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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VII, No. 2
Summer-Fall 1983



The expansion of the dramatic mold, so characteristic of O'Neill's late plays, assumes a special form in The Calms of Capricorn, a drama representing a point of departure for what ultimately turned out to be the playwright's all-encompassing eleven-play cycle plan, A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed. Whereas A Touch of the Poet incorporates the pattern of the short story into the fabric of drama, and More Stately Mansions effects a synthesis of novelistic and dramatic strategies, The Calms of Capricorn, cast into a detailed scenario by O'Neill in 1935 and recently "developed" as a play by Donald Gallup1, moves in the direction of the epic chiefly through the heterogeneity of its dramatic make-up. The Calms of Capricorn is a drama which includes a number of plays, indeed various types of plays in its framework, and, due to its embryonic form, offers a unique insight into the creative process of the cycle plays. The present essay will suggest its multifarious dramatic ancestry.

I. Shakespearean Drama.

G.B. Shaw once called O'Neill "a fantee Shakespeare who peoples his isle with Calibans,"2 and the Shakespearean dramatic model indeed casts a perceivable shadow on the world of The Calms of Capricorn. The protagonist, Ethan Harford--who starts his career as the third mate of the clipper ship Dream of the West; makes his fortune through the misfortune and death of his superiors; rises to the positions of second mate, first mate, and captain; murders the old captain (Payne) with the help of Payne's wife (Nancy), whom he subsequently marries; does not accept fate but makes fate (p. 79); and tries, tests and proves himself by forcing his will on the sea and by effecting a record passage from New York to San Francisco in 1857-58 even at the cost of virtually ruining the ship--has a frame of mind, possesses and is possessed by an ambition not unrelated to those of Richard III or Macbeth. A number of other figures in the play are also characterized by self-assertive and self-assured individualism. Ethan's younger brother, Jonathan, maintains that "There is no luck. One makes luck with one's will" (p. 50), claims that "One sees one's goal, fixes on it, then devotes one's life to reaching it. Happiness or unhappiness are by-products of one's striving" (p. 51), and celebrates Ethan's victory by declaring: "You should want and get what you want. The end justifies the means" (p. 100). Warren, the owner of the clipper, reproaching his skipper, Payne, for being unable to fight his way out of the calm, does so in terms favoring the stance of Ethan: "There's always a way, if you have will enough, concentration, drive to go ahead, if you're not too old and tired" (p. 66). Leda Cade, one of the passengers, a cynical tart who proclaims and practices unbridled, self-willed egotism, praises Honey, the youngest of the Harford brothers, because he promises people the moon and gets them to give it to him (p. 65). She is also attracted to Sara, the Harford boys' mother: "You're a real woman. You want to get what you want" (p. 77). In addition, the sequence of short scenes forming larger units through a dynamic drive also reveals Shakespearean affinities.

And these Shakespearean parallels are neither echoes nor coincidences: they are consequences of a historical parallelism (by no means an identity or congruence) between the individualism of the English Renaissance and that of American adventurousness at the time of the gold rush. The convergence of aspirations does not, of course, imply any similarity of stature. O'Neill's protagonists are not Shakespearean giants, and the play harbors expressly non-Shakespearean models of drama as well. Ibsen's example, for instance, looms large.

II. Ibsen.

The influence of Ibsen is manifest on the thematic level. Explaining to Sara his attraction to the sea, Ethan says: "I want to break away, to experience all the freedom of the spirit. I'd like to go on to the conquest of high mountains, to tear their gold from them as a gesture of conquest" (p. 14). His heated zest, stubborn quest, somewhat nebulous and illusory goal, and fervent idealism symbolizing values and incurring disaster: these strike the reader as analogous to the aspirations of Brand, Gregers Werle and John Gabriel Borkman, while the practical aim of making a record voyage strengthens the American flavor of Ethan's endeavor.

Realizing that his ship is leaking badly, Warren has this to say: "Ethan has wracked my ship to bits, she won't be worth a damn, but I can have her tinkered up to run okay and on the strength of this record, depression or no depression, I can sell her to England for a good price" (p. 99). The thematic motif reminds one of Ibsen's Pillars of Society (as indeed it anticipates its Ibsenite transposition in Miller's All My Sons). At the end of the play Ethan and Nancy punish themselves by jumping into the sea in a way not unlike Rosmer and Rebecca expiating their sin by seeking death together in the millstream (Rosmersholm). If, however, the sin and the self-inflicted punishment are similar, the relationship between the sinners is different: Ethan does not really love Nancy.

Ibsen's influence can also be felt on the level of dramatic composition--the way in which significant pieces of information are initially intimated to the audience by subsidiary characters (here Cato, the Harfords' servant) setting the scene and introducing more important figures.

The Ibsenite spirit also informs O'Neill's method of minute motivation. A case in point is the death of Hull, the first mate. Ethan wishes Hull were dead; he has long been eager to oust him. So, when the first mate reports himself too weak to undertake the voyage, he raises Ethan's hopes. Captain Payne, in fact, appoints Ethan first mate to replace Hull. But Ethan's gloating jubilation comes to a sudden end when Hull appears after all and declares himself fit enough for the job. Hull's unexpected and unwelcome reappearance fatally wounds Ethan's vanity. He even orders Ethan out of his cabin--an insult that takes place in the presence of a woman (Leda), and exposes Ethan to the risk of losing the esteem of another woman (Nancy). Leda even incites Ethan's anger by mocking his servility. Ethan hits Hull viciously in a sudden flash of anger, but he does not commit an intentional and premeditated murder: Hull, when hit, knocks his skull against the steps, and his weak heart does not survive the shock. As a result of all these partial causes, what Ethan had wished for becomes fulfilled. This is comparable to the way in which Solness's secret desire that his house should burn down materializes through the good offices of the helpers and servants of his magic imagination in The Master Builder.

Ibsen's analytic method is adopted in the gradual unfolding of the truth about the past relationship of Leda and her rich, elderly traveling companion, Graber;3 and Ibsen's symbolic leitmotif-technique is used throughout the play (the song of the gold-seekers, the sea chanty, "what shall it profit a man," a touch of the poet, etc.).

III. Well-Made Melodrama.

Here too a parallel with Ibsen is evident. While Ibsen created a dramatic form whose range, height and depth far surpassed the scope of the contemporary well-made play, he could not help embodying some aspects of that kind of play in his dramatic structure (e.g., Krogstad's intrigue, his letter, sudden turns in the plot, and the climactic scene in A Doll's House). Similarly, O'Neill, while he sharply opposed his father's sort of theatre, nevertheless employed to a certain extent some of its procedures.4 Accordingly, The Calms of Capricorn on occasion resorts to the technique of the well-made melodrama (Nancy prevents Ethan from suffocating Captain Payne with a pillow and then does it herself; Leda is indefatigable in weaving her strands of intrigue; Ethan and Nancy are threatened with being tossed overboard to pay for their sin and to put an end to the calm). Recourse to technical solutions of this kind can be explained by the diminished stature of the characters and their situations: Ethan may have aspirations which suggest Richard III, but he is, at best, a pale and distant relative of Richard III, from whom he lives at a great historical distance. It is not a realm he desires to possess but a ship; his aim is not to obtain the crown but to beat a record and subjugate the sea; his rivals and victims are not powerful noblemen but the second mate, the third mate and the captain. When he is starting upwards, he proves only an upstart, and the dramatic form he sets in feverish motion is in some measure commensurate with his stature.

IV. Well-Made Farce.

More surprisingly, but not illogically, O'Neill also makes use of the technique of the well-made farce in The Calms of Capricorn. The comic effect here does not depend on incidental gibes, as it does in his early one-acter, The Movie Man; nor is it based on a "well-made" caricature of youthful attitudinizing, as in his youthful comedy, Now I Ask You. It does not blend into a sentimental comedy, as does Ah, Wilderness!; nor is it a mere coefficient of tragic irony, as it appears to be in More Stately Mansions; and it is not an aspect of tragicomedy, as in A Touch of the Poet. In Act Four, Scene One of The Calms of Capricorn the comic spirit attains the relative independence of a farcical dénouement, and it reaches its peak in what at this point of the action seems to be a three-fold happy ending: Ethan marries Nancy; Warren gives his daughter, Elizabeth, to Ethan's brother, Jonathan; and Leda sets her cap at Wolfe, another of Ethan's younger brothers. For the time being, Wolfe appears to be indifferent, but Leda, Elizabeth thinks, "will make him human. She did me and I was as cold as he is, almost" (p. 102). It is only in Sara's momentary forebodings and Nancy's passing fear that a presentiment of grimmer events can be captured.

V. Wildean Comedy.

The refined, Wildean version of the well-made comedy enters the stage of The Calms of Capricorn and the deck of the sailing ship Dream of the West with the entrance of Leda Cade and Wolfe Harford, both of whom reject the moral norms of everyday life. Leda lives life with an unscrupulous savoir vivre and an undisguised gusto; Wolfe keeps a fastidious "aesthetic" distance from the game of life, and is only interested in the pure game of cards, chiefly in the form of solitaire. Together they make a Wildean figure, related to one another as Dorian Gray is to his portrait--two polar incarnations of a similar attitude; two separate, even opposed dramatic characters who belong together, Leda being, as it were, Wolfe's alter ego. "He and I'd be a perfect couple," Leda says, observing their similarity, and she expresses her fascinated attraction to Wolfe: "He gives as little a damn about anything as I do" (p. 73).

Their Wildean affinities trigger off a number of witticisms, puns and paradoxes. When Ethan has knocked Hull down, and the first mate dies, Elizabeth is upset, and Warren prevents her from seeing the corpse, wishing to spare her the sight. Leda objects: "It might do her good. There's nothing like the sight of death--to wake people up and start them living" (p. 42). Absurdity "verified" by cynicism has the flavor of a veritable Wildean paradox. Professing himself to be "humane" rather than "human" (p. 118), Wolfe is just as unmoved by the death of Hull as Leda is. Taking a glance at the first mate's body, he shrugs his shoulders with cool indifference and returns to his solitaire. When the captain reproaches him for having no respect for the dead, Wolfe answers with a disdainful pun: "Sorry, Captain. You think he cares? It seemed to me the dead are so entirely indifferent to our little games" (p. 44). When Wolfe guesses that Ethan may have murdered Hull to obtain his position and Leda remarks that he does not really care, Wolfe answers with a characteristic witticism: "No--except I'm interested in seeing Ethan get what he thinks he wants in order to watch him throw it away" (p. 47). Wolfe's nonchalance arouses Leda's interest. Their ensuing dialogue is not without Wildean turns and inflections:

Leda: And what do you want, Wolfe?

Wolfe: Nothing.

Leda: Not even me?

Wolfe: Not even you.

Leda: I'll make you want me before we're through. Want to bet?

Wolfe: I never bet, I only play for nothing.

Leda: Afraid you'd lose?

Wolfe: (Stung.): I'm not afraid of anything! I'll take any bet you like. But I have nothing.

Leda: You have yourself.

Wolfe: That is the greatest and commonest illusion.

Leda: Eh?

Wolfe: But if you accept it, all right. I bet myself.

Leda: Against myself.

Wolfe: Done!

Leda: Done.  (pp. 47-48)

In the meantime, Leda is satisfied with becoming the mistress of Honey (and of practically every man on the ship), and she praises Honey for finding genuine pleasure in lovemaking: "You're the only one on this ship who doesn't want everything to be more than it is and doesn't blame himself because it isn't" (p. 65). Leda also tries to convert Elizabeth to her profession and way of thinking, suggesting to her that what Elizabeth really wishes is not that men should seek her for her money: "that's not what you want them to want. You don't want to buy them. You want to make them buy you" (p. 87). At first Elizabeth despises Leda's behavior and maintains that a woman of honor should be reticent. She even censures Nancy with a petulant pun for displaying her love for Ethan so openly: "She's a fool, that woman--a silly fool to show so plainly she's a fool" (p. 52). Later, however, Elizabeth proves a perceptive disciple of Leda, arouses Jonathan's masculine interest and sexual appetite with the age-old bed-trick, and expresses her gratitude to Leda because "She makes everything so simple and innocent" (p. 101).

VI. Shavian Comedy.

O'Neill's irony is audible. For this very reason, he can use the Wildean idiom for satirical purposes, ironically satirizing even Wilde in the Shavian spirit. To split the Wildean dandy into a figure of aristocratic disdain (Wolfe) and vulgar prostitution (Leda) and to point out their shared indifference to moral values in general and to murder in particular are tantamount to a satirical exposure.

Shavian touches abound in the play. When Warren realizes that Honey was only pretending he had seen land to humor him and to save Ethan from his wrath, the owner of the ship comments with the professional esteem of a cheated cheater: "He'll wind up in the Senate, if he doesn't look out!" (p. 110).

The dialogue between Warren and Elizabeth about marrying Jonathan undercuts parental sentimentality in a way comparable to the conversation between Mrs. Warren and her daughter in Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession:

Warren: Well, I'll be sorry to lose you, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: Rot! Don't introduce sentiment. You'll be glad to get rid of me and I'll be glad to get away from you. I gave myself to Jonathan deliberately. I wanted a husband. He's got brains, ability, he'll make good. You'll give him a good opening. He doesn't want any money.

Warren: Yes, it's better than I thought. And if he doesn't make good, you can always divorce him.

Elizabeth: Exactly.  (p. 114)

Here not only is the nature of Mrs. Warren's profession revealed, but also the calculating toughness of the daughter. Accordingly, while Shaw's irony spares Vivie Warren, O'Neill's satirical attack challenges Elizabeth, too. He makes her think (in a thought-aside reminiscent of the technique of Strange Interlude): "I can't forget the joy of shame when Father called me a dirty little trollop" (p. 112).

With an anti-heroic Shavian thrust reminiscent of Arms and the Man, Jonathan ridicules Ethan's record passage as "a last romantic gesture" (p. 100), explaining (as does Yank to Paddy in The Hairy Ape) that sail is dead and steam is the future. Jonathan also ridicules Graber's and Wolfe's attitudes in playing cards--"One happy if he loses, the other indifferent to winning" (p. 111)--while O'Neill satirizes Jonathan's profiteering greed by making him reverse a Biblical phrase: "I know nothing of the soul--what shall it profit--?" (p. 51). The blasphemous paradox of the reversed statement is one of the intellectually conceived satirical leitmotifs of the play. Ethan rebukes Sara's possessiveness with it: "What can it profit a man if he own the world and pay his soul for it? But I can see that for a woman the reverse is true, what could her soul profit her if she paid the earth for it?" (p. 14). Even Reverend Samuel Dickey, the hypocritical priest of the adventurous passage, has this to say to Leda: "What shall it profit a man if he gives you up for a supposition like his soul? I shall visit you again tonight, if I may" (p. 88). The leitmotif is one of the intellectual bonds linking the play to the basic concern of the cycle, A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed.5

Reverend Dickey is a constant target of O'Neill's Shavian wit. In the days of the oppressive calm, Dickey prays repeatedly to God for wind, but the wind does not start blowing. Dickey supposes it is God's punishment, because his heart is no longer pure--he has been to Leda's stateroom. Saint Joan possessed the magic power to control the elements, she could make the hens lay eggs and she was able to turn the wind. But Dickey cannot work miracles; he is hardly important enough, Elizabeth claims, to elicit God's vengeance; he is only "half a man" (p. 85), which she proves by noting that, when Dickey was pawing her arm, she was not flattered, only annoyed. (Leda must have felt the same way.) Dickey is immensely relieved: "Then you think it wasn't important? Oh, thank you, I am so glad, so glad!" (p. 85). It takes a "superman" (p. 98) to arouse the wind; Ethan can do it, although when he becomes too conceited, and declares that, having beaten the sea, he is going to give her up, even the wind becomes ironical--it dies down, peters out, and is only willing to blow again when Ethan makes a special effort to bring it back.

The Shavian (and O'Neillian) aversion to happy endings asserts itself in the very presentation of a semblance of happy ending: in Act Four, Scene One, Ethan and Nancy are happily united, but the cost of the wedding is murder ["The Reverend Mr. Dickey married Ethan and Nancy right after he had said the burial service over Captain Payne, almost like a double ceremony!" (p. 99)]; Jonathan's and Elizabeth's marriage is arranged, but it is a mere business partnership; Leda decides to yoke with Wolfe, but for the moment the desired match is but an undecided draw between vanity piqued and indifference challenged. On the face of it, the scene is a treble happy ending of the well-made play type; but in its deeper layers, it is a satirical rejection of happy endings. In some of its hints, in fact, it is a symbolical portent of tragic Fate.

VII. Symbolist Tragedy.

Paradox (in comedy) and symbol (in the Symbolist Movement) are polar opposites: one usually evokes laughter, incites the intellect, and implies dissociation; the other arouses emotion, electrifies imagination, and presupposes empathy. Nevertheless, they branch out from the same stem: both double the plane of artistic perception into what is regarded as appearance and essence; both confront the two planes; and both consider and evaluate the former from the viewpoint of the latter. A paradox is either an apparent or a "verified" absurdity; a symbol is not primarily the sign of the thing it is the image of, although it is the image of the thing it is the sign of. The nature of a symbol--as it appears in the Symbolist Movement--can be outlined by a paradox because the stratification and structure of a symbol resemble those of a paradox.

This constellation explains why the paradoxical comedy of Wilde and Shaw grew out of the social soil of the same period of world history as did the symbolist plays of Hofmannsthal, Maeterlinck and Yeats; why Wilde's symbolism (in Salomé) could develop into the paradoxical view of his later social comedies when his position in relation to the world he depicted became more external; why Shaw's paradoxical satire came to be studded with luminous symbols at periods of uncertainty (The Doctor's Dilemma, Heartbreak House); why Maeterlinck could alternate symbols with paradoxes (in Aglavaine and Sélysette); and why O'Neill in The Calms of Capricorn--besides approximating the Wildean and Shavian kinds of paradoxical comedy--also wrote a symbolist tragedy.

Ethan suggests the nature of this tragedy in symbolic terms. When he explains to Sara his aim of gaining victory over the sea, and, through that, of attaining freedom and rebirth, he uses the emotional and imaginative language of symbols:

I speak to you in symbols which neither of us can think but which our hearts understand, because I love you, and because I love and hate the sea, which you can understand, being also a mother. For the sea is the mother of life, is a woman of all moods for all men, and all seductive and evil--devil mother or wife or mistress or daughter or waterfront drab. And it is a sign and symbol of freedom to me that someday as a captain of a ship I shall fight her storms and calms and fogs and crosscurrents and capricious airs and make a faster voyage around the Horn to the Golden Gate than ever man has made--as a last gesture of victory, now when the era of American triumph over the sea is dying from this money panic of the greedy earthbound. And if I smash the ship to pieces under me in the victory, well, one always pays for victory with one's temporal life that the soul may win freedom. I want this chance to accept the sea's challenge, that's all. If I win, I possess her and she cringes and I kick her away from me and turn my back forever. If I lose, I give myself to her as her conquest and she swallows and spews me out in death. (p. 15)

Sara is too earthbound to understand this raving of a Sea-Mother's son, or to comprehend how the sea in his eyes can change from a navigable route to wealth into a sign and symbol of freedom. Of Ethan's American blend of high-minded idealism and practical-minded empiricism, she appreciates only the latter. But her husband Simon understands his son, and assesses his aspirations in a cryptic and terse paradox: "I think you will lose, that if you win, you will have lost most of all. But I also know that your losing will be your final victory and release" (p. 19). The seeming contradiction of the paradox confronts the plane of possession with that of human values: victory in one plane is defeat in the other. Its concise contrast expresses the external position of a wise visionary and the internal insight of a kindred soul. Such a measure of compassion excludes the possibility of the comic, and implies an understanding, indeed a prophetic premonition of what awaits Ethan at the end of his pursuit of spiritual pride, lust for power and possession.

The ultimate meaning of Sara's presentiment is illuminated by the last symbol of the play. When Ethan has won a Pyrrhic victory over the sea by being "as unscrupulous as the sea" (p. 19), and decides to atone for his crimes by giving himself and Nancy over to the sea, he says: "We'll swim out together--until the fog lifts. And then the sea will be alight with beauty forevermore--because you are you" (p. 123). The cleansing effect of fog in Anna Christie and the end of worldly suffering in death conveyed by the lifting of the fog in Bound East for Cardiff are here enriched by the overtone of moral catharsis.

VIII. The Morality Play.

The Calms of Capricorn also reveals some traditional features of the morality play. It offers a story of sin and retribution, and to a certain extent (mainly in its dramatic framework) it treats its theme in a quasi-allegorical fashion. Simon tells Ethan not to call him Father but "brother--or simply, man" (p. 18), and he himself addresses Ethan as "man" (p. 19). Nancy's question to Ethan before their suicide ("Up those stairs?" p. 122) and Ethan's answer ("Yes, that must be the way") are fraught with allegorical overtones of the thorny path to salvation. Even the names of several of the characters are chosen to suggest a trait or fate (Payne, Graber, Leda, Dickey, Hull) Yet this aspect of Everyman's quest is not of the medieval type; it is more characteristic of the dramatic vision of a certain sector of the Symbolist Movement (Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird), and of the late Strindberg (To Damascus, A Dream Play), or indeed of the concept of O'Neill's Dynamo and Days Without End. The bulk and basis of The Calms of Capricorn, however, is not allegorical.

IX. Chekhov.

The Chekhovian dramatic model did not leave the dramaturgy of The Calms of Capricorn untouched either. A thematic link is forged between the attitudes of Firs in The Cherry Orchard and of Cato in O'Neill's play. Just as Firs considers the liberation of the serfs a most unfortunate event, Cato, the black servant of the Harfords, also deplores that Master Simon, a "most interfering man" (p. 5), has bought his freedom from slavery. Thus the motif crops up appropriately in the context of American history.

More important than this would seem to be a compositional similarity. The end of Act Three, Scene One, and the whole of Act Three, Scenes Two and Three of The Calms of Capricorn are written in the short story-oriented mosaic pattern, a version of which is so typical of Chekhov's late plays, where attention shifts from one mosaic piece to the other with a sudden, revealing turn. The short story-like quality of this sort of fragmentation is especially clear in Act Three's third scene, where Warren reproaches Graber for cheating against himself in their card game and losing deliberately (p. 82). When, despite his wish to lose the money he has stolen for Leda and thereby free his conscience, Graber has cleaned Warren out of all his cash, he offers to give it all back so that Warren may have a chance to win (p. 88). The gesture anticipates Erie's in O'Neill's late, short story-slanted one-acter, Hughie, in which Erie regains his shattered self-confidence by staking the impecunious Night Clerk in a game of craps, and then, cheating against both himself and the Clerk, emerging the "winner." Whether the dramatic figure becomes a loser or a winner, staking the adversary in a make-believe game is tantamount to the dramatization of a short story-like turn.

In The Calms of Capricorn O'Neill employs the Chekhovian mosaic pattern with autonomy and independence. He uses the pattern--itself expressing capillaric oscillations in a state of benumbed hibernation between past and future; in fact, in a world historical calm--to depict an actual calm. The mosaic design befits the dramatic situation in the bulk of Act Three, but the increasingly nerve-racking oppressiveness of the situation does not call for, and does not allow, the coupling of the design with an elegiac, Chekhovian, lyric mood. (Such a matching is in order, and takes place, in Hughie and Long Day's Journey Into Night.) In The Calms of Capricorn the oscillation of the design is hysterically heated, incessantly increases, reaches the level of a sort of vibrating, hectic simultaneism, and culminates in the murder of Captain Payne.

X. Strindberg.

Strindberg is another tutelary figure over the dramatic world of The Calms of Capricorn. The relationship between Nancy and Captain Payne, her instinctive joy at her husband's indisposition and illness, the prolongation of the captain's death and the cruelty of the unsatisfied and emotionally starved wife evoke the grimly surcharged atmosphere of Strindberg's The Dance of Death, even if Nancy is a much more impressionable and vascillating character than Alice, and Payne lacks the vindictive viciousness of Edgar. The war of the sexes (enlarged to a cosmic level in Ethan's consideration of the sea as feminine); the disturbances of alienated egos; the symptoms of monomania; the rapid rise of hysteria; love and hate as the two sides of the same psychological make-up; emotional instability; life as stations of a desperate quest; elements of superstitious "super-naturalism;" dramatic structure as a dynamic chain-reaction of scenes--all are indicative of the haunting spirit of O'Neill's revered Swedish predecessor in whose mirror, for social, psychological and biographical reasons, the American dramatist beheld his own reflection. This, of course, implied and required a thorough modification of the Strindbergian model: O'Neill's characters in the cycle are not rooted in the metaphysical myth of Swedenborgian transcendence, but are firmly anchored in American reality.

XI. Expressionist Drama.

The feverish increase of tension so characteristic of Kaiser's expressionist drama, From Morn to Midnight, and of O'Neill's expressionistic plays--The Emperor Jones (the crescendo of the basso ostinato of the tom-tom), The Hairy Ape (mechanical noise effects), and Lazarus Laughed (Lazarus' laughter)--is unmistakably present in The Calms of Capricorn (the agitated surge of emotions in Act III, the goldseekers' song, the sea chanty whose expressive force is more dynamic than that of the Negro chant in the early and fine mood piece, The Moon of the Caribbees). The wild undulation of stepped up emotions, however, has a restricted application and a modern realistic motivation in the conditions of the more and more disquieting calm; the goldseekers' song is used functionally as the leitmotif of ambitious possession, and is dramatically counterpointed by the sea chanty, the ingeniously composed counter-voice of dispossession by the capricious power of the sea and the wind.

XII. Absurdist Drama.

In short but significant scenes, The Calms of Capricorn sometimes anticipates the Theatre of the Absurd. A case in point is the closing of Act Three. In the last phase of a successful, if dangerous, passage made in record time, and after a long spell of calm followed by a favorable wind, Ethan boasts of giving up the sea, and the wind suddenly stops blowing. It is only a streak of calm; Ethan commands the wind to return, and it does. As Ethan himself admits, a momentary calm is not unusual in the region. The moment of calm, however, poses a critical threat. Nancy flies into Ethan's arms, terrified. Reverend Dickey, who not long before had expressed the view that it would be difficult to justify God's means (p. 100), for a moment doubts God (p. 104). Looking at Nancy and Ethan together, Sara feels a "chill of horror" (p. 104) run down her spine. At Nancy's touch, Sara involuntarily shrinks. Still frightened, Nancy admits: "For a moment in Ethan's arms then I felt so guilty. It was absurd" (p. 103). The mingling of the playful and the threatening, the mixing of the farcical and the fateful, the alloying of the natural and the unnatural, the rational and the irrational, the merry and the satirical, the light and the serious, the purposeful and the purposeless: these are absurd, and open up a grimly grotesque vista beyond the passing sense of nonsense. Naming absurdity, O'Neill precedes the theatre that adopted that word as its name. Evoking absurdity, as he does in the final dialogue between Sara and Nancy, he anticipates it. (The lines follow Nancy's statement that her momentary feeling of guilt was "absurd.")

Sara: Of course, dear! Why in the world would you feel guilty? You are lovers and love is worth all it costs!

Nancy: Of course! (p. 104)

In view of the fact that Nancy murdered her husband, and made him pay for her love, the passage reads like an absurd parody of Nora's self-sacrificing love in A Touch of the Poet and of Sara's loving care for Simon after her unselfish resignation of possessions in More Stately Mansions.

The ultimate preservation in Ethan and Nancy of the moral core of personality, with its discriminating ability and disposing power, suggests that the fleeting moment of absurdity in The Calms of Capricorn points more to Durrenmatt's and Albee's use of absurd effect than to Pinter's or Beckett's brand of absurdism. The aspect of absurdity in O'Neill's play modernizes, rather than dissolves, the traditional forms of realism.


O'Neill's contact with dramatic movements after him explains the nature of his relationship with dramatic trends and models before him. As in the former case there can be no question of imitation, in the latter case there is no question of any "borrowing" or mechanical "influence" either. Similarities are the manifestations of typological parallels and are based in parallel historical developments. The European dramatic models from Ibsen to Durrenmatt which crop up in the dramatic texture of The Calms of Capricorn reflect, cope with, and crystallize various aspects of, and reactions to, alienation, so it is quite natural that they should appear in that comprehensive and thoroughgoing analysis of alienation which O'Neill attempts in his cycle plays. O'Neill's originality does not lie in avoiding or evading these models, but in transforming them by subjecting them to the requirements of the crucial conflict treated in the cycle of possessors self-dispossessed, a systematic analysis of why the "Harfords are aliens" (p. 13), why it is that they, like Yank in The Hairy Ape, "can never belong" (p. 13). O'Neill's dramaturgy did not dodge the problem, but naturalized it--Americanized it.

All the same, it was impossible to keep twelve different dramatic models within the dramatic mold of a single play. It was inevitable that they should pull the play in twelve different directions, and the result was an epic, indeed a novelistic, broadening of the original idea. The twelve divergent kinds of drama incorporated in The Calms of Capricorn needed twelve diverse sorts of motivation. The well-made melodrama could not be launched in the same way as the Shavian comedy. The Shakespearean type of drama speeds up action, while the Ibsenesque kind of analytical submersion into the past holds it back. The expressionistic impulse drives the plot forward; whereas the symbolist framework is much more static in character, embodies a reflective pause, and carves out appropriate scenes for its contemplative attitude.

It follows from the foregoing that while The Calms of Capricorn displays points of contact with a great variety of dramas by European playwrights as well as by O'Neill, it shows the greatest affinity with the other cycle plays whose novelistic dimensions and proportions it shares. Like most of the dramas in the cycle, The Calms of Capricorn had novelistic ambitions. Even the embryonic rough draft of the play ("developed" from the scenario), which is no more than a dramatic sketch, runs to 124 pages. Like the other cycle plays, it contains several stories told by the protagonists (e.g. Leda's life story which she summarized for Nancy) and certain narrative reminiscences are engendered by the cyclic pattern. Catching the ship bound for San Francisco occasions Sara to remember how her father had nearly missed the boat when he was coming to America from Ireland. Her words are prompted more by the structure of the cycle, and the epic milieu of the situation, than by her character, as they are at two other moments. Ethan's duel with the sea makes her remember what a great duellist her father had been. When Honey tells her that Wolfe keeps winning in his card game and suggests that she persuade him to start a gambling house, she is reminded of her father having been a great gambler, though one who always lost. "It would be only right for Wolfe to win it back" (p. 118), she comments.

Like Sara, O'Neill himself also has a cyclic memory. His is fearfully competent and comprehensive, approaching an epic totality of objects. References to possessing the quality of "a touch of the poet" link The Calms of Capricorn with A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions in a closely-knit network. Elizabeth uses the bed-trick with Jonathan in The Calms of Capricorn as did Sara with Simon in the plot of A Touch of the Poet and as Nora had done with Con Melody in the prehistory of the same play. Warren first pretends that he will not agree to the marriage of Elizabeth with Jonathan, but, being reminded that it is too late to think of waiting, at once understands "the hot blood of youth" (p. 102) and, rather than cursing Elizabeth, gives his consent cheerfully--an attitude that strikes the reader as a parody of Con Melody's stance at the end of A Touch of the Poet. Elizabeth's idea that she, Nancy and Leda should be like sisters constitutes a cyclic continuity, a rebirth and rejuvenation of the three sisters who were to appear in The Greed of the Meek, And Give Me Death and A Touch of the Poet, and were supposed to die in More Stately Mansions.

In these cases the cyclic pattern relates existing scenes in separate plays and thereby reinforces the epic tendency of objective totality in the sequence. In other cases the compositional claims of the cycle create new scenes whose main function is to establish and safeguard narrative continuity. This is the role of the first two scenes in The Calms of Capricorn, which are set on Harford's farm, form part of the play's multiple exposition, carry on the story of the epilogue of More Stately Mansions, and correspond to Scene One of its full typescript, which connects the last scene of A Touch of the Poet to the beginning of the action of More Stately Mansions. The start of the main plot is preceded both in More Stately Mansions (Scene One in the typescript) and in The Calms of Capricorn (Scene Two) by a wake (Cornelius Melody's and Simon Harford's, respectively). Connective scenes of this sort also fulfill the function of epic episodes, as does a deviation of the action even within the main body of The Calms of Capricorn, where Sara first intends to marry Ethan to Elizabeth (the future sea captain to the rich shipowner's daughter), but later Ethan marries Nancy, and it is Jonathan who takes Elizabeth as wife. Such episodic detours are more common in novels than in plays. The swarming out of motifs, motives, scenes, strands, networks and generations from the mold of The Calms of Capricorn to the rest of the cycle was so uncontrollable that the drama shifted from the position of first play in the early four-unit cycle to the rung of seventh play in the final eleven-unit project.6

Thus to the centrifugal energy of twelve European dramatic models was added the novelistic stretching force and explosive power of cyclic expansion. That was obviously too much to cope with. O'Neill foresaw the possibility that his work might remain incomplete. Sara's words about Simon's book ring prophetic: "He'll never finish it, I'm thinking. He's all the time finding more he wants to put in it. It'll be in fifty volumes if he ever does finish it" (p. 10). The Calms of Capricorn is not heterogeneous because it is unfinished; rather, it is unfinished because it is heterogeneous. The novelistic expansion and diversity of the raw material proved dramatically unwieldy.7

But even in its incomplete version, the play--like the whole cycle it belongs to--is an invaluable document of the heroic--indeed, the epic--wrestling of America's foremost dramatist with the generic consequences of alienation. Without this experience, he could hardly have created his late masterpieces.

--Peter Egri

1 Eugene O'Neill, The Calms of Capricorn. Developed from O'Neill's Scenario by Donald Gallup. With a Transcription of the Scenario (New Haven and New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1982). An earlier edition was published in two volumes by the Yale University Library in 1981, Volume I comprising the scenario, and Volume II the play. Subsequent page references to the play will refer to the Ticknor & Fields edition and will be given in the main text. In all but three instances the citations appear one page earlier in the 1981 Yale edition.

2 Cf. Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Artist (Boston, Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1973), p. 252; Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), pp. 474-476.

3 The importance of the past is also emphasized in the words of Elizabeth to Reverend Dickey: "Everything is dead. There's no present, no future, only the past, and that is dead too" (p. 67). In Elizabeth's complaint Mary Tyrone's observation is in the making: "The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future, too." [Eugene O'Neill, Long Day's Journey Into Night (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1969), p. 87.] Jim Tyrone in A Moon for the Misbegotten is also a captive of his past, which wells up in his confession to Josie Hogan.

4 Cf. John Henry Raleigh, The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), pp. 179-185, 191-194, 214.

5 Cf. Barrett H. Clark, Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays (New York: Dover Publications, 1947), pp. 152-153.

6 Cf. Donald Gallup, "Introductory Note" to The Calms of Capricorn, pp. vii-xiii.

7 It would, of course, be totally unjustified to blame O'Neill for the heterogeneity and raw quality of The Calms of Capricorn. After all, he never claimed to have finished the play, and was cautious enough to insert a leaf even into the much more accomplished typescript of More Stately Mansions with the warning words: "Unfinished Work. This script to be destroyed in case of my death! Eugene O'Neill." [Cf. Donald Gallup, "Prefatory Note" to Eugene O'Neill's More Stately Mansions (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1964), p. x.] O'Neill philology was honor-bound to disregard this warning and to make even the unfinished plays accessible for research, interpretation and appreciation.



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