The picture of O’Neill fogged in with a hangover and the Saturday Evening Post recurs with depressing frequency in the account his second wife has provided of their years together in 1918 and 1919. Agnes Boulton says little about her husband’s writing, aside from noting that when he was sober he locked himself away and wrote for long hours, but her memoir implies that at this time he wrote not so much because he was impelled by a strong creative urge as because he found in writing an excuse for solitude. Certainly what he wrote suggests that after the considerable achievement of the Glencairn plays his career had lost its stability and its power of progression and had come instead to a doldrums from which he could not free himself.
Early in 1918, carried forward by the creative momentum of the previous year’s work, he completed Beyond the Horizon, but thereafter pecked at a group of relatively unimportant one-act plays and at drafts of The Straw and Chris Christopherson. Perhaps led by his wife’s small success as a writer of pulp fiction, he also turned his hand to two straight commercial ventures.
One of the latter, a short story entitled S.O.S., was evidently suggested by his reading of the wartime fiction of the Saturday Evening Post, and in quality is about equal to what the magazine was then publishing. The tale is an adaptation of his Warnings, and tells of John Lathrop whose marriage is endangered when he loses his job as a telegrapher. He takes a position as a wireless operator on a freighter traveling between New York and Buenos Aires. As in the play, John becomes deaf and fails to hear the warnings radioed to the ship—in this instance of a German raider engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare* off the South American coast. His ship is captured and sunk after the freighter’s crew has been transferred to the raider. John’s hearing is unexpectedly restored when the raider’s guns fire at another ship. Still pretending to be deaf, he stabs the German wireless operator and radios the ship’s position to shore. The raider is captured, but not before the Germans discover what John has done and execute him. John is hailed a hero and his wife is granted a government pension.
The story, written late in 1918, would have been of little interest to the post-war magazine market,** nor would the dramatic sketch, Shell-Shock, which O’Neill appears to have written for the same audiences that turned In The Zone into a commercial success in vaudeville. Shell-Shock tells of a returning hero, decorated for having crawled out into “No Man’s Land” to rescue a wounded friend. The friend died as Jack brought him in, and now, sometime after the event, Jack has convinced himself that he went to the rescue only to get some cigarettes he knew his friend to be carrying. Cigarettes are his fetish, he smokes incessantly, buys packs he does not use, borrows from his friends and hoards butts. His problem is resolved when he is convinced that the fixation is only his way of burying the memory of the horror of his friend’s death. After what is possibly the shortest course of psychoanalysis on record, Jack returns to normal.
* Submarine raiders fascinated Post readers throughout the war, as did the heroic solo venture that resulted in the raider’s capture or sinking.
His interest in magazine fiction was perhaps increased by his
success in 1917-18 when The Long
Voyage Home, Ile and The
Moon of the Caribbees were accepted by George Jean Nathan for
publication in the Smart Set.
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