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

The horizon is a border that cannot be crossed. “Beyond the horizon” is thus a meaningful locution only in the language of metaphor, where, like “the end of the rainbow,” it beckons and mocks, promising delight and abundance even as it emphasizes limitation.1 Eugene O’Neill’s Robert Mayo, poet manqué and protagonist of Beyond the Horizon, is drawn to the metaphor but curiously unequal to it.2 Place-bound by circumstance (as he realizes) and torpid by nature (as he does not), he cannot ground the metaphor in his own experience or animate it with his own imagination. His principal mode of conceptualizing life “beyond the horizon” is imitative. Specifically, Robert tries and fails to reify the metaphor after the fashion of Joseph Conrad, whose biography is a record of traversed national borders and whose fiction, abstractly a sustained negotiation of borders between description and metaphor, more concretely concerns experiences at sea, on land, and, yes, at the borders between. Robert, perennially a failure, fails thrice in this enterprise: he is unable to leave the hard-scrabble farm he loathes, to imagine life beyond the farm, and to enrich the life he does lead with the benefits of a vibrant imagination. The borders that circumscribe his life are both imaginative and geographical, and they are absolute. In this way O’Neill backhandedly thematizes the centrality of living to literature, making a Conradian play out of un-Conradian materials.

O’Neill had acknowledged his indebtedness to Conrad at least by 1920, when he remarked that during his tenure at Princeton, Conrad, Wilde, and London were “much nearer” to him than Shakespeare.3 Princeton did not endure in O’Neill’s life (he flunked out in 1907), but Conrad did. Partly inspired by The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” the feckless youngster “got the urge for the sea” and, in 1910, shipped out to Buenos Aires.4 A voyage to Honduras in 1909 and 1910 had already given him a taste of the sea; another voyage, to England in 1911, would complete this phase of his life. O’Neill’s nautical period, albeit short compared to Conrad’s sixteen-year span, was by all accounts intensely lived. It provided fodder for at least thirteen plays written from 1913 to 1920, comprising much of O’Neill’s apprentice drama as well as the work that brought him fame.

The Conradian strain in the early plays has been amply recognized, particularly in the maritime plays and mostly with respect to The Nigger of the “Narcissus.” Peter Lancelot Mallios observes that the title of O’Neill’s early Children of the Sea borrows the first-edition American title of The Nigger of the “Narcissus” and notes that in 1918 Current Opinion considered that novel and others by Conrad alongside O’Neill’s In the Zone.5 That same year, the premiere of O’Neill’s Ile prompted Louis Sherwin to write that “[O’Neill’s] sailors live as Joseph Conrad’s Marlow and Lord Jim and the unforgettable crew of the Narcissus live.”6 A particularly regrettable passage in florid 1921 write-up supposes that with “all its kelp of thronging legends,” Conrad’s novel “stirred uneasily in [O’Neill’s] blood.” More soberly, the author notes the “scenic similarity between the opening pages of ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’ and the stage directions of ‘The Moon of the Caribbees.’”7 When “Anna Christie” premiered a few months later, the New York Evening Telegram declared it payment of “one more generous installment in [O’Neill’s] debt to Joseph Conrad.”8 Even The Emperor Jones, a maritime play only in a tangential sense, prompted the reviewer Maida Castellun to represent Brutus Jones as Conradian in his “hallucinations and reversions to the primitive savage,” presumably by way of nodding at Heart of Darkness.9

More recent critics have teased out other connections. Travis Bogard argues that The Nigger of the “Narcissus” informs Bound East for Cardiff and that “the central situation” of O’Neill’s Warnings “was quite possibly suggested” by The End of the Tether.10 He detects traces of Conrad’s “To-morrow” in The Rope, in Chris Christopherson and its rewrite “Anna Christie,” and in the short story “Tomorrow,” the narrator of which O’Neill professedly conceived as “a sort of Conrad’s Marlow.”11 Chris Christopherson is akin to The Shadow Line, The Secret Sharer, and Heart of Darkness.12 Like Castellun, Bogard associates Conrad’s African novella with The Emperor Jones, which the Italian poet Eugenio Montale had thought beholden to Lord Jim.13 A recent reference work finds O’Neill’s Thirst “heavily influenced” by Conrad.14 Bogard is justified in claiming that “at least through 1920 . . . the impact of Conrad on O’Neill’s work was deeper than that of any other writer.”15

One might be forgiven for thinking that Conrad figures in just about everything the young O’Neill wrote—except Beyond the Horizon. O’Neill composed that play in 1918 and, with its producer John D. Williams and its star Robert Bennett, revised it in January 1920, preparatory to its premiere on 3 February.16 The play is essentially if uneasily tragic. O’Neill traces the decline of Robert Mayo, whose appearance (he is “tall [and] slender”with a “high forehead and wide, dark eyes”), constitution (he is tubercular), and aspirations (literary, of course) place him among the alternate versions of himself to which O’Neill was drawn throughout his career.17 The young man aborts his plan to ship out with his Uncle Dick when he abruptly decides to wed the depressive Ruth Atkins. Marriage destroys the literary ambitions that Robert had cherished but never prosecuted. Landlocked and bitter, he mismanages his and Ruth’s family farms past hope of recovery. His tuberculosis returns and kills him. Robert’s robust, bibliophobic brother Andrew, a skilled farmer and seaman, comes home to say goodbye and perhaps to take up with his brother’s widow, whom he had once loved.