O’Neill’s S.S. Glencairn Cycle: Page Vs. Stage
In a letter to a friend in 1929, American playwright Eugene O’Neill complained that most productions of his works failed to match his dramatic vision. “I think I will wind up writing plays to be published with ‘No Productions Allowed!’ in red letters on the first page . . . . I would rather place them directly from my imagination to the imagination of the reader,” he wrote (Selected Letters 339).
Anyone who has read O’Neill is aware that his plays seem to have been written with the reader in mind. One hallmark of any O’Neill work is his carefully detailed and painstakingly precise stage directions. This was a conscious effort on his part. His published plays in the 1920s included several literary bestsellers; he knew that his largest audience was the reading public rather than the theater-going set.
Such attention to details of staging provides rich rewards for the reader, but it presents some challenges for the actor, director, and designer of an O’Neill production. How does one translate such an articulate conception into a stage production that remains true to its source?
As a case in point, I would like to examine the four early one-act plays collectively known as the S.S. Glencairn cycle (1914-1917), considered his best-realized early works. This is an ideal place to start, because the cycle demonstrates that O’Neill was conscientious from the beginning in terms of stagecraft. The plays are Bound East for Cardiff, The Long Voyage Home, In the Zone, and Moon of the Caribbees.
First I will offer some general observations about stage directions in O’Neill’s work, and then specifically examine the Glencairn cycle – how do stage directions function in these plays? To what end? Finally, what challenges do these plays present in terms of production as a result of these stage directions?
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The American theatrical tradition in the twentieth century grew out of melodrama and its European predecessors into a culturally specific and distinct art form. Eugene O’Neill was the primary architect of this tradition, devising a kind of theater that shifted emphasis from the actor-as-matinee-idol – like his famous father – to the playwright and the play (Bentley 32).
In 1931, theater critic John Anderson commented that O’Neill was “[i]mpatient, usually, at trying to express his meaning through actors” . . . he has “again and again, reached beyond them to the audience and even to the reader. His plays are strewn with descriptions and opinions which, in the theatre, get no further than the eye of the director or the cast, but which count full value under the lamp” (Sands 192). In O’Neill’s plays, the stage directions become just as important as the dialogue – but therein lies another issue of contention.
According to critic Virgil Geddes, O’Neill prefers to describe rather than dramatize, “constantly relying on the methods of the novelist. His plays are full of writing that never shows on the stage, and even if one eliminates the material which is written between the brackets, the dialogue is often undramatically descriptive” (37).
O’Neill has been criticized for his lack of poetic language in his dialogue, but if language was a shortcoming in his plays, he made up for it by vivid, skillful “showing” as described in his stage directions. As critic Jeffrey Elliott Sands points out, O’Neill often uses stage directions to provide emotional context where words fail the speaker, but this is not necessarily a criticism, since we often find ourselves speechless at highly-charged emotional moments (99). So, as Sands indicates, “[t]he dialogue tells only a part of the story . . . . O’Neill compensates for his lack of poetry with an undeniable passion – a passion that resides within parenthesis . . . . This connection between what the characters say and do, and the ways in which they go about it, renders the stage directions indispensable to grasping O’Neill’s conception of emotional expression” (203).
In summary, then, one simply can’t ignore the stuff O’Neill places within italics and brackets in the texts of his plays.
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So, what is the stuff between italics and brackets in O’Neill’s S.S. Glencairn cycle? The plays share the same locale – a British tramp steamer – and the same cast of characters: an international crew of sailors. Though each play can stand by itself, the events dramatized are loosely inter-related and thus presentation of the plays in tandem is natural. The plays were not originally intended to be performed as such; it was not until 1924 that the four plays were presented in the appropriate dramatic order under a single banner heading which O’Neill himself suggested (“The Theatre We Worked For” 64). Since then, the plays have generally been regarded as a set – as they will be here.
The plays fit into a specific sequence that dictates their playing order (or reading order, as seen in O’Neill’s original publication of the plays in book form in 1919). Bound East for Cardiff is second in the cycle but the first written, in 1914. The S.S. Glencairn heads east from New York toward the Welsh port. The central figures are the American Yank and his friend Driscoll, and Irishman, and the entire action takes place in the forecastle of the ship. Yank is dying, the result of an accident. The ship is stationary, becalmed because of thick fog. The ship will never reach Cardiff in time to get medical attention for Yank, and Driscoll stands watch for his friend’s last moments.
The Long Voyage Home, from 1917, was written second, and it is placed third in the cycle. The Glencairn sailors are in port, home from a lengthy voyage. It is the only play of the four that takes place on shore – in a bar, where the sailors are outnumbered two to one. One of the sailors, Olson, has determined not to ship out again; he is going home to his mother an the family farm in Sweden, so he has vowed not to get drunk and lose his money. But he is beguiled by a prostitute, drugged, robbed, and shanghaied aboard a ship for a hazardous voyage that means certain death.
Also written in 1917, In the Zone is the most plotted of the four plays (and, O’Neill thought, the most contrived). It fits neatly into the last place of the cycle’s plot, chronologically. It is the only play that specifically narrows down a time: the early days of World War I, as the ship navigates through the German war zone in 1915, when the chance of detection by enemy ship is a real danger. The Englishman Smitty is accused of being a spy by his shipmates. They tie him up and examine the evidence they believe he is hiding. The crew discovers only some love letters and a dried flower.
The last-written play of the four is actually the first presented when the cycle is performed in sequence. Moon of the Caribbees primarily focuses once again on the introspective Smitty and the fact that there is some mystery in his past. In port, the sailors relax on board their anchored ship with some local prostitutes who smuggle rum on board in baskets of fruit. A fight breaks out among the sailors over the women; one jealous sailor draws a knife on another and stabs him, but all ends calmly. Smitty, finding little solace in conversation or the bottle, remains in his blue funk.
It has no plot in the traditional sense of the word; instead, it achieves its effect through qualitative progression – a buildup of elements: the sea, memories, music, women, alcohol, sailors returning from a long voyage – creating a potentially explosive mood. The problem from the past that Smitty hints at in Moon of the Caribbees is presumably explained by the love letters from In the Zone.
Stage directions in O’Neill’s Glencairn cycle serve four distinct purposes: (1) establishing setting; (2) defining characters; (3) outlining or dictating action or emotional response; and (4) creating a soundtrack for the action. One might argue that all playwrights use stage directions in a similar manner, but O’Neill carries them to uncommon lengths.
First and perhaps most important is establishing a strong sense of place. O’Neill creates a specific atmosphere and a whole sensual dramatic world: visual, tactile, and aural, even olfactory. He wants us to see the fog, feel the sea spray, smell the rancid tobacco of five pipes being smoked in a cramped space.
O’Neill knew ship life. His two years as a seaman gave him the experiences he needed to craft the Glencairn plays. He includes numerous specific details about shipboard life that create a strong sense of place: tangible details, such as the ships bells; or vague, like the tedium of regularly-scheduled duty like ship’s watch. The dialogue doesn’t explain what “eight bells” means in nautical time, but we don’t really need to know. O’Neill’s stage directions are meticulous even in their terminology – a sailor doesn’t wear a raincoat but a “sou’wester” (Bound East for Cardiff 198)
In the Zone and Bound East for Cardiff are set in the “fo’cstle” of the Glencairn. Its triangular shape is spelled out in the stage directions, as well as its attributes: bunks, portholes, sea chests, oilskins, even a water bucket with a tin dipper and where it should sit. Moon of the Caribbees takes place on deck of the ship, a broader canvas capable of holding the entire large cast – it lets in the salt-sea air, as opposed to the cramped stench of the forecastle. As a play that relies mostly on mood, O’Neill creates a suitably picturesque setting of moonlight on water and mournful West Indian chant that drifts out to the anchored ship from the shore. The Long Voyage Home is set on shore in a “low dive” – another environment of which O’Neill was familiar: “a squalid, dingy room dimly lighted by kerosene lamps” (509). Among its fixtures, we find a “slovenly barmaid” and the proprietor, “a gross bulk of a man with an enormous stomach” and “piggish eyes” (509).
Such description of character leads us into the second major use of stage directions in the plays. Setting is not simply a backdrop; it’s used to reveal the substance and psychology of character, to tell us something about the people in the dramatic world. Characterization is important. O’Neill had definite ideas about his characters – their appearance, motivation, movement, state of mind, and habits of speech. He’s working with large casts in these plays – twenty-one for Moon of the Caribbees, eleven each in Bound East for Cardiff and Long Voyage Home and nine for In the Zone. He describes the central figures quite particularly – Driscoll, “a powerfully-built Irishman” with “the battered features of a prizefighter” (Bound East for Cardiff 188); Yank, “a dark-haired hard-featured” and “rather goodlooking rough” (Moon of the Caribbees 528); Smitty, “a young Englishman with a blond mustache” (528); Olson, “a stocky middle-aged Swede with round, childish blue eyes” (Long Voyage Home 511). Even the minor characters are often given some telling details, like the “round-shouldered young fellow” in The Long Voyage Home whose “face is pasty, his mouth weak, his eyes shifting and cruel. He is dressed in a shabby suit which must have once been cheaply flashy” (509).
O’Neill uses phonetic spelling to approximate the accents of the various crew members. It distinguishes the Irishman from the Cockney Englishman and the Scot; or the Norwegian from the Swede. O’Neill’s sailors are not (for the most part) well-educated or particularly articulate men, so the stage directions fill in details that his “undramatically descriptive” (Geddes 37) vernacular lacks. When the words do not convey the message, O’Neill is not shy about including adverbs to state how a line should be read: scornfully, defiantly, sarcastically, musingly, slowly, warningly, wildly, angrily, truculently, grumblingly, indignantly, roughly, tartly, genially, firmly, gruffly, sharply, coldly, sullenly, quietly, placidly, regretfully, stiffly, pompously, philosophically, drily, carelessly, insinuatingly, sentimentally, calmly, hysterically, stupidly, sternly. And that’s only a partial list from Moon of the Caribbees.
Occasionally, O’Neill pulls the performer along on a leash, ordering him to be outraged or shocked or embarrassed, although there may be nothing specific in the dialogue to generate such a response. Perhaps O’Neill’s general mistrust of actors convinced him to take firm control of how things were said and done onstage. But as he was creating a new theater, he was likewise creating his own techniques to accomplish his ends. “Many of the characters in my plays were suggested to me by people in real life, especially the sea characters,” O’Neill said in a 1924 interview (Cargill 110). So it’s not surprising that we get full-round portraits of some of these characters – via the stage directions.
In addition to the characters, the action in O’Neill’s works sometimes needs to be specifically described or even choreographed, particularly in the more heavily-plotted of the plays. Small gestures are critical to pushing the action forward, so they are described in some detail. In The Long Voyage Home, the audience needs to see the bartender putting knock-out drops into Olson’s ginger beer. In In the Zone, several crew members observe Smitty’s secretive behavior involving the tin box of letters, arousing suspicion and precipitating the climax of the play. Much of the sincere affection between Yank and Driscoll in Bound East for Cardiff is spelled out in italics between parentheses.
Sometimes a broader sweep of action is difficult to choreograph; Shakespeare might simply say “they fight,” but that’s not specific enough for O’Neill. In Moon of the Caribbees, tempers wear thin during an impromptu dance being held on deck, fueled by alcohol and jealousy. A young prostitute slaps Smitty, who has spurned her advances. Two drunken sailors begin dancing with each other, careening into the others. “In a flash,” O’Neill indicates, “a wholesale fight has broken out and the deck is a surging crowd of drink-maddened men hitting out at each other indiscriminately, although the general idea seems to be a battle between seamen and firemen . . . the women shriek and take refuge on top of the hatch . . . . Finally there is a flash of a knife held high in the moonlight” (542). It is quite beautifully rendered prose.
Finally, often overlooked in O’Neill’s plays is the absolute importance of sound and rhythm. A full sonic canvas is spelled out, a kind of musical scoring that incorporates a variety of rich aural details. Dialogue rendered phonetically suggests a variety of timbres, or voice prints, like instruments in an orchestra. The voices are interwoven like polyphonic musical lines, as characters interrupt one another or speak at the same time.
Rhythm of dialogue is important; when the sailors boisterously interrupt each other, for example, the effect created is a chopped, staccato rhythm of rapid-fire remarks. In contrast, there are passages where the sailors struggle to express themselves at some length. In Bound East for Cardiff, Yank on his deathbed shares vivid, detailed memories of his long friendship with Driscoll, whose clipped, pained responses suggest that death or any truly emotional experience in our lives finds us at our least articulate. Because the ship is becalmed because of the fog, the ship’s whistle blasts every sixty seconds, a safety precaution at sea. This too provides a marked rhythm of sound. Anyone simply reading the script is likely to forget this detail, but if it is staged accordingly, the audience will experience the same startling effect of the sudden blast as the crew on the ship.
Another key part of the sound palette is actual music, incorporated into three of the four plays. A popular song of the day “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” shows up in one of them, along with an Irish patriotic song. In Bound East for Cardiff, a sailor plays a melancholy Scandinavian tune on his battered squeeze box.
Sound is most prominent in Moon of the Caribbees from beginning to end – a mournful West Indian chant “drifts, crooning, over the water” from the shore to the ship (527), setting the atmosphere as the play opens and closes. The chant makes Smitty morose; “it makes you think of – well – things you ought to forget,” he complains (530). Driscoll drowns the music with more music, leading the crew in a rousing singalong of the sea chantey “Blow the Man Down.” Its call-and-response between a chanteyman and the crew is a microcosm of the whole action of the cycle: there is always a ringleader, inciting action, convincing the crowd to follow. Even the play’s title suggests a kind of sentimental popular song romanticizing the Caribbean moon.
O’Neill uses musical dynamics – the buildup of sounds to a crescendo – as the piece approaches its dramatic climax. In the coda, Smitty goes to hide himself in the forecastle, the melancholy West Indian chant drifts across the water, and O’Neill christens it “the mood of the moonlight made audible” (544).
Finally, the lack of sound draws attention to itself in In the Zone. For fear of submarines discovering the whereabouts of the Glencairn, all noise – even the ship’s whistle – is silenced. Even a voice raised in anger can have serious consequences. When a piece of driftwood thuds against the hull of the ship, the crew is badly frightened. Since music is the arrangement of sound as well as silence, even In the Zone has its own score. The dynamic markings are, for the most part, piano or pianissimo (softly to very softly).
To summarize up to this point: stage directions serve four purposes in the cycle, as I have illustrated: (1) establishing setting; (2) defining characters; (3) outlining or dictating action and emotional response; and (4) creating a soundtrack. Some of O’Neill’s finest prose can be found in his stage directions. However, his attention to detail can create some problems in regard to performance of the plays. How does one translate O’Neill’s articulate conception into a stage production that remains true to the text?
The critic Virgil Geddes wrote that O’Neill’s plays “are written with strong dictations to the actor and stage directions which invite antagonism more than they spur the imagination. In his plays, he sometimes fills in the actor’s part with clumsy explanation. At other times he writes for the reader, as though acting had nothing to do with his plays and had never existed as an art” (8-9).
So what challenges does this present in performance? The question is almost rhetorical. O’Neill provides a production crew (including the director as well as the set, costume, sound, and lighting designers) with a lavish array of specifications. To what degree should they be followed? Can any of them be ignored? Character descriptions create a problem for directors in terms of casting the play. How can one line up the appropriate matches for a play like Moon of the Caribbees with twenty-one speaking characters and expect them all to conform to O’Neill’s precise descriptions? The action too is rather specifically circumscribed; if a director chooses to follow O’Neill’s blocking, whose play does it become? The director becomes little more than a traffic cop.
Performers face a similar quandary. O’Neill frequently spells out the emotional responses between characters, rather than let them grow and shift dynamically in a scene through dialogue. The success depends upon the individual actor’s commitment to the material and to the process of acting. The stage directions are road signs toward the entire production as envisioned by the playwright. Are they suggestions? Guidance? Law? Do they exist for the benefit of the reader alone?
“A theatre of creative imagination has always been my ideal!” O’Neill wrote to a theater manager in 1932 (Cargill 123). The playwright took no chances; even a creative imagination can use some help to push it in the right direction. In O’Neill’s case, the directions are on the page for us to read, re-read and contemplate. Theater, however, demands performance to complete the experience. Reading a play doesn’t provide the same experience as seeing it in three dimensions.
Perhaps the best way to look at the issue is to continue to develop the musical analogy. Consider O’Neill a theatrical composer in the musical sense. In the same way that a musical score provides a blueprint for a performance, an O’Neill script provides a blueprint for production. To create a performance that approximates the playwright’s vision, the director and the players must observe all the clues built into the script – its dynamic markings, patterns, rhythm, sounds and silences – and play out the script as written. In other words, it’s up to the director, the designers and the performers to make “audible” the “mood of the moonlight” shining on the water at the end of Moon of the Caribbees (544).
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In this paper, I have examined a larger issue – O’Neill’s use of stage directions – in the context of four early one-act plays. Individually and collectively, this quartet illustrates some key principles in terms of O’Neill’s approach to drama. In the Glencairn plays, O’Neill uses stage directions to dictate character, setting, action, and the soundtrack, stepping far beyond the bounds generally ascribed to the playwright.
Eugene O’Neill’s stage directions have been criticized frequently for their extreme particularity. He certainly challenges the capacity of any director, actor, or stage designer to bring his plays to life. As a result, his plays are as fascinating to read than they are to see in performance. Certainly, the dialogue combined with the detailed stage directions create a package that is novelistic in approach. But O’Neill was not a frustrated novelist – he was a playwright by choice. Ultimately, one needs to read and see a performance to gain the fullest appreciation of an O’Neill play. One can hardly blame his self-protective urge, suggesting half seriously that his plays be stamped “no productions allowed.” He created a playwright’s theater, but no one knew better than he did that theater is ultimately about performance. It creates an intriguing tension.
One seldom has the opportunity these days to see O’Neill in a “live” production – particularly the earlier works such as the S.S. Glencairn plays. As a playwright, he is most at home – and best experienced – in a theater, but given the infrequent opportunities we have to see an O’Neill play in performance, the playwright might be pleased to see that his ideal may have come about. Most people now encounter his work via the printed page, and O’Neill might be well-pleased with the productions in my head – or yours, the result of his ideas played out in the imagination of the reader.
Bentley, Eric. “The Life and Hates of Eugene O’Neill.” Thinking About the Playwright: Comments from Four Decades. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1987. 27-56.
Black, Stephen A. Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.
Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill.Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Cargill, Oscar and N. Bryllion Fagin and William J. Fisher, eds. O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism. New York: New York UP, 1961.
Eisen, Kurt. The Inner Strength of Opposites: O’Neill’s Novelistic Drama and the Melodramatic Imagination. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1994.
Geddes, Virgil. The Melodramadness of Eugene O’Neill. Brookfield: Brookfield Players, 1934.
Miller, Jordan Y., ed. Eugene O’Neill and the American Critic, Rev. 2nd ed. Hamden: Archon, 1973.
O’Neill, Eugene. Bound East for Cardiff. Complete Plays 1913-1920. Ed. Travis Bogard. New York: Library of America. 1988.
––. In the Zone. Complete Plays 1913-1920. Ed. Travis Bogard. New York: Library of America. 1988.
––. “O’Neill Talks About His Plays.” Rpt. in O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism. Ed. Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin and William J. Fisher. New York: New York UP, 1961. 110-112.
––. Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill. Ed. Travis Bogard. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.
––. The Long Voyage Home. Complete Plays 1913-1920. Ed. Travis Bogard. New York: Library of America. 1988.
––. The Moon of the Caribbees. Complete Plays 1913-1920. Ed. Travis Bogard. New York: Library of America. 1988.
––. “The Theatre We Worked For: The Letters of Eugene O’Neill to Kenneth MacGowan. Ed. Jackson R. Byer with Ruth M. Alvarez. New Haven: Yale UP, 1982.
Sands, Jeffrey Elliott Sands. “O’Neill’s Stage Directions and the Actor” in Eugene O’Neill’s Century: Centennial Views on America’s Foremost Tragtic Dramatist. Ed. Richard F. Moorton, Jr. New York: Greenwood, 1991. 191-205.
Sheaffer, Louis. O’Neill: Son and Artist. New York: Paragon House, 1968.––. O’Neill: Son and Playwright. New York: Paragon House, 1973.
[I presented this paper at the Fourth National Symposium on Theater in Academe held 23-25 March 2000 at Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Va. Since the paper was intended to be presented orally, the writing style is more conversational.]
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