THE ANCIENT MARINER AND THE GENESIS OF O'NEILL'S ROMANTICISM1
In the summer of 1917 at Provincetown, a mentally retarded boy used to seek Eugene O'Neill on the beach and sit with him while the playwright gazed out to sea. Often mistreated and ridiculed by the local townsfolk, the boy apparently took comfort from merely being close to a friend who accepted their long silences. One day the youth unexpectedly began asking O'Neill questions:
There are indications, both in O'Neill's early plays as well as in the biography, of an affirmative O'Neill, of an artist not so dominated as many suppose by a Puritanical and Catholic tradition. From his earliest childhood, O'Neill loved the sea as the source of life's eternal recurrence and as a road upon which the mythic quest for affirmation was often undertaken. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the genesis of O'Neill's Romanticism is his dramatization of Coleridge's poem in a pageant-play entitled The Ancient Mariner. Since its first publication in Donald Gallup's edition in the Yale University Library Gazette in 1960,3 no one has remarked upon the Romantic significance of this dramatization of Coleridge's poem to O'Neill's work. Although Mariner is an adaptation only--all but about a dozen words of the text are Coleridge's. save O'Neill's substantial and significant stage directions--the very existence of this pageant-play at a formative period in O'Neill's artistic development places him in the Romantic tradition, rather than in the pessimistic ambience to which he is relegated by many of his critics.
The Ancient Mariner was presented as the third bill of the 1923-1924 season at Provincetown, beginning its three-week run on April 6, 1924. O'Neill directed that masks were to be used; their designer, James Light, noted in the playbill, "The mask cannot represent life; but it can be used, as we are trying to use it, to show the eyes of tragedy, and the face of exaltation."4 Throughout his stage directions, O'Neill makes extensive use of the mask to emphasize the Mariner's change in character from death-bringer to organicist. An examination of these stage directions for the physical production of the pageant-play reveals how he structured and shaped Coleridge's poem so as to render more dramatically visible his Romantic themes.
The play opens with the Mariner in front of a large screen to indicate a house, on which the shadows of the wedding guests are seen. The Mariner is depicted as "a prophet out of the Bible with the body and dress of a sailor"; his hands are raised up to the sky and his lips move in prayer. True to the opening lines of the poem, the Mariner is dramatized as rejecting the first two wedding guests, who have "mask-like faces of smug, complacent dullness, and walk like marionettes." Instead, he grabs the Third Wedding Guest by the shoulders, for the young man is described as "naturally alive--a human being." Thus even in the opening section, O'Neill reveals a thorough grasp of the direction of Coleridge's work as he directs the Mariner to scorn the mechanistic man and cleave to the organic humanist. Significantly, the Mariner stands upon the top step of the porch as he begins to tell his tale, for O'Neill realizes that the old man has come to a fulfilling ending in his quest for the meaningful life.
As the Mariner begins to speak, the Chorus appears from stage left: six sailors who all wear the masks of drowned men. At the first appearance of the albatross, the sailors sing a "hymn to a sort of chanty rhythm." O'Neill emphasizes the importance of the albatross as a symbol of affirmation and peace in the next sequence when the Mariner confesses to the Wedding Guest that he shot the albatross: "The corpse of the albatross is laid out on a bier by the mast, a mystic light proceeding from it." Here O'Neill shows his accurate grasp of the significance Coleridge attaches to the albatross' murder: that the act effectively severs the Mariner from the organic universe and renders him subject only to the misery congruent to his self-enforced alienation from the natural order, the vital process of Nature.
After the ship becomes becalmed, O'Neill describes the sun as "copper" in color, blazing down like a mechanical thing upon the old man's moral desert. The Chorus stares accusingly at the Mariner, and upon a screen at the back of the stage, O'Neill directs "deathfires" to dance on sky and sea. An apparition rises beside the ship, and O'Neill underscores the guilt of the life-killer in the following stage-direction: "The Spirit points accusingly at the albatross, then to the Mariner--then makes a gesture of command. The Chorus rise as one and hang the albatross about his neck." The Chorus then retreats from the Mariner "as if he were a leper."
Following the deaths of the six sailors, the moon floods them with a ghastly light. Just as O'Neill uses the death-mask to show the nadir of hope, he also employs the mask to reveal--according to designer James Light's plan--the "exaltation" of the Mariner when he realizes that his only possible route back to the organic Romantic life is to re-commune with the water-snakes--the ugliest aspect of that life. As the old man recounts how he "bless'd them unaware!" O'Neill describes the mask and his action: "He is suddenly exalted and weeps. He rises and makes the motion with his hands of blessing them." Now the sails of the ship are to become like "the wings of the albatross--faintly luminous," and we are reminded of the healing words of the Theosophical pamphlet given O'Neill at Provincetown by Terry Carlin, Light on the Path:5 "... you will perceive that none, not the most wretched of creatures but is a part of the whole, however you blind yourself to the fact...."
Throughout the Mariner's regeneration, O'Neill keeps us aware of the participation of the Wedding Guest in the experience by having him on stage during much of the action. As the Spirit pronounces that the Mariner "hath penance done,/And penance more will do," the Guest, like the Mariner, is discovered lying insensible. Thus O'Neill reveals his awareness of the Guest's importance to the Romantic theme of Coleridge's work: all men share in the process of self-creation; the burden for the frequent mechanization of the world is not simply to fall upon one man. The final two series of stage directions strongly stress the community of man inherent in the Mariner's rediscovery of himself. O'Neill depicts him as a "prophet proclaiming truth," as he turns to the audience and speaks the famous lines: "He prayeth best who loveth best/All things both great and small...." And O'Neill concludes the play with the most Romantic stage imagery of all: "The Wedding Guest stares after him dazedly like one awakening from a dream, then he bolts into the house as if running from the dark. A blare of music and a chorused shout of welcome as he opens the door. He shuts it and locks it. His shadow appears on the blind dancing with his bride."
The Wedding Guest has learned the dance of life, the Mariner's lesson, as he rushes back into human community and continuity. As the Mariner has imaginatively renewed himself, by his blessing he recreates the Wedding Guest and the audience who watch his mythic act. His actions and his tale reunite the family of man once again into oneness. O'Neill the Romantic momentarily forestalls stasis and death by the imaginative act of celebrating life.
René Wellek has
said of Romanticism: "its peculiarity or even its essence and nature
is that attempt, apparently doomed to failure and abandoned by our
time, to identify subject and object, to reconcile man
and nature, consciousness and unconsciousness."6
Perhaps part of O'Neill's greatness as an artist is that, despite his
flaws of language upon occasion, he never abandoned the attempt of
which Wellek speaks. Perhaps his words later
in life should stand as the conclusion to these remarks on the genesis
of his Romanticism: "We should feel exalted to think that there is
something--some vital, unquenchable flame in man which makes him
triumph over his miseries, over life itself.... A man wills his own
defeat when he pursues the unattainable. But his struggle is his
success! ... Such a figure is necessarily tragic. But to me he is not
depressing, he is exhilarating!"7
This essay is from an unpublished doctoral dissertation, Eugene
O'Neill's Romantic Phase, 1921-1925, copyright 1971 by University
Micro-films, Ann Arbor, Michigan. A slightly different version was
delivered at the annual convention of the MLA in San Francisco,
4 Gallup, p. 61.
Doris Alexander, "Eugene O'Neill and Light on the Path,"
Modern Drama, III (December, 1960), 260-267.
7 Scheaffer, p. 419.
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