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The Moon of the Caribbees


Among his early plays, The Moon of the Caribbees was O'Neill's favorite, perhaps partly because, while it did not falsify the realistic depiction of the sailors on the S.S. Glencairn, it went beyond realism to achieve a poetic and philosophical extension unusual in the theatre of 1917. The play's theme is a simple one: that sailors belong to the sea as a child may be said to belong to a mother or men to their god. O'Neill conceived of the sea as being a god-like force which controls its children. The sea's men must drift without thought or ambition, moving as the tides take them.

None of the sailors on whom O'Neill concentrates can be allowed a perspective on his state of belonging. Even Smitty, who does not belong to the sea as the others do, can only lament his alienation without understanding it fully. Yet the power of the sea is everywhere in the action of the short play: in the gentle waves, in the moonlight that falls like a soft netting around the ship, and especially in the chant from a nearby island heard softly and continuously throughout the action.

The chant should sound through the play, unvaried and repetitious like the sound of waves lapping against the sides of the freighter. Its placidity is imprisoning. It disturbs the men, driving them to the edge of thought. What the chant is saying is "You are the sea's creatures. You may not think or question. You have no destiny but what the sea gives you. You have no will. You have no freedom. You have only the contentment of belonging to the sea for so long as life lasts."

Thought is perilous, even if not articulated. Awareness breeds heretical revolt. Yet, although they have little perspective on their condition, the men instinctively fight against the slavery that the chant implies, singing chanties to drown it out and ultimately staging a bacchanalian revel in the fo'c'sle with the bum-boat women who bring them rum. Yet whenever there is a pause, the chant is heard, shaping their lives individually and collectively.

Thus, the chant can be viewed as the protagonist of the play. All turn against it, none overcomes it, and at the end, as quiet settles over the Glencairn, the chant is described as if it were a force of nature: "...the haunted, saddened voice of that brooding music, faint and far-off like the mood of the moonlight made audible."

What chant was used in the original production of the play by the Provincetown Players is not known. For a re-cording of the play directed by Jose Quintero, three Caribbean-born singers Val Serrant, Bobi Cepedes and Celisse Johnson sang a chant that they agreed was an old song each had known in childhood. It was, they said, a wordless "hum" which could be altered to fit the singer's mood by changing tempo and varying the drum accompaniment. They felt it to be African in origin. While recording it they sometimes hummed and sometimes sang on the syllable "Ah." They kept to a steady, slow Calypso drum rhythm throughout and avoided changes in dynamics, especially in the attack in the fifth bar.

(A melancholy Negro chant, ... drifts, crooning, over the water.) [I, 527]

Calypso Chant - traditional

Big Frank Sing someting Drisc. Den ve don't hear dot yelling.
Davis Give us a chanty, Drisc....
Driscoll A chanty is ut ye want? I'll bet me whole pay day there's not wan in the crowd...wud be sailors enough to know the main from the mizzen on a windjammer. Ye've heard the names av chanties but divil a note av the tune or a loine av the words do ye know.
Yank Give us "Blow The Man Down." We all know some of that. [I, 530-31]

Blow the Man Down - traditional (O'Neill's version, in which the first line is repeated as the third line of both verse and chorus, is an unusual variant of this popular chanty.)

Driscoll (grabbing [Bella]) Dance wid me, me cannibal quane....
Bella (hysterically) ...Captain'll hear that! Oh, my Lawd!
Driscoll Be damned to him! Here's the music! Off y got! (Paul starts playing "You Great Big Beautiful Doll" with a note left out every now and then. The four couples commence dancing a jerk-shouldered version of the old Turkey Trot as it was done in the sailor-town dives, made more grotesque by the fact that all the couples are drunk and keep lurching into each other every moment.) [I, 541]

Oh, You Beautiful Doll - words by A. Seymour Brown, music by Nat. D. Ayer, published 1911


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