Beyond the Horizon

by Eugene O’Neill

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The Play

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Beyond the Horizon was Eugene O’Neill’s first full-length play to merit production. Set in and around the Mayo farm, the play chronicles the story of Robert and Andrew, two brothers closely allied to each another but totally disparate. Andrew is the born farmer, “husky, sun-bronzed son of the soil,” while Robert is the dreamer with a “touch of the poet about him, delicate of feature and refined.”

As the curtain rises, Robert is sitting on the property’s fence line contemplating the horizon in the distance. He has long dreamed of leaving the farm and traveling so he will not take root in any one place. This, in fact, is his last night on the farm, as he will embark the next morning to sail with his uncle, Captain Dick Scott, on the bark Sunda, finally having the opportunity to visit the exotic places that he has only dreamed and read about. A brief interchange with Andrew solidifies the established roles each brother has assumed in the family. Clearly each has different dreams and aspirations respectfully supported by the other. Ruth Atkins now appears. Although Ruth is engaged to Andrew, Robert confesses his love for her on the eve of his departure. Likewise, Ruth confides that she has also loved him for many years and was only settling for Andrew because it seemed that Robert was not interested in her. Reassured that “love” must be the “secret calling him from over the world’s rim—the secret beyond every horizon,” Robert decides that their love is “sweeter than any distant dream.” He will stay and work the farm with Ruth at his side.

The next scene reveals to the family the recent events between Ruth and Robert that the audience has just witnessed. Andrew, upset and jilted, makes the hasty decision to accompany his uncle in Robert’s place. The father, James Mayo, diligently attempts to persuade his oldest son not to go as he believes Andrew is defying his own nature and will be sorry if he proceeds. Andrew defies his father, leaves with his uncle, and yet harbors no ill will toward his brother.

The remaining two acts of the play depict the deterioration of the farm, the relationship of Robert and Ruth, and Robert’s health. There is an eight-year lapse between the end of act 1 and the beginning of act 3. Not having the skills for farming that his brother possesses, Robert is not successful in his efforts, as hard as he tries. In the two years since James Mayo’s death, the farm is heading for ruin. Mrs. Mayo says Robert cannot help this deterioration, but Mrs. Atkins, Ruth’s mother, retorts that there is no point in Robert’s working hard if his hard work does not accomplish anything. Moreover, in these three years, Ruth has discovered that all that charmed her about her husband no longer holds the same allure. Mary, their daughter, is as irritable and sickly as Robert. Ruth, now seeing his “true self,” insists that if she could have seen it earlier she would have killed herself before she would have married him. This revelation embitters Robert even more, and he continues to let the farm deteriorate.

With hope, each looks to the homecoming of Andrew. Having finished his three-year apprenticeship on the Sunda , Andrew wants to help but has lost money on ill-advised land speculation and must travel to Argentina to recoup his losses. He promises that once that is accomplished he will return and help restore the farm to its former glory. In spite of Ruth’s pleading, he sets sail on the first...

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available ship heading south.

By act 3, the farm has fallen into disastrous ruin. In the five years that have elapsed since act 2, Mary and Robert’s mother have died, and Robert is failing fast with tuberculosis. Robert attempts to be hopeful, but in vain. When Andrew returns, once again penniless due to illegitimate trading, he brings a doctor to treat his brother, but it is too late. At the end of the play, Robert Mayo, a broken man who can never realize his dream, drags himself one last time to the hilltop so he can at least see the beckoning horizon and imagine the promised adventures that he was unable to experience.

Dramatic Devices

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The three-act play follows a traditional climactic play structure with each of the three acts separated into two scenes: one exterior and one interior. Although O’Neill received criticism for this device, his basic aim was to illustrate the two opposing forces at work on Robert Mayo. The interior scenes provide visual reinforcement of deterioration and decay manifested by Robert’s inability to orchestrate successfully the management of the farm. The main reason the critics faulted the scenic changes was that they interrupted the flow of the dramatic action and, according to American drama critic Alexander Woollcott, exterior scenes are not always as visually stimulating in practice as they are in the mind of the playwright. Eugene O’Neill, much like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, wrote stage directions that exhaustively describe the environment in which his dramas should be set. Although a lofty idea to juxtapose the beauty and illusiveness of the “horizon” with the eventual decay of the interior farmstead, the playwright’s vision was not realized at the Morosco Theatre.

Another difficulty with the structure of the play is that the endings of acts 1 and 2 seem too abrupt, with little foreshadowing of potential action in the next act, as if O’Neill has not quite escaped the format of the one-act. This difficulty also adds to the interruption of dramatic flow, especially with the extended periods of time lapsing between acts. In addition, though the audience is watching the action unfold over eight years, some critics argue that the deterioration of both Mary’s and Robert’s health in that amount of time is unrealistic.

Equally impractical is the suggested age of the daughter, Mary, if one considers the demands of both stage time and dialogue that O’Neill affords to the role in act 2. A role played by an actor near the age of two would be quite a stretch. Hence, believability for the character would surely be compromised with an older child delivering the dialogue as written.

When first produced, the play was labeled a tragedy by critics. It certainly has tragic elements, but it does not hold to classical standards of tragedy for the simple reason that neither Robert nor his brother battles against a fate they cannot control. On the contrary, at the opening of the play they are both embracing their fate, ready to follow their “true nature.” At that initial point of stasis in the play, they each make decisions that irrevocably shape the rest of their lives.

Historical Context

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Although O’Neill wrote the tragic Beyond the Horizon in 1918 it features no reference to the biggest tragedy of the time World War I which ended the same year. This may be because O’Neill intended his story to take place in the years before World War I started. Or, it may be because the play features enough tragedy without mentioning the war. In any case, farmers and some merchant seamen—two occupations represented in the play by the Mayo brothers—were greatly affected by the war.

Even before the United States officially entered the war in 1917, American farms were helping to provide food supplies to the Allied forces. These exports, along with the exportation of munitions, helped aid the war effort and led to greater economic prosperity in the United States during the first few years of the war. As J. M. Roberts notes in his Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901 to 2000: ‘‘The Allies were the main customers of American industry and farmers; Allied spending fuelled an economic boom in the United States.’’ However, the American merchant ships that delivered these goods were increasingly in danger from German submarines. In January 1917, Germany declared that it would sink any ship that attempted to deliver supplies to Allied forces, including neutral American ships. In March, German submarines made good on this promise when they sank some American merchant ships, sparking a national movement that advocated the United States’s entry into the war. America declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

While the United States’s neutral status had helped to produce an economic boom through the increased production of food and other supplies for Allied Forces, America’s entry into the war threatened to diminish this production. In May 1917, Wilson signed the Selective Service Act, forcing many young men to register for military service. Many farmers and farm workers were drafted to fight in the war, which left gaps in the nation’s workforce. The loss of workers on farms—and in factories—threatened to compromise America’s ability to maintain the high production rates that it had enjoyed since the beginning of the war. In an effort to standardize production and ensure that none of the nation’s supplies would be secretly transported to German forces, Wilson announced in July that he was taking official control over America’s necessities. This included the pricing and transportation of food and other essential war supplies. Wheat prices were fixed and the railroads—as well as some merchant ships—were requisitioned for use by the government.

At the same time, at least one notable private effort was underway to help farmers maintain their high production levels. In October 1917, automaker Henry Ford, who had made history with his massproduced Model T automobile (introduced in 1908), began producing the world’s first mass-produced tractors. In fact, for Ford, who grew up on a farm and who was a champion for farmers, this was the realization of a dream. As Robert Lacey notes in his book, Ford: The Men and the Machine: ‘‘Almost as soon as the Ford Motor Company started making money, Henry Ford had started trying to develop a tractor.’’ Since the executives in the Ford Motor Company had little interest in this agricultural venture, in 1916, Ford founded a new company, Henry Ford & Son, to produce his ‘‘Fordson’’ tractors. Although tractors had been in limited use for years, they were too heavy and expensive for most farms. The gasoline-engine Fordson tractor, however, was lighter and much less expensive than other tractors. Fordsons were mass-produced on the same type of assembly line that Ford had implemented in 1913 for the production of his Model Ts, and became a viable option for farmers looking to replace farmhands who were off fighting the war.

At the end of the war, American farms remained a crucial industry, and one that was increasingly aided by the tractor. Tractors brought power that revolutionized farming, and helped to replace horses as the method used to plow the fields. As Roberts notes, ‘‘power did more than perform traditional tasks more efficiently: it broke in new land.’’ With their greater power, tractors gave farmers the ability to plow tough land that had previously been useless for crops. Tractors helped farmers increase their crop yields, which in turn helped to meet the increased food demands during the final months of the war. Even after the war ended in November 1918, these increased crop yields went to good use, as the United States pledged itself to helping combat food shortages in much of Europe—where resources had been severely depleted during the war.

Literary Style

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Tragedy O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon was a striking departure from most of the melodramatic dramas of the day. The play featured real tragedy, which became a hallmark of many twentieth-century dramas in America. Tragedy has a long literary history, dating back to the plays of the ancient Greeks, when tragic events were depicted as a result of a character flaw or defect. Although the definitions and uses of tragedy have changed in many ways since then, most tragedies still hinge on a bad decision by a character or characters. In O’Neill’s play, these decisions are influenced by love. It is Robert’s love for Ruth that causes him to make his impulsive but important life decision, as the stage directions note: ‘‘ROBERT (face to face with a definite, final decision, betrays the conflict going on within him): ‘But—Ruth—I—Uncle Dick—.’’’ Ruth is adamant, however, and finally breaks down crying, the final step that influences his decision: ‘‘ROBERT (conquered by this appeal—an irrevocable decision in his voice): ‘I won’t go, Ruth. I promise you.’’’

Robert’s decision influences Andy to make his own tragic decision to go to sea. Says Andrew, ‘‘You’ve made your decision, Rob, and now I’ve made mine.’’ Andy also making his decision out of love. He cannot stand to see Ruth with another man, least of all his brother: ‘‘I’ve got to get away and try to forget, if I can.’’Mr. Mayo exposes Andy’s choice as a brash defense against heartache, ‘‘You’re runnin’ away ‘cause you’re put out and riled ‘cause your own brother’s got Ruth ‘stead o’ you.’’ These two tragic decisions ultimately lead to many tragic consequences, including the deaths of most of the characters. James dies while Andy is at sea, and Mrs. Mayo notes that his death was a result of her husband’s inability to publicly forgive Andy for his decision: ‘‘It was that brought on his death—breaking his heart just on account of his stubborn pride.’’ Mrs. Mayo is in turn affected by her husband’s death as well as by the decay of the farm and her son’s unhappy marriage, as the stage directions indicate: ‘‘MRS. MAYO’S face has lost all character, disintegrated, become a weak mask wearing a helpless, doleful expression of being constantly on the verge of comfortless tears.’’ In addition, Mary is chronically ill. Says Mrs. Atkins, ‘‘She gets it right from her Pa—being sickly all the time. . . . It was a crazy mistake for them two to get married.’’ Eventually, Mary dies, too, and in the end, Robert himself dies, both tragic events brought on by the decisions of Robert and Andy to go against their respective natures.

Irony The play has a strong sense of dramatic irony, a feeling produced in audience members when they are led to believe that one situation will unfold, while in reality, the opposite becomes true. At the end of the play, the audience, like the characters, is struck with the bitter irony of the main characters’ wasted lives. All three of them—Robert, Ruth, and Andy—have gotten the exact opposite of what they wanted. Andy ran away from his farming dreams, thinking it would be worse to stay and witness his brother and Ruth together. Ruth wanted a happy marriage with a man she loved, but as she notes to Andy at the end, ‘‘You see I’d found out I’d made a mistake about Rob soon after we were married— when it was too late.’’ So, Andy runs away out of his jealousy over the relationship between Ruth and Robert, which ironically fails shortly after he leaves to go to sea, when Ruth realizes that Andy is the one for her. Meanwhile, Robert stays on the farm, thinking he will find true happiness with Ruth. Instead, he finds only misery and death, constantly yearning for the life at sea that Andy hates.

Even worse, Ruth’s failed marriage has drained her so much that, as she tells Robert, ‘‘I don’t love anyone.’’ She has lost the ability to love. The tragic irony of this situation is multiplied when Robert pushes Ruth and Andy together at the end of the play, asking them to get married and honor his dying wish. At this point, Andy is willing to give it a try out of duty to his brother: ‘‘We must try to help each other—and—in time—we’ll come to know what’s right.’’ But the damage is irreversible. The situation has changed since Andy left eight years ago, and even if they do get married as Andy had originally hoped, things will never be the same.

Mood O’Neill’s play calls for several staging techniques that are intended to evoke a mood in the audience. One of these, the change in seasons, is particularly effective. When the play begins, the stage directions note the following: ‘‘The hushed twilight of a day in May is just beginning.’’ This spring day in the first act progresses to ‘‘a hot, sunbaked day in mid-summer’’ in the second act. Finally, in the last act, it is ‘‘a day toward the end of October.’’ The gradual move from spring—associated with youth and hope—to late fall—a time of fading life before the death of winter sets in— mirrors the tragic action of the play and helps to darken the mood.

Compare and Contrast

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Late 1910s–Late 1920s: Because of technological advances in farming, many farm workers lose their jobs, while many farms experience crop surpluses. However, the surpluses lead to lower crop prices, which cause many farms to struggle financially. Displaced farm workers and farmers head to already crowded cities to seek their fortunes there.

Today: The majority of people continue to live in cities or in the large suburban areas that surround them. Farming is one of the least popular vocations, and many tasks traditionally performed by the farmer are now handled by machines.

Late 1910s–Late 1920s: Following World War I the New York Stock Exchange experiences a surge in speculative investing by ordinary Americans, prompting inflated stock prices and making many Americans wealthy. Many people borrow their investment money on margin, intending to pay it back with their stock profits. When the stock market crashes in 1929, many stocks become worthless, and investors are unable to pay their debts. The resulting financial disaster leads to the Great Depression.

Today: The United States experiences an economic downturn following the crash of inflated technology stocks, many associated with newly popular Internet companies.

Late 1910s–Late 1920s: The Panama Canal, a waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in Central America, is built by the United States, which also has complete ownership of and responsibility for the canal. Panama quickly becomes an international shipping and trade center.

Today: After nearly a century of control by the United States, the Panama Canal is now under the full jurisdiction of Panama as a result of 1970s treaties between the two nations. For the first time in its history as an independent nation, Panama has full control of all of its land.full control of all of its land.

Media Adaptations

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Beyond the Horizon was adapted as a television movie by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1975. The film, directed by Rick Hauser and Michael Kahn IV, features Richard Backus as Robert Mayo and Maria Tucci as Ruth Atkins. It is available on video from the Broadway Theatre Archive.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Ben-Zvi, Linda, ‘‘Freedom and Fixity in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill,’’ in The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill, edited by John H. Houchin, Greenwood Press, 1993, p. 275, originally published in Modern Drama Vol. 30, March 1988, pp. 16–27.

Carpenter, Frederic I., Eugene O’Neill, Twayne Publishers, 1979, p. 85.

Floyd, Virginia, The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1985, p. 143.

Fulton, A. R., Drama and Theatre Illustrated by Seven Modern Plays, Henry Holt and Company, 1946, p. 119.

Lacey, Robert, Ford: The Men and the Machine, Ballantine Books, 1993, pp. 103, 181.

O’Neill, Eugene, Beyond the Horizon, in Four Plays by Eugene O’Neill, Signet Classic, 1998, pp. 5–12, 16–18, 20, 26, 31–32, 34–35, 40, 42–43, 47, 50, 52–54, 61, 63, 66–68, 72, 79, 80, 84, 90, 93, 95–96, 99, 101, 103, 105, 107–08. Roberts, J. M., Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901 to 2000, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 119, 280.

Towse, J. Rankin, Review of Beyond the Horizon, in The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill, edited by John H. Houchin, Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 15–16, originally published in New York Post, February 4, 1920.

Trilling, Lionel, ‘‘Eugene O’Neill,’’ in The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill, edited by John H. Houchin, Greenwood Press, 1993, p. 165, originally published in New Republic, September 23, 1936.

Wainscott, Ronald H., Staging O’Neill: The Experimental Years, 1920–1934, Yale University Press, 1988, pp. 18, 20–21.

Wiksander, Ronald H., ‘‘O’Neill and the Cult of Sincerity,’’ in The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill, edited by Michael Manheim, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 219.

Further Reading Black, Stephen A., Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy, Yale University Press, 2002. Black is an English professor and a psychoanalyst, and he uses both of these skills in this exhaustively researched biography of O’Neill. Starting with his mother’s addiction to morphine as a result of O’Neill’s birth, the playwright’s life was plagued by a number of tragedies, including alcoholism, family strife, a string of unhappy marriages, many deaths, and the estrangement of his children.

Brietzke, Zander, The Aesthetics of Failure: Dynamic Structure in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill, McFarland & Company, 2001. Although some of O’Neill’s plays are considered great works of art, other critics have noted the lack of quality in many of his published works. Brietzke examines this fact in light of O’Neill’s own theory that tragedy requires failure. The book includes a chronological listing of O’Neill’s plays, including production history, characters, and plot summaries.

Finch, Christopher, In the Market: The Illustrated History of Financial Markets, Abbeville Press, Inc., 2001. In Beyond the Horizon, Andy tries his luck at investing in the commodities market, the latest of humanity’s marketplaces. Finch’s engaging book details the history of financial marketplaces from 3500 B.C. to the present. The book includes a time line of historical events, a glossary of financial terms, and more than one hundred short biographies of famous and infamous men and women in the financial world.

Liu, Hai-Ping, and Lowell Swortzell, eds., Eugene O’Neill in China: An International Centenary Celebration, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1992. During the centennial celebration of O’Neill’s birth, O’Neill scholars from around the world met in China to present their latest findings. This book collects some of the notable papers that were presented at the conference. Topics include the influence of Taoism on O’Neill’s art, O’Neill’s work in relation to the work of other playwrights, O’Neill’s characterizations of women, and an examination of international productions of O’Neill’s plays.

Shafer, Yvonne, ed., Performing O’Neill: Conversations with Actors and Directors, Palgrave, 2000. For this volume, Shafer, one of the leading O’Neill scholars, conducted interviews with eleven famous actors and directors who have interpreted O’Neill’s plays during the last century. Both actors and directors discuss the challenges they faced when bringing O’Neill’s gritty visions of life to the stage. The stellar list of interviewees includes James Earl Jones, Jason Robards, Theresa Wright, Theodore Mann, and Jane Alexander.

Shaughnessy, Edward L., Down the Nights and Down the Days: Eugene O’Neill’s Catholic Sensibility, University of Notre Dame Press, 2000. Due to O’Neill’s renunciation of his Catholic faith as a teenager, most critics have ignored this aspect of the playwright’s life as an influence on his work. Shaughnessy, however, argues that O’Neill’s Irish- Catholic upbringing influenced the moral quality of his work and examines this idea while discussing several of O’Neill’s plays.

Siebold, Thomas, ed., Readings on Eugene O’Neill, Greenhaven Press, 1998. This accessible, diverse collection of O’Neill criticism includes offerings from literary analysts, psychologists, playwrights, and reviewers. The book gives a broad perspective on O’Neill’s work without getting bogged down in specific critical debates.


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Sources for Further Study

Black, Stephen A. Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Eugene O’Neill. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Carpenter, Frederic I. Eugene O’Neill. Boston: Twayne, 1964.

Floyd, Virginia. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment. New York: Ungar, 1987.

Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill. New York: Harper Brothers, 1962.

Harding, Helen Elizabeth, ed. Tragedies Old and New, Including Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Sophocles’ “Electra,” and O’Neill’s “Beyond the Horizon.” New York: Nobel and Nobel, 1937.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide