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Commentary
by Margaret Loftus Ranald

This comedy is completely out of character for O'Neill, for he has taken autobiographical elements and manipulated them with romantic nostalgia, unabashed sentiment, and humor instead of the bitterness he displayed in later autobiographical plays. Aspects of O'Neill himself can be perceived in Richard, but the structure of this Connecticut family is somewhat different from that of the O'Neills, with the Millers having four boys and one girl. The basic situation, a young man's discovery of love, is a stock situation, as are the characters. We have the clumsy servant, the family drunk, the old maid aunt, the college athlete and the college sport, and the parents who don't quite understand their children but who eventually overcome the generation gap. Similarly, there are stock scenes, particularly those in which Mrs. Miller takes Richard's posturings literally, and when Mr. McComber is appalled by Richard's obscene poetry. The repetition of drunk scenes is also a series of variations on a stock theme, while the lovers' meeting and the series of reconciliations are the stuff of romantic sentimentality rather than reality. Nonetheless, the play works and has remained deservedly popular, despite the fact that there is little character drawing and the situations tend to telegraph their outcome in advance. The tone of amused tolerance and the nostalgia for lost innocence that pervade the play recall a simpler age, and as a result, the playwright's deliberate manipulation of stock characters and situations becomes a legitimate dramatic device rather than a subject for hostile criticism. To a considerable extent, the play owed its acceptance and long run to the casting of George M. Cohan, the original Yankee Doodle Dandy (whose ad-libbing became legendary), in the role of Nat Miller and later, in a Los Angeles production, to the performance of Will Rogers in the same role.

For O'Neill himself, the play was easy to write and represented a pleasant vacation from the seriousness of Mourning Becomes Electra and Days Without End, that ultimately unsuccessful play which had occupied him for five years. After these plays O'Neill did not produce a new stage work until 1946, with The Iceman Cometh.

 

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