Jermyn Street Theatre
Thrown out of Princeton after only a year at university, Eugene O’Neill went to sea and drew on his experience of mariners and life on the ocean for several of his plays including some of the earliest that he offered to the Provincetown Players when they were just getting established in 1916.
This compact drama, set on a lifeboat, was first staged by them in 1917. Little known and seldom staged, it lasts only half an hour. Jermyn Street Theatre presents it, playing only three Thursday matinées in a minimalist production, to accompany its British première of O’Neill’s highly autobiographical 1922 play The First Man.
A ship which has presumably crossed the Atlantic has been wrecked somewhere off Newfoundland in thick fog. Three survivors have already been drifting for a day in a boat without oars: a successful businessman (Richard Emerson), a poet (Austin Hardiman) and a Polish emigrant (Rebecca Lee) who is nursing the body of her son who has died in her arms. Now, in the darkness, they wait for the dawn.
The businessman, confident that the telegraph calls sent out before the ship sank will bring rescue, optimistically believes there will be sun and the fog will clear. The poet, who had already planned suicide, is less sanguine.
It is easy to see O’Neill himself in this character: he was deeply depressed as a seaman and took to the bottle. The child’s illness sounds like tuberculosis (for which O’Neill had spent many months in a sanatorium) and the threat of an iceberg is a reminder of the Titanic disaster a few years earlier.
Director Grace Wessels uses a simple arrangement of benches to suggest the outline of a lifeboat and opens the play in darkness. Out of the silence comes a grunt and the voice of the businessman, “I wish daylight would come,” and at first there is no reply.
Then, "no, I’m not asleep” comes from the poet, the beginning of a duologue that explains their present situation, how they and the woman got aboard and why the boat is oar less and explores attitudes to others. The businessman thinks the poet’s ideas are Socialistic but when placed in a situation where they must value saving more lives against saving just theirs is forced to go along with him.
Through the businessman, O’Neill questions whether the peasant child isn’t actually better off dead than surviving for a life of more illness, of pain and drudgery. He is making a case quite different from what he makes the man say.
In the finality that the situation suggests, and in the histrionic performances of this carefully considered production, such philosophical thinking seems perfectly natural.
When rescue arrives in the shape of a search boat with crew from a steamer (Charlie Roe, Paul Ryan and Alan Turkington), there is still no happy ending; O’Neill sees life as it is.
The plot could be treated as slight melodrama but not in this production, which makes you see the depth despite the brevity.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton