Menu Bar

 

Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. II, No. 1
May, 1978


(IN THIS ISSUE)

CONRAD AND O’NEILL AS PLAYWRIGHTS OF THE SEA

In 1914 Clayton Hamilton, drama editor for The Bookman and Vogue and teacher of playwriting at Columbia University, counseled O’Neill to use his first-hand knowledge of the sea to initiate a new kind of drama:

“There had been several novelists of the sea and poets of the sea--Mr. Conrad and Mr. Kipling and Mr. Masefield, for example--but there never yet had been a dramatist of the sea.'"1 There is a pleasant, and minor, irony in the fact that earlier in the year The Smart Set had published a brief one-act play by Joseph Conrad about a sailor. But of course, even without hindsight, Hamilton was correct: Conrad’s few plays (written at mid-career) were failures, both in production and as published works. The dramatist of the sea was yet to emerge.

Because O’Neill had been an enthusiastic reader of Conrad’s work since high school2 and for the rest of his life enjoyed talking about favorite novels,3 it is possible that he might have read Conrad’s play, One Day More. Certainly by 1917 O’Neill was familiar with The Smart Set since he sent three plays there that year; and it is likely that in 1914 as an aspiring author engaged in an intense program of literary activity, both reading and writing, he would have seen copies of this important magazine. Himself a beginning dramatist, he would not have passed over a first play by one of his favorite authors.4

O’Neill may or may not have read One Day More. It is interesting to note, however, the coincidence of a striking similarity between Conrad’s play and the three by O’Neill which appeared a few years later in The Smart Set: One Day More prefigures themes present in The Long Voyage Home, Ile, and The Moon of the Caribbees, and to some extent there are even similarities in technique. Now O’Neill’s plays are judged the “most distinguished” of the one-hundred and ten plays to appear in The Smart Set during the editorship of H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan (1914-1923),5 but that perception may be colored somewhat by O’Neill’s subsequent career. Conrad’s play is, in fact, not much worse than Ile (and Ile is, conversely, a very Conradian piece); had One Day More been printed under O’Neill’s name, it would be difficult to disprove authorship. Despite strong similarities, however, there are some important differences, which serve to suggest why O’Neill went on to become an accomplished playwright and Conrad returned to fiction.

First, the similarities. One Day More deals with a situation in which a woman is driven to the edge of madness by the self-absorption of the man to whom she is most closely joined: Bessie Carvil, kept in filial bondage to her blind father, finds solace talking with her neighbor, the “mad” Captain Hagberd, who for sixteen years has awaited the dutiful return of his runaway son, Harry. Hagberd’s sole occupation has been furnishing an inland house for this sailor son and selecting an appropriate bride, the gentle, isolated Bessie. When Harry finally returns, he is not recognized by his father and, in any case, does not want either the possessions or the bride because they would hamper his nautical freedom. Harry returns to sea, leaving Bessie on land, broken-hearted and near madness, while Hagberd persists in his illusory hope and Carvil continues his tyranny. The similarity between themes in One Day More and Ile is striking: isolation, monomania, madness, the opposition of sea and land, the destruction of women by oppressive or careless men; and both plays end with theatrical effects intended to suggest this destruction (O’Neill’s Mrs. Keeney, alone on stage, playing the organ “wildly and discordantly”; Conrad’s Bessie, alone on stage, surrounded by lightning and thunder). “The Long Voyage Home” also resembles One Day More in its ironic treatment of the theme of a wandering son’s frustrated return to his paternal home. The Moon of the Caribbees duplicates Conrad’s portrayal of life at sea and the character of seamen: rough and ready singers of chanties who feel that roots and land hinder but the sea’s fluidity frees, and that women, belonging to the land, ought to be loved and left.

Aside from The Moon of the Caribbees, which is something of a mood piece, there is a formal similarity between Conrad’s play and O’Neill’s. Ile, The Long Voyage Home, and One Day More are like dramatized short stories:6 a single anecdote which focuses on the moment of climax of an action extending into the past and beginning to reach its critical point as the play opens; and in all cases that climax involves a reversal or denial of hope (Bessie will never escape her father; Hagberd will never be reunited with his son; Mrs. Keeney will never be free from the cold, the ice, the brutality; Olson will never return home). With no incongruity, One Day More might have joined the volume of O’Neill’s sea plays collected in 1919.

But there are also differences. Probably the most important difference lies in the fact that a single play of Conrad’s contains material O’Neill distributed through three separate plays. One Day More is packed with generalized human problems which O’Neill treats selectively and gives more individualized development. Aside from a few petulant remarks, neither Carvil nor Hagberd demonstrates the tyranny Bessie and Harry feel; but O’Neill shows us Captain Keeney in brutal conflict with his men, shows us the very moment of his heartless refusal to abandon the oil and return home even though isolation is driving his wife mad. The tyrant master, the tyrant husband is itself something of a cliché, but O’Neill supplies scenes to make the tyranny believable. A second important difference between the two writers is the fact that Conrad requires very little physical action: for the most part, his characters sit and talk or walk up and down and talk; O’Neill, with much more sense of drama, provides fights, dances, various groupings of characters on stage utilizing stage properties (bottles of rum, pieces of paper, baskets of fruit): movement, color, action. O’Neill also establishes a strong and functional sense of place: a bar with its regulars described in detail; a moonlit island which is itself almost a character; a frozen sea, analogue of the frozen heart. By contrast, Conrad’s “town” with its nearby “sea-wall” has very little specificity. In short, Conrad’s play sketches, O’Neill’s plays dramatize.

What makes Conrad a master of fiction (and he is unquestionably that) prevents him from being a good playwright: as Marlow says, of another character in Chance , “‘The inwardness of what was passing before his eyes was hidden from him who had looked on, more impenetrably than from me who at a distance of years was listening to his words.’”7 Here are the elements of Conrad’s genius: inwardness, distance, listening to the words. These constitute the private drama of fiction. But O’Neill, even in his early plays, is master of the public drama of theatre: the sight, the sound, the action, the detail that makes themes and relationships pass before our very eyes as we look on.

--Kristin Morrison

1 Quoted in Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O’Neill (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 259.

2 Gelb, pp. 79f.

3 The Geibs print a conversation reconstructed from O’Neill’s days at the Hell Hole in which he expresses surprise that Slim has not heard of Conrad and urges him to read The Nigger of the Narcissus (p. 351). Louis Sheaffer, in O’Neill: Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973), indicates that O’Neill had read nearly all of Conrad and refers to a conversation in the mid-l940’s when O’Neill apparently quoted from Lord Jim from memory (pp. 28, 604).

4 Conrad’s attempts at playwriting were collected in 1934 under the title Three Plays: Laughing Annie, One Day More, The Secret Agent. Only the last two were produced: One Day More by the Stage Society on June 25, 1905 (although Shaw liked it, Conrad himself considered the play a failure, as he indicated in a letter to Galsworthy); The Secret Agent on November 3, 1922 (also a failure). One Day More was published in The Smart Set in February, 1914, and as a separate volume by Doubleday in 1920.

5 Louis Sheaffer, O’Neill: Son and Playwright (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1968), p. 392. The Long Voyage Home (which had been previously published as a book) was published in The Smart Set in October, 1917; Ile and The Moon of the Caribbees appeared in the May 1918 issue. (Conrad’s play, One Day More, although appearing in The Smart Set at the beginning of the Mencken/Nathan editorship, had actually been secured for publication by the previous editor, W. H. Wright.)

6 One Day More was, in fact, a dramatization of Conrad’s story Tomorrow. O’Neill, of course, had practiced turning short stories into plays in George Pierce Baker’s playwriting course at Harvard.

7 Joseph Conrad, Chance (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974), p. 350.

(IN THIS ISSUE)

 

© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com