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by Eugene O'Neill


The fifth bill of the Players' first New York season opened on January 5, 1917 with Dell’s A Long Time Ago and a “new” play by O’Neill.  Fog, though new to the Players, had been written by O’Neill in the winter of 1914 while he was staying with the Rippins in New London, CT, less than a year after his release from the sanatorium.  It was the first play O’Neill wrote after showing his work to critic Clayton Hamilton and his encouragement to the young playwright to write about what he knew: the sea.  Most O’Neill scholars agree that this is one of his weakest plays.  Three of O’Neill’s early plays—Fog, Warnings, and Thirst (performed by the Players that past summer)—were set in the context of shipwrecks, the Gelbs proposing “perhaps unconscious symbolism for his own wrecked health.”(1)  Sheaffer offers that “the most obvious aspect is that ships may be taken as a mother symbol.”(2)  Similar to Thirst in structure and feel, Fog also deals with the survivors of a shipwreck.  However, unlike the scorching hot sun that undoes the characters of Thirst, it is a the lifeboat without oars that threatens the characters, putting them in danger of hitting an iceberg, echoing the Titanic’s fate, and, more importantly, in danger of leading their rescue ship into one.  Four characters, a Poet, a Man of Business, a Polish Peasant Woman and her Dead Child, are in the lifeboat, drifting in the fog, the play’s stage directions asking that “none of their faces can be distinguished”; this continues for the first quarter of the play.(3)  The Poet’s physical description, as all commentators have noted, looks like O’Neill: “with big dark eyes and a black mustache and black hair pushed back from his high forehead.”(4)  Some see the businessman as “a sketchy stand-in for the materialistic James O’Neill,” and the Gelbs comment that the Dead Child “is the first literary indication of how haunted O’Neill was all his life by the ghost of his infant brother, Edmund.”(5) 

With the woman and her dead child in her arms at one end of the lifeboat, the Poet and Businessman are at the other, discussing their fate, the sinking of the Starland on which they were passengers, and also telling about their lives.  The Poet “strings together socialist clichés borrowed perhaps from Shaw,”(6)  including phrases like “the child was diseased at birth, stricken with a hereditary ill that only the most vital men are able to shake off . . . . I mean poverty—the most deadly and prevalent of all diseases.”(7) These kinds of statements cause the Businessman to retort that the Poet as “a bit of a reformer,” leading them into a tête-à-tête that continues throughout the play.(8)  The Poet also reveals his own suicide attempt on board the liner that ironically provided him with his ultimate rescue; one cannot forget that O’Neill had attempted suicide in 1912.  Bogard sees the play as the first time O’Neill writes autobiographically, “turning away from the explanation of human misery in the world to see it in melancholy personal introspection.”(9)  The Poet envies the Dead Child’s fate as it “saved him many a long year of sordid drudgery.”(10)  When the Poet hears a rescue ship coming, he insists they not direct it toward them with their voices for fear it would hit an iceberg they’re near and sink it as well, saying, “We can die but we cannot risk the lives of others to save our own.”(11)  The Businessman thinks more of his own safety, and the Poet must stop him from shouting to the steamer by clapping his hand over the man’s mouth and then by poising his fist to strike him; the Businessman threatens to get even when they get to shore.  The Poet also saves the Businessman from an attempt to jump into the icy water and swim to the steamer.  The rescue boat does arrive; but in a cryptic twist, the Officer reveals that they were guided to their lifeboat by the cries of a child.  When they go to wake the woman up, whom they assume has been asleep all of this time while clutching her child, the Poet finds she has frozen to death.  When he tells the Officer the Child has been dead for over twenty-four hours, the bewildered Officer assumes the Poet is “out of his head” and affected by exposure.  The Businessman backs up the Poet’s story, however, and the play ends with the Poet remaining “with the dead” as they’re towed away, and with the Businessman heard telling the Officer, “what you have just finished telling us is almost unbelievable.”(12)

The play, which was included in the Thirst volume O’Neill first submitted in Provincetown, was somewhat “resignedly mounted” when O’Neill failed to present the Players with a new work.(13)  Given the staging effects the play calls for, one wishes for some detailed account of the set co-created by Bror Nordfeldt and Margaret Swain.  The closest is from Constance MacKay, who describes that the Players, given “the size of their stage,” had “given some amazing effects, notably in the one-act play, Fog, with its sense of distance, or broad expanse of sea now partly revealed, now hidden by driving mists.”(14)  William Carlos Williams remembers the play’s set had “a small boat offshore, half seen before a fog improvised with a voile curtain of some sort.”(15)  Margaret Swain, a member of the scenic committee, also appeared in the non-speaking role of the Polish Peasant Woman.  It is possible that the James Held listed in the program as playing the Poet was John Held, Jr., who became famous in the 1920s for his caricatures and cartoons, particularly for defining the “Roaring 20s” with his illustrations of flapper girls that appeared in the country’s most popular magazines.  He also famously created the illustrations for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tales of the Jazz Age.  Held was sharing an apartment on West 37th Street in New York with a number of roommates, including playwright Marc Connelly, at the time Fog was staged.  Held would later design costumes and sets for Broadway productions.  The other notable casting was of O’Neill’s boyhood friend, Hutchinson Collins, as the Businessman.  Collins, like O’Neill, had grown up in New London, CT, and was a lifelong friend of O’Neill’s, O’Neill commenting that they were “thrown into the closest intimacy by the very narrowness of our environment.”(16)  O’Neill had introduced Collins to poetry in their teens and the two had become voracious readers.  O’Neill later confessed that the character of Richard in O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness borrows from their passion to quote passages to each other, the title of the play coming from Oman Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, of which the two had memorized long sections.  Collins moved to New York City and worked on a financial newspaper, renewing his friendship with O’Neill, though the two had a falling out in 1916 when O’Neill felt that Collins had “sponged without gratitude” from his friends in the Village.(17)  Once things were repaired between them, however, Collins committed to the Players in a strong way, appearing in eighteen plays over the next two years.  Deutsch wrote that Collins’ work with the Players was an “escape” for him(18); he was admitted as an active member in February of that year. 

It must have been interesting for Collins to have his friend’s father, whom he’d known in New London, contributing to the production.  As he had for Before Breakfast, James O’Neill, now seventy-one, gave advice during the rehearsals of Fog.  The elder O’Neill, in a resurgence of his own career, was in rehearsals for a new play produced by David Belasco titled The Wanderer.  The Maurice V. Samuels play, produced in the mammoth Manhattan Opera House, was a prodigal son story in which O’Neill played the father; this would be the aging actor’s last major role.  O’Neill’s father was familiar with Fog since he had paid for its publishing two years before, and William Carlos Williams describes the seasoned actor during rehearsals as standing out in the hall, “yelling out directions and suggestions to his son and the actors,” and Williams describes watching their interaction as “very moving.”(19)

© Jeff Kennedy 2007.

(1) Gelb, Monte Cristo 398.

(2) Sheaffer, Playwright 271.

(3) Eugene O’Neill, Complete Plays (New York: Library of America, 1988) 97.

(4) O’Neill, Complete Plays 101.

(5) Gelb, Monte Cristo 409.

(6) Bogard, Contours 18.

(7) O’Neill, Complete 99.

(8) O’Neill, Complete 100.

(9) Bogard, Contours 26.

(10) O’Neill, Complete 99.

(11) O’Neill, Complete 108.

(12) O’Neill, Complete 112.

(13) Gelb, Monte Cristo 592.

(14) Constance D’Arcy MacKay, The Little Theatre in the United States (New York, H. Holt and Company, 1917) 53.

(15) Williams, Autobiography 139.  Voile is a thin, semi-transparent cotton or woolen material used for blouses and dresses.

(16) Sheaffer, Playwright 314.

(17) Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer, Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill (New York: Limelight Editions, 1994) 73.

(18) Deutsch 51.

(19) Williams, Autobiography 139.