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Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon is a play that centers on the disaster that befalls two brothers when they choose to fight against their own natures. Realizing that they both love the same woman, each brother ends up pursuing the dream of the other with dire consequences.
Written in 1918, Beyond the Horizon was O’Neill’s first full-length work to be produced, although it wasn’t published and first performed until 1920, the same year that it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play draws heavily on O’Neill’s personal experiences of tuberculosis and his time at sea, as well as reflecting the American modernist movement that grew out of the struggle to understand change and the rejection of old ideas at the turn of the twentieth century. Although one of his early works, Beyond the Horizon explores several pessimistic themes that appear throughout O’Neill’s cannon, including dysfunctional familial relationships, dreams and disillusionment, and doomed romance.
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This study guide refers to the text of Beyond the Horizon included in the 2001 Penguin Classics edition of Eugene O’Neill: Early Plays.
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Beyond the Horizon tells the story of the two Mayo brothers, Andrew “Andy” and Robert “Rob,” who realize that they are both in love with the same woman, Ruth Atkins. The play is set on the Mayo family farm and takes place over the course of eight years.
At the start of the play, Andy and Rob are outside on Mayo land, discussing their hopes and desires. Rob, the younger brother, is introduced as a dreamer and a poet. After suffering a sickly childhood that forced him to stay indoors, Rob dreams of seeing the world and plans to leave the family farm to take up a position on his uncle’s ship, which he also believes will help strengthen his constitution. The whole of Act I takes place on what should be Rob’s last night at home before he ships out. In contrast, the elder Mayo brother, Andy, is a man of the land. Andy is tall, strong, and bronzed from working in the fields, he dreams of marrying his childhood love, Ruth, and taking over the running of the Mayo family farm. The brothers are close, despite their differences and the fact that Rob is clearly in love with Ruth, too.
After Andy heads home, Ruth enters and ultimately confesses that she is in love with Rob, not Andy, and convinces him to stay. Later that night, Rob informs his family of his change of plans, telling them that he and Ruth are in love and that he wants to stay and learn how to farm. Rob’s mother and father, Kate, and James Mayo, are delighted, if not a little perplexed, at this sudden change. His uncle, Captain Scott, is irritated at being messed around. Heartbroken, Andy congratulates Rob but is unable to face seeing his brother marry Ruth and live the life that he had wanted for himself, so he offers to take Rob’s place on his uncle’s ship. Andy lies that he always wanted to travel but felt obligated to stay because Rob was leaving, so now there is nothing stopping him. However, James can see the truth and an angry argument ensues, which culminates in James disowning Andy. Rob is devastated by Andy’s decision to leave as well, but he understands his reasons and the two brothers part on good terms.
The second act begins three years later in the Mayo’s farmhouse, which is notably shabbier than in the previous act. In the intervening years, Ruth and Rob married, had a sickly daughter called Mary, and James Mayo died. Rob has managed the farm poorly, and his relationship with Ruth has drastically deteriorated. Ruth tells Rob that marrying him was a mistake, and she really loved Andy, who is due home for a visit at any moment.
Andy returns home, and Rob is pleased to see him, despite Ruth’s revelation. Andy tries to talk to Rob about the dismal state of the farm, but Rob only wants to hear about his brother’s travels, which Andy describes unenthusiastically. Andy discloses that he’s planning on leaving for a job in Buenos Aires and offers Rob some money to help fix the farm up, which Rob declines. Andy reassures Rob that he no longer harbors romantic feelings toward Ruth and later, when he is alone with her, he tells Ruth the same, crushing any hope she had of a life with him. Captain Scott arrives and informs Andy that there’s a ship leaving for Argentina the next day that’s looking for a second mate, and Andy decides to take the opportunity, leaving a distraught Ruth and despondent Rob behind.
The third act opens a further five years later, once again in the Mayo farmhouse, which is now completely dilapidated. Ruth hopelessly waits up for Andy, who is due home for a visit, through a sense of duty rather than romantic feeling. Rob is seriously ill and feverishly talks to Ruth about starting a new life together in the city when he’s well again. It is revealed that the couple’s daughter, Mary, died eight months ago from an illness, and that Kate Mayo also passed away some years before. Andy arrives home with a specialist, Doctor Fawcett, to tend to Rob. Andy is furious that Ruth didn’t tell him about Rob’s ill health earlier, although he says he can’t stay because he lost most of his money through ill-advised speculation, and he must return to Argentina to try and make his fortune back. Doctor Fawcett diagnoses Rob with terminal tuberculosis. The doctor tries to keep the prognosis from his patient, but Rob overhears. Finally at peace, Rob asks Andy to marry Ruth after his death. Rob says that he needs to rest but then secretly escapes out of a window.
The final scene opens with the same setting as the first, outside on Mayo land. Ruth and Andy find Rob collapsed, but he insists on watching the sunrise. As the sun comes up, Rob says that he is finally free to begin his voyage and dies. Devastated, Andy tells Ruth that they must work together and hints that they should honor Robs wishes and consider marrying. The play ends with Ruth and Andy thrown together but Ruth is too numb to hope or love, and she stares blankly at Andy as the curtain falls.
By Eugene O'Neill