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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XII, No. 1
Spring, 1988



We have two things,--the circumstance and the life. Once we thought positive power was all. Now we learn that negative power, or circumstance, is half.

If you are pleased to plant yourself on the side of Fate, and say, Fate is all, then we say, a part of Fate is the freedom of man.

He who sees through the design, presides over it, and must will that which must be.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Fate" (1960)

When the Abbey Theatre made its first American tour in 1911, Eugene O'Neill, then lodging at Jimmy the Priest's where he met the original of Chris Christopherson, was among the New York audience at all of the plays in the Dublin group's repertory. O'Neill's biographers suggest that he liked Riders to the Sea over all the others: Arthur and Barbara Gelb report that he "found himself particularly responsive to Synge's one-act play,"1 while Louis Sheaffer states specifically that Anna Christie, while inspired by Chris Christopherson, also owes something to Synge's haunting Riders to the Sea."2 In the brief first section of this paper, I will look at Riders to the Sea, highlighting especially those aspects of its visual and verbal texture that would appear to have impressed themselves most strongly upon O'Neill's consciousness. In the second part, I will examine Anna Christie in light of Riders, demonstrating how O'Neill both mirrors and reshapes--maybe "personalizes" would be an appropriate word--what he found in the earlier work. And in the final section I will sketch in summary fashion how the notion of human freedom that O'Neill works toward in his 1921 play becomes essentially the one that not only stays with him throughout his playwriting career, but is also the dominant one in much other modern American drama as well.


My primary purpose in looking first at Synge's Riders is not to establish incontrovertibly the influence of Synge's short play upon O'Neill's longer one (though I think such a case could convincingly be made), but rather to indicate the parameters he would move beyond. Notice, I do not say "transcend," for I would be the first to insist that Synge's compressed poetic gem is infinitely superior to O'Neill's--without, at the same time, subscribing uncritically to revisionist reviewers of Josť Quintero's 1977 Broadway revival starring Liv Ullmann, who claimed that "Anna Christie is one of the dumbest plays ever written,"3 or that it "is such a cheap, cosmetic come-on of a drama as to vie with any streetwalker."4 Influence, however, as Margaret Church has formulated the concept in a different context, need not necessarily be understood as "a slavish dependence on source, the borrowing of all or many stylistic devices, the compatibility of temperaments and aims"; instead, it "may be [only] an intuitive or unconscious process, one that often permeates an area of an author's work without his being aware."5 In this particular instance, the influence of the Irish Irishman and dramatist upon his American Irish playwright/cousin lies, I suggest, somewhere between those two poles of deliberate indebtedness and unconscious resonance.

To employ a term that is ordinarily applied to religious thinkers rather than artists, Synge might be called a syncretist, and Riders to the Sea a syncretic work in that it blends classical, Christian, and Irish folk mythologies, drawing symbols and sustenance from each, yet weaving them into a seamless cloak. The nets and spinning wheel in the cottage-kitchen stage setting, together with Cathleen's action of "begin[ning] to spin at the wheel" as the play opens and, later, of "cutting the string" around the bundle of the drowned Michael's clothes6 call to mind the classical Fates. The new boards, and mention of no nails; the cake or bread that Cathleen forgets to give Bartley, and that Maurya later fails to give him in a kind of disrupted communion; the nine days--or novena--of sorrowing over Michael; the sprinkled holy water; the ghost of Michael upon the gray mare that recalls the pale rider upon pale horse from the Apocalypse--all these carry a Christian symbology; while the superstitious fear of "a star up against the moon" and "it rising in the night" (p. 86), Maurya's mention of Samhain, and the chorus of keening women "with red petticoats over their heads" (p. 94) speak to the country's folk traditions. Maurya herself is related both iconographically to the Sorrowful Mother of Catholic tradition and, with "her tossed white hair" (p. 92), archetypally to the Sea itself as womb and tomb--both source of life and surrender to death.

The blind, unquestioning faith of the unseen priest, who is myopically certain that "'the Almighty God won't leave [Maurya] destitute...with no son living'" (p. 84) and so will do nothing to prevent Bartley's journey to the fair, plays itself out against Maurya's powerlessness to resist the timeless, ageless, endless repetition of receiving from the sea and giving back to the sea. There is only the appearance of human choice in Synge's world. Would it have made any difference if Maurya had tried harder to "hold [Bartley] from the sea" (p. 87) or had succeeded at least in blessing him on his way? Hadn't she known, even before he left, that the pattern of the Aran Island women losing all their men--husbands, fathers, brothers, sons--to the sea must be fulfilled ("It's hard set we'll be surely the day you're drowned with the rest" [p. 87])? Only submission to the old animisms of an inevitable cosmic order that in these people's lives incarnates itself in the sea--which has now done everything it "can do to [Maurya]"--can bring "rest" (p. 96).


Not only does Anna Christie mirror Synge's drama in its symbology and mythology, its archetypes, its concern with the tension between fate and free will, and its emphasis upon resignation and acceptance; but it even contains certain narrative and verbal echoes of Riders to the Sea as well. Mat Burke, for instance, speaks of a sailor's drowning as "a good end ... quick and clane,"7 just as the phrase "'a clean burial by the grace of God'"--or a slight variation of it--occurs three times in Riders (pp. 83, 93, 97); the lyrical pattern established by sentences beginning with the words "Let you" that appears in Cathleen's dialogue in Synge's work recurs frequently in Mat's speeches; and Burke's lament to Anna after he's discovered the truth about her past--"You've destroyed me this day and may you awake in the long nights tormented" (p. 137)--perhaps even echoes Cathleen's "It's destroyed we are from this day. It's destroyed, surely" (p. 93). And if Fate is a palpable presence verbally and visually in Riders, almost the first word spoken in Anna Christie is "luck" (p. 60), which becomes something of a refrain.

But the probable connection extends further and deeper than simple similarities in language. Just as Maurya had lost a husband and father-in-law and all six sons to the sea, so, too, has Chris lost a father, two brothers, and two sons, while the women's role is to "vast all 'lone" (p. 92) for the sea to either return their men to them or take them from them. And if we look for connections between the symbolic props in the two plays, perhaps it is even possible to see contrastive links between the rope in Riders that will gently lower Bartley's coffin into the ground and the rope in Anna Christie that guides Mat to the safety of Chris's barge and Anna's arms; or between Synge's bread that is unshared and uneaten and O'Neill's sacrament-like wine that celebrates the return of the prodigal daughter and presages her renewal. More solace and comfort, indeed, is provided at Jimmy the Priest's saloon than by the ordained priest and organized church in Riders.

Yet it remains in their use of the central archetypal symbol of the sea that Synge and O'Neill converge most nearly, although the attitude of O'Neill's characters towards the sea is less of one mind than that of Synge's. In fact, the perceptions of O'Neill's three major characters about the sea reflect their very divergent "theologies": Chris's dualistic fatalism, Mat's superstitious Catholicism, and Anna's romantic transcendentalism. If, in Riders, it is Maurya who by appearance and archetypal role is united with the sea, in Anna Christie it is Chris: his entrance is framed with the bartender and proprietor both jokingly calling him "devil" ("the old devil!" [p. 62]; "Speak of the devil" [p. 63])--a term applied to him bitterly and tauntingly by Anna herself later in the play (p. 127). When Chris, a few pages into the play, remarks, "Ay tank it's better for Anna live on farm, den she don't know dat ole davil, sea [,] she don't know fa'der like me" (p. 67), not only will an attentive audience notice the verbal link connecting the sea as devil with Chris as a devil, but also--and here the rhyme between "sea" and "me" acts to underscore--they will recognize that Chris, albeit inadvertently and unconsciously at this point, is associating his own harshness as a father with the unrelenting force of the sea. By regarding the sea in totally masculine rather than in feminine terms, he denies it its life-giving and life-sustaining qualities. So the triangular conflict among Anna, Chris and Mat might be seen as a conflict between the Father and the archetypal Mother/Sea for control of the child, especially since Mat is so closely associated with the sea that brings him to Anna.

Cursing the sea as "davil" no fewer than ten times,8 Chris points the finger at the sea as villain, blaming it for all the evil in the world. It is a malevolent force which, he feels, has nothing to do with God, but is associated instead with some inscrutable chance or fate. Chris thinks that he has accounted for all of experience in terms of a simple division between black and white; yet believing in such a Manichean duality leaves no room for any mystery or ambivalence in the universe. His attitude, finally, can only be defeatist: "Dat ole davil, sea, she make me Yonah man ain't no good for nobody. And ay tank now it ain't no use fight with sea. No man dat live going to beat her, py yingo!" Yet rather than actively submit, as Maurya had, Chris will try bargaining with the sea by shipping out again, offering himself up as sacrificial victim: "Ay tank if dat ole davil get me back she leave you alone den" (p. 143). But such attempts to placate or control the sea are ultimately useless, for, as Chris remarks upon learning that Mat has signed on to the same ship: "It's dat funny vay ole davil sea do her worst dirty tricks" (p. 159).

Unlike Chris, Mat accepts the possibility of the sea's being a positive rather than simply a negative force--of its being a nourishing source that frees man from constraint and materialism. It is also, of course, what brings the blustering sailor with the double standard to Anna, whom he at first romanticizes as "some mermaid out of the sea" and envisions as some princess from a Norse saga, "fine yellow hair ... like a golden crown on [her] head" (pp. 96, 100). Yet despite his greater tolerance of the sea, Mat's religious beliefs are every bit as simplistic as Chris's. His mechanical and unexamined Catholicism includes a good dose of predestinarianism: even though Providence "brought [him] safe through the storm and fog" to Anna, who will reform him (p. 106), he will be "damned then surely" for marrying a Lutheran, but "what's the difference? 'Tis the will of God, anyway" (p. 159). His superficial understanding reduces the practice of the faith he professes to empty form and ritual; when he crosses himself it is neither more nor less than Maurya's formulaic sprinkling of holy water on Michael's clothes and Bartley's corpse. He mitigates Anna's fall from grace for the wrong reason, blaming Chris for having left her "to grown up alone" (p. 154); and he resorts ultimately to a lame belief in superstition, showing Anna a crucifix given him by his mother that he claims is endowed with the "great power" to "bring [him] luck" (p. 155) and demanding that she swear upon it that she has never loved anyone but him and will remain faithful.

Like Mat, Anna. too, is searching for freedom--freedom from the places where she has felt "caged up" (p. 76) or "in jail" (p. 113), as well as the freedom to control who and what she will belong to. Ironically, in forcing her off the sea and onto the land (wrongly considered as a garden), Chris had inadvertently brought about her loss of innocence, her fall. (O'Neill may here be playing a variation on the legend of the mythical Saint Christopher, who carries the Christ Child safely on his back over the water; his daughter's shortening of her name to "Anna Christie" makes it close to Anima Christi, or "soul of Christ." More importantly, however, the Anna/Anima similarity joins her not just with the soul but with the Jungian feminine as well--and thus with the sea as archetypal life-giver, as it was for Synge. Anna comes quickly to "love" the sea, since it "makes [her] feel clean" from her past, "'s if [she had] taken a bath," allows her to sense that she "belong[s]" or "fit[s] in." and lets her "feel happy for once" [pp. 89, 90, 91, 93]. Furthermore, the sea acts as the agent that leads Mat and his redeeming love to her.)

Anna, nevertheless, does not view the sea simplistically as something either good or bad. She categorically rejects Chris's too facile naming of the sea as devil and his shunting off onto it the blame for all that happens. After forgiving Chris for myopically cutting her off from the sea for so long and for meddling in her love for Mat--and thus being reconciled with the father, a recurrent pattern throughout O'Neill; and after taking a risk that almost does not pay off by telling Mat the truth about her past rather than build their life together upon a lie, Anna gives up her two men to the sea. Like Maurya, she knows and accepts her fate as the woman who waits and--almost undoubtedly--will mourn her loss. She is free to be alone (which is not the same as lonesome) and to suffer, if that is what the sea ordains for her. She actively submits herself to the sea and to the cyclical rhythm of birth and death that it symbolizes. Raising her glass in a communal gesture of acceptance with Mat, she toasts the sea: "Here's to the sea, no matter what!" (p. 159). In her resignation, Anna finally belongs totally to herself, breaking out of apparent meaninglessness to achieve an almost Sisyphean acceptance.

Rejecting the efficacy of any formally organized system of belief ["I ain't nothing. What's the difference?" (p. 156)), Anna actively discovers in the sea a font of wonder and mystery in which she can immerse herself, a place where she can achieve union with something larger outside herself, experiencing a kind of cosmic oneness. Even the fog can potentially bring transcendence and reconciliation. The beginning of Act Two finds Anna on board the barge at anchor, looking "transformed...staring out into the fog astern with an expression of awed wonder" (p. 88). The literal and symbolic use of the fog here, accompanied by the "doleful tolling of bells" (p. 88), significantly does not occur in Synge's Riders, but it does presage O'Neill's later and more extensive use of the symbol in Long Day's Journey Into Night. In that play, the fog--which increasingly shrouds Acts Three and Four and Is associated with Mary Tyrone's morphine-induced state of forgetfulness as well as Edmund's death-wish-like desire for immersion and annihilation--covers over the truth until the fog horn summons the characters back to reality. In other words, the fog there is a wholly negative force, associated with self-deception and failure to see. In Anna Christie, however, the fog is, from Anna's perspective, an extension of the mysterious sea, and thus potentially a source both of transcendence (Anna's "awed wonder") and of liberating forgetfulness. As she remarks, "I love this fog! ... I feel as if I was--out of things altogether" (p. 89).

That the play's fourth act, like its second, occurs on "a foggy night" (p. 137) should be indication enough, however, that the ending is not artificially happy, as some detractors of the play would have it. Chris's curtain lines to the play are a somber, "Fog, fog, fog, all the bloody time. You can't see vhere you vas going, no" (p. 160). Yet the sea, whose inscrutable power Chris dissociates completely from the fog, "knows!" It may be implacable, but its eternal recurrence provides a perceivable pattern, which in turn can evidence, as it did for Synge's characters, a cosmic order. As Emerson writes elsewhere in "Fate": "Providence has a wild, rough, incalculable road to its end, and it is of no use to try to whitewash its huge, mixed instrumentalities...."


If O'Neill's use of the fog as symbol in Anna Christie looks forward to Long Day's Journey, so, too, does his formulation of the tension--or perhaps, better still, intersection--of free will and determinism. When Chris begs Anna's forgiveness for his part in influencing all that has happened to her and in shaping what she has become, she readily excuses him by saying: "There ain't nothing to forgive anyway. It ain't your fault, and it ain't mine, and it ain't [Mat's] neither. We're all poor nuts, and things happen, and we just get mixed in wrong, that's all. ... You ain't to blame. You're yust--what you are--like me" (pp. 142, 145, emphasis mine). Although she refuses the cop-out of blaming "dat ole davil sea," she appears to allow for diminished responsibility because of the admixture of character and circumstances in our lives. Neither subscribing to the defeatism of Chris nor paying lip service to free will as Mat does, she develops an ethical stance which holds that our fate is our character and our character is our fate. If if it true that "things happen" over which we have little control--such as Anna's helplessness against corruption on the farm--it remains equally true that we are capable of both change and choice--up to a point. Yet what that precise point is, is decided by earlier existential choices, made by others as well as by ourselves, that have shaped our character. Man, therefore, is both free and determined. Rather than adopt the determinism of Synge in Riders, whose characters seem fated by something outside of--wholly external to--themselves, O'Neill in Anna Christie seems to espouse a fatalistic attitude towards existence, an achieved stance for the characters and not simply an accepted posture, whose source, instead of being imposed from without, is internal, almost willed from within after reflection upon the human condition.

O'Neill's fully mature statement of this intersection between fate and choice occurs in Long Day's Journey, in speeches of Mary's that, in fact, echo Anna's. Urging the primacy of love, Mary tells James: "Let's...not try to understand what we cannot understand, or help things that cannot be helped--the things life has done to us we cannot excuse or explain."9 Or as she tells Edmund, a few pages later: "Now I have to lie, especially to myself. But how can you understand, when I don't myself. I've never understood anything about it, except that one day I found I could no longer call my soul my own" (p. 93, emphasis added). I would suggest that Mary Tyrone here sets forth the notion of diminishing possibility for choice that man inevitably faces with the passage of time. We choose one thing, and by so doing, we inevitably, in fact, deny to ourselves in the future all the possibilities that would have opened up if we had chosen another. In other words, with each choice we make, we effectively cut in half all our future options. This happens over and over again, resulting in a progressive diminution in the possibility of choices until, ultimately, the chance of breaking from the pattern becomes miniscule.

Elsewhere, I have referred to this as the "road-not-taken" syndrome, and it seems pervasive in much of modern American drama. We can discover it in such diverse places as Robert Anderson's impressive short play, Double Solitaire, in Stephen Sondheim's musical play Follies (both 1971), and perhaps most explicitly and eloquently stated in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance (1966), when Agnes says, echoing Anna and Mary: "Time happens, I suppose. To people. Everything becomes ... too late, finally. You know it's going on ... up on the hill; ... but you wait; and time happens. When you do go, word, shield ... finally ... there's nothing there ... save rust; bones; and the wind."10 This brings us, in effect, back to my epigraphs from Emerson, which--in proposing the peculiar interaction of "power" and "circumstance"; and of "freedom" and "fate"; and of "the soul and the events that shall befall it"; and of "the fruit of character" and "fortune"--may have provided one of the major sources for O'Neill's philosophical and metaphysical speculations.

--Thomas P. Adler


1Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 172.

2Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill Son and Playwright (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968), p. 205.

3Gordon Rogoff, "The Mere Human Props of Eugene O'Neill," Saturday Review (May 28, 1977), p. 39.

4T. E. Kalem. "Liv in Limbo," Time (April 25, 1977), p. 84.

5Margaret Church, Structure and Theme: "Don Quixote" to James Joyce (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983), p. 171.

6The Complete Plays, of John M. Synge (New York: Vintage Books, 1960), pp. 83, 90. (Subsequent parenthetical citations refer to this edition.)

7Eugene O'Neill, The Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, The Hairy Ape (New York: Vintage
Books, 1972), p. 103. (Subsequent parenthetical citations refer to this edition.)

8Pp. 67, 78, 83, 100. 108, 114, 137, 143, 159. 160.

9Eugene O'Neill, Long Day's Journey Into Night (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), p. 85.

10Edward Albee, A Delicate Balance (New York: Pocket Books, 1967), p. 169.



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