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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VI, No. 3
Winter, 1982




It is well known that a number of O'Neill's one-act plays have plots derived from the fiction of earlier writers. In Contour in Time, Travis Bogard provides a comprehensive list of the literary sources of the playlets written between 1913 and 1918, for instance.1 But he suggests no source for Recklessness (1913). Virginia Floyd sums up the general opinion--that the source was autobiographical--when she says that, "as a result perhaps of his own disastrous short first marriage, O'Neill's early plays deal with sick marriages and unsatisfactory man-woman relationships: A Wife for a Life, Recklessness, Bread and Butter, Abortion."2 It seems possible, however, that Recklessness may also have been inspired (at least indirectly) by a novella in Boccaccio's Decameron. There are close narrative parralels between the play and the first tale of The Decameron's fourth day.

Admittedly, there is no definite proof that O'Neill was familiar with Boccaccio's work at the time. However, Jean Chothia notes that at Gaylord Sanatorium, and up until the creation of his first play in 1914, O'Neill read widely in the work of Elizabethan playwrights.3 If, as is possible, that reading included Robert Wilmot's Tragedy of Tancred and Gismund (1591), then Boccaccio's direct influence on Recklessness was unnecessary, for Wilmot's source was the very tale in question!

Both tale and play tell us, at the outset, how a beautiful young woman and a man of low social rank met and fell in love. In The Decameron it is the lady's father, Tancred, who finds the lovers together in his daughter's room. In Recklessness the lady's rival, a maid, takes revenge on her wayward lover by informing her employer, Mr. Baldwin, about the secret liaison between his wife and a servant.

The next event in both versions is the older man's disclosure of his knowledge and his demand for an explanation. And neither the daughter in The Decameron nor the wife in Recklessness denies anything: each accepts full responsibility for her romance. Following the unrepentant confession, the aggrieved male takes his revenge: he has the young man killed, believing that in this way he will win back the woman's love and retrieve his honor. But fate does not let him realize his plan: when the woman discovers that her lover is dead, she chooses to take her own life as well. And so the old man, instead of getting the woman back, loses her forever.

In short, the parallelism between the two plots is remarkable. And yet Boccaccio's tale is a timeless masterpiece, whereas Recklessness is, in the words of Louis Sheaffer, nothing more than a "conventional thriller."4 How can the difference be accounted for?

Boccaccio stresses that Tancred and his daughter represent different sets of values, and that their ways of thinking are worlds apart. He, as Prince of Salerno, acts in accordance with the conventional social and moral rules; while his daughter, on the other hand, is a representative of the newly emerging world and ethics of the Renaissance. It is the clash of old and new moral principles that results in the death of the daughter and the ruin of the father. Boccaccio tells us that the general public share the narrator's belief in the young lovers' right to love whoever they think worthy of their esteem; and he adds that Tancred, who is not a wicked man, has the pair honorably buried together, in the same sepulchre, amid the general mourning of all the people of Salerno.

Therefore the reader of Boccaccio's tale is in a position to see and judge the events and participants from two totally different angles and points of view—that of Tancred, and that of the populace, represented by the narrator. Thus is revealed how Tancred's subjective honesty and love can be seen as cruelty and heartlessness—if regarded from another perspective.

The husband in Recklessness, in contrast, is a ruthless, unscrupulous businessman, who kills his wife's lover simply because his vanity has been offended. Indeed, his efforts to make the murder of the rival seem a simple road accident adds even more to the aura of petty spitefulness that surrounds his actions. In addition, the play lacks the aforementioned double point of view, so characteristic of the novellas in The Decameron. Without that, the play remains the dramatization of a particular incident that has no deeper, more general meaning.

Boccaccio reveals and interprets a strong social conflict of his age—indeed, of any age—in spite of the fact that his characters, setting and some elements of the plot remind one of the colorful world of the Arabian Nights. O'Neill's play, in contrast, cannot generalize the incident in spite of the sociologically accurate characters, setting and action. And this is why we feel Recklessness to be of little value—especially when compared with Boccaccio's novella—despite the striking connection between their plots.


William Godhurst has suggested that the characters, setting and theme of O'Neill's In the Zone may largely be traced to the playwright's personal experience —specifically the adventures of 1910-1912, when O'Neill worked as a seaman on several ships; and a Provincetown incident in 1917, when he was arrested and jailed overnight because he had been taken for a spy on the basis of his seaside possession of a suspicious-looking black box that in fact contained his typewriter.5 Citing a literary source as well, Godhurst establishes a definite connection between the play and a short story, "That Little Square Box," by Arthur Conan Doyle.6

However, if one pursues the search for sources a step further back, one finds an earlier story that deserves consideration as well: Edgar Allan Poe's "The Oblong Box."7 And one is faced with two questions. Is the similarity of the two short-story titles purely a coincidence? And which of the stories seems the likelier influence on O'Neill's play? The following comments offer a possible answer to both.

In Poe's tale, an exceptional incident is recounted by a chronically curious and irrepressibly inquisitive narrator. In a long introduction he relates how oddly his newly married friend, painter Cornelius Wyatt, had acted on their sea voyage to New York. Not only had Wyatt brought an oblong box on board and deposited it in his own room to his and his bride's discomfort; but the wife was clearly common, "altogether beneath his friend," and, strangely enough, the husband, "morose" most of the time, avoided his bride. When the narrator commented upon the peculiar shape of the box, the painter lost consciousness, giving rise to the narrator's inference of madness. Poe emphasizes the narrator's sensitivity and extreme inquisitiveness; probably the other passengers had not noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Hammond, the main character in Conan Doyle's "That Little Square Box," tells how, on a sea voyage, he had mistaken as evidence of a dangerous conspiracy an innocent box that actually contained only a brace of prize pigeons. Like Poe's narrator, he is nervous, timid, and exceptionally curious. Overhearing a conversation between two men whose words included "little square box," "trigger," and "whitish granules," he had imagined a plot to blow up the ship--an impending disaster of which the other passengers and the crew seemed unaware. An old friend in whom he confided simply laughed at him, saying that Hammond "always had a way of discovering mares' nests."

O'Neill considerably heightens the tension in his version of the story by introducing several sailors who all behave similarly to Poe's and Conan Doyle's characters. And he makes the situation even more dramatic by having the seamens' fears spring, not from individual oversensitivity, but from actual conditions: their ammunition ship has arrived in the war zone and the vessel may be destroyed at any minute. It is understandable that in this taut situation they dread German spies and attack their fellow seaman Smitty, who seems to be hiding something from them. Like Hammond and Poe's narrator, they read every chance detail in the light of their basic assumption. Even Smitty's name is interpreted, by Davis, as an alias for Schmidt.

The apex of the three works is almost identical as well. In each case it is the point at which we learn what the mysterious box actually contains. In Poe's "Oblong Box," a storm precipitates the revelation. The ship is sinking, there is room only for people in the lifeboats, and yet Wyatt demands that his oblong box be taken as well. When the captain refuses his request, he rushes back to his cabin, drags the box out, ties himself to it, and plunges into the sea—"disappearing suddenly, at once and for ever." The captain's only remark is that "They will soon rise again, however, but not till the salt melts." At the crucial moment in Conan Doyle's story, Hammond realizes that the two strangers' box contains no infernal machine, only two innocent carrier pigeons. And the apex in O'Neill's play is the scene in which we learn, with the crew, that Smitty's suspect box contains letters of love and rejection.

In all three works the decisive revelation—the moment in which illusion confronts reality and the confrontation ignites some general truth—is followed by a conclusion whose functions are to explain everything and to help in assessing and reassessing the characters.

In Poe's last paragraph the narrator learns from the captain that Wyatt, his bride having died, had to bring her body back to New York. Since the other passengers would have opposed the transporting of a corpse, the Wyatts' maid masqueraded as the wife, whose embalmed corpse was packed with salt in the oblong box. In Conan Doyle's story, it is a newspaper article, describing a competition between two pigeons, that explains the mystery, intensifies the comic effect of the story, and proves that Hammond had indeed discovered another "mare's nest." In O'Neill's one acter, too, the dramatic turn proves how unjust and unfounded the sailors' suspicions and accusations had been. In addition, as Driscoll reads out Edith's letter accusing Smitty of wrecking her life as well as his own, her words serve as a mirror reflecting that all the sailors suffer from the same problems. And it is because of this, as well as their guilt, that the men can hardly look at each other following the sobering revelation.

Thus the conclusion of Poe's story suggests that though on the surface Wyatt had seemed a mad eccentric, he was actually a respectable, almost heroic character, who was in deep sorrow because of the loss he had suffered. The conclusion of the Conan Doyle story, in contrast, confirms what the reader had suspected all along: Hammond is shown to be ridiculous because of his never-ending worries, hysterical fears, and unfounded suspicions. We feel relieved and cannot help laughing at the man who seems to have fallen into a trap of his own construction.

O'Neill's In The Zone, however, takes a melodramatic turn at the end. The playwright himself appears to have offered the best criticism, though very severe, of his play:

To me it seems the least significant of all my plays.... Smitty in the stuffy, greasepaint atmosphere of In the Zone is magnified into a hero who attracts our sentimental sympathy. In Moon [of the Caribbees], posed against a background of that beauty, and because it is eternal, which is one of the revealing moods of the sea's truth, his silhouetted gestures of self-pity are reduced to their proper insignificance, his whine of weakness is lost in the silence which it was mean enough to disturb, we get the perspective to judge him—and the others—and we find his sentimental posing much more out of harmony with truth, much less in tune with beauty, than the honest vulgarity of his mates.8

Consequently, the conclusion and general effect of the play is perhaps closer to Poe's story than to Conan Doyle's, although it must be remarked that Wyatt is almost heroic, whereas Smitty is not—he is merely "magnified into a hero." It is for this reason that In the Zone seems more sentimental than "The Oblong Box."

Returning to the question of the play's literary source, the close parallelism of plot, the similarity of titles and the comparable construction of the three short pieces suggest that both Conan Doyle and O'Neill must have known Poe's short story, which may have had an independent influence on both writers. This hypothesis seems to be supported by the fact that O'Neill had reread Poe's stories every summer before he began writing plays, as Jean Chothia points out.9 She also suggests that the volume of Poe's stories included among the books of Edmund Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night was a "deliberate tribute" to Poe.10 Given the evidence of In the Zone, the tribute was deserved.

—Esther Tamár

1 Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), Chapters I-III.

2 Virginia Floyd, ed., Eugene O'Neill: A World View (New York: Ungar, 1979), p. 16.

3 Jean Chothia, Forging a Language: A Study of the Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 199.

4 Louis Sheaffer, Son and Playwright (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968), p. 273.

5 William Godhurst, "A Literary Source for O'Neill's In the Zone," American Literature, 35 (Jan., 1964), 530-534.

6 Arthur Conan Doyle, "That Little Square Box," in The Conan Doyle Stories (London, 1929).

7 Edgar Allan Poe, "The Oblong Box," in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (London, n.d.).

8 Eugene O'Neill, "Inscrutable Forces: A Letter to Barrett Clark," in O'Neill and His Plays, ed. Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin and William J. Fisher (New York: New York University Press, 1961), p. 111.

9 Chothia, p. 199.

10 Chothia, p. 198.



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