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The Long Voyage Home

by Eugene O'Neill


Eugene O’Neill’s fortunes began to change when the literary magazine The Smart Set, edited by George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken, published The Long Voyage Home in their October 1917 issue.  He’d received his first substantial pay from writing when in June of that year the magazine, The Seven Arts, bought his short story titled “Tomorrow” for $50. (1) Then, the Washington Square Players programmed his play In the Zone on the first bill of their new season; significant was that this organization was now paying royalties to playwrights, unlike the Provincetown Players.  Of O’Neill’s four new “sea plays,” three utilized the same ship, S. S. Glencairn, and the same company of characters with minor additions and subtractions, many of whom had appeared in Bound East for Cardiff.  These three plays were The Long Voyage Home, In the Zone and The Moon of the Caribbees.  In spite of their obvious connections, O’Neill never intended to have them performed together, nor is there any connecting narrative between them.  He explained his choice of continuing characters and vessel in a letter to a magazine publisher in 1917: “I have used members of the same crew throughout [the cycle], because judging from my own experience as a sailor, I thought I had . . . picked out the typical mixed crew of the average British tramp steamer.”(2) 

O’Neill’s “own experience” began in June 1910 when, as a twenty-one year old, he became determined to taste the romance of life on the sea.  This desire was fueled by his reading Joseph Conrad’s 1897 novel The Nigger of Narcissus, and by his need to escape an awkward situation with Kathleen Jenkins.  O’Neill and Jenkins were secretly married and she was pregnant when he left for a gold-prospecting excursion in Honduras.  While there, his family became aware of his marriage and expressed disapproval.  To keep some distance between him and the Jenkins family upon his return, he was given a job working as the assistant company manager for his father’s touring production of The White Sister, the young O’Neill’s first job in the theatre.  O’Neill visited the docks in Boston when the production played there and met the captain of the Charles Racine, a 220-foot long Norwegian square-rigger(3) with a crew of mates and nineteen others, and he was offered passage on the ship for a small fee and the promise of doing light work.  After completing the show’s tour and revisiting Boston to pursue the possibility, O’Neill’s father gave him the $75 needed to book passage, hoping it would improve the young O’Neill’s health and teach him some much needed discipline.  O’Neill set out on a two-month, 5900-mile journey to Buenos Aires, accompanied by a friend; some scholars believe this was Louis Holladay, a friend he’d met while a student at Princeton University.(4)  Once he arrived in Argentina, O’Neill lived as a vagrant for ten months, taking a series of unusual jobs to earn just enough money to exist.  His lowest point came from a reoccurrence of the malarial fever he had contracted while in Honduras.  He returned to the United States as a crewman on the British merchant tramp freighter S. S. Ikala, which became the model for the S.S. Glencairn.  O’Neill arrived back in New York on April 15, 1911, but not before the ship made a stop at the Port of Spain in Trinidad to pick up two-hundred-fifty tons of coal (to use as ballast (5)) and over five-hundred bags of coconuts.  It was this stop, with the ship anchored off a half-mile from the jetties, which inspired the setting for The Moon of the Caribbees

Just two days after the Washington Square Players’ opening, the first bill of the second Provincetown season was presented, and they opened with O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home.  In this play, the character of Oleson arrives sober in a London pub with his Glencairn shipmates Driscoll, Cocky (“a wizend runt of a man with a straggling gray mustache”) and Ivan (a Russian, “a hulking oaf of a peasant”),(6) who are all clearly drunk.  They have just docked in London and are freshly paid.  Oleson, who dreams of returning to his family and their farm, believes that if he can keep from drinking onshore, he’ll be able to save his money and achieve his dream.  He makes the mistake of showing the cash in his pocket while paying for the others’ drinks, which results in tragedy: the bar owner receives pay from a ship’s captain, known for his cruel treatment, if they provide for him a crew member.  Cocky has recognized the bar and its owner as having done a similar deed to him when he’d been in port years before, but was just drunk enough to give easy forgiveness and remain there.  When his shipmates leave to put the drunken Ivan to bed saying they’ll return, Oleson is seduced into having a drink by Freda, one of the women working for the bar owner; the drink has a drug in it that knocks him out.  Oleson is robbed, shanghaied, and put unconscious onto a detestable ship that was to sail around Cape Horn; he had just moments before called it the “worst ship dat sail to sea,” having worked on it once already.(7)  Tension in the play is created by our foreknowledge of the scheme, as described at the beginning of the play before the sailors enter the bar.  The play ends with Olesen’s returning shipmates being told that he has left with one of the women from the bar. 

Thematically, Bogard sees The Long Voyage Home as widening the scope of O’Neill’s sea plays and that as a group the plays lead to the explicit idea that the crew of the Glencairn are forever “tied to the sea.” 

"Bound East for Cardiff implied that the sea could punish thoughts of rebellion, potential acts of will such as Yank’s desire to find a home on land. There, however, the stronger conception was that the sea was kind to those who, without thought, live along the lines of force her strength laid down.  In The Long Voyage Home, the conception of the sea as avenger is primary, but in describing the sea’s punishment of rebellion, O’Neill fell back on the somewhat mechanical plotting that had characterized his plays of 'ironic fate.'”(8)

He goes further to say that the “play states that the land for all the sailors is an alien world and they are unable to deal with its intricate duplicity. . . .[Olesen] is doomed because he is bound to the sea, which, like a God, has power to bless or to curse.”(9)

On the third day of the play’s run, an article appeared in the New York Times titled “Who is Eugene O’Neill?”  It claims that O’Neill’s name had “been more or less on the tongue of the theatrically interested populace since the production of his one-act play In the Zone by the Washington Square Players last Wednesday night,” though it doesn’t tell what the “theatrically interested” were saying.  Mostly a short bio piece, the article tells of his father James O’Neill, and says that watching his father’s rehearsals gave him “his knowledge of stage effects and how to gain them”; it tells of attending Baker’s English 47 class at Harvard, his life as a sailor and how it informed his writing of the plays, and that he spends time in Provincetown, his first play having been produced in the Wharf Theatre.(10)  Ironically, with all of this supposed talk about O’Neill by the theatre public, no critical review of The Long Voyage Home was published.  Ralph Block, a critic for the New York Tribune, arrived to the performance late and, since the playhouse policy was that no latecomers be seated while a play is being performed, he missed seeing Voyage.  He does describe, however, what he heard outside the theatre doors as the play was going: “breaking tableware, penetrated at intervals by guttural male tones and the strident shrieking of a woman,” and later some “tremendous and resounding noises seemed to correspond with his fall on the table.”(11) On November 8, the Boston Transcript reviewed new plays on and off Broadway in New York City and O’Neill’s dual plays at the two theatres made the headline, citing that along with Bound East for Cardiff from the year before “such cumulative evidence is beginning to bring conviction of Mr. O’Neill’s aptitude within his chosen field, for the stage.”  The unsigned reviewer cites that “Ease in naturalistic dialogue and theatrical skill in the conduct of dramatic episode has distinguished each of these pieces,” and that without them the story was “the merest penny-dreadful tale, and if it did not carry clear illusion of reality it would be thrown into the rubbish-heap as melodramatic bosh.”(12)  The reviewer confesses he’s not sure if the play is “faithfully realistic,” but that if it wasn’t the playwright would “surely give himself away at some point in the dramatic narrative”; the review feels the playwright does not. 

"He maintains the illusion of joyless debauchery throughout, and, moreover, manages to convey a clear hint of what these people severally would like to be in the sober moments.  Besides he orders with the utmost ease each bit of explanation and preparation necessary to the unfolding of the story.  Clearly here is an unusual talent for the observation of life and the manipulation of theatric effect."

Of the performance, the reviewer says it “has rough edges: the cockney dialect is overdone and the most intense moment of the play is somehow allowed to miss full value.”  I’m sure the reviewer was unaware that the excessive cockney may very well have been due to O’Neill’s writing style: the script has all of the dialect written in phonetic spellings that make it difficult to read and sometimes decipher what the characters are saying; this heightens and, in a sense, forces the use of the dialects.  Despite these two negatives, the reviewer’s overall comment is that “intelligence throughout the acting and directing compensates the spectator for that overrated quality, ‘professional finish.’”(13)

The Long Voyage Home was directed by Nina Moise, whom O’Neill felt would protect his plays.  Alfred Kreymborg describes his observation of a rehearsal of the play in his autobiography:

"The stage . . . was set in a villainous bar-room.  Sailors and longshoremen were roaring and cursing in the raciest of language of the sea, cuffing and mauling one another and finally turning on one of their number and sandbagging him senseless.  Were it not for the expert characterization of each individual part, and the natural sequence of the amazing plot, that business up there would remind one of an old Bowery melodrama."

He describes the actors as “noisy and ponderous” and that they “reveled in their respective parts and resembled a football scrimmage at its most delirious height.”  In the dark audience, he describes that he heard someone “roar instructions to the actors. ‘Where do you think you are—at a teaparty?’ the voice called derisively, and the company repeated the scene with redoubled pandemonium.”  When the house lights came on, they revealed that the voice roaring was Nina Moise.(14)   The cast included some dependable actors from the company and introduced some new ones.  Of those who had acted with the Players before, Ira Remsen, who also designed the set, played Olesen; Hutchinson Collins played Driscoll; Eugene Lincoln played Cocky; Cook played Fat Joe, the bar owner; and Ida Rauh played Freda.  Added to this were those new to the company: Donald Dean Young as Ivan; Harold Conlye as Nick; and Alice MacDougal as Kate.  In an interview with William Vilhauer, Ida Rauh described how she found her costume for the role of Freda:

"We wanted to make her look as bad and as unattractive as possible.  Well, I put on a blonde wig—such a wig as you have never seen—and I got a costume for the role at a second-hand store.  It was not a costumer or whatever you call them in the theatre; it was simply a second-hand clothing store around the corner on Sixth Avenue.  We went there very often for our things, so I went there to find a costume for The Long Journey Home.  The costume I picked was a red satin full-length evening gown, décolleté, without sleeves, and covered with grease spots.  It was just terrible.  And I wore with it white cotton stockings and white satin shoes with high heels.  You never saw such a spectacle."(15)

There are two photographs from the play, one of which shows Rauh’s costume as described above, and Sarlos tries to decipher what scene the photos depict in the play and who is actually in the photos, ending up by concluding: “No explanation of the photograph can, then be given, unless one assumes either a revision of the play, or an arbitrarily arranged situation.”(16)  Examination of more photos from Provincetown productions will reveal that the Players tended to “stage” their photos, often including everyone in the cast in one shot even though the scene does not call for all characters.  The photos do show how Remsen utilized the space and, if this is a representation of the final design, how he combined or compressed some elements asked for by O’Neill in the stage directions.  There appears to be only one table in the bar, no bar stools and, since the photo cuts off a little on the stage left side, one is not sure how the set design dealt with other areas called for by the script. 

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1)The Seven Arts subsequently rejected his plays The Long Voyage Home and The Moon of the Caribbees, causing him to submit them to The Smart Set. 

(2)Gelb, O’Neill 159-160.

(3) A square-rigger is a ship fitted with square sails as the principal sails, one of the last to compete with steamers at the end of the 19th C.

(4) See Sheaffer, Playwright 161 and 172.  If Holladay, in fact, accompanied him, then he returned to the US after a brief stay in Buenos Aires, leaving O’Neill there.

(5) Ballast is heavy material paced in the hull of a ship to enhance stability.

(6) O’Neill, Complete 511.

(7) O’Neill, Complete 552.

(8) Bogard, Contours 83.

(9) Bogard, Contours 84.

(10) "Who is Eugene O’Neill?” New York Times, 4 Nov. 1917: X7.

(11) Ralph Block, “The Provincetown Players Reopen in Macdougal Street,” New York Tribune,      3 Nov. 1917: 13

(12) Sheaffer, Playwright 394.

(13) Boston Evening Transcript, 8 Nov. 1917.

(14) Kreymborg, Troubadour 240.

(15) William Warren Vilhauer, A History and Evaluation of the Provincetown Players, diss., State U of Iowa, 1965 (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1965) 286.  Interview was December 11, 1962.

(16) Sarlos, Provincetown157.