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The Amateur: In the Zone   Next


The deliberate attempt in writing Before Breakfast to find a right orientation for his work was continued in the three plays about the crew of the S. S. Glencairn. Setting aside Strindbergian novelties, he returned in technique and theme to the point he had left two years earlier. That the plays form in small compass a cycle, and so anticipate O’Neill’s later complex cyclic formations, is accidental. Their first performance as a cycle was that by a group called the Barn­stormers in Provincetown on August 14, 1924. Neither O’Neill nor Cook ever appears to have considered the four as a unit, and no definitive order of the plays was ever established.* In their first productions, they were treated as separately conceived one-act plays, and in this light, setting aside the continuity of characters and scene, they each reveal certain of the necessary further steps toward the disciplines of stagecraft and the clarification of the major theme that he had found in Bound East for Cardiff.

The first play was In the Zone,13 and, while in O’Neill’s opinion it was the least successful of the three, it had the greatest success. The wartime story made it popular. It was sold to The Seven Arts, although the magazine failed prior to the play’s publication. Its production by the Washington Square Players received favorable commendation, and, as a result, it was purchased by Martin Beck for a vaudeville tour.

O’Neill, who by the time of its production in October, 1917, had absorbed some of the Provincetown Players’ idealism, mistrusted its success. He later told Barrett Clark that it seemed the “least significant” of all his plays:

It is too facile in its conventional technique, too full of clever theatrical tricks, and its long run as a successful headliner in vaudeville proves conclusively to my mind that there must be “something rotten in Denmark.” At any rate, this play in no way represents the true me or what I desire to express. It is a situation drama lacking in all spiritual import—there is no big feeling for life inspiring it. Given the plot and a moderate ability to characterize, any industrious playwright could have reeled it off. . . . I consider In the Zone a conventional construction of the theater as it is.14

Thus O’Neill in 1919, two years after writing the play.

Whether his mistrust was more than a prideful convolution of spirit can be debated. Clark notes accurately that the play gains a greater “feeling for life” when it is played in conjunction with the other Glencairn plays, than when it is staged as an isolated work. Alone, its sentimental central situation dominates, and its wartime scene becomes the source of the merest melodrama. Its story is slight, but intricate. Smitty, the focal character, does not belong with the crew, but has sought the sea as refuge from his troubles on the land. As the Glencairn sails through waters controlled by German U-Boats, the frightened crew come to think of Smitty as a spy. A black box, in which he carries love letters from a girl who has rejected him, is taken to be a bomb. Smitty’s humiliation as the crew open and read the letters is the climax of the action. As it stands, the narrative is anecdotal and leads to quasi-ironic “discoveries” and to a “situation” of which Baker might well have approved. Sensing the
theatricality of the final moment, O’Neill rejected the work. Nevertheless, the play contains elements that were important to explore.

Like many of the Glencairn crew, Smitty was modeled after a person O’Neill had known, a young Englishman he had met in Buenos Aires. He had spun a romantic and sentimental yarn about his past, much in the manner of those who were later to occupy Harry Hope’s saloon in The Iceman Cometh.15 O’Neill’s attraction to him as the protagonist for a play was perhaps because he resembled the poet-hero already sketched in Fog, Bread and Butter and Before Breakfast. The character, a sentimental and neurotic dreamer, manifests an unusually sensitive response to those elements in his environment that are hostile to him. He is desperately aware that he does not “belong” in the world where he exists. For O’Neill, who had sought to depict the crushing power of an “ironic life force,” such a character was not only congenial; a greater awareness than that offered in the final vision of Rose or of the dying Yank was a dramatic essential. As a contrast to the unthinking, muscular ape­like members of the crew, to whom thought is strange and whose only happiness is to function smoothly in their environment, O’Neill came naturally enough to a man like Smitty, a restless alien moving in an unending quest for belonging. What is absent in the play, as O’Neill realized, is a context for the action that has power to generalize the incident.

He brought to the play a considerable technical skill, particularly in suggesting through sound and light patterns the tension of men under wartime conditions at sea. In the play, the full moonlight becomes at once a romantic symbol for Smitty, and, since it makes the Glencairn visible to the enemy, a source of terror to the men. Much of their fear is conveyed in passages such as these:

DAVIS . . You won’t be calling him (Smitty) all right when you hears what I seen with my own eyes. (He adds with an air of satisfaction) An’ you won’t be feelin’ no safer, neither. (They all look at him with puzzled glances full of a vague apprehension.)

DRISC0LL  God blarst Ut! (He fills his pipe and lights it. The others, with an air of remembering something they had forgotten, do the same. SCOTTY enters.)

SCOTTY  (in awed tones) Mon, but it’s clear outside the nicht! Like day.

DAVIS  (in low tones) Where’s Smitty, Scotty?

SCOTTY  Out on the hatch starin’ at the moon like a mon half-daft. (518)

What is here more eloquent than speech is silence. The stage direction following Driscoll’s expletive reveals an awareness of psychological tension and a power to express it in stage business that is not easily attained. Phrases like “with the air of remembering something they had forgotten” provide the actors with the means to fulfill the silence. The pause before Scotty’s entrance is a long one, yet O’Neill has seen the uses of the silence and employed it to convey more fully than dialogue would ever do the tension of men on a submarine-haunted sea. Against the tension, Smitty’s “half-daft” behavior, his silent yearning toward the betraying moonlight, strikes another key, at odds with the dominant fear of the ship’s crew. To cap the effect, there is pouring through the forecastle alleyway the bright light of the moon itself. Technically it is a work of quality.

Yet what is achieved here is no more than the narrative permits. In Bound East for Cardiff the same techniques had revealed the relation between the men and the sea and caused them to be viewed as the sea’s children. Here, a less elemental relationship is suggested, and the sea remains a background for personal relationships bred of the special wartime circumstances.

* O’Neill co-produced the set of four in New York in November, 1924. The order they there received was The Moon of the Caribbees, The Long Voyage Home, In the Zone and Bound East for Cardiff.


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