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

In the opening scene, Robert tells Andrew about his urge to travel: “it’s just Beauty that’s calling me, the beauty of the far off and unknown, the mystery and spell of the East, which lures me in the books I’ve read” (13; 577). Getting from here to Conrad requires some winnowing, because the writers whom O’Neill openly references in his plays tend to be poets. From what “books,” we must ask, does O’Neill intend Robert to have wrung this platitude? Surely none by the English decadent poet Arthur Symons, author of the one book we see Robert reading: although O’Neill uses him, as he uses Conrad, to emphasize Robert’s shortcomings, Symons is all Eurocentrism and muffled libido.28 Edward FitzGerald and Rudyard Kipling seem likelier candidates, as being the “Orientalist” poets whom the young O’Neill most admired and who appear most often in O’Neill’s plays.29 But FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam essentially catalogues a set of mythopoetic attitudes, remembered fondly but wryly in O’Neill’s later comedy Ah, Wilderness!30 Its mannered and vinous melding of body, mind, and spirit recommended it to O’Neill in his attempts to seduce the teenaged Beatrice Ashe in 1914–15 but could hardly have served the tepid Robert, who even at the moment of death declines to accept the purely metaphorical status of his fancied destination and for whom romantic companionship proves antithetical to travel.31

Asiaphiliac dreamers of Robert’s sort will always be drawn to poems like Kipling’s “The Long Trail,” from which O’Neill’s young surrogate Richard Miller quotes in Ah, Wilderness!32 That poem, however, is geographically promiscuous, more about smashing through boundaries than savoring the yield of their traversal. Kipling’s point is that sailing about anywhere is great fun; dawdling, much less pausing to ponder “Beauty,” is contrary to his purpose. The other poem referenced in what Doris Alexander calls Richard Miller’s “ecstasy of Kipling” is “Mandalay.”33 Robert seems an unlikely admirer of this poem as well. That poem’s narrator is no dreamer like Robert, no brainy and fretfully repressed Symons. He is a louche and mouthy man’s man intent on trumpeting the superiority of his “Burma girl” to the “fifty ’ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand” who do not “understand” what he calls “lovin’.”34 Risibly, Richard Miller quotes from this poem in order to convey to his fiancée an aura of sexual sophistication, as he had earlier quoted from Kipling’s “The Ladies”—more sex, Burma again—to impress an (unimpressed) prostitute.35 Robert kisses Ruth “passionately” once before they tumble into a Strindbergian marital inferno (26; 583), but on the whole he seems no more interested in sex than he is in farming or for that matter sailing. It is easier to appreciate O’Neill’s enthusiasm for Kipling or FitzGerald than to imagine Robert’s.

But we need not imagine a poet behind Robert’s effusion about “the mystery and spell of the East.” In the second edition, O’Neill cut or allowed to be cut Andrew’s response to Robert: “You’ve got that idea out of your poetry books” (14). The numerous eleventh-hour deletions were motivated by a mandate to prune a bulky script; but they are potent, thematically, and the poetical or “feminine” Robert of the first edition was attenuated in the revision.36 The first-edition reading perhaps encodes a joke (Andrew wouldn’t know Conrad from Kipling), but the revision allows a writer of prose in Robert’s fantasy. And O’Neill, having at least acquiesced in the deletion for performance, chose not to restore the original reading in the second edition. Especially given that this edition debuted in the stately, canon-making Complete Works (1924), his retention of the truncated passage may be considered an endorsement.

The language of Robert’s attraction to “the East” feels Conradian, recalling for example the passage from “Youth” in which Marlow remembers his first exposure to “the East of the ancient navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent and sombre, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise.”37 Both Robert’s and Marlow’s accounts stress alterity, mystery, and a familiar if imprecise transgressiveness. Marlow’s past is the future for which Robert vaguely yearns, but Robert’s ignorance of the demands imposed by a life like Marlow’s renders his fantasy fatuous and, again, ironic. When he adds bits about his “need of the freedom of great wide spaces” and “the joy of wandering on and on,” his error becomes clear (13; 577). He is ignorant of the difference between land and sea that Conrad treats dialectically, and he is therefore able to imagine a maritime approach as similar to a terrestrial terminus in its compatibility with the act of “wandering.” Robert regards “the mystery and spell of the East” as a place to be stridden through as Wordsworth might stride through a field of daffodils; and he imagines Captain Whalley’s “unsurveyed tracts of the South-Seas” as navigable without the nuisance of captains, shifts on deck, and Sartre’s hell of other people generally.38

Robert has failed to recognize a border that Conrad thematizes in “Youth” and The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” as he does in The End of the Tether, the opening passage of which contrasts “the low swampy coast . . . a mere smudge of darkness beyond a belt of glitter” and “the adamantine surface” of the sea, where the sun’s rays “seemed to shatter themselves . . . into sparkling dust.”39 Whalley, blind by the end of that novella, is inured to the contrast, but this merely ironizes Conrad’s emphasis of it. Water may protect, mediate, bound, or serve as a foil for the culturally specific “mystery and spell” that Robert craves. It does all these things in Conrad’s fiction. It cannot, however, convey or mimic the qualities generated by a land and its people. Robert doesn’t grasp this simple point.