Friday, October 13, 2017

Beyond the Horizon by Eugene O’Neill

The consequences of denying one’s nature
Beyond the Horizon, a three-act play by Eugene O’Neill, premiered on Broadway in 1920 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that same year. The play takes place on the Mayo farm, located a mile from the sea. There, James and Kate Mayo live with their two grown sons, Robert and Andy. The drama opens the night before Robert is due to ship off to sea with his uncle Dick Scott, a salty old ship’s captain. Robert is a dreamer who, fueled by his voracious reading, longs for romance and adventure. The farm makes him feel awkward and confined. He desires to venture “beyond the horizon” to indulge his wanderlust and see the world. His brother Andy, on the other hand, is a natural-born farmer who enjoys working the land. Andy plans to stay put, run the farm, and marry Ruth Atkins, their neighbor on the farm next door. In the first scene, however, Ruth declares her love for Robert. The two brothers are then forced to pull a switcheroo, each acting against his nature, as Robert stays to marry Ruth and Andy angrily storms off to ship away with his uncle.

Like many of O’Neill’s early plays, Beyond the Horizon was a groundbreaking work of realism in American drama. His gritty, naturalistic plays were a marked departure from the sort of romanticized contrivances that previously occupied the stages of America’s theatres. O’Neill’s plays deal with the sort of real-life drama that audiences might experience in their daily lives: unrequited love, financial hardships, dysfunctional families, the death of loved ones, and shattered dreams. One problem with Beyond the Horizon, however, is that he lumps all those personal catastrophes onto one family, which results in a play that is a bit too melodramatic, overwrought, and operatically tragic to ring true.

The plot of Beyond the Horizon is built upon a contrast that often shows up in O’Neill’s plays. The sea equals freedom, independence, and opportunity, while the land equals captivity, dependence, and stagnation. If you’re living in an O’Neill play, the worst thing you want to do is get tied down. Love is the bringer of misery, and women are the root of all evil. If not for Ruth, the Mayo brothers would have lived their lives to their fullest potential. Though her part is written as an authentic multidimensional human being rather than a caricature of an evil temptress, O’Neill still makes it clear that everything is all Ruth’s fault.

It’s easy to see why actors and stage directors would love this play. It offers meaty roles and scenes with the potential for great emotional power. In the hands of talented actors, this could be a profoundly moving tragedy for the theatergoing audience. The experience of reading it off the page, however, is not as affecting or as effective as other O’Neill plays like Anna Christie or The Hairy Ape. There are no surprises here. You can see what’s coming a half an hour ahead of time. The reader spends a significant portion of each scene waiting for the characters to catch up to the inevitable.

O’Neill won the Nobel Prize in 1936, and he may very well be America’s greatest playwright. His work is head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries and always worth reading. Beyond the Horizon is not a bad play by any means, but by O’Neill standards, compared to his other works, it is not among his best. It shows inklings of greatness, but he would go on to better things.
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