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Theatre / Anna Christie

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Bottoms up!

"Give me a whisky, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby."
Anna's (and Greta Garbo's) first line of dialogue

Anna Christie is a 1921 play by Eugene O'Neill. Set sometime around 1910, it opens with Chris Christopherson, a hard-drinking, lifelong sailor who now captains a barge, going to drink at his favorite bar. Chris receives a letter from his daughter Anna, who he hasn't seen in fifteen years, since she was five years old. Anna, who was sent to live with maternal relations in Minnesota, has come to New York to look her father up. Chris is under the impression that his daughter has been working as a nurse and governess, but it quickly becomes apparent that Anna is actually a hard-bitten prostitute.

Chris, who regards the sea as a malevolent force, doesn't want to take his daughter aboard his barge, but Anna loves the sea, and tells her father that her time on board has cleansed her. Complications arise when Chris and his barge rescue the survivors of a shipwreck, including Mat Burke, a beefy Irish stoker who takes an immediate fancy to Anna. They fall in love, but Chris, horrified at the prospect that his daughter might marry a sailor, tries to kill the relationship. Anna's anger at the controlling natures of her father and boyfriend leads to a long dramatic setpiece in which she reveals the truth of her past to both of them.

O'Neill's play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922. It was made into a silent film in 1923, and then in 1930 it was adapted into a major MGM production starring Greta Garbo as Anna. MGM marketed the film, Garbo's first sound picture, with the tagline "GARBO TALKS!" The film was a major success, earning four Academy Award nominations and ensuring that Garbo's career would continue to prosper in sound films. Right after shooting wrapped on the movie, MGM shot a German-language version with Garbo and an otherwise new supporting cast. In an interesting trivia, George Marion played the father in the original stage production, the 1923 silent and the 1930 talkie.


  • Ambiguous Ending: Superficially a Happy Ending, as Mat and Anna reconcile and agree to marry, and Chris drops his objections. But there's a mood of foreboding and uncertainty as well, after Mat is rattled to find out that Anna was a prostitute/isn't Catholic, and Chris and Mat are both shocked to find out that they have signed up to sail on the same ship. Anna speaks with what a stage direction calls "forced gaiety", saying "Cut out the gloom", but the play and the 1930 film end with a doom-laden line from Chris (see You Can't Fight Fate below). The play ends with what a stage direction describes as "the muffled, mournful wail of steamers' whistles."
  • Amusement Park: In the film, Mat takes Anna on a date to an amusement park.
  • Bowdlerization: Anna was a prostitute, but thanks to the Hays Code, it was changed to "a lurid past".
  • Defiled Forever: Anna's belief about herself, which is why she initially rebuffs Mat. Mat thinks this himself once he's learned the truth.
  • Does Not Like Men: Anna is quite bitter about men after her time as a prostitute.
  • The Drunken Sailor: In Chris's first scene, he comes stumbling into a bar drunk. Chris and Mat both go on benders after Anna tells the truth about her past.
  • Lady Drunk: Marthy, Chris's boozy, sarcastic companion, described in the play as having "a thick red nose" and "bloodshot blue eyes". Nevertheless she cheerfully agrees to step aside so that Anna can live with her father. Anna is a younger version—she even tells Marthy "You're me forty years from now."
  • Love at First Sight: Mat is proposing marriage to Anna after knowing her for less than an hour.
    Anna: Proposing—to me! for Gawd's sake!—on such short acquaintance?
  • Parental Abandonment: When Anna was a small child, Chris was constantly away at sea. Then when her mother died when Anna was five, Chris sent her off to live with maternal relatives, who abused her and raped her until she escapes. Chris claims he did it to protect her from the sea, but Anna blames him for all the suffering she's gone through.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Despite only knowing Anna for a short time, Chris tries hard to exercise this.
  • Protagonist Title: Anna shortened "Christopherson" to "Christie".
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Chris especially believes this, blaming the sea and its dirty tricks. The last line of dialogue in the play emphasizes this.
    Chris: Fog, fog, fog, all bloody time. You can’t see vhere you vas going, no. Only dat ole davil, sea—she knows!