The crew of the tramp steamer S.S. Glencairn—among them ringleader Irishman Driscoll, querrelous cockney Cocky, quiet Swede Olson, troubled Brit Smitty, and brash American Yank—form the sometimes cruel and other times tender rough brotherhood at the center of Eugene O’Neill’s quartet of one-act plays written during the years of the Great War. Reading through O’Neill’s apprentice work, they stand out for their sharply tuned language and their pitilessness. Rooted in O’Neill’s own experience of the sea, they shift his trajectory as a playwright definitively away from vaudevillian irony toward a more probing and deeply felt tragic sense.
O’Neill wrote the Glencairn cycle out of narrative sequence. Interspersed among several other works that provided the Provincetown Players with early material, Bound East for Cardiff (1916) was the first to be completed and performed. In the Zone, The Long Voyage Home, and The Moon of the Caribbees (all 1917) followed, with the quartet published (along with three other seafaring plays) in 1919. O’Neill would soon experience his first major Broadway success with Beyond the Horizon, eventually awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
The plays are episodes in which seamen struggle against their own brutality as much as against their lot in an unforgiving maritime world. Their actions are shaped by that world, so that encounters with death (and with near-misses) find them falling back on a sailor’s fatalism. Cruelly bilked of their hard-won earnings, chained to drink as was O’Neill himself, they live by an informal code that punishes sentiment. Smitty suffers at their hands because he is clearly not one of them, and they have difficulty summoning mercy before inflicting pain first.
The Long Voyage Home turns on a ship at dock, the Amindra, that has difficulty attracting a crew for a two-years’ voyage round the Horn. Olson has voyaged with “that damn ship” before. He remembers the “rotten grub and dey make you work all time—and the Captain and Mate wus bluenose devils.” It is in such circumstances, O’Neill seems to suggest, that the brute in everyone is exposed as much as created. His The Hairy Ape (1922) will make this dramatic naturalism far more explicit.
Filmmaker John Ford, also Irish American and also something of a seafaring man (his Argosy Productions was named for his boat), admired the Glencairn plays and filmed them as The Long Voyage Home, with a screenplay by frequent collaborator Dudley Nichols. Ford and Nichols met with O’Neill in February 1940 to discuss the project before filming began. While a few of the rougher edges are rounded off and the plays are given an updated early World War II context, Ford succeeded in creating O’Neill’s favorite among filmed versions of his plays. While the prestige picture was not a commercial success, it is part of Ford’s remarkable cinema of the late 1930s and early 1940s, a run rivaling that of any filmmaker: Young Mr. Lincoln, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley—all classics.
The Long Voyage Home’s attributes include the cinematography of the legendary Gregg Toland, who would go on to lens Citizen Kane for Orson Welles the following year. The combination of chiaroscuro lighting and deep focus gives the film a moody ambience evident in the first scene, taken from The Moon of the Caribbees. Establishing an exotic encounter with West Indian chanteuses (changed from “Negro” in the play to vaguely Latina in the film) while the Glencairn is docked in an unnamed Caribbean port, Toland and Ford capture an idyllic moonlit night that will soon turn raucus, then dangerous. Throughout, Toland’s work baits with romance and then switches with menace—this is early film noir on the high seas.
It is also a pleasure to view an American film concerned less with plot than with character. After all, O’Neill’s plays are one-act episodes with no connecting tissue. So the cast must carry the day. The seemingly ever-present Thomas Mitchell as the blustering Driscoll (though much smaller in stature than indicated in the plays), Ian Hunter as Smitty, Ward Bond as Yank, and John Wayne as Olson form a credible crew that hews fairly closely to dialect-laden prose, much of it kept intact by Nichols from the original plays. Wayne dutifully leaves out whole words, making for a halting performance, but his character’s geniality and seeming innocence makes up for it. Mitchell, Wayne, and Bond were part of Ford’s stock company (Mitchell and Wayne had played in Stagecoach the year before; Bond in three recent Ford pictures).
As part of the film’s promotion, producer Walter Wanger commissioned nine American artists, including regionalist stars Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, to create canvases based on the film. They received studios on the film lot, daily rushes to view, and access to the actors for portraits. The paintings went on exhibition at various locations in 1940 and the story was covered in American Artist magazine. The Ned Scott Archive of classic Hollywood photography contains the story and scans of the entire American Artist spread.
I’ve heard it said that O’Neill is better read than experienced on stage, especially considering the length of Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh, though I’ve seen quality productions of both. The Glencairn miniatures, shaped into a single episodic narrative in Ford’s The Long Voyage Home, capture well the flavor of the young playwright’s first maturity. With his remarkable series of full-length plays just around the corner, he would soon change American theater for good.
Eugene O’Neill, Complete Plays 1913-1920 (Library of America)
John Ford, The Long Voyage Home (Warner Home Video)