The first act takes place in a bar owned by Johnny the Priest and tended by Larry. Coal-barge captain Old Chris receives a letter from his daughter, a young woman he has not seen since she was 5 years old and their family lived in Sweden. They meet at the bar and she agrees to go on the coal barge with him. The rest of the play takes place on the barge.
A confrontation among Anna, Chris and Mat. Mat wants to marry Anna, Chris does not want her to marry any sailor, and Anna doesn't want either of them to think they're in charge of her. She tells them the truth about her life: she was raped while living with her mother's relatives on a Minnesota farm, then became a prostitute after some time as a nurse's aide. Mat gets furious, and he and Chris leave.
Mat and Chris return. Anna forgives Chris for not being part of her childhood, and after a dramatic confrontation, Mat forgives Anna for being a prostitute after she promises to stop, and Chris agrees to them getting married. It turns out that Chris and Mat have both signed up for the same ship that is leaving for South Africa the next day, but they promise to return to Anna after the voyage.
O'Neill's first version of this play, begun in January 1919, was titled Chris Christopherson and performed as Chris in out-of-town tryouts. O'Neill revised it radically, changing the barge captain's daughter Anna from a pure woman needing to be protected into a prostitute who finds reformation and love from life on the sea. The new version, play, now titled Anna Christie, had its premiere on Broadway at the Vanderbilt Theatre on 2 November 1921, and ran for 177 performances before closing in April 1923. The production was staged by Arthur Hopkins and starred Pauline Lord.
Alexander Woollcott in the New York Times called it "a singularly engrossing play", and advised that "all grown-up playgoers should jot down in their notebooks the name of Anna Christie as that of a play they really ought to see."
1923: The London West End premiere was staged at the Strand Theatre (now the Novello) in 1923. This was the first time an O'Neill play was seen in the West End. The play starred Pauline Lord, who had been the original Anna Christie on Broadway. The play had a great reception. Time magazine wrote, "In London, the first night of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, with Pauline Lord in the title role, received a tremendous ovation. After the first act the curtain was rung up a dozen times during the applause.
1955: According to actress Ellen Burstyn in the 2012 film "Marilyn in Manhattan," Marilyn Monroe performed a scene from Anna Christie at the Actors Studio with Maureen Stapleton. Calling the story "legendary," Burstyn said, "Everybody who saw that says that it was not only the best work Marilyn ever did, it was some of the best work ever seen at Studio, and certainly the best interpretation of Anna Christie anybody ever saw. She...achieved real greatness in that scene." (According to some biographers, Marilyn was molested by foster parents and worked as a prostitute.)
Another adaptation by Frances Marion, released in 1930, was directed by Clarence Brown and starred Greta Garbo, Charles Bickford, George F. Marion and Marie Dressler. This pre-Code film used the marketing slogan "Garbo Talks!", as it was her first talkie. Her first spoken line has become her most famous: "Give me a whiskey with ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby." George F. Marion performed the role of Anna's father in the original Broadway production and in both the 1923 and 1930 film adaptations.