Against the background sketched here, O’Neill wrote Bound East for Cardiff, the play he was to offer two years later to the Provincetown Players, during their second season on Cape Cod. The other plays of the crew of the S.S. Glencairn were not to be written until the Playwrights’ Theatre had provided him with his first stage, but Bound East for Cardiff, as a part of the cycle, ranks with O’Neill’s established work, rather than with his juvenilia. Its seeming maturity, however, does not mean that it is substantially different from the other work of 1914. What it manages to do is to draw into focus most of the tendencies revealed in the others, to capitalize on the technical devices developed in them and to discover a center of meaning which was not merely the result of post-adolescent attitudinizing. That it attains such concentration, economy of means, and significance generally is attributed to the fact that O’Neill was for once following Hamilton’s advice and writing of the life he knew. Certainly some of the sailors on the Glencairn are drawn from life and the details of shipboard existence seem authentic. Yet there is in this play a quality of verisimilitude that none of the other sea plays of this year even partially possesses. It is not enough to know how a thing looks; to project it on stage, to convince an audience of its reality, a writer must understand its nature. What makes the play convincing is not so much what O’Neill knew from his experience as a sailor, but rather what he learned about that experience from reading the novels of Joseph Conrad.
Bound East for Cardiff takes its reality from Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus, a work O’Neill had read in 1911, shortly before he set to sea.” O’Neill’s experience at sea enabled him to confirm the truth of Conrad’s account of the sailor’s life, but the rendering of that truth, the way of giving it dramatic reality was learned not at sea but through Conrad’s artistry. At least through 1920, with the writing of “Anna Christie” in its final form, the impact of Conrad on O’Neill’s work was deeper than that of any other writer. In Conrad, O’Neill first discovered a mature articulation of his instinctual sense of man’s destiny—the concept of men moving in the pattern established by an elemental force to which they belong and by which they are controlled in spite of the pressure of their individual wills. To Conrad also is to be attributed O’Neill’s first attempts to write dramas that depend less on intricate narrative and clever characterization than on that quality Conrad sought to achieve in The Heart of Darkness: “It was no longer a matter of sincere colouring. It was like another art altogether. That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.”12
Both works turn on the death of a crew member suffering from damaged lungs. James Wait and Yank are not by any measure the same man, nor are the issues raised by their deaths similar except in the unifying sense of awe their deaths evoke in their companions. Yet O’Neill has felt the force of Wait’s long journey to death and has caught some of its quality in his charting of Yank’s drifting course along the boundaries of consciousness. Both men recoil from the thought of being buried at sea, and both in the end mistake death for physical darkness, Wait in his request that the cabin lamp be lighted, Yank in complaining that the fog has entered the forecastle. Where Wait dies in the midst of a calm that breaks as his body is given to the sea, Yank’s last moments are spent during a fog that lifts when he has died. Yank complains of the “rotten” night, of the steamer’s fog warning sounding incessantly: “I wish the stars was out,” he tells his friend, Driscoll, “and the moon, too; I c’d lie out on deck and look at them, and it’d be easier to go—somehow.” His hatred of the oppressive enclosure of the forecastle seems to reflect the constant contrast drawn in the novel between the stifling interior life of the crew’s quarters and the wider, more open life on deck.
Such parallels as these are inexact and might be merely fortuitous were it not for the relation of the sailors to the sea—a relationship that holds the largest meaning of both works. To Conrad, the members of the crew are “the everlasting children of the mysterious sea,” a phrase which gave the title Children of the Sea to the first American edition of the book. The men are ignorant and insignificant, and the sea is unfaithful to them. Their difficulties cannot be defined: “The problems of life seemed too voluminous for the narrow limits of human speech, and by common consent it was abandoned to the great sea that had from the beginning enfolded it in its immense grip; to the sea that knew all, and would infallibly unveil to each the wisdom hidden in all errors, the certitude that lurks in doubts, the realm of safety and peace beyond the frontiers of sorrow and fear.”3
Later, in “Anna Christie,” O’Neill was to write more explicitly of the governance of the sea, but implicitly in the dialogue between Yank and Driscoll the same emphasis is made as in Conrad. What the two men have in common is the life the sea has shaped for them. They have followed a derelict course: “one ship after another, hard work, small pay, and bum grub; and when we git into port, just a drunk endin’ up in a fight, and all your money gone, and then ship away again. Never meetin’ no nice people; never gittin’ outa sailor-town, hardly, in any port; travelin’ all over the world and never seein’ none of it; without no one to care whether you’re alive or dead.” As Yank says, “There ain’t much in all that that’d make yuh sorry to lose it.” The farthest reaches of their thought is to consider finding a small farm where they may forget the sea. Yet the expression of this rebellious wish is followed by a passage of reminiscence in which both men take a kind of toughly sentimental satisfaction as they remember the stag films in Barracas, the brawls in barrooms, the smells and the swindles, the drunks, the arrests that have provided the substance of their lives. However sordid their lives have been, the two men have achieved a kind of satisfaction in it.
ends with Yank’s death. From the center of his fear emerges his wish
to die on deck under the stars and moon. Were the sea clear, Yank could
find death easier and agree more readily to the destiny which has been
his. At the end there is kindness for him. As he dies he sees standing
before him the figure of “a pretty lady dressed in black.” In The
Web the form of the personification of the life force Rose saw was
unspecified. Yank’s hallucination is of the same nature as Rose’s,
but the image is clearer and is stated in the action. In Bound
East for Cardiff, the life force lies in the sea. None of the crew
has life other than that which the sea has provided. The life it has
given it also controls and can end at will. As the sea crushed out
Yank’s life, so it will claim the lives of all those who sail on it.
The sailor’s desire to leave the sea is will-less hope, a sentimental
illusion that can never be brought to reality. To personify such a
force as a pretty, mourning woman is startling, yet not inappropriate.
Its sentimental suggestions can be credited to the same desire for
gentility that causes Yank to regret not meeting “nice people.” It
is a vision in accord with his character. As symbol, however, it further
suggests that the sea is ultimately kind, that it receives its own
gently and that it mourns for them. Moreover, it mourns as a mother
mourns, for in O’Neill, as in Conrad, the sailors are its children. Bound
East for Cardiff was first copyrighted under Conrad’s title, Children
of the Sea.
In drawing a picture of men bound in life and death to the sea, O’Neill relies on Conrad for one further suggestion: that men caught in a common destiny find in their relationship with one another a bond that gives value to their existence. In the play, under the compression of the single act, the discussion between Yank and Driscoll, in large part a monologue by the dying man, must serve to establish the sense of communion. Yank’s memories, to which Driscoll assents both in monosyllabic words and in the silent strength of his grief, cause them both to realize the force of the bond holding them to one another. The mute, rough guards down, the world reduced by the fog to a lighted circle, the two men at last express understanding and a common good. Dramatic compression causes the scene to fringe on the sentimental as Conrad’s account never does. Slowly, around the death of Wait, Conrad builds the sense of men drawn together in ignorant understanding of a mutual problem and is saved from sentimentality by the deliberately paced, implicit development of his narrative and by the irony that the character of the Nigger casts over the common purposes of the men. Yet it is the same point, developed by O’Neill in terms of the isolated confessional moment that is characteristic of many of the earlier plays.
O’Neill is unable, of course, to project so vividly as Conrad the sense of the ship moving across an immense and mysterious entity. Yet with the fog, the chiaroscuro effect of his lighting, and with the ironic pattern of sound created by the warning whistle, an accordion player, the crew’s laughter and the cry of “All’s Well” from the watch, O’Neill has attempted to establish in dramatic terms something of the reality of a ship and its environment.
To read Bound East for Cardiff together with its companion plays is to view it as something of a lucky strike. Yet it is not essentially different from the other plays and could easily have lost itself in their excesses. Like the others, it starts out to be a tragedy of “ironic fate,” and it too centers on a duologue spoken in isolation, the voices emerging from a small area of light in a world otherwise dark. Hardly heard, half-understood, the voices speak in semisoliloquy and in monologue, but the speakers are led to a partial comprehension of their circumstances and to some acknowledgment of their worth. Only in this last particular does Bound East for Cardiff differ from the others. That difference, which centers in the discovery that the men belong to the sea, is attributable to Conrad’s perception about the relation of men to sea in his novel.
O’Neill was probably not entirely conscious of the implications of his play. The conception that men are or can be controlled by a powerful natural force underlies Thirst and Fog, but in neither play is it so marked as to approach an aware perception. Certainly it is not there clear that man’s acquiescence to the force creates a sense of “belonging” from which arises a positive good, bringing order and meaning to life.
Yet the positive assertion—that men are not alone because they belong to the sea—is what rescues the first Glencairn play from the excesses of the other one-acts. Although it is imperiled by sentimentality, as the other plays are wrecked by melodrama, it is saved from disaster by the finer perception of both particular and general truth. O’Neill’s observation of sailors’ ways led him to depict them faithfully. The recollected experiences of Yank and Driscoll are in large measure O’Neill’s own and are as convincing as faithful recording of fact can be, but these are wrought into a true line of dramatic action by the need both the characters have to grope toward a discovery of an underlying truth in their lives. O’Neill had tried before to present such truth, but hitherto, he had managed only a negative statement: Ironic fate crushes men. In the other plays, the characters have been victims whose circumstantial defeat has made them objects of so little concern that melodrama has been repeatedly used to evoke even the most superficial pity. Yank and Driscoll do not need such transfusion, and they surmount pity to call forth a true sympathy both for their particular circumstances and for the general view of man that Conrad helped O’Neill to understand.
Bound East for Cardiff can thus be seen to draw to partial fulfillment those elements of his craft with which O’Neill was natively endowed and for which he found reinforcement in the writing of others. By temperament he was a realist with a strong feeling for the influence of place on men’s lives, something of a pessimist with a young man’s readiness to explain tragedy too easily as “ironic fate.” He had an ear for the vagaries of human speech, especially in marked forms of dialect, and he followed a poetic impulse that revealed itself not so fully in words as in stage images created by lighting and patterns of sound. Finally, he was a dramatist less concerned with sociological, more with psychological truths. This is the portrait which the plays of 1914 draw, and it is one of considerable quality. It is, indeed, a portrait of an artist.
In view of the achievement of Bound East for Cardiff, its sureness of effect, its nearly professional artistry, it is curious that almost two years lapsed before O’Neill moved ahead along the lines the sea play projected. The explanation, if explanation is possible, is that shortly after he wrote it he went to Harvard to study in George Pierce Baker’s playwriting classes, “The 47 Workshop.” He submitted Bound East for Cardiff with his letter of application for admission. Although Baker accepted him, he told O’Neill that the work was not a play at all. O’Neill, as he later told Barrett Clark, “respected his judgement.”14
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