Anna Christie and Christy Mahon
My title—“Anna Christie and Christy Mahon”—means to suggest that the play “Anna Christie” (1921) is an ironic dark comedy akin to John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (1907). I don’t mean this literally, as if O’Neill consciously turned to Playboy for help in writing himself out of the romantic-versus-realistic dilemma that helped sink Chris Christophersen in Philadelphia in early 1920. I do think that Playboy, as a wildly implausible love story, provides a viable antecedent to “Anna Christie”, and not just for giving Mat Burke, Anna’s “sport,” a colorful way of talking. O’Neill knew Synge’s plays well. Holed up in Jimmie-the-Priest’s saloon, he nonetheless saw all of the Abbey Players’ New York productions during their first American tour in late 1911. He read Synge’s plays seriously while convalescing with tuberculosis at Gaylord Farm Sanatorium in early 1913 (Shaffer, 205-06, 252). O’Neill credited “the Irish Players” with giving him his first “glimpse of [his] opportunity” in the theater by demonstrating “the possibilities of naturalistic acting better than any other company” (Merrill, 39-40).
Synge claimed that he wrote Playboy without regard for genre, that rather he wrote it “directly, as a piece of life, without thinking, or caring to think, whether it was a comedy tragedy or extravaganza” (Saddlemyer, xxiii). O’Neill made similar claims about writing Chris Christophersen and “Anna Christie” from life; but as he revised, trying to avert the happy ending explicit in Anna and Mat’s pending marriage, he perhaps thought too much about comedy and tragedy. A paradoxical effect of O’Neill’s strategies for darkening his play’s mood was a deepening of the comedy, which moved “Anna Christie” closer to Playboy than to Riders to the Sea (1902), Synge’s spare, naturalistic tragedy whose influence O’Neill did acknowledge.
Publicly, in a letter to the New York Times, O’Neill defended the promise of marriage at the end of “Anna Christie” as no ending at all, but rather a “dramatic gathering of new forces out of the old,” intended to leave the audience with “a deep feeling of life flowing on” (“The Mail Bag,” sec. 6, p. 1). Privately, in a letter to George Jean Nathan, O’Neill characterized the ambivalently happy ending as “merely the comma at the end of a gaudy introductory clause, with the body of the sentence still unwritten” (Goldberg, 154). [Aside: O’Neill said that he considered “calling the play ‘Comma’” (154). I think we can be grateful that he did not.] The implication is that this “gaudy introductory clause” teases us with melodrama because “in moments of great stress life copies melodrama” (154). The “body of the sentence,” we are to infer, writes tragedy.
Travis Bogard has called “Anna Christie” a comedy “almost in spite of its author’s wishes,” which aptly suggests how the play, as if willfully, resisted O’Neill’s efforts to darken it (Bogard, 151, 153). After Chris Christophersen failed, O’Neill offered to rewrite it completely. “Suffice it to say,” he wrote to his producer, George C. Tyler, “that of the present play I would keep without change only the character of Chris—I’d give you a real daughter and lover, flesh-and-blood people—and the big underlying idea of the sea” (Bogard and Bryer, p. 121). By jilting Paul Andersen, an unambitious, American-born second mate on a steamer, for Mat Burke, a high-spirited but brutish Irish stoker, and by reconceiving Anna from a prim, tea-sipping Swedish-English typist into a cynical, whiskey-drinking Swedish-American tart, O’Neill created considerable obstacles to a conventional happy ending. Reformed prostitutes in plays usually commit suicide or at least die of tuberculosis, but Anna refused. “She forced herself on me, middle of the third act, at her most theatric,” O’Neill confessed to George Jean Nathan. “In real life I felt she would unconsciously be compelled . . . to the ‘usual big scene,’ and wait hopefully for the happy ending” (Goldberg, 154).
To verify Anna and Mat’s love, and thus sanction Anna’s refusal to die, O’Neill had Mat make Anna swear her love on his mother’s crucifix, a talisman like Othello’s handkerchief but more conventionally religious. In The Old Davil (1921?), the title of the first revision of Chris Christophersen, Mat doubts the efficacy of a non-Catholic swearing on a cross, but Anna promises to convert, settling the issue.
Chris enters with his beer, blames the old davil sea for the accumulating paradoxes, and is shouted down by Mat and Anna, who intend to be happy.
Revising The Old Davil into “Anna Christie”, O’Neill notched up Mat’s doubt regarding the Catholic oath and gave him a skepticism that at least began to appreciate Chris’s alarm. He also isolated Chris physically from Mat and Anna, drawing audience attention away from the lovers, and perhaps drawing the lovers’ attention away from one another. O’Neill was trying to make tragedy loom, but it didn’t work.
How could it? Chris’s alarm, based on his understanding of the implacability of the sea, is now in tension not with sentimentality but with disconcerting comedy. Mat works defiantly through his doubt: “If your oath is no proper oath at all, I’ll have to be taking your naked word for it and have you anyway, I’m thinking—I’m needing you that bad!” (O’Neill, CP, I, 1025). But when Anna leaves the stage for a moment, Mat “relapses into an attitude of gloomy thought. . . . Finally [he] turns on [Chris]:” “Is it any religion at all you have, you and your Anna?” “Vhy yes.” Chris says. “Ve vas Lutheran in ole country.” “Luthers, is it?” Mat explodes, “horrified.” This is the ultimate insult. But “with a grim resignation” Mat accepts his fate: “Well, I’m damned then surely. Yerra, what’s the difference? ‘Tis the will of God, anyway” (O’Neill, CP, I, 1026). We may sympathize with Mat’s consternation, but surely we must laugh at his discomfiture, too, because his humiliation has no end. Mat may be a vainglorious lout, and Anna may have been a prostitute, but Luthers make doubtful marriage partners. One of the felonies Christy Mahon is suspected of is marrying three wives. “I’m told there’s a sprinkling have done that among the holy Luthers of the preaching North,” Jimmy Farrell reports in Playboy (105).
Linda Ben-Zvi has argued that O’Neill surely intended the moment to be comic. She cautions, however, that “it also marks the recognition of the impossibility of surety—particularly of religious or iconic surety—in the modern world, a realization that is not so funny and that is at the heart of most absurdist works” written later in the twentieth century (Ben-Zvi, 42). I’m not sure I accede to an absurdist reading of “Anna Christie”; but there can be no doubt that the play parodies nineteenth-century genre conventions and character stereotypes, and that it rattles belief systems. Parody in “Anna Christie” ridicules worn out conventions and the pieties upon which they rest; and the radical shifts in tone hurtle characters and audience members alike across moments of intense passion, violence, and farce. This is true of the ending of the play, in which Mat’s horror and grim resignation are held in tension with Anna’s insistent optimism and her father’s abiding pessimism. This is especially true of act three, in which Mat and Chris’s comic-violent wrangling over Anna’s person and identity triggers Anna’s fierce exposure of the double standard by which Mat, Chris, and the rest of the world operate. Because I favor the play’s emphasis on emotional risk over its philosophical inquiry, I call it a dark comedy, a kind of play that by turns (and at once) may be comic and moving in its juxtaposition of wildly conflicting feelings. Such a play, John Styan has argued, “may legitimately refuse to be a failed tragedy or a failed comedy—because the response it wants may be of neither kind” (Styan, 2).
This dark comic style, an essential feature of which is disjunction, persists throughout “Anna Christie”. It’s crucial to O’Neill’s efforts to give Anna a vital love affair to replace her “piffling and undramatic” (Bogard and Bryer, 120) affair with Paul Andersen in Chris Christophersen. To demonstrate this claim I’ll contrast two versions of the scene in which Anna, at sea in the fog, invokes God’s will to sanction her newfound love of the sea. The first version appears in Chris Christophersen; the second version is its rewrite in “Anna Christie”. I’ll then make a claim for the scene’s ironic antecedent in The Playboy of the Western World and how it bears on O’Neill’s writing from life.
In act two, scene one, of Chris Christophersen, Anna admits to feeling strange. When she asks Chris if he’s afraid something is about to happen to them, he says, “Only God know dat, Anna.” Anna replies, “(slowly) Then it will be God’s will—what does happen.” Chris rises in “fierce protest”: “No! Dat ole davil, sea, she ain’t God!” (CP, I, 841). In the silence that follows Chris’s outburst, “a steamer’s whistle sounds—faint, far-off, mournful, muffled by the fog” (841). Within minutes, and with full melodramatic force, “a loud noise of throbbing engines and swishing waves sweeps over the barge” (844). Chris slings Anna overboard and stands poised to jump himself. “A prolonged, ear-racking blast of the steamer’s whistle seems to shatter the fog to fragments as The Curtain Falls” (844). Chris and Anna are picked up by the steamer, and thus Anna meets Paul Andersen, the second mate who chivalrously offers to vacate his quarters for her comfort on the voyage to Buenos Aires.
In “Anna Christie” this moment becomes playfully restrained and parodic, and at the same time sexually charged. Anna-the-recovering-tart is cleansed as well as exhilarated by the sea, but she half mocks her father’s foreboding: “Then it’ll be Gawd’s will, like the preachers say—what does happen” (CP, I, 982). Now, as if in answer to Anna’s mystified jokiness and Chris’s fierce protest, an exhausted, irritated voice comes out of the fog: “Ahoy! [. . .] Heave a rope when we come along side. [. . .] Where are ye, ye scut?” (982-83). Is this the voice of God, teasing Anna and Chris, or some trick of the sea? Enter Mat Burke, O’Neill’s playboy of the western world.
Sexing up the scene—Mat starts hitting on Anna the moment he sees her—obviously parodies the “piffling” affair in Chris Christophersen. What’s richer and more playful is the doubleness of the parody. Within moments of their meeting, Mat, the bruising ladies man, grabs Anna’s ass; and she knocks him unconscious.
Anna’s decking Mat is funny. Although unexpected, it’s an apt comeuppance for a “sport” who relies on sheer physicality to have his way with women. It’s also a disarming moment of panic for Anna. She hasn’t meant to kill this man they’ve just pulled from the sea. In the 1993 Roundabout Theatre’s Broadway revival, Natasha Richardson’s Anna punched Mat (the strapping, six-feet-four-inch Liam Neeson) in the gut and then shoved him against a chest on the deck, on which he cracked his head. The deliberate punch, before the shove, slowed the action just enough to let an audience savor the rebuke to Mat’s swagger. Shocked at her behavior and alarmed at his sudden demise, Anna dumped a bucket of water on Mat, compounding his comic humiliation. Mat’s sputtering scorn, upon coming to, turned quickly to admiration, and the romance began. “Killed, is it? It’d take more than a bit of a blow to crack my thick skull. [. . .] But, glory be, it’s a power of strength is in them two fine arms of yours” (986).
Mat Burke has been called a poor-to-middling imitation of Synge’s Christy Mahon, more stage Irishman than fine fiery poet (e.g., Raleigh, 221-22; Shaughnessy, 61). The diminishment may be deliberate and ironic. In finding Anna a suitable lover—one able to produce offspring with “guts,” not “fearful cowards and jackasses the like of [Chris]” (CP, I, 1000), Mat boasts—O’Neill turned for inspiration to his friend Driscoll, the Irish stoker with whom O’Neill shipped and drank in 1911. Driscoll “‘was a giant of a man, and absurdly strong,’ O’Neill said. ‘He thought a whole lot of himself, was a determined individualist’” (Kalonyme, 67). Physically and temperamentally, Mat Burke is the opposite of Christy Mahon, who is “a slight man” with “a small voice.” Christy enters Michael Flaherty’s shebeen bathetically, “very tired and frightened and dirty” (PWW 103). Within moments, though, Christy is respected as a patricide, a young man wise and fearsome enough to make a good potboy (that is, dishwasher). His ability to tell a good story causes the locals to lionize him, which empowers him to become in deed a champion runner, leaper, rider, and roisterer. He even wins for a time the heart of Pegeen Mike, Flaherty’s proud, independent-minded daughter.
[Aside: Burke’s argument regarding hearty grandchildren echoes the kind of reasoning that turns Flaherty’s mind in favor of Pegeen marrying Christy Mahon rather than safe, pious Shawn Keogh. Flaherty is alarmed that his daughter intends to marry a father killer, but he concedes to her choice: “I’m a decent man of Ireland, and I’d liefer face the grave untimely and I seeing a score of grandsons growing up little gallant swearers by the name of God, than go peopling my bedside with puny weeds the like of what you’d breed, I’m thinking, out of Shaneen Keogh” (PWW, 140)].
You can hear where this argument is going. O’Neill gave Driscoll some of Synge’s language to create Mat Burke, and the “Synge-song” empowers Mat for two acts. But Mat is no simple parody of Christy, who himself is a parody of a romantic hero. Mat’s experience inverts Christy’s experience, just as, to some extent, Anna’s determination inverts both Pegeen’s independence and the usual fates of nineteenth-century stage prostitutes. Christy enters his play tentatively, “a dirty, stuttering lout” (PWW, 126), as his father Old Mahon calls him. He exits the play a hero, having killed his father, at least symbolically, on the third try, and having routed the people of Mayo: “Ten thousand blessings upon all that’s here,” he says, “for you’ve turned me a likely gaffer [i.e., lad] in the end of all. . . .” (PWW 146). His departure brings relief to the locals. “By the will of God, we’ll have peace now for our drinks,” Flaherty says. “Will you draw the porter, Pegeen?” (146). But the play ends with Pegeen’s “wild lamentations,” for she’s “lost the only playboy of the western world” (146).
Strongman Mat, as a consequence of his desire and chronic discomfiture, re-imagines himself as lover and forgiver. He’s scheduled to ship off on the morrow but pledges to return. Anna, we might say, having been abashed by lover and father but redeemed by the sea, determines to keep her playboy of the western world. Chris remains unchanged (as O’Neill said he would), which means he fails to achieve the grieving peace beyond suffering that the widow Maurya reaches at the end of Riders to the Sea. If this is so, O’Neill has cleverly subverted the endings of both Synge plays.
[Aside: Anna from St. Paul bears some paradoxical resemblance to Pegeen from Mayo, despite their obvious differences. For all her temper and strength, Pegeen is virginal and parochial. Anna, for all worldly cynicism, is kind and forgiving. Like Chris and Mat, Anna has a real-life source in Marie, a woman Terry Carlin rescued from prostitution and who abandoned Carlin for the peace of a mountain retreat (Gelb and Gelb, 518-22). Yet both Anna and Pegeen seek escape from mean—and demeaning—environments; and they share some earthiness. Typist Anna “is a tall, blond, fully developed girl of twenty, built on a statuesque, beautifully moulded plan. [. . .] She is dressed simply in a blue, tailormade suit” (CP, I, 819). Tart Anna is still tall, blond, and twenty; despite signs of ill health and of over work, she is “handsome after a large, Viking-daughter fashion. [. . .] Her clothes are the tawdry finery of peasant stock turned prostitute” (CP, I 968). O’Neill seems to have moved Anna closer to Pegeen, who as Playboy opens is ordering her wedding finery. She is “a wild-looking but fine girl of about twenty. [. . .] She is dressed in the usual peasant dress” (PWW 99).]
Plot similarities and verbal echoes between “Anna Christie” and The Playboy of the Western World may be more coincidental or unconscious than deliberate on O’Neill’s part. The Playboy antecedents (Pegeen and Christy) must compete with real-life models (Marie and Driscoll). A myriad of other literary and dramatic antecedents also jostle for attention: literary conventions, such as good-hearted tarts, boisterous Irishmen, and irresponsible fathers; and particular plays, for example, Alexandre Dumas fils’ Camille (1852) and Edward Sheldon’s Salvation Nell (1908). As Arthur Holmberg has remarked, in “Anna Christie” “O’Neill stirs together for ironic tension” a “potpourri of genres”: “romantic melodrama, boulevard comedy, problem play, satire, psychological realism, farce” (Holmberg 47). Any number of the European dramatists O’Neill was reading in the first two decades of the twentieth century experimented variously with dark comedy: for example, George Bernard Shaw, Anton Chekhov, and August Strindberg as well as Synge. Still, the echoes of Playboy in “Anna Christie” are tantalizing. Strong surges of comedy in Anna Christie counter its tragic pull and subvert its melodramatic impulses. The influences of Pegeen and Christy, with their grandly implausible and painful romance, help expose the playfulness with which O’Neill created in Anna and Mat “flesh and blood people” to replace the first, prim Anna and her second rate lover Paul Andersen.
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[This paper was originally presented at the Sixth International Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Society in Provincetown, Massachusetts in June, 2005.]
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