Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

Anna Christie earned mostly positive reviews when it opened on Broadway in 1921, which helped it run successfully for 117 performances. The play also earned O’Neill a Pulitzer Prize. Over the years, its critical reputation has remained strong. Critics praise the play’s realistic characterizations, especially of Anna and her father Chris. Percy Hammond, in his opening night review of the play for the New York Tribune, writes that Anna Christie presents the audience with a ‘‘veracious picture of some interesting characters in interesting circumstances.’’ Frederic I. Carpenter, in his book on O’Neill, claims that ‘‘the character of Chris, ‘childishly self-willed and weak, of an obstinate kindliness,’ is one of O’Neill’s minor triumphs.’’ Several critics have considered Anna a realistic portrait of a street-wise, yet vulnerable, young woman. James Whittaker in his article for the New York News, insists that in Anna ‘‘O’Neill has his first concrete heroine.’’ Travis Bogard, in his Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill, praises O’Neill’s characterization of Mat, whom he calls ‘‘a true citizen of the sea.’’ Bogard comments that Mat is crucial to the play’s naturalistic themes, since he serves as a personification of the sea.

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Opinions about the play’s ending, however, are mixed. An opening night review in the New York Sun voices the sentiments of many critics who find the last act too conventional. Leo Marsh in the New York Telegraph praises the play’s vitality but criticizes the ‘‘apparent compromise’’ at the end. J. Ranken Towse in his review for the New York Post insists that the ‘‘incredible’’ happy ending is ‘‘disastrous.’’ In his article for Freeman, Ernest Boyd offers the harshest criticism in his conclusion that the play’s ending is the ‘‘worst anti-climax in the theatre.’’ Ironically, H. Z. Torres in the New York Commercial complains that the last act is not happy enough due to the ‘‘ugliness and morbidness’’ of the plot.

Others, however, defend the play’s conclusion. John Gassner in his article on O’Neill’s plays comments that Anna Christie’s ending possesses a ‘‘raffish mordancy that suited the subject and tone of the work, and did not impair the effectiveness of this justifiably popular play.’’ In Eagle, Arthur Pollock insists that the resolution at the end of the play is a natural extension of the plot. George H. Jensen, in his article on O’Neill for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, determines that O’Neill has been ‘‘wrongly criticized’’ for the play’s last act, noting the ambiguous future the main characters have in store for them. However, Carpenter contends that Anna Christie is ‘‘one of the most perfectly romantic of O’Neill’s early works,’’ and most audiences and scholars agree on O’Neill’s ability to present a realistic portrait of compelling characters in Anna Christie.

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