Anna Christie – a response

Photo by Maria Baranova

My first Eugene O’Neill play was Hughie at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, which I saw at the ripe age of 12. My sole memory of the production consists of the venerable Brian Dennehy sitting at a bar in a thick cloud of cigar smoke, bemoaning his sorrows. Through high school and college, I went on to read a good dozen or so of O’Neill’s other works, but I somehow never came across Anna Christie until I attended Peter Richards’ version, which ran at The Wild Project in early December 2016. Richards’ telling, “reimagined for the 21st century,” featured a pleasantly moveable set, designed by David M. Barber, beautiful period costumes by Moria Sine Clinton, and nuanced performances from the cast (Scott Aiello, Ben Chase, Stephen D’Ambrose, Tina Johnson, and Therese Plaehn).

The play tells the story of the eponymous Anna, a fierce feminist before her time, and a force to be reckoned with. O’Neill wrote Anna Christie in 1920 (and won his second Pulitzer for it in 1922), twenty-one years before his renowned Long Day’s Journey into Night. The progression of his female characters over the course of his writing career is remarkable, from an outspoken Anna Christie, feeling viscerally betrayed by the men in her life, to a repressed Mary Tyrone, wandering around in a morphine haze.

We meet Anna when she blows into town in search of her father, introducing the thematic class divide of common folk versus city folk. Anna appears worldly and sophisticated, especially in contrast to the local characters whose accents are so thick it takes a moment at the top of the show to understand them. And yet, Anna downs her whiskey just like her father did moments earlier, revealing her roots, and explains, “I didn’t go wrong all in one jump.” For her citified appearance, Anna’s story is far more complicated and less glamorous than her crushed red velvet coat might suggest.

This idea that we carry our nature in our blood is another central tenet of the play, particularly in reference to the sea, in this family. Anna’s father, Chris Christopherson, a good old Swedish sailor, deeply believes that the sea has an inescapable hold over him, just like all the other men in his family (and all the women, for that matter, who married sailors). Anna begins to feel the intrinsic allure from the minute she steps foot on her father’s coal barge, waxing poetic about the sea’s calling into the foggy night. This relationship with the sea sets up the dynamic that men run away from their problems, while women wait (harken back to Penelope, if you will).

In Anna’s case, after having been abandoned by her father on a family farm with cousins who sexually abused her, she turned to prostitution in order to earn her living. In an era when a woman’s worth was determined by her sexual “purity,” both her father and her lover are so disgusted and disappointed when they learn of her disgrace that they can barely look at her. The double standard of sexual liberty for men and women depicted in this play is not lost on O’Neill, who clearly spells out the differential treatment for (male) sailors who sleep with different women at every port and (female) prostitutes who earn their living by sleeping with different men every night.

In the face of this opprobrious injustice, I adored what a strong, articulate, and free woman Anna was. She had made up her mind to hate all men, given her life’s experiences, and was little swayed from this determination by the treatment she received when she revealed her secret history from the two men closest to her. She is a liberated woman, making her own living (scandalous though it may be), and yet the men in her life still try to manipulate her like a pawn, playing mercilessly to her emotions and loyalties. The line between love and control is finely drawn through dramatic, heart-wrenching fights, and Anna wavers in its thrall, but finally comes back to her eternal conclusion, “I am my own boss.”

Chris blames the sea for his woes so much that it becomes a tangible character. The sea – to him – is a woman, full of tricks and love, and sailors are damn fools. The constant personification of the sea as a devil woman was overwrought for a modern audience’s sensibility, but conventions were different when O’Neill was writing, and the overt, repeated symbolism was perhaps more necessary, or at least better valued, when this play first appeared on stage.

The insistent personification of the sea was one of many elements that made the story simultaneously feel dated and relevant. The ways in which we talk about women’s rights to control their own bodies have changed, but our social expectations and, in many places, physical realities haven’t altered all that much. Attending a century-old play prompts the question of why we continue to produce classics in this day and age? One can surmise that we are seeking both universal connection and comparison of historical relevancy. Anna Christie feels relevant in 2016. O’Neill succeeds in using a traditional four act structure to present what one can only imagine were revolutionary feminist ideas when this play was first produced.

Overall, this was a solid telling of this lost gem of a play, overshadowed by O’Neill’s long, prolific history. The ending was surprisingly sappy, but being the good O’Neill student I am, I felt pretty confident Anna’s father and betrothed would drown together on their next voyage and Anna would truly, finally be set free.

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