Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 168: Eugene O’Neill, In the Zone (#148)

Eugene O’Neill, "In the Zone" (1919) reprinted in Eugene O’Neill: Complete Plays 1913–1920:

A bunch of swabbies on a cargo ship suspect this one weird seaman might be a German spy or saboteur; so naturally they go through his stuff and read out his letters... which show that he's nothing more than a drunk who has lost the woman he loves through his drinking. (Which is somewhat reminiscent of his one published short story, "Tomorrow.")

Plays are curious things, existing both as literary objects (exemplified in the long tradition of the "closet drama," i.e., a play never meant to be performed but only read) and as blueprints for another medium. Reading this play, I see bits that would be difficult to get across naturalistically as given; for instance, we hear the date and time in the description rather than the dialogue. There are ways to loosely depict that--showing period items, putting in a calendar or a clock--but none of that is specified. So saying the time seems more like a message to the reader rather than the audience. (The time, in fact, is not all the important to the action, so it's not super important to get that info across.)

But "In the Zone" also has so many different accents that I think it would be played more easily than read: the reader has to keep in mind which one is Driscoll and which one is Scotty in a way that's done for you by actors. Though, as you may be able to tell from those names, O'Neill tries to make it easier by making everyone talk in very broad accents.

Somewhat like the classic Twilight Zone "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," the story here is of suspicion; but unlike that story, this story sticks with the relatively linear suspicion and never branches out into paranoia: the swabbies all suspect Smitty, they never veer from that suspicion, and that suspicion just sort of builds through them talking about it, rather than any ratcheting up of the plot. Perhaps that's why this is only a one-act play, because there's not much plot to keep it moving?

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