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Where the Cross is Made
by Eugene O'Neill


The opening night of the 1918-1919 season in the new Provincetown Playhouse at 133 Macdougal Street began with the one-act The Princess Marries the Page by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The middle play of the bill was O’Neill’s Where the Cross is Made.  While still in Provincetown in early November, Eugene O’Neill received a letter from Cook that insisted he come to New York to supervise the casting and rehearsals of Where the Cross Is Made.  Cook reported there were “strong disagreements” between many members as to how O’Neill’s play should be staged, and Cook wanted O’Neill there to “back him up."(1)  Glaspell received a similar letter from Cook the same day, and she visited the O’Neills to urge them to travel to New York as soon as possible.  O’Neill had also just found out that his mother was afflicted with cancer, so he and Boulton, whom his parents had yet to meet, made plans to come to the city and visit them as well.  When they arrived in New York, there was a party in the unfinished theatre to welcome O’Neill back. 

A few days later, James Light, who apparently had become active with the Players again, came by the O’Neills’ hotel room to fill them in on the objections some of the Players were having to aspects of Where the Cross is Made.  O’Neill and Boulton visited the theatre that day.  She described the scene as they entered:

". . . chaotic happy hammering and painting and moving around of scenery and stage effects going on. . . . Everyone seemed in a daze—but it was the absorbed daze of a fixed purpose.  They were getting the place ready for their first bill.  They were already more than two weeks behind in their schedule; if you spoke to someone, he answered you, but his attention was not on you but on a place on the wall where electric wires were being hung, waiting for a fixture; or on the shade of yellow paint that was being applied to finish the walls; or on watching burly truckmen carrying in more lumber, as if wondering if there was room for it somewhere."(2)

Boulton also describes workmen attaching the benches to the floor and others installing a switchboard, this being supervised by the Players newly-hired part-time secretary, Mary Eleanor Fitzgerald.  Cook took about an hour to describe to O’Neill what the finished theatre would look like and to discuss the technical aspects of Where the Cross is Made on the new stage.  As O’Neill rejoined Boulton in the back of the theatre, Ida Rauh, who was directing and performing in Cross, entered and began verbally attacking O’Neill: “You’ll have to do something about the ghosts, Gene.  The boys never can look like ghosts, you know it.  The audience will simply laugh at them . . .”(3)  O’Neill responded:
Everyone in the play is mad except the girl.  Everyone sees the ghosts except the girl.  What I want to do is hypnotize the audience so when they see the ghosts they will think they are mad too!  And by that I mean the whole audience!  Remember—[quoting from the Players’ by-laws] “The author shall produce his plays without hindrance, according to his own ideas.”(4)

Where the Cross is Made is about a sea captain who obsessively stands looking out to sea every night on a roof deck of his house.  In his madness, he claims he’s waiting for his ship to return with a treasure he and his crew had buried on a South Pacific island.  His son, Nat, aware of his father’s madness, goes so far as to burn the map with the cross that shows where the treasure is buried.  However, his father’s relentlessness has caused Nat to become equally possessed.  Only his sister seems able to stand apart from the delusion and tries to help them.  At the climax of the play, O’Neill calls for all the lights to turn green and the ghosts of three sailors who were killed in the shipwreck to appear, carrying a treasure chest.  O’Neill’s stage directions read:

"The forms [of the ghosts] rise noiselessly into the room from the stairs . . . . Water drips from their soaked and rotten clothes.  Their hair is matted, intertwined with slimy strands of seaweed.  Their eyes, as they glide silently into the room, stare frightfully wide at nothing.  Their flesh in the green light has the suggestion of decomposition.  Their bodies sway limply, nervelessly, rhythmically as if to the pulse of long swells of the deep sea."(5)

As the ghosts enter, both the father and son believe their ship has come home.  The father dies of a heart attack and his son sadly replaces him, now mad with his own nightly watch of the sea.

Kenton called rehearsals for Cross “one prolonged argument.”(6)  In a letter from O’Neill to Nina Moise, who left the Players in May to move to the west coast, he writes that “The direction of my first two plays on the first two bills of this season was ‘punk.’  Ida Rauh did the first and played a part.  It was too much for her to do both at once.”(7)  As the play was rehearsed, it became evident that the last thing the ghosts could do on a wood-slat stage was carry a chest up the stairs “noiselessly” and “glide silently.”  Most of the company pleaded with O’Neill at the dress rehearsal to get rid of the ghosts “as if it were a favor to the dying.”  O’Neill refused and said that “perhaps the first rows will snicker—perhaps they won’t.  We’ll see.”(8)  O’Neill did not wait to find out if they did or not: he and Boulton left town after that final dress rehearsal on November 21, 1918. 

The cast of Where the Cross is Made was O.K. Liveright as Dr. Higgins; Lewis B. Ell, Foster Damon, and F. Ward Roege as the ghosts of the crew; Ida Rauh as Sue Bartlett; James Light as Nat Bartlett; and Hutchinson Collins as Captain Isaiah Bartlett.  Broun praised the play as “among the best things which the Players have done” and singles out the final scene with: “we sat so close that there was little visual illusion, but the sweep of the story and the exceptional skill with which the scene of the delusion is written made us distinctly fearful of the silent dead men who walked across the stage.”  He cites “telling” performances by Collins as the Captain and Rauh as his daughter.(9)  Other reviews were not as generous.  The Morning Telegraph headline read: “Only the Captain’s Daughter Stays Sane” and in the review states “If you would like to enjoy the sensation of going mad you’ll find the want supplied in the bill with which the Provincetown Players began their fifth season.”(10)  The Dramatic Mirror called Cross the “latest of Eugene O’Neill’s remarkably vital sea plays,” and that it was the “most notable” of the evening.  The review goes on to say “The room, fitted up to resemble a ship’s cabin, provides a realistic setting.”  Though the designer of the set is not credited, it was most likely created collectively by Cook and many of the Players, using O’Neill’s stage directions as guide. The Dramatic Mirror says that the play “is written with the skill and directness O’Neill usually employs and may be ranked among his best works.”(11)

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Boulton 219.

(2) Boulton 240.

(3) Boulton, 242.

(4) Boulton, 242.

(5) O’Neill, Complete 709-710.

(6) Kenton 82.

(7) Vilhauer 251.

(8) Kenton 82.

(9) New York Tribune, 25 November 1918, col. 4: 9.

(10) The Morning Telegraph, 23 November 1918.

(11) Dramatic Mirror, 14 December 1918, col. 2: 865