Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Review: Anna Christie by Eugene O'Neill

Title: Anna Christie
Author: Eugene O'Neill
Genre: Plays
First published: 1921

Rating: 6 out of 10

This American play, written in 1921, was one of two little Eugene O'Neill volumes that I decided to read back to back.

The first scene opens with Chris Christopherson, more commonly known as "Old Chris," relaxing at a pub, and telling fellow drinkers and friends about his daughter, Anna Christie, who is coming to visit him. Chris hasn't seen his daughter since she was two years old, which was 15 years ago. Chris' ex-wife was driven mad by her husband's occupation as a sailor, and came to hate the sea and any men having anything to do with it. And so, long ago, she took their child and moved to a safely landlocked state. Now, Anna is coming to visit her father for the first time, and he isn't at all sure what to expect or how to act.
Anna arrives in town just a few pages later, strolling into the same local pub that her father has just exited. Her father, knowing that Anna's mother will have brought her up to loathe the sea, has lied to her and told her that he is a janitor, but it doesn't take very long for Anna to discover that in reality, her father is captain of a coal barge. The scene ends with her being horrified, and vowing that she will never stay with her father if it means living on the water.
When the next scene opens, apparently some time has passed, and Anna seems to be taking to sea life very well. She is enamored by the sea, and loves to simply stand on the deck for hours taking in the water, the fog, and the salty air. Chris, rather than being pleased, does all he can to rid his daughter of this enchantment, doing his best to portray the ocean and sailors in the worst light possible.
Shortly after, a marooned sailor is rescued from the water and brought aboard the ship. The man, whose name is Burke, takes an immediate fancy to Anna, but it isn't until she sends him sprawling over the deck with a good punch (for flirting) that he falls in love.
Anna, though she has similar feelings, is plagued by her knowledge that nothing can ever work out between she and Burke, due to her past as a prostitute.

This play had an interesting enough storyline to keep me reading, and I finished it quickly in one sitting. The characters are all simple, realistic people that you can easily imagine as people - whether on a stage or in real life. And because the play is relatively short, O'Neill doesn't waste any time moving from one scene to another.

I found the underlying character of the sea interesting: Chris, a man of the sea himself, apparently agrees with his ex-wife's sentiments about its evil. Though he has held some respectable ranks as captain and bosun on other vessels before, he is ashamed rather than proud of these accomplishments, and is agonized when he hears his daughter boasting about them. Rather than be happy that Anna discovers a love for the sea, he is horrified. He tells her dark tales of people being drowned, terrible storms, and portrays all sailors as duplicitous, unscrupulous scoundrels. Most of all, he warns her against marrying a sailor, who he says will only leave her for his first love - the sea.
The sea is portrayed as an addictive mistress that is both loved and hated.
Of course, in the end, Anna does end up with a sailor. He promises that he will never leave her for very long, that he will take her with him on voyages when he can, and that he will never even look at any of the other women in seaside ports. But we have to wonder if this is true, or if Chris is right.

Of the two plays by O'Neill that I read (the other being The Emperor Jones), I liked this one best.