Anna Christie, which won a second Pulitzer Prize for Eugene O’Neill in 1922, was produced in an earlier version as Chris, about a veteran seaman reduced to the role of coal bargeman, who frequented O’Neill’s favorite saloon. The final title of the play indicates O’Neill’s shift of emphasis during numerous rewrites from the crusty old sea dog to his daughter Anna. Originally conceived of as a young woman carefully raised in England, Anna emerges as the title character in Anna Christie, a former prostitute tormented by her past. A realistic drama, with symbolic overtones, the play focuses upon the dynamics of the love-hate relationships of the three central figures, Chris, Anna, and Mat, the Irish sailor tossed into their lives.
From one perspective, the plot of Anna Christie concerns the regeneration of a hardened prostitute as a result of her giving and receiving love, but this somewhat simplistic story is provided complexity through the development of the characters. As O’Neill has created them, they are human beings of passion and energy, people struggling against the forces of an impersonal universe.
The product of a brutal upbringing, Anna, a woman who is strong physically and mentally, mistrusts all men, and her dreams of love, home, and a sense of belonging are pitifully simple and small. Alienated and outcast, her position links her with the central figures of two of O’Neill’s other early plays, Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones (pr. 1920) and Yank in The Hairy Ape (pr. 1922). Like them, she is a victim of circumstances beyond her control. Unlike them, she is honest with herself and eventually is compelled to be honest with her father and lover. In the third act her outburst about the truth of her past is a proclamation of self not unlike Nora’s declaration in Henrik Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House, 1880). In essence, she demands recognition and acceptance for herself. She may have sold herself to men in the past, but she refuses to be owned by them in the present. In contrast, Chris and Mat are weak and insensitive men. Chris is immature and deluded; he avoided responsibility as a father by sending Anna away as a child. He avoids responsibility for his woman Marthy by forcing her away when Anna arrives. He further tries to escape a truthful relationship with Anna by shipping out at the end of the play. Unwilling to examine his own motives, Chris hates and fears...
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