The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: Beyond the Horizon

Eugene O’Neill

Though I did a report on him in high school, I have seen only one Eugene O’Neill play (A Moon for the Misbegotten) and read another (Long Day’s Journey Into Night).  While O’Neill productions are sadly not as numerous as they should be, I have decided to rectify this situation by renting movie or stage versions of O’Neill’s most important plays from Scarecrow Video, in the order in which he wrote them.

First up is Beyond the Horizon (written in 1918, opened on Broadway in 1920), which is O’Neill’s first full-length play and the play which won him his first of four Pulitzers — a feat that has yet to be equaled or surpassed by another American playwright.  Hal Holbrook and Geraldine Fitzgerald introduced the version I saw, the latter saying that when the play premiered, “[it] was hailed as the first true American tragedy.”  It even led one critic to declare, “Before O’Neill, we had theater.  After O’Neill, we have drama.”

It starts with a simple enough story, that of two brothers: Robert and Andy Mayo.  The former is a dreamer who is about to go away on a sea voyage with his uncle; the latter is a pragmatist who feels more at home on the family farm.  Yet Robert doesn’t want to leave just to see what is “beyond the horizon”: he is in love with Ruth Atkins, but believes that she loves his brother.  When she confesses to him that she really loves him, he decides to stay on the farm, while Andy decides to go to sea, in order not to get in their way.  Sadly, Robert is not cut out for farming, having had tuberculosis when younger and so lacking the physical frame or the head for farm business that his brother has.  In the meantime, Ruth decides that she actually loves Andy and tells Robert this, right before Andy is about to come home for a visit.  Andy, however, is no longer infatuated with Ruth, and his visit to the farm is cut short when a ship set for Buenos Aires is about to leave the following morning, where Andy has found some work prospects.  But then, Andy decides to get into speculating and blows most of his money, while Robert is dying of tuberculosis in the house in which his father, mother, and daughter have already died.

The play is split into three acts.  Act II takes place three years after Act I, and Act III five years after Act II (in the version I saw, Act I takes place in 1908, Act II in 1913, and Act III in 1918, which gives each act an even five years between them) .  What is interesting about this play (and its strength) is the complexity of emotions it weaves around its main characters, which involve what each of the characters knows and doesn’t know about the others.  James Mayo, Robert and Andy’s father, is angry at Andy when he decides to take Robert’s place on the ship because he knows his son is doing it because of Ruth, since Robert told them moments earlier that they both love each other and are going to get married.  Andy doesn’t know that Ruth still loves him and so is puzzled when Robert tells him not to mention the events in Act I which led to him leaving, which he now finds silly.  When he tells her not to worry about the silly feelings he used to have for her, he can’t understand her reaction, but we the audience do, and it makes it all the more tragic.  Finally, in Act III, Ruth tells Andy about their fight over him (in which she told Robert that she loved Andy), but she won’t tell Robert that she didn’t mean what she said, since she cannot lie to her husband.

Yes, there’s much melodrama in Act I, and yes, Ruth is not well-developed as a character when she is first introduced in that same act (she grows into one in Acts II and III), but this is still a really good play.  It certainly helped that the version I saw has an excellent cast, which hid faults that might have been more apparent had I the play to read in front of me.  Still, just as Shakespeare’s gift for language is evident even in his lesser plays, so O’Neill’s skill in handling dialogue (particularly vernacular) is apparent even here, as is his poetic way with language.

Next up: Anna Christie, which won O’Neill his second Pulitzer in 1922.  Unlike Beyond the Horizon, which only had one version to choose from, there are three adaptations of this play at Scarecrow: two movie versions with Garbo (one in English, one in German) and a silent film version.