Menu Bar

 

Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XI, No. 3
Winter, 1987


(IN THIS ISSUE)

O'NEILL'S NAUSIKAA EPISODE

Eugene O'Neill's source stalkers have overlooked an evident Homeric structural parallel and literary precedent for the principal myth and thematic substance behind Anna Christie, his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1921 melodrama about a spiritually redeemed statuesque prostitute; her seagoing runt of a father, Chris; and her mercurial would-be husband, the burly chauvinist Mat Burke. Winifred Frazer's observation of Burke's being "an Irish Poseidon" (283) misses the precise mark, but still alludes to an Odyssean element in the play, without citing certain narrative similarities, of which there are several.

The sea is the dominant image in both the Odyssey and Anna Christie, and its merciless wrath receives the blame for the punishment that Odysseus sustains, as well as the network of misfortune that befalls the three central players in O'Neill's drama. Odysseus is the only survivor among those with whom he departed the Trojan War, and Burke is virtually the last able man (he alone has the energy to rise to his feet) among the four who survived the sinking of their Atlantic steamship. Odysseus, it may be recalled, swam the final two days of his sea-battering before coming ashore on Skheria; and Mat has endured five days in an open boat before finding safe harbor in Provincetown. In Act IV he gives thanks to the crucifix around his neck for "bringing [him] safe to land when the others went to their death" (O'Neill 75). Odysseus has the grey-eyed Athena to thank for having "entered the palace of Alkinoos [Phaiakia's king]/ to make sure of [his] voyage home" in Book VI. There the enticing maiden Nausikaa, Alkinoos' daughter, is accompanied by other young women to the Skherian water's edge on Athena's pretext of washing linens, albeit Nausikaa is the only person remaining at the time of her discovering the disheveled Odysseus. Anna, who alone has recently left the scarlet company of her Minnesota sisters in prostitution, has made her way from New York to Provincetown. There she feels suddenly cleansed, and there too (responding to a nocturnal impulse) she has her first encounter with a similarly disheveled Burke who emerges from a thick sea fog. Nausikaa's desire to transport laundry to the Phaiakian seaside was also a nocturnal impulse, placed in her mind by Athena well before dawn. At the waterfront she finds Odysseus, who makes his way into Alkinoos' palace while enshrouded by a thick coverlet of fog.

At first, however, Odysseus conceals his modesty beneath an olive branch. So too, Mat Burke wears nothing but a pair of dirty dungarees that leave enough uncovered to reveal his Odyssean "heavy-muscled, immense strength" (O'Neill 30). Both men attribute their safe sanctuary, moreover, to other divine assistance. Mat says that he is "safe ... with the help of God" (31); and at the opening of Book VIII, Alkinoos rightly observes that "the gods' own light is on" Odysseus, who has not yet introduced himself. But Odysseus, like Mat (whose name means "gracious gift from the Lord"--Webster's 63), cleans up well. Odysseus, having "scrubbed the coat of brine from his back and shoulders/ and rinsed the clot of sea-spume from his hair," has his appearance enhanced by Athena's "making him seem/ taller, and massive too, with crisping hair/ in curls like petals of wild hyacinth,/ but all red-golden" (Book VI). Burke, later bathed and subsequently dressed in a cheap blue suit and striped cotton shirt, shows a face "beaming with good humor" (O'Neill 45).

Part of what has sustained these wandering seafarers is their remarkable stamina. Mat boasts of his "great strength," and Odysseus comments in Book VII that he has had the endurance to withstand "the worst trials that you know,/ and miseries greater yet." But they also share a honey-tongued way with words, and a flair for flattery. "Are you divine, or mortal," Odysseus queries Nausikaa in Book VI. "I never laid eyes on equal beauty/ in man or woman. I am hushed indeed." In Act II, Mat tells Anna with comparable facetiousness that he had first thought her a mermaid, and then calls her "a fine, handsome woman" (31).

Odysseus has angered Poseidon by blinding his son, the barbaric Polyphemus. Chris's nemesis, like Mat's, is what Chris habitually calls "dat ole davil sea"; Mat remarks that the sinking of his ship is the work of "the divil's own storm" (36). And like the archetypal sailors they are, both Mat and Odysseus have generously bestowed themselves on women. As Anna says to Mat in Act IV, "You been doing the same thing all your life, picking up a new girl in every port" (73). Odysseus, though he would be disinclined to admit it, has done his share of philandering, too, having lain with the viciously dangerous Circe, and having enjoyed (despite his protestations) a long sojourn with the possessive Kalypso. "The only women you'd meet in the ports of the world who'd be willing to speak you a kind word," says Mat in Act II, "isn't women at all. You know the kind I mane, and they're a poor, wicked lot, God forgive them" (37).

Neither Nausikaa nor Anna is morally corrupt, but each harbors misgivings about men, sui generis, to the point of outright hostility. "Give you a kick when you're down, that's what men do," Anna tells her surrogate mother-confessor Marthy Owen in Act I. "Men, I hate 'em--all of 'em!" (16). Likewise, Nausikaa remarks disapprovingly to Odysseus that among the rank and file of men on her palisaded island, "plenty are insolent" (Book VI). Notwithstanding, both women have their nets into matrimonial waters, and so (for them) do their doting fathers. Still not knowing Odysseus' identity, Alkinoos pegs him as an ideal bridegroom. "Seeing the man you are, seeing your thoughts/ are my thoughts," he says ceremoniously toward the conclusion of Book VII, "my daughter should be yours/ and you my son-in-law, if you remained." But Odysseus has no intention of remaining, having been conspicuously absent from Ithika for twenty years. And having been away from his Irish home for fifteen years, a vaguely similar motive drives Mat Burke back to sea and out of the arms of his tempestuous Anna Christie. In a sudden change of heart, Chris proposes that Mat take his daughter's hand in matrimony. "Ay tank," he says quite unceremoniously in Act III, "maybe it's better Anna marry you now" (61 ).

For Odysseus, more hard times lie in store after his somewhat wistful departure from Skheria; but return to Nausikaa he assuredly will not. Mat, as Anna says with rage in Act IV, will board a ship bound for "the other side of the earth where you'll never see me again." She is probably correct; as D. J. Stewart has remarked of the failed romance between Nausikaa and Odysseus, it is "a love affair that never quite comes off" (Stewart 65)--at least not during the four acts of O'Neill's play. And while the men float off to other adventures, they leave the company of those who are themselves displaced from their origins. Anna, her late mother and her father had migrated to America from Sweden. The Phiakians who inhabit Skheria had migrated there (so it says in Book VI) from Hypereia.

Withal, however, a reading of the Odyssey and Anna Christie may inform still other texts where characters not so much depart and return, but where they arrive for an interlude in the midst of a broader quest, and then depart in fulfillment of it.

--Terry Reed

WORKS CITED

Frazer, Winifred. "Chris and Poseidon: Man Versus God in Anna Christie." Modern Drama, 12 (1989), 279-285.

Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1961.

O'Neill, Eugene. Anna Christie in The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Random House, 1954), III, 1-78.

Stewart, D. J. The Disguised Guest: Rank, Role, and Identity In the Odyssey. Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1976.

Webster's Dictionary of First Names. New York: Galahad Books, 1981.

(IN THIS ISSUE)

 

Copyright 1999-2011 eOneill.com