Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Anna Christie by Eugene O’Neill

Social realism on the waterfront
Early in his career, Nobel Prize-winning American playwright Eugene O’Neill wrote many plays about the sea and sailing life. Later on he became better known for serious psychological dramas about dysfunctional families. Anna Christie, first performed in 1921, might be thought of as the turning point where those two phases of his career intersect. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, and is generally considered to be one of O’Neill’s best works.

The play takes place around 1910 and opens at a waterfront bar in New York City. The postman gives the bartender a letter addressed to one of the saloon’s regular patrons, who arrives soon after to receive it. Chris Christopherson is a Swedish immigrant and the captain of a coal barge. The letter informs him that his daughter Anna, whom he abandoned at a young age for life at sea, will be coming to visit him in New York. Christopherson is delighted at the idea of seeing his daughter again after all these years, but filled with trepidation as to how she will respond to him and whether he will live up to her expectations. His own expectations, meanwhile, are unrealistically high. Having only known his daughter as a little girl, he expects her to be the perfect, innocent young woman, destined to be a respectable farmer’s wife. Above all, he wants her to have nothing to do with a live on the water. With an attitude of maritime mysticism, he blames the sea for all the trouble in his life and personifies it as the devil. When he finally meets Anna, it is revealed that she has not led the innocent life he dreamed for her. In order to survive, she has had to resort to less reputable means of making her way in the world. How will her past affect her relationships with the men in her life, and will the sea finally get her in the end?

O’Neill’s depiction of lower and working class characters was revolutionary for his time, though that may be difficult for today’s readers to appreciate. Prior to the 20th century, the dramatic stage was reserved for tales of the rich and royal, whereas nowadays anything goes on stage and screen, and all walks of life are represented. O’Neill’s characters and situations would have seemed crude and harsh to the theater-going public of a century ago, and even today the grittiness of his realism and the bleakness of his outlook can be jarring. His dialogue is authentically faithful to the street slang and international accents of the waterfront dives and coal barge cabins in which the story is set. O’Neill, who worked for years as a sailor and drank heavily, would have been familiar with this world. His plays have the feeling of sketches from life, like the realist paintings of the Ashcan School.

There’s an undercurrent of feminism in the play, as Anna is an independent woman who can provide for herself and even scorns men as the cause of all the problems in her life. This feminist stance is not sustained throughout, but it’s still pretty forward for American literature of the 1920s, and the role of Anna is one of the great meaty stage roles for female performers. This play was no doubt groundbreaking for its day, but a century later the plot comes across as a bit predictable, perhaps because so many unrelated films have since been built upon a similar template.

In reading this book it’s not hard to imagine yourself in the audience, or being right there in the bar with Anna and Chris. Not every playwright’s work translates well into printed form, but O’Neill is one dramatist whose writing really leaps off the page for a great reading experience.
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