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The Calms of Capricorn


The surviving scenario of The Calms of Capricorn3 traces the story of Ethan Harford and his attempt to master the sea with his clipper ship, Dream of the West, but the text offers only a confusing sense of what the play might have become. After a leisurely first act in two scenes concerning Simon Harford’s “final fate,” O’Neill concentrates on Ethan, Simon’s eldest son, and his love-hate relationship with the sea. Casting far back in his career to develop the story—to the days of S. S. Glencairn and Chris Christopherson—O'Neill causes Ethan to reflect some of his own early love for the sea. Ethan readily admits to being possessed by it and to knowing the freedom from responsibilities such a possession can give—as he phrases it, “to let oneself be possessed in order to possess—to love and be free, to be freed by love. . . .“ (11) Yet such a desirable spiritual condition cannot be easily gained. As a second mate, serving under hostile officers, he must take orders he hates and serve without pride in a kind of slavery that is the outer evidence of his enslavement by the sea. The sea is to blame, and Ethan feels he must find a way to conquer it. He cries out that to defeat the sea “is the only way I can achieve meaning in my own eyes, expiate myself, be able to forgive myself, to go on with pride. Right or wrong, it is my meaning.” (11)

To live true to his “meaning,” he must become the captain of a clipper ship and sail it around the Horn to the Golden Gate faster than any man has yet been able to do. It does not matter that in these years steamships are rapidly replacing sailing ships. To Ethan, such a race is a “last gesture of victory.” If the ship is smashed to ruins it is of no moment: “I want this chance to accept the sea’s challenge, that’s all. If I win, I possess her and she cringes and I kick her away from me and turn my back forever. If I lose, I give myself to her as her conquest and she swallows and spews me out in death.” (9)

Ethan’s dream of defeating the sea by setting a speed record may have been suggested by O’Neill’s own voyage into the Tropic of Capricorn to Buenos Aires in 1910. The captain of O’Neill’s ship, the Charles Racine, was known for setting speed records with his sailing ships. He looked down on steamers and stated that he would sail “as long as the winds blow.” Something too of the mystical nature of Ethan’s feeling for the sea may have originated on that voyage where O’Neill responded to the power and beauty of the sea to the point where, as he would write in Long Day’s Journey into Night, he lost himself—”actually lost my life. I was set free!” Louis Sheaffer quotes O’Neill as having felt on the voyage that “at such times I was in love with death.”4 The mystical relation between life, death, and the sea so crucial to Ethan’s “meaning” was O’Neill’s as well and underlies much of the thinking that produced The Calms of Capricorn.

Despite Ethan’s acknowledgment of the power of the sea, the course he follows to gain his chance to accept its challenge is at best suspect. To become captain, he murders the first mate in a fist fight and later becomes an accomplice in the murder of the clipper’s captain. Then, after a twenty-day idleness, becalmed in the Tropic of Capricorn, he rams the ship around the Horn to the threshold of the Golden Gate. At this point, Ethan and the sea finally come into direct confrontation. The wind dies, but Ethan, summoning all his strength of will, cries a command to the gods of the sea: “Send the wind, I say!” (54) The gods obey what appears to be his superior will but they are not beaten. The fog comes, and the ship is again becalmed off the San Francisco coast. Then, at last, Ethan acknowledges that the sea has won and goes to his death by drowning.

So long as the focus is on Ethan, the play’s theme is clear. Ethan has been, as Sara says, touched with poetry:

It’s a hard fate for a woman to have been the daughter & wife & mother of men touched with the curse of the poet. For it’s the moon you want and you hunt in the skies of the broad day when the rest of us don’t see her there at all. (9)

Ethan’s father sees the paradoxical nature of his son’s goal. Simon says,

I think you will lose (the challenge),  that if you win you will have lost most of all. But I also know that your losing will be your final victory and release . . . You are doing the only thing that a man, a lonely exile in the world of matter, can do—to choose his dream and then follow that dream to the end. (11)

As a “lonely exile in the world of matter,” Ethan, like many of O’Neill’s protagonists, cannot face the nature of his Universe. Only through adherence to a dream is life endurable. He does not much resemble the inhabitants of Harry Hope’s saloon, but his problem and attempted solution have something of the same reliance on achieving an impossible goal in a hostile, uncaring, existential world of matter. His suicide when the sea defeats him and the dream dies is the only resolution possible.

The thematic problem is that Ethan does not go to his death alone. His suicide is developed as a Liebestod. Dying with him is Nancy Payne, the wife of the captain, who is in love with Ethan and has conspired with him to murder her husband so that Ethan may have command of the ship. She has also helped Ethan conceal the fact that he has killed the first mate. To complicate matters further, Ethan does not return Nancy’s whole-hearted love, and the relationship is beset by a double guilt—the murders and his false love­making to the woman. When Nancy determines to take on herself the burden of her husband’s murder, Ethan must choose between his own truth and her love for him. Bitterly and with some brutality, he tells her that he does not love her. That he has used her carnally does not change her love for him. She is willing to let him go without further claim. Her sacrifice breaks him, and he lies, telling her he does love her. The resolution to all the problems of deceit and guilt and loss is for them to swim together out into the fog, surrendering themselves to the sea.

The number of difficulties the love story introduces to the account of Ethan’s attempt to follow his dream are not really resolved by the double suicide. Their deaths are expiation for two murders, and, although the murders were caused by the necessities of Ethan’s dream, it is difficult to see how the love story relates thematically to the story of the sea’s challenge. Furthermore, in Ethan, O’Neill has come upon a protagonist who does not appear to make a claim on an audience’s sympathy as, for example, Con Melody in his pursuit of a dream was able to do. The final scenes with Nancy and a scene between Ethan and Sara in which he makes his motives for the suicide explicit are only briefly sketched in the scenario, but after the extraordinary confrontation between Ethan and the sea in which he commands the winds to blow, the double suicide is an inadequate climax of what appeared at first to be the central story. Ethan admits a confusion O’Neill may have sensed with his story: “If it were only myself, I’d know what to do and do it this instant. I’d let the sea possess what it has won and beyond desire for possession, I might find peace at last.” (61)

Around the story of Ethan and Nancy, O’Neill ranges a variety of characters who will dominate the action of the subsequent plays. The second son, Wolfe, is Ethan’s opposite, a man indifferent to any challenge of fate or of man. Neither winning nor losing matter to him, a fact that makes him remote and cool to everything around him. Others see his indifference as a challenge, especially a whore, Leda Cade, who attempts to strike an amorous spark in him. Forced into a card game with Leda’s lover, Graber, he wins continually, finally playing for and winning the woman. She means as little to him as any other of his winnings, and he tries unsuccessfully to give her back to the gambler.

The third brother, Jonathan, is ambitious to become a power in the financial world. He sees the possibilities in developing transportation lines, much as the Sisters had done earlier. On board is Theodore Warren, the owner of the ship, and his daughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth is self-contained and sexually somewhat frigid, but Jonathan seduces her so that she will marry him and give him the opening wedge through her father’s wealth to the money and power he desires. Elizabeth, cognizant of his motives, accepts the fact that she is entering a marriage without love. Jonathan, she reasons, will make a good husband; if he does not, she is prepared to divorce him. At the play’s end, they enter their coldly unloving arrangement.

The youngest son, Owen, nicknamed “Honey,” is an amoral charmer. He is handsome, sings beautifully, and has a native ability to attract the admiration of strangers. Those who know him think of him as a born politician, and on the ship he uses his skills to extract information about gold strikes in the Sierra Nevada from a crew of miners on their way to the gold fields. In The Calms of Capricorn he has no clear narrative function, playing the clown with abandon.

Strangest of all the characters is Leda Cade. She is an apparent whore who maintains her professional status throughout the voyage, sleeping with most of the eligible males on the ship. She is a striking contrast both to the egomaniacal drives of Ethan and Jonathan and to the indifference of Wolfe. She treats the idea of love with contempt. When Nancy objects that her behavior makes love “nothing but—bodies,” she replies,

And what else is it? And why not? Bodies are all right, aren’t they?—healthy and natural. Aren’t we animals? Can you go to bed with a soul? Poetic drivel aside, love may start in heaven, but it goes on or it dies in bed. (32)

Mutual desire, she feels, wipes out ambition; nothing matters but to want and be wanted. That she is not wanted by Wolfe presents her with a challenge she has not won by the end of the voyage. The war between Leda and Wolfe will form the center of the following play.

Leda was conceived in relation to Sara Harford. In Leda, O’Neill saw something of the close alliance of sexuality and the life force that he had explored earlier in the figure of Cybel in The Great God Brown, but Leda is drawn more realistically than Cybel and is much tougher in behavior and appearance. She apparently was to stand in significant parallel to Sara. When the two women meet, Leda says, “I am glad to meet you. I’m sure we’ll understand one another.” In More Stately Mansions, Sara, like Leda, was willing to use sex to gain her ends, but The Calms of Capricorn takes this no farther. After the end of the first act, when Simon’s death releases Sara from the problems of her marriage, O’Neill finds no significant function for her in the action. He allows her to comment on the characters of her children and to serve as their confidante, but she is relegated to the sidelines of the play. At the end she is beginning to drink to excess, taking on some of the characteristics of her father. Nothing is made of her potential likeness to Leda, and her dramatic function so far as O’Neill had developed it in the scenario appears to be only to provide a poetical Irish tone at some moments in the drama.

In his introduction to the published scenario of The Calms of Capricorn, Donald Gallup comments that it provides “the merest notes” for what O’Neill would have made of the narrative. This is evident truth, and no critical judgment on the material can reliably be made. In one particular, however, the innovative staging plan, O’Neill shows himself to have been working as boldly as in any play of his earlier “experimental” days. In 1930, in Paris, he began to read about the clipper ships, and later, in Georgia, he commissioned a model-maker, Donald Pace, to create models for him of well-known clippers. He supervised the accuracy of the models with care, sending some of them back to Pace for changes.5 The ships were mounted on the walls of his study at Tao House and provided a continual point of reference for placing the scenes of The Calms of Capricorn. Acts III and IV demonstrate that O’Neill’s genius for finding startlingly original solutions to difficult problems of staging had by no means diminished. He arranged for the ship’s decks and cabins to be viewed from a variety of angles, with the interiors of the cabins and wheelhouse being on display as needed and the poop deck in its relation to the main deck providing a two-level stage. Over the set, the huge sails hang like the main drape in a theatre, and across the large stage with its manifold playing areas, the characters move as they would in reality on a ship, changing from place to place, seeking both public and private encounters. It is a complicated design, but an exciting one, approximating the reality of shipboard travel far more closely than any other plan could have accomplished.

The use to which O’Neill put the setting in planning the action is equally interesting and innovative. Faced with a large cast and with a great number of private alliances, O’Neill does not attempt group scenes after the second act, wherein the passengers are introduced. Rather he lets his characters range in a sequence of short scenes, dropping in on a conversation on the main deck, shifting in mid-speech to another being enacted in a cabin, building in fragmented glimpses a realistic rhythm of the action of the whole. On stage, the technique of narration was new. He had tried a similar use of his stage in Desire Under the Elms, but there, with a small cast and a single problem of concern, the multiplicity of action was not a problem. The Calms of Capricorn is innovatively cinematic in its structure and very different from anything O’Neill had attempted earlier.

The play’s sound pattern is also imaginative. Basic to it is the off­stage chorus sung by a group of gold miners in the steerage. The singers do not appear, but Honey visits them often and keeps their presence alive in the audience’s minds. Their song, which O’Neill calls “The Song of the Gold Seekers” and which is perhaps a ballad sung by Honey entitled “Sacramento,” is heard continually during the time the ship is becalmed. It is punctuated by the rhythm of the ship’s pump, which apparently was to tie the song to the action of the sea. In The Moon of the Caribbees, the native chant from the shore functions in the action in an identical way. The people on the motionless ship are troubled by it, curse it, come to hate it as it insistently underscores the greed of all the passengers. As the Caribbean chant does, it forces the characters to remember what they wish to ignore or forget. Occasionally, it moves into the action and is brought into combat with a sea chanty or a hymn sung to drown it out. At the end, as the ship is becalmed for a second time in the fog, it is overpowered by a chanty, and described as “beaten and exhausted” by the chanty’s “desperate assertion.”


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