That this is so is largely due to the fourth play, The Moon of the Caribbees, in which, of all the Glencairn plays, O’Neill took the greatest pride. “No one else in the world,” he said, “could have written that one.”16 His estimation of the worth of his dramas was often at considerable variance from the critical estimate of others, but in this instance, at least, his judgment must be respected. The Moon of the Caribbees is the first signal O’Neill gave of the achievement of his final plays. Far more than any other play of this year, it marks a turning point. Where The Long Voyage Home and In the Zone in a variety of ways repeat the effects of his pre-Baker work, The Moon of the Caribbees moves forward and must be accounted a considerable step. What he gained in this play he did not entirely retain, yet he was able to return to its manner at the end of his life and to rediscover its early secret as one of the sources of his late tragedies.
The Moon of the Caribbees is a nearly flawless dramatic poem. To realize its qualities from a printed text is impossible, for it is so completely a drama that its power cannot be captured from its dialogue alone. To describe the play as a “mood piece,” heavily dependent on “atmosphere,” is to excuse, without understanding, the fact that it has no conspicuous narrative as do In the Zone and The Long Voyage Home. The totality of the drama lies in the mood, for, as O’Neill said, “the spirit of the sea . . . is . . . the hero.”17 In this, it reverses the proportion of the other Glencairn plays where the qualities and power of the sea were left a little vague. Now, as if deliberately, O’Neill rids himself of narrative in the conventional sense, of attempts at subtle character revelation and of character conflict insofar as these shape the action. Instead, he sets himself to dramatize such a fragmentary episode as those that filtered through the memory of the dying Yank. It is a play which Baker would have found formless, without beginning, middle or end. Yet it contains the fullest sense of life that O’Neill had put on his stage, and years were to pass before he would again equal it.
O’Neill was aware of its seminal importance to his career. To Clark, he wrote that it was his “first real break with theatrical traditions. Once I had taken this initial step, other plays followed logically.”18 It was not, perhaps, so simple as this. The essence of The Moon of the Caribbees is its extraordinary simplicity, its firm refusal to turn aside from its purposes for any obvious theatrical effect.
What the play depends on are the maturing qualities of O’Neill’s emerging theatrical style. As the curtain rises and the main deck of the Glencairn is revealed, “A melancholy Negro chant, faint and far off, drifts, crooning, over the water.” The chant continues through the play, its significance made clear in the final stage direction, where it is described as “the mood of the moonlight made audible.” Moon and chant are properties of the sea; through them, a spell is cast over the men binding them to the sea and to one another as if they had been hypnotized.
The men sit on deck in small groups, waiting for native women to come aboard and bring them rum, and holding inaudible conversations. Gradually the chant penetrates their talk and reduces them to silence. Driscoll, whose attention is toward the shore, alert for the coming of the women, reacts to the song with irritation. Smitty, whose mood matches the melancholy of the music, agrees that the song is depressing. The men try to describe the song—a keening song, a funeral song, something, at least, with the qualities of a religious chant. Later, the old Donkeyman makes a similar comment, comparing it to a hymn heard outside a church on Sunday. The funerary suggestion of the music gives rise to ribald discussion of the habits of cannibals, and then, in the expectation of revelry, they fall silent. In the quiet, the chant is heard again. Three bells strike and the play—whose running time is almost exactly a half hour, ending with the striking of four bells—begins.
The first action is one of rebellion against the chant. In the sailors’ daily lives, the routines of the sea and the ship obscure any ultimate questioning. Now, in the calm, the chant disturbs them, as if it had aroused in them a dim awareness that the sea’s power over their lives is absolute. In the music, the sea’s spell is made audible, and Smitty, whose reaction is the most conscious, articulates the group’s sentiment: “I wish they’d stop the song. It makes you think of—well—things you ought to forget.” Then rousing himself from unaccustomed depression, Big Frank calls to Driscoll to sing something to drown out the song.
Driscoll’s chanty leads to the coming of the women. The noise level grows as rum is passed, fights begin and end and the crew moves from the deck into the forecastle. As the door is shut, the brief turbulence of sound ends, and the chant reasserts itself as an accompaniment to Smitty’s reflections on his past, memories conjured up by the pull of the music.
The revelry in the forecastle grows, the men burst out onto the deck and a dance tune is introduced, again drowning the chant. A fight begins, Paddy is knifed, yet, when the brawling subsides, the chant is heard again, placid as the moon and as unresponsive as the sea that has cradled the sorrow, brutality and revelry on the ship.
The chant is the central agent of the conflict in the play, the protagonist against whom the men react. The other elements are transient appearances. Smitty’s reminiscences, the Donkeyman’s quasi-philosophical commentary, the brawl, the dance, the drunkenness lie outside the play’s core. The men are defined by their relationship to the offstage song. To Smitty, who, as the Donkeyman points out, is not made for the sea, the song is a source of conscious sorrow. All that he has tried to escape floods back to his mind as he hears the music. To the Donkeyman, whose acceptance of his destiny is unresentful the song is no problem, melding with the surroundings in which he has found peace. To the others, in whom life burns more fiercely, the song is disturbing but never to the point that it brings them full awareness. With their minds on the revelry to come, it strikes a discordant note, and they throw their vitality against it without seeking to understand their reaction.
The revelry of the crew in reaction to the song has been total, thoughtless, Dionysian and paradoxically at its fullest measure an act of complete surrender to what the song has hinted. They have been absorbed in a life process. Will has been vanquished, individuality submerged, and personality, freed of longing, regret and hope, has expressed itself merely in energy. The men’s absorption into the controlling element that the song makes manifest is viewed without moral perspective. Drunkenness, mass fornication, near-murder are not seen as good or evil, for they are not reached by conscious or subconscious choice. The acts committed have in them the amorality of innocence and something of half-comprehended ritual observances to a God whose meanings and identity are mysterious.
In the play, thought and its ensuing conscious actions are the sources of unhappiness. Smitty’s memories bring him to despair and separate him from the physical revelry of the crew. As he drinks to drown thought, he yearns toward the moon, as if he is seeking to will himself to belong to the world of the sea. It is an impossible attempt. In no way can he join the crew in their unthinking outpouring of energies. He rejects the advances of the native girl, Pearl, and as he does so, his alien nature arouses in her a viciousness akin to hatred. She slaps him, rejecting the attitude that has bred in her a flicker of awareness of what she is. Hers is a blow struck at an object that has caused thought and disrupted for a moment her identification with her world. In all instances, except in the perspective of the old Donkeyman, thought is the goad, the instigator of unhappiness. Only when the conscious mind is subdued, when the men are able to enter completely into the occasions the sea sets for them, do they find the kind of adjustment that brings momentary peace. Then, they no longer hear, or if they hear do not resent, the call over the water that is the sound of their fate.
In Long Day’s Journey into Night, Edmund Tyrone speaks of his identification with the sea as a mystical vision:
Edmund’s words are O’Neill’s last and most positive description of a current that ran deep in his life. His second wife, Agnes Boulton, recorded his swimming far out for long hours and playing with a seal that cavorted beside him.19 When his life permitted, he lived close to the sea. In California, at Tao House, well inland from the Pacific Ocean, the interior decor recalled that of Peaked Hill Bars, his home on Cape Cod, and in his study there were detailed models of sailing vessels mounted on the walls above the fireplace, which brought memories of the sea where from the window he could see only brown hills.* In 1928, while he was living in France at a far remove from the sea, he began a play which he said was “the grand opus of my life.” It was an autobiographical work called Sea-Mother’s Son and was subtitled The Story of the Birth of a Soul.20 The title was an apt description of O’Neill, who felt for the sea something of the relation of son to mother, and, in nearly synonymous terms, of man to God. The conscious articulation of the concept emerged during the writing of the Glencairn plays, and gave them the thematic unity appropriate to a cycle.
At first the theme’s quasi-religious implications remained latent in the suggestions of the sea’s power to be either kind or vengeful, while more explicitly, O’Neill presented the sea in terms similar to those developed by naturalistic novelists to explain the indifferent powers that control men’s fates and place their lives in ironic perspective. Yet there is a difference. As examples of American naturalism, the Glencairn plays are strongly personalized and devoid of the scientific attitudes of many of the American novelists. To be sure, the reversed evolutionary process upon which Frank Norris based his portrait of Vandover and which gave Jack London his Buck are suggested by O’Neill. The crew is made up of brutish men, and occasionally O’Neill toys with the idea of man’s reversion to the animal. For example, in The Moon of the Caribbees, during a quarrel Cocky calls Paddy “A ‘airy ape,” (461) and the phrase was perhaps the genesis of a short story of 1917, now destroyed, called The Hairy Ape, the progenitor of the play he would write in 1921. Yet in the story of the anthropoid stoker, as with the Glencairn sailors, O’Neill does not follow the lines set by the greatest naturalistic novelists. His own response to the sea, affected perhaps by Conrad’s romanticism, led him toward a less pessimistic view of man than that found in Crane or Dreiser or Norris. Indeed, O’Neill’s view of man’s relation to nature owes as much to Emerson and his followers as it does to the naturalists.
O’Neill’s early insight told him that nature was benevolent, and that the most a man can hope for is to come into such a condition of being that he feels “dissolved” into her elements, harmoniously united in an ecstasy of belonging. Should man pull away from such harmony, assert the power of his will, seek after goals set by materialistic, ego-satisfying drives, he is filled thereafter with a sense of loss that makes him prey to neurosis and that condemns him for the rest of his life to seek re-identification with the God-force. The best life is that which operates below the level of conscious, self-determined action. More conscious apprehension dooms men to an endless quest. Thus, for all the somber cast of his thought, O’Neill was not in the beginning deeply pessimistic. Even when man was lost, the hope of belonging remained. Even should hope turn hopeless, the dream persisted to haunt life like a dark and yet sustaining force.
In The Moon of the Caribbees, O’Neill perfected in one-act form what he had earlier called a “tragedy of fate.” No longer was fate loosely labeled “ironic,” nor did he there revel in the spectacle of man’s being crushed by his social environment. Irony was now localized in Smitty’s rueful self-appraisal, and no man was made a victim of circumstance alone. The view was broadened, and men were seen as creatures of profound forces in their world. Being Sea-Mother’s sons, their harmonious participation in the sea’s process was perhaps the nearest they could come to happiness. Thus the theme, developed in the last play, lends depth to the others, even to In the Zone, and it points ahead to other, more impressive works to come.
The Moon of the Caribbees was the end of the first phase of O’Neill’s career, a small work of high perfection, free of dependence on other authors, and one that, as O’Neill rightly said, only he could have written. Where the achievement was to lead him was not clear, and such satisfactions as it provided were necessarily short-lived. The opportunity to experiment on the Provincetown stage was irresistible, and in the suddenly stirring currents of the post-war American theatre, O’Neill made tentative moves to test his powers in other directions than the realism of the Glencairn plays permitted. There was much to be learned, much to accomplish. He had not, as yet, written a presentable full-length play, but his reputation was growing, and several long plays were emerging in scenario form. Equally important, as he found his subject matter, the themes raised questions he was required to answer. What for instance of less passive men than the Paddys and the Driscolls? What of men who sought to fulfill destinies of which they were totally aware? And what of their contraries, the aware men like Smitty whose will was powerless and who could only live in hope? The first he wrote of in the short play about Captain Keeney and his wife, Ile; the second he treated as a short story, entitled Tomorrow.
* Carlotta Monterey O’Neill once said that O’Neill disliked the swimming pool at Tao House because it was closed in by a small depression in the hills, and he was unable to look out.
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