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Prior   The Tyro: Warnings   Next


Solitary expiation of guilt, divorced from those questions of social evils raised in the course of the action, is the concluding event of two of the three sea plays in the Thirst volume: Warnings and Fog. Warnings is the less effective. It tells of a ship’s wireless operator, Knapp, who is driven by poverty to continue in his work after he has learned that he may become totally deaf. The moment inevitably comes when the ship is foundering. Having failed in his duty, he refuses rescue when it comes and kills himself on the sinking ship. The play’s central situation was quite possibly suggested to O’Neill by Joseph Conrad’s The End of the Tether. Captain Whalley in Conrad’s story is driven by financial need to continue in command of his ship after he has become totally blind. When the ship sinks, he, like Knapp, refuses rescue and dies. The resemblances, however, lie only in narrative circumstance. O’Neill appears to have distilled the melodrama from Conrad’s tale with none of its sense of heroism or moral point.*  

Warnings is sharply divided between the sensational shipboard action and a long expository introduction laid in Knapp’s home. In the first scene, Knapp’s poverty is set forth in detail. Interminable scenes in which Knapp’s wife and children complain of their poverty are brought to focus when Knapp determines to leave the sea because of his incipient deafness. At this point, in a long scene that perhaps owes something to Strindberg’s portraits of nagging wives, Mrs. Knapp draws the utilitarian moral of the episodes already enacted: that Knapp cannot find other work at his age, that without his support, the family must face starvation, and that he is not economically in a position to do what is morally right.**

At the time he was writing the play, O’Neill was acting to a limited extent the role of the young radical. He had met Jack Reed on a foray into Greenwich Village, and it is said that he at one time intended to accompany Reed into Mexico to cover the Mexican revolution for a New York magazine.8 Nothing came of the venture, but on May 17, 1914, the New York Call published his poem Fratricide, protesting vehemently against the incipient war between Mexico and the United States. The workers of the world are to be called to shed blood for Standard Oil and Guggenheim. They must not do so. The grandiloquent conclusion exhorts them:

Comrades, awaken to new birth!
New values on the tables write!
What is your vaunted courage worth
Unless you rise up in your might
And cry: “All workers on the earth
Are brothers and WE WILL NOT FIGHT!”***

Mrs. Knapp’s reaction to her poverty reflects something of the same conventional radical ideology expressed here through the representations of her desperate condition.

God knows your salary is small enough but without it we’d starve to death. Can’t you think of others beside yourself? How about me and the children? What’s goin’ to buy them clothes and food? I can’t earn enough, and what Charlie gets wouldn’t keep him alive for a week. . . . We owe the grocer and butcher now. If they found out you wasn’t workin’ they wouldn’t give us any more credit. And the landlord? How long would he let us stay here? You’ll get other work? Remember the last time you tried. We had to pawn everything we had then and we was half-starved when you did land this job. . . . (72)

The chronicle of misery is nearly endless, the implication clear: the workers are oppressed beyond their capacity to endure. Anchored in character, the social views seem somewhat less superficial in their presentation than in Fratricide’s outcry against a capitalist war, yet essentially they lead nowhere. In the play his wife’s complaint lends substance to Knapp’s dereliction of duty. His choice made, there remains only to show the catastrophe. The second scene, however, remains a purely theatrical anecdote having little to do with the play’s earlier economic and social perceptions. While it might be argued that Knapp’s fate has been brought about by economic pressures, O’Neill does not draw such a moral. In his final moments, Knapp makes no mention of his wife and children. His guilt overwhelms him, and, like Jack Townsend, he becomes his own judge and executioner. As in Abortion the latent social conflict is forgotten, obliterated by private guilt.

* O’Neill, however, was fascinated by his story and returned to it again in 1918, recasting the plot as a patriotic short story. See below, p. 98.

** The play is O’Neill’s first depicting family life. The embittered mother and the father viewed as a failure bear no resemblance to the two older Tyrones. Their names, however, are those of the Tyrones, James and Mary.

*** Quoted in Ralph Sanborn and Barrett H. Clark, A Bibliography of the Works of Eugene O’Neill (Random House, New York, 1931), 117. For all O’Neill’s sympathy for his Mexican brothers, he saw them only in the abstract. When he dealt with them in drama, in a one-act farce called The Movie Man, written in 1914, he saw them in terms only of stereotypes. The play posits that two representatives of “The Earth Motion Picture Company” go to Mexico and suborn a comic Mexican general to stage real battles for their cameras in return for ammunition and liquor. The play has understandably been forgotten.


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