Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
North Atlantic seacoast
North Atlantic seacoast. Eugene O’Neill’s depiction of the seacoast is based on his own youthful experience as a seaman during a time when he had dropped out of college. The barge on which most of the action takes place stops in New York City, Provincetown, and Boston, moving from the Long Island Sound to the Nantucket Sound, around Cape Cod, and ending in Boston Harbor. While the barge hugs the coast, the greater sea intrudes in the person of Matt Burke, a virile sailor rescued from an open boat after the wreck of his steamer. For Anna, the sea and her seaman are rejuvenating and spiritually transformative. For Chris, however, the sea is an “old devil” which will destroy all who venture onto it.
Simeon Winthrop. Commercial barge that is the home and livelihood of Christopher Christopherson, a Swedish immigrant of fifty. The play’s stage directions describe the barge in some detail. For Chris, the barge is a retreat, but the barge inspires Anna with new possibilities.
Johnny-the-Priest’s Saloon. Rough waterfront bar on New York City’s South Street, where Anna first reunites with her father. This location is based on O’Neill’s own memories of a bar known as Jimmy-the-Priest’s. Stage directions indicate double swinging doors and half barrels of cheap whiskey drawn by spigots, characteristic of saloons...
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The Emergence of the American Theatre
At the end of the nineteenth century, a group of playwrights that included James A. Herne, Bronson Howard, David Belasco, Augustus Thomas, Clyde Fitch, and William Vaughn Moody started breaking away from traditional melodramatic forms and themes. As a result, American theatre began to establish its own identity. These and other playwrights in the early part of the twentieth century were inspired by the dramatic innovations of Henrik Ibsen August Strindberg, and George Bernard Shaw. During this period, experimental theatre groups made up of dramatists and actors encouraged new innovative American playwrights. In 1914, Lawrence Langner, Helen Westley, Philip Moeller, and Edward Goodman created the Washington Square Players in New York, and in 1915, playwright Susan Glaspell helped start the Provincetown Players in Massachusetts. The goal of both of these groups was to produce plays that the more conservative Broadway theatres rejected. The most important member of this latter group was Eugene O’Neill, who wrote plays with a uniquely American voice. George H. Jensen, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, notes that ‘‘before O’Neill began to write, most American plays were poor imitations or outright thefts of European works.’’ Jensen insists that O’Neill became the...
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O’Neill’s first plays were melodramas. He soon rejected the flat characterizations and unmotivated violent action typical of melodrama, and instead he adopted the tenets of realism, a new literary movement that took a serious look at believable characters and their sometimes problematic interactions with society. O’Neill began to use settings and props that reflect his characters’ daily lives and to write realistic dialogue that replicates natural speech patterns.
O’Neill’s new type of realism rejects traditional forms and digs beneath the surface of everyday reality. In Anna Christie, O’Neill incorporates realistic depictions of men at sea and of the interactions between family members. The play explores the tensions that can arise between family members as a result of feelings of abandonment and guilt. It also illuminates the harsh reality of women’s lives in the early part of the twentieth century. O’Neill creates in the play a lyrical realism in the problematic romance between Anna and Mat.
While the play depicts the harsh life of men who live and work at sea, O’Neill also uses the setting symbolically. The sea becomes almost a character in the play as it affects the lives of Chris, Anna, and Mat. Chris claims that the sea is an ‘‘ole davil’’ that controls the lives of men. He tells Anna that a sailor’s life is ‘‘hard vork all time....
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Compare and Contrast
Early 1920s: Some Americans consider the Russian Revolution an important humanitarian development. Others, however, fear it to be a communist threat to American democracy.
1926: Joseph Stalin becomes dictator of the Soviet Union. His reign of terror will last for twenty-seven years.
1991: President Mikhail Gorbachev orders the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and a new Commonwealth of Independent States is formed by the countries that formerly made up the Soviet Union.
1921: Margaret Sanger founds the American Birth Control League. Other important social changes for women include the ability to vote, to receive higher forms of education, to smoke and drink, and to wear clothes that do not restrict their movements.
Today: Women are guaranteed equal rights under the law.
1921: Approximately 900,000 immigrants enter the United States in the fiscal year ending June 30. After World War I Americans are afraid of the influx of immigrants who are willing to work for lower wages and so could threaten American jobs.
Today: Americans’ concern over the economic impact of immigrants continues.
1921: As a result of overproduction by American farmers,...
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Topics for Further Study
Read O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape and compare its themes to those in Anna Christie.
Explore biographical details about O’Neill, especially those that concern his life on the sea and his relationship with his family. What autobiographical elements can you find in the play?
Investigate common attitudes toward prostitution in the first few decades of the twentieth century. How similar are those attitudes to today’s attitudes?
How does the relationship between Anna and Mat reflect the changing role of women in the early part of the twentieth century?
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The first film version of Anna Christie was a silent production in 1923, which was directed by John Griffith Wray, written by Bradley King, and starred Blanche Sweet as Anna.
The 1930 Hollywood version was advertised with the tag line, ‘‘Garbo Talks!’’ It was directed by Clarence Brown, written by Frances Marion, and starred Greta Garbo as Anna and Charles Bickford as Mat.
A German film of the play was also produced in 1930 starring Greta Garbo. Jacques Feyder, using a German version of Frances Marion’s script, directed this movie. Theo Shall played Mat.
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What Do I Read Next?
In the expressionistic The Hairy Ape (1922), O’Neill explores naturalistic themes in his depiction of the disillusionment of a seaman.
Stephen Crane’s short story, ‘‘The Open Boat,’’ (1898) depicts the struggles of four shipwrecked seamen to reach shore.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, first performed in 1956, is O’Neill’s finest study of domestic interaction and offers insight into O’Neill’s own tragic relationship with his family.
Stephen Crane’s novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1896) presents a harrowing account of the effects of poverty and prostitution.
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) chronicles the tragic life of a young woman who rebels against puritanical social doctrines.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bogard, Travis, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill, Oxford University Press, 1972.
Boyd, Ernest, Review in Freeman, Vol. 4, December 7, 1921, p. 304.
Carpenter, Frederic I., ‘‘Chapter 3: The Early Plays: Romance,’’ in Twayne’s United States Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall, 1999.
Gassner, John, ‘‘Eugene O’Neill,’’ in American Writers, Vol. 3, Scribner’s, 1974, pp. 385–408.
Hammond, Percy, Review in the New York Tribune, November 3, 1921.
Jensen, George H., ‘‘Eugene O’Neill,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale Research Inc., 1981, pp. 139–65.
Marsh, Leo, Review in the New York Telegraph, November 3, 1921.
Pollock, Arthur, Review in Eagle, November 3, 1921.
Review in the New York Sun, November 3, 1921.
Torres, H. Z., Review in the New York Commercial, November 3, 1921.
Towse, J. Ranken, Review in the New York Post, November 3, 1921.
Whittaker, James, Review in the New York News, November 13, 1921.
Hackett, Francis, Review in The New Republic, November 30, 1921,...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Argues for viewing the O’Neill canon as the playwright’s autobiography. Contains a detailed comparison of the final version with earlier versions of Anna Christie.
Estrin, Mark W., ed. Conversations with Eugene O’Neill. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. A fascinating collection of interviews with the playwright arranged chronologically from 1920 to 1948. Contains many of O’Neill’s comments about the characters and creation of Anna Christie.
Floyd, Virginia. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. Chapters analyzing each of O’Neill’s plays. Asserts that Anna Christie is a failure of character and plot.
Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill. Rev. ed. New York: Perennial Library, 1987. A monumental biography of almost one thousand pages with several sections of photographs. An excellent reference for details of the playwright’s life and plays.
Houchin, John H., ed. The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. A collection of critical opinions, including reviews of productions from periodicals and scholarly essays, three of...
(The entire section is 199 words.)