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

Robert is crushed by Andrew’s account. He might have been embarrassed, too: he has missed a joke at his own expense, and the culprit is a lack of perceptiveness, not “fate.” Andrew’s plodding, elliptical narration links its speaker to MacWhirr, him of the laconic epistolary style and the hostility to “the use of images in speech.”43 Particularly in the second edition of Beyond the Horizon, the description that Andrew squeezes out is as free of “images” as MacWhirr could wish—suitably so, as both characters mistrust speech and regard books as inadequate records of human experience. But Robert, not Andrew, is the butt here: if he has read Typhoon, he has failed to apply its lesson to himself. Egoless and plain-spoken good is beyond Robert’s grasp, and his diminution of Andrew recalls the loquacious chief mate Jukes’s inability to regard MacWhirr as anything but “stupid.”44 Jukes at least senses the dignity that undergirds his quiet captain, and ultimately he provides the contrast required to bring MacWhirr into proper relief. Of course Jukes accomplishes this by writing, an act as alien to Robert as the celebratory impulse that belatedly takes root in Jukes. The complementarity of MacWhirr and Jukes gives way in Beyond the Horizon to a set of antitheses: Robert, who cannot act as Andrew does, lacks both MacWhirr’s intellection and Jukes’s admittedly muted capacity for discovery.

O’Neill’s intentions in this matter are impossible to prove but not difficult to infer, and no great imagination is required to find Conrad behind proximate references to “typhoon” and “China Sea” in a play by an admirer of Conrad still in search of his own voice. More broadly, it would have been hard for any serious writer of the period to take up voyages to Asia without nodding at Conrad. But in Beyond the Horizon O’Neill does more than nod: he employs ironically an influence that he had once used without much in the way of inflection, drawing on Conrad to critique character where he had formerly paid him the simpler compliment of imitation. He thus extends his long homage while demonstrating the deft use of sources widely recognized in his gleanings from Strindberg and, in Mourning Becomes Electra, Aeschylus and Sophocles.

Beyond the Horizon is in this sense crucial. In the four- or five-year period initiated by its composition, O’Neill would establish himself as the theater’s premiere destroyer of once firm “borders” between, for example, serious tragedy and modern American drama, the inner and outer lives of characters, and naturalistic and experimental modes of dramaturgy. O’Neill’s hyperkinetic experimentalism belies the stasis that characterizes Beyond the Horizon. Even the metaphor embedded in the play’s title mocks a protagonist embordered geographically and imaginatively, in contradiction, as O’Neill surely knew, to the temperament and practice of the playwright’s model Conrad.

Alexander Pettit, University Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the University of North Texas, has recently published essays on Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Luis Valdez, Native American Drama, and Joni Mitchell and Caryl Churchill.

[1] The author is grateful for the assistance of John G. Peters.
[2] William J. Scheick notes that “everything in the play . . . implies the inability of humanity to get beyond the horizon in any sense.” See William J. Scheick, “The Ending of O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon,” Modern Drama 20 (1977), 295.
[3] Eugene O’Neill, qtd. in Olin Downes, “Playwright Finds His Inspiration on Lonely Sand Dunes by the Sea,” Boston Sunday Post, 29 August 1920, reprinted in Mark W. Estrin, ed., Conversations with Eugene O’Neill (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990), 10. Stephen A. Black has O’Neill reading Conrad in 1905; see Stephen A. Black, Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 87.
[4] Eugene O’Neill to Arthur Hobson Quinn, 13 June 1922, in Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer, eds., Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 170; in this letter O’Neill says he read The Nigger of the “Narcissus” “some time before” sailing for Buenos Aires. Travis Bogard asserts that O’Neill read the novel in 1911. See Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill (1972), rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 39; the claim derives, unreliably, from Croswell Bowen and Shane O’Neill, The Curse of the Misbegotten: A Tale of the House of O’Neill (New York: McGraw-Hill, 195), 30.
[5] See Peter Lancelot Mallios, Our Conrad: Constituting American Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 141, 223. Mallios remarks that “the subject of Conrad and O’Neill is largely unexamined,” 420, n. 4.
[6] Louis Sherwin, “Ile” (1918), in Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin, and William J. Fisher, eds., O’Neill and His Plays (New York: New York University Press, 1961), 132.
[7] Pierre Loving, “Eugene O’Neill,” The Bookman 53 (August 1921), 515, 517.
[8] “How Joseph Conrad Influenced O’Neill,” Evening Telegram (New York), 16 November 1921.
[9] Maida Castellun, “O’Neill’s ‘The Emperor Jones’ Thrills and Fascinates” (1920), in Jordan Y. Miller, ed., Playwright’s Progress: O’Neill and the Critics (Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1965), 23. A thin piece by the young William Faulkner links Conrad and O’Neill by supposing that Conrad has transcended the “age” and “locality” in which he wrote and that O’Neill seems likely to do so; see Faulkner, “American Drama: Eugene O’Neill” (1920), in Carvel Collins, ed., William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry (Boston: Little, Brown, 1962), 85.
[10] Bogard, Contour in Time, 24, 38–42.
[11] Eugene O’Neill to Waldo Frank, 31 March 1917, in Selected Letters, 78. See Bogard, Contour in Time, 106n., 154n., 161n.; see also Peter Egri, “The Iceman Cometh: European Origins and American Originality,” The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter 5.3–6.2 (1981–82) /library/newsletter/ (accessed 7 April 2014).
[12] See Bogard, Contour in Time, 158.
[13] See Bogard, Contour in Time, 135; see Montale, “O’Neill and the Future of the Theatre” (1943), in Horst Frenz and Susan Tuck, eds., Eugene O’Neill’s Critics: Voices from Abroad (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 71.
[14] “Thirst: A Play in One Act,” in Robert M. Dowling, ed., Critical Companion to Eugene O’Neill: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, vol. 2 (New York: Facts on FileInfobase, 2009), 460.
[15] Bogard, Contour in Time, 39.
[16] See, for example, Louis Sheaffer, O’Neill: Son and Playwright (Boston: Little Brown, 1968), 472-73.
[17] Eugene O’Neill, Beyond the Horizon (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920), 2; O’Neill, Beyond the Horizon, in O’Neill, Complete Plays, 19131920, ed. Travis Bogard (New York: Library of America, 1988), 573. Subsequent references to the play appear intratextually. Initial locators refer to the first edition, which, as representing O’Neill’s unalloyed intentions, seems likely to constitute the best record of an influence that need not have concerned Bennett and Williams. Second locators refer to the second edition, reprinted with corrections in Complete Plays, 19131920.
[18] John D. Williams, qtd. in Sheaffer, Son and Playwright, 422.
[19] Bogard, Contour in Time, 126.
[20] Eugene O’Neill, “A Letter from O’Neill,” New York Times, 11 April 1920.
[21] Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of the Narcissus: A Tale of the Forecastle (1897; New York: Doubleday, Page, 1924), 18.
[22] Alexander Pettit, “A Touch of the Wrong Poet: Arthur Symons and the Ironizing of Tragedy in Beyond the Horizon,” The Eugene O’Neill Review 34 (2013): 97.
[23] Conrad, Nigger of the “Narcissus,” 25.
[24] Conrad, Nigger of the “Narcissus,” 25.
[25] Joseph Conrad, Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard (1904; New York: Doubleday, Page, 1925), 66.
[26] Joseph Conrad, The End of the Tether (1902), in Conrad, Youth, Heart of Darkness, The End of the Tether, ed. Owen Knowles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 131.
[27] St. John Ervine, “Counsels of Despair” (1948), in Eugene O’Neill’s Critics, 86.
[28] For Robert Mayo and Arthur Symons, see Pettit, “A Touch of the Wrong Poet,” passim. Robert is reading Symons’s ode “To Night” as the play opens.
[29]For the young O’Neill and FitzGerald, see, e.g., Black, Beyond Mourning and Tragedy, 87. For O’Neill and Kipling, see, e.g., O’Neill, qtd. in Kyle Crichton, “Mr. O’Neill and the Iceman” (1946), in Conversations with Eugene O’Neill, 193; and Black, Beyond Mourning and Tragedy, 64, 66.
[30] See Eugene O’Neill, Ah, Wilderness!, in O’Neill, Complete Plays, 193243, ed. Travis Bogard (New York: Library of America, 1988), 49.
[31] The dying Robert hears the “old voices” of the fairies in which he once believed, “calling him” to “start [his] voyage . . . beyond the horizon” (163; 652). Scheick argues that “just as abstract words reveal the essentially vaporous nature of Rob’s youthful dream, the use of this same language, now fragmented and brokenly articulated, in order to create a modified version of the early dream likewise suggests Rob’s self-delusion” (“Ending,” 295). Scheick’s Robert descends from an “initial articulateness,” which I struggle to detect, to a near incoherency that I find broadly characteristic of him (293). For O’Neill, Ashe, and FitzGerald, see Doris Alexander, Eugene O’Neill’s Creative Struggle: The Decisive Decade, 1924-1933 (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1992), 173-74.
[32] See O’Neill, Ah, Wilderness!, 97.
[33] Alexander, Eugene O’Neill’s Creative Struggle, 184; see O’Neill, Ah, Wilderness!, 97.
[34] Rudyard Kipling, “Mandalay,” in Daniel Karlin, ed., Rudyard Kipling (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), lines 2, 37–38.
[35] See O’Neill, Ah, Wilderness!, 58; see Rudyard Kipling, “The Ladies,” in A Choice of Rudyard Kipling’s Verse, Made by T. S. Eliot (New York: Scribner’s, 1943), 211.
[36] For the thematic effects of the 1920 revisions, see Alexander Pettit, “The Texts of Beyond the Horizon: Ruth Mayo, Agnes Boulton, and the Women of Provincetown,” The Eugene O’Neill Review 15 (2014): 20-28.
[37] Joseph Conrad, “Youth” (1898), in Conrad, Youth, Heart of Darkness, The End of the Tether, 38.
[38] Conrad, End of the Tether, 131.
[39] Ibid., 129.
[40] Conrad, “Youth,” 38.
[41] Conrad, Nigger of the “Narcissus,” 4.
[42] Joseph Conrad, Typhoon (1902), in Conrad, “Typhoon” and Other Stories (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1924), 13–14.
[43] Ibid., 25.
[44] Ibid., 102.

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