Happy Ending (?)
Typed Manuscript Signed, 4
[Provincetown, December, 1921]
Chrisite opened on November 2, 1921 and
received uniformly favorable reviews. However, the critics perceived the play's final act
-- its "happy ending" -- as contrived. O'Neill was accused of giving in to
popular tastes and catering to the box office.
O'Neill composed this manuscript in defense of both his play and his integrity as a
playwright. It was sent to Oliver Sayler, who was producer Arthur Hopkins' press agent,
with instructions to pass it on to Alexander Woollcott, the drama critic for the
New York Times. O'Neill wrote to Sayler regarding the manuscript, "I have got it off my chest
and I consider it a fair statement of what I really was aiming at in that fourth act, so
On December 18, 1921, the Times ran O'Neill's defense. This version of "Happy Ending
(?)" was sent to drama critic Ernest Boyd along with O'Neill's December 6, 1921 letter.
Holograph changes by O'Neill throughout.
Happy Ending (?)
So many people -- critics professional and volunteer -- have taken exception to what they
allege it the compromising happy ending to my ANNA CHRISTIE that I feel called upon to
make not a defense but an explanation. Evidently -- to me at least -- these people have
ears but are slightly hard of hearing.
First of all, is the ending to ANNA CHRISTIE an ending in the accepted sense at all? Is it
not rather a new beginning, with a whole new play, as full of the same preordained human
conflict as the last, just starting at the final curtain. Such was my intention. In this
type of naturalistic play, which attempts to translate life into its own terms, I am a
denier of all endings. Things happen in life, run their course as the incidental,
accidental, the fated, then pause to give their inevitable consequences time to mobilize
for the next attack. In the last few minutes of ANNA CHRISTIE I tried to show that
dramatic gathering of new forces out of the old. I wanted to have the audience leave with
a deep feeling of life flowing on, of the past which is never the past but always the
birth of the future, of a problem solved for the moment but by the very nature of its
solution involving new problems.
Since the last act of ANNA CHRISTIE seems to have been generally misunderstood, I must
have failed in this attempt. And I was afraid I would, for I knew what I was up against. A
kiss in the last act, a word about marriage, and the audience grow blind and deaf to what
follows. Also, I surmise, the critics begin to itch for their typewriters to damn this
happy ending -- which hasn't ended. No one hears old Chris when he makes his gloomy,
foreboding comment on the new set of coincidences, which to him reveal the old davil, sea
- (fate) - up to her old tricks again. More importantly, no one hears Burke, when for the
first time in the play, overcome by a superstitious dread himself, he agrees with the old
man. And more importantly still, no one listens to Anna when she shows how significant she
feels this to be by her alarmed protest: "Aw, you ain't agreeing with him, are you,
Mat?" She follows this by quickly urging him to "be a sport and drink to the
sea, no matter what." And the play ends with the father staring out of the door into
the fog. "Fog, fog, fog, all bloody time. You can't see where you was going, no. But
tdat ole' davil sea, she knows."
But few of the critics have ever heard any of these things. At least I must conclude they
have not, for not even the most adversely prejudiced could call this a "happy
ending" Meaning that I wish it understood as unhappy? Meaning nothing of the kind.
Meaning what I have said before, that the play has no ending. Three characters have been
revealed in all their intrinsic verity, under the acid test of a fateful crisis in their
lives. They have solved this crisis for the moment as best they may, in accordance with
the will that is in each of them. The curtain falls. Behind it their lives go on.
It may be objected by some stickler for dramatic technique that, after all, the last
speeches in the play form an anti-climax, and that, the psychology of audiences being what
it is, I have no right to expect anything but a general inattention. This point, I grant,
is well taken. Nevertheless, those last speeches, properly understood, are as full of
drama as anything in the play. They are not of the stuff of anti-climax. It is only the
kiss-marriage-happily-ever-after tradition that makes them so. And it is my business --
and that of every playwright worth his or her salt -- to drop such doddering old
traditions down the manhole -- if only to see what happens. In this case the old tradition
seems to have bounded back and "beaned" the playwright.
But granting for the moment the absurdity that the ending is happy, why the objections to
it raised on all sides? Have I not been told constantly that gloom is my failing, that I
should see the brighter side, that I should grant my helpless human beings their 100 per
cent right to happiness. Well, in Anna Christie, haven't I? You claim I have and yet you
will have none of it. You say it is unconvincing. Why? Is it, as I suspect, on moral
grounds? -- Does the idea that two such "disreputable" folk as Anna and Burke
are, as you think, going to be happy, disturb your sense of the proper fitness of things
in this best of all possible worlds? Or is your reason, as I more than suspect, simply
that you prefer the obvious to the inevitable? It would have been so obvious and easy --
in the case of this play, conventional even -- to have made my last act a tragic one. It
could have been done in ten different ways, any one of them superficially right. But
looking deep into the hearts of my people, I saw it couldn't be done. It would not have
been true. They were not that kind. They would act in just the silly, immature,
compromising way that I have made them act; and I thought that they would appear to others
as they do to me, a bit tragically humorous in their vacillating weakness. But evidently
not. Evidently they are all happy -- and unconvincing! Their groping clutch at happiness
is taken as a deadly finality.
But how about those sentimental ones to whom the Boy on the Burning Deck represents the
last word in the heroic spirit our drama should strive to express -- the American Oedipus
Rex? Surely they must read something into my ending besides mere eternal happiness. But
they don't. And yet there never was a more sentimental gesture of defiance at fate than
that of Burke and Anna agreeing to wed.
I can't please anyone with my happy-unhappy, unhappy-happy, ending that doesn't end.
Lastly, to those who think I deliberately distorted my last act because a "happy
ending" would be calculated to make the play more of a popular success I have only
this to say: The sad truth is that you have precedents enough and to spare in the history
of our drama for such a suspicion. But, on the other hand, you have every reason not to
believe it of me.