Beyond the Horizon Summary
by Eugene O’Neill

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(Drama for Students)

Eugene O’Neill’s seminal, Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Beyond the Horizon, was written in 1918 but not produced or published until 1920, when it made its debut in New York. Beyond the Horizon was O’Neill’s first successful full-length play, and it signaled a change in American drama. Critics and audiences responded favorably to O’Neill’s dark, tragic vision, which contrasted sharply with the unrealistic, melodramatic plays of the day. The play drew heavily on O’Neill’s own experiences, including his tuberculosis and his sea voyages. During one of these sea trips, he met a Norwegian sailor who criticized his choice of going to sea as opposed to staying on his family’s farm. Taking this idea as a starting point, O’Neill crafted a tale of missed opportunities and failed dreams, involving two brothers. Robert, a poetic but sickly dreamer, wants to go to sea to strengthen his health and see the world. His brother, Andrew, is a born farmer who wants nothing more than to work on his family’s farm. Because they love the same woman, both brothers choose to go against their natures. Robert stays on the farm, and Andrew goes to sea.

While some critics have interpreted the play’s tragic ending to mean that one should follow his or her own dreams, others have seen a darker message: it does not matter what choice one makes because even dreams that come true are not fulfilling. Although O’Neill’s later autobiographical tragedies, namely The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night, have surpassed Beyond the Horizon in many critics’ eyes, most still acknowledge the earlier play as the first success in O’Neill’s career and one that had a strong influence on his early development as a playwright. The play has been widely anthologized and is available in Four Plays by Eugene O’Neill, published by Signet Classic in 1998.


(Drama for Students)

Act 1, Scene 1
Beyond the Horizon begins on a country road that runs through the bustling Mayo family farm, where the entire play takes place. Robert, a delicate, poetic young man, sits on a fence by the road, reading a book. His hardy older brother, Andrew, whom most people call Andy, comes in from working in the fields and stops to talk to Robert, who is leaving the next morning to go away on a sea voyage for three years with their uncle. Andy says that everybody will miss him, including Andy, who, as a farmer, does not understand Robert’s dream to see the world.

It is obvious from the behavior of the two brothers that they are both in love with Ruth Atkins, who is coming to Robert’s farewell dinner with her mother. Andy leaves to wash up before dinner, and Ruth stops by to talk to Robert. She tells him that her widowed, invalid mother nags at her constantly. Ruth says she will miss Robert while he is on his trip. He tells her that the trip has been a dream of his ever since he was a sickly child, but he also says that he is going because he loves her and does not want to interfere with her future with Andy. Ruth is shocked and says that she loves Robert, not Andy. She talks him into canceling his voyage, but he looks wistfully over his shoulder at the horizon.

Act 1, Scene 2
Later that night, Andy sits with his father James, his mother Kate, and her brother Captain Dick Scott, who is telling an old sea story. Everybody else is distracted and sad over the thought of Robert’s leaving. Robert, meanwhile, has gone with Ruth to wheel her mother home. Andy leaves to check on one of the cows, and Mr. Mayo tells the others he hopes that Andy and Ruth get married, since the Atkins farm is next door to the Mayo farm, and Andy could manage both. Mrs. Mayo says that she does not think Ruth loves Andy. Robert walks in and announces that he is canceling his voyage, since Ruth has told him she loves him. Everybody is glad except Scott, who is losing a shipmate, and Andy, who has been quietly listening from the doorway. Andy forces a smile and congratulates Robert, then says that he is going to take...

(The entire section is 1,567 words.)