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Bound East for Cardiff

by Eugene O'Neill


The second bill of plays in the Summer of 1916 presented in Provincetown was performed less than two weeks after the first bill closed.  The first performance of this bill was July 28, 1916 and ran for two nights.(1)  No account lists the order of the plays during the performances.  Bound East for Cardiff was the play that, when heard, Glaspell claims the Players “knew what we were for.”(2)  Travis Bogard attributes O’Neill’s ability to capture the “dramatic reality” of life at sea to his familiarity with Joseph Conrad’s novels of the sea, particularly The Nigger of Narcissus, which O’Neill had read in 1911, rather than from his actual experiences that simply allowed him to confirm that truth.(3)  In fact, the original title of the play, Children of the Sea, is a title from a Conrad book whose plot is similar to the play in that it’s about a man who falls ill after boarding a ship and about how the sailors tend to him as he dies.  What O’Neill was able to do with his story of Yank and Driscoll, one a sailor dying at sea, the other his loyal shipmate of five years, was to create the truth of this situation for the stage in a way that had only previously been created in novels and poems, “leaving fertile opportunity for one of Eugene’s experiences.”(4)  As Yank lies dying, he and Driscoll recall their times together over the last five years at sea while members of the crew from the forecastle stop by to check how Yank is doing.  Many commentators have pointed out that O’Neill accomplished a sureness and maturity in the writing of this play before his course with Baker, and in a way not comparable to other plays he’d written during the same period.  Sheaffer comments that the play was “told in crude, flavorsome sailor talk” and was “more truly poetic than any of O’Neill’s poetry; more to the point it reflected the spirit of brooding compassion, of tragic inevitability, that would distinguish his mature writings.”(5) Murphy points out that “the play’s action is at once the simplest and the most meaningful one can imagine.  A man dies in the midst of the milieu in which he has lived a life that was the opposite of the one he dreamed of.  The action consists of his talking about it to his best friend.”  One can understand why, from his definition of theatre, Baker had judged the work as not a play: not enough happens and the realism is from language, sound effect, and the simplicity the set calls for.  Murphy believes that with this play O’Neill ”captured a new authenticity in its rejection of the theatrical conventions of what was currently realism.”(6)

O’Neill recalled later that it was “rather a curious coincidence that my first production should have been on a wharf in a sea town.”(7)  Steele wrote in a letter the day of the second bill performances that “it has been the most terrible spell of muggy, rainy weather,” and many accounts tell of the fog that had rolled in the evening of the first performance and that “the tide was in, and it washed under us and around, spraying through the holes in the floor, giving us the rhythm and the flavor of the sea . . . ”(8)  Hapgood wrote that this was “perhaps the best setting the play could have, certainly the most picturesque it ever had.”(9)  Glapsell believed that “the sea has been good to Eugene O’Neill.”(10)  William Zorach, who with his wife Marguerite had just begun to design for the Players, recalls that O’Neill insisted that things on his set be “factual,” that if the play needed a sink or stove, it needed to be a real one, not painted.  Zorach says he tried unsuccessfully to “make [O’Neill] understand that a stage is a work of art like a painting” and, as such, “at least an illusion of a world”; Zorach never designed a set for one of O’Neill’s plays.(11)  O’Neill directed the rehearsals from a single script and gave the actors their lines to memorize by rote.  Many of the actors remember hearing his heavy, nervous breathing backstage during the performance as he held the script ready in case of a need to prompt anyone.  This lack of multiple scripts was revealed when Adele Nathan of the Vagabonds, a little theatre company in Baltimore, attended a performance and afterward offered O’Neill $15 for the rights to do the play; he had to quickly type a copy that she reports had “innumerable corrections in ink.”(12)  This was the first time O’Neill had earned money for a play.  It’s reported by some that O’Neill co-directed the performance with Edward J. Ballantine (called “Teddy” by his friends), a professional actor who had just finished performing with the Washington Square Players in The Age of Reason and playing the role of Medvedenko in the American premiere of Chekov’s The Sea Gull.(13) Ballantine’s wife was Stella, the niece of Emma Goldman, and that summer Goldman visited them for a few weeks, though she cut short her planned month-long vacation because of the call of her work.

The entire cast that performed in that first production of Bound East for Cardiff cannot be named with complete certainty.  There are photos from the production, but they cause some confusion as to who played what.  Because of the close-up range of the photos, one assumes that they were staged, thus it is possible that some of the actors stepped in for certain scenes for those not there.  All accounts agree that Yank was played by George Cram Cook and Cocky was played by Ballantine.  Most identify Frederic Burt in the role of Driscoll, though Ballantine later insisted that Burt took the role of Paul, the Norwegian, who plays his accordion from his bunk throughout and only has one line.  However, all three photos show Burt clearly in the role of Driscoll in each scene.  Burt, like Ballantine, was also a professional actor who had recently starred on Broadway in Houses of Glass. (14)  In a Kemp article for Theatre Magazine in 1927, he tells of playing the role of Davis, which he repeated in the New York production later that year.  Supposedly he skipped two whole pages of dialogue in a performance, rousing Yank from the dead, with Cook sitting up and whispering hoarsely, “Damn your soul, Harry Kemp!”(15)  We know from the photos that David Carb played The Captain, and from a photo and many sources that O’Neill played the very small role of The Second Mate.  One of the photos shows eight men on stage: Cook is lying stage left in the bunk as Yank; Burt is near him as Driscoll; Ballantine, in overalls and barefoot, is sitting on a pail downstage right as Cocky.  Reed is sitting on a bunk with a pipe in hand, and next to him is Harry Kemp, who played Davis.  Sarlos misidentifies Kemp as Nordfeldt, but a careful comparison of the face and figure in this photo with that in the photo from the end of the play, when Cocky comes in after Yank’s death, reveals this is Kemp.  Also, when looking at a photo from the New York production of the opening scene, Kemp is in the same position on stage when he’s addressing the group as Cocky.  Nordfeldt seems to be on the top bunk in the picture, and is also playing a harmonica, which must have been the replacement for the accordion that the stage directions call for.  Though he appears without his trademark glasses, the mustache is Nordfeldt’s and a best guess is that the role of the Norwegian Paul, who has only one line, and of Olesen, the Swede (which nationality Nordfeldt actually was), were combined for this performance, or perhaps the two were one in the earliest version of the script.  Nordfeldt played Olesen in the New York production of the play and his wife Margaret claimed he played it in Provincetown.(16)  A photo from the last scene of the play shows this same person with his back turned to the light, which is what the stage directions call for Olesen to do when he goes to sleep.  Sitting to Kemp’s left, between him and Burt, is a young man with a mustache, who is unidentified by any source.  The Gelbs list Wilbur Steele as having acted in the play, and this may be who is in the bunk above Cook in this opening scene; Steele’s hair was the same color.  This picture from the same scene may simply have been staged to get in most of the cast (something the Players also do later); the script does not call for someone in a bunk over Yank.  In the picture of the same scene from the New York production, there is one less person in the bunks.  The stage directions call for Smitty and Ivan to both enter and get into their bunks about halfway through the play.  This would mean that it is likely that Reed played Scotty, described as “a dark young fellow,” and that possibly between Steele and the unidentified man they played the roles of Smitty and Ivan (both get into their bunks after short exchanges with Yank).  Here, then is how the cast list might look:

Yank                           Cook
Driscoll                       Burt
Cocky                          Ballantine
Davis                           Kemp
Scotty                          Reed
Olesen                         Nordfeldt 
Paul, a Norwegian       Nordfeldt
Smitty                         Steele
Ivan                             ?
Captain                        Carb
Second Mate               O’Neill

The closest thing to a review by a critic came when A. J. Philpott wrote in the Boston Post on August 13, 1916 that the play was “a gripping thing—shows how easily death comes into most men’s lives, and how they treat it.”(17)  Vorse claimed that “it has never been more authentically played than it was by our group of amateurs . . . with the sound of the sea beneath it.(18)  Glaspell, while admitting she might see “through memories too emotional,” recalled that “I have never sat before a more moving production than our Bound East for Cardiff.”(19)

When the Players moved to New York that fall, O’Neill rehearsed Bound East for Cardiff for their group's first bill with five of the original cast members from the Provincetown production and six new actors.  O’Neill assigned his friend William “Scotty” Stuart to the role of Driscoll.  O’Neill had met Stuart at the Garden Hotel the year before.  Stuart was someone who knew “ships and the men on them by heart,” and he also taught wood-carving classes in the Village.  O’Neill later described Stuart as “a bit of a rough neck,” but said of his acting in Bound East that he was the only actor “who ever really looked and acted like a ‘salt’ instead of an actor in war paint.”(20)  In the role of Scotty, O’Neill cast Frank Shay, new owner of the Washington Square Book shop and a new publisher who planned to release in pamphlet form the plays of the Players’ bills.(21)  An obviously staged photo of the cast, since they appear to be helping install the stage’s curtain, has O’Neill on a ladder lifting up the material with both hands; Francis Buzzell is also on the ladder, looking as if he may be supporting O’Neill; William Stuart and B. J. O. Nordfeldt hold the other corners of the material; Henry Marion Hall and Cook, with a long dowel or rod in his hands, also appear in the photo.  All of them are looking at O’Neill.  Two not in the cast, Hippolyte Havel and Frank Jones, also look up at O’Neill.  You can see in the photo the ornate molding on the ceiling of the parlor that had not yet been covered.  As an interesting side note, this photo and another taken of the actors in a scene from the play shows that the set was reversed from the Provincetown production, with Yank now laying on a bunk stage right rather than left. 

O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff was the second play performed on that first bill of the Fall 1916, of which Evening Sun critic Stephen Rathbun wrote “was delightful,” noting that the wall of bunks as the set “fit the little stage perfectly.”  He thought the cast played “capital sailors” and that “the play was real, subtly tense and avoided a dozen pitfalls that might have made it ‘the regular thing.’”  O’Neill’s father attended and commented that he liked the play.(22)  Albert Parry, in his history of the Village, writes that “O’Neill’s work was not sentimentality about moondown in the Village,” referring to Reed’s play performed by the Washington Square Players; then adding “neither was it sunny laughter about Village girls freeing themselves to start tea-shops, or clever expositions of the Villagers’ suppressed desires.  O’Neill’s was far more universal and powerful.”  Parry writes that because of this, “Soon, the rest of the world sat up and took notice.”(23)

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) This date is from a letter from Wilbur Daniel Steele to his parents written that day, July 28, 1916, in which he says he has a play on the bill for that evening. (Steele papers, Special Collections, Stanford University Library).  O’Neill wrote to Beatrice Ashe on Tuesday, July 25, 1916, that his play will be produced the next Friday and Saturday nights (Berg Collection, New York Public Library).

(2) Glaspell, Road to the Temple 254.

(3) Bogard, Contours in Time 38-39. 

(4) Sheaffer, O’Neill, Son and Playwright, Volume I p271.  In 1914, playwright Clayton Hamilton had pointed this out to O’Neill.

(5) Sheaffer, Playwright 279.

(6) Murphy, The Provincetown Players and the Culture of Modernity 1/14

(7) Gelb, O’Neill 310.

(8) Glaspell, Road 254.

(9) Hapgood, Victorian 369.

(10) Glaspell, Road 254.

(11) Zorach, Art 45. 

(12) Gelb, Monte Cristo 570.

(13) Prior to that, Ballantine was in the Broadway casts of Shaw’s Pygmalion and The Philanderer. He also worked with Granville-Barker and was one of the managers of the Shaw Theatre in London. 

(14) Burt began as a actor on Broadway in his teens, and in 1912 had appeared in Strindberg’s The Father on Broadway.  As mentioned earlier, he also had begun a Modern art school in Washington Square in the fall of 1915 with Myra Carr, which then was brought to Provincetown that summer.

(15) Kemp, Theatre Magazine, 1927.  It’s difficult to find in the script where Davis could even affect the play in this way; in fact, it would more likely have happened if Kemp played Cocky, coming in too early to deliver the play’s last lines. 

(16) Sarlos, Jig Cook 36.

(17) Kenton 187.

(18) Vorse, Time 123.

(19) Glaspell, Road 254.

(20) Gelb, Monte Cristo 532.

(21) Shay purchased the book shop from the Boni Brothers.

(22) Gelb, Monte Cristo 583.

(23) Albert Parry, Garrets and Pretenders, a History of Bohemianism in America, Revised ed. (1933; New York, Dover Publications, 1960) 278-279.