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Thirst, although strikingly similar in design to Fog, is much more frankly experimental in its use of the stage. Three people from widely separate social levels—a Mulatto sailor, a Dancer and a Gentleman—are cast away on a raft. Now instead of the Ancient Mariner’s fog, there is a Coleridgean sun, glaring down. Heat waves writhe upward from the deck of the raft, and circling the castaways are sharks whose fins can be seen cutting the water. As in Fog, what O’Neill asks for is a scrupulously realistic decor, but the setting is intended to suggest something of the essential horror of thirst as well. The play, although it is not marked by such tension as Fog revealed between social criticism and private emotion, is both realistic and abstract. Curiously, when the play was produced by the Provincetown Players in 1916, William Zorach, the group’s designer, attempted to treat it in a stylized manner. Feeling that stage designs should be less realistic, more “like art,” he proposed setting the play against a background of formalized waves. His attempt to lead O’Neill into the young world of the Art Theatre was ended by the director George Cram Cook and by John Reed, who insisted that O’Neill was a realist and demanded that the waves be made of “realistic” painted canvas, animated in the Monte Cristo tradition by a stagehand wriggling about underneath.9

The stylistic quarrel could not easily be resolved within the context this play offered; indeed, its resolution was to wait until almost the end of O’Neill’s life. In Thirst, however, it was not an aesthetic dilemma. The play is neither realism nor symbolism but a somewhat dismaying mixture of both. Its story of the efforts of its three characters to survive in a hopeless situation is one more tragedy of “ironic fate,” in which all perish. The characters are intended as representatives of three of the world’s estates, but no general meaning finally evolves. Instead their minimal psychological realism involves them in an intricate tangle of relationships that proves finally to be merely anecdotal. They mean nothing as symbols, and as individuals, their passion, like the sea on which they float, is crumpled canvas. They follow an entirely predictable course from elegance to shark bait, with side orders of madness, miscegenation and cannibalism.

Yet again, there are hints of something further. Thirst reveals more clearly than its companions that O’Neill is moving toward an understanding of what he meant by “an ironic life force.” In Thirst, it is clear, the sea somehow controls the destinies of the castaways. The sun that parches them is likened to “the great angry eye of God,”  a symbol of destiny. The tendency to personify the sea’s force revealed in Fog is made even clearer in Thirst. The image of the eye of God, owing something, perhaps, to Stephen Crane’s red sun pasted in the sky like a wafer, to Conrad, and certainly to Coleridge, suggests that O’Neill seeks theological explanation of man’s destiny in the personification of natural forces. It is a step beyond the “personification of the ironic life force” whose secret Rose alone knew—at once more specific and more adequate in concept. The generalized sense of the fog as being in some way a visualization of the limbo the Poet sought is now made less passive and atmospheric. It becomes more directly controlling. The sea’s heat drives the Dancer mad; the Gentleman, the most civilized of the trio, fights the elements that seek to control him; the Mulatto sailor (a role played by O’Neill in the play’s only recorded production) accepts his lot and is content to drift with the sea, taking what comes. He dies because the Gentleman attacks him and both fall overboard. Yet, O’Neill suggests, without the accident, he might have survived through simple acquiescence to the power personified in sea and sun. It is a rudimentary statement at best, yet the conception that there is a power like a God’s in the forces of the sea initiates O’Neill’s theological explorations.


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