In The Long Voyage Home, the scope widens, although the essential thematic consideration—that the crew of the Glencairn are tied to the sea—is not yet explicit. Bound East for Cardiff implied that the sea could punish thoughts of rebellion—potential acts of will such as Yank’s desire to find a home on land. There, however, the stronger conception was that the sea was kind to those who, without thought, live along the lines of force her strength laid down. In The Long Voyage Home, the conception of the sea as avenger is primary, but in describing the sea’s punishment of rebellion, O’Neill fell back on the somewhat mechanical plotting that had characterized his plays of “ironic fate.”
Like Yank, Olson, the protagonist,
acts in accord with a halfunderstood need to leave the sea and to
return to his family’s farm. He has tried before:
To his enforced temperance, signaling as it does an unaccustomed act of will, his shipmates react with a certain awe. Driscoll, roaring drunk, cries in his praise:
Thus they celebrate and protect his intention, but their efforts are futile. Olson is cut out of the herd, doped, robbed, and shanghaied on a jinxed ship. What matters is not the activity of the plotters. They are only agents, performing the sea’s will without animosity or responsibility. O’Neill even allows a moment of sympathetic communion like that between Rose and Tim to occur between Olson and Freda, his betrayer. But a more important force than she sends him on his fatal voyage. When he hears that the jinxed ship is in port and is bound around Cape Horn, he says “I pity poor fallers make dat trip around Cape Stiff dis time year. I bet you some of dem never see port once again.” (507) The implication is strong that the sea will not let Olson live.
On the narrative level, a trick is played, hope is cheated and Olson’s action is ironically frustrated. Thematically, the play states that the land for all the sailors is an alien world and they are unable to deal with its intricate duplicity. On land, as not at sea, where their fellowship binds them in a crude purity of heart, they meet evil. Yet, as the sea’s men, they are not touched by it. Only Olson, in a state of apostasy, becomes a victim to it. He is doomed because he is bound to the sea, which, like a God, has power to bless or to curse.
That the suggestion is made only by implication is perhaps a sign of O’Neill’s increasing ability to make his points with subtlety. Here there are no personifications of ironic life forces, nor visions of pretty ladies in black. Yet it is also true that lacking the touch of awareness that Rose and Yank were given, Olson goes to his fate as a mere animal with no sense of what has brought him down. O’Neill’s judgment of In the Zone—that it did not convey a “big feeling for life” and that it lacked “spiritual import”—might also be the judgment of The Long Voyage Home. In neither has O’Neill created unequivocally the sense of an operative fate guiding the lives of the sailors. Both hold their focus on individual acts of will and their consequences. Yet when the four Glencairn plays are staged as a cycle, this effect is diminished. In the whole, what men will is rendered unimportant in relation to their predestined course of life at sea. To commit an act of will is in fact to act hostilely toward the sea in whose grip they move. In the larger context, the sentimentality and the melodrama are minimized, and a pattern of “spiritual import” emerges.
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