Beyond the Horizon, by Eugene O’Neill at the National Theatre

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Beyond the Horizon
By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Laurie Sansom
National Theatre

Liz White and Michael Malarkey in Spring Storm

Hard scrabble. America’s two greatest playwrights, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, both met horrible ends that mirrored their world views. O’Neill, the tragic fatalist, was imprisoned by Parkinson’s disease, struggling to finish his last masterpiece in a crabbed, undecipherable hand. Williams, the perfumed fantasist of flesh, waned in a haze of drugs and alcohol (he died, with pathetic ignominy, by choking on the cap to a medicine bottle). They shared the same dread of life‘s inexorable cruelty. Williams was perhaps the more coyly sadistic artist. He lets his characters lull themselves in a warm bath of delusion until it’s time to destroy them. O’Neill is more cold-eyed and frank. In the current revival of his early success, Beyond the Horizon, magnificently brought to life on the Cottesloe stage of the National Theatre, the three main characters descend into bitter disillusionment while watching every inch of their slide. They grow to have some pity for each other but none for themselves.

The setting is a stony Connecticut farm where ends barley meet; the plot is as simple as two brothers in love with the same girl. The dreamy brother, Robert, decides to bow out by going to sea and following his longing to see the world (O‘Neill had done the same). The girl, Ruth, was marked from childhood as the natural mate for Andrew, the materialist brother whose religion is hard work. But at the last moment Ruth declares that her real love is Robert, and the angry, embittered Andrew goes to sea in his place. All three will find their lives ground to dust. Robert cannot manage the farm, losing Ruth’s love and respect. In the bargain O’Neill remorselessly kills off his parents and young daughter. Ruth turns into a numb shell of the infatuated girl we first meet. Andrew makes money in his adventures at sea but winds up losing almost everything when greed drives him into speculative gambling in the Argentine wheat market.

The enduring bond of love here is fraternal – O’Neill surprises us by not making the Mayo brothers hostile rivals – and in the final scene it is Andrew who holds the dying Robert in his arms waiting for the sunrise (shades of Ibsen’s Ghosts) while Ruth, spent and rejected by both of them, faces away. The horizon for Robert used to represent escape, fantasy, and liberation; gazing into the distance, he said that beauty was calling him. By the end, the surrounding hills are a prison, and he welcomes death as the only liberation he will ever know. Andrew, financially ruined and a hater of the wide world, should have remained at home where he belonged. This schema of two people who both made wrong choices is hammered home rather too often.

The reason that Tennessee Williams enters the picture is that this production of Beyond the Horizon is paired with an equally powerful staging of his early, nearly lost play, Spring Storm (1937), which also revolves around a girl and two swains. By using the same superb actors – Liz White, Michael Malarkey, and Michael Thomson – in mirror roles, director Laurie Sansom provides endless space for comparison. These two works make us think about the same question: What constitutes an American tragedy? As in my review of Spring Storm (July 4), I’d like to go into some detail because the London critics were so cursory; most covered both plays in a single notice.

D. H. Lawrence was the first European to be struck by the Manichean drama of America’s classic literature. Darkness and the light contend for souls. By the time O’Neill regarded the rocky landscape where Hawthorne’s Puritans struggled between election and damnation, the gloomy cloudbank of guilt hadn’t lifted, but the cosmic significance of everyday deeds had dwindled. On O’Neill’s hard scrabble farm worked by the Mayo family, old and young alike believe that their afflictions were sent by God as either a test or punishment. This is their ingrained habit, yet it’s not a matter of building the New Jerusalem and failing. If you make enough money, you’re elect; if you lose your shirt, you’re damned. The family suffers from a crass kind of guilt, then, when everything goes bust.

At first O’Neill’s prosy, earnest style promises little. Readers of Edith Wharton’s grim Yankee novel, Ethan Frome, will easily foresee that hard, bitter survival awaits Ruth and Robert. First the crops fail, then their love, and finally all hope. The scheme is pure literary naturalism, and I wondered if Londoners caught on. A fascination with little people being crushed by overwhelming natural forces jumped from Zola’s seedy Paris to Upton Sinclair’s Chicago stockyards while touching down only lightly in England. The American version caught on, in large part, because Nature was vaster there, the monster untamed in ways that nearly annihilated the first settlers of New England. They gave calming names like Concord and New Haven to ground where you were forced to wrest existence with your fingernails. Dante’s deepest circle of Hell is frozen over, and so was New England for half the year.

The popularity of Beyond the Horizon, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1920 – all the more a triumph because it was O’Neill’s first full-length play – carries a grain of irony. If O’Neill had stuck with such unvarnished naturalism, he would have become seriously dated. But Freud, family secrets, the agonies of self-awareness, and Greek myth would become his higher parabola. In hindsight the play is enriched because the two brothers are prototypes for the Tyrones in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Robert, who has been sickly since birth and dies from tuberculosis, is very close to Edmund, the younger Tyrone, while Andrew, for all his worldly disillusion, hasn’t acquired the doom-laden alcoholism of Jamie Tyrone.

He’s well on his way, though. The revelation of this production is Michael Thomson’s deeply moving portrayal of Andrew’s breakdown from normalcy to crippling guilt. Michael Malarkey is fine as Robert, and being an American, he naturally has the best accent (although nobody attempts to sound Yankee; their speech is generically rural). Somehow Thomson, the Englishman, captures the Twenties lingo of “swell” and “chum” with affable likeability, and then inch by inch becomes deeper, darker, and more mature, winding up as both Nick Carraway and Gatsby, the fallen businessman who realizes with horrific clarity the significance of his ruin.

The final words of the play belong to Andrew, who wonders aloud if all this bitter suffering has meant anything and murmurs “Perhaps, perhaps.” Instead of existential despair, he winds up with existential doubt, and the earned courage of that doubt. O‘Neill would suffer and earn in the same way. But at this early stage, his roots in naturalism gave him ready made answers. If Nature is going to crush you like a bug, of course life is meaningless – that was the great revolt against Christian idealism which Zola and his followers found liberating. Human beings cannot tolerate the meaningless for long, however. There is always a new tactic for holding back the darkness. In Beyond the Horizon every tactic ends in destruction. Even so, the struggle is enough to frighten us and tear at our hearts, which is the goal of tragedy, American and otherwise.

Michael Thomson and Liz White in Beyond the Horizon

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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