27 Eugene O’Neill: Thirst

Ms. Safia Begum

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This module introduces you to the renowned playwright Eugene O’Neill and more specifically to his play Thirst. First, in this section you will be introduced to the life, career and other writings of Eugene O’Neill. Later on in this module you would learn about the play, its themes, critical analysis and other aspects.

About the Playwright:


Eugene Gladstone O’Neill (16th October 1888 – 27th November, 1953) is one of the foremost American playwrights who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1936. He was born to James O’Neill and Ella. His father James O’Neill was accomplished touring actor and Eugene O’Neill grew up in this atmosphere. He spent his childhood touring around with his parents living in hotel rooms, trains and backstage which he disliked. Later, he was sent to boarding schools St. Vincent and Betts Academy in Stamford. He also went to the Princeton University but left it within a year. After this he started his real life education to which he called “life experience”1. The next six years were difficult for him and once he even tried to commit suicide. During this time he suffered from tuberculosis and was confined into a sanatorium for six months. He recovered and decided to live his second life2 and he called it a rebirth. He began to write plays.


O’Neill’s journey as a playwright began in 1916 in the village of Provincetown, Mass. Here a group of young writers and painters launched an experimental theatre called The Playwrights Theatre and they produced O’Neill’s first play Bound East for Cardiff. Initially O’Neill started with melodramatic plays that dealt with the issues like prostitution, loneliness of sailors, injustice etc. However, in American literary scenario till that time such subjects were considered to be fit for novels and not for the stage. But gradually audiences appreciated his plays and the Playwrights’ Theatre began to attract more attention.


His major play Beyond the Horizon (1918) established him as a renowned playwright and brought him his first Pulitzer Prize. Later his other three works Anna Christie, Strange Interlude and Long Day’s Journey into Night also received Pulitzer Prizes. In the upcoming decades O’Neill became one of the mostly translated playwrights after Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. Eugene died on 27th November, 1953 and his last words were “I knew it. I knew it! Born in a goddam hotel room and dying in a hotel room!”.

Works of Eugene O’Neill: 

The following are the works of Eugene O’Neill as per their year of publication.


Bound East for Cardiff (1914), Before Breakfast (1916), The Long Voyage Home (1917), In the Zone (1917), The Moon of the Carabbess (1917), Ile (1917), The Rope (1918), Beyond the Horizon (1918), The Dreamy Kid (1918), Where the Cross is Made (1918), The Straw (1919), Gold (1920), Anna Christie (1920), The Emperor Jones (1920), Different (1920), The First Man (1921), The Fountain (1921-22), The Hairy Ape (1921), Welded (1922), All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1923), Desire Under the Elms (1924), Marco Millions (1923-25), The Great God Brown (1925), Lazarus Laughed (1926), Strange Interlude (1926-27), Dynamo (1928), Mourning Becomes Electra (1929-31), Ah, Wilderness (1932), Days Without End (1932-33)Later from 1934 till his death that is up to 1953 Eugene produced two more works The Iceman Cometh (1946) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1952).

Literary Style of Eugene O’Neill:


Eugene O’Neill is known for his characters, their appearance, expressions and especially stage directions in detail. Before the play begins his stage directions highlights the nature of play which was not so common before him. For example he even names every book to be kept in on which book shelf, mentions time, day and describes different rooms. Eugene brought this newness in American theatre scenario. This precision and detailing of both characters and stage is marked as his style.


However, it is difficult to define his style in an exact manner because “…At different times, and sometimes within the same framework, he is a naturalist, a romanticist, an impressionist, a symbolist and expressionist, often bordering on the surreal. He is an empiricist, a psychoanalyst, and a mystagogue.”5 This makes difficult to categorise  and define his style in simple terms as he gives different layers of meaning to his work by mixing distinct ‘isms’ into one frame. He also gives suggestive titles and use Greek styles structure.

Background of the Play:


The play Thirst was written in 1913 when Eugene O’Neill was living in New London, CT. He was then recently released from sanatorium after his successful treatment of tuberculosis. While writing Thirst he wrote two other plays which are also based on shipwreck. These stories are partially influence d by the traumatic sinking incident of Titanic that took place in 1912 which has prompted him to write these plays based on shipwreck.


Setting of the Play:


O’Neill’s feeling of the presence of an ironic force against which man fights his self- destructive struggle is communicated to the audience through his meticulous and suggestive stage direction which is more effective than themes and dialogues in the play. Due to his relentless interventions as an author in the stage directions of Thirst as well as in other plays; O’Neill’s plays are often called director proof and actor proof. He often incurred wraths from the directors by creating confusion among the actors who found it nearly difficult to act out what the dramatist wanted. The stage directions in Thirst and in other plays succeeded in conveying the symbolic meaning and feeling of the dramatist himself behind every move of the play.


As in his other plays, in Thirst, O’Neill has made an ample use of his sea-roving experiences throughout which has bought the atmospheric and structural symbolism into the work. The loneliness and triviality of man in the vast unsympathetic universe is suggested poignantly in the opening and also in the closing of the play which have an almost Existentialist bearing. The play opens with an image of stasis and frozen time. The sun burns motionlessly overhead; the surface of the glassy sea is still; the sharks encircle the undulating raft giving an impression of near-motionlessness of the eye. The stasis is concretized even more at the end when the sharks are no longer there; the sun continues blazing like a great angry eye of God and the eerie heat waves float upward in the still air. Thus, the opening and the closing of the play give the symbolic impression of the characters being succumbed to an implacable Fate where human beings are very much powerless.


Plot and Summary of the Play:


The play opens to a scene where three survivors of a shipwreck, a Gentleman, a Dancer and a Sailor are in a raft. The Gentleman is in his formal evening dress that is now tattered due to the shipwreck. The Dancer is in a short-skirted costume of ‘black velvet covered with spangles’. The other character is a West Indian Mulatto Sailor who is one of the crew members of the ship. The Sailor opens the play with his monotonous song when his eyes constantly follow the shark fins that have circled the raft. The sharks continue to round and do not seem to be in a mood to cease their activity for a moment. The Dancer starts sobbing in the blistering heat without water and food, surrounded by sharks and possibly no one to rescue.


Then the play presents the conversation that takes place between these three characters. However, in most of the parts of the play one can see that the conversation happens only between the Gentleman and the Dancer and very occasionally with the Sailor. The few lines the Sailor speaks are like “I have no water” and “I do not know”. The conversation between the Gentleman and Dancer reveals how do they came on the raft. The Dancer describes “I was coming home, home after years of struggling, home to success and fame and money.”6 (26) The Gentleman reminds that it was his first cruise and vacation after twenty years of ‘incessant grind’.


The Gentleman and the Dancer both believe that the Sailor has some water and is hiding it but the sailor continuously denies the fact. On the advice of the Gentleman and in desperation to get water the Dancer first offers her diamond necklace to the Sailor. However, when he rejects she then offers herself to him. In a fit of delusion she imagines herself performing on stage and dances uncontrollably and dies due to the heat and thirst. The Sailor in a ray of hope brings out his knife and sings a happy Negro song – “We shall eat, We shall drink”.


The Gentleman however, in disgust pushes the Dancer’s body into water. The Sailor in anger stabs him and falls into water. As the Gentleman falls, he holds the Sailor’s collar and pulls him along. Both fall into the water and die. The play ends and only silence remains- “The sun glares down like a great eye of God. The eerie heat waves float upward in the still air like the souls of the drowned. On the raft a diamond necklace lies glittering in the blazing sunshine” (43).




There are three major characters in the play representing three different class and social status.


A Gentleman: He represents the white class and society which is supposedly polite.


A Dancer: She is a dancer by profession and represents love for beauty. She is more or less materialistic as she always thinks of her belongings.


A West Indian Mulatto Sailor: The Sailor represents the non-white world which is supposedly cruel and rude.


Major Themes and Other Releva nt Issues Discussed in the Play: O’Neill’s Concept of Tragedy:


O’Neill projects a tragic vision especially in his earlier plays. Thirst is one among them where one finds the tortured souls on the verge of a crisis. The three unnamed characters, the Gentleman, Dancer and Sailor, of the play are stranded in mid ocean. Through their agonies, problems and loss of their hopes, O’Neill highlights the emptiness of human beings in this enormous cruel world. Irony of life stands against human progress and the hidden wicked animal instincts of the civilized race. The loneliness is highlighted by the presence of the natural elements like glaring sun like ‘a great angry eye of God’, ‘pitiless clear sky’, ‘the scorching heat waves’ and the madness of silence of the hungry red ocean.


Thirst is a melodramatic play that has a deep seated mental agony. At the surface level it just appears to be a very crude presentation of a reality. The play presents ironies of human life which consider themselves to be intelligent are actually vulnerable at the mercy of nature and fate. The Dancer after years of struggle was returning to her home with fame and money. The Gentleman was on his first vacation after years of hard work. However, fate decided to end them before they relish their accomplishments. Survival for them becomes a distant dream that also cannot be accomplished.


Their past lives haunt them especially the ironies of their lives. The Gentleman’s menu card comes in contrast to their thirst. The Dancer’s submission to the Negro stands in contrast to the Duke incident. More importantly the Sailor who was feeling elated at the site of the Dancer’s dead body thinking to quench his thirst and hunger but it becomes the food of the sharks. The only remaining element on the raft, the glittering diamond necklace of the Dancer brings to fore the irony and materiality of human conditions.


The bestiality of human nature is always found in the predecessors’ works but O’Neill stands against it. He revolts against such traditional representation by showing the Sailor sharpening his knife to eat the Dancer’s body is common in all tragedies but at the very next moment the Sailor’s body also becomes the food item. Through this O’Neill shakes his audiences and leaves them to realise the futility of existence.

Role of the Sailor:


O’Neill’s characters and even his abstract ideas are quite recognizable. In Thirst he has experimented with the Expressionist way of characterization through the West Indian Mulatto Sailor. The Sailor is the most ‘living’ of all the three characters presented. He basically represents the characteristic feature of civilized human beings in contrast to ‘savage’. However, he is presented as the most practical and humane than the rest of the characters of the play. The Sailor is the one who for the first time reveals the urgent need of water. At the mention of water by the Gentleman he stops his song abruptly and turns quickly around. He asks “Water? Who’s got water”…(11).


Whereas the other two characters complain of the maddening silence, pervading red colour like blood over the sky, their aching eyes and so on. When the Sailor stops singing the Dancer asks him why he has stopped singing the Sailor then replies “sticking out his swollen tongue and pointing to it…Water! I want Water! Give me some water and I will sing” (28). So, he seems to be more practical than the other two who are busy in lamenting their lost and unfulfilled achievements. But the Sailor on the other hand keeps singing a Negro song to charm the sharks. He says “It is a song of my people…I am singing to them. It is a charm. I have been told it is very strong. If I sing long enough they will not eat us” (12-13). He tries to adjust to the situation and wants to survive as long as possible. He also remains quite and thus saves energy. But his keeping quiet enhances the mysteriousness of his intentions. In contrast to the Sailor who is awaken to the reality the other two, the Gentleman and Dancer experience visual hallucination of an island and a tumbler full of water.


The play also reveals the helplessness of humans and the control of nature over destiny of humans. When the Dancer dies the Sailor does not take much time or hesitate for a moment. He begins to sharpen his knife. He also suddenly begins to sing a happy song and says parting his swollen lips…“We shall eat. We shall drink” (42). However, he is punished for his sin and dies in a scuffle with the Gentleman who could not imagine the idea of eating a fellow traveller in order to survive.


However, O’Neill does not want his audiences to have any negative feeling against the Sailor. The Sailor is just an idea like the Gentleman and Dancer. The Sailor shows his hidden bestiality as the two characters represents their racial bias within the civilized code. O’Neill was not a racist, as his later plays indicate it. In Thirst he uses the Sailor only as a myth, that of the black being primitive and savage. In fact, the play is not anti-black. The Sailor also does not show any racial reaction when the Gentleman calls him “Furiously shaking his fist at the Negro’s back. “Oh you pig! You rotten pig!” The Negro does not seem to hear”.


The Sailor is presented as physically stronger than the other two characters but he does not try to kill nor take any advantage of them. He always tries to be calm even when the Dancer yielding herself for his pleasure where he shows extreme self-control. He thinks of eating the human flesh to survive but only when he is sure that the dancer is dead. In this too he is selfless as he suggests “We” when he says “We shall eat”, he meant both the Gentleman and himself. Thus, the Sailor only remains the practical.

Summary :


So, in this module we have discussed about Eugene O’Neill, the playwright. We came to know about his personal life. We also learnt about Neill’s literary works and his style of writing. Further, we have discussed the play Thirst. We came to know about the background and setting of the play. We have also discussed the plot and summary of the play. Then we have also discussed the characters in it. After then we have focused on various themes and other relevant issues discussed in the play. Hope these are useful to you. For more on this module, please find the other components of the module.

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