Beyond the Horizon

by Eugene O’Neill

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Staging Techniques

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In his essay ‘‘O’Neill and the Cult of Sincerity,’’ Ronald H. Wikander notes the response of O’Neill’s father, James, when he saw Beyond the Horizon: ‘‘Are you trying to send the audience home to commit suicide?’’ This reaction underscores the fact that O’Neill’s play is impressively tragic. O’Neill increases the level of tragedy in his play through his detailed stage requirements. Through the use of stage techniques such as lighting, the use of interior and exterior sets, costumes, and makeup, O’Neill amplifies the already dark mood of the play as it progresses.

O’Neill considered his play an experiment in which he could break many of the conventions of the day. The play was widely regarded as too long, and it contained a number of specific set requirements that many thought complicated the production. One of the simpler stage techniques that O’Neill employed was the use of lighting. In the first act, O’Neill’s stage directions talk about the sky, which ‘‘glows with the crimson flush of the sunset. This fades gradually as the action of the scene progresses.’’ The gradual darkening of the light mirrors the change in mood, which starts out light but gets tense as soon as the two brothers start talking about Ruth, whom they both obviously love. Says Andrew, ‘‘I’d better run along. I’ve got to wash up some as long as Ruth’s Ma is coming over for supper.’’ Robert replies, ‘‘(pointedly—almost bitterly): And Ruth.’’ Robert is jealous that Andy has Ruth’s love, and his dark mood is reflected in the fading light of day. This negative feeling culminates in Robert’s obvious regret, later in the play, over his decision to forgo the sea voyage and marry Ruth. As Robert and Ruth are walking off at the end of the scene, Robert stops to focus ‘‘on the horizon’’ and finally ‘‘shakes his head impatiently, as though he were throwing off some disturbing thought.’’ Robert is not the only one who is disturbed. Thanks to the tension of the first scene, which is underscored by the diminishing lighting, the audience starts to feel a little uneasy, too.

In addition to lighting, O’Neill makes use of contrasting interior and exterior scenes that emphasize the tragic mistakes the characters have made. In the beginning of the first act, Robert sits on a fence ‘‘reading a book by the fading sunset light. He shuts this . . . and turns his head toward the horizon, gazing out over the fields and hills.’’ Robert is happy, looking forward to the future that he has dreamed about, when he will finally get to travel abroad and see the world beyond the horizon, which symbolizes the freedom that Robert yearns for. In the next scene, as Robert and the others are inside ‘‘the small sitting room of the Mayo farmhouse.’’ The farmhouse is neat and tidy, the sign ‘‘of the orderly comfort of a simple, hard-earned prosperity .’’ This is the type of life that Andy plans to live and Robert dreads. However, when the two brothers make their fateful decisions, Robert confines himself to the ‘‘simple’’ life of a farmer, while Andy chooses the life of freedom outdoors, a freedom that has never appealed to him. This sharp contrast between interior and exterior is evident in the remaining two acts, both of which start in the farmhouse and end outdoors with the horizon in view. In his 1979 book, Eugene O’Neill, Frederic I. Carpenter notes this fact: ‘‘The structure of the play emphasizes the conflict of the two opposing...

(This entire section contains 1780 words.)

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ideals of adventure and security; of the two brothers who embody them.’’

As the play progresses, both the interior and exterior sets degrade noticeably, signifying the neglect and decay that has come about as a result of the two brothers’ tragic decisions. At the beginning of the second act, the farmhouse ‘‘gives evidence of carelessness,’’ as O’Neill’s stage directions indicate. ‘‘The chairs appear shabby from lack of paint; the table cover is spotted and askew; holes show in the curtains.’’ At the beginning of the third act, the damage is even worse: ‘‘The curtains at the windows are torn and dirty and one of them is missing. The closed desk is gray with accumulated dust as if it had not been used in years.’’ The damage is not limited to the interior. The farm itself, depicted in the exterior scenes, also degrades from the healthy, robust farm in the first act, which has ‘‘rolling hills with their freshly plowed fields clearly divided from each other, checkerboard fashion, by the lines of stone walls and rough snake-fences.’’ By the last scene of the play, the farm is showing obvious signs of the neglect that Robert, Ruth, and Andrew have all been referring to in the second act: ‘‘The field in the foreground has an uncultivated appearance as if it had been allowed to remain fallow the preceding summer.’’ And the apple tree, which in the first scene was ‘‘just budding into leaf,’’ now ‘‘is leafless and seems dead.’’ Everything about the interior and exterior sets has been designed to signify the decay in the main characters’ lives and to amplify the dark, tragic mood that the characters and plot create for the audience.

Some early critics did not appreciate what O’Neill was trying to do with the interior and exterior sets, and they focused only on the delays the set changes caused for the audience. Writes A. R. Fulton in his 1946 book, Drama and Theatre Illustrated by Seven Modern Plays, ‘‘The critics objected to this arrangement, contending that no purpose was thereby served which could not have been served by staging the entire play in the single interior set.’’

O’Neill’s play also required extensive attention to detail in makeup and costume, another way that he indicated the regression of the characters’ lives. In the case of Robert and Ruth, the signs of degradation are obvious in their appearances, which get excessively dirtier as the play goes on. In the beginning of the play, Robert is described as ‘‘delicate and refined, leaning to weakness in the mouth and chin.’’ He is wearing ‘‘gray corduroy trousers pushed into high laced boots, and a blue flannel shirt with a bright colored tie.’’ All in all, Robert is the ideal image of the cultured student. However, in the beginning of the second act, Robert is described as depressed and filthy: ‘‘His eyes are dull and lifeless, his face burned by the sun and unshaven for days. Streaks of sweat have smudged the layer of dust on his cheeks.’’ Just as Robert has been unable to take care of the farm, he has given up taking care of himself, letting his once-neat appearance decay. By the last act, Robert is depleted: ‘‘His hair is long and unkempt, his face and body emaciated.’’

Ruth’s appearance also changes. In the beginning, she is described as ‘‘a healthy, blonde, out-ofdoors girl of twenty, with a graceful, slender figure.’’ Ruth is a naturally beautiful, vibrant young woman, full of vitality, and she easily commands the attention of both Robert and Andy. However, three years later, at the beginning of the second act, she ‘‘has aged appreciably. Her face has lost its youth and freshness. There is a trace in her expression of something hard and spiteful.’’ Also, in the beginning of the play, ‘‘She wears a simple white dress,’’ while in the second act, her attire has changed to ‘‘a gingham dress with a soiled apron tied around her waist.’’ Finally, in the last act, a mere five years later, Ruth ‘‘has aged horribly. Her pale, deeply-lined face has the stony lack of expression of one to whom nothing more can ever happen.’’ In addition, her dress is in ‘‘negligent disorder,’’ her hair is ‘‘slovenly’’ and ‘‘streaked with gray,’’ and she wears black mourning clothes. Her clothes have steadily darkened just as the mood of the play has darkened. The fresh-faced young woman of twenty becomes an old woman at only twentyeight, a tragic transformation that is depicted through costumes and makeup as the tragedy enveloping all the characters develops.

Andy’s countenance changes throughout the play, but in different ways than Robert and Ruth. In the beginning, Andy is the consummate farmer, dressing in ‘‘overalls, leather boots, a gray flannel shirt open at the neck, and a soft, mud-stained hat pushed back on his head.’’ While the other characters get more unkempt and dirty as the play progresses, Andy gets progressively more businesslike and professional. In the second act, when Andy comes home for the first time, the description in the stage directions note that, although he has not changed much, ‘‘there is a decided change in his manner. The old easy-going good nature seems to have been partly lost in a breezy, business-like briskness of voice and gesture.’’ In addition, he has traded his comfortable and slightly messy farm clothes for ‘‘the simple blue uniform and cap of a merchant ship’s officer.’’ In the last act, Andy’s transformation from good-natured farmer to ruthless businessman is complete, as his appearance indicates: ‘‘His face seems to have grown highstrung, hardened. . . . His eyes are keener and more alert. There is even a suggestion of ruthless cunning aboutthem’’; he is ‘‘dressed in an expensive business suit and appears stouter.’’ When the story starts, Andy is a muscular farmer who loves nothing better than to spend time, working the earth. By the end of the story, Andy has been transformed into a high-strung businessman who makes his living trading the grain he once loved to create. The changes in his attire and makeup amplify the tragedy of his transformation as he betrays his love and talent for farming by evading heartache.

O’Neill’s play is noted for its gritty, tragic qualities. During the course of the play, dreams are crushed, almost all of the characters die, and the surviving characters are irreversibly changed. But these factors are not the only ones that invoke a dark mood in O’Neill’s audience. O’Neill increases the level of tragedy in his play through his detailed stage requirements. Even without the extremely descriptive stage directions, O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon is a tragic play. However, through the use of special techniques in lighting, set design, costuming, and makeup, O’Neill amplifies the tragic mood the play induces in the audience. In the end, every element in this carefully designed play works to magnify the overwhelming sense of despair.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Beyond the Horizon, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

A Psychological View

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Beyond the Horizon depicts the Mayos, a farming family. The major characters are the two brothers, Andrew, who is older, and Robert; their parents, James and Kate Mayo; Captain Dick Scott, who is Kate’s brother; Ruth Atkins and her mother, Mrs. Atkins; and Mary, the child of Robert and Ruth. The drama turns on the relationship of the two brothers to Ruth and the ensuing dynamics among family members. Both Andrew and Robert are in love with Ruth, but at the play’s opening, Robert has kept secret his feelings about Ruth. The family assumes that Andrew and Ruth will marry.

Robert is planning to leave the farm the following morning and begin a three-year sea journey on his Uncle Scott’s ship. When he says goodbye to Ruth, he confesses that he loves her. Ruth is overjoyed and acknowledges that she loves him, rather than Andy. Robert decides that he will marry Ruth and remain on the farm. He and Ruth inform the Mayo family that evening. The news shocks and injures Andrew, but he tries to hide his feelings. He congratulates Robert, but tells his uncle that he will take Robert’s place on the ship the following morning. Andy’s unexpected decision precipitates a quarrel between him and his father.

The hostility that develops between father and son is the key to an appreciation of the play from the perspective of home and family. O’Neill’s description of the Mayo home in the opening act indicates that the family is a cohesive unit. The two brothers are very close and the parents appear to have a warm relationship with each other and with their sons. Each of the brothers has been affirmed to do what he is most inclined to do. In short, the Mayos seemingly constitute a supportive selfobject milieu.

James Mayo had assumed that his elder son, Andy, would marry Ruth and that the two farms would merge. The news that Ruth loves Robert, rather than Andy, is disruptive to the family’s cohesiveness. Andy, who loves Ruth, is very disappointed, narcissistically injured, and humiliated. His emotional reaction is apparent later in the scene when he tells Robert that, after all the plans he has made, he can not bear to remain on the farm and watch Robert and Ruth live together. This indicates that he feels foolish, demeaned in front of his family. Understandably, Andy seizes the opportunity to take his brother’s place on the ship, feeling that this would allow him to get away from the humiliation that he feels at home.

James does not deal with Andy in an empathic way. He and Andy had been united in working the farm and he feels Andy’s leaving as a loss. He becomes angry and confronts Andy about Ruth’s rejection of him. He refers to his leaving as running away because Robert ‘‘got Ruth ‘stead o’ you . . . .’’ Andy’s sense of humiliation is exacerbated by this statement made before the family. He becomes enraged and, in retaliation, he declares that he hates the farm. This retort fuels the cycle of hurt and rage, and the quarrel between father and son escalates into bitter antagonism. Reconciliation is seemingly impossible because both men have been narcissistically injured and both are unable to transcend their sense of injury and vehement rage. Robert’s asking his father and brother, in the midst of the hostility, if they have gone mad suggests the psychotic-like level of the rage.

By the end of the first act, the supportive milieu that formerly existed within the Mayo family has been shattered. Robert feels responsible for the enmity and he is saddened. He knows that his brother wanted Ruth and he wishes that he had never told Ruth that he loved her.

The second act is set three years later. James Mayo has died and Mrs. Mayo states that his ‘‘stubborn pride . . . brought on his death.’’ This statement indicates that his quarrel with Andy and the rage that was provoked that night continued to affect him as well as the family as a whole. The description of the sitting room, which indicates carelessness and inefficiency, suggests that the family members are depressed. There is antagonism, complaining, and blaming among them. It is apparent that the family is no longer a cohesive or supportive unit. Robert seems to be particularly depressed. He is not doing well as a farmer and hears, on a consistent basis, that he is a failure. His inefficiency (as a farmer) and depression derive, at least in part, from the lack of a supportive family milieu that he needs to sustain him.

A violent quarrel erupts between Ruth and Robert. This shatters the bond between them as well as whatever illusions Robert had that Ruth loves him. As a result, he feels even more alone and in despair. When Andy returns for a visit, both Ruth and Robert are distressed to learn that he will not remain on the farm. Robert needs his help and Ruth had imagined that he still loved her. Andy is oblivious to his family’s needs. He is unempathic toward his brother, thinking only of himself and his wish for material success. He expects to be understood by the family but makes no attempt to understand their plight. Andy’s departure leaves the depressed family without any hope.

Five years later, the hopelessness, resignation, and despair within the family have reached crisis proportion. The death of his child, Mary, has caused Robert to sink into a deep depression, and he has become seriously ill as well. Ruth is ‘‘without feeling,’’ that is, also in the throes of a depression and a sense of hopelessness. In the final act, Andy’s greed and selfishness are acutely apparent. He has been away for five years trying to amass a fortune, and he has never concerned himself with the family or farm. Robert, on the other hand, thinks of Ruth’s welfare even as he is dying.

In addition to the theme of destruction of a sense of home and family, the play depicts the importance of a dream or a narcissistic illusion in organizing one’s sense of self and sustaining selfcohesion. However, because they tend to be tenuous, illusions require affirmation from one’s human surround in order to maintain one’s sense of self.

Robert puts aside his dream of searching for beauty ‘‘beyond the horizon’’ and substitutes an illusion of having a happy and loving life with Ruth on the farm. This illusion is not affirmed. Indeed, Robert suffers considerable repudiation of his efforts at farming and, ultimately, he discovers that Ruth’s declarations of love for him were lies. The death of his little daughter—‘‘our last hope of happiness’’—shatters his illusions completely. As a result, Robert’s sense of self is seriously depleted. This sense of depletion is made concrete in the play by virtue of the depression and death, that is, the laying waste of the farm as well as of the characters.

Early in the play, Andy’s sense of self is organized in terms of a narcissistic fantasy of being a successful farmer. He is perceived as successful in this regard by his family and neighbors. Within this milieu that affirms him, his sense of self is cohesive. Moreover, Andy has a dream of making a life with Ruth. When Ruth announces her love for Robert, Andy’s dream is shattered and he fragments under the pressure of his father’s attack. He reconstitutes his sense of self in terms of new illusions of attaining material success in foreign lands. Because his narcissism is relatively immature or archaic, Andy needs to show his family that he is eminently successful. His sense of self-worth is at stake. He becomes driven by greed in order to attain unlimited wealth as if this will negate the earlier sense of humiliation that he suffered before his family.

There are two ‘‘homes’’ in the play—the farm and the sea. O’Neill dichotomizes the two and concretizes this distinction by having each of the brothers inclined toward one or the other. O’Neill suggests that it is important for each person to follow his or her true nature.

Neither of the two ‘‘homes’’ is a sustaining selfobject milieu because of the narcissistic and emotional elements inherent in each. Andy goes off to sea because of humiliation, rage, and greed. Robert stays on the farm because of the illusion that Ruth loves him. O’Neill suggests that it is not the place per se that creates a sense of home, but rather, it is the relational context within the family that defines a real home. When there is narcissistic injury, rage, and a lack of empathy within the family, the sense of home can be destroyed.

As in a number of his plays, O’Neill includes the themes of betrayal and greed as significant in defining the emotional climate among the members of a family. Robert believes that Ruth loves him as Andy did earlier. In this context, Ruth is cast in the role of the betrayer who intrudes into the family milieu and disturbs its peace and harmony. Using the character of Andy, we can see the relationship between greed and emotional miserliness: Andy is driven by greed and lacks a capacity for empathy.

With his depictions of the two brothers, O’Neill suggests that individuals cannot experience both familial love and individual freedom. Robert chooses love and loses freedom. Andy loses love and, seemingly, attains freedom. However, neither brother gains what he sought. As suggested by the dramatic climax, true freedom is attained only in death.

There are several autobiographical elements in the play. The hostility that erupts between father and elder son in the Mayo family is suggestive of the hostility between James and Jamie in Long Day’s Journey. According to the Gelbs (1960,1962), James O’Neill wanted Jamie to follow him in the theatre. His disappointment about his elder son parallels that of James Mayo in Beyond the Horizon. Moreover, the relationship between the Mayo brothers suggests elements of the relationship between Eugene and Jamie. In the play, Andy and Robert are rivals for the same woman. In the O’Neill family, Jamie and Eugene were rivals for their mother’s affection. Robert’s replacing Andy on the farm is indicative of O’Neill’s experience with Jamie. In O’Neill’s mind, Jamie was the more talented, the one who should have become the writer, and he (Eugene) felt that he had usurped Jamie’s talent.

Robert’s experience of feeling foolish because he had believed Ruth’s assertions of love for him is consonant with O’Neill’s about his mother. As Robert felt betrayed when he realized Ruth’s true feelings, so O’Neill felt betrayed when he learned what he imagined were his mother’s true feelings about him.

Source: Maria T. Miliora, ‘‘Loss of a Sense of Home, Family, Belonging: Narcissism, Alienation and Madness,’’ in Narcissism, the Family, and Madness: A Self-Psychological Study of Eugene O’Neill and His Plays, Peter Lang Publishing, 2000, pp. 69–84.

Unsettling Ambiguity

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Beyond the Horizon, completed in 1918 was O’Neill’s first full-length drama to be produced (1920) and his first play to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Despite contemporary praise for its powerful realism, early reviewers voiced an awareness that the play was flawed. Some objected to its graphic depiction of tuberculosis; others, to what they considered its excessive length. Predictability and overexplicitness were two of the more significant faults pointed out. Early reviewers Alexander Woollcott and Heywood Broun targeted the final scene for its illusion-dispelling effect. Broun attributed the break in the impact of the drama to the lowering of the curtain before the very short final scene, which he argued ‘‘compels a wait at a time when tension is seriously impaired.’’ Although Broun’s explanation seems feasible enough regarding the reaction of an audience attending a staged production, the wait for a scene change does not account for the similar discomfort experienced by readers. The illusion-dispelling quality noted by Woollcott and Broun seems more likely attributable to the sudden change in tone, matter, and the demand placed upon the audience by the final scene, which raises questions when the audience has been prepared to expect a conclusion. More recent criticism of the play’s closure has focused on its ambiguity.

Up until the last scene, however, Beyond the Horizon, an explicitly presented, highly predictable drama, is more remarkable for its lack of ambiguity. The play is composed of three acts, each divided into two scenes. Audience expectations regarding closure are set up in the first act. Two brothers, very different in character, exchange destinies. Young Robert Mayo, upon learning that his friend Ruth loves him, renounces his chance to fulfill his lifelong dream of exploring ‘‘beyond the horizon’’ on his uncle’s ship. Instead of sailing around the world as he had intended, he remains home to marry and work the family farm, a job for which he is physically and emotionally unsuited. His brother, Andrew, who loves farmwork and had intended to marry Ruth, good-naturedly takes Robert’s place on the three-year voyage. Before the end of act 1 James Mayo, the father, announces the theme of the play. He warns Andrew, ‘‘You’re runnin’ against your own nature, and you’re goin’ to be a’mighty sorry for it if you do.’’

For the next three scenes, the drama rather laboriously depicts the progressive fulfillment of the father’s dire prediction—intended for Andrew— with regard to both brothers. Robert, upon whose plight the play focuses, has betrayed his poet’s awareness of a higher reality by surrendering to his biological attraction to Ruth. His initial moment of decision results in seemingly endless suffering in the form of poverty, marital unhappiness, and a recurrence of the tuberculosis that causes his death. By the end of the play his character has deteriorated as well: he has become jealous and vengeful. Andrew’s punishment for not remaining on the Mayo farm is more subtle. After the voyage with his uncle he undertakes a huge farming venture in Argentina and accumulates a large fortune, which he proceeds to lose through unwise speculation. As might be expected to result from his risk-fraught lifestyle, his eyes develop a look of ‘‘ruthless cunning,’’ and he becomes inclined to distrust people. Upon returning to the Mayo farm five years later, he discovers himself bereft of family as well as financial security. His parents having already died, and his sole sibling dying, Andrew is left with only his sister-in-law, Ruth, whom the dying Robert has requested he marry, and whom Andrew has grown to despise.

Thus far the plot has proceeded rather steadily toward its predictable end, like Hofmannsthal’s arrow speeding toward its target. The spectator’s ‘‘perception of structure’’ has led him to anticipate that closure will be synonymous with the ultimate fulfillment of the father’s prophetic warning to his sons for ‘‘runnin’ against [their] . . . nature[s].’’ Another important structural device that the audience expects to influence closure is the technique of ironic reversal established early in the play with the brothers’ exchange of destinies and repeated at significant intervals throughout the drama. This pattern of reversing the expectations of the characters in Beyond the Horizon is, in fact, repeated so consistently as to give away the plot. As H. G. Kemelman observed (1932), ‘‘The complete and perfect frustration of the characters destroys all suspense. The audience knows what is coming: after the first act, they can predict the rest of the play.’’ For example, at the start of act 2 all the characters have their hopes pinned on Andrew’s imminent return from the voyage. Ruth hopes to renew Andrew’s former romantic interest in her; Robert and his mother expect Andrew to take charge of the failing farm. Their very eagerness prepares the audience for the disappointment that will ensue: Andrew sails off for Argentina the next day. A nearly identical situation occurs at the beginning of act 3, when everyone is once again waiting for Andrew’s return. Ruth has telegraphed Andrew about Robert’s need for medical attention. She and her mother are desperately hoping for financial assistance, since Robert has been too ill to work the farm. Robert, who deludes himself about the gravity of his illness, also hopes to borrow money from his brother so that he and Ruth can move to the city. The audience, recalling the pattern of ironic reversal that has been established in acts 1 and 2, expects a repeat performance of Andrew’s first homecoming, which in fact occurs. Andrew arrives at the Mayo farm financially and spiritually broken. The specialist he brings is too late to save Robert’s life.

If the play had ended at this highly foreseeable, if somewhat tedious, point, its conclusion would meet both Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s requirement for closure (in poetry) that it result in a cessation of expectations for the audience and June Schlueter’s condition that the production of meaning be complete. The theme ‘‘be true to yourself’’ has been hammered in relentlessly from start to finish: Robert’s self-betrayal has resulted in misery for all concerned. The total sum of his life’s efforts is zero—no children, no crops, no happiness, and no literary output (he speculates on his potential for writing). With Robert dying, Ruth exhausted, and Andrew at the nadir of his personal and financial fortunes, nothing more of interest can be expected to occur. The viewer is ready to accept the lamentable end toward which the structure of the play has led.

The viewer is in for a surprise, however. The ‘‘perverse mind’’ of Eugene O’Neill would not allow this ‘‘reasonably contented ending’’ for which he has meticulously prepared throughout the drama. The fact is, the very concept of ‘‘contentment’’ appears to have had a derogatory connotation to O’Neill, who in 1921 defined ‘‘happiness’’ as ‘‘an intensified feeling of the significant worth of man’s being and becoming . . . not a mere smirking contentment with ones lot’’ (emphasis added). In Beyond the Horizon, instead of being satisfied with the ending within easy grasp, the playwright demonstrates his preference for the unattainable by introducing Robert’s theatrically heightened speeches in the final scene. The spectator is startled by the change in tone, which suggests a redemption not supported by the action of the play, and which contrasts strangely with the preceding, naturalistically detailed rendition of poverty and misery. Nor is the spectator prepared for the new interpretive demand placed upon him at this late stage. Unsettled from his comfortably receptive position, he needs to rekindle his imagination, which has been smothered by the play’s overexplicitness. He must first decide Robert’s intent in bequeathing his wife to his brother. Is the dying Robert acting out of a spirit of forgiveness and comradery? Or is he trying to punish his brother, regarding whom he has exhibited bitter jealousy only a short time earlier in this very scene? The viewer or reader may also need to make decisions regarding his own eschatology in order to interpret the closure, which O’Neill leaves ambiguous. The dying Robert joyfully purports to have been redeemed through suffering and sacrifice, so that he may resume his earlier-abandoned quest after death. Is the audience to conclude that Robert’s self-assessment is correct, or that he dies tragically self-deluded? If the viewer concludes Robert is deluded, as I believe further analysis confirms, the question becomes the nature of Robert’s self-delusion. Does the play depict his irrevocable forfeiture, through marrying Ruth instead of sailing ‘‘beyond the horizon,’’ of his right to pursue the ‘‘quest’’? Or is he deluded about the very possibility of undertaking such a quest? Without an understanding of Robert’s final condition, the production of meaning that ought to result from the closure is incomplete, leaving closure en l’air.

Modern closural theories attest to the prerogative of individuals to assist in creating their own closures for ambiguous works. Interpretation is no longer the mere act of ‘‘construing,’’ but ‘‘the art of constructing,’’ asserts Stanley Fish. The reader, says Wolfgang Iser, must ‘‘[work] things out for himself.’’ According to Henry J. Schmidt the reader’s effort to impose closure on an ambiguous work can have the propitious effect of ‘‘assuring one of the correctness of one’s beliefs and of the fundamental stability of one’s social and moral environment.’’

A number of readers and viewers have chosen to interpret the ambiguous ending affirmatively. Like Robert Mayo, who invents a gratifying fiction to ensure that his suffering not be meaningless, some readers and viewers may deliberately seek ‘‘the promise of a morally legible universe’’ in Robert’s poetic last speeches. Thus, even so illustrious a critic as T. S. Eliot fresh from completing his celebrated religious work, The Waste Land (1922), was able to perceive the ending of Beyond the Horizon as ‘‘magnificent.’’ Similarly, Arthur Hobson Quinn (1927) was impressed by the ‘‘exaltation of the spirit’’ in Robert’s dying speech: ‘‘I’m happy at last . . . free to wander on and on—eternally! . . . It isn’t the end. It’s a free beginning—the start of my voyage! I’ve won . . . the right of release—beyond the horizon!.’’ Even some very reputable modern critics have taken Robert’s final speech literally. Travis Bogard describes Robert’s death as ‘‘close to a blessing, both a release from pain and a reunification with the element that is rightfully his . . . he moves through death into the mainstream of continuous life energy. In Edmund Tyrone’s words, he has ‘dissolved’ into the secret.’’ Still more recently Virginia Floyd has interpreted the final scene as signifying redemption through suffering.

Nevertheless, a consideration of what precedes and succeeds Robert’s triumphant dying speech, as well as Robert’s character and O’Neill’s own comments pertaining to Robert, would seem to preclude the positive readings of the closure that O’Neill’s poetic language suggests. In dying, Robert says he has been redeemed through suffering, that he has ‘‘won to [his] trip—the right of release—beyond the horizon’’ through the ‘‘sacrifice[s]’’ he has made. However, nothing in the play indicates any ‘‘sacrifice’’ on Robert’s part. If anyone has sacri- ficed it is Andrew, who surrendered both Ruth and the farm to his brother. But even Andrew’s sacrifice was minimal: he later realizes he never loved Ruth, and satisfies his farming instinct on a much larger scale in Argentina. As for Robert, he merely made the wrong choice and was too weak to extricate himself from the consequences. This is not ‘‘sin,’’ for which Robert requires ‘‘redemption,’’ but mere human frailty. His fidelity to Ruth even after the collapse of their relationship seems less attributable to ‘‘sacrifice’’—particularly after their little daughter’s death—than passivity coupled with illness on his part.

Far from being redeemed through suffering in any significant sense, Robert, as I have indicated, undergoes a deterioration of character as a result of his unhappy marriage and the death of his child. In acts 1 and 2 Robert is gentle and loving until his nagging wife expresses the wish she had married Andrew instead of him. In act 3 the couple’s personalities seem to have reversed. Now Ruth wearily ministers to her sick husband’s needs, while Robert indulges in vehement name-calling: Ruth is a ‘‘fool’’; the local doctor is a ‘‘damned ignoramus.’’ Still embittered by Ruth’s ‘‘defection’’ of five years ago (her preference for Andrew), Robert jealously accuses his wife, who numbed with despair no longer feels love for anyone, of still waiting for Andrew as she did in act 2. Raging with fever, Robert can scarcely contain his envy of the brother he once loved: ‘‘Andy’s made a big success of himself. . . . And now he’s coming home to let us admire his greatness.’’

Although Robert still has lucid moments in which he recognizes his accountability, he deliberately sets himself up as a kind of prophet for the purpose of judging and administering punishment to his brother. Seizing upon Andrew’s unfortunate financial history, Robert professes to see a ‘‘spiritual significance in [the] picture’’ of his brother ‘‘gambl[ing] in a wheat pit with scraps of paper.’’ Mercilessly attacking Andrew in his most vulnerable area, he continues, ‘‘[Y]ou’re the deepest-dyed failure of the three [of us], Andy. You’ve spent eight years running away from yourself [Robert conveniently forgets that it was his action which sent Andrew away]. . . . You used to be a creator when you loved the farm. You and life were in harmonious partnership.’’ Yet Robert is guilty of the same self-betrayal. He, too, has lost his ‘‘harmonious partnership’’ with life, and now it appears, from the change in his character, that he has lost not only the life he might have had, but the very self that once dreamed of that life. After telling Andrew he must ‘‘be punished’’ and will ‘‘have to suffer to win back’’, he makes what on the surface would appear a magnanimous dying gesture were it not for the implications of ‘‘punishment’’ and ‘‘suffering’’ that immediately precede it. He orders Andrew to marry Ruth: ‘‘Remember, Andy, Ruth has suffered double her share. . . . Only through contact with suffering, Andy, will you—awaken. Listen. You must marry Ruth—afterwards.’’ The insinuation is that the suffering involved in being wedded to Ruth will ‘‘redeem’’ Andrew in the same manner as it did Robert— destroy what may remain of his character and perhaps cause his death.

The final closure does not bode well for Andrew and Ruth. If Robert had deliberately set out to destroy the possibility of a meaningful relationship between them, he could scarcely have accomplished his goal any more effectively than by commanding them to marry. The closing dialogue of the play, which ought—if anything—to clarify the author’s intent, decidedly undercuts an affirmative reading of Robert’s death. As Andrew and Ruth face each other across Robert’s corpse, Andrew is furious with Ruth for not reassuring Robert she had not meant what she once said about preferring Andrew. Gradually his anger subsides, however, as a result of Ruth’s sobs and the memory of Robert’s dying wish that they wed. As the play closes, Andrew falters with empty words regarding their future. Ruth, for her part, is too far ‘‘beyond the further troubling of any hope’’ even to care. Although their future relationship is left somewhat open, audience expectations regarding the possibility of happiness for them together have ceased. If they do eventually marry, their union will most likely continue the cycle of misery established in the beginning of the play with Ruth’s marriage to Robert.

If Marianna Torgovnick’s assertion with regard to the novel that the ending is ‘‘the single place where an author most pressingly desires to make his points’’ may be considered applicable to drama, it is significant that O’Neill finishes the play with this despairing tableau. Albert E. Kalson and Lisa M. Schwerdt conclude, ‘‘There is nothing ahead for the dead or the living—only repetition, never change.’’ The hopefulness of Robert’s dying speech appears effectively negated by the depiction of misery that succeeds it.

Far from being redeemed through suffering, as some critics have interpreted the closure, Robert is one of O’Neill’s many self-deluded characters. He began dreaming by the window as a sickly child in order to forget his pain. Throughout his life he seems to have lived more significantly in dreams and poetry than through his actions. Like Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott his perception of reality, or the outside world as it exists objectively, is clouded. He never realizes Ruth loves him until she tells him, nor does he recognize that she has stopped loving him until she tells him. Moreover, even Robert’s dream of the quest is but dimly conceived: it is not powerful enough in his mind to compel him to sacrifice in order to achieve it (in the manner in which O’Neill, himself, sacrificed for his goal to create drama). Instead Robert rather lazily attempts to exchange one dream for another: ‘‘I think love must have been the secret—the secret that called to me from over the world’s rim—the secret beyond every horizon.’’ In act 3, raging with fever, he is more deluded than ever. Like the sickly child who dreamed by the window to forget his pain, he plans to start a new life in the city: ‘‘Life owes us some happiness after what we’ve been through. (vehemently) It must! Otherwise our suffering would be meaningless—and that is unthinkable.’’ In desperate need of illusion to validate his wasted life, he goes to the window seeking confirmation of his new dream in the rising of the sun. But he is too early; the sun has not risen yet. All he sees is black and gray, which he himself concludes to be ‘‘not a very happy augury.’’ After overhearing the specialist brought in by Andrew confirm his imminent death, Robert quickly grasps at a new dream, one less easily dispelled as illusory. He claims to be continuing his original plan to journey ‘‘beyond the horizon,’’ having won through ‘‘sacrifice’’ the ‘‘right of release,’’ and envisions himself ‘‘happy at last’’ and ‘‘free to wander on and on—eternally.’’ Like Captain Bartlett in another play written the same year, Where the Cross Is Made (1918), who dies happy in the belief that his treasure has been restored, Robert Mayo dies as deluded as he has lived.

O’Neill did not admire this young man gifted with a poet’s imagination who clipped his wings through lack of character to pursue his goal and, consequently, remained literally and figuratively bound to the soil below. Several years earlier (1914) O’Neill had defined ‘‘be[ing] true to one-self and one’s highest hope’’ as the ultimate ‘‘good.’’ That same year he had sent Beatrice Ashe an excerpt of writing that had impressed him as valid: ‘‘[T]he only way in this world to play for anything you want is to be willing to go after it with all you’ve got—to be willing to push every last chip to the middle of the table. It don’t make a bit of difference what it is: if you get a hand you want, play it!’’ Robert Mayo was not willing to push that ‘‘last chip’’ to the table, and O’Neill saw him as a moral coward:

a weaker type . . . a man who would have my Norwegian’s inborn craving for the sea’s unrest, only in him it would be conscious, too conscious, intellectually diluted into a vague, intangible, romantic wanderlust. His powers of resistance, both moral and physical, would also probably be correspondingly watered. He would throw away his instinctive dream and accept the thralldom of the farm for—why almost any nice little poetical craving—the romance of sex, say.

O’Neill himself could have been saddled with a wife and child as a very young man. Out of conscience he married the respectable Kathleen Jenkins, whom he had impregnated, in 1909. Immediately afterward, however, he departed on a series of adventurous voyages, only meeting the son she later bore him (Eugene O’Neill Jr.) one time before he was grown. In Beyond the Horizon, written nine years later, the same year as his second marriage to Agnes Boulton, O’Neill may unconsciously have been attempting to justify his desertion of Kathleen as preferable to a life of clipped wings like Robert’s.

In one of his more lucid final moments, Robert Mayo condemns himself for his lack of courage regarding the pursuit of his dream. Fleeing his sickbed for the outdoor road, from which he can view his last sunrise, Robert assesses his life:

I couldn’t stand it back there in the room. It seemed as if all my life—I’d been cooped in a room. So I thought I’d try to end as I might have—if I’d had the courage— alone—in a ditch by the open road—watching the sun rise. (emphasis added)

He then invents an elaborate fiction concerning his death to compensate for his wasted life, thus qualifying him to take his place among the numerous men and women in the O’Neill canon who, unable to face reality, resort to the comfort of dreams. But although O’Neill sympathized with his weaker fellow men who need dreams in order to survive, he did not admire them or depict them as heroes. Robert deludes himself in his final speeches: he never attains that mystical glimpse of the ultimate that he proclaims. As William J. Scheick concludes, ‘‘Rob never crosses the threshold, never penetrates in fact, language or dream the mystery beyond the horizon of life.’’ Through his denial of the dream he has progressed to disillusionment, suffering, bitterness, and death, and that is the extent of his journey.

Finally, although the self-deluded nature of Robert’s final speeches seems clear upon closer examination, the ultimate nature of Robert’s tragedy remains ambiguous. Is Robert to be pitied because, through his own admitted moral cowardice, he has failed to pursue the mystical quest that once beckoned him ‘‘beyond the horizon’’? Or does Robert’s tragedy involve his delusion about the very existence of such a quest in the hostile world of the play? Scheick concludes, ‘‘Everything in the play . . . implies the inability of humanity to get beyond the horizon in any sense; . . . such a quest . . . is an illusion characteristic of, perhaps crucial to human life, and defines its radical tragic nature.’’ Although Scheick’s argument has merit in consideration of O’Neill’s frequent depiction of the human need for ‘‘pipe dreams’’ (The Iceman Cometh) in his plays, O’Neill himself appears to have been preoccupied with such a quest. In Long Day’s Journey into Night (1941), Edmund Tyrone, the fictional counterpart of his youthful self, describes a moment of mystical oneness with the universe when ‘‘the veil of things’’ is drawn back: ‘‘For a second you see—and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning!’’ Edmund’s narration of his experience at sea suggests that O’Neill’s own quest for spiritual significance ‘‘beyond the horizon’’ was not without its occasional rewards (which explains why Robert Mayo’s dying speech is so poetically rendered as to convince some viewers or readers of its truth). Furthermore, in 1922 O’Neill expressed his admiration for those who sought to soar through the pursuit of unattainable goals:

Man wills his own defeat when he pursues the unattainable. But his struggle is his success! He is an example of the spiritual significance which life attains when it aims high enough. . . .

As stated earlier, O’Neill’s own most ambitious endeavor to reach ‘‘beyond the horizon’’ is represented by his effort to attain extraordinary dramatic goals through writing plays. His choice of the word ‘‘unattainable’’ regarding his quest, however, suggests uncertainty on his part. It seems possible that O’Neill’s failure to clarify the nature of Robert Mayo’s tragedy and thus render the closure more meaningful is the result of the playwright’s own qualms regarding the validity of such a quest, given man’s limitations and the hostile universe in which he has been placed. Terry Eagleton, who defends the reader’s right to construct or write his own ‘‘sub-text’’ for ambiguous or evasive works, maintains that ‘‘what [a work] does not say, and how it does not say it, may be as important as what it articulates; what seems absent, marginal, or ambivalent about it may provide a central clue to its meanings.’’ The ambiguous ending of Beyond the Horizon may represent O’Neill’s own doubts concerning his goal to create significant drama, toward which he was sacrificing and dedicating his life.

In conclusion, ambiguous endings are popular in this age, which favors ‘‘openness’’ in preference to those endings described by William Carlos Williams (with reference to poetry) as clicking shut like the lid of a box. It would seem that the ambiguity ought not to be merely imposed upon the play’s closure, however, but ought to proceed naturally from the preceding drama. For closure to be effective in an open-ended work (which includes plays with ambiguous endings), asserts Marianna Torgovnick, the test is ‘‘the honesty and the appropriateness of the ending’s relationship to beginning and middle.’’ The problem with the ambiguity in Beyond the Horizon is that the change in tone and demand upon the audience occurs too suddenly (early critics noted the illusion-dispelling effect of the last scene): the audience is not prepared for openness in such an explicitly presented play. In his later plays O’Neill will make ambiguous closures more integral to the dramas, as in The Iceman Cometh (1940), for example, a play filled with mystery and uncertainty from the beginning.

O’Neill will undergo a similar evolution by the later plays concerning his facility to maintain suspense. In contrast to the laborious predictability or Robert’s deterioration in Beyond the Horizon, in A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943) another self-betrayed character, Jim Tyrone, journeys toward his destruction. Yet in this very concentrated drama, which occupies only some eighteen hours (in contrast to the novelistic Beyond the Horizon, which is spread out over eight years), O’Neill structures the action so that the audience retains some hope for Jim Tyrone’s salvation almost until the end.

Source: Barbara Voglino, ‘‘Unsettling Ambiguity in Beyond the Horizon,’’ in Perverse Mind: Eugene O’Neill’s Struggle with Closure, Associated University Presses, 1999, pp. 25–34.

Amercia's First Tragedy

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Beyond the Horizon (1918), Eugene O’Neill’s first successful long play, does not hold a very prominent place in the O’Neill canon. It deserves better. Although an obviously early work, it is the first play by an American that can justly be called a tragedy. O’Neill would not consistently reach tragic levels so high until the late 1930s. I will try to defend this large claim by drawing analogies between the meanings of the play and the tragic vision I construe in O’Neill’s ancient companions Sophocles and Euripides.

Like the Attic Greeks, O’Neill is preoccupied with the discoveries people continually make of their mortality, impotence, and unimportance, of the difference between the powers they believe themselves to have and the weaknesses circumstances reveal. O’Neill’s characters may sometimes seek knowledge of themselves, but their most important discoveries tend to be of the nature of the world. The world is far from being the place human thought and institutions describe, ruled by people for the glory of God, or ruled through science and reason for the glorification of humanity. Instead, the world seems, to the Greeks and O’Neill, to consist of forces not in the least susceptible to human influence. Oedipus, an exemplary humanist, falls tragically because he believes reason and forethought can deflect the course of events already set in motion. Pentheus ridicules the ‘‘mythical’’ story of his aunt’s impregnation by Zeus with a rational explanation, that she must have had a human lover. Armed with reason, and representing the law as well as the oligarchy, he assumes he cannot fail to overpower the youth who madly claims to be the god. Reason and human power make it impossible for Pentheus to avoid the god’s dreadful seduction. Encounters with these forces so stun human self-esteem that people can only deny or distort memory of the event.

Nothing should seem stranger than the popularity of an Aeschylus, a Sophocles, a Euripides a Shakespeare, a Strindberg, an O’Neill, a Bergman. Tragedy should head the list of arts and sciences that Freud once grouped with psychoanalysis. They have in common the success of their insults to human arrogance. The Pythagoreans, Aristarchus, and Copernicus; Darwin, his followers and predecessors: they all made it difficult to believe that God so favoured those He made in His image that He put them in the centre of His universe. Psychoanalysis shows that consciousness is an exceptional, rather than usual, mental state, and that we therefore do not control our own thoughts or acts, even though we continue to be responsible for them. The latter describes the true Oedipal tragedy: not the conflicts of a young child, but the dilemma of the tyrant of Thebes, who finally knows himself to have had no control over his terrible lot, but whose self-esteem will not permit him to deny responsibility for his acts. Should he disavow responsibility, he embraces helplessness and impotence. Consciousness, reason, and reasonable action represent the height of human potential—and are of little consequence.

The historical eras that have nurtured tragic literature have generally regarded humankind as the finest work of God or life. Perhaps it is only in confident times that people can entertain notions of their own unimportance. However it may be, they occasionally rediscover the triviality of human force compared to the power of natural processes. Pentheus cannot protect himself because he cannot imagine that something within himself, his perverse sexual longing, might overpower his will and reason. Nor can Oedipus imagine that anything might circumvent his determination not to murder the kindly king of Corinth. The discovery must be even more unpleasant when the person who makes it embodies the most admired human qualities and finds that they help hardly at all at the most important moments.

Discovering one’s impotence and unimportance is not in itself necessarily tragic, even for one with great gifts and powers. The pitiful or ironic may become tragic when a playwright can make it possible for a character or an audience to perceive the delusion and change with sympathy and empathy. Most often that occurs when a character can articulate the vision of the world that the play newly discovers. The change that occurs when a character or audience discovers the world anew resembles the changes that sometimes occur in the private drama of the analytic consulting room. Stanley Cavell describes the magnitude of change in a way that applies both to literary tragedy and to moments of personal insight:

[The] problems are solved only when they disappear, and answers are arrived at only when there are no longer questions. . . . The more one learns, so to speak, the hang of oneself, and mounts one’s problems, the less one is able to say what one has learned; not because you have forgotten what it was, but because nothing you said would seem like an answer or a solution: there is no longer any question or problem which your words would match. You have reached conviction, but not about a proposition; and consistency, but not in a theory. You are different, what you recognize as problems are different, your world is different. . . . And this is the sense, in which what a work of art means cannot be said.

Cavell conveys the exaltation that sometimes, in literary tragedy, accompanies the most terrible discoveries. We approach the essence of tragedy when we say that it calls upon our best qualities of understanding, action, reason, and sensibility in order to make us conscious that action, reason, and sensibility have little power.

Like Sophocles and Euripides, O’Neill has the fate to regard the world from a point of view which finds tragedy in the falls engendered by the very qualities civilized people most value. O’Neill selected teachers like Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Strindberg whose views of life opposed the modern spirit, not so much by mocking or deploring its manners and materialism, but by evoking old values and gods, by thinking along lines distant from or tangential to Judaic, Christian, or other modern traditions. Louis Sheaffer, one of the few recent writers who has tried to give Beyond the Horizon its due, correctly points out that despite his sympathy for experimentation and the new theatre, O’Neill swims ‘‘against the tide’’ of modernism. To any who object that O’Neill is not a poet whose English is to be compared to the Attic of Sophocles or Euripides there is an answer: that O’Neill is not less effective than the Greeks are in most translations; and for Greekless readers of several centuries, that has been quite a lot.

Beyond the Horizon concludes with the dying Robert Mayo strangely insisting that his brother Andy must marry Ruth, Robert’s wife, when Robert dies: not to ensure Ruth’s protection, but to ‘‘awaken’’ Andy. Ruth has known suffering, has ‘‘suffered double her share,’’ Robert reminds his brother. ‘‘[O]nly through sacrifice,’’ he says, ‘‘only through contact with suffering, Andy, will you— awaken.’’ Robert dies urging Andy to ‘‘Remember!’’ and speaking the name of the sun as it rises over the hills.

The injunction means little to Andy, but O’Neill suggests it means something to Ruth she cannot express, and it is clear he intends the audience to understand. Everything in the play has led to it. The world of the play is governed by powers impervious to human consciousness, intellect, will, or longing, powers unchanged since ancient times, unaffected by progress, science, rationalism, technology. In defiance, the characters take as their motto the rubric: I think, therefore I know what is wrong and what I deserve; I think, therefore I demand justice.

They determinedly reject the lesson of their own experience, that suffering inescapably accompanies growth and development, and that justice occurs rarely, and even then perhaps only in someone’s mind. In the 1920 text Robert makes explicit a meaning latent in most of his actions when he whimsically tells his father, ‘‘I’m never going to grow up—if I can help it.’’ Although he refuses to recognize it at the time, Robert reminds us that the change he resists is relentless.

Shortly before he himself awakens, Robert tells Ruth: ‘‘Life owes us some happiness after what we’ve been through. (Vehemently) It must! Otherwise our suffering would be meaningless—and that is unthinkable.’’ The dream of meaning, reason, order, and justice occurs during the sleep of life, tortured for Robert and Ruth, vaguely restless for Andy. Tragedy exists in the awakening from the dream.

It is understandable that those the fates give the worst lot in life, like Ruth and himself, would always long hungrily for whatever comes easily to those more fortunate. Because it can be understood, it implies the existence of a world order that fits with a human sense of justice and deserving. But when someone like Andy who ‘‘belongs,’’ someone who succeeds at whatever he tries, someone who feels at one with his work and his place in the world, still is driven to the magic of gambling, the implication of order is denied. Andy’s gambling implies that satisfaction exists in human life only by chance. Now that he is about to die, Robert can deny no longer that even if the fates had been kinder to him and Ruth, neither would have been any happier, nor freer than Andy is of the vague dissatisfaction that always wants more.

The example of Andy awakens Robert by pulverizing the remaining shards of his battered romanticism. When Andy transforms himself from creating in nature, from being in harmony with life, and becomes instead an entrepreneur with both eyes on the main chance, that awakens Robert to the importance of human arrogance, his own as well as Andy’s. To create from the soil may be the work of a man at one with himself and his world. ‘‘[T]o gamble in a wheat pit with scraps of paper,’’ as Robert says, has ‘‘a spiritual significance.’’ It reduces the edible results of one’s labour as a creature in nature into mere symbols of exchangeable value. The goal of life changes from that of maintaining harmony between one’s environment and one’s self to that of acquiring symbols that boast of dominance and control over other people, over the natural world, and over the gods and fates.

O’Neill avoids making Andy an object of satire. He shows him having more capacity for selfdiscipline and hard work than either Robert or Ruth. Up to a point he understands his business failure and its causes. He sympathizes with Ruth’s frustrations and forebears to judge her harshly even when she sets brother against brother. Although he has no sensibility for things that attract Robert, he respects his brother and remains loyal to him even after Robert has won away his woman. Nevertheless something is missing. His greed in itself is not wrong, only natural. But he cannot care to understand or respect himself or his world, and in the long run that makes it hard to take him seriously. He is born at one with his world and throws away his birthright without ever noticing he has had it or lost it. Andy by himself, is not a tragic figure. But his situation becomes significant through his brother’s understanding.

Self-indulgent and impulsive, cursed by a taste for the poetic without being given the talent to be a poet himself, Robert seems like poor stuff to make us perceive the tragic in life. Doris Falk puts the rationalist case against Robert, and against the play’s final credibility.

The insight he suddenly achieves comes not, however, from experience, but from intuition. Robert’s inner and outer experience might logically have led him to the acceptance of death as a release after long suffering, but not necessarily to a revelation that sacrifice is the secret of life. Even if his conclusion could be said to have a psychological or poetic logic of its own, Robert’s sudden arrival at such a conclusion makes it seem to be a non sequitur.

Robert seems to reach his conclusion suddenly only if one assumes that throughout the play he futilely seeks ‘‘the secret of life.’’ He doesn’t. He spends the play trying to avoid it, while he looks for the beautiful. Robert does not arrive suddenly at his conclusion. He is, at the last, finally unable to continue denying what he has known all along. Like Oedipus the King, Beyond the Horizon shows its characters struggling against becoming aware of things they have always known. Like Oedipus, Robert spends most of the play trying to avoid the unthinkable.

Robert’s conclusion is not precisely that ‘‘sacrifice is the secret of life.’’ The ‘‘secret’’—if it is a secret—is the thing Robert has tried so long to deny: that despite all the suffering, life has nothing to do with human notions of meaning, justice, or order. Ruth’s suffering may awaken Andy, not because suffering itself is meaningful or important, but because it results from continuing to demand that life eventually repay suffering or need or want with happiness or gratification.

‘‘I’m a failure,’’ Robert tells Andy, ‘‘and Ruth’s another—but we can both justly lay some of the blame for our stumbling on God.’’ God has made Ruth a person whose birth causes her mother’s permanent paralysis and bitterness, and made Robert always to be ill and to fail. What is worse, both are given impulses toward hopefulness, the one poetic, the other romantic, that make it almost impossible for them to accept their lots.

As Robert continues, his understanding increases. When he speaks of Andy being ‘‘the deepest- dyed failure of the three’’ of them, the business failure is not the failure Robert means. Robert remembers Andy being a ‘‘creator when you loved the farm. You and life were in harmonious partnership.’’ The loss of harmony causes Robert to understand that Andy has never valued what he has had and doesn’t miss it now that it is gone. Without even knowing it, he tells Andy, ‘‘You’ve spent eight years running away from yourself.’’ Andy’s flight is symbolized by his gambling, an act that proves he has never in the least understood or valued the nature of what he has had.

It seems to me sound to compare Robert’s understanding of Andy to the situation of the young Oedipus. Upon learning his monstrous moira, he does everything that intelligence, courage, and action can do to avert the mated disasters. The tragedy of Oedipus lies not in his fated acts, nor in the failure of his efforts to do the impossible. The tragedy lies in his confident belief that the world is a place where human will, intelligence, courage, and energy can supersede the casual weavings of the fates. The shock of discovery comes to Oedipus when he can no longer deny that the world is a place in which human power is trivial, no matter how far-sighted, energetic, and strong-willed a person may be. The tragedy of Oedipus lies in the mistaken understanding of the world generated by the most esteemed human qualities.

So too in Beyond the Horizon. By the end of the play Robert can force us to consider his discomforting view of the world. In the world he knows, human thought, hopes, wishes, and actions have practically no effect except upon the feelings and longings of those who think and act. We delude ourselves, Robert believes, if we imagine that reason and knowledge permit us to control the world or our lives. They symbolize humanity gone wrong, in conflict with the world and itself. The old gods of the seas, lightning, vengeance, and hospitality are forgotten in the age of the dynamo and the stock exchange. Any such beliefs are dreams, and Robert tries to awaken his brother from his sleep.

He understands that Andy, who has received so much more from the fates than he or Ruth, fails most greatly of the three when he turns his back on his talent. Therefore Robert urges him to find himself again, to awaken to the loss of harmony with his life and world that he has unknowingly sustained. Awakening to the loss will cause Andy to suffer, and suffering is what he must do, or else remain asleep. Such is the sense of Robert’s strange injunction that his brother must marry Ruth and learn from her to know suffering. Robert’s recognition transforms Andy’s failure from the trivial to the tragic.

Andy is O’Neill’s sample American, as fortunately endowed by the fates as the American land itself. But he has no more sense of natural economy than Americans have proved to have, turning away from the gifts of forests, soil, and climate. Andy gambling in the wheat pit to win something for nothing epitomizes the new American dream. He differs hardly at all from Ruth impulsively seeking escape from suffering in romance, or Robert convincing himself that he can fulfil his wanderer’s spirit without leaving home.

Robert reaches more than ‘‘self-knowledge’’ at the end, and through Robert, O’Neill reaches authentically tragic depths. Robert discovers that the world is not the place he, Ruth, and Andy have assumed it to be, a place in which one can attain the new without relinquishing the old. Robert’s recognition forces him to see the matter of his own dying as a small affair. He sacrifices the illusion that he is important. He compels our respect, not because he has a touch of the poet but in spite of it. Robert is no more heroic than old Oedipus, come to rave and be buried in Colonos, nor Philoctetes gone quirky from his wound and isolation, nor Ajax maddened into assassinating cattle, nor Heracles maddened into murdering his woman and children, nor Medea, nor the others. Like these strange figures, Robert has wounds and madness that alert us; they warn that he may know something about the world we need to know. The recognition of his own unimportance requires that we honour Robert with our most serious attention.

O’Neill repeats and develops the figure and the dilemma of Andy throughout his writing career, in characters as diverse as Brutus Jones, Marco Polo, William Brown, and Simon Harford. In 1946, almost three decades after writing Beyond the Horizon, with America at its height of optimistic selfconfidence and world power in the afterglow of World War II O’Neill tells a group of reporters, ‘‘[The United States,] instead of being the most successful country in the world, is . . . the greatest failure because it was given everything, more than any other country.’’

The principal theme of the unfinished ‘‘cycle’’ of plays O’Neill calls ‘‘A Tale of Possessors Dispossessed’’ is the loss of one’s soul caused by believing one can possess the world. He continues to see America’s failure represented in the betrayal of the land, a land that rewards cultivation by giving its people the easiest and richest life of any land on earth. America fails when its nationalist ideals tempt it into competing with European lands for economic and political power to wield over other nations. To do so it must sacrifice the aim of attunement with natural forces that once inspired it and once made the imaginary ideal American the fool of God.

Beyond the Horizon shows O’Neill’s affinity with the fifth-century Greeks, one that exists more deeply in the mind than could be reached by calculated imitation or by years of rereading Nietzsche or the plays. It is a sensibility always aware of the danger of neglecting necessity, that knows the force of moira to exceed that of the gods. As with the Ajax or old Oedipus of Sophocles, or the Iphigeneia and Polyxena of Euripides, the sense of tragic exaltation comes only at the moment of the character’s dying. In his manner of dying Robert Mayo compels our respect. He wins it when we witness him renounce his claim to a special status and rejoin his fellows in mortal humiliation and the impotence of ordinary life. The renunciation gives Robert’s call to ‘‘Remember!’’ and his vision of the sun the status of prophecy.

Source: Stephen A. Black, ‘‘America’s First Tragedy,’’ in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 13, No. 2, June 1987, pp. 195–203.


Critical Overview