Heternormative Tragedies? The Queerness of Eugene O’Neill’s “Bound East for Cardiff” and Henrik Ibsen’s “Rosmersholm”

Both Eugene O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff (1914)[1] and Henrik Ibsen’s Rosemersholm (1886) can be considered tragic, not only because they display characters that are unable to fit within the context of their social norms, but also because both plays portray the mortal downfall of its main characters. Nonetheless, the complexities of these “failures” increase in voltage when we interpret them through a gendered lens. Both plays are typically approached as radical from a gendered perspective because their tragic elements[2] invite interpreters to scrutinize the extent to which the characters’ so-called failures are symptomatic of cultural and social ills. However, when queering the interpretation of the plays, it becomes evident that both O’Neill and Ibsen tap into heteronormative anxieties, especially when concerning futurity (or the lack thereof). Even though both plays exhibit qualities that make them productive from a queer perspective, I argue that the plays fluctuate between the boundaries between queer and heteronormative collapse. In other words, while the tragic (gendered) elements of these plays can be approached as a harsh commentary against the laws and restrictions imposed by heteronormativity, they can also be approached as texts that foster an ideological justification and privileging of heteronormativity.

O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff focuses primarily on the very close relationship that exists between Yank and Driscoll, two sailors of the British tramp steamer known as the Glencairn. Throughout the Glencairn’s voyage from New York to Cardiff, the reader becomes aware of the fact that Yank is dying. One soon encounters the two sailors in a moment of solitude; they begin to reflect on the loneliness and misery ingrained within the life of a sailor, and they begin to contemplate how differently their lives would be if they had chosen a different path. During their discussion, Yank exclaims that he is “goin’ to die, that’s what, and the sooner the better!,” (O’Neill) to which his companion, Driscoll, wildly replies: “No, and be damned to you, you’re not. I’ll not let you.” (O’Neill). Throughout their conversation, the level of intensity in their relationship begins to increase, to the point in which their affiliation can be interpreted as amorous or co-dependent rather than simply sociable or friendly—they not only depend on each other, but it is clear that one does not want to live without the other.

The intensity of their relationship could be attributed to the fact that they spent years sailing together; nonetheless, there is a particular confession that Yank makes that further increments the possibility of queer desire between the two sailors. As Yank discusses how the life of a sailor is acceptable for a young man, he begins to lament the fact that this adventurous life has prevented him from achieving any degree of normalcy, which in his view includes heteronormative touchstones such as marriage, children, and a stable home. As illustrated below, Yank then shares his secret desire to move to a distant country in order to begin a farming endeavor with Driscoll:

YANK: Sea-fain’ is all right when you’re young and don’t care, but we ain’t chickens no more, and somehow, I dunno, this last year has seemed rotten, and I’ve had a hunch I’d quit—with you of course—and we’d save our coin, and go to Canada or Argentine or some place and git a farm, just a small one, just enough to live on. I never told yuh this ‘cause I thought you’d laugh at me.

DRISCOLL: (enthusiastically) Laught at you, is ut? When I’m havin’ the same thoughts myself, toime afther toime. It’s a grand idea and we’ll be doin’ ut sure if you’ll stop your crazy notions—about—about bein’ so sick. (O’Neill)

At this point of the conversation, both Yank and Driscoll admit to have contemplated the possibility of delving into entrepreneurial endeavors together in a distant country, but there is also an implicit desire to construct a domestic space in which the two men could live together. This space would entail both a shared location, a shared economy (in that they both save and invest money), and the production of just enough resources to get them by. Throughout this confession, it is apparent that their desire to move to a distant country not only indicates a longing to remove themselves from a known social and cultural location, but also a desire to achieve a life that is not possible for them at the present moment. This longing for domesticity and stability is so “crazy” and foreign, that they only envision it occurring within a displaced or imagined location.

Matthew Trevannion and Carsten Hayes in the production of "Bound East For Cardiff" that took place at the Old Vic Tunnels, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian (2012)

Matthew Trevannion and Carsten Hayes in the production of “Bound East For Cardiff” that took place at the Old Vic Tunnels, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian (2012)

Although the reader is uncertain whether or not Yank and Driscoll have ever acted on their queer desire, it would be questionable to suggest that this desire is not present in the first place. As Yank grows nearer to dying, he paradoxically begins to talk of women and heteronormative endeavors while upholding the aura of queerness imbued within their exchange. Yank not only endows Driscoll with a part of his salary, but he also gives Driscoll his watch—his most prized possession. The emotional link between Yank and Driscoll is further highlighted when Yank eventually dies, as the reader encounters Yank expressing both a heartbreaking degree of sorrow intertwined with a degree of hesitation:

DRISCOLL: (pale with horror) Yank! Yank! Say a word to me for the love av hiven! (He shrinks away from the bunk, making the sign of a cross. Then comes back and puts a trembling hand on Yank’s chest and bends closely over the body.)

COCKY: (from the alleyway) Oh, Driscoll! Can you leave Yank for arf a mo’ and give me a ‘and?

DRISCOLL: (with a great sob) Yank! (He sinks down on his knees beside the bunk, his head on his hands. His lips move in some half-remembered prayer.) (O’Neill)

Driscoll’s despair is not only saturated with sorrow and extreme bereavement, but it is also physical. Driscoll grows pale and yells, and he eventually places his hand on Yank’s chest while bending closely to his body—which illustrates a degree of physical and emotional intimacy between the two sailors. Interestingly, when Cocky, another shipmate, calls Driscoll from the alleyway, Driscoll immediately removes his hands and himself away from Yank’s body and focuses his attention on delivering a prayer. Regardless of his intention of doing this, it can be suggested that Driscoll did not want to be seen by Cocky in such a vulnerable and intimate position with Yank.

True, it is important to note that O’Neill might have not intentionally intended for this exchange between Yank and Driscoll to be perceived as queer, yet perhaps it is inevitable for us to approach this give-and-take as such due to our modern sensibilities as readers. How does this queering of Bound East for Cardiff inform the way the play approaches its tragic element through the death of Yank? At first, it might be tempting to approach this play as a critique ofthe gendered norms that exist during the reception of the playtext. Indeed, it may be possible to interpret this play as a comment of Yank’s and Driscoll’s inability to create their own domestic space within their current social and cultural conditions, simply because that notion would seem bizarre or crazy to other spectators. With this in mind, the tragedy can possibly be approached as a queer tragedy, in which the lamentation is focused on the characters’ inability to comply with their sexual, amorous, and domestic desires because they do not comply with the demands of a heteronormative culture.

However, what happens when we interpret the notion of queerness in O’Neill’s play through the lens of futurity and reproductive futurism? These notions are explored by Lee Edelman’s as he discusses queerness in his book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. According to Edelman, queerness can generally be described as an attribute assigned to ideas or people who do not perpetuate the idea, or fight for, futurity: the possibility and the continuity of heteronormative designs as ideologically facilitated by the notion of the Child. In other words, queerness is a label assigned to all that goes against the notion of reproductive futurism, which can be described as concepts that “impose an ideological limit on political discourse as such, preserving in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable […] the possibility of queer resistance  to this organizing principle of communal relations” (Edelman 2). This is precisely why the queer is viewed as a threat: it challenges the notion of the Child and of reproductive futurity because the queer is not typically associated with notions such as reproduction or the bearing of children, but rather, on so-called egotistic and self-centered gratifications. As Edelman points out, if “there is no baby and, in consequence, no future, then the blame must fall on the fatal lure of sterile, narcissistic enjoyments understood as inherently destructive of meaning and therefore as responsible for the undoing of social organization, collective reality, and inevitably, life itself” (13).

Lee Edelman's "No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive"

Lee Edelman’s “No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive”

When one applies Edelman’s views to O’Neill’s play, the notion of its queerness being approached as emancipatory becomes seriously challenged. Going back to Yank’s and Driscoll’s conversation in which they discuss the prospect of moving to Canada or Argentina, Driscoll posits that the there is a possibility for them to pursue their domestic desires if Yank’s condition ameliorates. Nonetheless, Yank’s death completely obliterates this possibility—not that their domestic desires were much of a possibility in the first place seeing as it was presumably uncommon for two men to move in together and start a small farm during the early 1900s. The act of moving to a different country to begin a small self-sustaining farm in which these two men would ostensibly spend the rest of their lives indeed goes against the notions of reproductive futurity. Even though a farming endeavor is indeed productive and a marker of futurity, note that they are only interested in producing “just enough to live on” (O’Neill), thus enabling its classification as queer. By delving into this domestic endeavor, the men would hinder their chances of finding a potential female mate, and the relationship would also not produce any children or offspring. Thus, Yank’s death not only prevents this queer future from occurring, but it also assures that the values of heteronormativity are privileged and upheld. The reader of the playtext can only begin to imagine what would happen if Yank survived his illness. Would they move to Canada or Argentina to start their own farm? Would they remain living the life of a wandering sailor, which in and of itself is a lifestyle that is queer in that sailors have no future? Can the lack of futurity and the privileging of heteronormativity still be approached as an emancipatory critique in O’Neill’s play?

Similar questions arise when trying to queer Ibsen’s Rosemersholm, which presents various instances in which the lack of futurity challenges the emancipatory gendered readings one may have of the play, especially when focusing on the work’s tragic elements. Although Rosmersholm has typically been regarded as an attack on the aristocracy or the ruling class, especially in terms of their imposition of ideals such as morality, ethics, and Christianity, it also has much to say in terms of gender dynamics, queerness, and futurity. The play itself opens one year after the tragic suicide of John Rosmer’s wife Beata, who killed herself by jumping into a mill-race. Beata was always considered “unstable” and insane by her husband and by those who surrounded her, to the point where many attributed her suicide to mental illness. Later on in the play, it is pointed out that Beata’s mental instability began to surface when she discovered that she was barren. As Rebecca, Beata’s friend and Rosmer’s current companion points out: “she seemed to go quite distracted when she learnt that she would never be able to have a child. That was when her madness first showed itself” (Ibsen 55).

Although it is later revealed that Rebecca encouraged Beata’s suicide as a way of assuring that John Rosmer would be hers, it is interesting to note that the seeds of Beata’s so-called insanity were due to her inability to procreate. Part of Beata’s depression, or lack of sanity, were due primarily to her inability to bear children and to assure the continuation of the Rosmer bloodline within the household. This notion of continuing the bloodline, and of assuring Rosmer’s happiness, is the reason why it was so easy for Rebecca to convince Beata to end her life. Beata’s suicide and her mental illness can be classified as symptomatic of queer tension due to the fact that they were triggered by her inability to assure reproductive futurity, and due to her fixation on Rebecca herself. As Rebecca states later on during the play, “You know she had taken it into her head that she, a childless wife, had no right to be here. And so she persuaded herself that her duty to you was to give place to another” (Ibsen 70). Thus, Beata’s suicidal act can definitely be viewed as a product of heteronormative anxiety, in which she removes herself from the equation in order to ensure that the cultural values of the “nuclear” family were upheld, assuming that after her death, Rebecca would marry Rosmer and bear children.

A queer reading of the play, however, not only happens within a literal level in terms of reproductive futurity, but it also manifests in a metaphorical level when analyzing the case of John Rosmer and his evolving politics. Rosmer has made the decision to become a freethinker, a person who values reason and empiricism over tradition, which has led him to offer support to a government with a revolutionary agenda. This change of heart and perspective has not only led Rosmer to give up his faith in ruling classes in favor for a more democratic government, but it has also led him to give up his faith in religion as well. This change of political views causes Kroll, Rosmer’s brother-in-law, to react harshly towards the loss of the traditions of Rosmersholm. As Kroll states during a discussion he has with Rosmer:

[Y]ou have a duty towards the traditions of your family, Rosmer! Remember that! From time immemorial Rosmersholm has been a stronghold of discipline and order, of respect and esteem for all that the best people in our community have upheld and sanctioned. The whole neighbourhood has taken its tone from Rosmersholm. If the report gets about that you yourself have broken with what I may call the Rosmer family tradition, it will evoke an irreparable state of unrest. (Ibsen 37)

Interestingly, Rosmer’s new political views imply the lack of futurity for the Rosmersholm traditions. His choice, according to Kroll, is viewed as selfish and self-interested, focused on what Rosmer deems to be good rather than focusing on the continuation of the system in which Rosmer was raised in.

Ibsen’s play concludes with both Rebecca and John Rosmer jumping into the mill-race, echoing Beata’s act of suicide as a form of alleviating the tensions present in their lives. Rebecca, on one hand, was unable to deal with the guilt of leading Beata to her doom. John Rosmer, on the other hand, thanks in part to Kroll’s influence, feels as if he’s unable to trust Rebecca, but it is clear that he still loves her. Even though Rosmer originally asks Rebecca for her hand in marriage, Rebecca’s guilt does not allow her to transgress the “insurmountable barrier between [Rosmer] and a full, complete emancipation” (Ibsen 68), thus leading both characters to desire a union that is not socially acceptable. It is through their joint suicide that they are able to create a space in which their union would be socially adequate: death, a space where futurity is not necessary for two to be one.

When one queers Rosmersholm’s approaches towards futurity, it is apparent that Beata’s death, John Rosmer’s change of politics, and Rosmer’s and Rebecca’s joint suicide are either products of the lack of (reproductive) futurity, or are in due course the root of this lack. As in the case of O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff, one encounters a dilemma in terms of the radical possibilities of the playtext, and the overall nature of the tragic elements that are manifest in the play. The three suicides in Rosmersholm can definitely be attributed to heteronormative anxieties: whereas Beata was unable to reproduce and bear children in order to assure futurity, Rebecca and John Rosmer were unable to ignore their mutual feelings but had no intention to comply with them due to the gender norms of their time. All of these characters embrace queerness in that they deviate from heteronormativity, and they also deviate from futurity. But can Rosmersholm be viewed as a queer tragedy? If one interprets Ibsen’s play as a critique of these norms, it absolutely can. On the other hand, the fact that these characters comply with these heteronormative anxieties by responding to the death drive may be viewed as rhetorically restrictive rather than emancipatory. While both plays can be viewed as social critiques, it is also possible for these plays to be viewed as handbooks that illustrate the consequences of deviating from futurity, reproductive or otherwise. Thus, do these plays represent a collapse of the queer, or a collapse of the heteronormative?

These plays cannot be labeled as a queer failure, nor are can they be entirely approached as heteronormative failures. Both Bound East for Cardiff and Rosmersholm refuse to be entirely situated in either side of the so-called binary, often resting on the interpretation of the reader in order to be classified as either one or the other. In due course, it is the futility of this binary, and the fact that these plays cannot neatly be placed as either a heteronormative tragedy or a queer tragedy, which makes them “queer” in the first place. What is clear, however, is that to some extent, both plays tap into heteronormative anxieties, especially as applied to futurity, in order to illustrate how and why some characters are unable to fit within pre-designed socio-cultural molds, and why this ultimately leads to their removal from the social equation. Whether this heteronormative anxiety is used to challenge the perceptions of the audience or comply with them is up to debate, but it is interesting to see how a work can comply with both ends of a rhetorical spectrum.

Works Cited

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Print.

Ibsen, Henrik. Rosmersholm: A Play in Four Acts. Trans. R. Farquharson Sharp. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University, 2001. Web.

O’Neill, Eugene. Bound East for Cardiff. EOneill.com. Web.

[1] I used the e-book version of O’Neill’s text, which is why no page numbers accompany the quotations of this work in this review essay.

[2] In this discussion, by tragic elements, I am referring not to the genre of tragedy, but rather to the sentimental and emotional aspects of tragedy as a descriptor (unfortunate, lamentable, catastrophic, and/or heartbreaking).

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