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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 10


The Soil and the Sea: Eco-trajectory in
Three of Eugene O’Neill’s Formative Works

Marnie J. Glazier
Hartnell College

[Like the eco-trajectory this paper will address, my own personal trajectory with Eugene O’Neill begins with the sea. A sixteen-year-old aspiring writer, I discovered O’Neill’s work as a student in Wesleyan University’s summer Center for Creative Youth program, where we read Long Day’s Journey and travelled to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, to Monte Cristo, to walk the beaches with his ghosts who knit themselves in my soul as clean as his words, “I dissolved in the sea…. I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself!”(O’Neill) Three years later, as a timorous college freshman at Boston University, I lived in what had been the Sheridan Hotel, on the fourth floor –ironically enough− in the room O’Neill had lived and died in. Many nights I spent in the former hotel’s rooftop study lounge, looking down on the Charles River that meandered, like my ethereal exemplar’s work, between land and sea. I have been haunted by those works more than by those of any other artist, dead or living. O’Neill’s words signal to me across the cataclysmic progress of the eras, and as a student of American Studies, Literature, and Theatre, I am moved, today perhaps more than ever, by the striking resonance of their trajectory.]

John Gassner, in 1965, wrote that Eugene O’Neill, in creating his early sea plays, had “made himself the first American ‘naturalist’ in a period when the general public…was still expecting…discreet pictures of reality that would give no offense” (10). Other scholars have defined O’Neill as a symbolist, an expressionist, a poetic realist, but his formidable body of work runs the gamut, situating itself in the end, as not so much a representative form –neat and quantifiable− but a kind of barbaric yawp, precisely like that his predecessor Walt Whitman had called forth at the intersection of the two writers’ lifetimes.

Our fundamental want today in the United of a class, and the clear idea of a class, of native authors, literatures, far different, far higher in grade, than any yet known, sacerdotal, modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into it a new breath of life (5).

Whitman foresaw the need for a national literature, egalitarian, true, and soulful −a literature that would reflect that heart-felt spirit of democracy, for all of its inherent contradictions. As Harold Bloom suggests in his 2002 introduction to Long Day's Journey Into Night, O'Neill, "Overwhelmingly an Irish-American, with his Jansenist Catholicism transformed into anger at God...had little active interest in the greatest American writer, Whitman, though his spiritual darkness has a curious, antithetical relation to Whitman's overt analysis of our national character" (v). In truth, to say that O'Neill answered Whitman's call, to thus define him as the quintessential American playwright, is in a sense to reduce the scope of his writings.

American educator, John Patrick Diggins wrote, in his 2007 "Eugene O'Neill's America," that O'Neill was haunted like Alexis de Tocqueville "by the prospect that the future would spell the decadence of an American democracy incapable of disciplining its desires, a free people thinking they were in control when actually they were being controlled" (Diggins). Diggins argued that O'Neill met Whitman's optimism with a scathing disbelief in modern democracy's promises of freedom. I add to this premise that the particular resonance of O'Neill's works comes of this haunting and of our ongoing situatedness as apart-from our ecologies. Such tensions between the forced reality of human experience, and the being-ness of the natural world can be seen, in varying eco-tropes across the trajectory of the playwright's works, from sea, to land/sea, to home.

Using eco-theatre as a lens, this paper will combine textual and practical analysis with eco-critical analyses. The paper will focus on Bound East for Cardiff, Beyond the Horizon, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, tracing the sea, land-sea, home trajectory, and exploring the lasting significance of O'Neill's land/sea huntings and hauntings, on American theatre, and in turn, on the American psyche. The paper will point toward the ongoing American preoccupation with what Una Chaudhuri refers to as “placelessness,” continuing to threaten notions of home and of environmental reciprocity in the US even today.

While not the first of O'Neill's intriguing collection of sea plays, arguably the most revealing is Bound East for Cardiff, wherein a ladder-fall leaves the play's protagonist, Yank, to meld with the ocean's incessant ebb and flow. Bound East for Cardiff (Cardiff) was originally titled Children of the Sea, a fact that is in itself revealing. For each of the play's characters is a lifelong sailor, hailing from one corner of the globe or another −with the representative American, Yank, at the center. Critics have long argued that such early plays as Cardiff capture the essence of the seafaring life, in terms of both that life's occupational realities and its romantic underpinnings. Gassner even speculates that for O'Neill "the sea was a symbol of the lostness of mankind in a hostile or indifferent universe, of a conspiracy of Nature against Man" (10).

But in words like those Yank shares with his long-time companion and fellow-sailor, Driscoll, shortly before his passing, audiences are met not so much with the realities of a hostile universe as with those of a hostile humanity:

This sailor life ain't much to cry about leavin' −just one ship after another, hard work, small pay, and bum grub; and when you get in to one 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 gettin' outa sailor town, hardly, in any port; travellin' all over the world and never seein' none of it; without no one to care whether you're alive or dead. There ain't much in all that that'd make you sorry to lose it (195).

What Yank details in the preceding is more than just the rootlessness of the sailor's life, but the oppressive nature of the itinerant seaman's position, his treatment at the hands of his employers and of the larger world of commerce. Scholar Jason Berger explains in his article "Refiguring O'Neill's Early Sea Plays: Maritime Labor Enters the Age of Modernity," "The movement of the tramp steamer is not open or free, as one might expect from a ship that travels the world without fixed schedules or routes, but hemmed in and walled off from the world" (25).

The sea plays after all bespeak an era, pre-cargo-plane, wherein merchant vessels still ruled the seas, along with passenger and fishing liners. And as historian Bruce Nelson details in Workers on the Waterfront, "The fact remains that for centuries the seaman was regarded by law and custom as less than a man and was often treated worse than a chattel slave or a pack animal. He entered the twentieth century bearing the burden of an archaic, semi-feudal tradition of the sea and a code of laws that perpetuated his bondage" (11-12). Again, Yank's words: "It must be great to have a home of your own, Drisc" (195). Particularly telling is the continual juxtaposition in the play −between belonging: being of the world, and separateness: being bound in the enslavement of the itinerant sailor's life− so eloquently expressed in Yank's haunting lament, "...travellin' all over the world and never seein' none of it" (195).

In the end, Yank resigns himself to a death at sea, but is denied the connection he longs for, when the fog encases him wholly within the ship's quarters in his final moments: "Why should it be a rotten night like this with that damned whistle blowin' and people snorin' all around? I wish the stars was out and the moon too; I c'd lie out on deck and look at them, and it'd make it easier to go −somehow" (197). Ironically, within moments of Yank's death, the fog at last has lifted.

The kind of imprisonment and alienation evidenced in Cardiff, though tempting to assign purely to the realm of the sociopolitical, exposes an existential dilemma, at the heart of O'Neill's work. As scholar Clara Blackburn suggests in "Continental Influences on Eugene O'Neill's Expressionistic Dramas," O'Neill, like his predecessor August Strindberg is "deeply interested in questions such as: What is a man's place in the universe? Why does he suffer? What is the essence of life?" (110) And as Diggins and others remind us, O'Neill was loathe to ally himself with any particular political party or movement. While there are certainly strains of numerous leftist sentiments in his work, there are equal parts criticism, and as Diggins intimates, O'Neill disbelieved that "humankind would find its spiritual reformation through political means" (Diggins). In fact, one theme that comes up again and again in O'Neill's work is the notion that humankind is cursed by its systems −so much so that the very thing we need: to be one with stars and surf and soil, is thwarted by our human condition.

It is a fact that O'Neill's works feature among their most central characters, the physical environments in which they are set. One might even argue that it isn't so much Yank who stands out as the central character in Cardiff as the fog, the swell, the sea, especially recalling its early production with the Provincetown Players. As the Provincetown Playhouse website conveys: "Added to the play’s presentation was the highly effective sense of reality given by the Wharf Theatre over the sea, with fog and the sound of waves surrounding the audience" (Provincetown Playhouse).

In a manner similar to Cardiff's, O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon features the land, and the specter of its antithesis, the sea, as central characters. The following explicit stage directions begin to set the scene:

Act One: Scene One:

A section of country highway. The road runs diagonally from the left, forward, to the right, rear, and can be seen in the distance winding toward the horizon like a pale ribbon between the low, rolling hills with their freshly plowed fields clearly divided from each other, checkerboard fashion, by the lines of stone walls and rough snake fences.

The forward triangle cut off by the road is a section of a field from the dark earth of which myriad bright-green blades of fall-sown rye are sprouting. A straggling line of piled rocks, too low to be called a wall, separates this field from the road (573).

The preceding forms just the opening of the six-paragraph description that sets the stage for this well-crafted play, centered on the two brothers, Andrew the elder, and Robert the younger Mayo. Both smitten with Ruth, the girl next door, Robert, on hearing her echo his vows of love, surrenders his dreams of sailing the world to stay on the family farm, and Andrew surrenders his own dreams of a life with Ruth on the farm, to take his brother's place on the sailing ship, the Sunda.

On its face, the play is about dreams, crushed; it's about honoring one's convictions, one's nature. It's about a kind of truth to self. But on a deeper level, it's about how we relate to the world and about whether we can truly be a part of it. It is about what separates us from and what connects us to our world, our environment, our selves. As the play chronicles the demise of the Mayo family, it also shows the destruction of the land. From the opening descriptions in Act I, to Andrew's claims, "That isn't dirt −it's good clean earth" (574), and "We've got all you're looking for right on this farm. There's wide space enough, Lord knows; and you can have all the sea you want by walking a mile down to the beach; and there's plenty of horizon to look at, and beauty enough for anyone" (577), audiences are impressed with the fertile, robust nature of the land. But by Act II, the setting has transformed to, "a hot, sun-baked day in mid-summer, three years later," wherein, "All the windows are open, but no breeze stirs the soiled white curtains" (603). With the marriage of Robert and Ruth and the passage of time, what had been full of life has become pervaded with a sense of arid lifelessness and despondency.

Ruth's invalid mother, the widowed Mrs. Atkins complains to the recently widowed Mrs. Mayo, "Not only your place but mine too is driftin' to rack and ruin" (604). And even the brothers' dreams have begun to dry up. Where Robert had so eloquently told Ruth in Act I, "I got to know all the different kinds of sunsets by heart. And all those sunsets took place over there...beyond the horizon. So gradually I came to believe that all the wonders of the world happened on the other side of those hills" (581), in Act II, he bitterly confides to her, "Those cursed hills out there that I used to think promised me so much! How I've grown to hate the sight of them! They're like the walls of a narrow prison yard shutting me in from all the freedom and wonder of life!" (614)

And Andrew, who'd been described by his brother in Act I as, "wedded to the much a product of it as an ear of corn is, or a tree" (576), returns from three years at sea full of restless longing, "You've no idea, Rob, what a splendid place Argentine is... −we call this a farm −but you ought to hear about the farms down there −ten square miles where we've got an acre.... I feel ripe for bigger things than settling down here" (626). Even the child, born to Robert and Ruth in the three-year span, is described as weak and wan, in this world where nothing can grow.

By the third and final act of the play, the atmosphere of the farmhouse is described in the stage directions as, "one of an habitual poverty too hopelessly resigned to be any longer ashamed or even conscious of itself" (631). As for the land: "The field in the foreground has a wild, uncultivated appearance as if it had been allowed to remain fallow the preceding summer. Parts of the snake-fence in the rear have been broken down. The apple tree is leafless and seems dead" (631). Five years have passed, and we learn that the child, introduced in Act II, has succumbed to her frail constitution.

This final act sees Robert, consistently of weak constitution himself, finally broken down beyond repair; and on the brothers' final meeting, after discovering one another's failures, Robert on the farm and Andrew on business and speculating, the younger brother muses to the elder, "I'm a failure, and Ruth's another −but we can both justly lay some of the blame for our stumbling on God. But you're the deepest-dyed failure of the three, Andy. You've spent eight years running away from yourself.... You used to be a creator when you loved the farm. You and life were in harmonious partnership. And now− ...gambling with the thing you used to love to create..." (647)

This is the play's most prophetic moment, in terms of O'Neill's eco-trajectory, this revelation of human being as "creator," "Living in harmonious partnership with life." It is a moment that forces us to reflect on our own role as connector/creator or as separator/destroyer; and the direct correlation between the health of the human and of the nonhuman characters in Beyond the Horizon indicates O'Neill's unfailing belief in the imperative of their reciprocity.

Long Day's Journey Into Night, the last play this paper will address, brings to the fore not just land and sea, but home. Long Day's Journey, situated within, and intimately innervated by the literal and mythical realms of home, ironically reflects the complex interrelationship and inharmony of the three disparate realms. This paper will not engage a thorough analysis of the play, as several writers have already done so to great effect, but will concentrate on the play's culminating influence in O'Neill's eco-trajectory. In that regard, Long Day's Journey is atmospherically driven by the haunting environment of Monte Cristo, the O'Neill family home in New London, Connecticut. Though land and sea are prominent, each yields by turns to the house itself, from the opening descriptions:

Living room of James Tyrone's summer home on a morning in August, 1912. At rear are two double doorways with portieres....In the right wall, rear, is a screen door leading out on the porch which extends halfway around the house. Farther forward a series of three windows looks over the front lawn to the harbor and the avenue that runs along the water front (11).

The home has such a distinctive, powerful, haunting impact from the very moment it is revealed to audiences, and we are reminded of Robert Richter's concluding statement in "'A Dense Fog Lies Heavily Upon the Still Sea': O'Neill's Sense of Place,"

O'Neill utilizes the physical space structurally and visually, as well as giving other details related to light and sound, all of which create a living environment. O'Neill was a craftsman who painstakingly wrote both the stage directions and dialogue of his plays, which must be used in tandem to realize the playwright's vision (112).

In Long Day's Journey perhaps more than in any of his other works, this is profoundly true. So much of the play is about subtext and silence. So much of it is about humankind's utter inability to connect. Mary Tyrone's ghostly laments toward the play's close represent this exquisitely: "What did I come here to find?...What is it I'm looking for? I know it's something I lost..." (175), as though all of life were a blind groping after impossibility. The play is of course about a family adrift, about the life of the itinerant stage actor who traded his reputation "as a great artist" for the "promise of an easy fortune," about a family "dragged...around on the road, season after season," with "no home" but a "summer dump" (144), about the irony of land speculation and placelessness, about the hapless pursuit of transcendence, as seen in Edmund's quoting of Baudelaire:

"Be always drunken. Nothing else matters: that is the only question. If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time weighing on your shoulders and crushing you to the earth, be drunken continually. Drunken with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you will. But be drunken. And if sometimes on the stairs of a palace, or on the green side of a ditch, or in the dreary solitude of your own room, you should awaken and the drunkenness be half or wholly slipped away from you, ask of the wind, or of the wave, or of the star, or of the bird, or of the clock, of whatever flies, or sighs, or rocks, or sings, or speaks, ask what hour it is; and the wind, wave, star, bird, clock, will answer you: 'It is the hour to be drunken! Be drunken if you would not be martyred slaves of time..." (135).

It is about, as Bloom suggests in his introduction to the play, "the domestic tragedy of which we all die daily, a little bit at a time" (xii). In the end it is about the same tension we trace across the body of his works between belonging and separateness, between making a living and "living in harmonious partnership with life," finally between wildness and cultivation.

O'Neill's own transient life ended in relative misery in 1953, when the great American playwright of his age was only sixty-five. Leaving audiences little doubt as to whether he achieved in his own life, the kind of harmonious existence his work envisions across the ages. Leaving us to question in our own lives where such harmony can be found.


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Berger, Jason. "Refiguring O'Neill's Early Sea Plays: Maritime Labor Enters the Age of Modernity." The Eugene O'Neill Review. 28 (2006): 13-31. Print.

Blackburn, Clara. "Continental Influences on Eugene O'Neill's Expressionistic Dramas." American Literature. 13 (1941): 109-134. Web. 1 June 2014.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Eugene O'Neill Long Day's Journey Into Night. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. Print.

Chauhuri, Una. Staging Place: The Geography of Modern Drama. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995. Print.

Diggins, John Patrick. "Eugene O'Neill's America." Chronicle of Higher Education. 53 (2007): B14-B15. Web. 1 June 2014.

Gassner, John. Eugene O'Neill. St. Paul: North Central Publishing Company, 1965. Print.

Nelson, Bruce. Workers on the Waterfront; Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930’s. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990. Print.

O’Neill, Eugene. Complete Plays; 1913-1920. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1988. Print

O’Neill, Eugene. Complete Plays; 1920-1931. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1988. Print.

Provincetown Playhouse. "A History of the Provincetown Playhouse." Web. 14 June 2014.

Richter, Robert. "'A dense fog lies heavily upon the still sea': O'Neill's Sense of Place." Critical Insights: Eugene O'Neill. 2012. 97-113.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Scully Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. New York: Norton, 1973. Print.


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