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The Moon of the Caribbees
by Eugene O'Neill


The second bill of the 1918-19 season opened on December 20 and ran through the Christmas holiday until December 26.  The bill began with The Moon of the Caribbees by O’Neill.  Written in the spring of 1917 as one of his four one-act “sea plays,” its situation was taken from his own real-life experience in Trinidad on his way back to the U. S.  In the winter of 1917-18, O’Neill showed Nina Moise a script of The Moon of the Caribbees.  It had already been decided, though, that the play could not be produced without a larger stage, which the Players hoped to have by their next season.  Ironically, Moise left before The Moon of the Caribbees was presented in December of 1918, traveling to the West Coast in May of 1918 to work for the Red Cross and be closer to her family.(1)  O’Neill lamented her departure in a letter to her a few weeks after the performances of Moon:
The PP miss your “pep” . . . Moon was on the second bill.  The small stage and the large cast (which was never large at rehearsals, as you can guess) and a difficult set were too much.  The director whose name I can’t remember, couldn’t do anything under such conditions and didn’t have the personality to overcome them." In the same letter, O’Neill promised that if Moise would come back East, he would “keep his next two plays untyped” until she returned.(2) 

The director whose name O’Neill couldn’t remember was Thomas Mitchell, a professional character actor working on Broadway.  Mitchell was performing at the time in Redemption on Broadway with John Barrymore and Players’ member E. J. Ballantine.(3)  O’Neill had asked Ballantine if he would direct Moon, and Ballantine suggested Mitchell, who could rehearse in the evenings despite his performance schedule, because his first entrance in the play wasn’t until 10:30pm.  After the opening of Where the Cross is Made, O’Neill and Boulton stayed in a house she owned in West Point Pleasant on the Jersey shore.  While there, and similar to his experience with Where the Cross Is Made, O’Neill received a letter from Cook, again insisting upon his return to New York, this time because rehearsals of Moon were not going well.  Nothing else is recorded about the play’s rehearsal process.  Of his work on the production, Mitchell later said, “I knew little or nothing of direction, but they were all amateurs at the Provincetown, so it didn’t matter. . . . I only saw O’Neill a few times during the production and he struck me, then and subsequently, as a moody, withdrawn man, but very gentle.”(4) 

O’Neill clearly thought The Moon of the Caribbees was his best work to date, often carrying a copy of the script with him and judging people’s aesthetic depth by their response to it.  He had boasted to Moise that “no one else in the world could have written that one.”(5)  O’Neill scholar Travis Bogard calls the play a “nearly flawless dramatic poem”(6) and believes that, with this play, O’Neill “perfected in one-act form what he had earlier called a ‘tragedy of fate.’”(7)  Unlike Zone and Voyage, Moon has almost no narrative, depending instead on poetic mood for its dramatic effect, a departure from his teacher George Pierce Baker’s axioms and Aristotelian rules.  O’Neill wrote Clark that the play was his “first real break with theatrical traditions."(8)  Bogard believes that it was “the end of the first phase of O’Neill’s career,” that from this play on he “would begin to test other directions other than realism.”(9)  Brooks Atkinson would later describe Moon as a “drama of silences.”(10)

The Moon of the Caribbees opens as the “full moon, half-way up the sky, throws a clear light on the deck.  The sea is calm and the ship motionless.”  The play is set on the forward section of the main deck of the S.S. Glencairn, anchored off an island in the West Indies.  In the distance, a “melancholy Negro chant, faint and far-off, drifts, crooning, over the water.”  As the curtain opens, almost all of the crew of the ship are on deck, smoking pipes or cigarettes, with the “low murmur” of conversations going on, followed by “a sudden silence in which the singing from the land can be plainly heard.”(11)  The constancy of the chant, performed in the December 1918 performance by the three Millay sisters and their mother,(12) makes it a formidable character in the play; Bogard calls it the “central agent of the conflict in the play, the protagonist against whom the men react . . . It never goes away.  The men are defined by their relationship to the offstage song.”(13)  O’Neill’s final stage direction of the play likens the music to “the mood of the moonlight, made audible.”(14)  This kind of aural device used here by O’Neill suggests the similar uses of sounds and music in many of his other plays, like the constancy of the drums in The Emperor Jones, and the fog horns surprising the silences in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

After the first long exchange of dialogue in the play, in which we find out the men are waiting for a bumboat island woman to bring back rum for the ship-bound crew, there is a silence, “broken only by the mournful singing of the Negroes on shore,” to which Smitty says, “I wish they’d stop that song.  It makes you think—of—well—things you ought to forget.”  From this moment on, Smitty seems lost in his thoughts.  Big Frank asks Driscoll to sing something, “den ve don’t hear dot yelling."(15) And so, the crew drowns out the invading music by singing along with Driscoll the sea shanty (one of the many O’Neill learned on his way to Buenos Aires) “Blow the Man Down.”  The song is interrupted by the woman and three others arriving, and soon all leave the stage for the promise of drink and the admonition that they best not to be caught with it on deck by the Captain.  Donkeyman, a nickname for Old Tom, an “old gray-headed man with a kindly, wrinkled face,” is left alone on stage sitting quietly on a campstool, smoking his pipe.(16) 

After Smitty returns and he and Donkeyman talk, Pearl, the youngest and, according to the stage directions, most attractive of the women, comes back up to the deck.  Clearly drawn to Smitty, she tries to seduce him; she perceives him to be a gentleman, and she “wouldn’t have nothin’ to do with them other men, but you is diff’rent.”(17)  When Yank comes up looking for her, he says he’s willing to let Smitty have her, since Smitty is his pal.  But Smitty sends her back to Yank, which causes her to angrily yell at him, “You swine! You can go to hell!”(18)  All return to the deck, now completely drunk, and begin to dance to an accordion played by Paul.  As Pearl dances by Smitty with Yank, she defiantly slaps Smitty across the face, causing him initially to jump up, fists clenched, but then he sits down again with a bitter smile on his face.  As the tempo and volume of the music increase, Paddy trips Cocky on purpose, at which point everyone laughs and, when Paddy stands up to retaliate, a fight breaks out amongst them all.  As the women run to huddle together on top of the hatch, someone raises a knife in the moonlight and there is a loud yell of pain.  Davis shouts that the Mate is coming and they all rush away, save for Yank and Driscoll bending over the body of Paddy, whom we find is the one stabbed.  When the Mate reveals Paddy has only suffered a shoulder flesh wound, he orders Yank and Driscoll to carry him off.  The Mate’s foot kicks a bottle of rum and he realizes that the women have smuggled it on board, despite their denials, and he tells them to leave without payment.  Again, for a moment, there is absolute silence on the ship, and then “the melancholy song of the Negroes drifts crooning over the water,” with only Smitty and Donkeyman left on stage.  After Donkeyman leaves to turn in, telling Smitty “you can’t hear it in the fo’c’s’tle,” Smitty gets up slowly and staggers to the forecastle entrance, following Donkeyman out.  Another brief moment of silence occurs, and then the “haunted, saddened voice of that brooding music” returns as the curtain falls.(19)

In a letter to Barrett Clark, O’Neill compares Moon with his other sea plays and explains his reason for it being his “favorite”:

The spirit of the sea—a big thing—is in this latter play the hero . . . Smitty in the stuffy, grease-paint atmosphere of In the Zone is magnified into a hero who attracts our sentimental sympathy.  In The Moon, posed against a background of that beauty, sad because it is eternal, which is one of the revealing moods of the sea’s truth, his [Smitty] silhouetted gestures of self-pity are reduced to their proper insignificance, his thin whine of weakness is lost in the silence which it was mean enough to disturb, we get the perspective to judge him—and the others—and we find his sentimental posing much more out of harmony with truth, much less in tune with beauty, than the honest vulgarity of his mates.  To me The Moon works with truth . . . while In the Zone substitutes theatrical sentimentalism.  The Moon [is] an attempt to achieve a higher plane of bigger, finer values.(20)

O’Neill scholar Margaret Loftus, agreeing that in the play O’Neill develops mood, also sees Moon as his first experiment

. . . with the impact of black culture upon whites, and this, his first truly multicultural play, foreshadows also his interest in ‘total theatre.’  Character, theme, and mood become interdependent. . . . The clash of cultures leads to a bacchanal and consequent violence, reinforced by music and dance . . .(21) 

While Loftus’s observation may be true, the characters of the Negro women were played in blackface by white actresses, and the use of actual black actors in black character roles by the Players had to wait until the production of O’Neill’s The Dreamy Kid in the fall of 1919.
Though Jig Cook was occupied directing his and Glaspell’s play, Tickless Time, which was to be presented on the same bill as Moon, he supervised the creation of the set for Moon along with stage manager Neil Reber.(22)  A riser was used for the raised square of the hatch.  Pieces of beaverboard were used to create the port bulwark and the island, which O’Neill demanded look like “a distant strip of coral beach, white in the moonlight, fringed with coco-palms whose tops rise clear of the horizon.”(23)  This piece was set in the background, off which the ship was supposed to be anchored, and was made out of “beaverboard and green paint,” according to Kenton, measuring roughly four feet long, with a lighting effect used to give it “distance and magnitude.”(24)  Getting the lighting set for the play took more time than they hoped and, in the rush of scene changing during the bill’s dress rehearsal, the island piece was thrown out the back window and forgotten in the backyard.  Unfortunately, it rained all the next day and, when the stage was being set shortly before the performance on opening night, the missing piece was finally found, ruined by the rain.  So, instead of dinner at Christine’s upstairs with the other Players, Cook and Reber traced a new island from the old one, painted it quickly, looked at it in the lighting and barely finished the last few strokes of paint as the curtain was literally going up. 

The cast of Moon was filled with regular members of the Provincetown Players along with some noteworthy additions.  Yank is listed as being played by Harry Winston.(25)  Also in the cast was Berenice Abbott playing Susie, one of the four West Indian women, though her character never speaks a scripted line.(26)  Abbott was to soon become a renowned photographer, first in Paris and then in the U.S.(27)  One of the photos in her most esteemed collection, Changing New York, is of the Provincetown Playhouse, taken the day after Christmas in 1936 with an African American man dressed in business attire standing on the stoop in front of the Playhouse. 

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) “One interviewer (George Voellmer in 1957) suggested that her complicated relationship with O’Neill, described by Moise as ‘close,’ but not an ‘affair,’ caused her sudden departure.  According to Moise, O’Neill once asked her to marry him.  She did not take the proposal seriously, although ‘he didn’t seem to be joking—at the moment, I think he was just a very lonely man who needed somebody.’  Although strongly attracted, Moise claimed she resisted a sexual relationship.  She knew there were other women in his life at the time, including Louise Bryant and Agnes Boulton, whom he married in April 1918” (Black, Women 258).

(2) Eugene O’Neill. letter to Nina Moise, 17 January 1919, Kenton Papers, Fales Collection, Bobst Library, New York University.

(3) Ironically, Redemption was the production O’Neill secretly wished would close so that Barrymore could become available for the pending production of his play Beyond the Horizon.

(4) Gelb, O’Neill 388.  Mitchell went on to become one of the most celebrated character film actors of all time, appearing in Stagecoach (for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1940), The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Our Town, Gone With the Wind, It’s a Wonderful Life, and High Noon.  He also won the Tony Award in 1953 for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance in Hazel Flagg.  O’Neill later suggested Mitchell for a role in the 1940 film adaptation of the sea plays, The Long Voyage Home, in which he played Driscoll.  It’s not known what input was needed by O’Neill in rehearsals of Moon, or what exactly Cook had been referring to in his letter. 
(5) Sheaffer, Playwright 395.

(6) Bogard, Contours 85.

(7) Bogard, Contours 90.

(8) Clark, 60.

(9) Bogard, Contours 90.

(10) Gelb, O’Neill 327.

(11) O’Neill, Complete 527.

(12) Malcolm Cowley, in an interview with Anne Cheney, claims the Millay sisters “sometimes broke into a folk song about cocaine” (Cheney 38).

(13) Bogard, Contours 87.

(14) O’Neill, Complete 544.

(15) O’Neill, Complete 530.

(16) O’Neill, Complete 529.

(17) O’Neill, Complete 539-540.

(18) O’Neill, Complete 540.

(19) O’Neill, Complete 544.

(20) Clark 58-59.

(21) Manheim 55.

(22) Reber was brother-in-law to Edna Kenton, married to her sister Mabel.

(23) O’Neill, Complete

(24) Kenton 93.

(25) Sarlos writes that this is the same Harry Winston (1896-1978) who would go on to become the creator of one of the world’s largest and most prestigious jewelry empires (Sarlos, Jig, appendix).   However, during my research in May 2001, I spoke with Winston’s son, Ronald, who now runs the jewelry empire.  When asked if his father ever mentioned participating with the Provincetown Players, he responded that this couldn’t be “remotely possible.”  Both he and his secretary claimed that if I’d ever met Harry Winston, who died in 1978, I would “understand he couldn’t possibly have ever been an actor.”  Though the time table of his life makes his participation possible (he was in New York City during the time of the production and was not heavily involved in business affairs), one cannot overlook this strong and emphatic denial by his son and former secretary.  Whoever this was, Harry Winston would later appear in the Players’ productions of Vote the New Moon by Alfred Kreymborg and Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise by Wallace Stevens, both presented on the same bill in February 1920 in the Players fourth season at the Playhouse. 

(26) It is highly possible that, though O’Neill’s script calls for four women, only three were actually cast.  Three are listed in the program and no extant picture of the 1918 production shows more than three women in the play.

(27) Abbott had met Susan Jenkins while at Ohio State University in 1917, but Jenkins left not too long after their acquaintance to come to New York to work with James Light, also from Ohio, whom she was planning to marry.  When Abbott wanted to leave Ohio State as well, Jenkins and Light invited her to move into their 139 Macdougal Street apartment, later moving to a larger apartment on Greenwich Avenue with writer Djuna Barnes and critics Malcolm Cowley and Kenneth Burke as roommates.  With a twenty-dollar loan from Jenkins for the train fare, Abbott arrived in the Village in February 1918.  After her small part in Moon, Abbott was cast in a larger part in the next bill at the Provincetown, but the Spanish influenza epidemic hit many in the Village and Abbott, along with a number of the company members, fell victim.  She was so ill she had to be carried by stretcher from her apartment to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where she lay close to death for six weeks.  Still extremely weak after her release from the hospital, she recuperated at a wealthy cousin’s home in Dobb’s Ferry, NY.  While she maintained social relationships with many of the Players, she never performed again in a Players’ production, concentrating instead on sculpting and paying her rent with odd jobs.  Abbott left for Paris in the spring of 1921 and, after a sojourn to Berlin, two years later had a chance meeting with Man Ray, the famous artist/photographer she had befriended in New York City.  In need of work, she became his dark room assistant and, falling in love with photography in the process, eventually became successful for her own photo portraits.  After returning to New York City in 1929, Abbott began a long-term project documenting the city in what she saw as an “environment in transition.”  Eventually funded by the Federal Art Project (an arm of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s), this project became her most well-known work, entitled Changing New York