Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Vital Contact": Eugene O'Neill and the Working Class

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Vital Contact": Eugene O'Neill and the Working Class

Article excerpt

O'Neill entered upon the scene as one darkly handsome sailor with
burning eyes and burning ambition, with undiscovered talent and
unproduced plays.
--Leona Rust Egan (153)

A famous photograph of Eugene O'Neill shows the playwright at the threshold of his career, gazing calmly seaward from the shore in Provincetown. (1) He is wearing the navy-blue sailor's uniform jersey that he had been given upon his promotion from ordinary seaman to able-bodied seaman on board the American Line cruise ship Philadelphia in 1911. O'Neill's attitude is contemplative and tranquil, his posture reposed and dignified, but his clothing suggests physical labor. He is inwardly a poet-playwright and outwardly a sailor. Well-groomed, relaxed, and pensive between sea and land, he advertises affiliation with the working class while engaged in a type of leisure that excludes him from it.


As an icon of the playwright's life and work, O'Neill's sailor's jersey has been variously interpreted, but it was certainly more than just a souvenir of his last voyage as a seaman. In nearly every interview he gave during the first decade of his career, O'Neill was careful to mention his apprenticeship as a common sailor, often adding other working-class credentials, including a stint doing "manual work for the Swift Packing people" (qtd. in Mindil 4), but rarely failing to draw attention to what the jersey certified--that he "became an able seaman on the American Line ships" and spent almost all of two years at sea. More than 20 years after he had left his seafaring life, his third wife Carlotta had the moth-eaten sweater mended and presented it to him; the gift left him speechless with pleasure (Sheaffer 197). All his life, O'Neill kept the jersey.

A recent biographer interprets the significance of the jersey in somewhat conventional terms, speculating that it expressed "the first outward indication ... that Eugene might ever have the least success in the world or be self-supporting" (Black 115). On another level, however, the uniform sweater with bold white letters spelling out American Line bespoke not conventionality but its denial, symbolizing a determined if conflicted rejection of middle-class canons.

In 1916, O'Neill seems to have attempted to use his sailor's uniform to facilitate his first entry into the theater. At the age of 28, five years after his sea voyages, he donned his old American Line jersey for his arrival in Provincetown and his audition with the Provincetown Players, costuming himself as a seasoned seaman and carrying a sailor's knapsack full of plays. "Dressed slackly like a sailor who had just jumped ship," O'Neill "had come to town trampishly" (Kemp 95), apparently drawing on a somewhat remote seagoing experience to lend credibility to his current dramatic efforts. The decision to present himself as a worker to the Provincetowners was shrewd; the Players themselves wore flannel shirts to identify with the working class.

Partly because some of the original Players saw through O'Neill's staged working-class identity (2) and partly because the play he initially offered to the Provincetowners was "a very slight piece" (Ranald 506), (3) O'Neill's first tryout did not go well. At the second meeting between O'Neill and the Players, however, "something decidedly clicked" (Kemp 96). When "Bound East for Cardiff," a one-act play about the death of a common seaman in a ship's forecastle, was read for the Provincetown group, approval was unanimous. It was "the breakthrough they had hoped for" (Egan 11). Susan Glaspell's Provincetown memoir recalls that after this O'Neill reading, "Then we knew what we were for" (254). As Harry Kemp explained, "This time no one doubted that here was a genuine playwright" (96). If the fledgling theatrical company had found its dramatist, the dramatist had also discovered, apparently through trial and error, a social theme and artistic formula that would sustain his rise to prominence. …

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