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"Vital Contact": Eugene O'Neill and the Working Class Author(s): Patrick J. Chura Reviewed work(s): Source:

"Vital Contact": Eugene O'Neill and the Working Class Author(s): Patrick J. Chura Reviewed work(s):

Source: Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Winter, 2003), pp. 520-546 Published by: Hofstra University

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"VitalContact": Eugene O'Neill and the Working Class


O'Neillentered upon thesceneasone darkly handsomesailor

with burningeyes and burningambition, withundiscoveredtal- entand unproducedplays.

-Leona Rust Egan(153)

playwright at

Afamous photograph of


Eugene O'Neillshowsthe

career,gazingcalmlyseaward fromtheshorein

Provincetown He is wearing the navy-blue sailor'suniform jersey

thathe had been

givenupon promotion from ordinary seaman to able-bodiedseamanon board the AmericanLine cruise

ship Philadelphia in 1911.O'Neill's at-


titudeis contemplative


but his

cal labor.He

playwright and outwardly a sailor. Well-groomed,relaxed, and pensive betweenseaand land, headvertises


while engaged in a type ofleisure

thatexcludeshimfromit. As an iconofthe playwright's

and tranquil,

posturereposed and dignified,


is inwardly a poet-

working class

clothingsuggestsphysi- is inwardly a poet- working class YaleCollectionofAmerican L i t e r a t u

YaleCollectionofAmerican Literature, BeineckeRareBookand Manuscript Library,YaleUniversity

Twentieth-Century Literature49.4



Eugene O'Neillandthe Working Class

lifeand work, O'Neill'ssailor's jersey hasbeen variouslyinterpreted, but

itwas certainly morethan just a souvenirofhislast voyage asa seaman.


O'Neillwascarefultomentionhis apprenticeship asa common sailor,

often adding other working-class credentials,including a stint doing "manual workfortheSwift Packingpeople"(qtd. inMindil 4), but rarely failing todrawattentiontowhatthe jersey certified-thathe"became anableseamanontheAmericanLine ships" and spent almostalloftwo years atsea.Morethan20 years afterhehadlefthis seafaringlife, histhird wifeCarlottahadthemoth-eatensweatermendedand presented itto

him; the gift lefthim speechless with pleasure(Sheaffer197). Allhis life, O'Neill kept the jersey.

expressed "thefirstoutward




formsweaterwithboldwhiteletters spelling outAmericanLine bespoke

nearlyevery interviewhe

gaveduring thefirstdecadeofhis career,


recent biographerinterprets

the significance


ofthe jersey insome-


that Eugenemight everhavetheleastsuccessintheworld

self-supporting"(Black115). On another level,however, theuni-

not conventionality

rejection ofmiddle-classcanons. In 1916, O'Neillseemstohave attempted tousehissailor'suniform

tofacilitatehisfirst entry intothetheater.Atthe age of 28, five years after hissea voyages, hedonnedhisoldAmericanLine jersey forhisarrivalin ProvincetownandhisauditionwiththeProvincetown Players,costuming

himselfasa seasonedseamanand carrying a sailor's knapsack fullof plays.

"Dressed slackly likea

cometotown trampishly"(Kemp95),apparentlydrawing ona somewhat

remote seagoingexperience tolend credibility tohiscurrentdramatic

efforts.Thedecisionto present himselfasa workertotheProvincetown-

erswas shrewd; the Players themselvesworeflannelshirtsto identify with the working class. Partly becausesomeofthe originalPlayers saw through O'Neill's

stagedworking-classidentity2 and partly becausethe play he initially

offeredtotheProvincetownerswas "a

O'Neill'sfirst tryout didnot go well.Atthesecond meeting between

O'Neillandthe Players,however,"somethingdecidedly clicked" (Kemp 96). When"BoundEastforCardiff"a one-act play aboutthedeathof

a commonseamanina ship'sforecastle, wasreadfortheProvincetown

group,approval was unanimous.Itwas"the breakthroughthey had hoped

butits denial,symbolizing

a determinedifconflicted

sailorwhohad justjumpedship," O'Neill"had



Patrick J. Chura


thisO'Neill reading, "Then we knewwhatwe werefor" (254). As

Kemp explained, "This time no one doubted thathere was a genuine

playwright"(96). Ifthe fledgling theatrical company had founditsdra-

matist, the dramatisthad

error, a social themeand artisticformulathatwould sustainhis rise to

prominence. Though "Bound East" maylegitimately be calledan innovative play, its attempt to provide themiddleclasswithintimateaccessto working- class reality was not an unusualsocial phenomenon or artisticthemein

the 1910s. Numerous nonfictional downclassingexperimentssuggest a high levelofhistoricalconcernwithboth experimentally motivatedand reform-drivenaffiliationwith the lower classes by genteelinterlopers beginning aroundthe 1880s and peaking-along withthe furthermost inroadsof socialisminto American politics-in the decade and a half

preceding WorldWar I.4 Mark Pittenger'sstudy of nonfictionnarratives producedby middle-classwriterswho "passed" as poor workersin order

to investigate the underclassor experiencepoverty identifies49 such textsin the Progressive eraalone (55). By the 1910s, a new phrase-"vital contact"5-had become current among rebelliousHarvard undergradu-

ates and New York politicalliberals, giving a name to the frequent ex-

perimental interactionbetween

Stansell'srecent work, American Moderns, observesthat"vitalcontact," a

termin general use in the pre-World War I decade,"distilled an ethosof

cross-class exchange"(64).The theory was that "privilegedyouth enervated by overeducationand overrefinementand that they could re-

vivify themselves through contactwith supposedlysimpler,hardier, more spiritedpeople" (61). For male seekersof "vital contact," classdescent ideally resultedin

a restoredmasculine identitythrough the exchange of the softening conditionsof privileged lifeforthe ruggedhardships of a laborenviron-

ment.6 Intertwining masculineself-renewalwith themesof

cape,downclassing mirrored aspects ofTheodoreRoosevelt'sideal ofthe


male selfhood in thelateVictorian

link between Roosevelt'smasculineideal

Progressive erain TheVarieties ofReligiousExperience(1902). Searching for

a vibrant, creativemiddle ground betweenwhathe termed "military" and


11). Susan Glaspell's Provincetownmemoirrecallsthatafter


also discovered, apparentlythrough trialand


radicalsand workers.Christine


pastoral es-

a methodof physicallyrebuildingoverly domesticated

age.WilliamJames made explicit the

and the downclassing of the


Eugene O'Neill andthe Working Class

"saintly" asceticism, James concludedthatsocioeconomicself-denialwas


ous life,' withoutthe need of

directly to Roosevelt'sbehavioralstandardand


snobbery,cautioningagainst materialmeasuresofsocial worth, and con- demning the obscene acquisition of wealththatcharacterizedturn-of-

that "poverty indeed is the strenuouslife"while

logical answer: "May not voluntarilyacceptedpoverty be 'thestrenu-

crushing weaker peoples?" (367). Alluding


the-century finance capitalism. Not surprisingly, female"vitalcontact"differedfromthemale model,

producing foritsdevoteesa differentkindof sociologicalauthority.When Jane Addams foundedHull House in 1889 in one of Chicago's most

impoverished wards, her example inspired educated upper-classyoung women in Chicago and severalothernortherncitiesto relinquish mate- rial comfortsto live and work among the poor. The female paradigm of the proletarianjourney in the Progressive era involvedameliorative

social work, not simplypassingthrough and embodying the lower class but reformingit-actively inculcatingbourgeois moral,spiritual, and aestheticstandards among working-classsubjects.Through theirdesire

to nurtureand make overthelowerclassesin theirown

image, maidsat Hull House" embodied a surrogate maternalfunctionthatat-

tenuatedtheirdeclarationsof sexual independence and bespoke only a partial liberationfromtheconventionsof gender. In addition to these models of class interaction, the Patersonsilk

workers'strikeof 1913

classinteraction during theformative period ofO'Neill's dramaticcareer.

The Patersonstrike brought Bohemianintellectualsand the working class

together before 20,000 spectators on the stage of Madison Square Gar- den to createthe spectacular PatersonStrike Pageant, an unprecedented

display of possibilities forcross-class unity thatis now understood by art historiansas "an important incidentin the history of radicalself-con-

sciousnessand in the

Pageant-which reenactedeventsfromthe Patersonstrikeas a way of publicizing theviolent reality ofthe classwarand raisingmoney forthe strike fund-forged an innovativecoalition between striking workers and leisure-class intellectuals, exemplified a fascinating ideal of societal

history of public art" (Nochlin 64). The Paterson



an influentialtheatrical display ofcross-

revitalization, and produced an expressive,revolutionary dramatictextthat is still activelybeinginterpreted.7 As the principal forcebehindthe pag- eant,Harvard graduate and Greenwich Village radical John Reed exerted


Patrick J. Chura

enormous influence on publicperceptions ofthestrikein particular and theclasswarin general.8

A numberofthe founding membersoftheProvincetown Players had

beeninvolvedin or

awaitedO'Neill at Provincetownin 1916wasa highly class-conscious

group of politicallyengaged artistswhowere particularlyreceptive tothe


ably themost dynamic memberofthe Players in 1916; hewasthe group's

coleaderandauthorofthe Players' constitution.Reed's play Freedomwas performed in Provincetownin thesamesummeras O'Neill'sauthorial debutin "BoundEastfor Cardiff," whichReed actedin. In termsof personality, "O'Neill sharedwithReed thatdrivetorubelbowswiththe

tough lower-classelementsof

asvisiblean influence inReed'sPaterson experience asitisinO'Neill's

early lifeand

Reed's influencethatfirst brought himto Provincetown.'o

present atthePaterson Pageant,ensuring thatwhat

dramatizingworking-classexperience.9 Reed himselfwas prob-


a drivethatis

earlyplays.Years laterO'Neill acknowledged thatit was


was "particularly instrumentalin developing the Players"

1915.Twoyears before founding the Players, Cook hadsat


given him insight

Reed andCook were

(Rosenstone248), he didso incoalitionwith George Cram "Jig"Cook,

the Players' artistic director, whohad organized the group's firstseasonin


enthralledatthePaterson Pageant, whichhe saidhad

into"whatthetheater might be"



the primitivegroup." Thatsuch languagecuriously resembles eye-witness descriptions ofthePaterson Pageant is perhaps notcoincidental.Cook

hadreferredtothe pageant as"thefirstlabor play" and

the "feeling ofoneness"withthestrikersthatReed had

in Glaspell250).Thus theartisticstancesofbothofO'Neill's

laboratorsatProvincetownwerein some way derivativeofPaterson.As atleastonehistorianofAmericantheaterhas noted,"The PatersonStrike

Pageantprepared the way fortheProvincetown plays"(Egan106)."

"thefirsttobelieve"intheProvincetown Players' ideaofan

provide "vitaldrama" byportraying "the passion of



major col-

The pageant's artisticsuccesswas undeniable, butthe


upon whichReed's Patersoninterventionhad been predicated were

infinitely more complicated. In financial terms, for example, the pageant wasa fiascothat actually lost money forthestrike fund; intermsofstriker

solidarity, theeffort may havebeenevenmoreharmful.Whetherornot

organizers likeReed fully realizeditat thetime,theirexertionscaused


Eugene O'Neill andthe Working Class

enormous disharmony and a loss ofmorale among theworkers they had meantto help.12Though Reed himselfcame to embody an example of class cooperation thatis still legendary in theannalsoftheAmerican Left, itis likely thathis personal actionswere ultimately deleteriousto thecause ofthe strikers.13 Foremost among the problematic lessonsadumbratedat Patersonwas the crucialindication-clear in hindsight but apparently not to the Patersonactivists-of the impracticability of political union


a middle-classradical/dramatistfirst seamlessly crossclassesand "be" a

worker, then interpret workers'livesin

in theclass struggle? What aretherealeffects-forbothdownclasserand

working-classsubject-of classbarrier transgression?

laboring classand sympatheticbourgeois intellectuals.Could

ways that ultimately aided them

O'Neill seems to have been

Judgingby his early career, Eugene

extremelyintriguedby these questions. In his earlyplays, O'Neill repeat- edlyexplored situationsthatwould haveboth troubledthe pageant and

complicated the thinking of the settlementmovement-situationsthat

suggested thatthe

limitationsoftheHull House paradigm of"vital contact," were ultimately

notloston the

O'Neill's actions,

the viability of"vitalcontact"as a methodofbothself-realizationand so-


the relationbetween O'Neill's personal "vital contact"and the deeper

theorizationof identically situatedclassissuesin his early dramais de- fined by disillusionment-disillusionment engenderedby a willingness to confrontthecontradictionsand potentiallynegative effectsof cross-class interaction.

harshlessonsfrom Paterson, along withthe


self-proclaimedsailor-playwright.The resultis thatwhile

public persona, and public discourse explicitlyaccept

sanguine conclusions.14 Moreover,

progress, his playsbetrayother,less


Pfisterhasreferredto O'Neill's roleas authorofthe early Glen-

guide" fora middleand upper classthatwas

cairn plays as thatofa "tour

"fascinated by exhibitsof 'exotic' workers" (109). This formulaseems applicable not only to O'Neill's auditionin Provincetownbutalso to the premierevening of"Bound East forCardiff"-the firstO'Neill work

ever produced-on 28 July 1916.The atmosphere in the wharf theater, notesSusan Glaspell, recreatedthe feeling of a ship at sea:"There was a

fog,just as the scriptdemanded, and a fog bell

in, and itwashedunderus and around, sprayingthrough theholesin the

floor, giving us the rhythm and the flavorof the

indicates,"the people who had seen

in theharbor.Thetidewas


(254). As Glaspell

the plays, and the people who gave


Patrick J. Chura

them, wereadventurers together.Thespectators were


What the spectators sawwas"a kindofrealismand naturalism unexplored


theAmerican stage"(Pfister109), a new type of dramawitha focus on the working-classsubject as its crucial element.In the play,Kemp

recalls, "we

reality of their lives; we feltthemotionand windy, wave beaten urge of

a ship"(96). For the Provincetown group, the play confirmedthatO'Neill's as- sumption oftheoutwardmarkersofthe laboring class-a classidentifica- tion previouslyjudged dubious-was not shallowor exteriorbut deep,

visceral, and genuineenough

playwright'sadopted sailor's clothing was certainlypart of the equation, what impressed the group about O'Neill had more to do withthe illu-

sion thatthis play fostered-thecreationofa formofshared experience betweentheclasses.

part ofthe

heardtheactual speech ofmen who go to sea; we sharedthe

to move middle-classaudiences.Whilethe

Several criticshave viewed the play as a


in theater

history, and the long-term collaborationbetweenO'Neill and theProv-

incetown Players that began withthis play as a milestonein the develop- mentofAmerican drama.15 The artisticmeritsoftheworkstemfromits plausible treatmentof tragic emotionsunderlower-classconditionsandits

accurate rendering of working-class dialect.As Pfisterhas noted, O'Neill's

lasthoursofa sailor'slifein the stifling forecastle

"brought the lower classlifeand idiom to theAmerican stage" (109).

The play'ssetting, considered along withO'Neill's self-identificationas a

common seaman,suggests the correspondence betweenwhatReed and "Jig" Cook termed"nativeart" (qtd. in Glaspell252) and radicalsocial

theory. Considering the reception of O'Neill's earlysubject matter among not only the Provincetown players but also the wharftheater audience,

the playgoingexperience as described by Glaspell indicatesthe ways in which O'Neill's dramasatisfiedtheneeds ofa middleclass seeking self- validationin the laboring class.Eric Schocketdescribesthis process as

"middleclass angst cured

inherentalso in thePaterson Pageant.Glaspell's recollectionsofO'Neill's

premier are curiously similarin vocabulary to famousaccountsof the


say theold wharfshookwith applause

movingproduction"(254). Like thePaterson Pageant, the play's catharsis

depiction ofthe lonely


a formofwhichwas

the pageant: "It is not merelyfigurativelanguage to

I haveneversatbeforea more


Eugene O'Neill andthe Working Class

would havebeen a joint functionofitsaesthetic power and itsrolein al-


Thus O'Neill's propitiousmerging ofsailor's garb withsailors'livesis

theaudience to experience a substituteformof"vitalcontact."

problematic. It may indicate that, in gaining hisfirst professional foothold in Provincetown, O'Neill presaged and intentionally accommodatedhis audience'sdesireto formlower-classaffiliations.It may suggest thatat


may did both.In anycase, Glaspell's observationthat"The sea hasbeen good


importance of the sailor'sworld-the locus of theauthor's personal en-

counterwith the lower classes-among O'Neill's distinguishing artistic innovations. An equallyimportant but rarely considereddocumentfromO'Neill's

early careeris the

Equation," one of O'Neill's

same timehe wrote"Bound East," or about one year beforehis arrival in Provincetown.This playsuggests the degree to which O'Neill, from

the inception of his career, had been interestedin the politicalmeaning and psychological effectsof cross-classinteraction.The centralcharacter isTom Perkins, a middle-class college dropout who has become a radi- cal laboractivistas a memberof the InternationalWorkersof theEarth

(IWE). Described by O'Neill as "a broken-down college

protagonist is in several ways a self-portrait of the young


age as O'Neill would havebeen in the play's 1911 setting, and he ships as

a stokeron an ocean linerand

in Liverpool, as O'Neill did in hisfirstsea voyage. Like themiddle-class

radicalsat Paterson, Tom has trouble finding a tenable position on either side of theclasswar.The laboractivist Enwright notesthathe "isn'tour type"(8) and attributesTom'smotivesto eitherhislove forthebeautiful



When the playopens, Tom is the picture of vacillating radicalcom- mitment. Among the radicalsof the IWE, as O'Neill's stage directions

indicate, "His manneris one

note of defiance creeping in

mentand was determinedto live it down" (8). Tom'slove for Olga has

of boyishly naiveenthusiasmwitha certain as ifhe were fighting an inwardembarrass-


of his career, O'Neill


certain premises of mean thathe


"vitalcontact"as an ideal formof classinteraction.It

Eugene O'Neill. It was thereforhis opening"(254)

unpublished and unperformedplay "The Personal

firstdramatic efforts, completed about the

boy" (9), the

O'Neill (Floyd he is the same


experience in the play is similarto O'Neill's:

witnesses preparations fora general strike

Olga or a puerile combinationof "curiosity" and "craving


Patrick J. Chura

ledhimintotheinnercircleofthe IWE, wherehe isinformedthatthe

organizationplans to usehimina project thatwillinvolvea riskofim-

prisonment ordeath.He

proving the depth ofhislabor-classcommitmenttohimselfandto Olga.

Whenhe learnsthattheschemeinvolvesthe

roomoftheSS San Francisco, the veryship on whichhisfatherissecond

engineer, he stilldoes nothesitate.The climacticmomentof the play

pits Tom against hisfatherin a confrontationovercontrolofthe engine

room.16 HereTom'sfatherholdsat bay a crowdofstrikersled by his son,

whoisintenton smashing the ship'sengines, towhichtheelderPerkins

feelsa strongattachment.17 Perkinsisthusforcedto choosebetweenhis

loveforthe engines andhisloveforhisson.Whenhewoundshissonin defenseofthe engines, hedemonstrateshis allegiance to capitalist indus-

trial purposes and capitalist-definedaspirations. The play's finalsceneisina hospital weeksaftertheincident.Adoc-

tor explains to Perkinsand

nevertheless accepts the assignment asa

way of

dynamiting ofthe engine

Olga thatthemaimedTomwill probably be


thathe neverintendedto harmTom.

callsthem"blindfools" (75) and expresses her

pregnant. Atthe play'sclose, the principal

as conventionalhusbandand



"likea childfortherestofhislife" (69).Ironically, Perkinshasreceived

chief engineer forthestandhe took against thestrik-

a promotion to

ers,though he explains to

Meanwhile, warhasbrokenoutin Europe, andthe "great radicalleaders"

(74) havedecidedto forgo therevolutionin orderto "crushGerman


lasting faithinsocial revolution, she personally withdrawsfromtheradical

movementinordertobecomeTom's caretaker,nurse, andthemotherof

Tom's child, withwhichsheis


Olga wife, andTomandPerkinsas fatherandson. They willalllive

in thecomfortablemiddle-classhomethatwasto be Perkins's wedding

present toTomand Olga-the home that, asO'Neill indicates, hadbeen

"meant" (70) forthemall

In "The Personal Equation," thefinalreconciliationof thethree principals belies thesocialand political conflictsthathadalienatedthem fromeach other,suggesting thatthedownwardaffiliationsofradicalsare only as deep as a needfor personal fulfillmentthat is, after all, available

withinthe parameters ofa bourgeoissociety.Olga,

for example, realizes

thatshelovesTommorethanshedoestheclasswarandembracesthe traditionalsocialrolesofmotherandcaretaker.Tom disguises himselfas

a workerand rejects the bourgeois moral code, but because of deeper


Eugene O'Neill andthe Working Class

commitmentswithinhisown class milieu, he is lessthan completely viable

as a revolutionary.

A similar development and class trajectory are apparent in the history

of the Paterson Pageant and John Reed, who claimedthathe belonged


sureclass.Tom's politics and theactionsofReed were motivated, atleast

in part,by "curiosity,""craving

a woman who took the side of social revolution. Referring to Tom's

radicalism,Olga remarks, "he was doing it only forme"

compleximpulses have played themselves out,Tom's revolutionary activ- ity becomes recognizable as only an approximation ofhisrealdesiresand permanent commitments.

It is interesting to note thatPerkins's 30-year love for his ship's

the workersbut ultimately returnedto the comfortsof the lei-

for adventure," and a desireto impress

(71). Afterhis


Tom's affiliationwith radicalsis belittled.At the end of the play, when

Olga sees what the classwar has done to Tom, she profuselyapologizes both to him and to his fatherfor leading him into theconflict.Consid- ering thatthe crux of the divisionbetweenTom and Perkinshad been

one of classaffiliation-asTom

another"-O'Neill's playultimately affirmsthe superiority not only of familialtiesbut of innate, intrinsicclass loyalties over those formedin response to theextrinsic ideologicalpromptings ofradicalism.Thedown- classeris physically maimed, and the idealsoflaboractivism are,though

not fullydismissed, subordinatedto whatare positioned as deeperpsychic promptings-romantic love and familialaffiliation.This dialecticessen-

tially describesradicalismand class-transgressingideology as temporary

and ineffectualsubstitutesforthe genuine psychological needs of middleclass.

is validated by the

play's denouement, while


in one worldand I'm in


Not until 1922, with The HairyApe, would O'Neill develop an


terpretation ofcross-classrelationsthat fully revealsthe split betweenthe

personae of seamanand playwright, betweenthe sailor-poet who both assumedand acted upon the ability to translate perception acrossclass

boundariesand the more deeply questioning artistwho perceived the disablingparadoxes of downclassingexpeditions. In The HairyApe, the contactbetweenclassesintendedto resultin mutual understanding is pre- sentedas a violentconfrontationthat producesonlyheightenedsuffering and alienationon both sidesof the classdivide.The unmistakable apex of the play's dramaticaction is a harrowing cross-classencounter-the


Patrick J. Chura

face-to-face meeting between Mildred Douglas, a self-absorbedsocial

workeron a slummingexpedition, and Yank, a powerful,hairy-chested, coal-blackened engine roomstoker.The meaning ofthe play derivesfrom the confusionthatoccurs inYank'ssense of selfas a resultof Mildred's

intrusionintothe stokeholels-anintrusionthat epitomizes a potentially harmfulsocial transactionbasic to both reform-drivenand adventure- driven"vitalcontact."

cramped stokehole,

where"the ceiling crushesdown on the men'sheads" (121) and theat-

titudesof the stooping,proto-simian workers suggest beastsin a cage,

"imprisonedby white

modusvivendiwithinthe capitalistsystem, a

Mildred's emptyposing


stokeholeworkers "a self-expression, the very last word

are."Yankis the authorityamong

as "home" (124). He is self-aggrandizing,arrogant,given to outburstsof rage, and he exultsin his ability to cause the ship to move, giving him a

formofcontroloverhisenvironment.As he sees it, he is a servantofthe

ship'sengine, but the engine also

thewoild moves" (128).Yank has

as "self-cohesiveness" (415), a sustaining senseofselfthatenableshim to

functionwithina milieu to which he has adapted both physically and

emotionally.The central enabling constructof Yank'ssenseof well-being is a beliefthathe is superior to the upper classes."We'rebettermen dan

dey are" (125),Yank asserts:"One of us

mob wit one mit

in what they

thestokersand refersto thestokehole


play'sopening scene presents life in the

steel."As the action begins,Yank has achieveda

position more fulfilling than


as a sinceresocial reformer.As the"most

individual"in the fireman's forecastle,Yank represents to the

responds to him: "I start somepin and achievedwhatMaria Miliora refersto


could clean


de whole

Dem boids don'tamountto nothin."WhileYank's

relationto hislaborand to theworld mayexemplify whatMilioraterms

a "blissful grandiosefantasy"(419), he nevertheless"feels relatively cohe-


The firstassaultonYank'scohesivenesscomesfrom Long, thesocial- istactivistwho attempts to induceYank to embraceclassconsciousness

by blanketing his experience in the vocabulary of the classwar. Calling

the stokers"Comrades" (125) who have been made "wage slaves"

"the damned

of superficiallyreordering Yank'srelationto his environment.ButYank


he has heardbefore.His responseemphasizes two points.First,Long's

because his selfobject needsaremet


hissocialmilieu" (418).



Capitalist clarss," Long

offerssocialist terminology as a

theorizationoflaboras"Salvation Army-Socialist bull"that


Eugene O'Neill andthe Working Class

view involvesa loss of masculinity because it respondsverbally rather

than physically to materialconditions:"Talk is

"the job"

tion, Long is called cowardly and reminded that"we don't need no

one cryin' over us .

ism involvesan unwelcome

of the laboring class-a cancellationofYank's fantasy of cohesiveness:

"Slaves, hell!We runde whole woiks" (129).Yank'scontempt for Long's outlook thereforestemsfromits implicit denial of his superior relation

to the higher-ups on thesocialscale.

Yank because his"talk"is insufficientto induceYank to contemplate an

interconnectedrelationbetweenthe upper andlowerclasses:"What'sdem slobsin thefoistcabin got to do wit us?" (125). Later in scene 1, the Irishman Paddy attempts to awakenYank to anotheressentialfeatureof modern working-class life-alienation from contactwitha naturalenvironmentas a resultof technologicalprogress.



part of the ship, and the sea joined

Yank's response is to claiman identity thathe admitsis "new stuff"but

apparently no less spirituallysatisfying because he feelshimselfa part of

the engines. Not needing

Yank resolvesto "eat

Long:"I belong and he don't" (128).ThusYank's stateof being

allowshimbothto functionin a manufactured security and to be a "man" to himself-an insular position, butone tenable enough to withstandas-

saultsfromwithinhisown class. Scene 2 introducesand describesMildred


thrillsof social service"

is attempting to use her influenceas the daughter of a steel

arrange a

lives."Mildredis now on her way to England on a journey herauntrefers

Yank, she is outwardlyarrogant

about the position-a credentialedworkerforsocial reform-thatshe

has achievedwithinher own milieu, but her

to as a "slumming international."Like

cheap,"Long is told, and

that"takes a man" is what "belongs." Under Yank's direc-

.Makin' speeches"(128). Second, Long's social-


recognition of the inherent powerlessness


failsto influence

nostalgically describesthe now-numbered days of sailing vessels,

belonged to ships

a ship was part ofthe sea, and a manwas


together and made it one" (126).


thewind and the sun to which Paddy refers,

the coal dust"and dismisses Paddy as he does

in scene 1

Douglas, experiencing the"morbid

a "bored" do-

who has been playing at social work,


on New York'sLower East Side, and who



tourofthe ship's stokeholein orderto "see how theotherhalf

"superiority"(130) is "dis-

contented"and "disdainful"even towardherformidableaunt. The conversationbetweenthetwo women on the promenade deck


Patrick J. Chura

suggests a stronglycynical viewofMildredand indirectly ofthemotives of thefemalesettlementworkerswho were conspicuous in the play's early-twentieth-centurysetting.Effectivelyforeshadowing thetransaction betweenMildredand Yank, theaunt states, "How they musthavehated

you,by the way, the poor that you madeso


socialwork practicedby

sincerity, heraunt scornfully

refersto heras"artificial" (130) in hersocialconcernanda

her expressed desiretofinda "newthrill"and"touchlife" byvisiting the

stokehole.Described by O'Neill in relationto thenaturalenvironment

lowerclasses. Despite Mildred'sclaimsof

much poorer in their eyes"

Conflictthusderivesfromtheaunt's perception thatthe type of


actually a formof predation on the

"poser" in


ofthe sea, Mildredis "incongruous

stage directions indicate, Mildred's possibilities for sincerity and


havebeen"bredoutofher" by an effeteclasswithneither vitality nor integrity-a classwhose ostensibly ameliorativeefforts only furtherde-

grade the poor. The crucialmomentof the play is thebriefbutintensescene3 confrontationin thestokeholebetweenMildredandYank. During this

encounter, O'Neill's stage directionsindicatethatYank"feelshimself

insultedinsomeunknownfashionin the very heartofhis

In generalterms, theeffectonYankis twofold:it"makeshim

awareofhissocial inferiority and suddenly consciousofhis inadequa-

ciesas a

aboutthemannerinwhichYankisvictimized byMildred, we ascertain

essentialsabouttheclass relationship asO'Neill

hiscreativeassociationwiththeProvincetown Players. AsthenumerousdisdainfulallusionstoMildredasa "skoit" (for ex- ample142)confirm, issuesofbothclassand gender areatthecoreofthe

encounter.The ship'sengine that givesYank his identity, andwhichYank

is in the

unequivocally feminine, but"she"isalsothefocusoftumultuous activity thatbears strong connotationsofa frenziedsexualact-a fact insistently

indicated by Yank's repeated exhortationsto

open her up!

her!" (135). Forher part, Mildredseekscontactwiththelowerclasses

not simply inorderto enhancehersocialservicecredentialsbutasa re-

sponse to

She entersthestokeholebecauseshe"wouldliketobe sincere,to touch



human being"(Floyd241).


attempting tofathom particulars

pictured itatthe peak of

process of servicing as Mildred intrudes, is not onlyfigured as

trowitintoher belly!


some grub in her


sling itinto

psychological deficiencies including sublimatedsexualdesires.


Eugene O'Neill andthe Working Class

lifesomewhere" (131). When the anemic,pale,"slender, delicate" (130) Mildred appears dressedin white, sheseemsan attenuatedfeminine entity, one whose vitality hasbeen "sapped beforeshewas conceived."She lacks


his every movement.In the stokehole,Yank's "nakedand shameless" (137)

masculinity is appalling to Mildred. Having been interrupted in hisfuri- ous and sexuallychargedstoking of the engine,Yank turnsa gaze upon


themomentoftheir interaction, "he his eyes bore into her."As O'Neill

"crushed"in the stokehole.That the symbolicrape Yank enacts destroys both him and her-that theirvictimizationis mutual-is a figurative indicationof the depth of effectand potential trauma that, as O'Neill

undoubtedlyrealized, could be comprehendedby thecross-classtransac-

tion, an exchange thatcould not but reproduce several types of psychic and social powerdisparities-for which rape is an apt metaphor. This relationis further emphasizedby the surroundinggroup of

workers, who witnesstheYank-Mildred encounterand sense a

emotional parley betweenthem.


in love" with Mildred.Yank retorts,"Love, Hell! Hate, dat'swhat. I've

fallenin hate,

tellone fromtheother"elucidatesthe potentiallydestructive, ambivalent

relationship at thecenterofcross-classcontact.

energy of thekind thatflows naturally fromYank and permeates

physicallymenacing and suggestive ofsexual penetration. At

glares intoher eyes, turnedto stone

indicates, her"whole

personality" is


tauntsYank with having "fallen


me?" Paddy's remarkthat"Twould takea wise man to


this bipolar class relation, Robert J. Andreachtheorizes

to hatredbecause she

encounter, asAndreach pointsout,Yank's fury"changes


to awaken him.As he awakenshis love

changes rejects him" (53). By her verypresence, MildredawakensYankto the pur- poselessness oflabor-classlifewithout offering therealchanceof anything

higher. Afterthe

fromthatof a spurned loverto thatof a betrayedquestor." His quest is

a searchfor identitypromptedby the complex awakening or awareness aroused by Mildred.Yankis bewilderedsincehe cannotunderstandwhat

motivates Mildred, whatshe seeksin the

awakenhimto a realityhigher thanhimself:"I don't

me.Whatdoes a skoitlikeher

in seeking"reality" Mildredis driven by thesame need forcohesiveness that compels him.The "reality" she seeks through a downclassingforay eludes her, and she is instead deeply harmed by her awarenessof Yank.

stokehole, and why she would


her.She'snew to

mean, huh?" (142).Yank cannotknow that


Patrick J. Chura

That relationsbetweenlaborerand downclasserare inevitably destructive underscoresthe ways that downclassingforays are not exempt fromthe

identical power


disparity in thefirst place.

While Mildred'sintrusioninto the stokehole

stages the disabling

paradox of"vital contact," it is not the onlyexample of psychologically disruptive cross-classcontactin the drama.The playmay be viewed as a

seriesofcalculated trespassings ofclass boundaries,punctuated withdra-