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The Calms of Capricorn


On June 5, 1939, O'Neill stopped work on A Tale of Possessors, Self-dispossessed, his eleven-play cycle on American history, and turned to other subjects—plays that became The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey into Night.  The cycle play on which he was working was The Calms of Capricorn about a voyage on a clipper ship around Cape Horn in 1857.  It was a subject that had interested him as early as 1931, and he had done extensive research on the ships that had once made the famous voyage, even having detailed models built of the more famous among them.  His Work Diary states that he was far from satisfied with the work he had done on the play and he destroyed it in draft form.  What remains is a scenario sketching the story of the four sons of Simon and Sara Harford, subsequent to the events set forth in More Stately Mansions.

The staging plan, once the characters begin the voyage, was inventive and unusual.  The ship was to be seen from a variety of angles.  The sail formed a theatrical front curtain and the action moved in short spurts from place to place with one brief action played off against another in an almost cinematic manner.  Central to O'Neill's theme was a demonstration of the corruption of fidelity by greed.  To link together the scenes exemplifying his theme, he planned for a song to be sung by an off-stage group of greedy "gold-seekers," easterners who have heard of the gold strike in California and are setting out to become rich.

The song, "Sacramento," a chanty concerning the trip around the Horn to the gold fields, is first heard as the ship sets sail.  Ethan Harford, Simon and Sara's oldest son, has fought with and killed the first mate of the ship.  The women who have witnessed the death are horrified, but one of them, Leda Cade, an indomitably sensual whore, gets them to agree on a lie to defend Ethan.  She is interrupted by two of the male passengers who enter singing the gold-seekers' song.  Leda turns to a minister and asks for something more in the clerical line—a hymn, perhaps to take the curse off the voyage.  Flippantly she says she will join in the singing, boasting that her religious upbringing underlies all her "success" in the world.  As the passengers look on horrified she sings a song of another kind of voyage, a journey for the weary to the other side of Jordan, to the fields of Eden.[1]  The ironic presentation of the journey of the faithful in the false piety of a whore's mouth is intended as a comment on the macho journey after gold in "Sacramento."

"Sacramento" is sung throughout the action, plaguing the passengers until, weary of its endless repetition through the twenty days while the ship is becalmed in the doldrums in the Tropic of Capricorn, they try to drown it out by singing a chanty—an effect similar to one O'Neill used earlier in The Moon of the Caribbees.  At times its rhythm is mingled with the beat of the ship's pump:  "As a background is the triumphant song of the gold-seekers, dominating a subdued, beaten sea chanty, and the clanking of the pump."[2]  Toward the end, as retribution overtakes the characters, O'Neill wrote, "A dead calm, clanking of the pump louder & quicker now, chanty powerful groundswell, the gold-seekers' song beaten and exhausted with bursts of desperate assertion."[3]

The linking of the short scenes by a constant musical and rhythmical continuity was an innovative conception, related to, but more complex than the unceasing beating of the drums in The Emperor Jones.

[1]  O'Neill calls the hymn "Fields of Eden."  A hymn of that title has not been discovered.  "The Eden Above" is included here.

[2]  The Calms of Capricorn, vol. 1:  The Scenario, transcribed by Donald Gallup (New Haven, Conn:  Yale University Library, 1981), p. 51.

[3]  Ibid, p. 55.

Honey and Graber enter singing "Sacramento."  Graber very drunk, saying gold-seekers for'ard good fellows but fools....  Wolf (quietly) "Bad singing—but dead only ones it can't disturb, I should think."  [The Calms of Capricorn, The Scenario, pp. 20, 26, 34, 50, 51, 55]

Sacramento - words traditional, music by Stephen C. Foster, tune: "Camptown Races," published 1850

[Leda to the Rev. Dickey] Show us some of your best stuff—take curse off this voyage—will join in the hymns—you may not believe it but I had the strictest kind of religious upbringing—I owe all my success to don't believe me.  Listen!  (She sings "Fields of Eden") -- Graber begins to pray.  [The Calms of Capricorn, The Scenario, p. 26]

The Eden Above - author unknown, composer unknown, arrangement by J. W. Dadmun, published 1858


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