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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XII, No. 3
Winter, 1988



The Calms of Capricorn was to have been one of the plays in a cycle of historical dramas planned by Eugene O'Neill. Plans for the cycle occupied much of the dramatist's attention during the last years of his career. O'Neill succeeded in completing only one play in the cycle, A Touch of the Poet (written between 1936 and 1946). He partly finished an extensive revision of a third draft of another, More Stately Mansions. A rough, unrevised scenario for a third play, The Calms of Capricorn, escaped destruction when, in 1943, the playwright undertook to destroy the rough drafts of remaining unfinished works. The Capricorn scenario was included among papers given by the O'Neills to the Yale Library between 1951 and 1959.1

In the late 1960s, Donald Gallup, then Curator of the O'Neill Collection, undertook the transcription of O'Neill's handwritten scenario for this work.2 The theatricality of the unfinished work and its accompanying designs encouraged Dr. Gallup to undertake yet another task--that of translating the scenario into dramatic form.3 The scenario and the play developed from it have added substantially to our understanding of O'Neill's intention for the cycle.

The projected cycle of historical dramas represented a logical development in Eugene O'Neill's evolution as a playwright. Like those of European modernists, O'Neill's career was characterized by an extended pattern of experimentation, one designed to give theatrical expression to a new epoch in Western history, not merely to the political developments which distinguish it from earlier epochs, but also to the ideas, values, passions, and visions of the human condition which generated them.

O'Neill's approach to the treatment of history developed through a number of phases.4 In the first period of his career as a writer, he appears go have seen history as Walt Whitman once described it: as a "theatrical backdrop"5 against which the lives of individuals are played out.6 Throughout the middle phases of his development, the playwright appeared to share the interest of European writers, including Luigi Pirandello, Jean Giraudoux, and Jean Cocteau--as well as those of painters such as Pablo Picasso and film-makers such as Sergei Eisenstein--in the interpretation of modern history by reference to myth and legend. In the last years of his career as a working playwright (1930-1943), the American dramatist was to develop an approach which has correspondences to the treatments of history developed during much the same period by Bertolt Brecht.7

One factor distinguishing the epic forms of O'Neill from those of these European playwrights was his attempt to create works expressive of the political, social, cultural, and moral values which have distinguished American society from earlier historical kinds. It can be argued that the major works of his final years--The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night--represent the height of O'Neill's skill in creating such epic forms.

* * *

It is not surprising in this context to discover that the last years of Eugene O'Neill's life were preoccupied with plans for a more formal, if not a more conventional treatment of American history; that is, with the creation of a cycle of plays which would focus specifically on the unique character of American historical development. The first notes about this project were entered in his diary in 1931. Plans for the cycle underwent many revisions. The eventual plan, as described by Travis Bogard, involved a sequence of plays beginning in the period of the American Revolution and concluding in the period in which the cycle was originally conceived; that is, in the 1930s.8

The three plays--A Touch of the Poet, More Stately Mansions, and The Calms of Capricorn--comprise what is in effect a mini-cycle. They trace events in the lives of members of a prosperous and powerful American family in the years between 1820 and 1860. At the same time, each play focuses on a pattern of historical developments in the tumultuous nineteenth century, a century which saw both the effective establishment of the United States as a nation and the Civil War which would challenge its unique identity.

Each of the plays in this abbreviated cycle is concerned with a specific motif in this simultaneous history. A Touch of the Poet elaborates on a motif in the pattern of immigration which shaped American society in the early decades of the century. More Stately Mansions treats industrial expansion, economic growth, changes in patterns of transportation, the rise of financial institutions, and the effect of these developments on the character of American society. In The Calms of Capricorn, O'Neill proposed to translate into theatrical imagery aspects of the Westward Movement, an historical phenomenon which was to alter both the individual character and the collective destiny of the American people.

One of the most striking characteristics of this mini-cycle is the pattern of variation in the forms of its component plays. A Touch of the Poet, set in 1828, is a romantic drama, near traditional in its treatment of the crisis of identity taking place in its Irish-American protagonist, Cornelius Melody. More Stately Mansions can be described as an expressionist work, with certain correspondences in form to earlier plays such as The Great God Brown (1925). In this middle work, O'Neill sets Simon Harford's conflict of values against the background of the industrialization taking place in America of the mid-nineteenth century. While its complex plot begins at realistic levels of exposition, the most important actions in More Stately Mansions take place at non-realistic levels. The play is organized in a manner similar to those used in the shaping of modern novels, painting, musical composition, and films. In this second work, O'Neill undertook to interpret characters and their actions simultaneously and from different perspectives; that is, to embody the essentials of an historical epoch, as well as the particulars of a pattern of interrelated personal crises, in a series of theatrical moments.

The Calms of Capricorn, the third work in this mini-cycle, is a sea play, a drama of spectacle and daring, set against the background of the 1850s and the Westward Expansion, a phenomenon which was to have a profound effect on the American imagination, as well as on the geographical, social, and economic identity of the nation. O'Neill signifies this change in American character and consciousness in the journey of the Melody-Harford family from Massachusetts to California, a journey which takes them by clipper ship around the Horn.9

A prologue of sorts takes place on Sara Harford's potato farm in Massachusetts, where Simon's tragic quest--begun in More Stately Mansions--ends.10

* * *

The principal action of The Calms of Capricorn begins after the death of Simon; it is set on board the clipper ship the "Dream of the West," about to set sail from New York for San Francisco. Its passengers represent what Walt Whitman had earlier defined as a "catalogue of American types." They include Sara Harford and her sons--Wolfe (a bank clerk), Jonathan (a railroad clerk), and Honey (a tin peddler). Also included among the passengers are the owner of the ship, Theodore Warren, and his daughter Elizabeth; Ben Graber--a banker--and his companion, Leda Cade; the Reverend Samuel Dickey, a Protestant minister; and a company of gold seekers, whose songs are often heard from their quarters below. The Captain of the ship, Enoch Payne, is accompanied on this voyage by his wife, Nancy. Also on board are Ethan Harford, the first mate; Jackson, Ethan's eventual successor; and Thomas Hull, the former mate.

The motivating crisis in the drama develops, some weeks after the voyage has begun, when the "Dream of the West" is becalmed in the South Atlantic. For twenty days, the ship is motionless, its passengers and crew imprisoned in its limited confines. O'Neill uses the calm as a device to motivate the passengers to reveal an intricate pattern of personal crises, crises which he treats as having parallels in the larger context of American history. The phenomenon of becalming can be seen as a symbol of the crisis of values endangering American society in the years preceding the Civil War. Indeed, the tension between the idea of freedom and the idea of slavery is the subject of a soliloquy by Cato, a black freedman, in the opening scene of the play. For the passengers, the ship itself becomes the societal context in which variations on this theme are played out. Scenes aboard ship treat of changes in the structure of American society; in the character and function of religion; in the roles of women in the evolving culture; and in attitudes about personal freedom. But by far the most powerful theme in this drama is one which relates to changes in the sensibility of one representative family.

The journey of the Harford family from New England to California symbolizes an historical transition with many levels of meaning, perhaps the most significant of which is imaginative. For the journey undertaken by the Harfords is a symbol of a change in consciousness, a change interpreted in terms of the personal histories of this family, but having broader implications for the society.11 Sara Harford demonstrates this altering sensibility in the closing moments of the drama, as the "Dream of the West" approaches San Francisco harbor. Filled with anguish about the imminent suicide of her eldest son, Ethan, she seems to renounce the ideals interpreted so eloquently by Simon before his death in Act I, Scene 1. As Ethan goes to his death in Act IV, Scene 3, Sara cries out, "... damn the Harfords--their honor--it's like a devil they cast from themselves to you to possess you with." A moment later, she repents of her rejection of Simon's ideals and vows to face life in the new environment with courage, as well as honor. If, however, Sara vows to uphold the ideals of the Harfords in the new setting, her surviving sons--Wolfe, Jonathan, and Honey--are already responding to crises in ways that are profoundly different from those which were shaped by their New England forebears.

* * *

In attempting to shape a heroic saga expressive of the significance of the Western Expansion, O'Neill chose to return to a form which he had employed in the early years of his career--the sea play. As in earlier works, such as Bound East for Cardiff, the play has the outline of a journey, a voyage both in and out of time. The form of the sea play, with its perilous voyage, seems appropriate for the interpretation of this transition in American history, not only because of O'Neill's early success with the genre, but also because of his love for and knowledge of the world of ships and shipping. The playwright uses the ship itself as a stage, not unlike those on which the history plays of the past were staged.12

In his scenic sketches for The Calm of Capricorn, O'Neill undertook to compress time and space within a more-or-less formal stage arrangement. He projected against this conventional stage a pattern of interrelated actions which progress in seeming response to the rhythms of the sea. This intricate pattern of actions proceeds along multiple and often simultaneous lines of exposition, as the playwright brings to the attention of the reader-spectator crises in the lives of each of the Harford sons and--by inference--in that of the evolving society. This complex pattern of action is projected against a number of specific settings: two on land and seven on board the "Dream of the West." Act I, Scene 1, takes place 'in a potato field on Sara Harford's farm in the Spring of 1857. Act I, Scene 2 is set within the sitting room of the farmhouse ten days later. Acts II, III, and IV take place in various locations on board the "Dream of the West."

Unifying this pattern of actions is a familiar motive, one symbolic of the power of the sea. It involves the obsession of Ethan, eldest of the Harford sons, with the sea, a passion symbolized in his efforts to become captain of the "Dream of the West." This motive is interpreted in two related actions, one involving Captain Payne and the struggle for the mastery of the ship; the other involving Payne's wife Nancy. A counter motive concerns Wolfe, the second of the Harford sons, and his seeming determination to remain an observer rather than an active participant in the dramas taking place on ship. Wolfe--a gambler--attracts the interest of Leda Cade, making him a figure in a phantom romance. A variant on this romantic theme involves Jonathan Harford and Elizabeth Warren, the daughter of the ship's owner. Their projected marriage represents the kind of merger of economic and social interests which would have significance for what Whitman described as the "history of the future." Another line of development is also future-oriented. It follows the interactions between the crowd of gold seekers and Sara Harford's youngest son Honey--a tin peddler--destined for a career as a politician in the developing West.

The play follows these related actions as they move from place to place in the physical setting of the ship, as well as from plane to plane within the collective consciousness of the principals. The climax of all actions occurs in the closing scenes of the drama, as Ethan, the sailor, takes his own life; Jonathan, the. ambitious railroad clerk, concludes arrangements for a marriage of convenience with Elizabeth Warren; and Honey, the tin peddler, demonstrates his potential appeal as a politician by quelling disturbances among the gold seekers en route to California. Wolfe--who perhaps represents O'Neill--appears to remain an observer in this complex drama.

In the scenario, O'Neill projected an action possessing certain of the qualities of tragedy and melodrama.13 Indeed, he seemed constantly to move the drama between these positions on the scale of meaning, as well as on that of style. He appears to have employed these traditional forms--tragedy and melodrama--as symbols of the unreconciled "opposites" which characterize the lives of the Harfords, as well as American history, in the 1850s and 1860s.14 While many of the crises in The Calms of Capricorn seem melodramatic in kind, both the beginning and the end of the drama have a tragic quality.15 The play, which begins on land with the conclusion of Simon's quest, ends as land is sighted, with the death of Ethan.16 It is Sara who closes the drama with the tragic cry, "Ethan! My first-born!"

* * *

The three plays in this cycle reflect O'Neill's continuing interest in the shaping of American characters capable of achieving tragic stature. He treats variations on the theme of tragic heroism in the lives of three such characters, each of whom confronts a crisis in some way representative of those taking place in American society during the period between 1828 and 1860.17 The tragic protagonist in The Calms of Capricorn is Ethan, who achieves, during the course of the action, considerable stature. A poetic figure, whose ideals have been shaped by earlier epochs of American history, Ethan seems destined for tragedy because of his inability to respond effectively to a rapidly changing society.18 The play traces his fall, noting the primary factors which will account for the successes and/or failures of his brothers in the new environment. O'Neill planned for the subsequent histories of the remaining Harford sons to be chronicled in three succeeding works tentatively entitled "The Earth is the Limit," "Nothing Is Lost Save Honor," and "The Man on Iron Horseback."

In the cycle to which he gave preliminary form, Eugene O'Neill sought to interpret American history by means of theatrical images, poetic constructions capable of fusing forms and contents drawn from the past, as well as from popular and formal traditions evolving in the modern arts. In The Calms of Capricorn, he sought to synthesize a wide range of such materials within an epic form capable of giving simultaneous explication to actions of personal, social, and historical significance.

In the first two works of this mini-cycle, O'Neill devised forms which have similarities to European kinds: A Touch of the Poet to the romantic dramas of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and More Stately Mansions to the experimental forms of the twentieth. In The Calms of Capricorn, he appears to have attempted the creation of a more original form, a heroic saga, with characteristics drawn from the emerging traditions of American literature, music, dance, and painting, as well as others drawn from the popular art of the film.

In these three works, O'Neill appears to have devised an epic of modernist definition, a collage-like form expressive of the variety as well as the unity in American experience. The three plays are linked not so much by a continuous structure as by a unifying theme--the search of each of these American protagonists for a unique identity, one expressive of the values of a changing society. It can be argued that O'Neill shaped his epic after the manner of Walt Whitman. Like the poet he sought to create an original form out of diverse materials, to unify varied modes of expression within a complex imagery.

* * *

Like other plays in the cycle, The Calms of Capricorn is a work dependent on the language of the theatre for its realization. In December, 1981, an experimental production of The Calms of Capricorn was mounted in the Hemsley Experimental Theatre of the University of Wisconsin. Its purpose was to determine the primary characteristics of such a production language. The performance style chosen for this exploratory production was designed to translate the text into a production form devoid of excessive decoration, which could serve to give events, characters, situations, and motivating ideas clear and concrete expression. The production team sought to interpret the events taking place on board "Dream of the West" in a manner consistent with the physical setting, the historical context of the drama, the multiple lines of action outlined, and the psychological, social, and intellectual dimensions of the characters portrayed. At the same time, the production team attempted to create a theatrical language capable of revealing the motives which inform the actions of these characters, as well as something of the tension between ideals and objective conditions on the ship and in the world outside.

Perhaps the key element in the symbolic language codified by the playwright is the ship, conceived by O'Neill as a symbol of the world of the play. It was designed for this production so as to run the length and most of the width of the theatre. Its rigging, extending into the fly space, served to establish both actual and imaginative dimensions of the setting. The properties were chosen for their realism and their consistency with the period in which the play is set. Apparent discontinuities in this setting were mediated by light patterns which served to isolate and/or relate the various areas of the stage, and by a sound score which provided continuity, as well as a sense of the world outside, through the use of choral music, crowd noises, street cries, the sounds of the ship's engines, and the ominous silence which characterized the calming.

Special attention was given to realistic details of life aboard ship, including social conventions and professional codes. Special effects were used to invoke the presence of the sea--in this work, the primary antagonist, the embodiment of fate. A major challenge involved the ways in which the identity of that sea could be made evident. The design staff undertook the development of an integrative scenic language, one which could be used to invoke the presence of the sea, as well as to suggest its power both within and without the confines of the ship.

Both major and minor characters were developed with careful attention to realism of gestures, movement, and vocalization, as well as to costumes, properties, and special effects. At the same time, all speaking characters were developed in such a way as to interpret inner states of consciousness and to unify these several planes of being within a coherent outer identity. The style of acting chosen required realistic attention to factuality, but allowed for enlargement and enhancement of the profile of action, as well as for the texture of interior life, and the representation of transitions between outer actions and inner responses.

The orchestration of these interpretative patterns, both those acted and those expressed in design, required an extended period of rehearsals. The form which emerged through this pattern of rehearsals appeared always coherent--indeed, often powerful. As in other of O'Neill's works, the play achieved a unity in production not always evident in the text-as-read.

-- Esther M. Jackson


1For a more extensive discussion of the cycle, see Travis Bogard, Contour in Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 371-406.

2Eugene O'Neill, The Calms of Capricorn (The Scenario), A Preliminary Edition, transcribed by Donald Gallup, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Library, 1981), I; and Eugene O'Neill, The Calms of Capricorn (The Play), A Preliminary Edition, developed by Donald Gallup, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Library, 1981), II.

3Eugene O'Neill, The Calms of Capricorn (A Play Developed from O'Neill's Scenario by Donald Gallup), with a transcription of O'Neill's scenario, notes by Dr. Gallup, and photographs of five set designs by O'Neill (New Haven and New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1982).

4See Eugene O'Neill, Work Diary (1924-1943), in A Preliminary Edition, transcribed by Donald Gallup, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Library, 1981).

5In "Passage to India", Whitman described Christopher Columbus as "Admiral of the ocean sea," and the "chief histrion" in the "scenes" which characterized the world of 1492. See Leaves of Grass, Comprehensive Reader's Edition, p. 417 (lines 152-155) and note 154.

6See John H. Raleigh, The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965). Raleigh interprets O'Neill's "history" as having three temporal divisions: (1) Ancient and Renaissance; (2) Nineteenth Century New England; and (3) Twentieth Century American.

7Both Brecht and O'Neill created historically defined characters who appear to exist simultaneously in the past and the present. Some of these characters were based on historical figures; others appear to have developed as imaginative representations of what Walt Whitman styled "composites." O'Neill introduced images of Marco Polo, Juan Ponce de Leon, and the Biblical Lazarus into his dramas; Brecht developed characters based on Galileo, Saint Joan, and Adolf Hitler. In plays such as The Good Woman of Szechwan, Mother Courage, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Brecht seemed to have engaged in the creation of fictional characters whom he regarded as "representative" of definitive patterns in history. O'Neill followed a similar course in the creation of the Harfords of New England. While their emphases were different, both playwrights were to remain concerned with issues related to social, economic, and political history, as well as with those associated with the history of ideas.

8See Bogard, Contour in Time, pp. 371-407. Documentation of O'Neill's continuing interest in American history and the forms which that interest took may be found in Virginia Floyd's important book, Eugene O'Neill at Work (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981), pp. 83-84, 215-222.

9For information about clipper ships, see Octavius T. Howe and Frederick C. Matthews, American Clipper Ships, 2 vols. (Salem, Massachusetts: Marine Research Society, 1926).

10O'Neill was apparently a close student of Thoreau. The portraits that he paints of Simon--as reported in A Touch of the Poet and enacted in More Stately Mansions--have marked correspondences to that sketched in Joseph Wood Krutch's Thoreau, in the American Men of Letters Series (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1948). Krutch attributes to Thoreau the kinds of contradictions interpreted by Simon in The Calms of Capricorn as a "conflict of opposites." He symbolized these contradictions in the titles of the chapters in his book. One of these chapter titles is "Pantheist and Puritan." Another is "The Reluctant Crusader." A third is "Paradise Found."

11O'Neill's notion of history in this cycle has strong similarities to those of Emerson. See, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson, History, from Essays (First Series), in Emerson's Essays (First and Second Series), The Riverside Library (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1883, pp. 9-43). Emerson's definition of history appears to have undergone continued refinement. In an early essay, he described history as the record of the activity of the universal mind. In a later essay on "The Method of Nature," he asked, "What is all history but the work of ideas, a record of the incomputable energy which his infinite inspirations infuse into man?"

12O'Neill responded to Walt Whitman's challenge to create new and revolutionary forms of literature, "poetic messages" expressive of the significance of American history during this period (1850-1880). Whitman described this period as an age which witnessed a "moral revolution" of profound significance for all mankind. See Walt Whitman, "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," (from Prefaces and Notes Not Included in Complete Prose Works, 1892), in Prose Works, 2 vols. (New York: New York University Press, 1963-1964), II, 716.

13See David Grimsted, Melodrama Unveiled: American Theatre and Culture 1800-1850, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).

14See John H. Raleigh on melodrama in "O'Neill and the Escape from the Chateau d'If," in O'Neill: A Collection of Essays, ed. John Gassner (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1964), pp. 7-22.

15See Francis Fergusson, "Melodramatist," in O'Neill and His Plays, ed. Oscar Cargill and others, pp. 271-282.

16Robert B. Heilman writes of the dramatic forms of Eugene O'Neill in The Iceman, the Arsonist, and the Troubled Agent (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973). He treats A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions as hybrid forms, with A Touch of the Poet tending toward a tragic resolution of crises and More Stately Mansions toward a conclusion which is melodramatic. Like Grimsted (see note 13), Heilman interprets melodrama as a form expressive of notions about character, action, language, thought, and setting which reflect the attitudes of society, as well as those of the individual playwright.

17A tragic motif which emerges through the pattern of O'Neill's work is the failure of the "pursuit of happiness." The specific context of that search appears to differ from play to play. In plays such as Anna Christie, it is associated with love and family. In works like The Great God Brown, it is equated with success in the "divided" protagonist's career. In dramas such as The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape, happiness is seen as dependent on social acceptance. In Days Without End, the ground of the search for happiness is theological. On occasion O'Neill suggested that the measure of happiness in American society is wealth. Indeed, he planned to include in the projected cycle a play entitled "The Greed of the Meek." All of these themes seem to be variations on a more comprehensive theme; that is, the search for a genuine identity, a sense of self consistent with the ideals of the evolving American society. The evidence of his plays suggests that O'Neill, like playwrights in earlier periods of theatrical history, saw the search for genuine identity as inescapably tragic.

18The tragic protagonists in this cycle--Con Melody, Deborah Harford, and Ethan Harford--conform to principles described by Emerson in his essay on tragedy. See Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Tragedy," in The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Robert E. Spiller and Wallace E. Williams, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959-1972), III, 103-120.



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