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by Eugene O'Neill


O’Neill’s last play written during his 1917 spring sojourn in Provincetown was ‘Ile (dialect for the word “oil”), and, though it is set at sea, is different in tone and theme from the Glencairn plays.  Mary Vorse told O’Neill about Provincetown residents Captain John Cook and his wife, Viola, and about the two-year trip she took with him to sea where, as the story in town had it, she went mad when he refused to return home without a full load of whale oil.  Captain Cook continued to work at sea until 1916, but Viola never again traveled with him and was infamous in town for her eccentric behavior, some of it probably more Provincetown legend than fact.  O’Neill suggested to Vorse that she write the story, but she felt she knew the Cook family too well to be able to, so he told her he’d like to use the tale for a play.  O’Neill renamed the Captain David Keeney, after a longtime resident of New London, and named his wife Annie.  The play is set in 1895 in the Captain’s cabin on the Atlantic Queen, stalled in the Arctic Ocean.  The set reveals an organ against a wall in the back and a door that leads to Mrs. Keeney’s room; in the middle of the room is a stove.  The play opens on the day that marks the end of the two-year contract the crew had to be at sea on this job, and they are rumbling about mutiny if the Captain won’t turn back and head for home; this expositional material is told us by The Steward and Ben, the cabin boy, as the Steward cleans up from the noon meal.  The Captain’s wife is also of the verge of madness after being on the ship for two years in the cold and grey, and from seeing a side to her husband that is violent and harsh as he deals with his men.  The Captain, regardless of these two pulls to return to home, cannot bring himself to return without a full load of whale oil, which they are yet far from acquiring, the victims of too much ice in the sea.  His need to acquire the oil is based more on his pride than any need for money, which his wife makes clear.  When the crew comes to confront him, with their intent to stage a mutiny if he won’t turn back, the Captain hits their spokesman in the jaw, flattening him and knocking him out cold.  The crew responds by pulling out knives, but the Captain and the Second Mate pull out revolvers that force them to back down.  This incident happens in full view of his wife, who is horrified by her husband’s behavior, and which causes her to make her most earnest plea to get him to turn the boat toward home.  He almost relents, his resolve beginning to melt as she asks him if he loves her, but just then the second mate calls down that the northward ice has begun to break and they’d sighted schools of whales ahead.  The Captain awakens into a renewed consciousness and gives the command to move northward.  His wife, finally having gone over the edge after his order, begins to play the organ, wildly playing a hymn in an almost hypnotic state, not hearing her husband’s voice as he eventually realizes she’s gone mad.  The curtain falls as The Captain’s face grows “hard with determination” and he turns to go on deck, while his wife, attention focused on the organ, “sits with half-closed eyes, her body swaying a little from side to side to the rhythm of the hymn.  Her fingers move faster and faster and she is playing wildly and discordantly. . ."(1)

Though some, including Kenton, called ‘Ile “typical O’Neill melodrama,” it was still good dramatic theatre and provided roles that were written for actors to really sink their teeth into.  Director Moise told Sarlos that’s just what happened, that the reason for the play’s success was the “very effective acting” of Clara Savage playing Mrs. Keeney and of Hutchinson Collins, who played Captain Keeney.(2)  Louis Ell was given full credit for the first time for designing a set and also played Joe, the Harpooner, in the performance.  However, apparently O’Neill was the only person who voted in the membership meeting against Ell in these roles, Christine telling Agnes Boulton, “He did his best to keep him out. He hates all big men, Louis! that's it. Where is he now-where is he now? At the Hell Hole, drunk. Big guy among the gangsters!”  Boulton couldn’t tell if Christine was kidding, adding “Christine had not been malicious as she said this, but very kindly: at the same time giving the impression that it was the truth.”(3)

Corbin of the New York Times, in May at the end of the season, wrote that ‘Ile seemed to find “less favor with the public,” though one is not sure on what he’s basing his comments, since Kenton indicates the opposite.  Corbin continues that O’Neill had done “nothing finer and robuster than the portrait of the master whaler who wrecked his wife’s reason and his own happiness at the bidding of professional pride,” and that other than one or two pieces by Eugene Walter on Broadway, there was not a more “creative touch as distinct and authentic.”(4)  More contemporary critics see in Captain Keeney a certain likeness to Melville’s Ahab in that “he defies circumstances, he is determined to force his will on life,” but without Ahab’s “mythic quality and epic size.”(5)  Bogard distinguishes ‘Ile from O’Neill’s other sea plays because the sea is “not intended to be the center,” and because Keeney is a completely new character in the O’Neill repertoire as “a man who commits a decisive act of will.”  He also believes that O’Neill’s portrait of Keeney is “carefully sympathetic” and that he is “not presented as the villain of melodrama.”(6)  Bogard and other critics mention that the play foreshadows many O’Neill characters and situations in future plays, particularly that of Mrs. Keeney, who is the first suggestion of O’Neill’s mother in his plays.  One can even see O’Neill foreshadow the closing moments of Long Days Journey into Night when Mrs. Keeney is playing wildly on the organ at the end of the play, reminding one of Mary Tyrone in the other room trying to play Chopin on the piano with her crippled hands.

Locals in Provincetown had many stories about Mrs. Cook and her behavior, of her leaning out her window to frighten children by shaking her false teeth at them, of her singing songs about Johnny Cook while washing his clothes, of her penchant for talking to herself while working in her garden, of her wild singing of hymns during full moons, her obsession with keeping knives sharp, and of her greeting of “There’s blood on the deck, John Cook! What do you know about that, John Cook?” when he returned from sea, supposedly causing him to barricade his door before he would sleep.(7)  After ‘Ile had been produced, O’Neill actually came in contact with Mrs. Cook in Provincetown, noticing her walking near her home one night.  She was walking ahead of O’Neill and when a black cat started to walk past her, she kicked it to the side of the road on the steps of a barber shop and shouted, “No goddamn black cat is going to cross my bow!”(8)

Though Kenton had called the play “typical O’Neill melodrama,” she added that the public response to ‘Ile “was responsible for swelling the subscription to such an extent that for the rest of the season we played seven nights regularly.”(9)  Sarlos incorrectly says that the Washington Square Players had previously produced the play; the Provincetown Players gave ‘Ile its premiere.  The Greenwich Village Theatre then produced it later that season in April 1918, and O’Neill asked Moise if she would look in on rehearsals there for him.(10)  Certainly the consistency of O’Neill’s solid output of plays during this season was catching the attention of the theatre community.  In May, after a number of O’Neill plays had been presented by the Provincetown, Washington Square, and the Greenwich Village Players, Corbin wrote “Mr. O’Neill has an almost feminine fineness in the divination of character: yet at his best he has a masculine vigor and raciness as intense as that of Kipling, while unmistakably his own." (11)

© Jeff Kennedy 2007

(1) O’Neill, Complete 506.

(2) Sarlos, Provincetown 162.

(3) Boulton28.

(4) John Corbin, “The One Act Play.” New York Times, May 19, 1918: 54

(5) Sheaffer, Playwright 385.

(6) Bogard, Contour 91.

(7) Sheaffer, Playwright 384; Gelbs, Monte Cristo 612-613.

(8) Gelb, Monte Cristo 614.

(9) Kenton 63.

(10) Black, Women 99.  Black also misidentifies, perhaps using Sarlos as source, that the Washington Square Players, rather that the Greenwich Village Theatre, performed Ile and that O’Neill asked Moise to look in on rehearsals. 

(11) John Corbin, “The One Act Play.” New York Times, 19 May 1918: 54