Friday, October 11, 2013

The Long Voyage Home

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

Photograph of the Provincetown Players production of The Long Voyage Home, November 1917. Image from the blog For the Actor.
After struggling for nearly four years to be a writer, Eugene O’Neill’s fledgling career, as well as his financial situation, took a notable turn for the better in 1917. His short story, “Tomorrow,” appeared in the June issue of a new magazine called The Seven Arts, and O’Neill received fifty dollars—the first substantial sum ever paid for his writing. (Although the year marked a turning point for O’Neill, the magazine didn’t fare as well; it folded after the October issue.)

Around the same time that the story was accepted, the poet Louis Untermeyer stopped by the offices of The Smart Set, dropped off some of O’Neill’s writing, and “suggested trying to recruit him,” recalled the magazine’s coeditor H. L. Mencken, who sent off a friendly letter to the playwright. O’Neill responded:
I am taking advantage of your kind letter asking to see more of my stuff to enclose two one-act plays. They are units in a series the first of which was Bound East For Cardiff, produced in New York last season by the Provincetown Players. They deal with merchant-sailor life on a tramp steamer as it really is—its sordidness inexplicably touched with romance by the glamor of far horizons. . . .

I have never seen anything of this kind in The Smart Set and I have small hope of it being the type of material you desire. But I do hope, and hope it strongly, that you will read them. I want these plays, which to me are real, to pass through your acid test because I know your acid is “good medicine.”
The “series” mentioned by O’Neill in his letter includes, in addition to Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone and the two plays he sent to Mencken, The Long Voyage Home and The Moon of the Caribbees. Contrary to O’Neill’s expectations, Mencken was impressed by both plays and handed them to his coeditor George Jean Nathan, who accepted them along with Ile, a third play O’Neill had sent separately. The first to appear in print was The Long Voyage Home in the October 1917 issue of The Smart Set; it’s the only one of the four plays in the series to take place on land, in “the bar of a low dive on the London water front.” It premiered on November 2 at The Playwrights’ Theatre in New York.

For the publication rights, the magazine paid O’Neill the then-unimaginable sum of $75—for each of the three plays. He later acknowledged to an interviewer that the publication of his plays in The Smart Set represented his “first ray of recognition.”

* Reprinted in The Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill, edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer (Yale University Press, 1988).

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SCENE—The bar of a low dive on the London water front—a squalid, dingy room dimly lighted by kerosene lamps placed in brackets on the walls. On the left, the bar. In front of it, a door leading to a side room. On the right, tables with chairs around them. In the rear, a door leading to the street. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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