Friday, October 26, 2012

In the Zone

Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953)
Reprinted in Eugene O’Neill: Complete Plays 1913–1920

Left to right: Eugene Lincoln, Robert Strange, Frederick Roland, Jay Strong, Arthur Hohl, and Rienzi De Cordova in The Washington Square Players production of In the Zone, 1917. Photograph by the White Studio. Museum of the City of New York.
Between 1914 and 1917 Eugene O’Neill wrote four one-act plays featuring several of the same characters, all sailors on a tramp steamer. The plays—Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone, The Long Voyage Home, and The Moon of the Caribbees—were not originally conceived as a “cycle.” In 1917 two of the plays premiered within two days of each other, performed by different troupes at different New York theaters: In the Zone opened October 31 by The Washington Square Players at The Comedy Theatre; The Long Voyage Home, on November 2 by The Provincetown Players at The Playwrights’ Theatre. Not until 1924, when O’Neill had two Pulitzers under his belt, were the plays staged together as a series (with the author’s approval) under the title S.S. Glencairn. Although In the Zone was the second play to be written and staged, it is chronologically last in the cycle.

Based on O’Neill‘s own experiences aboard the British ship S.S. Ikala, all four plays feature the character of Driscoll, whom literary critic Jeffrey H. Richards describes as “a hard-living, hard-drinking, dominating but good-hearted, superstitious, and ignorant man.” The spotlight of In the Zone is shared by the quiet and sensitive Smitty, whose furtive activities are regarded warily by the rest of the crew. The only one of the Glencairn plays set in wartime, In the Zone debuted just months after the American entry into World War I, when war fervor was at its height. The play proved to be O’Neill’s first real financial success, and a vaudeville company took it on tour the following year. “Paid me good royalties—on which I got married!” he recalled a decade later.

Critics ever since have singled out In the Zone as a tense, even melodramatic, psychological drama with an emphasis on plot that is unique among O’Neill’s early seafaring plays. In fact, those very aspects caused O’Neill (often the severest critic of his own work) to later disparage it. In 1919 he wrote in rebuttal to a reviewer who published an appreciation of the play: “It is too facile in its conventional technique, too full of clever theatrical tricks. . . . Smitty in the stuffy, grease-paint atmosphere of In the Zone is magnified into a hero who attracts our sentimental sympathy.” He especially felt that “the spirit of the sea” is missing: “In the Zone might have happened just as well, if less picturesquely, in a boarding house of munitions workers.” Other letters suggest that he was also embarrassed by the play’s success on the vaudeville circuit. Nevertheless, this one-act play continued to be popular during O’Neill’s lifetime and, today, it is still frequently staged by community theater companies. In the Critical Companion to Eugene O’Neill, Robert M. Dowling calls it one of O’Neill’s “stronger early works” and notes, “Scholars generally do not share O’Neill’s grim estimation of In the Zone’s artistic merit. . . . Even his most unforgiving critics have been drawn to the play’s ‘smooth and effective’ tempo and technical strengths.”

One bizarre biographical irony is that O’Neill and his friend Harold DePolo were arrested as German spies in Provincetown in spring 1917, when the two little-known newcomers were seen by local residents taking long walks along the beach, occasionally toting a black box (which was almost certainly O’Neill’s typewriter). Yet O’Neill and his friends insisted that he had finished the play, with its eerie parallels, before this real-life incident occurred—further proof that life does imitate art.

SCENE—The seamen's forecastle. On the right above the bunks three or four portholes covered with black cloth can be seen. On the floor near the doorway is a pail with a tin dipper. A lantern in the middle of the floor, turned down very low, throws a dim light around the place. Five men, Scotty, Ivan, Swanson, Smitty and Paul, are in their bunks apparently asleep. It is about ten minutes of twelve on a night in the fall of the year 1915. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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