The first act takes place in a bar, owned by Johnny the Priest and tended by Larry. Old Chris, a coal barge captain, receives a letter from his daughter, a young woman whom he has not seen since she was a 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 between Anna, Chris and Mat. Mat wants to marry Anna, Chris does not want them to get married because he doesn't want her to marry a sailor, and Anna is upset with both of them for trying to be in charge of her. Anna tells them the truth about her life, that she was raped while living with her mother's relatives on a Minnesota farm, and then became a prostitute after her time as a nurse's aide. Mat gets very angry, and Mat and Chris both 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 never to be one again, and Chris agrees to them getting married. It turns out that Chris and Mat have both signed up for the same ship going to South Africa, and they are about to leave the next day, but promise to come home to Anna after the voyage.
O'Neill's first version of the play, begun in January 1919, was entitled 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 play, now entitled Anna Christie, received 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.