O’Neill’s Earth: Landscape in
Marnie J. Glazier
From thousands of miles across the great seas, over hundreds upon hundreds of years, America was envisaged. The mythical land of milk and honey, Norumbega, peopled, from its humble origins, by a transient race. Over time this vast landscape would come to represent a dream, an incessant longing – an utter un-belonging.
Perhaps no representative selection of American literature presents this paradox more completely than Eugene O’Neill’s haunting 1914 one-act play, Bound East for Cardiff, originally titled Children of the Sea, in which the action centers entirely on the incidental passing of the sailor, Yank. This concise play speaks volumes of America’s ongoing environmental schizophrenia, its simultaneous placelessness and longing for place, giving root to what art critic/theorist Lucy Lippard calls “the lure of the local…the geographical component to the psychological need to belong somewhere…that undertone to modern life that connects it to the past we know so little and the future we are aimlessly concocting” (Lippard 7).
The paradox, “the lure of the local,” is poignantly felt in the parting conversation between Yank and his friend and fellow seaman Driscoll. Woven through the stark realities of the fog and Yank’s impending death, are the plaintive reflections of rootlessness and of longing at the heart of the American experience. Yank assures Driscoll, “This sailor life aint much to cry about leavin’…travellin’ all over the world and never seein’ none of it.” Driscoll concedes, “It’s a hell av a life, the sea.” And Yank muses, “It must be great to stay on dry land all your life and have a farm with a house of your own, way in the middle of the land where you’d never smell the sea or see a ship…It must be great to have a home of your own...” (O’Neill 195) But therein lies the paradox.
The sailor, like the quintessential American inhabitant of the landscape, can never actually belong. For, “Place,” according to Lippard, “is latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person’s life…A layered location replete with human histories and memories…It is about connections, what surrounds it, what formed it, what happened there, what will happen there” (Lippard 7) On the one hand, to acknowledge the entirety of the human histories and memories residing in the American landscape, is to admit complicity in displacement. On the other hand, to attach oneself to the histories and memories of an alternate landscape, is to remain perpetually displaced. So the sailor, like the American, is a soul “with no come from and no go to” (Nelson 35).
For O’Neill, the soul was inseparable from the landscape, enriched and enslaved by turns. His elaborate stage directions in Bound East for Cardiff and in the vast body of his works, attest to the omnipresence of place – of landscape – a formidable character in each of them. And juxtaposed against the stark reality of land, is the ethereal presence of sea. Ronald Wainscott attests that, “Imaginative staging and design were vital to the success of most of [O’Neill’s] work” (296). Take for example his 1913 one-act Thirst, which opens: “Scene—A steamer’s life raft rising and falling slowly on the long ground-swell of a glassy tropic sea” (O’Neill Thirst 31), or the one-act of the same year, Fog, in which, “A dense fog lies heavily upon the still sea” (O’Neill 97). Likewise, Wainscott attests to the flat scenery of the 1920 Morosco Theatre production of Beyond the Horizon, the “dismal presentation” of which, left O’Neill “understandably disgusted” (24).
Such examples help illuminate O’Neill’s constant struggle with the adequate staging of his land/seascapes, with the reductive inattention to these rich and nuanced stage directions. For, the stage directions themselves in these formative works, from the early sea plays to the seminal Long Days Journey Into Night, mark a significant shift in the emergence of landscape and its corollary – sea – from background, to foreground of the American theatrical experience. Ironically, production teams’ consistent underestimations, in O’Neill’s works, of that most central of characters, place itself, become emblematic of the very paradox Bound East for Cardiff suggests. In large part, we only begin to scratch the surface of O’Neill’s significance, in reading place – in reading stage directions as background – in underestimating this vital link between the American playwright and his evolving landscape.
Brenda Murphy reminds us of the sweeping influence on O’Neill and his peers, of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose 1836 Nature, asserted, “In the tranquil landscape and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature” (386). Land/sea-scape, in Bound East for Cardiff then, can be read as not only foreground, but reflection of the human—and namely the American— experience. The sailor becomes a metaphor for a people adrift, but more than that, for the possibility of transcendence.
As historian Bruce Nelson explains in Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930’s, “While seamen lived on the fringe of American society, the nature of their calling meant that they saw a good deal more of the rest of the world than their shoreside counterparts. Oftentimes this experience opened their eyes to the breadth of injustice and suffering and rendered them somewhat cynical about conventional depictions of reality” (26). Bound East for Cardiff is a story of human relationships and more to the point, of human/environmental relationships – as its original title, Children of the Sea, attests. Centered on the shared living and dying of two itinerant seamen at the dawn of the twentieth century, the play has much to teach us today, at the dawn of the twenty-first, about living in relationship – with one another and with the natural environment.
From the play’s opening we perceive a playful camaraderie in Bound East for Cardiff, among the Glencairn’s crew. They joke with one another of shared adventures and questionable exploits, and we get a touch of both the worldliness and the cynicism to which Nelson speaks. Cocky is first heard reliving his amorous endeavors in the Caribbean. Davis interjects, “You’re a liar, Cocky,” and the crew chime in, culminating in Scotty’s, “T’was a Christmas dinner she had her eyes on.” It is in this context that Yank and his condition are introduced. (188).
As the play evolves and we are left alone with Yank and Driscoll, this camaraderie gives way to genuine tenderness, as the men’s conversations continue, as their shared history – and shared struggle between longing and belonging – is brought to light. “Seafarin’ is alright when you’re young and don’t care,” Yank muses, “but we ain’t chickens no more…I’ve had a hunch I’d quit—with you, of course—and we’d save our coin, and go to Canada or Argentine or someplace and git a farm, just a small one, just enough to live on” (196). Driscoll shares Yank’s dream and yet, it is always ever, only just a dream. Director/Historian Robert Richter in Dat Ole Davil Sea aptly observes that seamen “have spent so much of their time on the sea in ships that they look upon houses as a sort of land ship or a species of houseboat and therefore not subject to the laws of houses” (103). There is a kind of impossibility in adapting to the customs and conventions of the land.
One is reminded of O’Neill’s own experience as a seaman. As Black explains, “While aboard the Charles Racine Eugene had caught a glimpse of integration and coherence, and of the world lost because of technocracy” (111). O’Neill’s letters and interviews too attest to the exceptional freedom and comfort he felt as a member of a crew, and to the profound identification he shared with his fellow seamen. “I liked [sailors] better than I did men of my own kind. They were sincere, loyal, generous…I’ve seen them give their own clothes to stowaways” (Richter 65). Of course these comforts and freedoms are bittersweet. For, however far one’s ship may follow the sea, it must always sooner or later, return to port – if so fortune favors. “The seafarin’ life,” as Yank and Driscoll remind us, is a life adrift, fraught with placelessness, fraught with impermanence. And yet within that placeless liminal space – “beyond the horizon” – beyond the confines of the bifurcated American landscape, is something like belonging.
Recall O’Neill’s lifelong connection with the sea itself. From childhood, he felt most at home by— or in the ocean. In his adult life he literally, on more than one occasion, swam with the seals. A visit to the O’Neill family’s only consistent home, the Monte Cristo summer Cottage in New London, Connecticut, reveals the physical and emotional closeness Eugene O’Neill shared with the sea. One can step into O’Neill’s childhood bedroom and feel lure of the local, in the lure of the sea, in the air, in the sound of the surf, in the landscape looming just outside the window. Black suggests of O’Neill’s time aboard the “three masted bark” (Richter 42), the Charles Racine, “…Eugene began to be conscious of a nature mysticism, actually an oceanic mysticism, within himself. It would become increasingly prominent in the way he thought about the world and himself” (106). Black goes on to cite Edmund Tyrone’s memorable speech to his father in the fourth act of Long Day’s Journey Into Night as a direct reflection of O’Neill’s own experience.
“When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself –actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! 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. To God, if you want to put it that way. (CP3, 811-12)” (Black 106-7).
Here the seaman experiences total transcendence. He is the sea, “without past or future,” free of the “human histories and memories” (Lippard) that haunt the American landscape, O’Neill’s particular family history –struggling between the artificial poles of landed gentry and emigrant peasantry—and the larger American history of colonization and of conquest. The liminal space, the seascape, with its limitless resistance to demarcation affords the opportunity for renewal. And like the sea, the fog that so often enshrouds it, questions delineation, obscures “reality,” offers up the possibility of transcendence.
We can track the fog in Bound East for Cardiff as a metaphor for the same. From very early on, we hear Cocky implore Driscoll, “Blimey but you’re a cheerful blighter… Talkin’ abaht shipwrecks in this ‘ere blushin’ fog” (191). Consistent reminders of the fog persist as the action proceeds. And all the while Yank hovers between life and death, the fog remains, lifting without incident on his passing.
This quote of O’Neill’s concerning the fog, greets visitors to the Monte Cristo cottage today, “ I loved the fog. It was what I needed. The fog was where I wanted to be. I wanted to be done with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself” (Monte Cristo). Fog finally blurs all the boundaries – allowing that belonging, is imminent.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night too makes constant reference to the fog. At the Monte Cristo cottage tour, one begins by viewing a film centered around the play Long Day’s Journey Into Night, with fog its most striking motifs. “Fog,” the film tells us, “masked the shame” the family experienced in living with Ella O’Neill’s gripping morphine addiction, brought on of course by the difficult birth of Eugene (Monte Cristo). But fog for Eugene O’Neill is more than a mask – but a means of obfuscation. In the fog that enshrouds the characters of Long Day’s Journey and of Cardiff, all belong. Fog offers the continual renewal, of perspective.
In his 2007 article, Shifting Perceptions, Precarious Perspectives in Two of O’Neill’s Early Sea Plays, Michael D’Alessandro discusses “O’Neill’s remarkable attention to atmospheric detail,” suggesting the ways in which such detail contrasts “real and imagined perceptions” (21-2). According to D’Alessandro, viewpoints are introduced in such early works as Fog, and Bound East for Cardiff, only to be ripped away, showing a “false romanticization of the sea,” and telegraphing “O’Neill’s endless shifting of reliable perception…” (34).
But O’Neill’s perception was constantly shifting, over land and sea, convention and intuition, longing and belonging. And if we read closely there is much to learn from his works, about perception itself, about – recalling Black – “the way [we think] about the world and [ourselves]” within it, finally, about theatre and deep ecology. If we read them closely, O’Neill’s works reconcile our own perceived “reality” with a far more organic sense of “what is.” They remind us as inhabitants of the land, what it means to be. Finally they help us to transcend the soul-deadening conventions of our “reality” in honor of a deeper real. Lippard suggests, “On the most basic level, landscape is everything you see when you go outdoors –if you’re looking…Both landscape and place can be broken down into their social components, the vortices where people and environment work on each other” (Lippard 8,9).
More work needs to be done to rescue O’Neill’s environment and our own from the background. So long as we deny the full latitude and longitude of place within our lives – particularly as Americans – we limit our relationships, with one another and with the planet that proves our only home. We live in a pivotal time when the need to recognize the parallels between our personal and collective histories, and our relationship with the natural environment, is essential to our own continuance and that of land. And sea.
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