The Border that Beckons and Mocks: Conrad, Failure, and Irony in O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon

Less blunt in its recognition of its author’s indebtedness to Conrad, Beyond the Horizon is no less beholden to the novelist. The producer Williams said something comparable when he observed that the script gave him the “feeling of the sea” that he admired in Conrad but, happily for its prospects on stage, did so “without the sea scenes.”18 Bogard is unique among scholars in noticing a Conradian strain in the play, but he sees Conrad serving only as a source for the play’s putative interest in the “power of hope to sustain men.”19 This is an odd remark, given the falseness and fugitivity of hope in Beyond the Horizon. What Bogard misses, I think, is O’Neill’s ironic use of an influence that the playwright had previously used without much in the way of inflection. Predecessors like Smitty in The Moon of the Caribbees and In the Zone embody the amalgam of unlearned wisdom and unflagging gumption evident in, say, Singleton from The Nigger of the “Narcissus” andCaptain MacWhirr from Typhoon. But Robert pointedly fails to attain this status.

O’Neill built the irony of contrast into his conception of Beyond the Horizon. He meant to write an inversion of his maritime one-acts, its theme fortified by the hardening of borders that are permeable in the geographically expansive maritime plays. In an April 1920 letter to the New York Times, O’Neill remembered a Norwegian sailor—“a bred-in-the-bone child of the sea”—much given to complaining about his decision to abandon his family’s farm for the sea. What would have become of such a man, the playwright wondered, had he stayed put? O’Neill continued: “from that point I started to think of a more intellectual, civilized type—a weaker type . . . who would have my Norwegian’s inborn craving for the sea’s unrest, only in him it would be conscious, too conscious, intellectually diluted into a vague, intangible, romantic wanderlust.”20 As he would throughout his career, O’Neill imagined a misfit.

The finished play retains this anti-Conradian conception of its protagonist. Robert’s tuberculosis, for example, is an instance of a larger “weakness” and the emblem of a defining isolation. Robert thus anticipates Tennessee Williams’s tubercular and solipsistic Lot Ravenstock in The Kingdom of Earth more nearly than he recalls the “calm, cool, towering, superb” James Wait in The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” who introduces himself by saying, “I belong to the ship” and whose worsening tuberculosis facilitates his creator’s meditation on the nature of the commonweal.21 The energies of the novel are coalescent and productive, if troubled. O’Neill’s diminution of his source is to the point; and Robert’s failure to achieve even the incidentally agential status of Wait, or the generalized vigor of Singleton, MacWhirr, and others of their type, is central to the playwright’s method here as it is in his creation of later characters. Haunted inadequacies like Don Parritt in The Iceman Cometh and Jamie Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten are destroyed by their inability to achieve the status of those whom they admire and resent. Robert differs from them principally in O’Neill’s selection of an extratextual point of comparison for him.

Read in this way, Robert exemplifies the anxiety about “belonging” that O’Neill would soon explore in The Hairy Ape and that would remain central to his sense of tragedy. The tragic and ironically Conradian elements of Beyond the Horizon collaborate against Robert, making him contextually ajar in the manner of the proletarian “ape” Yank on Fifth Avenue or the passed-out city-slicker Jamie on the steps of a farmhouse. I have argued elsewhere that Robert’s inability to learn from his failures gives him “Aristotle’s reversal without the recognition.”22 If this makes Robert unlike Oedipus, it also marks his distance from those exemplary sailors whom the narrator of The Nigger of the “Narcissus” describes as “men enough to scorn in their hearts the sentimental voices that bewailed the hardness of their fate.”23 Robert actually searches for a “fate” on which to pin his misfortunes, as what sturdy tar or tragic hero ever did? In stage direction, Robert “looks about him wildly, as if his vengeance were seeking the responsible fate” (60; 600). Having failed at farming, Robert blames “the farm” for his failure (131; 635). Nemesis was never so inert. Neither is anagnorisis often so elusive: Robert’s promising admission that he has been an “utter failure” is followed by his cockamamie assertion that he will henceforth “write, or something of that sort” (130-31; 635). Robert blames fate even as he greases its wheels; a Dunciadic incompatibility of skill and aspiration has precipitated his poverty and could hardly be expected to remedy it. He oscillates between tempting fate and, to recur to Conrad, bewailing its hardness. His temperament distinguishes him from the sturdy generation that Conrad had celebrated in The Nigger of the “Narcissus”: Robert recalls the “successors” of such as Singleton, those “grown-up children of a discontented earth” who “learned how to whine.”24 More generally, Robert’s sedentariness and blame-mongering point up his remove from Conrad’s Victorian ethics, expressed as an aphorism in Nostromo: “Only in the conduct of our action can we find the sense of mastery over the Fates.”25 Against the contrastive backdrop—the dynamism and stoicism of the sailor shadowing the physical and moral slackness of the pretender—O’Neill’s attitude toward his protagonist becomes evident. Robert’s “weak[ness]” and his “intellectual” inclinations cordon him off from the sphere of action celebrated by Conrad (and Carlyle, Tennyson, Dickens, Charles Kingsley, and many others). This prevents him from even attempting the crossings and straddlings of Conrad’s bona fide travelers and indeed those of the earlier O’Neill.

Robert’s adherence to a skewed, roseate version of Conrad’s Asia provides the sturdiest evidence of O’Neill’s ironic use of a familiar influence. Robert remains ignorant of the novelist’s proviso that one must earn “Eastern” transcendence by labor, maturation, and the acceptance of risk. Marlow of “Youth” and Captain MacWhirr of Typhoon represent the proper synthesis, as does Captain Whalley of The End of the Tether, who has spent “fifty years at sea and forty out in the East.”26 A “peevish Hamlet who whines and snivels through his futile and dismal life,” as St. John Ervine called Robert years ago, O’Neill’s protagonist never works up the sweat that sanctifies the maturity of Conrad’s better sort of China Seaman.27