Friday, September 23, 2016

Tomorrow by Eugene O’Neill

Prose from the playwright
Eugene O’Neill
“Tomorrow” is the only published short story by Eugene O’Neill, one of America’s greatest playwrights and winner of the 1936 Nobel Prize in Literature. The story first appeared in the June 1917 issue of the literary magazine The Seven Arts. Although not written for the stage, “Tomorrow” shares some common elements with the plays that made O’Neill famous: sailors, alcohol, dysfunctional relationships, and desperation. The story is narrated by a sailor named Art, who hangs out at a New York waterfront tavern known as Tommy the Priest’s. Art shares a room in a run-down boarding house with a fellow hard-luck case named Jimmy Anderson. While Art seems content with his listless, wayward life, Jimmy dreams of something bigger. He always has a plan for the future, a scheme to turn his life around, and that plan always starts “tomorrow.” Those who know Jimmy have little faith in his dreams, but they like him too much to burst his bubbles. When Jimmy scolds Art for his drinking and laziness, however, Art retaliates by chiding Jimmy for all his tomorrows that never come. When yet another of his plans falls through, Jimmy is forced to confront his own failings.

The story has an atmosphere like something out of an Ashcan School painting by John Sloan or George Bellows. The reader gets a sense of life drawn in rich blacks and muddy browns, accompanied by the smell of stale beer and cigarettes and the sounds of the wharf. In terms of literary style, it resembles the urban naturalism of Frank Norris, but with the more modern psychological acumen of a Joseph Conrad. The friendship of Art and Jimmy rings true, in both its brotherly camaraderie and its petty jealousies and resentments. “Tomorrow” may be a depressing tale, but it’s a genuinely moving one. The reader can’t help but feel for Jimmy and identify with his plight.

Although not a theatre enthusiast, I’ve always enjoyed reading O’Neill’s plays. To me, they’re like powerful realist novels that just happen to be written in the form of stage directions and dialogue. “Tomorrow” gives an inkling of what O’Neill could have done with a novel. This story reveals him to be such an accomplished prose stylist, it makes one wish he would’ve published more stories.
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