, mast-high,” is perhaps more responsive than the later play to the Coleridgean mood. Coleridge’s recreation of the sea’s mystery enables O’Neill to project something of the inner quality of the experience he is narrating, and to create an appropriate setting for his death-ridden Poet.

Against the haunted background and in the midst of the miraculous action,* however, the dialogue of the two men sounds out-of-key. It is oddly Shavian in its subject if not its tone. The Poet takes the view that the death of the child is for the best:

Could you conscientiously drag him away from that fine sleep of his to face what he would have to face? . . . The child was diseased at birth, stricken with a hereditary ill that only the most vital men are able to shake off. . . . I mean poverty—the most deadly and prevalent of all diseases. (88)

He suggests that all men are responsible for the miserable condition of humanity, a position which the Business Man quickly rejects. The Business Man is no more than a cartoon, and the Poet’s arguments annoy him without touching him. At the end, after he has displayed his craven nature by attempting to hail the approaching steamer, he is allowed to pass from the action, puzzled by the mystery of the child’s cry, but essentially unshaken in his position. His arguments for capitalism have had no substance, his character no force in the play.

The Poet’s arguments, clichés that they are, gain little from the lack of significant opposition, yet it is not the quality of the argument that matters. Burdened with a sense of the futility of human life and the ineffectiveness of social remedy, he turns to the dead, longing for death like Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh, because of his discouragement with social causes. The Poet’s death wish, however, is not really explicable on the basis of the discussion which has preceded its appearance. It is a private emotion, the result of complexities of personality rather than a result of social despair. Even as he speaks his stock radical phrases, he reveals a personal revulsion against life. The play would have it otherwise, but the Poet seeks death because of what he, not the world, is.

The poet who first emerges here is to reappear frequently in O’Neill’s dramas, and it is well to look at his face. It is an oval face, “with big dark eyes and a black mustache and black hair pushed back from his high forehead.”  Photographs from this period make clear that these features, especially the dark eyes, the mustache and high forehead were the notable attributes of O’Neill’s own face. The temperament and the views similarly reflect the mixture of radicalism and romanticism that O’Neill possessed and recapitulated in the self-caricaturing portrait of Richard Miller in Ah, Wilderness!

Such identification in so slight an instance is difficult to substantiate, and, were it not for O’Neill’s known habits of self-portraiture in central roles in his later dramas, the suggestion would be untenable. In Fog, there are no biographical details of the Poet’s life provided that may be compared with the facts of O’Neill’s life. Yet the poet who dreams on death appears so regularly in the O’Neill canon, and in the end is drawn in such complete and identifiable detail, that this early anticipation of the later self-images may be taken as the first of the many dramatic projections of O’Neill’s self.

Gratification of an autobiographical impulse perhaps explains why a tension exists between the social criticism and the mysterious, quasi-poetical exploration of death. The first is simply something to talk about until the significant action develops with the coming of the rescue ship. The second, to whose reality the details of scenery, the mood and the personality of the one vital character contribute, is more eloquent. Melancholy, unmotivated longing for easeful death is the heart of the play. Originally generated in his reading of the poems of Dowson and Swinburne, the poets dearest to O’Neill’s most unambiguous self-portraits, Edmund Tyrone and Richard Miller, and colored by the dark response to life which many adolescents hold as they come alive to the world about them, the desire for death was yet to O’Neill more than a mawkish pose.

By drawing himself as the Poet in Fog, O’Neill attempted to give form to an impulse within himself, but the dark substance of the character, all that he could at first discover, was insufficient for understanding. Twice he had been thrown to the edge of death; in his writing now, what he was doing was in part finding his way back to life. Death for him was much more than a darkness of thought. There were few external aids to his attempt to understand himself. The fashion for Freud was not yet at the full in the United States. O’Neill’s analysts were fin de siècle poets, to whom he responded gratefully for more reasons, perhaps, than most young men of his time. They alone gave voice to his sentiments, and following them, he to an extent rejected the intellectual possibilities of both life and art, seeking instinctively for meaning in the recesses of personality where inexplicable, unverbalized feeling concentrates.

To be sure, a superficial connection may be made between the condition of society as the Poet images it and his desire to lose himself in the limbo of fog and ice. Yet it is not to the end of social criticism that the symbolic details of the setting are finally devoted. They serve as did the details in The Ancient Mariner, and as similar developments of setting in The Emperor Jones were to do, to project the inner substance of the central character, and, doing so, they move the play away from its realistic moorings toward expressionism. The play does not quite cast free from realism. The characters move in a comprehensible context of space and time which necessitates their behaving in a realistic manner, but the impulse to move behind appearance is present in the play and arises from O’Neill’s effort to place his own emotion directly on stage.

* The rescuers who are guided to their destination by the crying of a dead child are also to be found in Chaucer’s Prioresse’s Tale. That O’Neill had read Chaucer is doubtful; nevertheless a source tale may be suspected for his story.


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