- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
Ile, first performed in 1917 and published in 1919, is among the earliest dramatic works of Eugene Gladstone O'Neill, who went on to become the leading American playwright of his generation. Its title represents pronunciation of the word oil, referring to whale oil, in the dialect, or specialized language, of New England whale fishermen. O'Neill came from a family of actors, so he naturally turned to the stage as a profession after his health failed, ending his first chosen career as a merchant sailor. Most of O'Neill's early plays reflect, as does Ile, his experiences at sea. Like all of O'Neill's earliest work, the play consists of only one act and runs little more than twenty minutes in performance. For this reason, it is still among the more commonly performed of O'Neill's works, especially by amateur and student groups. It is also frequently anthologized and is included in O'Neill's 2007 collection from Yale University Press, Collected Shorter Plays. Ile explores what O'Neill considered to be fundamental incompatibilities between the temperaments of men and women, and, brief as it is, touches upon autobiographical themes that would be prominent in his mature work, especially in his posthumously premiered masterpiece, Long Day's Journey into Night. The setting of Ile aboard a whaling ship trapped in the ice for a year, under the command of a ruthless and fanatical captain, inevitably recalls themes found in Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick, particularly humans' alienation from nature and each other.
Eugene Gladstone O'Neill was born in New York City on October 16, 1888, in the bedroom of a hotel suite on Times Square where his parents were living while his father James played on Broadway. James O'Neill was a successful actor who eventually gained great economic, if not artistic, success, in the then-popular genre of melodrama, in particular playing the title role in The Count of Monte Cristo more than four thousand times. As he grew older, the younger O'Neill spent much of his time at the family home in New London, Connecticut, and, growing fascinated with the romantic image of life at sea, became a sailor after being suspended from Princeton University. When sailing was denied him due to ill health, he turned to professional writing, first as a reporter and poet, but, by 1916, as a professional playwright, becoming intimately involved with the avant garde Provincetown Players. This group first performed all of his early plays.
Ile was first performed in November and December of 1917 in Greenwich Village in New York City by the Provincetown Players. This group originally came together in Provincetown, Maine, during the summer of 1915. The group's founding members met while vacationing and soon invited other like-minded writers, actors, and directors, including O'Neill. After an essentially amateur season in Maine, they relocated to Greenwich Village in New York and continued to work toward artistic rather than financial success. They premiered all of O'Neill's early plays between 1916 and 1918. Like Ile, these were all one-act dramas on nautical themes. Ile was first published in 1919 in The Moon of the Caribbees, and Six other Plays of the Sea, an anthology of O'Neill's early one-act dramas.
O'Neill soon moved beyond the purposefully small and unprofessional productions of the Provincetown Players and became one of the leading playwrights produced on Broadway. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1922 for Anna Christie and again in 1928 for Strange Interlude. He won it a third time posthumously in 1957 for Long Day's Journey into Night, which he wrote in 1942 but held back from performance during his lifetime. This play, like Ile, was intensely autobiographical, and so the two works share many themes despite their separation in time and the consequent difference in O'Neill's artistic maturity. After a series of failed marriages, in 1929 O'Neill married Carlotta Monterey and lived in Europe until returning to the United States in 1937. In 1936, O'Neill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died on November 27, 1953, in Boston, Massachusetts, of a degenerative nerve disease probably related to his life-long alcoholism (a condition he shared with his older brother Jamie and his sons, Eugene Jr. and Shane). Many consider O'Neill the greatest of all American playwrights.
Ile is set aboard the whaling ship Atlantic Queen just before 1:00 p.m. one day in late June of 1895. The ship is frozen in the ice of the Bering Sea. The entire action takes place inside the captain's cabin. The printed text of the play begins with a detailed description of the cabin. There is nothing exceptional about the cabin per se, but O'Neill draws the reader's attention to certain facts. The first of these is that there is an organ in the cabin and also a feminine sewing basket. This Page 137 | Top of Articlesecond item suggests a woman is aboard ship, an unusual circumstance on a whaling voyage in 1895. Also, there is no rolling or pitching, motions felt almost universally while at sea. In fact, there would be nothing unusual in a stage production not showing such motions (which would be technically quite demanding), but O'Neill makes a point of mentioning and explaining their absence. The lighting in the cabin is meant to suggest that it is "one of those gray days of calm when ocean and sky are alike dead."
The steward enters the cabin and begins to clear away lunch dishes left on a table in the middle of the room. But he is soon distracted from this task by a desire to spy on the person behind the door in the rear of the cabin. He makes sure he is unobserved and goes over to the door and presses his ear against it to listen, cursing at what he hears. He hastens back to his work when Ben, a young cabin boy, enters. The conversation between the two establishes the dramatic conditions of the play. The Atlantic Queen has been frozen in an ice field in Arctic waters for nearly a year and has harvested only a miniscule amount of whale oil. The two-year contracts of the crew are up on the day of the play, making the captain's continued authority over the men ambiguous. The ice has been breaking up and it would be possible to sail to the south, though the north, with its whaling, remains ice-bound. The ship's supply of food is running low and they would be lucky to make it to a port before running out if they headed south immediately. Ben has heard a rumor that the crew intends to mutiny if the Captain does not immediately head south and the steward agrees that the situation warrants such drastic action.
The two crewmen conclude that Captain Keeney is crazy, and further, appealing to traditional ideas about insanity, that he is being punished by God. The sin being punished is also the first act that the men judge to have been mentally unsound: Keeney bringing his wife on board for the duration of the voyage. She is the one the steward was surreptitiously checking out through the door at the rear of the stage. Her reaction to the intolerable isolation of the last year locked in the ice has been to retreat further and further away from reality. She has gone from being a friend to the entire crew, mitigating the captain's harshness, to a withdrawn figure never seen by the crew who speaks only to her husband. All she is capable of doing to distract herself is sewing, and she spends most of her waking hours weeping, as the steward heard her doing through the door.
When Ben and the steward hear the captain coming down the companionway steps to his cabin, they immediately cease their conversation. The steward goes back to his job of clearing the lunch dishes while Ben furiously pretends to be cleaning the organ in the cabin. Keeney soon enters with the second mate Slocum. Keeney clears the two men out of the cabin with threats of violence, but not before noting that he is fully aware that they were "gossipin'," that is, talking about subjects subversive of Keeney's command of the ship, as they indeed were.
Once they are alone, Slocum explains what he called Keeney down into the privacy of the captain's cabin to say. With the contractual obligation of the crew expiring today, he fears the crew will cause trouble if Keeney does not order a southward course back to port. Keeney responds that he is well aware of the situation. This conference is interrupted when Mrs. Keeney comes out of her room. She announces that she wants to go up on deck, but her husband tries to dissuade her, making excuses about the weather being unsuitable. He tries to interest her in her organ as a distraction, but she replies, "I hate the organ. It puts me in mind of home." She notices that the ice has broken up to the south and renews her impulse to go up on deck to see it better, but Keeney convinces her not to and sends her back to her cabin on the excuse that he has to discuss the ship's business with Slocum.
Once Mrs. Keeney is gone the captain admits to Slocum that he didn't allow her on deck because he expects trouble from the crew. He inspects his own revolver and makes sure Slocum has his. He does not expect to have to do more than brandish them to quell any rebellious impulse in the crew, but is fully prepared to shoot if necessary. He likens the crewmen to dogs too submissive to rebel against their master. Slocum correctly infers from this that Keeney does not intend to return to port, citing the rational reasons why he might choose to do so, namely that the ship's store of food is running low and that Keeney might be subject to legal action for damages if he keeps the ship out past the crew's contractual obligation. Keeney responds by taunting him, suggesting that he might join in a mutiny, a charge that Slocum absolutely denies. Keeney agrees it is unlikely because Slocum has been his protégé for ten years and Keeney himself trained him in the Page 138 | Top of Articlewhaling business. He adds, "No man kin say I ain't a good master, if I be a hard one," as though he merely considers Slocum a better breed of dog than the rest of the crew. Slocum suggests another reason for heading home, that it would be better for Mrs. Keeney, who is "ailin' like." Keeney bristles at this, and tells his subordinate to mind his own business. However, he reveals to Slocum why he will not turn back, and the admission brings forth an excessive outpouring of primitive emotions. He would feel humiliated before rival captains to return to port without a full consignment of oil. He also suggests that he has seen evidence that the ice northward of the ship is breaking up.
Keeney's tirade is interrupted by a renewed bout of weeping heard from Mrs. Keeney through the closed door. In this interval, Joe the harpooner intrudes uninvited into the captain's cabin. As a harpooner, Joe would have been a natural leader among the crew, and in fact he has come here to make the crew's demands to the captain; even so he cannot bring himself to do more than sheepishly wait to be noticed by the captain, which he soon is. Joe announces that the men wish to send a deputation to the captain. At first Keeney wants to respond by cursing them, but then agrees to see them as he inevitably must. In the interval before the deputation's arrival, Slocum suggests summoning the other officers, but Keeney insist he can take care of the matter alone.
Joe and five crewmen soon return. Acting as their leader, Joe points out that the men's contracts are finished and the food is running low. He demands on behalf of the crew to return to port. Keeney refuses, citing the imminent breakup of the northern ice floe and the chance to fill the ship's hold with oil. Joe then expresses the crew's decision to cease to work the ship except as necessary to return home, arguing that any possible legal action in the future would support this decision. Keeney reminds them that he is the legal authority while they are at sea and threatens to imprison anyone who does not obey his orders. Joe then declares that the men have no choice except to mutiny and take the ship home themselves. It is at this moment that Mrs. Keeney reemerges from her room, although none of the other characters notice in the excitement of their heated argument. She sees her husband hit Joe in the face, knocking him unconscious. The other crewmen seem likely to attack and overpower the captain, but they are cowed before Keeney and Slocum's pistols. They meekly withdraw, dragging Joe's unconscious body with them. Keeney believes he has triumphed over them and sends Slocum up on deck to keep order. Only once the crisis is past does Keeney hear his wife's hysterical sobs and turn to attend her.
When Keeney calms his wife down to the point where she can talk, she simply says, "Oh, I can't bear it! I can't bear it any longer!" What she cannot bear is the brutality on the part of the crew and especially on the part of her husband, but most of all, a refrain of intolerable conditions that she repeats throughout the play: "the ice all around, and the silence." In a brief monologue, she admits that she demanded to come on this voyage over her husband's objections. Her whole identity was attached to Keeney's heroic reputation in the whaling community (she could not even continue as a schoolteacher lest the fact of his wife working should become a reproach); therefore she felt she needed to witness him in his own element, in command of a whaling expedition. "I guess I was dreaming about the old Vikings in the storybooks and I thought you were one of them," she tells him. However, she realizes how mistaken she was: "And instead…. All I find is ice and cold—and brutality!" She pointedly refers to the violence she witnessed him use to quell the mutiny, but also, no doubt, implicitly includes his whole demeanor as a ship's captain. She begs him to return home at once with increasing hysteria, which Keeney wishes to attribute to some physical disease such as a fever, rather than to her deteriorating mental condition or, even more accurately, to her discovery of the disjunction between his appearance and reality. He refuses to go home, insisting that the two months back to port must be extended by another two or three months to fill the ship with oil, and she demands to know why. "A woman couldn't rightly understand my reason," he tells her. She overheard his explanation to the mate of his fears of being humiliated by other captains, which she dismisses as "a stupid, stubborn reason." He retreats from that position, and also disclaims that he has any interest in the monetary profit or loss of the voyage since they are so well off from his lifelong success. But he cannot say precisely why he feels he must get his quota of oil, except that nothing but success would be right for him. Finally she reflects that if they turned back now they would reach their home port on or about their wedding anniversary. She makes a final appeal to the effect that if they do not return at once, she feels as though Page 139 | Top of Articleshe will die. She demands that, if he loves her as he confesses he does, he must take her home.
Keeney finally agrees to take the ship back to its home port and so bring his wife home. She thanks him, but at that very moment Slocum comes into the cabin and announces that the ice to the north is breaking up. Casting aside all other thoughts, he receives the estimate from Slocum that the men will obey orders, and commands that the ship immediately head north in search of whales. He gleefully calls out, "And I was agoin' home like a yaller dog!" Mrs. Keeneny implores the captain to keep his promise—made but a moment ago—to head home, but he reverts to his monomania to get the whale oil at all costs, returning to his insistence that she is merely ill. He goes further, saying, "I got to prove a man to be a good husband for ye to take pride in. I got to git the ile, I tell ye." He rushes to go up on deck and personally supervise the operation of the ship, but hesitates when she starts to laugh hysterically and play the organ in a wild, chaotic way. He instead goes over and tries to get her attention, but she ignores him, even when he jostles her roughly by the shoulder. Keeney wants to convince himself that her unresponsiveness is some kind of mockery of him, but he finally comes to a different conclusion: "You said—you was a-goin' mad—God!" At that moment Slocum returns and reports that a large pod of whales has been sighted near the ship. Keeney determines he must go at once to personally lead the pursuit of the whales. He announces this to her, that they will go home just as soon as the ship is filled with oil and begs her not to go mad. He leaves, his wife taking no notice. As the curtain falls on the play, she continues to dissonantly play an unnamed hymn on her organ.
Ben, the Cabin Boy
Ben is a teenaged boy given to tricks such as making handstands on deck for his own amusement. Being so young, he was at one time Mrs. Keeney's special pet. He is keen to show his importance by repeating to the steward what he has overheard from other crewmen who are suggesting the possibility of mutiny, and also to join in by supporting the opinion that such a step might be necessary.
Joe, a Harpooner
Joe is "an enormous six-footer with a battered, ugly face." As a harpooner, he is the leader of one of the ship's boats actually involved in chasing whales. He was chosen by the crew to deliver their ultimatum to return home or face mutiny to Captain Keeney. At first he treats Keeney with the deference he is accustomed to, but when he lays out the demands of the crew, he summons up the courage to act with bravado, only to be knocked unconscious by Keeney.
Mrs. Annie Keeney
Annie Keeney, the wife of Captain Keeney, came along on the voyage—over Keeney's objections—out of admiration for her husband. "I used to dream of sailing on the great, wide, glorious ocean. I wanted to be by your side in the danger and vigorous life of it all. I wanted to see you the hero they make you out to be in Homeport." But it turned out nothing like she had hoped. "And instead…. All I find is ice and cold—and brutality!" The disparity between expectation and reality has had a profound effect on her. When she first came on board she acted as a ministering angel to the crew. At the beginning of the play, Ben the cabin boy and the steward praise her former character, but cannot do so without noting the drastic change in her, as the former says, "She useter be awful nice to me before—she got—like she is." To remove any doubt, the steward spells out how she now is: "she's near lost her mind." By the time the audience sees her emerge from her cabin, she is frightened and filled with dread, her eyes permanently red from weeping. She has lost weight from her depression.
When Mrs. Keeney finally confronts her husband in the climax of the play, she reveals that she has sacrificed everything for what she believed was his heroism. She gave up her career as a schoolteacher, which would have kept her occupied during his long voyages, because a hero could not have a wife who was independent of him. She finally gave up her home in order to come and see his heroism in action on the present voyage, but she realizes that it is nothing except brutality. After subsuming herself to him she is nothing but an empty shell, entirely dependent on him. When she sees that she too is to be subordinated to his pride, her individual identity is completely destroyed, the condition O'Neill describes as going mad.
Captain David Keeney
David Keeney, the captain of the Atlantic Queen, is about forty years old. He is just above average in height but possesses a massive barrel chest. His hair has gone gray and he wears it long in the nautical Page 140 | Top of Articlefashion of the day. "His face is massive and deeply lined, with gray-blue eyes of a bleak hardness."
Before he is seen, the steward describes Keeney as "a hard man—as hard a man as ever sailed the seas." He emphasizes this by reminding Ben that Keeney would beat him simply for fooling around (making handstands on deck). At one point Keeney's temper and disrespect are demonstrated when he nearly strikes the steward for breaking a dish and being dilatory in his duties. He thinks better of it and tells the steward, "'Twould be like hitting a worm." These early threats of violence prefigure his suppression of the mutiny through fisticuffs and threats of gun play. It becomes clear that despite his dissatisfaction with the conditions and success of the voyage, the steward is personally in fear and awe of Keeney and the very sight of Keeney fills the steward with fear. The parallelism in phrases like the steward's "Damn him and damn the ice!" suggest that there is something greater than human about Keeney, that the steward is disposed to see him as a force of nature on equal terms with the elements of the sea and the weather. At the same time, he believes the captain's mental condition has become unstable. Keeney spends all of his time on deck staring at the pack ice to the north that separates them from the whaling grounds, and which blocks the fulfillment of the ship's mission when reason might suggest that the sensible course would be to look to the south and a return to port, admitting that the expedition has failed. In particular, he is treating those around him with increasing disregard. He treats the ship's crew like dogs and although he not overtly cruel to his wife, the mere continuation of their hopeless position at sea is oppressive to her. Finally the steward judges that Keeney is being driven mad by his obsession: "All he thinks on is gittin' the ile—'s if it was our fault he ain't had good luck with the whales. I think the man's mighty nigh losin' his senses." The captain's actions have driven the steward from an attitude of awed loyalty to one of bitter hatred and rejection, summed up in the curse that ends the initial conversation of the play: "God send his soul to hell for the devil he is!"
When his second mate Slocum all but demands that Keeney return to port, he admits to his subordinate why he will not consider the idea. He has no interest in the profit to be made from a full cargo of oil. Instead his motivation is pride. He cannot stand the thought of being humiliated before rival whaling captains by returning with a small consignment of oil. The very thought of it sends him into a frenzy that causes him to strike the table top in wrath in lieu of any other target. Moreover, the idea of avoiding the mockery of his peers has assumed grandiose, almost theological overtones: "I got to git the ile! I got to git it in spite of all hell, and by God, I ain't agoin' home till I do git it!"
Keeney is briefly able to have his heart moved and relents in his quest, agreeing to go back to port when his wife begs him to do so. To her, Keeney can offer very little explanation of why the oil is so important to him (though he does consciously disavow the idea that it is pride), save that it is an essential part of his nature. In the end, he disavows everything else, even the love and sanity of his wife, to "git the ile."
Members of the Crew
The members of the crew have supernumerary roles (meaning that they appear on stage but have no spoken lines). They are not functionally different from Joe the harpooner who speaks for them. O'Neill may have had in mind the chorus of a Greek drama, who either all speak the same lines together or else allow a single member to speak for them. In this case it is significant that they never speak either to express their own opinions or to support what Joe tells the captain. From another viewpoint, the multiplication of crew members beyond Joe in the confrontation with the captain is necessary for the sake of realism.
The ship's second mate is named Slocum. He is a tall, lean man who is about thirty years old. O'Neill describes his face as weather-beaten, which would probably today be termed "suntanned." He has been trained by Keeney over the course of the last ten years and is unwavering in his loyalty, despite his personal desire to end the voyage and return to port.
The steward is an old man filled with anger and cursing; perhaps he feels slighted over not being advanced as rapidly as younger crewmen like Slocum. In any case, he holds Captain Keeney in a sort of superstitious dread and keeps to himself a terrible wrath against his injustice. This slips out only in occasional discourses and curses against his captain, spoken only when their object cannot possibly hear.
Humans versus Nature
Humans' relationship to nature is a common literary theme in American literature, especially in relation to man's journey to the limits, whether on the frontier or, as in O'Neill's play, on a whaling voyage. Nineteenth-century writers like Herman Melville and Jack London rejected earlier, Romantic ideas of nature in the work of Emerson and Thoreau—that man and nature were harmonious and that man could see the best part of his existence reflected in the natural world. Nature, therefore, becomes a powerful yet indifferent force that will dispense with man and man's ego-driven pursuits; nature can never truly be conquered. In Ile, Captain Keeney succeeds in overcoming nature to the extent that by the end of the play he will "git the ile," but at a terrible cost.
Captain Keeney's profession as a whaling captain puts him in direct conflict with nature insofar as he must hunt down whales and venture through the most remote areas of the earth in the most extreme weather conditions. Yet O'Neill establishes a deeper conflict between Keeney and the natural world. Keeney is detached from the human world around him and focused on the weather and the ocean as if they might be his opponent in a chess match: "…He don't see nothin'. He just walks up and down like he didn't notice nobody—and stares at the ice to the no'the'ard." He seems to have a monomania for getting his quota of whale oil: "He won't look
nowheres but no'the'ard where they's only the ice to see. He don't want to see no clear water. All he thinks on is gittin' the ile." To Keeney this represents victory over the elements. Keeney finally triumphs over nature with the breakup of the northern icepack and the resumption of a rich whale hunt:
Hell! I got to git the ile, I tell you. How could I figger on this ice? It's never been so bad before in the thirty year I been a-comin' here. And now it's breakin'up. In a couple o'days it'll be all gone. And they's whale here, plenty of 'em. I know they is and I ain't never gone wrong yit.
His triumph comes at the expense of his wife's sanity. She, on the other hand, is ultimately defeated by nature. Whatever forces drive her mad, they are symbolized by ice. The ice is always mentioned in connection with her growing distance from reality, sometimes simply, "ice, ice, ice!"
Traditional Gender Roles
In Ile, O'Neill is remarkably concerned with issues of traditional gender roles. The play dramatizes the crossing of conventional gender boundaries, an act that drives the tension in Ile. The central conflict of the play comes about from Mrs. Keeney wanting to leave the home, a realm traditionally considered feminine, and join the whaling voyage, a realm traditionally considered masculine. Keeney tells his wife as much, saying, "I warned you what it'd be, Annie. ‘Whalin' ain't no ladies' tea party,’ I says to you, and ‘you better stay to home where you've got all your woman's comforts.’" Keeney eventually conceives of his wife's presence on board as an attack on his masculine identity. He tells her, "Woman, you ain't adoin' right when you meddle in men's business and weaken 'em."
In the fictive world O'Neill creates, crossing traditional gender boundaries results in disaster. Ultimately, Mrs. Keeney's entrance into the male world of the ship brings about her ruin; her "madness" suggests that she has lost her ability to comprehend herself and the world. Interestingly, the steward suggests that Captain Keeney's decision to bring her in the first place was a sign of his madness. "Who but a man that's mad would take his woman … on a stinkin' whalin' ship to the Arctic seas," he remarks to Ben.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, writing a generation after the golden age of Greek Drama, set out in the first book of his Poetics to analyze what made the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides so exceptional. One element that he identified is known as dramatic unity. This means that the performance represents real actions that could and do all take place in a single physical space convincingly represented by the stage set and in a time no greater than that occupied by the performance of the play. To put this in modern terms, a play with dramatic unity ought not to represent actions that take place over many different areas of the world or over years all compressed down into the time and space of the stage performance, but should be something like a real-time surveillance video of the action at a single point. Many playwrights, notably Shakespeare, have completely ignored this "rule," but O'Neill followed the dramatic unities insofar as possible, and in no play as strictly as in Ile, which takes place in a single small room (able to be shown convincingly in the tiny Provincetown Players' stage where it premiered) and in the space of only a few minutes time. In addition, in this play O'Neill follows the Greek practice of having no more than three speaking characters on stage at any one time.
Realism developed as a style in reaction to the emotional and dramatic excesses of the melodramas popular at the end of the nineteenth century, which relied on an unrealistic and artificial manipulation of the audience's emotions. European playwrights like Anton Chekov, Henrik Ibsen, and August Strindberg produced a new type of play that depended upon the development of realistic characters. Realist drama had a profound impact on O'Neill. In an early play like Ile, O'Neill used natural rather than exaggerated speech, actions, and plot devices to engage the audience's emotions directly, as if they were participating in events in the real world. He draws upon his own memories and feelings to create a fictional experience for the audience based on his real life.
One element of the realism in the play is the language used by its characters. The speech of the sailors, who comprise all but one of the characters, is markedly dialectical, not least in the use of "ile" for "oil" in the title of the piece. The language is no doubt molded on that of the men O'Neill himself sailed with in his youth and on retired sailors that O'Neill knew in his New England boyhood who were of the generation of the play set in 1895. One purpose of the use of dialect was to make a sharp distinction from the stereotyped language of melodrama, of which O'Neill disapproved. Yet lines like the steward's description of Captain Keeeny, "He's a hard man—as hard a man as ever sailed the seas," today seem cliché and even melodramatic in their familiarity. Time and fame have not served O'Neill well in this respect. Much of the language of the play seems to verge on parody precisely because lesser writers have so frequently turned to the language here and in his other nautical-themed plays and thereby reduced it by overuse and transference to lower genres. Thus, to a modern audience, the language hardly seems to counter stereotypes.
The Provincetown Players
In the summer of 1915, a group of intellectuals vacationing in Provincetown, Maine, decided to form their own theater company, which became known as the Provincetown Players. They were dissatisfied with the theater being produced on Broadway, which often strove for popular appeal at the expense of artistic integrity and generally consisted of melodramas (a drama that focused on artificially heightened emotions at the expense of realism) and romantic comedies. They soon sent for O'Neill, whom the journalist Jack Reed knew to be writing plays in the new realist style popular in Europe. O'Neill was only too happy with this development because he saw it as a way of breaking with his father, who had, in O'Neill's view, thrown away an artistically promising career in favor of playing a single popular and profitable but artistically uninteresting role on Broadway, performing the lead role in a melodrama based on Alexander Dumas's novel The Count of Monte Cristo more than four thousand times. While some members of the Provincetown Players were professional writers, none had experience in the theater as directors, actors, or stage designers. However, they felt that their lack of experience would give their productions a direct simplicity that was preferable to the exaggerated Page 144 | Top of Articleand overwrought professional productions on Broadway. They immediately started to produce short plays by O'Neill and other writers in private houses in Provincetown and other unlikely venues, to considerable critical and even commercial success.
In 1916, they bought a brownstone in Greenwich Village, New York, and converted the living room into a tiny theater with a stage only ten feet wide, before which only 140 viewers could be crammed in, and over three years produced full seasons of new works, including O'Neill's Ile in 1917. This play was especially written for the Provincetown Players and tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of the amateur ethos of their productions. The Provincetown Players originally took pride in "mistakes" that replicated real life, such as lines misspoken and errors in blocking. The authors acted as unofficial directors of their own works, but really no one was in charge, leading to endless arguments on matters ranging from details of production to whether or not critics ought to be allowed in the audience. By late 1917, however, they were joined by Nina Moise, a recent graduate from Stanford University with a degree in theater. She became the group's director, including directing Ile. She introduced some needed correctives to the group's excessive amateurism, but as a result most of the original members soon drifted away. Nevertheless the Players still remained a small independent theater that could afford to produce risky but important plays that Broadway would not touch, premiering many Pulitzer Prize-winning works besides O'Neill's. The company remained the premier avant garde theater in New York until 1929 when the economic disaster of the Depression caused it to close.
Herman Melville's Moby Dick
O'Neill's Ile has many commonalities with Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby Dick, a similarity noted by critic Travis Bogard in his book Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill. Both works concern the captain of a whaling ship (Captain Ahab and Captain Keeney) who has transformed his commercial enterprise into an obsessive personal quest that is becoming increasingly irrational and destructive of everyone around him. Moreover, both seem to be carrying on some sort of personal struggle against nature Page 145 | Top of Articleand the world itself. Although we have no direct knowledge of the genesis of Ile (O'Neill kept a Work Diary in which he meticulously detailed his ideas, methods, and sources, but this does not begin until 1924), there can be little doubt that it was directly inspired by Melville's novel. Moby Dick originally received mixed reviews and failed to become an established classic, lapsing into obscurity shortly after it was published. The novel's moral ambiguity and metaphysical complexity did not find favor with contemporary audiences. However, in the wake of widespread intellectual and spiritual alienation felt during and after World War I, Moby Dick found a new appeal and quickly became recognized as an important work, if not the greatest American novel. The renaissance of Melville's novel swept through the New York intellectual community early in 1917, by word of mouth more than published criticism. Ile premiered on November 30, 1917, and was written over the preceding weeks or months, so O'Neill would certainly have been aware of the newly popular novel as he worked on his play. While O'Neill's reference to the symbolic structure of Moby Dick is superficial, that is to be explained by his relative inexperience as a playwright and the novelty of Melville's work, which could hardly have been well examined so quickly.
Ernest Shackleton's Expedition to Antarctica
At the beginning of Ile, Keeney's ship has spent the last year frozen in the pack ice of the Bering Sea (between Alaska and Russia). Contemporary audiences must have been reminded of the harrowing, real-life adventure of the expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton (1914-17), which set out to cross the Antarctic continent but met disaster after being frozen in the ice for several months and eventually having their ship destroyed by the pressure of the ice on its hull. They sailed from Antarctica to Elephant Island and then to South Georgia in one of the ship's boats, during which time Shackleton had to face down a possible mutiny at pistol point. Shackleton himself reached the Falklands in June 1916 to organize the rescue of his men from Elephant Island (making worldwide headlines) and the entire crew returned safely to England on May 29, 1917, six months before the premiere of Ile.
The Whale Fishery
In the nineteenth century, whale fishing was a major American industry. It was centered in the port towns of New England such as Nantucket and New Bedford. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, whale oil-burning lamps were the primary source of illumination in American homes; however, by 1895, the use of whale oil was waning and, by 1917, the date at which Ile was written, it was completely replaced by a whole series of new technologies, including kerosene fuel for lamps (the first use that petroleum was put to), and the introduction of natural gas-burning jets, and finally by lightbulbs, as gas lines and electrifications spread to more and more American homes. For O'Neill, old stories of the whale fishery heard from retired sailors in his boyhood home of New London, Connecticut, especially his neighbor Captain Nat Keeney, were probably a source of deep nostalgia, contributing to his romantic desire to go to sea, and the later focus of his early plays on nautical themes. Ecological ideas related to modern concerns about whaling, although sometimes referenced in playbills of recent productions of Ile, could hardly have played any part in O'Neill's original inspiration, since ideas of that kind did not enter popular consciousness until the 1950s and 1960s.
Since Ile was an early and relatively minor work of O'Neill's, it has not received the same degree of critical attention as some of his more mature plays. An anonymous review of Ile in the Dramatist in July 1919, occasioned by the play's publication in The Moon of the Caribbees, is not terribly enthusiastic. The reviewer considers it inferior to the other plays in the volume because it is under-dramatized. While he seems to support the overall realistic tone of the play, he considers that the wife's descent into madness is arbitrary, and that the viewer, not having been shown why it is so, neither feels it nor understands it. Instead, he would prefer the viewer be made to experience the wife's change in mental condition for himself.
The biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb, in O'Neill: Life with Monte Cristo, find sources for Ile in its author's New England background. According to the Gelbs, an old friend of the Page 146 | Top of ArticleO'Neill family, the retired whaling captain Nathanial Keeney, and O'Neill's friend novelist Mary Vorse passed on to him the Provincetown story of the whaling captain John Cook, which in its general content was nearly identical to the plot of Ile. Travis Bogard, in his book Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, remarks on the similarity of Captain Keeney to Melville's Captain Ahab in Moby Dick and observes, "In Keeney, for the first time, O'Neill draws the character of a man who commits a decisive act of will." His earlier characters were generally tragic prisoners of fate. Margaret Loftus Ranald and Judith E. Barlow, each writing in The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O'Neill, note the criticism of both genders—each from the viewpoint of the other—that is a major theme of the play. Barlow also sees Mrs. Keeney as an early treatment of O'Neill's own mother, a point expanded upon by Jean Chothia in the same volume and by the Gelbs. Generally, Ile is viewed as representing an important stage of growth in O'Neill's work rather than being a masterpiece in and of itself.
Bradley A. Skeen
Skeen is a classics professor. In this essay, he considers Ile as a representation of basic human psychological drives.
Ile is certainly not comparable to the great plays of O'Neill's mature period in the 1930s and 1940s, such as Mourning Becomes Electra or Long Day's Journey into Night. It is nevertheless of considerable importance in the development of O'Neill as a playwright. It is the first of his plays written after he became established as a playwright, at least in intellectual if not yet popular circles. It has a curious origin. The depictions of Mrs. Keeney's descent into madness and Captain Keeney's overbearing character are commonly taken to be reflections of O'Neill's own mother's drug addiction and his father's personality, types that he would return to over and over throughout his career. The play is also based on the stories of the sea he heard as a boy in the port of New London, particularly from his neighbor the retired seaman Captain Nat Keeney, who was also the basis for Captain Turner in Long Day's Journey into Night. Then, O'Neill's own years at sea in the merchant marine contributed considerably to the realism of the depiction of ship life. But there were two more recent points of departure that must have impelled O'Neill to write in the direction he took. One was the new fashion for Moby Dick, which swept the New York intellectual community in 1917. Another was a story of local lore in Provincetown, Maine, told to O'Neill when he first joined with the Provincetown Players by the suffragette and novelist Mary Vorse, who acted as the group's patron. According to the story, as told in Arthur and Barbara Gelb's second biography of O'Neill, O'Neill: Life with Monte Cristo, Vorse knew a Captain John Cook who retired to Provincetown and who had quelled a mutiny on one voyage after staying at sea for over two years. On another voyage, Cook had taken his wife (not as rare an event as Ile suggests), who went mad—that is, when she returned home, she ceased to speak to anyone Page 147 | Top of Articleelse and visibly spent the day talking to herself while going about her household chores. Supposedly this madness was the result of the monotony of the voyage and her witnessing the brutality necessary for her husband to control the crew. In any case, these events formed the backdrop of O'Neill's drama.
Ile is about the collision of two worlds that may, for the purpose of convenience, be called the masculine and the feminine, although those terms have here a symbolic rather than a literal sense. Any attempt to read the play in feminist terms, as the patriarchal oppression of an individual woman, would prevent the reader from coming to grips with the actual meaning of the drama. In Ile, the masculine principle, represented by Captain Keeney, is a drive for achievement and mastery. Keeney does not pursue the "ile," or oil, for profit, glory, or any other tangible, external reason. "Gittin' the ile" is what he must do to become a fully actualized human being. It represents the abstract qualities of discipline and success. Keeney's compulsion for the "ile" is his impulse toward justice and virtue and against compromise. Keeney cannot say precisely why he must "git the ile," but he knows if he fails it will destroy his identity as a man; it will reduce him to the position of a child taunted by his schoolmates:
[D]'you s'pose any of 'em would believe that—any o' them skippers I've beaten voyage after voyage? Can't you hear 'em laughin' and sneerin'—Tibbots 'n' Harris 'n' Simms and the rest—and all o' Homeport makin' fun o' me? "Dave Keeney what boasts he's the best whalin' skipper out o' Homeport comin' back with a measly four hundred barrel of ile?"
The masculine principle has qualities which, viewed from outside, can be seen as deficiencies. This principle is hard and brutal because it is only concerned with achieving its goal. Keeney, however, takes pride in the mixture of these qualities and does not see them as defects. "No man kin say I ain't a good master, if I be a hard one." Also, "I'm the law on this ship." That is how Keeney wishes to be perceived. Merely male beings, such as the crewmen, who do not fully possess this actualized masculinity are not men but animals, "dogs" in the sense that they must be controlled by those who are men. Keeney is momentarily driven by kindness to agree to give up the "ile" for the sake of his wife, and once he recovers he curses himself, "And I was agoin' home like a yaller dog!" Once the men are brought under control, "They're meek as lambs." Keeney's masculine identity is ultimately fulfilled, though held in check for a year by the ice, and it is clear that he will succeed in "gittin' the ile."
The feminine principle in Ile is represented by Mrs. Keeney. This idea is not as well developed in the play as is the masculine principle, but its character is clear enough. It is peace and repose instead of action; it is waiting instead of demanding. It delights in building up the self, not through mastery and dominance but through cultivation with creative pastimes such as art, music, and learning. (Ann Keeney has been a schoolteacher.) Religion, represented by the hymn she plays, is clearly feminine in this sense, but notably both of the Keeneys bear Biblical names. David was the king of Israel who wrested control of the kingdom through violence and conquest, bringing order to Israelite tribes who were little more than bands of brigands without his leadership. Ann, from the Hebrew hannah, means "grace." Defects associated with the feminine principle in Ile include weakness and passivity.
These masculine and feminine worlds or elements, O'Neill suggests, cannot be mixed. If they are, whoever mixes them must immediately fall into a despicable hermaphroditic state that truly represents neither principle. This is Keeney's judgment on the steward. "Instead of doin' your rightful work ye've been below here gossipin' old woman's talk with that boy." The two worlds can interact in only one way, through love, and this is the principle that built the Keeneys' once successful marriage. The blending of the masculine and feminine principles in love is necessary because it allows each principle to experience the virtues of the other. Keeney is Page 148 | Top of Articlekind to his wife because he loves her, and kindness is the opposite of his quality of brutality, which he finds necessary in the masculine sphere. They have a point of contact through the masculine's entry into the feminine sphere of the home; however, there seems to be some fault or flaw marring the marriage that O'Neill does not fully articulate. He indicates it by stating that the marriage does not have the usual result of offspring, but is sterile. Mrs. Keeney expresses the incomplete thought, "I sometimes think if we could only have had a child." What she means, no doubt, is that she would never, in that case, have asked to intrude into the masculine world of the whaling ship. So it was the incompletion of her feminine identity that led her to invade the masculine. Her ideas of what the masculine life of the ship would be like were a fantasy; she imagined that she would see her husband as a sort of Viking hero (in other words, a figure of melodrama, which was hateful to O'Neill). It is this mixing of the two spheres, for which Captain Keeney, in giving his consent, is as much to blame as his wife, that leads to disaster.
Once aboard the whaling ship, the feminine principle represented by Mrs. Keeney is stifled, as she is unable to connect with anyone. At first she is kind to the crew, especially the young cabin boy, Ben, who might in some sense be a surrogate son, but she grows increasingly distant and withdrawn over the course of the voyage. Throughout the play, she consistently blames this on the factors of silence and the ice that surrounds the ship. "All this horrible brutality, and these brutes of men, and this terrible ship, and this prison cell of a room, and the ice all around, and the silence." She feels that her mind is being distorted by these same factors. "I feel as if the cold and the silence were crushing down on my brain." When her husband notices a mad look in her eye, she explains, "It's the ice and the cold and the silence—they'd make anyone look strange." "The silence" represents her inability to connect with those around her, the profound alienation in the impossibility of bridging the gap between the feminine and the masculine. It is symbolized by the ice, a cold, numbing element, the opposite of the love that would more properly exist between the two gender types and the factor that cuts the ship itself off from the whole world. It is the brutality of the masculine, unalloyed with the kindness of the feminine, that prevents her connection.
Most of all, Captain Keeney fails to explain the whole meaning and character of his own existence to her, because the masculine is as unable to communicate with the feminine as the feminine is with the masculine. "You don't see my meanin'. I got to git the ile," he tells her. Thus Keeney's entire purpose in existence in unintelligible to her. It is no wonder that this alienation results in a breakdown in communication that is described as madness, the utter inability to convey meaning across the gap. Though the reader might at first think this madness affects only Mrs. Keeney, this is not the case. Captain Keeney is rendered equally unable to communicate with her. He refuses to accept her communication; he thinks it is a form of mockery or pretense, anything other than the direct communication it is. Having failed to understand her, he imagines that fulfilling his own masculine identity will somehow restore her. "I know you're foolin' me, Annie. You ain't out of your mind—be you? I'll git the ile now right enough." Keeney asserts, "I got to prove a man to be a good husband for ye to take pride in. I got to git the ile, I tell ye," believing in contradiction of any realistic assessment of the situation, and that his triumph will heal her suffering. Both are imprisoned in worlds that are each unable to communicate any longer with the other.
One should not attach the masculine and feminine symbols of O'Neill's play to the biological genders. The mere lack of communication between the sexes is not what he is discussing, though a lack of communication in his parents' marriage may inform his play on some level. What O'Neill is concerned with is the conflict between two basic human drives—the will to control and the desire to create—that operate at odds with each other yet must strike some kind of balance in every person. If the balance is struck poorly, the result is not madness in a clinical sense (and, indeed, one would be hard-pressed to diagnose or describe Mrs. Keeney's "madness" in psychiatric terms), but one fails to become a human being living up to his potential, a failure O'Neill characterizes as madness.
Source: Bradley Skeen, Critical Essay on Ile, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Edd Winfield Parks
In the following excerpt, Parks traces the development of O'Neill's philosophy in his dramas, including Ile.
For some twenty years (1936-1956), Eugene O'Neill's expressionistic dramas with their symbolic distortion of objective facts to reveal inner experiences were more popular in South America and especially in the Scandinavian countries than they were at home. The dramatist who in the 1920s had been awarded three Pulitzer Prizes was regarded mainly as of historical importance when in 1936 he was the recipient of the Nobel Prize. To many critics, it seemed a recognition (belated or, perhaps, undeserved) of work that might once have been exciting but that no longer seemed vital or particularly relevant. In the main, we failed to see in his work what the Scandinavians found in it.
Since 1956, there has been a tremendous upsurge of interest in O'Neill's plays. When The Iceman Cometh was produced in New York in 1946, it met with an exceedingly cool reception; ten years later, it was a brilliant success. So, at least as far as surface recognition was concerned, were the autobiographical plays, A Moon for the Misbegotten and Long Day's Journey into Night, as well as the historical play, A Touch of the Poet. The rather grim story of a tubercular prostitute, Anna Christie, has been turned into a musical comedy; the tragic Desire Under the Elms has been turned into a movie that follows with reasonable faithfulness the play itself and the movie script that O'Neill once prepared from it (the substitution of a foreign for a New England girl was made by O'Neill in the script).
This may be no more than jumping on the bandwagon, although only the musical comedy really seems a misguided and hardboiled attempt to gain financial advantage from a newly-found popularity. Yet there is little to indicate that we have yet recognized the ideas behind O'Neill's plays—the ideas that today make him a living force in Sweden, Denmark, and Brazil. We have concentrated too much on the sense of doom and futility that pervades O'Neill's work. Undeniably this negative aspect is there. The man who was always "a little in love with death" was assuredly not an optimist when he dealt with life. Yet a reading of O'Neill plays indicates that he is not basically a deterministic writer, but rather that he has been attempting to find a philosophy that would reconcile a rationalistic view of the universe with man's need for something beyond rationalism—for a sense of the infinite beyond the finite.
Early in his career, O'Neill recognized this basic necessity, when he wrote in an essay that "the playwright today must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it—the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new one for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in." In the attempt to find that meaning and to state it in dramatic terms, O'Neill has temporarily embraced and then discarded many modern substitutes for religion, and has even attempted to re-state the Catholic concept of religion in the terms of modern psychology. Essentially he has been a mystic who used the trappings of realism, but a mystic uneasily aware that with the advent of scientific determinism came the need for a new symbolism.
For a new day in man's thought, a new and fresh power was needed. An instinctive, convinced belief in mythological gods and heroes (Hebraic as well as Scandinavian or Greek) was past; even the moral order no longer carried a vital power. Instead, that power was to be found in the scientific laws which were the true if inanimate rulers of the universe. Writers could no longer accept the myths of yesterday, as Herman Melville earlier had recognized when he wrote that "great geniuses are a part of their times; they themselves are the times, and possess a corresponding coloring." So for Moby Dick Melville used a scientific and natural symbolism: he took for a springboard into his exploration of the unknowable soul not an outworn mythology but the sea and a man's search for an actual and a symbolic white whale. Nature became the tragic force, and Moby Dick the deus ex machina. O'Neill's great master, Henrik Ibsen, made heredity a tragic force in Ghosts; however unjust it might be, it led as surely to irrevocable doom Page 150 | Top of Articleas ever the moral order had. These and many other writers created powerful literary conventions out of the scientific thought of the time.
O'Neill also has followed these modern conventions. In his first important play, The Moon of the Caribbees, he set man against nature, with the spirit of the sea intended to be the hero, and the man Smitty reduced to silhouetted gestures of self-pity. Smitty's sentimental posings, set against the revealing moods of the sea's eternal truth, reveal that he is out of harmony with nature and therefore no longer attuned to beauty. Only the noble savage, or in our time the natural man, can attain this harmony. O'Neill stated this theme explicitly when he tried to explain the meaning of a difficult and to many people a confusing play: the protagonist of The Hairy Ape is "a symbol of man, who has lost his old harmony with nature the harmony which he used to have as an animal and has not acquired in a spiritual way … The public saw just the stoker, not the symbol, and the symbol makes the play either important or just another play … The subject here is the same ancient one that always was and always will be the one subject for drama, and that is man and his struggle with his own fate. The struggle used to be with the gods, but is now with himself, his own past, his attempt ‘to belong’."
O'Neill temporarily abandoned this immediate symbol, but throughout the plays the ultimate longing and the ultimate symbol remain the same: man's desire to find a satisfactory spiritual peace, a place "to belong" not only in this world but in relation to the universe. The quest was in part at least a personal one. Much later he was to write of himself that "I will always be a stranger who never feels at home … who can never belong."
For dramatic purposes, however, he turned back to the theme of man's struggle against nature; out of it, in fact, he wrote one of his greatest plays, Ile. Here a tight, just, hard-fisted New England sea captain who has failed for the first time to secure his quota of whale oil is faced with mutiny, and with the prospect of a wife slowly going insane from loneliness and fear; but when the ice breaks and the whales spout, the captain turns inevitably to the chase. The background is deliberately meager. All the overtones, the true background, are in the struggle shadowed forth rather than expressed between man and his ancient enemy, nature. As in all great plays there are two conflicts: the internal struggle in Captain Keeney between pride and compassion; the external struggle between a captain and his crew, a husband and his wife, a man and the universe. Because he is above all else the primitive man, the proud hunter, Captain Keeney makes his decision; and relentlessly, with nature as inexorable as ever were the Greek gods, tragedy results.
The play was satisfying, but to O'Neill the philosophy behind it was not. Man's spirit had to be reckoned with, as well as man's mind. Always the spirit seeks an assurance of immortality. If a rationalistic and mechanistic philosophy denies and to the rational mind proves that it cannot be found through religion, that the assurance can no longer be achieved through faith, then it must be sought elsewhere. In his own search, O'Neill fell temporarily under the sway of the idea that a man attains immortality through his descendants. This is the underlying motif of The Fountain. In a program note, O'Neill told the audience that "The idea of writing a ‘Fountain’ came on finally from my interest in the recurrence in folklore of the beautiful legend of a healing spring of eternal youth." So Ponce de Leon searches fruitlessly for this spring which will wash away the years and give him an earthly immortality; at last, when he has given up hope, he finds a vicarious immortality in the youth of his nephew: "One must accept, absorb, give back, become oneself a symbol."
This is the clearest affirmation that O'Neill's philosophy at that time could admit. The fountain was a symbol of life, tossing its little drops, its human beings, high in the air. They had myriad shapes and colors: some were caught in the light, others dropped dully back, and a few burst into an incandescent miniature rainbow. It did not greatly matter: more drops must be propagated that more drops may be tossed into the air, and absorbed back again into the whole.
Yet there is something more. According to this belief, the creative power, the strongest power in nature, would perform the age-long functions of mythic religion. For the man this concept was not finally satisfying; for the dramatist it proved exceedingly fruitful. It is out of this theme of creation and continuance that he wrote two of his finest plays, The Great God Brown and Mourning Becomes Electra. Even when he parallels, and deliberately suggests cross-comparison with, the ancient Greek legend of Electra, O'Neill Page 151 | Top of Articleendows his characters with psychological complications that we recognize (and he intends us to recognize) by such modern terms as repressions, frustrations, and fixations. But men and women today, like those in ancient Greece, can not resist forces stronger than themselves: the terms have changed, but the tragedy remains the same. In this play with its American setting and modern time of action, O'Neill is attempting to rephrase the motivations of classical tragedy so as to relate them to our own doubts, fears, and desires, but in the process to give us, also, faith in the creative life force.
In The Great God Brown, this is combined with the more dominant motif of the religion of art. O'Neill defines his purpose in this play as showing "the mystery any one man or woman can feel but not understand as the meaning of any event—or accident—in any life on earth." To give added depth, richness, and suggestiveness, he deliberately mixed what we think of as folklore and as revealed religion: Dion Anthony is in part Dionysius, and in part St. Anthony, and he returns for strength to Cybele, the pagan earth mother. But this mystical element serves to accentuate the importance of the individual, even as the use of masks to indicate an actor's public or private character emphasizes an individual's complexity. But one person is influenced and changed by others even as he acts upon them, as we grope in the world's half-light for a fuller illumination. Here the reader can identify himself with the characters, can fully comprehend the nature and intensity of their desires, whether or not he accepts the underlying philosophy.
That is not possible with all his plays, at least for most of us. O'Neill has embraced even more dubious philosophies. In Dynamo he envisioned a man who saw a new god in the whirling wheels of machinery and the weird power of electricity, but this study of a fantastic modernly-grounded religious mania was neither dramatically nor philosophically convincing. O'Neill also flirted briefly and tentatively with Marxianism in Marco Millions, but it was at best a half-hearted flirtation since he was, soon afterward, describing Communism as "the most grotesque god that ever came out of Asia." Sociological nostrums, especially the theory that man will quickly improve if only his environment be changed for the better, won his half-hearted allegiance in such plays as All God's Chillun Got Wings and Desire Under the Elms.
Whether his philosophical ideas had proved satisfying or not, he had consistently attempted to get beyond the literal and factual reality. Both the man and the dramatist seem ever in quest of a valid, tenable explanation of the meaning of life. In that quest he came to Christian Catholicism, and out of it he wrote the moving but only partially successful Days Without End. In this play meaning inheres not in the fountain or the dynamo or the sexual delta, but in the crucifix. He has not abandoned modern terms or modern psychology, and he continues to be concerned with man's essential dualism to such an extent that the two parts of the main character are played by two different actors. Somehow, too, there is little difference in the terms of his Christian characters and those of his earlier non-Christian ones: John Loving believes with the rationalistic part of his mind that "we are all the slaves of meaningless chance," but with the idealistic part that "a new Savior must be born who will reveal to us how we can be saved from ourselves."
If the play has too much of dramatic and philosophical debate in it to be quite successful as drama, it is the clearest statement we have of O'Neill's constant striving to find a satisfactory philosophy of life. It gives in epitome his own spiritual evolution: he is seeking the infinite behind the finite, searching for something that will add to the dignity of man. Whatever the terms employed, however unsatisfactory the explanations, O'Neill holds in this play that man's spirit is greater and ultimately more important than man's body. If at times he seems only to have a faith that man must have a faith, he has made an honest and unrelenting search for valid and tenable bases for a faith that will not deny scientific truths but will affirm a deeper, more positive spiritual truth.
"Man is involved in a web of circumstance, a web that is not of his own weaving." O'Neill had begun as a playwright with this deterministic philosophy of life and the universe; rather disconcertingly, he has partially reverted to it in his later plays. The disturbed and disturbing state of the world shook his lightly-rooted faith; even more directly, a serious personal illness in 1934 temporarily ended his dramatic activity; it developed into, or was later diagnosed as, the incurable, slowly ravaging Parkinson's Disease.
It may be too early to evaluate the work of O'Neill's darker years, but certain unmistakable trends seem dominant. He had turned back into his own past for dramatic material; increasingly Page 152 | Top of Articlehe pinned his faith on human love and warmth to give a meaning to life; and he presented man lacking the will to act as being spiritually dead, however alive physically he might be. There is a cathartic quality in these plays, but the purging clearly was intended more for the author than for the audience: O'Neill was attempting to objectify by writing out of himself certain obsessive memories that long had haunted him….
Source: Edd Winfield Parks, "Eugene O'Neill's Quest," in Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 4, No. 3, March 1960, pp. 99-107.
Ivan H. Walton
In the following excerpt, Walton explores O'Neill's portrayal of sailors and sailing in his plays, including Ile.
Students of folklore have long been aware of the extensive use literary artists have made of the folk materials current among the peoples whose lives they have delineated. It will come as no surprise to them to note the widespread and effective use America's outstanding dramatist, Eugene O'Neill, made in his plays of the folklore and what may be called the folkways of the sea—traditional sailor concepts and patterns of conduct he had learned from two years of firsthand experience aboard ocean-going ships and in waterfront areas before beginning his career as a dramatist.
His dominant and continuing interest in sailor ways is shown by the fact that fifteen of his first twenty-five plays produced on the stage following his first association with the Provincetown Players, that is, from 1914 to 1924, were concerned either directly or indirectly with this material. These plays include, in the order of their production, Bound East for Cardiff, Thirst, Fog, In the Zone, The Long Voyage Home, Ile, The Rope, Where the Cross Is Made, and The Moon of the Caribbees—all one-act plays; and Beyond the Horizon, Chris Christopherson (a year later made over into Anna Christie), Diff'rent, Gold (a four-act drama which includes the action in Where the Cross Is Made), The Hairy Ape, and The Ancient Mariner (a dramatic version of Coleridge's poem). To these should be added Warnings, a one-act play produced in 1914, and The Second Engineer (also called The Personal Equation), written during his year at Harvard (1914-1915), but apparently neither appeared on the professional stage. In 1925 The Fountain was produced, and three years later, Marco Millions, each with scenes on shipboard, but with no real sailors in either cast. However, in the trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra, first produced in 1931, O'Neill again made good use of his knowledge of the sea and the ways of sailors.
There seems to be no information available at this time as to whether or not any of the plays projected, sketched, or completed after the author's "temporary retirement" in 1934 were concerned with the sea. Of the two which he allowed to be published—The Iceman Cometh (1946) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1952)—the first has its setting in a waterfront dive which is remarkably similar to those utilized in at least two of his first plays. A third full-length play of this period, The Long Day's Voyage into Night, whose title may possibly imply a connection with the sea, may not, according to the author's direction, be made public for a quarter century. O'Neill has withdrawn from production or publication Thirst, Fog, The Ancient Mariner, Warnings, and The Second Engineer; so they will not be considered here.
As the above list of plays well demonstrates, O'Neill has been equalled by few if any other dramatists and surely by none in his own country in his use of sailor life and the sea. And his delineations have the ring of authenticity, a result no doubt of his using folk materials derived from his own days as a sailor on and about the Atlantic.
According to one of O'Neill's letters, he made his first sea venture in 1910 after a few months of touring the American East and Middle West as assistant manager of his father's theatrical company. He was twenty-two years of age at the time he shipped on a Norwegian barque-rigged vessel from Boston to Buenos Aires. The trip lasted sixty-five days. While in Page 153 | Top of Articlethe Argentine he had a series of shore jobs with branches of American firms in Buenos Aires and La Plata, and then became a "bum on the docks" and made friends with sailors, stevedores, and the down-and-outs. He worked only when he had to for money to purchase necessities, liquor, and waterfront entertainment at the "Sailor's Opera," which was evidently akin to the traditional American "free and easy shows" that catered to sailors in the larger ports of both oceans as well as in those of the Great Lakes. The ground floor provided a combination bar and vaudeville where professional entertainment was liberally supplemented by singing, dancing, yarning, and by the fighting of customers. The upper floors provided cheap lodgings as well as quarters for the ladies of the streets. In O'Neill's own words, the Sailor's Opera where he and his friends went for entertainment was "a large cafe to which all seamen automatically went. There the seamen yarned of adventures, drank, played cards, fought, and wallowed."
After some weeks or months of shore life, he shipped as mule tender on a cattle boat bound from Buenos Aires to Durban, South Africa, and return. Then followed a second prolonged period "on the beach" before he signed on a British tramp steamer as an ordinary seaman for New York. Back in his home city he obtained lodgings at three dollars a month at "Jimmy-the-Priest's," a waterfront vermin-infested dive which he described as "a hell-hole." He again "hung around the waterfront" as at Buenos Aires for some time and picked up an occasional job on a mail boat, and finally shipped as an able seaman on an American liner, the New York, to Southampton, England. He returned on the Philadelphia, and this trip ended his seafaring as a sailor. He still continued, however, to live among sailors at their customary places.
This two-year interval of sailoring came to an abrupt end when, after celebrating a winning streak at cards, he found himself on a railroad train well on his way to New Orleans. On arriving in that city he found his father's troupe there playing the perennial Monte Cristo. He was given a minor part and traveled the western Orpheum circuit before returning east to the family home at New London. Here, after a few months of working as a newspaper reporter, he developed a light case of tuberculosis of the lungs and spent the first half of the year 1913 in a sanitarium at Wallingford, Connecticut. Here, where he had plenty of spare time on his hands, the urge to write came upon him, and he quite naturally turned to his own experiences in the theatre for form and to the sea for content.
His experiences as a sailor had a deep influence upon him, and in the following decade his unromanticized, unsentimentalized, and almost naturalistic re-creations of the violent lives of seamen and their waterfront associates, all untroubled by drawing-room standards, appeared on the Provincetown and New York stages with startling results….
The folkways of seafaring used by O'Neill can, for convenience, be divided into two groups—those concerned with sailor life aboard ship and those with the waterfront. And one of the first of the established patterns of sailor life aboard ship to be noticed by a reader is the persistently grim attitude of his sailors toward the sea itself. Shore poets sing of the freedom, inspiration, and beauty of the sea as they do of the "big open spaces" of the American West, but those who make their living in these places find life a pretty grim business. O'Neill's point of view is prevailingly that of the common sailor in the forecastle. The omnipotence and omnipresence of the sea dwarfs the sailor's puny powers. The crew of the whaler Atlantic Queen, stuck in the frozen ice floes of the Arctic, are driven to mutiny and Captain Keeney's wife to insanity by the overpowering sea and the attendant monotony and brutality….
Another folkway prominent in the plays of the sea is the sailor's glorification and exercise of brute strength. C. Jones writing of O'Neill against the background of his own sailor experience states that at sea, "a man with exceptional strength is usually the leader; each man wins or loses the admiration of his fellows in proportion to his ability to ‘hold his own end up!’" The ample descriptive literature of life at sea and my own experience in listening to the talk of scores of ex-sailors in Great Lakes ports, many formerly from salt water, support this statement.
One will recall at once the admiration of the men in the stokehole for Yank in the opening scene of The Hairy Ape. The author writes of him that, "He seems broader, fiercer, more truculent, more powerful, and more sure of himself than the rest. They respect his superior strength—the grudging respect of fear." Yank rules the group by threatening physical violence. When Long has delivered himself of a tirade against "the damned capitalist class," Yank closes him up Page 154 | Top of Articlewith, "Sit down before I knock you down!" and then asserts the superiority of all members of the stokehole crew over the passengers by saying, "We're better than they are, ain't we? Sure! One of us guys could clean up the whole mob wit one mit. Put one of 'em down here for one watch in de stokehole, what'd happen? Dey'd carry him off on a stretcher. Dem boids don't amount to nothin'."
Mat Burke in Anna Christie comes aboard the barge after five days in an open boat with three others, and he is the only one able to walk. Anna suggests that he go into the cabin and lie down, but Mat interrupts indignantly by boasting of his physical strength, and, when Anna is not impressed, he adds, "An' I can lick all the hands on this tub wan by wan, tired as I am!" Driscoll, Mat's counterpart in the Glencairn plays, also asserts his leadership over his shipmates by virtue of his superior strength.
Captain Keeney in Ile has shoulders and chest "of enormous proportions," and before he comes on the stage, the steward describes him as "a hard man—as hard a man as ever sailed the seas." His iron determination withstands his wife's pleading to turn homeward after two years in the frozen North to the point of her going insane, and when the crew threaten mutiny he knocks their leader to the deck with one blow of his fist, and when the ice floes open he orders his vessel on northward. Captain Bartlett in the opening scene of Gold is described as, "a tall, huge framed figure of a man…. There is a suggestion of immense strength in his heavy-muscled body…. His broad jaw sticks out at an angle of implacable stubbornness." And it will be recalled that he knocks Butler down with his fist when the latter refuses to acknowledge that the discovered chest of native trinkets contains gold and precious gems.
O'Neill's sailors are also all homeless world-wanderers—another widely accepted folk pattern of the sea. In the Glencairn plays Yank, Driscoll, Olson, Davis, Cocky, Smitty, Paul, Paddy, Ivan, and Swanson are all aimless wanderers over the face of the earth, as are Mat Burke and old Chris in Anna Christie and the stokehole crew in The Hairy Ape. Yank in the last-mentioned play states that he ran away from his home in Ireland when he "was a kid," and has not been back in fifteen years. Olson in The Long Voyage Home tells the harlot Freda in the London waterfront dive that he has been planning to go to his home in Sweden for ten years: "But I come ashore, I take one drink, I take many drinks, I get drunk, I spend all money, I have to ship away for other voyage. So dis time I say to myself: Don't drink one drink, Ollie, or, sure you don't get home." But that night he is drugged and robbed and carried aboard the notorious Amindra bound on a two-year voyage "around the Horn."
Old Chris probably speaks for all of them when he confesses to his daughter:
Ay don't know, Anna, why ay never come home Sveden in ole year. Ay vant come home end of every voyage. Ay vant see your mo'der, your two bro'der before dey was drowned, you ven you was born—ay—don't go. Ay sign on oder ships—go South America, go Australia, go China, go every port all over vorld many times—but ay never go aboard ship sail for Sveden. Ven ay got money for pay passage home as passenger den—ay forgat and ay spend all money. Ven ay tank again, it's too late. Ay don't know why, but dat's vay wit most sailor faller, Anna.
Even though Mat Burke expresses contempt for landsmen, he, like others of O'Neill's sailors, yearns for a fixed home and a family ashore. The dream, however, never materializes. Olson in The Long Voyage Home wants to go back to Sweden to his family farm, but as has already been mentioned, the omnipotent sea has its way. Captain Bartlett in Gold is obsessed with the idea of acquiring riches so that he can retire with his family in the country, but he is to be overtaken by madness. The dying Yank in the forecastle of the Glencairn as it moves slowly through a fog in the mid-Atlantic muses between spasms of pain to his friend Driscoll: "It must be great to stay on dry land all your life and have a farm with a house of your own—" But he is not to survive the trip. It is worth noting that the United States government during the nineteenth century established marine hospitals in all the larger American ports to care for the homeless and generally moneyless men of the American merchant marine who arrived in port ill or injured and with no claim on the community.
O'Neill's sailors, true to the folkways of the sea, are also inveterate grumblers. They grumble about their vessel and its owners, their officers, their food, their work, their pay, the weather; and by doing so, no doubt, they gain a temporary elevation of soul that comes from the Page 155 | Top of Articlefleeting superiority they thus gain over their straitened, monotonous lives. A good example is the opening scene in Bound East for Cardiff in which the sailors, off watch on the fog-bound steamer, are gathered in the dingy forecastle near the bunk of the mortally injured Yank. They complain at length of the incompetence of the captain and mate, and Olson suggests that Yank be given some food:
Driscoll—Wud ye have him be eatin' in his condishun? Sure it's hard enough on the rest av us wid nothin' the matther wid our insides to be stomachin' the skoff on this rusty lime-jucer.
Scotty—(indignantly) It's a starvation ship.
Davis—Plenty o' work and no food—and the owners ridin' around in carriages!
Olson—Hash, hash! Stew, stew! Marmalade, by damn! (He spits disgustedly.)
Cocky—Bloody swill! Fit only for swine is wot I say.
Driscoll—And the dishwather they disguise wid the name av tea! And the putty they call bread! My belly feels loike I'd swalleted a dozen rivits at the thought av ut! And sea-biscuit thet'd break the teeth av a lion if he had the misfortune to take a bite at one! (Unconsciously they have all raised their voices forgetting the sick man in their sailor's delight at finding something to grumble about.)
A groan from Yank brings them back to earth, but as the men put on their oilskins to go up on deck to relieve the old watch, they vent themselves freely on the weather.
O'Neill's sailors invariably indulge in this luxury at every opportunity: Olson in The Long Voyage Home when he explains why he is quitting the sea; Cocky in The Hairy Ape when he lets go on the life of the stokehole crew; Butler in Gold when he complains about being "forced to cook the swill on a rotten whaler!" and even Andrew in Beyond the Horizon when he describes sailor life to his brother Robert.
O'Neill's sailors grumble continually about their present lives, and the older ones whose experience goes back to the days of the wind-driven ships loudly assert, in true sailor folkway fashion, the superiority of sailing vessels over steamships. It will be recalled that the first sailor labor unions would not recognize steamboatmen as sailors or permit them to join the organizations. Large numbers of sailors left the Atlantic for the Great Lakes when commercial sailing vessels became scarce on the oceans, and, finally at the turn of the century, left off sailing altogether when steamer competition on the Lakes drove the slower sailing vessels into retirement. Working on a steamship to them was not really sailing….
Sailors long, perhaps always, have had a special language, a tradition or folkway of communicating with each other that to a landsman might be nearly unintelligible, and O'Neill made use of it in developing credence in his characters and situations. His sailors are "shipmates" instead of friends, they "go below" instead of downstairs, and they use a "companionway" instead of a stairway. They go "aft" or "forward" instead of to the stern or front part of the vessel, they turn "to port" or "starboard" instead of to left or right, and they answer "aye" instead of yes. The ship's master when not present is always "the Old Man." Mat Burke's vessel went to "Davy Jones" instead of to the bottom of the sea. Smitty in In the Zone is no sailor because he cannot "box the compass," that is, name the thirty-two points clockwise around the compass card. Captain Brandt orders Lavinia to "belay" instead of stop when she slanders his mother. In Diff'rent Captain Caleb Williams tells Emma that her no-good parasitic nephew is a mean skunk from "truck to keelson" instead of from top to toe. When Captain Bartlett in Gold sees his schooner secretly leaving the harbor without him, he turns bewildered to his son Nat and asks, "Ain't that my schooner, boy—the Sarah Allen reachin' toward the p'int?" And a few minutes later he adds, "He's passed the p'int—and now headin' her out to sea—so'east by east. By God, that's the course I charted for her!"
Captain Dick Scott in Beyond the Horizon "goes aloft" to turn in, that is, upstairs to bed, and he reminds Andrew to pack his "dummage," his clothing and effects. His ship is to depart at "six bells," that is, at seven o'clock in the morning, to take advantage of the high tide. On a later occasion when he has climbed a hill on the Mayo farm to tell Andrew of a berth as second mate that is available on a steamer bound for Buenos Aires, he says, "God A'mighty, mountin' this dammed hill is worsern going aloft to the skys'l yard in a blow," and adds that as soon as he Page 156 | Top of Articleheard of the job he "'bout ship and set all sail" back to the farm to tell Andrew.
One familiar with the uninhibited nature of sailor speech will be a bit surprised at the watered-down nature of O'Neill's sailors' profanity…. We must remember, however, that O'Neill's Glencairn series antedated such plays as Anderson and Stalling's What Price Glory, Sherriff's Journey's End, and Kirkland's Tobacco Road by ten, fifteen, and twenty years, respectively….
Source: Ivan H. Walton, "Eugene O'Neill and the Folklore and Folkways of the Sea," in Western Folklore, Vol. 14, No. 3, July 1955, pp. 153-69.
In the following essay, Frenz comments on O'Neill's reputation abroad, pointing out the numerous translations and foreign editions of the author's works, including Ile.
In the history of the American drama there has been no writer who has established a wider foreign reputation than Eugene O'Neill. His plays have been produced in almost every important city of the world and have made a deep impression upon theater audiences, critics, and even publishers. In England, Germany, and Sweden, editions and translations appeared in print only a short while after the plays had reached the stage. The first British edition of a series of three of O'Neill's plays (Plays: First Series: The Straw, Emperor Jones, and Diff'rent) was issued in May, 1922, to be followed, during the next year, by three volumes containing thirteen plays. One of these volumes—The Hairy Ape and Other Plays—has been reprinted six times since. The Germans published a translation of The Emperor Jones (Kaiser Jones) as early as 1923, almost coincident with the first production of the same play in Berlin, and would have printed Anna Christie even earlier if its translator, the Hungarian Melchior Lengyel, had received the author's permission. There is no record of a German edition of this play. The first Swedish attempt to publish the American's works was made in 1924, when a collection under the title of Tre Dramer: Emperor Jones—Ludna gorillan—Tran was published by Albert Bonnier in Stockholm. In all these cases, the response of the reading public must have been satisfactory, for this publishing house, as well as Jonathan Cape in London and S. Fischer in Berlin, has continued to print other dramas by O'Neill.
In France, O'Neill is better known as a literary figure than as a playwright. This is reflected in the fact that the first three translations of his plays Ile, The Moon of the Caribbees, and The Hairy Ape appeared in French literary magazines (between 1928 and 1930). So far I have found only one Italian edition—Anna Christie translated by Luigi Berti and printed in 1938. Spanish editions have been sold not only in Spain but also in South American countries, for the publishers held the rights for both markets.
The play that has been printed most frequently—to judge from the foreign editions I have been able to locate—is Strange Interlude. The first British edition appeared in 1928, and there were four reprints between 1929 and 1936. In 1933, the German "Albatross Modern Continental Library" brought out an English edition, and Excelsior, a Chilean literary magazine, published "Extraño Interludio" in a 1937 issue. The play has also been translated into French and Rumanian. Perhaps in the opinion of one of the French critics, who said that Strange Interlude is more like a novel than a play, we have the explanation of why publishers in various parts of the world have felt that this play would appeal to the reading public.
The list of foreign editions of O'Neill's plays extends over seventeen years, from 1922 to 1939—an impressive record when we consider that the American playwright wrote most of his plays in the twenties.
Source: Horst Frenz, "Eugene O'Neill's Plays Printed Abroad," in College English, Vol. 5, No. 6, March 1944, pp. 340-41.
Barlow, Judith E., "O'Neill's Female Characters," in The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O'Neill, edited by Michael Manheim, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 164-77.
Bogard, Travis, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, Oxford University Press, 1972, p. 91.
Chothia, Jean, "Trying to Write the Family Play: Autobiography and the Dramatic Imagination," in The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O'Neill, edited by Michael Manheim, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 192-205.
Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill: Life with Monte Cristo, Applause, 2000, pp. 211, 612-14.
O'Neill, Eugene, Ile, in Collected Shorter Plays, Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 113-41.
———, The Moon of the Caribees, and Six Other Plays of the Sea, Boni and Liveright, 1919.
Ranald, Margaret Loftus, "From Trial to Triumph (1913-1924): The Early Plays," in the The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O'Neill, edited by Michael Manheim, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 51-68.
Review of Ile, in the Dramatist, July 1919, pp. 960-61.
Gelb, Arthur and Barbara, O'Neill, Harper, 1962.
The Gelbs are journalists and historians of the Broadway Theater tradition. This is their first biography of O'Neill. This volume was not superseded by the later one, O'Neill: Life with Monte Cristo (2000). Rather, the two volumes reflect two different perspectives on O'Neill at an interval of forty years.
O'Neill, Eugene, The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, 3 vols., Modern Library, 1982.
This is a standard collection of O'Neill's complete dramatic works.
Tornqvist, Egil, Eugene O'Neill: A Playwright's Theatre, McFarland, 2004.
Tornqvist, a leading drama historian in Sweden, deals with the major themes of O'Neill's works and gives individual treatment to the most important plays. O'Neill is viewed in Sweden as the successor to the Swedish playwright Strindberg as a realist and so has always been immensely popular in that country. This appreciation was a major factor in his winning the Nobel Prize, which was then selected by Swedish academics.
Verrill, A. Hyatt, The Real Story of the Whaler: Whaling, Past and Present, Appleton, 1916.
This popular history of whaling was published just before O'Neill began to write Ile. It illuminates commonplace attitudes toward the whale fishery at the time of the play's composition, which form the background of Ile.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2279300018