Written 1918; first produced 3 February 1920 at the Morosco Theatre on Broadway; closed May 1920 after 111 performances. Directed by Homer Saint-Gaudens; produced by John D. Williams. With Richard Bennett (Robert Mayo), Robert Kelly (Andrew Mayo), Elsie Rizer (Ruth Atkins), and more; full cast here. Text: Eugene O’Neill, Early Plays, edited by Jeffrey H. Richards; New York: Penguin Books, 2001, pp. 123-194. Online text here.
The birth of the modern American stage might be dated to 3 February 1920 , as the birth of the modern British stage has been dated to 8 May 1956, when Look Back in Anger debuted at the Royal Court. A mythology has grown up around this latter event, a mythology well deconstructed by Dan Rebellato, but none around the Broadway premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s first major full-length play, Beyond the Horizon. Perhaps it should (if only to be easily deconstructed; the long gestation period before birth can’t be ignored). Beyond the Horizon‘s virtues, whatever its failures as we may identify them nearly a century later, laid the groundwork for a native tragedy most uniquely composed of the characteristics of the American experience.
Alexander Woollcott remarked on these characteristics in his New York Times review of the play, which appeared on 8 February (the review also contains a good precis of the plot, which I won’t repeat here). The play’s central dynamic is the struggle between domestication and the frontier, and the play’s two brothers yearning for each. Desire rewarded and thwarted upends these yearnings; Robert, the younger brother with a taste for exploration “beyond the horizon” is stayed on the eve of an overseas journey when Ruth declares her love for him; thwarted, Andrew, a more business-minded, practical, and earthbound man, decides to take Robert’s place on the journey in an attempt to assuage his disappointment.
This is the stuff of the melodramatic American theatre in which O’Neill spent his early years, but only just. The hyperbole of dialogue in the melodramatic/realistic model is uncoupled from deus-ex-mechanical plot devices like letters, landlords, or last-minute rescues; the hyperbole is directed inward, to the character, rather than outward, to the story. The result is that the drama approaches Expressionistic treatments of broader tragic themes like desire and fate — and, in America, land, money, and family.
How we receive O’Neill’s early and mid period plays depends a great deal upon how we read them. The published texts as O’Neill revised them through rehearsal and after production were explicitly prepared as reading, not acting, editions — like Ibsen and Shaw before him, he knew the audience for this drama was sitting in the comfortable armchair of the study, not the constraining seat of the theatre. The unfortunate effect in the theatre of this kind of writing was to invite a kind of Belasco-esque, detailed realism and naturalism that conflicted with the heightened lyricism of the dialogue. Existing photographs of the 1920 production reveal a crabbed detail to every nook and cranny of the stage to establish a naturalistic setting — and because of the time-consuming and complex scene changes in each of the three acts of the play, from exterior to interior and back again, the original production of the play lasted a punishing three-and-a-half hours, long even for the time.
None of this should detract us from the very real power and very real tragedy of Beyond the Horizon, even now. However grim, however death-haunted the play, it continues to reveal a kind of pain and struggle of the human spirit which will somehow always remain contemporary. The declining fortunes of the individuals are sometimes delayed, but never reversed, and the greatest loss the characters of the play suffer, that of a two-year-old girl who possesses the potential for a future of happiness, is heart-breaking. But instead of the wailing and gnashing of teeth this might elicit in traditional melodramatic theatre, it leads to a flattening of affect in the characters; color drains from both the dramatis personae and the language they speak in the wake of the death. The resignation that concludes the play is earned, not imposed.
O’Neill believed that a tragedy of the American stage could not share in the same theological or political context as that of the Greek tragedy he admired — no gods driving and judging the fate of men, the chorus useless to provide meaningful significances or to proffer advice. With the next 14 years of his career, O’Neill would continue to abandon the naturalistic and dialect-strewn structure and dialogue of his early plays to explore an experimental American Expressionist tragedy  — a period of exploration that would be cut short with the re-emergence of a domesticated, realistic melodrama in the plays of the Group Theatre and its flagship dramatist Clifford Odets, who for this reason may have more claim than O’Neill to influencing the drama that came after. When O’Neill emerged on the other side of the Second World War, it would be with a series of realistic plays touched with the lessons of this Expressionist journey. And he remains, like Shakespeare, sui generis.
There have been two major revivals of Beyond the Horizon in recent years: the first, in 2010 at London’s National Theatre, met with much more critical success than the second, earlier this year at New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre. “What makes the play so impressive is the way all three characters are victims of the lies and self-deceptions that stalked O’Neill characters all his working life. [Laurie] Sansom’s production … has a monumental, Hardyesque sense of fate. … This is a raw tragedy about dreams and delusions that helped shape American drama,” Michael Billington wrote in his positive review of the first production. Ben Brantley of the New York Times was less impressed by the second: “Sometimes you have to squint to detect prophetic flickers of genius in the early works of great artists. In the case of Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon … you have to squint hard enough to develop a new set of crow’s feet.” Perhaps Brantley’s review is so dismissive of both the production and the play because of an earlier encounter with it. Indulging in Times‘ reviewers’ license to make their reviews more about themselves than about the works they consider — it certainly saves the time and work of reading and research — Brantley writes, “Horizon was the first play by O’Neill I ever read, at 9 or 10, and as a black-and-white introduction to a dramatist’s worldview it’s not inappropriate reading for preadolescents.” I really can’t resist the opportunity to express my own delighted wonder at Brantley’s exquisite, mature, and insightful response, inflected by his own personal experience, to the play when he was in the third or fourth grade at elementary school. Most of us were still busy putting tacks on teacher’s chair and waiting for our secondary sexual characteristics to develop. But then, perhaps that’s what stern stuff today’s New York Times critics are made of. Perhaps he should have started with The Iceman Cometh instead.
A Eugene O’Neill Web site has links to audio recordings of radio productions of Beyond the Horizon, from back in the day when radio did such things. Perhaps a good place to begin is this 1937 adaptation for NBC, which starred Helen Hayes.
- There is some controversy about this date, but Wainscott seems to have confirmed it through records of the period; see Wainscott p. 9-10. [↩]
- Here I highly recommend Ronald H. Wainscott’s Staging O’Neill: The Experimental Years, 1920-1934, a fine survey of the dramaturgy and scenography of O’Neill’s plays during these years; it was published by Yale University Press in 1988. [↩]