Beyond the Horizon

by Eugene O’Neill

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Critical Overview

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Beyond the Horizon is one of Eugene O’Neill’s most famous plays, although it started from humble origins. In 1918 after writing several unsuccessful and unproduced longer plays, O’Neill wrote Beyond the Horizon, which was bought by actor and producer John Williams. Two years later, in 1920, the play was finally produced. However, Williams made the choice to start it off as a matinee, using actors borrowed from his other current productions instead of giving the play its own billing. The play soon proved worthy of a run on Broadway.

Overall, the critics praised the play. Says J. Rankin Towse in his 1920 review of the play for the New York Post, ‘‘There can be no question that it is a work of uncommon merit and definite ability, distinguished by general superiority from the great bulk of contemporaneous productions.’’ However, Towse also notes that the play ‘‘is not quite a masterpiece,’’ although ‘‘it is exceedingly promising juvenile work.’’ Towse, like many critics, found fault with the play’s original length; it was much longer than other plays of the day. Part of this length was due to the set changes in between scenes. As Ronald H. Wainscott notes in his 1988 book, Staging O’Neill: The Experimental Years, 1920–1934, ‘‘four complete set changes were required, and each shift was time consuming.’’ As Wainscott says, reviewers also noted that the shabby sets were themselves ‘‘both inappropriate for the play and far beneath the usual standard for a Broadway production.’’ In addition, many critics noted that O’Neill’s call for a very young child to play Mary was unrealistic. As Wainscott notes, ‘‘O’Neill complicated the predicament by including the toddler in two scenes and by giving her important dialogue and stage business.’’

Despite critics’ issues with the physical presentation, most agreed that the play was something new and that O’Neill was a new type of playwright. However, when Beyond the Horizon won the Pulitzer Prize in 1920, many, including O’Neill, were surprised. O’Neill proved that he was not a passing fad when he again won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 and 1928. In 1936, after reviewing O’Neill’s body of work, Lionel Trilling notes in his New Republic article ‘‘Eugene O’Neill,’’ ‘‘Whatever is unclear about Eugene O’Neill, one thing is certainly clear— his genius.’’ However, at this point, not all critics or audiences agreed, and many of O’Neill’s plays of the time were not received well by depression-era audiences, who probably had enough tragedy in their own lives already.

O’Neill became popular again in the years following World War II and his popularity has only increased since. While Beyond the Horizon is regarded as one of O’Neill’s most important and seminal plays, it has rarely seen revival productions, unlike O’Neill’s other plays, which have enjoyed many stage reproductions. The meaning of the play has changed for critics throughout the years. While early critics saw O’Neill’s play as a message that people should follow their dreams and not go against their natures, later critics, like Linda Ben-Zvi, in her 1988 Modern Drama article ‘‘Freedom and Fixity in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill,’’ think the opposite. Says Ben-Zvi: ‘‘In almost all O’Neill’s works, when characters do actually get ‘beyond the horizon,’ what they find is far less than what they expected.’’

Critics throughout the years have also noted the autobiographical quality of the play, particularly in the character of Robert. Says Virginia Floyd in her 1985 book, The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment, ‘‘Robert is obviously a self-portrait. He is given not only O’Neill’s physical characteristics but also some of his biographical background, having spent a year at college and experienced a long illness.’’

Today, O’Neill is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest playwrights, and many point to Beyond the Horizon as the seminal success that started him on his path to greatness.

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