New York Times, November 13, 1921
'Anna Christie': Second Thoughts on First Nights
By ALEXANDER WOOLLCOTT
All grown-up playgoers should jot down in their notebooks the name of "Anna Christie" as that of a play they really ought to see. This is the sordid waterfront tragedy, salty and alive, which is lifted into beauty by the sheer truth of Pauline Lord's performance in its title role.
It is the work of Eugene O'Neill--the same O'Neill whose other tragedy, "The Straw," was finally produced on Thursday night at the Greenwich Village Theatre. "Anna Christie" is a singularly engrossing play. More than any other piece of his we have seen, it is hardened with theatrical alloy. It is occasionally clumsy, with a boyish awkwardness. It has one or two moments of feeble violence. It is cluttered up with the rubbish of an earlier play from the wreckage of which O'Neill built this one. Its last act shilly-shallies. Yet, because it is crowded with life, because it has sprung from as fine an imagination as ever worked in our theatre, and because it has been wrought by a master of dramatic dialogue, it is worth seeing again and again. It comes to the chronic playgoer like a swig of strong, black coffee to one who has been sipping pink lemonade.
"Anna Christie" is the tragedy of an old Swedish bosun who has developed a great fear and hatred of the sea. It has killed the men and saddened the women of his tribe as far back as the tales of them run. When his own lonely wife dies, he packs his little daughter off to some farmer cousins in Minnesota, so that she may grow up inland and never know the curse of his old devil sea. This caged child of the sea, perishing for it, grows up into a forlorn and bitter woman, and it is from a raided brothel in St. Paul, sick and disconsolate, that she finally comes East to meet her father--and the sea. How it welcomes her and cleanses her till she feels as though all her miseries had been the miseries of some gone and forgotten person; how, in spite of all her father's plans for her, it is a sentimental seaman she falls in love with; how this fellow goes wild, tearing drunk when her new-found character bids her tell him what she's been; and how he can't help crawling back to her just the same--all this is vividly told in the four acts of "Anna Christie."
"Don't bawl about it," says Anna to her whimpering father. "There ain't nothing to forgive, anyway. It ain't your fault and it ain't mine and it ain't his neither. We're all poor nuts. And things happen. And we yust get mixed in wrong, that's all."
Which expresses more of O'Neill's outlook in fewer words than any other speech he ever wrote. The two lovers are interlocked as the final curtain falls. O'Neill seems to be suggesting to the departing playgoers that they can regard this as a happy ending if they are shortsighted enough to believe it and weak-minded enough to crave it. He, at least, has the satisfaction of intimating in his final words that, whereas everything seems cheerful enough at the moment, there is probably no end of misery for everybody hidden just ahead in the enfolding mists of the sea. It is a happy ending, with the author's fingers crossed.
Here, for once, is O'Neill irresolute in the matter of his final scene. Hitherto he has gone to it as unerringly and inevitably as a man goes to the ground who has jumped from the roof of the Woolworth Building. The last act of "Anna Christie," however, is full of bogus things and even gives way to the weakness of brandishing a revolver for no other conceivable purpose than that of jouncing the nervous playgoer into a state of receptive agitation. We may yet live to see O'Neill write a play in which a crook turns out in the last act to be a detective.
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