Beyond the Horizon
EUGENE O’NEILL 1920
Eugene O’Neill’s seminal, Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Beyond the Horizon, was written in 1918 but not produced or published until 1920, when it made its debut in New York. Beyond the Horizon was O’Neill’s first successful full-length play, and it signaled a change in American drama. Critics and audiences responded favorably to O’Neill’s dark, tragic vision, which contrasted sharply with the unrealistic, melodramatic plays of the day. The play drew heavily on O’Neill’s own experiences, including his tuberculosis and his sea voyages. During one of these sea trips, he met a Norwegian sailor who criticized his choice of going to sea as opposed to staying on his family’s farm. Taking this idea as a starting point, O’Neill crafted a tale of missed opportunities and failed dreams, involving two brothers. Robert, a poetic but sickly dreamer, wants to go to sea to strengthen his health and see the world. His brother, Andrew, is a born farmer who wants nothing more than to work on his family’s farm. Because they love the same woman, both brothers choose to go against their natures. Robert stays on the farm, and Andrew goes to sea.
While some critics have interpreted the play’s tragic ending to mean that one should follow his or her own dreams, others have seen a darker message: it does not matter what choice one makes because even dreams that come true are not fulfilling. Although O’Neill’s later autobiographical tragedies, namely The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night, have surpassed Beyond the Page 28 | Top of ArticleHorizon in many critics’ eyes, most still acknowledge the earlier play as the first success in O’Neill’s career and one that had a strong influence on his early development as a playwright. The play has been widely anthologized and is available in Four Plays by Eugene O’Neill, published by Signet Classic in 1998.
Eugene O’Neill was born on October 16, 1888, in New York City, into a dysfunctional family. O’Neill’s mother, Mary, became addicted to morphine as a result of pain suffered during Eugene’s birth. O’Neill’s father, James, was a famous actor and was so obsessed with his poor background that he only acted in plays that were surefire financial successes, such as The Count of Monte Cristo. As a result, critics widely proclaimed the waste of James’s talent.
O’Neill lived his early life on the road; his family accompanied James on acting tours. In 1902, when he was fourteen, O’Neill learned of his mother’s addiction when she ran out of morphine and tried to drown herself. As a result, the boy renounced his mother’s Catholic faith. O’Neill’s education took place in several different boarding schools while he was on the road with his father, and later the future playwright flunked out of Princeton. He eloped, in the first of three ill-fated marriages, with Kathleen Jenkins. Unable to deal with the responsibility of marriage or fatherhood, O’Neill did not live with his first wife and instead devoted his energies to a string of odd jobs that his father found for him, including assistant stage manager (1910), actor (1912), and sailor.
O’Neill found new strength at sea, and when he returned, he arranged to be caught with a prostitute so that he could legally get a divorce from his first wife. He then attempted suicide, and when he recovered, he found out that he had the lung disease tuberculosis. In 1914, while recuperating in a sanitarium, O’Neill decided to become a playwright and spent a year at Harvard taking a playwriting course. His first plays were short, one-act productions, many of which drew on his experiences at sea. These short plays led to some success. In 1918, O’Neill wrote his first full-length play that went into production, Beyond the Horizon. The play marked his debut on Broadway, in 1920, and won the Pulitzer Prize the same year. O’Neill received many other awards for his plays, including Pulitzer Prizes for Anna Christie (1922) and Strange Interlude (1928).
Although he received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1936, O’Neill’s tragedies were no longer enjoyed by an America that was, at this point, in the grips of the Great Depression. Days Without End (1933), for example, was not received well. O’Neill shunned theater production for the rest of his life and concentrated on writing distinctly autobiographical plays, including The Iceman Cometh (1946) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1957), a painful play that was so close to O’Neill’s experiences that he delayed publication until after his death. O’Neill died on November 27, 1953, in Boston, Massachusetts.
Act 1, Scene 1
Beyond the Horizon begins on a country road that runs through the bustling Mayo family farm, where the entire play takes place. Robert, a delicate, poetic young man, sits on a fence by the road, reading a book. His hardy older brother, Andrew, whom most people call Andy, comes in from working in the fields and stops to talk to Robert, who is leaving the next morning to go away on a sea voyage for three years with their uncle. Andy says that everybody will miss him, including Andy, who, as a farmer, does not understand Robert’s dream to see the world.
It is obvious from the behavior of the two brothers that they are both in love with Ruth Atkins, who is coming to Robert’s farewell dinner with her mother. Andy leaves to wash up before dinner, and Ruth stops by to talk to Robert. She tells him that her widowed, invalid mother nags at her constantly. Ruth says she will miss Robert while he is on his trip. He tells her that the trip has been a dream of his ever since he was a sickly child, but he also says that he is going because he loves her and does not want to interfere with her future with Andy. Ruth is shocked and says that she loves Robert, not Andy. She talks him into canceling his voyage, but he looks wistfully over his shoulder at the horizon.
Act 1, Scene 2
Later that night, Andy sits with his father James, his mother Kate, and her brother Captain Page 29 | Top of ArticleDick Scott, who is telling an old sea story. Everybody else is distracted and sad over the thought of Robert’s leaving. Robert, meanwhile, has gone with Ruth to wheel her mother home. Andy leaves to check on one of the cows, and Mr. Mayo tells the others he hopes that Andy and Ruth get married, since the Atkins farm is next door to the Mayo farm, and Andy could manage both. Mrs. Mayo says that she does not think Ruth loves Andy. Robert walks in and announces that he is canceling his voyage, since Ruth has told him she loves him. Everybody is glad except Scott, who is losing a shipmate, and Andy, who has been quietly listening from the doorway. Andy forces a smile and congratulates Robert, then says that he is going to take Robert’s place on the voyage. Scott is overjoyed, but Mr. Mayo is shocked and accuses Andy of running away because Ruth did not choose him. Andy lies, saying that he hates the farm and wants to get away. His father disowns him and storms out. Robert knows Andy’s decision is because of Ruth but says that if he were in Andy’s place, he would do the same thing.
Act 2, Scene 1
Three years later, the signs of neglect on the farm are evident from the condition of the farmhouse. Mrs. Mayo and Mrs. Atkins sit at the table, talking about Robert’s mismanagement of both farms, Andy’s expected arrival, and whether or not Mr. Mayo forgave Andy before he died. Both women agree that Ruth and Andy would have made a better match. Ruth, who looks much older after three years, comes in with Mary, her sickly child. All three women talk about Andy, whom they expect will stay to help renovate the farm. Mrs. Atkins and Mrs. Mayo go outside to escape the heat of the farmhouse. Robert comes in, and they argue about Robert not eating dinner, Ruth’s pining over Andy’s letters, Mary not taking a nap, and Robert’s preference for books instead of work. Ben, the farmhand, comes in, announcing that he is quitting because he is embarrassed to work on such a poor farm. Robert and Ruth have a vicious fight, telling each other that their marriage has been a mistake. Robert says he wishes he had gone to sea, and Ruth says that she loves Andy and wishes Robert would leave. Andy arrives.
Act 2, Scene 2
Later that day, Robert sits on a boulder on the farm, gazing off toward the horizon. Andy comes up and says he is giving up his career at sea to move to Argentina and invest in the lucrative grain business
in Buenos Aires. Robert is dismayed that Andy is not staying on at the Mayo farm, and they talk about the farm’s bad condition. Andy offers to give his savings to Robert to save the farm, but Robert refuses and becomes infuriated. Ruth stops by and it is evident that she has put on makeup and gotten dressed up for Andy. Ruth sends Robert and Mary away on a work task and tells Andy that she cannot wait until he takes over. Andy tells Ruth that he is leaving but that he is going to hire some help to run the farm. He also tells Ruth that he loves her like a sister. Ruth is distraught over Andy’s unexpected leaving as well as over the fact that he no longer loves her, and she rebukes him. Andy is confused at these outbursts and thinks he is not wanted. They are interrupted by Captain Scott, who tells Andy a ship is ready to leave for Argentina the next morning. This is the only ship that is going to Argentina for months, so Andy decides to take it. Andy and Captain Scott leave to walk toward the Mayo farmhouse, and Ruth breaks down crying.
Act 3, Scene 1
Five years later, the farmhouse is in total decay. Robert, who is obviously sick, talks with Ruth about Andy’s imminent arrival, Mary’s death, his sickness, and their money problems. Ruth puts Robert back to bed and talks to her mother about Jake, the Page 30 | Top of Articlehired hand who has just quit because Robert owed him money. Andy and a medical specialist, Doctor Fawcett, arrive. While the doctor examines Robert, Andy and Ruth talk about Robert’s condition. Ruth says they could not afford to contact Andy sooner and that Robert has steadily lost interest in everything since Mary and his mother died. Andy says he needs to go away again, because he has lost most of his money on speculative investments, but that there is enough left over in his savings to fix the farm. Doctor Fawcett comes out of the room and says that Robert is dying. Robert says that his dying wish is to have Andy marry Ruth, then he goes to lie down again. Andy is confused over this request until Ruth tells Andy about the fight she and Robert had over Andy five years ago. Ruth goes to the bedroom to tell Robert that she does not love Andy and cannot marry him, but Robert has climbed out the window.
Act 3, Scene 2
A few minutes later, Robert stumbles into the same section of country road where the play started, although the fields are no longer healthy. Andy and Ruth rush up to Robert, who tells them he wants to die outside. Robert is happy because with his death, he says, he will finally be able to journey beyond the horizon. Robert dies, saying once again that Andy needs to take care of Ruth. Andy looks at Ruth, telling her they have both screwed things up but that perhaps in the future, things will be better, suggesting that maybe they will get married. Ruth, however, is exhausted and gives no sign that she agrees.
Mrs. Atkins is Ruth’s widowed, invalid mother, who never forgives her daughter for marrying Robert Mayo instead of Andy. Mrs. Atkins criticizes Robert’s inefficiency in running both the Mayo farm and her farm. She also complains about Ruth and Robert’s sickly child, Mary, who often cries to her mother. Mrs. Atkins is an extremely religious person and says cruelly to Kate Mayo that her husband died early because he was a sinner and that the ill-fated marriage between Robert and Ruth was also a result of God’s will. Although Mrs. Atkins claims in the second act that she is about to die, she outlives many of the other characters and survives until the end of the play. At this point, she is sneaking money to Ruth behind Robert’s back to help pay the bills, since Robert is having a hard time keeping the farm running on his own.
Ruth Atkins is Mrs. Atkins’s daughter and the wife of Robert Mayo. In the beginning, she dates Andy, but she falls in love with Robert when he speaks about his dream of going on a sea voyage. As a result, she tells him she does not love Andy and convinces Robert not to go on his voyage. Her choice influences Andy to leave the Mayo farm and take Robert’s place on the voyage, since he cannot bear to see Ruth with another man, especially his brother. As the play goes on, Ruth’s happiness and her ability to love slowly wane. Three years later, Ruth has aged considerably. She and Robert hate each other, and Ruth says she loves Andy. They both agree that if it were not for Mary (their small, sickly child) they would leave each other. Ruth tries to rekindle the flame with Andy when he comes home for a visit, but before she can tell him her feelings, he lets her know that he does not love her anymore. Ruth is hurt and is rude to Andy, who assumes she does not want him around.
When Andy comes home again five years later, Mary has died, and Ruth is a broken woman. Like the Mayo farm, her life is in decay, and she sits around while Robert’s health quickly declines. She accepts money from her mother, behind Robert’s back, to help pay the bills. When Robert shows some renewed energy in his feverish state and says that they should move to the city and start over, Ruth is frightened. When Andy comes in with a medical specialist, who tells them that Robert is dying, and Andy blames Ruth, she is too exhausted to fight back. Robert’s dying wish is to have Andy marry Ruth, which Andy suggests at the end of the play. But, Ruth is too exhausted to care and does not indicate whether she will be willing to do this.
Ben is the farmhand who quits working for Robert because he is ashamed to work for such a poor farm.
Doctor Fawcett is the specialist that Andy brings to see Robert. Fawcett tells Andy and Ruth that Robert is dying of tuberculosis and that if Robert had gotten to a better climate six months earlier, he might have survived.
Andrew Mayo, or Andy, as most of his family calls him, is the son who is expected to take over the Mayo farm. He shocks everybody when he leaves the farm to go on a sea voyage with his uncle, Captain Scott. In the beginning, Andy is in love with Ruth Atkins and is looking forward to taking over the farm. He is distraught when his brother, Robert, whom he loves dearly, decides to cancel his sea voyage to marry Ruth and stay on the farm. Andy’s decision to go to sea creates a permanent rift between him and his father, James, who dies while Andy is at sea. During Andy’s three years at sea, Captain Scott trains him to become a naval officer, a career that he decides to abandon after his first voyage. The first time he comes home to visit, he makes it a point to tell both Robert and Ruth that he does not love Ruth anymore, thinking that it will remove the awkwardness between them. Instead, he hurts Ruth, who was preparing to declare her love for him.
Before Andy arrives home for his first visit, everybody places their hopes on him, thinking from his letters that he will stay to work on the farm and undo the damage that Robert has done. However, Andy lets everybody know that he is shipping out to Buenos Aires, where he plans to get rich in the grain business and send money home to help everybody. When he comes home five years later, he has gotten rich but lost almost all of his fortune through speculative investing. Andy brings a medical specialist with him, who tells Andy and Ruth that Robert is dying. Andy is angry at first and takes it out on Ruth for not contacting him sooner, until he realizes that Ruth and Robert were too poor, and Robert was too proud, to contact him. Although Andy plans to go back to Buenos Aires to make another fortune, Robert’s dying wish is to have Andy marry Ruth and take care of her. Andy suggests to Ruth at the end of the play that maybe this plan would work out all right, but Ruth is exhausted from her disastrous marriage to Robert and shows no sign of agreement.
Mr. James Mayo
James Mayo is the father of Andrew and Robert. He dies while Andy is at sea. In the beginning, Andy is planning on working on his father’s farm for the rest of his life, and James’s love and respect for his son and his son’s skills are evident. However,
after Robert announces that he is staying home to marry Ruth, and Andy responds by saying he will take Robert’s place on the voyage, James accuses Andy of evasion. They get into a big fight, and Andy lies, saying that he hates the farm and wants to see the world. James is shocked and hurt, and he disowns his son. Several of the characters later discuss whether James ever forgave Andy for leaving. Most think he did not.
Mrs. Kate Mayo
Kate Mayo is the mother of Andrew and Robert. She also dies while Andy is at sea. Kate is the one who realizes that Ruth is not in love with Andy and is overjoyed when Robert decides to cancel his sea voyage. She tries to smooth over the fight between James and Andy, and after James’s death, she is the only one who believes that, in his heart, her husband did forgive Andy. Kate sits by silently while Robert’s marriage and the farm are in trouble, trusting that Robert can handle himself, although she agrees with Mrs. Atkins that Andy and Ruth would have made a better match. When Andy comes home three years after going to sea, she, like everybody else, thinks he is coming home to stay. She plans a big dinner for him. Her death is one of the factors that leads to Robert’s decline in health.
Mary Mayo is the sickly child of Robert and Ruth. She dies sometime between Andy’s first and second visits home. Her death is one of the factors that leads to Robert’s steady decline in health.
Robert Mayo is Andrew’s brother, who cancels his sea voyage to stay on the Mayo farm and marry Ruth Atkins. His decision influences Andy to take Robert’s place, since Andy also loves Ruth and cannot stand to see somebody else with her. Robert’s marriage is ill-fated, since he is not a farmer like Andy and does not know how to properly manage a farm; his situation gets even worse after his father dies. Robert spends a lot of time daydreaming about the voyage he never took, and as a result he loses farmhands and barely makes enough money to pay the bills. Without his knowledge, Ruth accepts money from her mother to help pay the bills. When Andy comes home after his first voyage, Robert, like everybody else, hopes that Andy will take over the farm once again and is distraught when he finds out that Andy is leaving again.
Robert’s marriage to Ruth deteriorates while Andy is at sea, and the only thing that keeps them together is their daughter, Mary. When Robert’s mother and Mary die, Robert’s health rapidly declines. Robert becomes confined to a sickbed. At one point, sick with fever, Robert gets a burst of energy and tells Ruth they should move to the city and start over. Ruth sends an urgent message to Andy, who comes home. Andy brings a medical specialist with him, who tells them that Robert is dying of a lung disease and that if they had taken Robert away to a better climate six months earlier, he might have lived. Andy is distraught, but Ruth accepts this as just one more tragedy in her life. Robert, meanwhile, is overjoyed, because he sees his death as his opportunity to finally leave the farm and travel “beyond the horizon.” Robert’s dying wish is to have Andy marry Ruth and take care of her.
See Ruth Atkins
Captain Dick Scott
Captain Dick Scott is Kate Mayo’s brother and the uncle of Robert and Andrew. In the beginning of the play, Scott has made plans for Robert to accompany him on a sea voyage. When Robert backs out to stay on the farm and marry Ruth, Scott is distraught, because he wanted somebody to talk to and train on the voyage. He is also concerned that his shipmates will think that Robert’s empty bunk was meant for a woman who jilted their captain and that he will take a lot of teasing for this. As a result, he is overjoyed when Andy decides to take Robert’s place and tells Andy that he will make a better seaman than his sickly brother, anyway. Scott trains Andy to be an officer and gives him the tip that a ship is leaving for Buenos Aires, where Andy works for five years trying to make a fortune in the grain business.
Dreams provide the main theme of the play. Every one of the characters has dreams. Ruth dreams of having a husband. James dreams of having a bigger farm and hopes that his son, Andy, will marry Ruth Atkins so that they can take over the adjoining Atkins farm. Says James, “Joined together they’d make a jim-dandy of a place, with plenty o’ room to work in.” However, the biggest dreamers in the story are Robert and Andy, who have opposite dreams. Robert is a poet and has the romantic dream of going “beyond the horizon” to experience the world. Andy, on the other hand, is a born farmer and dreams of nothing more than marrying Ruth and taking care of the Mayo farm. They acknowledge this to each other in the first scene, when Andy says to Robert, “Farming ain’t your nature,” and Robert says to Andy, “You’re wedded to the soil.” Neither of them understands the other’s dreams, but they support each other.
Ruth is the key character that interrupts these dreams. She gets caught up in Robert’s romantic vision of the sea, and when he admits that he is also leaving because he loves her, she renounces her love for Andy and asks Robert to stay: “Please tell me you won’t go!” Ruth’s request and Robert’s decision to stay set everybody’s lives on a tragic course, leading to the early deaths of most of the characters and the possible ruination of Andy and Ruth. James predicts that this will happen when he declares that only bad things happen when people give up their natural dreams: “You’re runnin’ against your own nature, and you’re goin’ to be a’mighty sorry for it if you do.”
For both Robert and Andy, dreams are also responsibilities. Robert has signed up with his uncle, Captain Scott, to work on the sea voyage. When he backs out, he neglects his responsibility, a fact that irks Captain Scott, who has gone to great lengths to accommodate Robert. Says Scott, “Ain’t I made all arrangements with the owners and stocked
up with some special grub all on Robert’s account?” Meanwhile, Andy has trained since he was a boy to manage the Mayo farm, and when he backs out of this responsibility, his father challenges him on it: “The farm is your’n as well as mine... and what you’re sayin’ you intend doin’ is just skulking out o’ your rightful responsibility.”
As the play progresses, O’Neill gives other examples of neglected responsibilities. Robert prefers reading books and daydreaming to working on the farm, a fact that Ruth notes: “And besides, you’ve got your own work that’s got to be done.... Work you’ll never get done by reading books all the time.” However, Ruth is also guilty of neglected responsibilities. Ruth has a responsibility to Mary to be a good mother, but she instead takes out her feelings of anger on the child, trying to force her roughly to take a nap—terrifying the child with threats of “good spankings.” This is contrasted sharply with Robert’s caring treatment of Mary, as shown by the stage directions: “He gathers her up in his arms carefully and carries her into the bedroom. His voice can be heard faintly as he lulls the child to sleep.” In the end, Robert appeals to Andy’s sense of responsibility when he voices his dying wish to have Andy marry Ruth and take care of her. Andy notes to Ruth that he cannot ignore this wish by promising his brother he will marry Ruth and then not following through: “What? Lie to him now—when he’s dying?”
At various points along the way, the characters have choices. When Andy returns after three years at sea, he has the choice of leaving again or of staying at the Mayo farm. The latter is a logical choice, since the main reason he left—his love for Ruth—is no longer an issue. However, Andy says to Robert, “I’m certain now I never was in love.” He chooses to go to Buenos Aires to make money speculating in grain instead of staying at the farm that he used to love. In the end, Robert notes that this choice has made Andy the biggest failure of them all: “You—a farmer—to gamble in a wheat pit with Page 34 | Top of Articlescraps of paper.” Robert’s choices also increase his unhappiness, however. His biggest choice, and the one which, as noted above, sets the play on its tragic course, is the choice to stay on the farm.
However, three years later, when Robert has a chance to change things during Andy’s return, he makes the disastrous choices to not tell Andy about his failed marriage and to not accept Andy’s offer of financial assistance. “No. You need that for your start in Buenos Aires,” Robert tells Andy. Although Andy tries to argue with Robert on this point, Robert refuses to listen. He also does not try to convince Andy to stay. This point is noted angrily by Ruth when she is speaking to Andy. “And didn’t he try to stop you from going?” Robert’s pride in not asking for money or asking his brother to stay and help contributes directly to his death at the end. If he had appealed to his rich brother earlier, Andy and Ruth could have gotten Robert to a better climate and perhaps saved his life. As Doctor Fawcett says, “That might have prolonged his life six months ago. (Andrew groans.) But now—.(He shrugs his shoulders significantly.)”
The play also causes the reader or viewer to question what really makes people happy. In the beginning, everybody is going along on what seems to be his or her true path. Robert is going to sea, while Ruth will most likely marry Andy, who will take over the Mayo farm. When Robert, Ruth, and Andy deviate from their intended paths, however, they all become unhappy. But there is some question as to whether they would have found true happiness if they had stayed on their original paths. Although Ruth says later that she has always loved Andy, she initially says that she is in love with Robert: “I don’t! I don’t love Andy! I don’t.” This is the exact opposite of her later comment to Robert, “I do love Andy. I do! I do! I always loved him.” This leads one to believe that Ruth would not be happy with either man. If Robert had gone away to sea and Ruth had married Andy out of necessity and not love, she may not have been any happier than she was with Robert. In other words, without marrying Robert and seeing that he was not the right one for her, she might never have realized that she loved Andy.
Similarly, there is some question as to whether Robert would have been truly happy at sea. Andy’s experiences in the Far East that Robert has dreamed of are not enjoyable, as he notes to Robert on his first trip home: “One walk down one of their filthy narrow streets with the tropic sun beating on it would sicken you for life with the ‘wonder and mystery’ you used to dream of.” It is unclear whether Robert would have had a different experience. Even the ending is ambiguous. Andy says everything may work out in the end, but Ruth’s reaction of hopelessness leaves the audience to question whether true happiness is possible for these two characters: “She remains silent, gazing at him dully with the sad humility of exhaustion, her mind already sinking back into that spent calm beyond the further troubling of any hope.”
O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon was a striking departure from most of the melodramatic dramas of the day. The play featured real tragedy, which became a hallmark of many twentieth-century dramas in America. Tragedy has a long literary history, dating back to the plays of the ancient Greeks, when tragic events were depicted as a result of a character flaw or defect. Although the definitions and uses of tragedy have changed in many ways since then, most tragedies still hinge on a bad decision by a character or characters. In O’Neill’s play, these decisions are influenced by love. It is Robert’s love for Ruth that causes him to make his impulsive but important life decision, as the stage directions note: “ROBERT (face to face with a definite, final decision, betrays the conflict going on within him): ‘But—Ruth—I—Uncle Dick—.’” Ruth is adamant, however, and finally breaks down crying, the final step that influences his decision: “ROBERT (conquered by this appeal—an irrevocable decision in his voice): ‘I won’t go, Ruth. I promise you.’”
Robert’s decision influences Andy to make his own tragic decision to go to sea. Says Andrew, “You’ve made your decision, Rob, and now I’ve made mine.” Andy also making his decision out of love. He cannot stand to see Ruth with another man, least of all his brother: “I ve got to get away and try to forget, if I can.”Mr. Mayo exposes Andy’s choice as a brash defense against heartache, “You’re runnin’ away ‘cause you’re put out and riled ‘cause your own brother’s got Ruth ‘stead o’ you.” These two tragic decisions ultimately lead to many tragic consequences, including the deaths of most of the Page 35 | Top of Articlecharacters. James dies while Andy is at sea, and Mrs. Mayo notes that his death was a result of her husband’s inability to publicly forgive Andy for his decision: “It was that brought on his death—breaking his heart just on account of his stubborn pride.” Mrs. Mayo is in turn affected by her husband’s death as well as by the decay of the farm and her son’s unhappy marriage, as the stage directions indicate: “MRS. MAYO’S face has lost all character, disintegrated, become a weak mask wearing a helpless, doleful expression of being constantly on the verge of comfortless tears.” In addition, Mary is chronically ill. Says Mrs. Atkins, “She gets it right from her Pa—being sickly all the time.... It was a crazy mistake for them two to get married.” Eventually, Mary dies, too, and in the end, Robert himself dies, both tragic events brought on by the decisions of Robert and Andy to go against their respective natures.
The play has a strong sense of dramatic irony, a feeling produced in audience members when they are led to believe that one situation will unfold, while in reality, the opposite becomes true. At the end of the play, the audience, like the characters, is struck with the bitter irony of the main characters’ wasted lives. All three of them—Robert, Ruth, and Andy—have gotten the exact opposite of what they wanted. Andy ran away from his farming dreams, thinking it would be worse to stay and witness his brother and Ruth together. Ruth wanted a happy marriage with a man she loved, but as she notes to Andy at the end, “You see I’d found out I’d made a mistake about Rob soon after we were married—when it was too late.” So, Andy runs away out of his jealousy over the relationship between Ruth and Robert, which ironically fails shortly after he leaves to go to sea, when Ruth realizes that Andy is the one for her. Meanwhile, Robert stays on the farm, thinking he will find true happiness with Ruth. Instead, he finds only misery and death, constantly yearning for the life at sea that Andy hates.
Even worse, Ruth’s failed marriage has drained her so much that, as she tells Robert, “I don’t love anyone.” She has lost the ability to love. The tragic irony of this situation is multiplied when Robert pushes Ruth and Andy together at the end of the play, asking them to get married and honor his dying wish. At this point, Andy is willing to give it a try out of duty to his brother: “We must try to help each other—and—in time—we’ll come to know what’s right.” But the damage is irreversible. The situation has changed since Andy left eight years ago, and even if they do get married as Andy had originally hoped, things will never be the same.
O’Neill’s play calls for several staging techniques that are intended to evoke a mood in the audience. One of these, the change in seasons, is particularly effective. When the play begins, the stage directions note the following: “The hushed twilight of a day in May is just beginning.” This spring day in the first act progresses to “a hot, sunbaked day in mid-summer” in the second act. Finally, in the last act, it is “a day toward the end of October.” The gradual move from spring—associated with youth and hope—to late fall—a time of fading life before the death of winter sets in—mirrors the tragic action of the play and helps to darken the mood.
Although O’Neill wrote the tragic Beyond the Horizon in 1918, it features no reference to the biggest tragedy of the time, World War I, which ended the same year. This may be because O’Neill intended his story to take place in the years before World War I started. Or, it may be because the play features enough tragedy without mentioning the war. In any case, farmers and some merchant seamen—two occupations represented in the play by the Mayo brothers—were greatly affected by the war.
Even before the United States officially entered the war in 1917, American farms were helping to provide food supplies to the Allied forces. These exports, along with the exportation of munitions, helped aid the war effort and led to greater economic prosperity in the United States during the first few years of the war. As J. M. Roberts notes in his Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901 to 2000: “The Allies were the main customers of American industry and farmers; Allied spending fuelled an economic boom in the United States.” However, the American merchant ships that delivered these goods were increasingly in danger from German submarines. In January 1917, Germany declared that it would sink any ship that attempted to deliver supplies to Allied forces, including neutral American ships. In March, German submarines made good on this promise when they sank some American merchant ships, sparking a national movement
that advocated the United States’s entry into the war. America declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.
While the United States’s neutral status had helped to produce an economic boom through the increased production of food and other supplies for Allied Forces, America’s entry into the war threatened to diminish this production. In May 1917, Wilson signed the Selective Service Act, forcing many young men to register for military service. Many farmers and farm workers were drafted to fight in the war, which left gaps in the nation’s workforce. The loss of workers on farms—and in factories—threatened to compromise America’s ability to maintain the high production rates that it had enjoyed since the beginning of the war. In an effort to standardize production and ensure that none of the nation’s supplies would be secretly transported to German forces, Wilson announced in July that he was taking official control over America’s necessities. This included the pricing and transportation of food and other essential war supplies. Wheat prices were fixed and the railroads—as well as some merchant ships—were requisitioned for use by the government.
At the same time, at least one notable private effort was underway to help farmers maintain their high production levels. In October 1917, automaker Henry Ford, who had made history with his mass-produced Model T automobile (introduced in 1908), began producing the world’s first mass-produced tractors. In fact, for Ford, who grew up on a farm and who was a champion for farmers, this was the realization of a dream. As Robert Lacey notes in his book, Ford: The Men and the Machine: “Almost as soon as the Ford Motor Company started making money, Henry Ford had started trying to develop a tractor.” Since the executives in the Ford Motor Page 37 | Top of ArticleCompany had little interest in this agricultural venture, in 1916, Ford founded a new company, Henry Ford & Son, to produce his “Fordson” tractors. Although tractors had been in limited use for years, they were too heavy and expensive for most farms. The gasoline-engine Fordson tractor, however, was lighter and much less expensive than other tractors. Fordsons were mass-produced on the same type of assembly line that Ford had implemented in 1913 for the production of his Model Ts, and became a viable option for farmers looking to replace farmhands who were off fighting the war.
At the end of the war, American farms remained a crucial industry, and one that was increasingly aided by the tractor. Tractors brought power that revolutionized farming, and helped to replace horses as the method used to plow the fields. As Roberts notes, “power did more than perform traditional tasks more efficiently: it broke in new land.” With their greater power, tractors gave farmers the ability to plow tough land that had previously been useless for crops. Tractors helped farmers increase their crop yields, which in turn helped to meet the increased food demands during the final months of the war. Even after the war ended in November 1918, these increased crop yields went to good use, as the United States pledged itself to helping combat food shortages in much of Europe—where resources had been severely depleted during the war.
Beyond the Horizon is one of Eugene O’Neill’s most famous plays, although it started from humble origins. In 1918, after writing several unsuccessful and unproduced longer plays, O’Neill wrote Beyond the Horizon, which was bought by actor and producer John Williams. Two years later, in 1920, the play was finally produced. However, Williams made the choice to start it off as a matinee, using actors borrowed from his other current productions instead of giving the play its own billing. The play soon proved worthy of a run on Broadway.
Overall, the critics praised the play. Says J. Rankin Towse in his 1920 review of the play for the New York Post, “There can be no question that it is a work of uncommon merit and definite ability, distinguished by general superiority from the great bulk of contemporaneous productions.” However, Towse also notes that the play “is not quite a masterpiece,” although “it is exceedingly promising juvenile work.” Towse, like many critics, found fault with the play’s original length; it was much longer than other plays of the day. Part of this length was due to the set changes in between scenes. As Ronald H. Wainscott notes in his 1988 book, Staging O’Neill: The Experimental Years, 1920–1934, “four complete set changes were required, and each shift was time consuming.” As Wainscott says, reviewers also noted that the shabby sets were themselves “both inappropriate for the play and far beneath the usual standard for a Broadway production.” In addition, many critics noted that O’Neill’s call for a very young child to play Mary was unrealistic. As Wainscott notes, “O’Neill complicated the predicament by including the toddler in two scenes and by giving her important dialogue and stage business.”
Despite critics’ issues with the physical presentation, most agreed that the play was something new and that O’Neill was a new type of playwright. However, when Beyond the Horizon won the Pulitzer Prize in 1920, many, including O’Neill, were surprised. O’Neill proved that he was not a passing fad when he again won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 and 1928. In 1936, after reviewing O’Neill’s body of work, Lionel Trilling notes in his New Republic article “Eugene O’Neill,” “Whatever is unclear about Eugene O’Neill, one thing is certainly clear—his genius.” However, at this point, not all critics or audiences agreed, and many of O’Neill’s plays of the time were not received well by depression-era audiences, who probably had enough tragedy in their own lives already.
O’Neill became popular again in the years following World War II, and his popularity has only increased since. While Beyond the Horizon is regarded as one of O’Neill’s most important and seminal plays, it has rarely seen revival productions, unlike O’Neill’s other plays, which have enjoyed many stage reproductions. The meaning of the play has changed for critics throughout the years. While early critics saw O’Neill’s play as a message that people should follow their dreams and not go against their natures, later critics, like Linda Ben-Zvi, in her 1988 Modern Drama article “Freedom and Fixity in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill,” think the opposite. Says Ben-Zvi: “In almost all O’Neill’s works, when characters do actually get ‘beyond the horizon,’ what they find is far less than what they expected.”
Critics throughout the years have also noted the autobiographical quality of the play, particularly in Page 38 | Top of Articlethe character of Robert. Says Virginia Floyd in her 1985 book, The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment, “Robert is obviously a self-portrait. He is given not only O’Neill’s physical characteristics but also some of his biographical background, having spent a year at college and experienced a long illness.”
Today, O’Neill is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest playwrights, and many point to Beyond the Horizon as the seminal success that started him on his path to greatness.
Ryan D. Poquette
Poquette has a bachelor’s degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette discusses O’Neill’s use of staging techniques to underscore and amplify the tragic mood of his play.
In his essay “O’Neill and the Cult of Sincerity,” Ronald H. Wikander notes the response of O’Neill’s father, James, when he saw Beyond the Horizon: “Are you trying to send the audience home to commit suicide?” This reaction underscores the fact that O’Neill’s play is impressively tragic. O’Neill increases the level of tragedy in his play through his detailed stage requirements. Through the use of stage techniques such as lighting, the use of interior and exterior sets, costumes, and makeup, O’Neill amplifies the already dark mood of the play as it progresses.
O’Neill considered his play an experiment in which he could break many of the conventions of the day. The play was widely regarded as too long, and it contained a number of specific set requirements that many thought complicated the production. One of the simpler stage techniques that O’Neill employed was the use of lighting. In the first act, O’Neill’s stage directions talk about the sky, which “glows with the crimson flush of the sunset. This fades gradually as the action of the scene progresses.” The gradual darkening of the light mirrors the change in mood, which starts out light but gets tense as soon as the two brothers start talking about Ruth, whom they both obviously love. Says Andrew, “I’d better run along. I’ve got to wash up some as long as Ruth’s Ma is coming over for supper.” Robert replies, “(pointedly—almost bitterly): And Ruth.” Robert is jealous that Andy has Ruth’s love, and his dark mood is reflected in the fading light of day. This negative feeling culminates in Robert’s obvious regret, later in the play, over his decision to forgo the sea voyage and marry Ruth. As Robert and Ruth are walking off at the end of the scene, Robert stops to focus “on the horizon” and finally “shakes his head impatiently, as though he were throwing off some disturbing thought.” Robert is not the only one who is disturbed. Thanks to the tension of the first scene, which is underscored by the diminishing lighting, the audience starts to feel a little uneasy, too.
In addition to lighting, O’Neill makes use of contrasting interior and exterior scenes that emphasize the tragic mistakes the characters have made. In the beginning of the first act, Robert sits on a fence “reading a book by the fading sunset light. He shuts this... and turns his head toward the horizon, gazing out over the fields and hills.” Robert is happy, looking forward to the future that he has dreamed about, when he will finally get to travel abroad and see the world beyond the horizon, which symbolizes the freedom that Robert yearns for. In the next scene, as Robert and the others are inside “the small sitting room of the Mayo farmhouse.” The farmhouse is neat and tidy, the sign “of the orderly comfort of a simple, hard-earned prosperity.” This is the type of life that Andy plans to live and Robert dreads. However, when the two brothers make their fateful decisions, Robert confines himself to the “simple” life of a farmer, while Andy chooses the life of freedom outdoors, a freedom that has never appealed to him. This sharp contrast between interior and exterior is evident in the remaining two acts, both of which start in the farmhouse and end outdoors with the horizon in view. In his 1979 book, Eugene O’Neill, Frederic I. Carpenter notes this fact: “The structure of the play emphasizes the conflict of the two opposing ideals of adventure and security; of the two brothers who embody them.”
As the play progresses, both the interior and exterior sets degrade noticeably, signifying the neglect and decay that has come about as a result of the two brothers’ tragic decisions. At the beginning of the second act, the farmhouse “gives evidence of carelessness,” as O’Neill’s stage directions indicate. “The chairs appear shabby from lack of paint; the table cover is spotted and askew; holes show in the curtains.” At the beginning of the third act, the damage is even worse: “The curtains at the windows are torn and dirty and one of them is missing.
The closed desk is gray with accumulated dust as if it had not been used in years.” The damage is not limited to the interior. The farm itself, depicted in the exterior scenes, also degrades from the healthy, robust farm in the first act, which has “rolling hills with their freshly plowed fields clearly divided from each other, checkerboard fashion, by the lines of stone walls and rough snake-fences.” By the last scene of the play, the farm is showing obvious signs of the neglect that Robert, Ruth, and Andrew have all been referring to in the second act: “The field in the foreground has an uncultivated appearance as if it had been allowed to remain fallow the preceding summer.” And the apple tree, which in the first scene was “just budding into leaf” now “is leafless and seems dead.” Everything about the interior and exterior sets has been designed to signify the decay in the main characters’ lives and to amplify the dark, tragic mood that the characters and plot create for the audience.
Some early critics did not appreciate what O’Neill was trying to do with the interior and exterior sets, and they focused only on the delays the set changes caused for the audience. Writes A. R. Fulton in his 1946 book, Drama and Theatre Illustrated by Seven Modern Plays, “The critics objected to this arrangement, contending that no purpose was thereby served which could not have been served by staging the entire play in the single interior set.”
O’Neill’s play also required extensive attention to detail in makeup and costume, another way that he indicated the regression of the characters’ lives. In the case of Robert and Ruth, the signs of degradation are obvious in their appearances, which get excessively dirtier as the play goes on. In the beginning of the play, Robert is described as “delicate and refined, leaning to weakness in the mouth and chin.” He is wearing “gray corduroy trousers pushed into high laced boots, and a blue flannel shirt with a bright colored tie.” All in all, Robert is the ideal image of the cultured student. However, in the beginning of the second act, Robert is described as depressed and filthy: “His eyes are dull and lifeless, his face burned by the sun and unshaven for days. Streaks of sweat have smudged the layer of dust on his cheeks.” Just as Robert has been unable to take care of the farm, he has given up taking care of himself, letting his once-neat appearance decay. By the last act, Robert is depleted: “His hair is long and unkempt, his face and body emaciated.”
Ruth’s appearance also changes. In the beginning, she is described as “a healthy, blonde, out-of-doors girl of twenty, with a graceful, slender figure.” Ruth is a naturally beautiful, vibrant young woman, full of vitality, and she easily commands the attention of both Robert and Andy. However, three years later, at the beginning of the second act, she “has aged appreciably. Her face has lost its youth and freshness. There is a trace in her expression of something hard and spiteful.”’ Also, in the beginning of the play, “She wears a simple white dress,” while in the second act, her attire has changed to “a gingham dress with a soiled aprontied around her waist.” Finally, in the last act, a mere five years later, Ruth “has aged horribly. Her pale, deeply-lined face has the stony lack of expression of one to whom nothing more can ever happen.” In addition, her dress is in “negligent disorder,” her hair is “slovenly” and “streaked with gray,” and she wears black mourning clothes. Her clothes have steadily darkened just as the mood of the play has darkened. The fresh-faced young woman of twenty becomes an old woman at only twenty-eight, a tragic transformation that is depicted through costumes and makeup as the tragedy enveloping all the characters develops.
Andy’s countenance changes throughout the play, but in different ways than Robert and Ruth. In the beginning, Andy is the consummate farmer, dressing in “overalls, leather boots, a gray flannel shirt open at the neck, and a soft, mud-stained hat pushed back on his head.” While the other characters get more unkempt and dirty as the play progresses, Andy gets progressively more businesslike and professional. In the second act, when Andy comes home for the first time, the description in the Page 41 | Top of Articlestage directions note that, although he has not changed much, “there is a decided change in his manner. The old easy-going good nature seems to have been partly lost in a breezy, business-like briskness of voice and gesture.” In addition, he has traded his comfortable and slightly messy farm clothes for “the simple blue uniform and cap of a merchant ship’s officer.” In the last act, Andy’s transformation from good-natured farmer to ruthless businessman is complete, as his appearance indicates: “His face seems to have grown highstrung, hardened.... His eyes are keener and more alert. There is even a suggestion of ruthless cunning about them”; he is “dressed in an expensive business suit and appears stouter.” When the story starts, Andy is a muscular farmer who loves nothing better than to spend time, working the earth. By the end of the story, Andy has been transformed into a high-strung businessman who makes his living trading the grain he once loved to create. The changes in his attire and makeup amplify the tragedy of his transformation as he betrays his love and talent for farming by evading heartache.
O’Neill’s play is noted for its gritty, tragic qualities. During the course of the play, dreams are crushed, almost all of the characters die, and the surviving characters are irreversibly changed. But these factors are not the only ones that invoke a dark mood in O’Neill’s audience. O’Neill increases the level of tragedy in his play through his detailed stage requirements. Even without the extremely descriptive stage directions, O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon is a tragic play. However, through the use of special techniques in lighting, set design, costuming, and makeup, O’Neill amplifies the tragic mood the play induces in the audience. In the end, every element in this carefully designed play works to magnify the overwhelming sense of despair.
Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Beyond the Horizon, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Maria T. Miliora
In the following essay excerpt, Miliora analyzes the Mayo family psychologically, focusing on the narcissistic dreams of Robert and Andy.
Beyond the Horizon depicts the Mayos, a farming family. The major characters are the two brothers, Andrew, who is older, and Robert; their parents, James and Kate Mayo; Captain Dick Scott, who is Kate’s brother; Ruth Atkins and her mother, Mrs. Atkins; and Mary, the child of Robert and Ruth. The drama turns on the relationship of the two brothers to Ruth and the ensuing dynamics among family members. Both Andrew and Robert are in love with Ruth, but at the play’s opening, Robert has kept secret his feelings about Ruth. The family assumes that Andrew and Ruth will marry.
Robert is planning to leave the farm the following morning and begin a three-year sea journey on his Uncle Scott’s ship. When he says goodbye to Ruth, he confesses that he loves her. Ruth is overjoyed and acknowledges that she loves him, rather than Andy. Robert decides that he will marry Ruth and remain on the farm. He and Ruth inform the Mayo family that evening. The news shocks and injures Andrew, but he tries to hide his feelings. He congratulates Robert, but tells his uncle that he will take Robert’s place on the ship the following morning. Andy’s unexpected decision precipitates a quarrel between him and his father.
The hostility that develops between father and son is the key to an appreciation of the play from the perspective of home and family. O’Neill’s description of the Mayo home in the opening act indicates that the family is a cohesive unit. The two brothers are very close and the parents appear to have a warm relationship with each other and with their sons. Each of the brothers has been affirmed to do what he is most inclined to do. In short, the Mayos seemingly constitute a supportive selfobject milieu.
James Mayo had assumed that his elder son, Andy, would marry Ruth and that the two farms would merge. The news that Ruth loves Robert, rather than Andy, is disruptive to the family’s cohesiveness. Andy, who loves Ruth, is very disappointed, narcissistically injured, and humiliated. His emotional reaction is apparent later in the scene when he tells Robert that, after all the plans he has made, he can not bear to remain on the farm and watch Robert and Ruth live together. This indicates that he feels foolish, demeaned in front of his family. Understandably, Andy seizes the opportunity to take his brother’s place on the ship, feeling that this would allow him to get away from the humiliation that he feels at home.
James does not deal with Andy in an empathic way. He and Andy had been united in working the farm and he feels Andy’s leaving as a loss. He becomes angry and confronts Andy about Ruth’s rejection of him. He refers to his leaving as running away because Robert “got Ruth ‘stead o’ you....” Andy’s sense of humiliation is exacerbated by this statement made before the family. He becomes
enraged and, in retaliation, he declares that he hates the farm. This retort fuels the cycle of hurt and rage, and the quarrel between father and son escalates into bitter antagonism. Reconciliation is seemingly impossible because both men have been narcissistically injured and both are unable to transcend their sense of injury and vehement rage. Robert’s asking his father and brother, in the midst of the hostility, if they have gone mad suggests the psychotic-like level of the rage.
By the end of the first act, the supportive milieu that formerly existed within the Mayo family has been shattered. Robert feels responsible for the enmity and he is saddened. He knows that his brother wanted Ruth and he wishes that he had never told Ruth that he loved her.
The second act is set three years later. James Mayo has died and Mrs. Mayo states that his “stubborn pride... brought on his death.” This statement indicates that his quarrel with Andy and the rage that was provoked that night continued to affect him as well as the family as a whole. The description of the sitting room, which indicates carelessness and inefficiency, suggests that the family members are depressed. There is antagonism, complaining, and blaming among them. It is apparent that the family is no longer a cohesive or supportive unit. Robert seems to be particularly depressed. He is not doing well as a farmer and hears, on a consistent basis, that he is a failure. His inefficiency (as a farmer) and depression derive, at least in part, from the lack of a supportive family milieu that he needs to sustain him.
A violent quarrel erupts between Ruth and Robert. This shatters the bond between them as well as whatever illusions Robert had that Ruth loves him. As a result, he feels even more alone and in despair. When Andy returns for a visit, both Ruth and Robert are distressed to learn that he will not remain on the farm. Robert needs his help and Ruth had imagined that he still loved her. Andy is oblivious to his family’s needs. He is unempathic toward his brother, thinking only of himself and his wish for material success. He expects to be understood by the family but makes no attempt to understand their plight. Andy’s departure leaves the depressed family without any hope.
Five years later, the hopelessness, resignation, and despair within the family have reached crisis proportion. The death of his child, Mary, has caused Robert to sink into a deep depression, and he has become seriously ill as well. Ruth is “without feeling,” that is, also in the throes of a depression and a sense of hopelessness. In the final act, Andy’s greed and selfishness are acutely apparent. He has been away for five years trying to amass a fortune, and he has never concerned himself with the family or farm. Robert, on the other hand, thinks of Ruth’s welfare even as he is dying.
In addition to the theme of destruction of a sense of home and family, the play depicts the importance of a dream or a narcissistic illusion in organizing one’s sense of self and sustaining self-cohesion. However, because they tend to be tenuous, illusions require affirmation from one’s human surround in order to maintain one’s sense of self.
Robert puts aside his dream of searching for beauty “beyond the horizon” and substitutes an illusion of having a happy and loving life with Ruth on the farm. This illusion is not affirmed. Indeed, Robert suffers considerable repudiation of his efforts at farming and, ultimately, he discovers that Ruth’s declarations of love for him were lies. The death of his little daughter—“our last hope of happiness”—shatters his illusions completely. As a result, Robert’s sense of self is seriously depleted. This sense of depletion is made concrete in the play by virtue of the depression and death, that is, the laying waste of the farm as well as of the characters.
Early in the play, Andy’s sense of self is organized in terms of a narcissistic fantasy of being a successful farmer. He is perceived as successful in this regard by his family and neighbors. Within this milieu that affirms him, his sense of self is cohesive. Moreover, Andy has a dream of making a life with Ruth. When Ruth announces her love for Robert, Andy’s dream is shattered and he fragments under the pressure of his father’s attack. He reconstitutes Page 43 | Top of Articlehis sense of self in terms of new illusions of attaining material success in foreign lands. Because his narcissism is relatively immature or archaic, Andy needs to show his family that he is eminently successful. His sense of self-worth is at stake. He becomes driven by greed in order to attain unlimited wealth as if this will negate the earlier sense of humiliation that he suffered before his family.
There are two “homes” in the play—the farm and the sea. O’Neill dichotomizes the two and concretizes this distinction by having each of the brothers inclined toward one or the other. O’Neill suggests that it is important for each person to follow his or her true nature.
Neither of the two “homes” is a sustaining selfobject milieu because of the narcissistic and emotional elements inherent in each. Andy goes off to sea because of humiliation, rage, and greed. Robert stays on the farm because of the illusion that Ruth loves him. O’Neill suggests that it is not the place per se that creates a sense of home, but rather, it is the relational context within the family that defines a real home. When there is narcissistic injury, rage, and a lack of empathy within the family, the sense of home can be destroyed.
As in a number of his plays, O’Neill includes the themes of betrayal and greed as significant in defining the emotional climate among the members of a family. Robert believes that Ruth loves him as Andy did earlier. In this context, Ruth is cast in the role of the betrayer who intrudes into the family milieu and disturbs its peace and harmony. Using the character of Andy, we can see the relationship between greed and emotional miserliness: Andy is driven by greed and lacks a capacity for empathy.
With his depictions of the two brothers, O’Neill suggests that individuals cannot experience both familial love and individual freedom. Robert chooses love and loses freedom. Andy loses love and, seemingly, attains freedom. However, neither brother gains what he sought. As suggested by the dramatic climax, true freedom is attained only in death.
There are several autobiographical elements in the play. The hostility that erupts between father and elder son in the Mayo family is suggestive of the hostility between James and Jamie in Long Day’s Journey. According to the Gelbs (1960,1962), James O’Neill wanted Jamie to follow him in the theatre. His disappointment about his elder son parallels that of James Mayo in Beyond the Horizon. Moreover, the relationship between the Mayo brothers suggests elements of the relationship between Eugene and Jamie. In the play, Andy and Robert are rivals for the same woman. In the O’Neill family, Jamie and Eugene were rivals for their mother’s affection. Robert’s replacing Andy on the farm is indicative of O’Neill’s experience with Jamie. In O’Neill’s mind, Jamie was the more talented, the one who should have become the writer, and he (Eugene) felt that he had usurped Jamie’s talent.
Robert’s experience of feeling foolish because he had believed Ruth’s assertions of love for him is consonant with O’Neill’s about his mother. As Robert felt betrayed when he realized Ruth’s true feelings, so O’Neill felt betrayed when he learned what he imagined were his mother’s true feelings about him.
Source: Maria T. Miliora, “Loss of a Sense of Home, Family, Belonging: Narcissism, Alienation and Madness,” in Narcissism, the Family, and Madness: A Self-Psychological Study of Eugene O’Neill and His Plays, Peter Lang Publishing, 2000, pp. 69–84.
In the following essay, Voglino explores how the last scene of Beyond the Horizon contrasts with the predictability of the rest of the drama, chiefly through Robert’s “theatrically heightened speeches.”
Beyond the Horizon, completed in 1918, was O’Neill’s first full-length drama to be produced (1920) and his first play to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Despite contemporary praise for its powerful realism, early reviewers voiced an awareness that the play was flawed. Some objected to its graphic depiction of tuberculosis; others, to what they considered its excessive length. Predictability and overexplicitness were two of the more significant faults pointed out. Early reviewers Alexander Woollcott and Heywood Broun targeted the final scene for its illusion-dispelling effect. Broun attributed the break in the impact of the drama to the lowering of the curtain before the very short final scene, which he argued “compels a wait at a time when tension is seriously impaired.” Although Broun’s explanation seems feasible enough regarding the reaction of an audience attending a staged production, the wait for a scene change does not account for the similar discomfort experienced by readers. The illusion-dispelling quality noted by Page 44 | Top of ArticleWoollcott and Broun seems more likely attributable to the sudden change in tone, matter, and the demand placed upon the audience by the final scene, which raises questions when the audience has been prepared to expect a conclusion. More recent criticism of the play’s closure has focused on its ambiguity.
Up until the last scene, however, Beyond the Horizon, an explicitly presented, highly predictable drama, is more remarkable for its lack of ambiguity. The play is composed of three acts, each divided into two scenes. Audience expectations regarding closure are set up in the first act. Two brothers, very different in character, exchange destinies. Young Robert Mayo, upon learning that his friend Ruth loves him, renounces his chance to fulfill his lifelong dream of exploring “beyond the horizon” on his uncle’s ship. Instead of sailing around the world as he had intended, he remains home to marry and work the family farm, a job for which he is physically and emotionally unsuited. His brother, Andrew, who loves farmwork and had intended to marry Ruth, good-naturedly takes Robert’s place on the three-year voyage. Before the end of act 1 James Mayo, the father, announces the theme of the play. He warns Andrew, “You’re runnin’ against your own nature, and you’re goin’ to be a’mighty sorry for it if you do.”
For the next three scenes, the drama rather laboriously depicts the progressive fulfillment of the father’s dire prediction—intended for Andrew—with regard to both brothers. Robert, upon whose plight the play focuses, has betrayed his poet’s awareness of a higher reality by surrendering to his biological attraction to Ruth. His initial moment of decision results in seemingly endless suffering in the form of poverty, marital unhappiness, and a recurrence of the tuberculosis that causes his death. By the end of the play his character has deteriorated as well: he has become jealous and vengeful. Andrew’s punishment for not remaining on the Mayo farm is more subtle. After the voyage with his uncle he undertakes a huge farming venture in Argentina and accumulates a large fortune, which he proceeds to lose through unwise speculation. As might be expected to result from his risk-fraught lifestyle, his eyes develop a look of “ruthless cunning,” and he becomes inclined to distrust people. Upon returning to the Mayo farm five years later, he discovers himself bereft of family as well as financial security. His parents having already died, and his sole sibling dying, Andrew is left with only his sister-in-law, Ruth, whom the dying Robert has requested he marry, and whom Andrew has grown to despise.
Thus far the plot has proceeded rather steadily toward its predictable end, like Hofmannsthal’s arrow speeding toward its target. The spectator’s “perception of structure” has led him to anticipate that closure will be synonymous with the ultimate fulfillment of the father’s prophetic warning to his sons for “runnin’ against [their]... nature[s].” Another important structural device that the audience expects to influence closure is the technique of ironic reversal established early in the play with the brothers’ exchange of destinies and repeated at significant intervals throughout the drama. This pattern of reversing the expectations of the characters in Beyond the Horizon is, in fact, repeated so consistently as to give away the plot. As H. G. Kemelman observed (1932), “The complete and perfect frustration of the characters destroys all suspense. The audience knows what is coming: after the first act, they can predict the rest of the play.” For example, at the start of act 2 all the characters have their hopes pinned on Andrew’s imminent return from the voyage. Ruth hopes to renew Andrew’s former romantic interest in her; Robert and his mother expect Andrew to take charge of the failing farm. Their very eagerness prepares the audience for the disappointment that will ensue: Andrew sails off for Argentina the next day. A nearly identical situation occurs at the beginning of act 3, when everyone is once again waiting for Andrew’s return. Ruth has telegraphed Andrew about Robert’s need for medical attention. She and her mother are desperately hoping for financial assistance, since Robert has been too ill to work the farm. Robert, who deludes himself about the gravity of his illness, also hopes to borrow money from his brother so that he and Ruth can move to the city. The audience, recalling the pattern of ironic reversal that has been established in acts 1 and 2, expects a repeat performance of Andrew’s first homecoming, which in fact occurs. Andrew arrives at the Mayo farm financially and spiritually broken. The specialist he brings is too late to save Robert’s life.
If the play had ended at this highly foreseeable, if somewhat tedious, point, its conclusion would meet both Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s requirement for closure (in poetry) that it result in a cessation of expectations for the audience and June Schlueter’s condition that the production of meaning be complete. The theme “be true to yourself” has been hammered in relentlessly from start to finish: Robert’s Page 45 | Top of Articleself-betrayal has resulted in misery for all concerned. The total sum of his life’s efforts is zero—no children, no crops, no happiness, and no literary output (he speculates on his potential for writing). With Robert dying, Ruth exhausted, and Andrew at the nadir of his personal and financial fortunes, nothing more of interest can be expected to occur. The viewer is ready to accept the lamentable end toward which the structure of the play has led.
The viewer is in for a surprise, however. The “perverse mind” of Eugene O’Neill would not allow this “reasonably contented ending” for which he has meticulously prepared throughout the drama. The fact is, the very concept of “contentment” appears to have had a derogatory connotation to O’Neill, who in 1921 defined “happiness” as “an intensified feeling of the significant worth of man’s being and becoming... not a mere smirking contentment with ones lot” (emphasis added). In Beyond the Horizon, instead of being satisfied with the ending within easy grasp, the playwright demonstrates his preference for the unattainable by introducing Robert’s theatrically heightened speeches in the final scene. The spectator is startled by the change in tone, which suggests a redemption not supported by the action of the play, and which contrasts strangely with the preceding, naturalistically detailed rendition of poverty and misery. Nor is the spectator prepared for the new interpretive demand placed upon him at this late stage. Unsettled from his comfortably receptive position, he needs to rekindle his imagination, which has been smothered by the play’s overexplicitness. He must first decide Robert’s intent in bequeathing his wife to his brother. Is the dying Robert acting out of a spirit of forgiveness and comradery? Or is he trying to punish his brother, regarding whom he has exhibited bitter jealousy only a short time earlier in this very scene? The viewer or reader may also need to make decisions regarding his own eschatology in order to interpret the closure, which O’Neill leaves ambiguous. The dying Robert joyfully purports to have been redeemed through suffering and sacrifice, so that he may resume his earlier-abandoned quest after death. Is the audience to conclude that Robert’s self-assessment is correct, or that he dies tragically self-deluded? If the viewer concludes Robert is deluded, as I believe further analysis confirms, the question becomes the nature of Robert’s self-delusion. Does the play depict his irrevocable forfeiture, through marrying Ruth instead of sailing “beyond the horizon,” of his right to pursue the “quest”? Or is he deluded about the very
possibility of undertaking such a quest? Without an understanding of Robert’s final condition, the production of meaning that ought to result from the closure is incomplete, leaving closure en l’air.
Modern closural theories attest to the prerogative of individuals to assist in creating their own closures for ambiguous works. Interpretation is no longer the mere act of “construing,” but “the art of constructing,” asserts Stanley Fish. The reader, says Wolfgang Iser, must “[work] things out for himself.” According to Henry J. Schmidt the reader’s effort to impose closure on an ambiguous work can have the propitious effect of “assuring one of the correctness of one’s beliefs and of the fundamental stability of one’s social and moral environment.”
A number of readers and viewers have chosen to interpret the ambiguous ending affirmatively. Like Robert Mayo, who invents a gratifying fiction to ensure that his suffering not be meaningless, some readers and viewers may deliberately seek “the promise of a morally legible universe” in Robert’s poetic last speeches. Thus, even so illustrious a critic as T. S. Eliot, fresh from completing his celebrated religious work, The Waste Land (1922), was able to perceive the ending of Beyond the Horizon as “magnificent.” Similarly, Arthur Hobson Quinn (1927) was impressed by the “exaltation of the spirit” in Robert’s dying speech: “I’m happy at last... free to wander on and on—eternally!... It isn’t the end. It’s a free beginning—the start of my voyage! I’ve won... the right of release—beyond the horizon!.” Even some very reputable modern Page 46 | Top of Articlecritics have taken Robert’s final speech literally. Travis Bogard describes Robert’s death as “close to a blessing, both a release from pain and a reunification with the element that is rightfully his... he moves through death into the mainstream of continuous life energy. In Edmund Tyrone’s words, he has ‘dissolved’ into the secret.” Still more recently Virginia Floyd has interpreted the final scene as signifying redemption through suffering.
Nevertheless, a consideration of what precedes and succeeds Robert’s triumphant dying speech, as well as Robert’s character and O’Neill’s own comments pertaining to Robert, would seem to preclude the positive readings of the closure that O’Neill’s poetic language suggests. In dying, Robert says he has been redeemed through suffering, that he has “won to [his] trip—the right of release—beyond the horizon” through the “sacrifice[s]” he has made. However, nothing in the play indicates any “sacrifice” on Robert’s part. If anyone has sacrificed it is Andrew, who surrendered both Ruth and the farm to his brother. But even Andrew’s sacrifice was minimal: he later realizes he never loved Ruth, and satisfies his farming instinct on a much larger scale in Argentina. As for Robert, he merely made the wrong choice and was too weak to extricate himself from the consequences. This is not “sin,” for which Robert requires “redemption,” but mere human frailty. His fidelity to Ruth even after the collapse of their relationship seems less attributable to “sacrifice”—particularly after their little daughter’s death—than passivity coupled with illness on his part.
Far from being redeemed through suffering in any significant sense, Robert, as I have indicated, undergoes a deterioration of character as a result of his unhappy marriage and the death of his child. In acts 1 and 2 Robert is gentle and loving until his nagging wife expresses the wish she had married Andrew instead of him. In act 3 the couple’s personalities seem to have reversed. Now Ruth wearily ministers to her sick husband’s needs, while Robert indulges in vehement name-calling: Ruth is a “fool”; the local doctor is a “damned ignoramus.” Still embittered by Ruth’s “defection” of five years ago (her preference for Andrew), Robert jealously accuses his wife, who numbed with despair no longer feels love for anyone, of still waiting for Andrew as she did in act 2. Raging with fever, Robert can scarcely contain his envy of the brother he once loved: “Andy’s made a big success of himself.... And now he’s coming home to let us admire his greatness.”
Although Robert still has lucid moments in which he recognizes his accountability, he deliberately sets himself up as a kind of prophet for the purpose of judging and administering punishment to his brother. Seizing upon Andrew’s unfortunate financial history, Robert professes to see a “spiritual significance in [the] picture” of his brother “gambling] in a wheat pit with scraps of paper.” Mercilessly attacking Andrew in his most vulnerable area, he continues, “[Y]ou’re the deepest-dyed failure of the three [of us], Andy. You’ve spent eight years running away from yourself [Robert conveniently forgets that it was his action which sent Andrew away].... You used to be a creator when you loved the farm. You and life were in harmonious partnership.” Yet Robert is guilty of the same self-betrayal. He, too, has lost his “harmonious partnership” with life, and now it appears, from the change in his character, that he has lost not only the life he might have had, but the very self that once dreamed of that life. After telling Andrew he must “be punished” and will “have to suffer to win back”, he makes what on the surface would appear a magnanimous dying gesture were it not for the implications of “punishment” and “suffering” that immediately precede it. He orders Andrew to marry Ruth: “Remember, Andy, Ruth has suffered double her share.... Only through contact with suffering, Andy, will you—awaken. Listen. You must marry Ruth—afterwards.” The insinuation is that the suffering involved in being wedded to Ruth will “redeem” Andrew in the same manner as it did Robert—destroy what may remain of his character and perhaps cause his death.
The final closure does not bode well for Andrew and Ruth. If Robert had deliberately set out to destroy the possibility of a meaningful relationship between them, he could scarcely have accomplished his goal any more effectively than by commanding them to marry. The closing dialogue of the play, which ought—if anything—to clarify the author’s intent, decidedly undercuts an affirmative reading of Robert’s death. As Andrew and Ruth face each other across Robert’s corpse, Andrew is furious with Ruth for not reassuring Robert she had not meant what she once said about preferring Andrew. Gradually his anger subsides, however, as a result of Ruth’s sobs and the memory of Robert’s dying wish that they wed. As the play closes, Andrew falters with empty words regarding their future. Ruth, for her part, is too far “beyond the further troubling of any hope” even to care. Although their future relationship is left somewhat open, audience expectations Page 47 | Top of Articleregarding the possibility of happiness for them together have ceased. If they do eventually marry, their union will most likely continue the cycle of misery established in the beginning of the play with Ruth’s marriage to Robert.
If Marianna Torgovnick’s assertion with regard to the novel that the ending is “the single place where an author most pressingly desires to make his points” may be considered applicable to drama, it is significant that O’Neill finishes the play with this despairing tableau. Albert E. Kalson and Lisa M. Schwerdt conclude, “There is nothing ahead for the dead or the living—only repetition, never change.” The hopefulness of Robert’s dying speech appears effectively negated by the depiction of misery that succeeds it.
Far from being redeemed through suffering, as some critics have interpreted the closure, Robert is one of O’Neill’s many self-deluded characters. He began dreaming by the window as a sickly child in order to forget his pain. Throughout his life he seems to have lived more significantly in dreams and poetry than through his actions. Like Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott his perception of reality, or the outside world as it exists objectively, is clouded. He never realizes Ruth loves him until she tells him, nor does he recognize that she has stopped loving him until she tells him. Moreover, even Robert’s dream of the quest is but dimly conceived: it is not powerful enough in his mind to compel him to sacrifice in order to achieve it (in the manner in which O’Neill, himself, sacrificed for his goal to create drama). Instead Robert rather lazily attempts to exchange one dream for another: “I think love must have been the secret—the secret that called to me from over the world’s rim—the secret beyond every horizon.” In act 3, raging with fever, he is more deluded than ever. Like the sickly child who dreamed by the window to forget his pain, he plans to start a new life in the city: “Life owes us some happiness after what we’ve been through. (vehemently) It must! Otherwise our suffering would be meaningless—and that is unthinkable.” In desperate need of illusion to validate his wasted life, he goes to the window seeking confirmation of his new dream in the rising of the sun. But he is too early; the sun has not risen yet. All he sees is black and gray, which he himself concludes to be “not a very happy augury.” After overhearing the specialist brought in by Andrew confirm his imminent death, Robert quickly grasps at a new dream, one less easily dispelled as illusory. He claims to be continuing his original plan to journey “beyond the horizon,” having won through “sacrifice” the “right of release,” and envisions himself “happy at last” and “free to wander on and on—eternally.” Like Captain Bartlett in another play written the same year, Where the Cross Is Made (1918), who dies happy in the belief that his treasure has been restored, Robert Mayo dies as deluded as he has lived.
O’Neill did not admire this young man gifted with a poet’s imagination who clipped his wings through lack of character to pursue his goal and, consequently, remained literally and figuratively bound to the soil below. Several years earlier (1914) O’Neill had defined “be[ing] true to one-self and one’s highest hope” as the ultimate “good.” That same year he had sent Beatrice Ashe an excerpt of writing that had impressed him as valid: “[T]he only way in this world to play for anything you want is to be willing to go after it with all you’ve got—to be willing to push every last chip to the middle of the table. It don’t make a bit of difference what it is: if you get a hand you want, play it!” Robert Mayo was not willing to push that “last chip” to the table, and O’Neill saw him as a moral coward:
a weaker type... a man who would have my Norwegian’s inborn craving for the sea’s unrest, only in him it would be conscious, too conscious, intellectually diluted into a vague, intangible, romantic wanderlust. His powers of resistance, both moral and physical, would also probably be correspondingly watered. He would throw away his instinctive dream and accept the thralldom of the farm for—why almost any nice little poetical craving—the romance of sex, say.
O’Neill himself could have been saddled with a wife and child as a very young man. Out of conscience he married the respectable Kathleen Jenkins, whom he had impregnated, in 1909. Immediately afterward, however, he departed on a series of adventurous voyages, only meeting the son she later bore him (Eugene O’Neill Jr.) one time before he was grown. In Beyond the Horizon, written nine years later, the same year as his second marriage to Agnes Boulton, O’Neill may unconsciously have been attempting to justify his desertion of Kathleen as preferable to a life of clipped wings like Robert’s.
In one of his more lucid final moments, Robert Mayo condemns himself for his lack of courage regarding the pursuit of his dream. Fleeing his sickbed for the outdoor road, from which he can view his last sunrise, Robert assesses his life:
I couldn’t stand it back there in the room. It seemed as if all my life—I’d been cooped in a room. So I thought I’d try to end as I might have—if I’d had the courage—alone—in Page 48 | Top of Articlea ditch by the open road—watching the sun rise. (emphasis added)
He then invents an elaborate fiction concerning his death to compensate for his wasted life, thus qualifying him to take his place among the numerous men and women in the O’Neill canon who, unable to face reality, resort to the comfort of dreams. But although O’Neill sympathized with his weaker fellow men who need dreams in order to survive, he did not admire them or depict them as heroes. Robert deludes himself in his final speeches: he never attains that mystical glimpse of the ultimate that he proclaims. As William J. Scheick concludes, “Rob never crosses the threshold, never penetrates in fact, language or dream the mystery beyond the horizon of life.” Through his denial of the dream he has progressed to disillusionment, suffering, bitterness, and death, and that is the extent of his journey.
Finally, although the self-deluded nature of Robert’s final speeches seems clear upon closer examination, the ultimate nature of Robert’s tragedy remains ambiguous. Is Robert to be pitied because, through his own admitted moral cowardice, he has failed to pursue the mystical quest that once beckoned him “beyond the horizon”? Or does Robert’s tragedy involve his delusion about the very existence of such a quest in the hostile world of the play? Scheick concludes, “Everything in the play... implies the inability of humanity to get beyond the horizon in any sense;... such a quest... is an illusion characteristic of, perhaps crucial to human life, and defines its radical tragic nature.” Although Scheick’s argument has merit in consideration of O’Neill’s frequent depiction of the human need for “pipe dreams” (The Iceman Cometh) in his plays, O’Neill himself appears to have been preoccupied with such a quest. In Long Day’s Journey into Night (1941), Edmund Tyrone, the fictional counterpart of his youthful self, describes a moment of mystical oneness with the universe when “the veil of things” is drawn back: “For a second you see—and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning!” Edmund’s narration of his experience at sea suggests that O’Neill’s own quest for spiritual significance “beyond the horizon” was not without its occasional rewards (which explains why Robert Mayo’s dying speech is so poetically rendered as to convince some viewers or readers of its truth). Furthermore, in 1922 O’Neill expressed his admiration for those who sought to soar through the pursuit of unattainable goals:
Man wills his own defeat when he pursues the unattainable. But his struggle is his success! He is an example of the spiritual significance which life attains when it aims high enough....
As stated earlier, O’Neill’s own most ambitious endeavor to reach “beyond the horizon” is represented by his effort to attain extraordinary dramatic goals through writing plays. His choice of the word “unattainable” regarding his quest, however, suggests uncertainty on his part. It seems possible that O’Neill’s failure to clarify the nature of Robert Mayo’s tragedy and thus render the closure more meaningful is the result of the playwright’s own qualms regarding the validity of such a quest, given man’s limitations and the hostile universe in which he has been placed. Terry Eagleton, who defends the reader’s right to construct or write his own “sub-text” for ambiguous or evasive works, maintains that “what [a work] does not say, and how it does not say it, may be as important as what it articulates; what seems absent, marginal, or ambivalent about it may provide a central clue to its meanings.” The ambiguous ending of Beyond the Horizon may represent O’Neill’s own doubts concerning his goal to create significant drama, toward which he was sacrificing and dedicating his life.
In conclusion, ambiguous endings are popular in this age, which favors “openness” in preference to those endings described by William Carlos Williams (with reference to poetry) as clicking shut like the lid of a box. It would seem that the ambiguity ought not to be merely imposed upon the play’s closure, however, but ought to proceed naturally from the preceding drama. For closure to be effective in an open-ended work (which includes plays with ambiguous endings), asserts Marianna Torgovnick, the test is “the honesty and the appropriateness of the ending’s relationship to beginning and middle.” The problem with the ambiguity in Beyond the Horizon is that the change in tone and demand upon the audience occurs too suddenly (early critics noted the illusion-dispelling effect of the last scene): the audience is not prepared for openness in such an explicitly presented play. In his later plays O’Neill will make ambiguous closures more integral to the dramas, as in The Iceman Cometh (1940), for example, a play filled with mystery and uncertainty from the beginning.
O’Neill will undergo a similar evolution by the later plays concerning his facility to maintain suspense. In contrast to the laborious predictability or Robert’s deterioration in Beyond the Horizon, in A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943) another self-betrayed Page 49 | Top of Articlecharacter, Jim Tyrone, journeys toward his destruction. Yet in this very concentrated drama, which occupies only some eighteen hours (in contrast to the novelistic Beyond the Horizon, which is spread out over eight years), O’Neill structures the action so that the audience retains some hope for Jim Tyrone’s salvation almost until the end.
Source: Barbara Voglino, “Unsettling Ambiguity in Beyond the Horizon,” in Perverse Mind: Eugene O’Neill’s Struggle with Closure, Associated University Presses, 1999, pp. 25–34.
Stephen A. Black
In the following essay, Black compares Beyond the Horizon to plays by Sophocles and Euripides in arguing that it is “the first play by an American that can justly be called a tragedy.”
Beyond the Horizon (1918), Eugene O’Neill’s first successful long play, does not hold a very prominent place in the O’Neill canon. It deserves better. Although an obviously early work, it is the first play by an American that can justly be called a tragedy. O’Neill would not consistently reach tragic levels so high until the late 1930s. I will try to defend this large claim by drawing analogies between the meanings of the play and the tragic vision I construe in O’Neill’s ancient companions, Sophocles and Euripides.
Like the Attic Greeks, O’Neill is preoccupied with the discoveries people continually make of their mortality, impotence, and unimportance, of the difference between the powers they believe themselves to have and the weaknesses circumstances reveal. O’Neill’s characters may sometimes seek knowledge of themselves, but their most important discoveries tend to be of the nature of the world. The world is far from being the place human thought and institutions describe, ruled by people for the glory of God, or ruled through science and reason for the glorification of humanity. Instead, the world seems, to the Greeks and O’Neill, to consist of forces not in the least susceptible to human influence. Oedipus, an exemplary humanist, falls tragically because he believes reason and forethought can deflect the course of events already set in motion. Pentheus ridicules the “mythical” story of his aunt’s impregnation by Zeus with a rational explanation, that she must have had a human lover. Armed with reason, and representing the law as well as the oligarchy, he assumes he cannot fail to overpower the youth who madly claims to be the god. Reason and human power make it impossible for Pentheus to avoid the
god’s dreadful seduction. Encounters with these forces so stun human self-esteem that people can only deny or distort memory of the event.
Nothing should seem stranger than the popularity of an Aeschylus, a Sophocles, a Euripides, a Shakespeare, a Strindberg, an O’Neill, a Bergman. Tragedy should head the list of arts and sciences that Freud once grouped with psychoanalysis. They have in common the success of their insults to human arrogance. The Pythagoreans, Aristarchus, and Copernicus; Darwin, his followers and predecessors: they all made it difficult to believe that God so favoured those He made in His image that He put them in the centre of His universe. Psychoanalysis shows that consciousness is an exceptional, rather than usual, mental state, and that we therefore do not control our own thoughts or acts, even though we continue to be responsible for them. The latter describes the true Oedipal tragedy: not the conflicts of a young child, but the dilemma of the tyrant of Thebes, who finally knows himself to have had no control over his terrible lot, but whose self-esteem will not permit him to deny responsibility for his acts. Should he disavow responsibility, he embraces helplessness and impotence. Consciousness, reason, and reasonable action represent the height of human potential—and are of little consequence.
The historical eras that have nurtured tragic literature have generally regarded humankind as the finest work of God or life. Perhaps it is only in confident times that people can entertain notions of their own unimportance. However it may be, they occasionally rediscover the triviality of human force compared to the power of natural processes. Pentheus cannot protect himself because he cannot imagine Page 50 | Top of Articlethat something within himself, his perverse sexual longing, might overpower his will and reason. Nor can Oedipus imagine that anything might circumvent his determination not to murder the kindly king of Corinth. The discovery must be even more unpleasant when the person who makes it embodies the most admired human qualities and finds that they help hardly at all at the most important moments.
Discovering one’s impotence and unimportance is not in itself necessarily tragic, even for one with great gifts and powers. The pitiful or ironic may become tragic when a playwright can make it possible for a character or an audience to perceive the delusion and change with sympathy and empathy. Most often that occurs when a character can articulate the vision of the world that the play newly discovers. The change that occurs when a character or audience discovers the world anew resembles the changes that sometimes occur in the private drama of the analytic consulting room. Stanley Cavell describes the magnitude of change in a way that applies both to literary tragedy and to moments of personal insight:
[The] problems are solved only when they disappear, and answers are arrived at only when there are no longer questions.... The more one learns, so to speak, the hang of oneself, and mounts one’s problems, the less one is able to say what one has learned; not because you have forgotten what it was, but because nothing you said would seem like an answer or a solution: there is no longer any question or problem which your words would match. You have reached conviction, but not about a proposition; and consistency, but not in a theory. You are different, what you recognize as problems are different, your world is different.... And this is the sense, in which what a work of art means cannot be said.
Cavell conveys the exaltation that sometimes, in literary tragedy, accompanies the most terrible discoveries. We approach the essence of tragedy when we say that it calls upon our best qualities of understanding, action, reason, and sensibility in order to make us conscious that action, reason, and sensibility have little power.
Like Sophocles and Euripides, O’Neill has the fate to regard the world from a point of view which finds tragedy in the falls engendered by the very qualities civilized people most value. O’Neill selected teachers like Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Strindberg whose views of life opposed the modern spirit, not so much by mocking or deploring its manners and materialism, but by evoking old values and gods, by thinking along lines distant from or tangential to Judaic, Christian, or other modern traditions. Louis Sheaffer, one of the few recent writers who has tried to give Beyond the Horizon its due, correctly points out that despite his sympathy for experimentation and the new theatre, O’Neill swims “against the tide” of modernism. To any who object that O’Neill is not a poet whose English is to be compared to the Attic of Sophocles or Euripides there is an answer: that O’Neill is not less effective than the Greeks are in most translations; and for Greekless readers of several centuries, that has been quite a lot.
Beyond the Horizon concludes with the dying Robert Mayo strangely insisting that his brother Andy must marry Ruth, Robert’s wife, when Robert dies: not to ensure Ruth’s protection, but to “awaken” Andy. Ruth has known suffering, has “suffered double her share,” Robert reminds his brother. “[O]nly through sacrifice,” he says, “only through contact with suffering, Andy, will you—awaken.” Robert dies urging Andy to “Remember!” and speaking the name of the sun as it rises over the hills.
The injunction means little to Andy, but O’Neill suggests it means something to Ruth she cannot express, and it is clear he intends the audience to understand. Everything in the play has led to it. The world of the play is governed by powers impervious to human consciousness, intellect, will, or longing, powers unchanged since ancient times, unaffected by progress, science, rationalism, technology. In defiance, the characters take as their motto the rubric: I think, therefore I know what is wrong and what I deserve; I think, therefore I demand justice.
They determinedly reject the lesson of their own experience, that suffering inescapably accompanies growth and development, and that justice occurs rarely, and even then perhaps only in someone’s mind. In the 1920 text Robert makes explicit a meaning latent in most of his actions when he whimsically tells his father, “I’m never going to grow up—if I can help it.” Although he refuses to recognize it at the time, Robert reminds us that the change he resists is relentless.
Shortly before he himself awakens, Robert tells Ruth: “Life owes us some happiness after what we’ve been through. (Vehemently) It must! Otherwise our suffering would be meaningless—and that is unthinkable.” The dream of meaning, reason, order, and justice occurs during the sleep of Page 51 | Top of Articlelife, tortured for Robert and Ruth, vaguely restless for Andy. Tragedy exists in the awakening from the dream.
It is understandable that those the fates give the worst lot in life, like Ruth and himself, would always long hungrily for whatever comes easily to those more fortunate. Because it can be understood, it implies the existence of a world order that fits with a human sense of justice and deserving. But when someone like Andy who “belongs,” someone who succeeds at whatever he tries, someone who feels at one with his work and his place in the world, still is driven to the magic of gambling, the implication of order is denied. Andy’s gambling implies that satisfaction exists in human life only by chance. Now that he is about to die, Robert can deny no longer that even if the fates had been kinder to him and Ruth, neither would have been any happier, nor freer than Andy is of the vague dissatisfaction that always wants more.
The example of Andy awakens Robert by pulverizing the remaining shards of his battered romanticism. When Andy transforms himself from creating in nature, from being in harmony with life, and becomes instead an entrepreneur with both eyes on the main chance, that awakens Robert to the importance of human arrogance, his own as well as Andy’s. To create from the soil may be the work of a man at one with himself and his world. “[T]o gamble in a wheat pit with scraps of paper,” as Robert says, has “a spiritual significance.” It reduces the edible results of one’s labour as a creature in nature into mere symbols of exchangeable value. The goal of life changes from that of maintaining harmony between one’s environment and one’s self to that of acquiring symbols that boast of dominance and control over other people, over the natural world, and over the gods and fates.
O’Neill avoids making Andy an object of satire. He shows him having more capacity for self-discipline and hard work than either Robert or Ruth. Up to a point he understands his business failure and its causes. He sympathizes with Ruth’s frustrations and forebears to judge her harshly even when she sets brother against brother. Although he has no sensibility for things that attract Robert, he respects his brother and remains loyal to him even after Robert has won away his woman. Nevertheless something is missing. His greed in itself is not wrong, only natural. But he cannot care to understand or respect himself or his world, and in the long run that makes it hard to take him seriously. He is born at one with his world and throws away his birthright without ever noticing he has had it or lost it. Andy by himself, is not a tragic figure. But his situation becomes significant through his brother’s understanding.
Self-indulgent and impulsive, cursed by a taste for the poetic without being given the talent to be a poet himself, Robert seems like poor stuff to make us perceive the tragic in life. Doris Falk puts the rationalist case against Robert, and against the play’s final credibility.
The insight he suddenly achieves comes not, however, from experience, but from intuition. Robert’s inner and outer experience might logically have led him to the acceptance of death as a release after long suffering, but not necessarily to a revelation that sacrifice is the secret of life. Even if his conclusion could be said to have a psychological or poetic logic of its own, Robert’s sudden arrival at such a conclusion makes it seem to be a non sequitur.
Robert seems to reach his conclusion suddenly only if one assumes that throughout the play he futilely seeks “the secret of life.” He doesn’t. He spends the play trying to avoid it, while he looks for the beautiful. Robert does not arrive suddenly at his conclusion. He is, at the last, finally unable to continue denying what he has known all along. Like Oedipus the King, Beyond the Horizon shows its characters struggling against becoming aware of things they have always known. Like Oedipus, Robert spends most of the play trying to avoid the unthinkable.
Robert’s conclusion is not precisely that “sacrifice is the secret of life.” The “secret”—if it is a secret—is the thing Robert has tried so long to deny: that despite all the suffering, life has nothing to do with human notions of meaning, justice, or order. Ruth’s suffering may awaken Andy, not because suffering itself is meaningful or important, but because it results from continuing to demand that life eventually repay suffering or need or want with happiness or gratification.
“I’m a failure,” Robert tells Andy, “and Ruth’s another—but we can both justly lay some of the blame for our stumbling on God.” God has made Ruth a person whose birth causes her mother’s permanent paralysis and bitterness, and made Robert always to be ill and to fail. What is worse, both are given impulses toward hopefulness, the one poetic, the other romantic, that make it almost impossible for them to accept their lots.
As Robert continues, his understanding increases. When he speaks of Andy being “the deepest-dyed failure of the three” of them, the business failure is not the failure Robert means. Robert remembers Andy being a “creator when you loved the farm. You and life were in harmonious partnership.” The loss of harmony causes Robert to understand that Andy has never valued what he has had and doesn’t miss it now that it is gone. Without even knowing it, he tells Andy, “You’ve spent eight years running away from yourself.” Andy’s flight is symbolized by his gambling, an act that proves he has never in the least understood or valued the nature of what he has had.
It seems to me sound to compare Robert’s understanding of Andy to the situation of the young Oedipus. Upon learning his monstrous moira, he does everything that intelligence, courage, and action can do to avert the mated disasters. The tragedy of Oedipus lies not in his fated acts, nor in the failure of his efforts to do the impossible. The tragedy lies in his confident belief that the world is a place where human will, intelligence, courage, and energy can supersede the casual weavings of the fates. The shock of discovery comes to Oedipus when he can no longer deny that the world is a place in which human power is trivial, no matter how far-sighted, energetic, and strong-willed a person may be. The tragedy of Oedipus lies in the mistaken understanding of the world generated by the most esteemed human qualities.
So too in Beyond the Horizon. By the end of the play Robert can force us to consider his discomforting view of the world. In the world he knows, human thought, hopes, wishes, and actions have practically no effect except upon the feelings and longings of those who think and act. We delude ourselves, Robert believes, if we imagine that reason and knowledge permit us to control the world or our lives. They symbolize humanity gone wrong, in conflict with the world and itself. The old gods of the seas, lightning, vengeance, and hospitality are forgotten in the age of the dynamo and the stock exchange. Any such beliefs are dreams, and Robert tries to awaken his brother from his sleep.
He understands that Andy, who has received so much more from the fates than he or Ruth, fails most greatly of the three when he turns his back on his talent. Therefore Robert urges him to find himself again, to awaken to the loss of harmony with his life and world that he has unknowingly sustained. Awakening to the loss will cause Andy to suffer, and suffering is what he must do, or else remain asleep. Such is the sense of Robert’s strange injunction that his brother must marry Ruth and learn from her to know suffering. Robert’s recognition transforms Andy’s failure from the trivial to the tragic.
Andy is O’Neill’s sample American, as fortunately endowed by the fates as the American land itself. But he has no more sense of natural economy than Americans have proved to have, turning away from the gifts of forests, soil, and climate. Andy gambling in the wheat pit to win something for nothing epitomizes the new American dream. He differs hardly at all from Ruth impulsively seeking escape from suffering in romance, or Robert convincing himself that he can fulfil his wanderer’s spirit without leaving home.
Robert reaches more than “self-knowledge” at the end, and through Robert, O’Neill reaches authentically tragic depths. Robert discovers that the world is not the place he, Ruth, and Andy have assumed it to be, a place in which one can attain the new without relinquishing the old. Robert’s recognition forces him to see the matter of his own dying as a small affair. He sacrifices the illusion that he is important. He compels our respect, not because he has a touch of the poet but in spite of it. Robert is no more heroic than old Oedipus, come to rave and be buried in Colonos, nor Philoctetes gone quirky from his wound and isolation, nor Ajax maddened into assassinating cattle, nor Heracles maddened into murdering his woman and children, nor Medea, nor the others. Like these strange figures, Robert has wounds and madness that alert us; they warn that he may know something about the world we need to know. The recognition of his own unimportance requires that we honour Robert with our most serious attention.
O’Neill repeats and develops the figure and the dilemma of Andy throughout his writing career, in characters as diverse as Brutus Jones, Marco Polo, William Brown, and Simon Harford. In 1946, almost three decades after writing Beyond the Horizon, with America at its height of optimistic self-confidence and world power in the afterglow of World War II, O’Neill tells a group of reporters, “[The United States,] instead of being the most successful country in the world, is... the greatest failure because it was given everything, more than any other country.”
The principal theme of the unfinished “cycle” of plays O’Neill calls “A Tale of Possessors Dispossessed” is the loss of one’s soul caused by Page 53 | Top of Articlebelieving one can possess the world. He continues to see America’s failure represented in the betrayal of the land, a land that rewards cultivation by giving its people the easiest and richest life of any land on earth. America fails when its nationalist ideals tempt it into competing with European lands for economic and political power to wield over other nations. To do so it must sacrifice the aim of attunement with natural forces that once inspired it and once made the imaginary ideal American the fool of God.
Beyond the Horizon shows O’Neill’s affinity with the fifth-century Greeks, one that exists more deeply in the mind than could be reached by calculated imitation or by years of rereading Nietzsche or the plays. It is a sensibility always aware of the danger of neglecting necessity, that knows the force of moira to exceed that of the gods. As with the Ajax or old Oedipus of Sophocles, or the Iphigeneia and Polyxena of Euripides, the sense of tragic exaltation comes only at the moment of the character’s dying. In his manner of dying Robert Mayo compels our respect. He wins it when we witness him renounce his claim to a special status and rejoin his fellows in mortal humiliation and the impotence of ordinary life. The renunciation gives Robert’s call to “Remember!” and his vision of the sun the status of prophecy.
Source: Stephen A. Black, “America’s First Tragedy,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 13, No. 2, June 1987, pp. 195–203.
Ben-Zvi, Linda, “Freedom and Fixity in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill,” in The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill, edited by John H. Houchin, Greenwood Press, 1993, p. 275, originally published in Modern Drama, Vol. 30, March 1988, pp. 16–27.
Carpenter, Frederic I., Eugene O’Neill, Twayne Publishers, 1979, p. 85.
Floyd, Virginia, The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1985, p. 143.
Fulton, A. R., Drama and Theatre Illustrated by Seven Modern Plays, Henry Holt and Company, 1946, p. 119.
Lacey, Robert, Ford: The Men and the Machine, Ballantine Books, 1993, pp. 103, 181.
O’Neill, Eugene, Beyond the Horizon, in Four Plays by Eugene O’Neill, Signet Classic, 1998, pp. 5–12, 16–18, 20, 26, 31–32, 34–35, 40, 42–43, 47, 50, 52–54, 61, 63, 66–68, 72, 79, 80, 84, 90, 93, 95–96, 99, 101, 103, 105, 107–08.
Roberts, J. M., Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901 to 2000, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 119, 280.
Towse, J. Rankin, Review of Beyond the Horizon, in The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill, edited by John H. Houchin, Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 15–16, originally published in New York Post, February 4, 1920.
Trilling, Lionel, “Eugene O’Neill,” in The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill, edited by John H. Houchin, Greenwood Press, 1993, p. 165, originally published in New Republic, September 23, 1936.
Wainscott, Ronald H., Staging O’Neill: The Experimental Years, 1920–1934, Yale University Press, 1988, pp. 18, 20–21.
Wiksander, Ronald H., “O’Neill and the Cult of Sincerity,” in The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill, edited by Michael Manheim, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 219.
Black, Stephen A., Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy, Yale University Press, 2002.
Black is an English professor and a psychoanalyst, and he uses both of these skills in this exhaustively researched biography of O’Neill. Starting with his mother’s addiction to morphine as a result of O’Neill’s birth, the playwright’s life was plagued by a number of tragedies, including alcoholism, family strife, a string of unhappy marriages, many deaths, and the estrangement of his children.
Brietzke, Zander, The Aesthetics of Failure: Dynamic Structure in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill, McFarland & Company, 2001.
Although some of O’Neill’s plays are considered great works of art, other critics have noted the lack of quality in many of his published works. Brietzke examines this fact in light of O’Neill’s own theory that tragedy requires failure. The book includes a chronological listing of O’Neill’s plays, including production history, characters, and plot summaries.
Finch, Christopher, In the Market: The Illustrated History of Financial Markets, Abbeville Press, Inc., 2001.
In Beyond the Horizon, Andy tries his luck at investing in the commodities market, the latest of humanity’s marketplaces. Finch’s engaging book details the history of financial marketplaces from 3500 B.C. to the present. The book includes a time line of historical events, a glossary of financial terms, and more than one hundred short biographies of famous and infamous men and women in the financial world.
Liu, Hai-Ping, and Lowell Swortzell, eds., Eugene O’Neill in China: An International Centenary Celebration, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1992.
During the centennial celebration of O’Neill’s birth, O’Neill scholars from around the world met in China to present their latest findings. This book collects some of the notable papers that were presented at the Page 54 | Top of Articleconference. Topics include the influence of Taoism on O’Neill’s art, O’Neill’s work in relation to the work of other playwrights, O’Neill’s characterizations of women, and an examination of international productions of O’Neill’s plays.
Shafer, Yvonne, ed., Performing O’Neill: Conversations with Actors and Directors, Palgrave, 2000.
For this volume, Shafer, one of the leading O’Neill scholars, conducted interviews with eleven famous actors and directors who have interpreted O’Neill’s plays during the last century. Both actors and directors discuss the challenges they faced when bringing O’Neill’s gritty visions of life to the stage. The stellar list of interviewees includes James Earl Jones, Jason Robards, Theresa Wright, Theodore Mann, and Jane Alexander.
Shaughnessy, Edward L., Down the Nights and Down the Days: Eugene O’Neill’s Catholic Sensibility, University of Notre Dame Press, 2000.
Due to O’Neill’s renunciation of his Catholic faith as a teenager, most critics have ignored this aspect of the playwright’s life as an influence on his work. Shaughnessy, however, argues that O’Neill’s Irish-Catholic upbringing influenced the moral quality of his work and examines this idea while discussing several of O’Neill’s plays.
Siebold, Thomas, ed., Readings on Eugene O’Neill, Greenhaven Press, 1998.
This accessible, diverse collection of O’Neill criticism includes offerings from literary analysts, psychologists, playwrights, and reviewers. The book gives a broad perspective on O’Neill’s work without getting bogged down in specific critical debates.