Places Discussed

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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

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

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 of its time and place.

Historical Context

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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 ‘‘catalyst and symbol . . . of the establishment of American drama.’’

Realism In the late nineteenth century, playwrights turned away from what they considered the artificiality of melodrama to a focus on the commonplace in the context of everyday contemporary life. They rejected the flat characterizations and unmotivated, violent action typical of melodrama. Their work, along with much of the experimental fiction written during that period, adopts the tenets of realism, a new literary movement that supported the creation of believable characters with sometimes problematic interactions with society. Dramatists, like Henrik Ibsen, discard traditional sentimental theatrical forms as they chronicle the strengths and weaknesses of ordinary people confronting difficult social problems, like the restrictive conventions nineteenthcentury women endured. Writers who embraced realism use settings and props to reflect their characters’ daily lives as well as realistic dialogue that replicates natural speech patterns.

O’Neill’s long career reflected the shifting styles of the American theatre at the end of the nineteenth...

(This entire section contains 464 words.)

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century and the beginning of the twentieth. His early plays were unsuccessful attempts at melodrama. He then turned to realistic depictions of men at sea and later of the interactions between family members. InAnna Christie, O’Neill creates a lyrical realism in the problematic romance between Anna and Mat. O’Neill’s new type of realism rejects traditional forms, digging beneath the surface of everyday reality. Following the new American doctrine of ‘‘Art Theatre,’’ O’Neill incorporated philosophical themes and unusual forms in his plays. In the 1920s, he experimented with expressionism, most notably in Emperor Jones and The Great God Brown.

Literary Style

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Realism 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.

Setting 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. It’s rotten. . . . for to go to sea’’ and that sooner or later that ‘‘ole davil . . . [will] svallow dem up.’’ Chris conveniently uses the sea as an excuse for his abandonment of Anna, claiming that it continually lured him away from her. He warns Anna not to marry a sailor who would also be tempted by that ‘‘ole davil’’ to be apart from his family for long periods of time. When he finds Anna and Mat together, he vows, ‘‘dat’s your dirty trick, damn ole davil, you . . . but py God, you don’t do dat! Not while Ay’m living! No, py God, you don’t!’’

Anna, however, regards the sea in a completely different light. After a short time living on the barge with her father, the sun and fresh air out on the water restores her health. The sea also rejuvenates her spiritually, as she notes, when she claims that it has cleansed her of her old life. Anna tells Chris, ‘‘I feel so . . . like I’d found something I’d missed and been looking for—’s if this was the right place for me to fit in . . . and I feel happy for once . . . happier than I ever been anywhere before!’’ The sea also brings Mat to Anna. Mat insists, ‘‘the sea’s the only life for a man with guts in him isn’t afraid of his own shadow. ’Tis only on the sea he’s free.’’

Compare and Contrast

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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, prices fall eighty-five percent below 1919 highs.

Today: Many small farms are going bankrupt or being swallowed up by large farming conglomerates.

Media Adaptations

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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources 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.

Further Reading Hackett, Francis, Review in The New Republic, November 30, 1921, p. 20. This review focuses on the play’s style and its mixture of ‘‘pathos and romance.’’

Macgowan, Kenneth, Review in the New York Globe, November 3, 1921. Macgowan comments on the style and structure of the play in this opening night review.

Mantle, Burns, Review in the New York Mail, November 3, 1921. This reviewer analyzes the play’s realism.


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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 which focus upon Anna Christie. The diversity of perspectives is useful.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide