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BILL BROWN Interlude: The Agony of Play in "The Open Boat" "?G nterlude" may designate an absence or a presence—the perJLformance of a play or the intettuption of a play, "the pause between the acts, or the means (dramatic or musical) employed to fill this up" (OED D2). Between play, different from play, the interlude is also play itself. 'An overturned boat in the surf is not a plaything to a swimming man," the narratot remarks, near the close of Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" (1897), that famous account of "the experience of fout men from the sunk steamet 'Commodore,'" the story of how those men, cramped togethet in a lifeboat, wage a battle, raging, against their doom.' To the correspondent, once struggling in the boat to gain the surf, now struggling in the surf to get to shore, the upturned tenfoot dinghy could become a life-preserving float, as it has for the captain , "clinging with one hand to the keel" (5:91). More likely, it could become a lethal obstacle—as, historically, it did for the oiler William Higgins.2 In either case, the boat is not a toy. The severity of the story's narrative situation would seem to obviate such a point: who, reading about four men laboring for their lives against an "indifferent, flatly indifferent" natural world (5:88), would entertain the idea, as this contest draws to its close, that the dinghy in the waves off-shore is simply an object to be played with? And yet the narrator feels compelled to Arizona Quarterly Volume 45 Number 3, Autumn 1989 Copyright © 1989 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 004-1610 24Bilí Brown stave off this far-fetched possibility, to arrest the improbable misreading , to remind his reader: for a swimming man, an overturned boat is not a plaything. Apparently intrusive yet superfluous, this assessment of the boat might well be overlooked. But I'm inclined to look at it as critical, to assume that the text, here, marks an actual problem in the story and with the story: a problem with its narration that would enable even an "ideal reader" to mistake the overturned boat fot a toy, and, analogously , to mistake the life-and-death struggle for a game—finally, perhaps, to mistake this important event in Crane's life, along with his "tale intended to be after the fact" (as the epigraph says) for mere literary amusement. Explaining the sentence may explain a good deal about the story. But thinking through this explanation means momentarily bracketing some standard questions: is the stoty naturalist, impressionist , symbolist, or some combination of the three? does it celebrate "the subtle brotherhood of man" (5:73) in the face of danger or merely acknowledge the "absurd" (5:77)? It means highlighting not the struggle between man and nature but a sttuggle between two conceptualizations of that event, the ludic and the agonistic; it means foregrounding the problem of "play" in the story, the way in which "the recreational " asserts itself, mediating the representation ofhuman conflict. At fitst, I should suggest that the reasonableness of the narrator's comment—do not be confused: this upturned boat is no toy—appears plainly enough from a glance at the paragraph it closes. The captain of the sunken ship calls his companion to the bobbing dinghy, now serving only as a float, but the correspondent, paddling toward the object, cannot attain it: Then the correspondent performed his one little marvel of the voyage. A large wave caught him and flung him with ease and supreme speed completely over the boat and far beyond it. It sttuck him even then as an event in gymnastics and a true miracle of the sea. An overturned boat in the surf is not a plaything to a swimming man. (5:91) Although the relation between these last two statements seems somewhat elliptical (even for Crane), its logic must consist of something like this: whereas the correspondent considers the "one little marvel" an "event in gymnastics," the narrator wants it known that the event in "The Open Boat"25 fact has nothing to do with gymnastics, which (an enthymeme would state) exist in the...


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