Happy Ending? Eugene O’Neill says no! ANNA CHRISTIE at Berkshire Theatre Group

Jonathan Hogan and Rebecca Brooksher in Anna Christie. Photo by Abby LePage.

Jonathan Hogan and Rebecca Brooksher in Anna Christie. Photo by Abby LePage.

The ending of ANNA CHRISTIE by Eugene O’Neill is shrouded in a bit of fog and audiences have just a few more chances to see it for themselves as it concludes its run at the Fitzpatrick Theatre in Stockbridge, MA with a final – and added – performance Sunday at 2:00 on August 31, 2013 [link to ticket information]. The ending of the play has been controversial since its first performance, and not a single review that I have seen fails to take a shot at it. Part of it is history of course, but it arises anew with the David Auburn adaptation in which he made significant cuts and directs it at the Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG).

The reviews of the BTG production have all focused on different aspects of the production which Auburn directs with Rebecca Brooksher as ANNA CHRISTIE. Jeremy Goodwin says it has a “nominally happy ending” in his Boaton Globe review. In his Berkshire Fine Arts review today, Charles Giuliano says: “Surprisingly, O’Neill has provided an unlikely happy ending. It’s a bit tough to swallow.” And in the New York Times review, Ben Brantley writes: “Mr. Auburn’s interpretation lets us see both that Anna earns her happy ending and that such an ending is only provisional. O’Neill wrote that ANNA CHRISTIE was never meant to conclude with an optimistic finality, but with a comma, suggesting that life, for better or worse, would go on.”

That last comment led me to search out just what O’Neill had to say about the ending, and it turns out that the original ANNA CHRISTIE which opened on November 2, 1921 certainly received uniformly favorable reviews. However, the critics perceived the play’s final act — its “happy ending” — as contrived. O’Neill was accused of giving in to popular tastes and catering to the box office. But is this so?

O’Neill composed the following manuscript [source] in defense of both his play and his integrity as a playwright. It was sent to Oliver Sayler, who was producer Arthur Hopkins’ press agent, with instructions to pass it on to Alexander Woollcott, the drama critic for the New York Times whose original review started the whole fuss. O’Neill wrote to Sayler regarding the manuscript, “I have got it off my chest and I consider it a fair statement of what I really was aiming at in that fourth act, so much maligned.”

So on December 18, 1921, the Times ran O’Neill’s defense hoping to clarify his intentions. It does help us understand the playwright’s thinking much better but apparently has not curtailed the controversy one bit.


Happy Ending (?)

So many people — critics professional and volunteer — have taken exception to what they allege it the compromising happy ending to my ANNA CHRISTIE that I feel called upon to make not a defense but an explanation. Evidently — to me at least — these people have ears but are slightly hard of hearing.

First of all, is the ending to ANNA CHRISTIE an ending in the accepted sense at all? Is it not rather a new beginning, with a whole new play, as full of the same preordained human conflict as the last, just starting at the final curtain. Such was my intention. In this type of naturalistic play, which attempts to translate life into its own terms, I am a denier of all endings. Things happen in life, run their course as the incidental, accidental, the fated, then pause to give their inevitable consequences time to mobilize for the next attack. In the last few minutes of ANNA CHRISTIE I tried to show that dramatic gathering of new forces out of the old. I wanted to have the audience leave with a deep feeling of life flowing on, of the past which is never the past but always the birth of the future, of a problem solved for the moment but by the very nature of its solution involving new problems.
Since the last act of ANNA CHRISTIE seems to have been generally misunderstood, I must have failed in this attempt. And I was afraid I would, for I knew what I was up against. A kiss in the last act, a word about marriage, and the audience grow blind and deaf to what follows. Also, I surmise, the critics begin to itch for their typewriters to damn this happy ending — which hasn’t ended. No one hears old Chris when he makes his gloomy, foreboding comment on the new set of coincidences, which to him reveal the old davil, sea – (fate) – up to her old tricks again. More importantly, no one hears Burke, when for the first time in the play, overcome by a superstitious dread himself, he agrees with the old man. And more importantly still, no one listens to Anna when she shows how significant she feels this to be by her alarmed protest: “Aw, you ain’t agreeing with him, are you, Mat?” She follows this by quickly urging him to “be a sport and drink to the sea, no matter what.” And the play ends with the father staring out of the door into the fog. “Fog, fog, fog, all bloody time. You can’t see where you was going, no. But tdat ole’ davil sea, she knows.”

But few of the critics have ever heard any of these things. At least I must conclude they have not, for not even the most adversely prejudiced could call this a “happy ending” Meaning that I wish it understood as unhappy? Meaning nothing of the kind. Meaning what I have said before, that the play has no ending. Three characters have been revealed in all their intrinsic verity, under the acid test of a fateful crisis in their lives. They have solved this crisis for the moment as best they may, in accordance with the will that is in each of them. The curtain falls. Behind it their lives go on.

It may be objected by some stickler for dramatic technique that, after all, the last speeches in the play form an anti-climax, and that, the psychology of audiences being what it is, I have no right to expect anything but a general inattention. This point, I grant, is well taken. Nevertheless, those last speeches, properly understood, are as full of drama as anything in the play. They are not of the stuff of anti-climax. It is only the kiss-marriage-happily-ever-after tradition that makes them so. And it is my business — and that of every playwright worth his or her salt — to drop such doddering old traditions down the manhole — if only to see what happens. In this case the old tradition seems to have bounded back and “beaned” the playwright.

But granting for the moment the absurdity that the ending is happy, why the objections to it raised on all sides? Have I not been told constantly that gloom is my failing, that I should see the brighter side, that I should grant my helpless human beings their 100 per cent right to happiness. Well, in Anna Christie, haven’t I? You claim I have and yet you will have none of it. You say it is unconvincing. Why? Is it, as I suspect, on moral grounds? — Does the idea that two such “disreputable” folk as Anna and Burke are, as you think, going to be happy, disturb your sense of the proper fitness of things in this best of all possible worlds? Or is your reason, as I more than suspect, simply that you prefer the obvious to the inevitable? It would have been so obvious and easy — in the case of this play, conventional even — to have made my last act a tragic one. It could have been done in ten different ways, any one of them superficially right. But looking deep into the hearts of my people, I saw it couldn’t be done. It would not have been true. They were not that kind. They would act in just the silly, immature, compromising way that I have made them act; and I thought that they would appear to others as they do to me, a bit tragically humorous in their vacillating weakness. But evidently not. Evidently they are all happy — and unconvincing! Their groping clutch at happiness is taken as a deadly finality.

But how about those sentimental ones to whom the Boy on the Burning Deck represents the last word in the heroic spirit our drama should strive to express — the American Oedipus Rex? Surely they must read something into my ending besides mere eternal happiness. But they don’t. And yet there never was a more sentimental gesture of defiance at fate than that of Burke and Anna agreeing to wed.

I can’t please anyone with my happy-unhappy, unhappy-happy, ending that doesn’t end.

Lastly, to those who think I deliberately distorted my last act because a “happy ending” would be calculated to make the play more of a popular success I have only this to say: The sad truth is that you have precedents enough and to spare in the history of our drama for such a suspicion. But, on the other hand, you have every reason not to believe it of me.

Eugene O’Neill

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