In the first decade of the last century, a young woman-turned- prostitute from St Paul, Minnesota comes looking for her father, a coal barge captain in New York. Will he be able to forgive her way of life? Will she finally find love and happiness? Is this the story of one woman’s moral redemption?
In 1910, familiar with the sentimentality of much of 19th century theatre, the audience was quick to assume that it was – so much so that O’Neill felt compelled to write a letter to the New York Times, explaining that the final lines of the play do not imply a happy ending. Insert a kiss and the promise of marriage in the last act, he complained, and critics and public alike become remarkably hard of hearing for anything that follows.
But Anna Christie hasn’t come looking for forgiveness. Fresh out of hospital, and before that jail, she’s just here for a respite, until she can “get back on the job again.” Strong-willed and clear-eyed, she has played the harsh cards dealt her as best she can, including choosing the life of a prostitute over her more respectable, but desperately unhappy, job of a nursemaid (“I was lonesome,” she cries, “lonesome as hell!”). Illness, not ethics, has forced her to seek shelter with a father who to all intents and purposes abandoned her as a child.
Once on the barge, feeling cleansed by the fog and sea around her, Anna starts to shed her hard-bitten pragmatism and falls in love with the young man who literally emerges from the waves. But when she finds herself the object of her father’s willful blindness about who she really is, and her lover’s equally blind determination to place her on a pedestal of womanly virtue, Anna is in some ways more of a victim than she has ever been.
When the two men are finally forced to let go their romanticized fantasy of womanhood and recognize the truth about Anna, they respond with prejudice, denial, moral hypocrisy and barely contained violence. Anna’s own, extraordinary, capacity for forgiveness in the face of their repudiation lies at the heart of the play. “It ain’t your fault, and it ain’t mine, and it ain’t his neither,” she says. “We’re all poor nuts, and things happen, and we just get mixed in wrong, that’s all.” Already a seasoned survivor, she sees more clearly than either of them that the universe is morally chaotic, and that fragile though it may be, there is a better chance of happiness if they stick together than if they go it alone.
In the final scene, far from seeking redemption, Anna asks “How are you any better than me?” What she demands from both men is not forgiveness for her past, but their agreement that a person can change.
We believe that she can change. The real question is, can they?