While watching Beyond the Horizon, I was often gripped by the strong conflicts in individual scenes. Yet, the play came across as less than the sum of the parts.
O’Neill won the Pulitzer Prize in 1920 for this, his first full-length play (what a personal thrill that must have been!). The focus on a low class family — farmers brought to struggle to hold on to the farm — the use of American vernacular, and the laying bare of brutal competition within what seems on the surface a wholesome American farm family must have been electrifying at the time. Without these issues of innovation, today the play has less going for it.
Two brothers love the same girl. Like his father, the older, Andrew, is a farmer through and through — and an excellent manager. Rob is his opposite, a poetic dreamer, always with book in hand, who longs to travel the world and has no interest or aptitude for farming. Both love Ruth, the girl next door. Rob’s love is unspoken — until the eve of his departure as a sailor on a ship that will take him to all the exotic places he’s been dreaming about.
At that fraught last moment, Ruth seductively draws out of Rob his confession of love and, pouncing on his admission, admits she loves him too, and doesn’t love Andrew who’s been expecting to marry her all along. The upheaval in the family is huge and the upshot is that nobody does what he’s supposed to do: Andrew the farmer, filled with bitter, jealous rage, goes to sea while Rob the dreamer of far away places, stays home to marry Ruth and work the farm with his aging father.
Only Rob isn’t very good as a farmer. He has no aptitude for managing, he’s on the frail side, and anyhow, he’d rather be reading his book, so when the father dies, Rob is left alone to preside fitfully over the slippage into failure of a once prosperous farm.
Rob’s increasingly embittered wife, now a frazzled mother, imagines that Andrew will return to set the farm aright and, assuming Andrew still loves her, will take her over as well. Andrew does return as a successful man with money in his pocket and big plans for grain deals in Argentina — and no plans for her. He’s off with the next ship to Argentina.
At the play’s heart are the ways these two very different brothers respond to their true, inner selves. Rob gives in to his inner nature, unwilling or incapable of transcending it, and so failing in his responsibilities and precipitating tragedy. Andrew, in contrast, violates his inner nature: he goes to sea when he should farm; he becomes a commodities speculator, not growing the food he was born to grow, but growing money, working with “paper” instead of “grain”. Rob is lost. There is the possibility that in the tragic aftermath of the play, the immensely able Andrew will regain his true self, and find his way home.
It strikes me as characteristically American that while there are dangers both in giving in too fully to inner nature, and in violating it, competence can pull you through — even spiritually.
It’s interesting to think of O’Neill juggling the parallels and oppositions between Rob and Andrew, but in the play, these contrasts in “inner nature” come across as simplistic. Of the two, Andrew’s story is the most interesting, but we hear what happens to him indirectly, while we live through life with Rob. Also, Act II has so many reversals, leave takings, homecomings, and a very lengthy death that it becomes tiresome. For these reasons, the play as a whole has less staying power in my mind than some of the individual scenes with fiery conflicts of wills.
Part of the reason also is that the play is not well cast. The actors are not exciting nor convincing, though they work intensely at their characterizations. There are exceptions among the smaller parts: David Sitler brings great power to his role as the stern, rigid father in the scene in which he learns that Andrew will be the sea farer and Rob will stay home — for me the most memorable in the play. (Too bad he dies and we don’t see more of him.) Aimee Laurence is touchingly natural as Rob and Ruth’s little girl, caught between an embittered mother and the incompetent father she adores. Patricia Conolly is amusing as Ruth’s wheel-chair bound mother, the stubbornly healthy invalid, although her patrician speech is out of place. Although O’Neill intended a naturalistic vernacular, the varied accents among the actors are disunifying, making the characters hard to accept as part of a small, isolated early 20th-century Massachusetts community. Rob and Andrew are so disparate in all ways, quite aside from the contrasting personalities, that it’s hard to believe they are brothers.
Beyond the Horizon plays at Irish Repertory Theater on Manhattan’s West Side through April 15.