Eugene O’Neill’s one-act play Ile (oil) is a touching look at obsession and pride and their downfall.
It’s 1895 and the whaling ship Atlantic Queen is out at sea, trapped in ice. The captain is determined to keep pushing northwards, certain they’ll find whales if they can get past the ice floes. But his crew has been on the boat for two years and is desperate to head back for home.
Captain Keeney can subdue a mutiny attempt but has a harder time saying no to his wife, Annie, who’s he brought on this long, futile voyage. Annie is slowly going mad and is desperate to turn home, trying everything to persuade her husband.
I could hear the characters speaking as I read this and they all sounded like movie stars in black and white films, the ones where you see a desperate woman clinging to her husband’s jacket, collapsing against his chest. The husband is gruff and well meaning, but unable to give the emotional response his wife needs, and the characters in Ile are just like that.
KEENEY: It ain’t the money what’s keepin’ me up in the Northern seas, Tom. But I can’t go back to Homeport with a measly four hundred barrel of ile. I’d die fust. I ain’t never come back home in all my days without a full ship. Ain’t that truth?
MATE: Yes, sir; but this voyage you been ice-bound, an’ –
KEENEY: (scornfully) And d’you s’pose any of ’em would believe that – any o’ them skippers I’ve beaten voyage after voyage? Can’t you hear ’em laughin’ and sneerin’ – Tibbots ‘n’ Harris ‘n’ Simms and the rest – and all o’ Homeport makin’ fun o’ me. “Dave Keeney what boasts he’s the best whalin’ skipper out o’ Homeport comin’ back with a measly four hundred barrel of ile”? […] I got to git the ile, I tell you!
The crux comes when Annie almost manages to change this stubborn man’s mind:
MRS KEENEY: (wildly). Then do this once for my sake, for God’s sake – take me home! It’s killing me, this life – the brutality and cold and horror of it. I’m going mad. I can feel the threat in the air. I can hear the silence threatening me – day after grey day and every day the same. I can’t bear it. (Sobbing) I’ll go mad, I know I will. Take me home, David, if you love me as you say. I’m afraid. For the love of God, take me home!
For a moment her desperate pleas seem to have worked, but the Captain’s first love is the sea, and when the ice breaks and he can almost smell the whales waiting, he turns from his wife and chooses the hunt.
Ile is in the public domain and can be performed without royalties.
Cast: 5M, 1F