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Synopsis
by Margaret Loftus Ranald

A play in four acts and seven scenes, O'Neill's only performed comedy, set in "a large small-town in Connecticut," July 4-5, 1906.

Act I: "Sitting-room of the Miller home... about 7:30 in the morning of July 4th, 1906." It is a sunny, cheerful room "furnished with scrupulous medium-priced tastelessness of the period." There is a sofa on the left wall and at center "a big, round table with a green-shaded reading lamp," connected to an overhead chandelier. Five chairs, three rockers, and two armchairs are around the table. There are two bookcases, one with sets for show, and the other a messy one—for reading. A door leads into the back parlor and a dining room beyond from which voices are heard. Essie Miller is trying to get her eleven-year-old son, Tommy Miller, to finish his milk, while he wants to go outside and set off his fireworks. The Miller family is introduced: Mildred Miller is a slender, vivacious, attractive fifteen-year-old; Arthur Miller is a nineteen-year-old Yale football player type, "solemnly collegiate"; Essie Miller is fifty, short, stout, with graying hair and "a bustling, mother-of-a-family manner"; Lily Miller, her sister-in-law, is forty-two, a spinster schoolteacher type, even to her spectacles, but her voice is "soft and full of sweetness"; Nat Miller, owner of the Evening Globe, is in his late fifties, thin, a trifle stooped, with "fine, shrewd, humorous gray eyes"; Sid Davis, his brother-in-law, is a forty-five-year-old permanent juvenile. Their conversation is punctuated by the sound of Tommy's firecrackers.

The family is discussing its plans for the day. Mr. Miller wants to go to the Sachem Club picnic, but Sid is not sure until Lily says he is a reformed character. It is obvious that Sid is rather too fond of the bottle, but now that he is working on the Waterbury paper, things have changed. He says he will take Lily to the fireworks in the evening and she agrees, as long as he comes home sober. Mildred and Arthur tease them about "spooning" in the evening. The last member of the Miller household to appear in the play is then introduced, seventeen-year-old Richard Miller, a blend of both of his parents with "something of extreme sensitiveness added—a restless, apprehensive, defiant, shy, dreamy self-conscious intelligence." He is addicted to reading, but his mother is concerned about the suspect quality of the books he is choosing and keeping hidden in his room. When he is asked his plans for the day, he scornfully says he won't go to "that silly skirt party" on the beach with Mildred and then launches into a cliché-ridden socialist speech against capitalism on the Fourth of July. He considers himself intellectually superior to the rest of the family, including Arthur, the Yale student, and throughout the play his speech is larded with quotations from his reading: Oscar Wilde, Shaw, Ibsen, Swinburne, and Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. To Richard's surprise, his newspaper-editor father reveals a knowledge of Carlyle's French Revolution which the young man is currently reading. Mrs. Miller shows herself a mine of misinformation about books, while Sid and Lily both know parts of the Rubáiyát.

Suddenly, David McComber, a "dried-up little man" in his fifties with a rather nasty primness about him, comes up the garden path. The family scatters, leaving Mr. Miller to meet "about the most valuable advertiser I've got." McComber comes quickly to the point: Richard has been writing obscene poems to his daughter, Muriel McComber, and he pulls out the evidence, which consists of scraps of paper on which are written quotations from Swinburne's Anactoria. Appalled by what he sees as an attempt to contaminate the mind of his daughter, he has confined her to the house for a month, given her an 8 P.M. curfew, and has insisted that she write Richard a letter of renunciation, which he now delivers. He tells Nat that it is his duty to punish Richard "to protect other people's children." McComber threatens Richard with possible arrest if he tries to see Muriel and then says he will withdraw his advertisement from Nat Miller's paper if he does not get a written apology from Nat. In reply, Miller furiously refuses to publish the ad starting the next day and threatens to encourage the opening of a competitive store in the town to ruin McComber's business. After McComber leaves, Sid enters to congratulate Nat on his stand and the two of them read with amusement the overripe verse that Richard has sent to Muriel. But then Nat wonders whether his son might be "hanging around her to see what he can get. ..I've got to draw the line somewhere!"

With that Richard enters, rather "nervous about McComber's call." His father asks him about his relations with Muriel and is pleased to be told that he loves and respects her and certainly has no intention of exploiting her sexually. "We're engaged!" They then discuss the pieces of poetry, and Richard says he had hoped they would make Muriel less afraid of life and of her father. Nat then hands him Muriel's letter of renunciation, which at first wounds him bitterly, but then he turns to "humiliation and wronged anger." Mr. Miller has left him in embarrassment, but now Mrs. Miller enters, eager to find out what McComber had wanted. Richard desperately claims that he is ill, arousing his mother's sympathy and also that of Lily, but finally, to the accompaniment of more of Tommy's firecrackers, the family leaves Richard at home and departs for the picnic.

Act II: The Miller dining-room, a little after 6 P.M. the same day. The dining table has been expanded with all its leaves, overfilling the small room which also contains a china cabinet with the good glass and china and the three pieces of old silver on top of the ugly sideboard. As before, the furniture is medium-priced and impressively tasteless. Mrs. Miller and Norah, the clumsy, "green-horn" Irish second girl, are setting the table. The girl seems totally unable to do anything right, whether it be turning on the chandelier, setting the table, shutting the door, or serving from the correct side. As Mrs. Miller is bemoaning the thickness of Norah, Lily tries to help with the table: "It makes me feel I'm some use in this house instead of just sponging," a notion Mrs. Miller refutes. Lily is sensitive to her own image as "a cranky old maid." The discussion shifts to Sid's proclivity for liquor. Lily broke off their engagement some sixteen years ago because of an episode "with bad women," which she sees as symptomatic of what he would do when married, even though Sid has always protested his innocence. Mrs. Miller calls Sid "a stupid dumb fool," but Lily, who obviously has affection for him, sees him as a permanent juvenile and a bad marriage risk. She is not embittered, however, because she has been able to enjoy the Miller children as if they were her own.

Suddenly Mrs. Miller realizes that she must tell Tommy not to say that the evening's meal is bluefish, a dish to which Nat believes himself allergic. Actually, he has been eating it for years under another name, but this is the first time that Tommy is aware of the deception and must be told to keep a straight face. This leaves Lily alone when Richard enters in a state of utter tragedy. Asking what has happened between him and Muriel, Lily tries to console him. But Richard refuses all consolation, rejecting Lily's optimism with dramatically pessimistic and cynical remarks. When Mrs. Miller hears that Richard is through with Muriel, she expresses her displeasure at the "indecent" quotations he has sent her, to which Richard replies with a cryptic quotation from Shaw's Candida—the romantic renunciation of Marchbanks—and leaves, somewhat to his mother's amusement.

As they depart, Richard re-enters to sneak some olives from the table, much to Norah's annoyance. True love does not transcend food. As he stands there, Wint Selby, Arthur's Yale classmate, enters. He is a "hell-raising sport type" and is looking for Arthur to accompany him with "a couple of swift babies from New Haven." Richard tells him that Arthur plans to spend the evening at the house of his girlfriend, Elsie Rand, and then Wint suggests that Richard might like to accompany him. Richard, anxious to prove himself socially and filled with rage against Muriel, agrees, lying boldly about his experience with both liquor and women. A meeting at the Pleasant Beach House is set up, and Wint leaves just as Tommy enters to announce the arrival of "Pa and Uncle Sid." The youngster is ravenous, Mrs. Miller warns him about the fish deception, and in the background Sid is heard singing. Obviously, as Mildred points out with mirth, he is merrily drunk, while Lily is mortified.

They sit down to dinner and the soup arrives as Miller enters "mellow and benignly ripened," to the amusement of Mildred and Tommy and aloof unconcern of Richard. Norah finds the situation uproarious, much to Mrs. Miller's annoyance, and the girl's innate clumsiness is thereby accentuated. After a mild drunk scene by Nat, Sid enters "in a condition that can best be described as blurry." He wishes everyone good evening, attempts to apologize to Lily as he bumps into her chair, and then tries to eat his soup, finding hand-eye-mouth coordination impossible. Much to the hilarity of everyone—except Lily—he drinks his soup, declaiming loudly all the time.

The fish course then arrives, and Miller, because of Tommy's mirth, discovers that he has been eating bluefish for years. The lobster course follows, and Miller tries to manage cheerful conversation with "reminiscent obsession" while Sid interrupts and finally takes him down a peg. Sid continues his performance and descends to parody of Nat and then ritually asks Lily to marry him. With a hysterical giggle she refuses, and Sid proceeds as if she is the "slave to rum." He exits with a parody of a Salvation Army meeting as the family explodes with laughter. At this, Lily stands up to berate them for their collective encouragement of Sid and then leaves. Nat is ashamed and suggests that he take her to the fireworks that evening, but Mrs. Miller vetoes the idea. She understands that Lily will never outgrow her affection for Sid, who, Nat tells her, has just lost his job on the Waterbury paper. Nat will take him on, but only if he stops his foolishness. Richard, however, takes Sid's side, blaming Lily's hardheartedness for his continued drinking, again quoting poetry. Both Nat and Mrs. Miller turn against Richard, so that after their exit, he leaves with a scornful smile: "Aw, what the hell do I care? I'll show them!"

Act III, Scene i: The seedy "back room of a bar in a small hotel ... dimly lit" with player piano, three stained tables, each with four chairs, and the door to the "Family Entrance" and stairs to the bedrooms. It is about 10 P.M. the same night, and Richard and Belle are sitting at the center. She is a peroxide blond, tawdrily and flashily dressed, but "is a fairly recent recruit to the ranks [of college tart] and is still a bit remorseful behind her make-up and defiantly careless manner." Richard has a half-empty glass of beer and Belle is drinking a gin rickey. The piano is playing "Bedelia." The bartender, a cunning-looking young Irishman, is watching. Richard, clearly unused to drinking, is toying with his beer, which he treats with some distaste. Belle attempts to liven him up, but he makes no motion toward her. She taunts him into ordering "a man's drink" and he orders a sloe-gin fizz, while she and the bartender conspire to make it a powerful mix. In his attempt to appear the man of the world, Richard tells the bartender to take a drink for himself, receiving a cigar in exchange, and then grossly overtips. But when Belle attempts to smoke, Richard is naively shocked. As the gin warms him up he gets as far as kissing her shyly but is shocked at the seductive kiss he is given. She tries to talk him into going upstairs with her—Wint Selby has long left the bar for the bedroom—but Richard demurs, offering to pay for her room rent if she doesn't have enough money. At this Belle orders another round of drinks, this time on her. As Richard gets a trifle muzzy he becomes more affectionate. But then he tries to reform Belle, and when that fails, he sinks into gloom.

A salesman enters. Belle is quick to see a better customer as Richard starts reciting a combination of poetic snatches, so she leaves him and moves over to the salesman, who encourages Richard's performance. Finally, Richard rises, this time quoting from Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, "Eilert Lovborg will come—with vine leaves in his hair," and constitutes himself the protector of Belle's virtue against the onslaughts of the salesman. The result is that Richard gets himself thrown out of the bar, but Belle tells the salesman who Richard is. This shocks him and he tells the bartender, who then throws Belle out.

Act III, Scene ii: The Miller sitting room at about 11 P.M. the same night. Mr. and Mrs. Miller are reading and crocheting, respectively, but both seem worried. Lily is pretending to read and looks "submissive and resigned again." Mildred is writing two words over and over with intense concentration. Tommy is desperately sleepy but won't admit it and is valiantly trying to stay awake. Mildred asks for approval of her new signature, complete with numerous curlicues, while Mr. and Mrs. Miller express concern about Richard's whereabouts. Mildred says that he just wants to arouse their sympathy. Tommy is sent to bed after one false start, and finally Art appears, looking pleased with himself. He suggests that despite all his socialist rant, Richard has gone to the fireworks. He then "very importantly" speaks of his meal at the Rands and starts to bicker with Mildred. To calm and distract his wife, Nat suggests that Art sing and Mildred play the piano accompaniment. To the sound of extremely sentimental songs sung in the same exaggerated style, a slightly recovered Sid enters to apologize to Lily, who finally forgives him. He even joins in the chorus of "Waiting at the Church," but this recalls memories of his trip to New York which are less than pleasant for Lily. The sound of popular songs continues as the Millers become progressively more apprehensive until Richard appears, dirty, disheveled, and maudlin, quoting again from Ibsen with a soused defiance. But suddenly he says, "Ma! I feel—rotten!" With this, Sid takes him upstairs, while Mrs. Miller worries that he has been "talking about some Hedda," whom she is sure must be "one of those bad women." She hides her face on her husband's shoulder and weeps as Lily, Mildred, and Arthur stand about, embarrassed.

Act IV, Scene i: The Miller sitting room at about 1 P.M. the next day. The family, except for Richard, enters after dinner. Sid is a trifle bloodshot and sleepy; Lily is sad and depressed; Arthur, self-consciously virtuous; Mildred and Tommy subdued. Mr. Miller has come home to punish Richard, who is still in bed but has eaten the dinner that his mother had sent him. Mrs. Miller is now attempting to intercede for Richard, especially now that she has discovered Hedda Gabler's identity. Meanwhile, however, Mr. Miller has received an anonymous note, obviously about spiking Richard's drink. Sid and Nat discuss the situation, agreeing with amusing indirection that Nat should give him the same sex education lecture he had given to his other three sons. Mrs. Miller still has not woken Richard, and finally Nat leaves, angry at having made a trip home for nothing.

Shortly after Mr. Miller's departure, Richard appears, having deliberately avoided any meeting with his father. Richard is sulky, depressed, and still somewhat sick; his self-dramatization again comes from Oscar Wilde and Ibsen: "It's lucky there aren't any of General Gabler's pistols around—or you'd see if I'd stand it much longer!" Mrs. Miller takes him literally and, with her usual practicality, offers a Bromo Seltzer. Sid enters to tease him about his drinking, and when Richard speaks of his wounded heart Sid is initially flippant but then turns sad: "Love is hell on a poor sucker. Don't I know it?" Richard then falls asleep. Mildred returns to ask about Richard's punishment. She has brought him a letter which Muriel had handed through her parlor window, in defiance of parental edicts, disclaiming the earlier letter of renunciation her father had made her write. She says she loves Richard and will sneak out to meet him tonight. At first Richard is joyful, but then (strictly for Mildred's benefit) he adopts the pose of "cynical pessimist," claiming that he knew she couldn't stay away from him and saying he is not sure whether he will meet her this evening. Mildred reminds him that he is forbidden to go out, but then Richard says that he'll go, no matter what punishment he will receive, and begs Mildred to keep quiet about it. She is admiring of his courage but nonetheless bargains with him for a suitable recompense—in kind. He will sneak out now and wait until evening, for he would "wait a million years." His exit line to Mildred is delivered with superior scorn: "The trouble with you is, you don't know what love means!"

Act IV, Scene ii: A strip of beach, a bank overhung with willow trees, a path, and "at center front a white, flat-bottomed rowboat." A new moon is rising, and "in the distance, the orchestra of a summer hotel can be heard very faintly at intervals." Richard is sitting on the gunwale of the rowboat near the stern, in wait for Muriel and meditating on the punishment he is likely to receive for sneaking out. He then thinks about the previous night's escapade with considerable disgust; now he is full of romance, but at the same time he doesn't want to seem too eager when Muriel appears. Muriel McComber is a pretty, plump girl of fifteen or sixteen with "fluffy, light-brown hair, big naive wondering dark eyes, a round dimpled face, a melting, drawly voice." Richard knows she is there but continues whistling "Waiting at the Church" until she calls to him. He acts as if "disturbed in the midst of profound meditation." His apparent indifference hurts her, as does his suggestion that she is afraid of life because she does not want to be seen in the moonlight. However, they eventually sit together on the boat, Muriel telling him about how she sneaked out. Not to be outdone, Richard starts to describe the previous night. Romantically, he claims he had been thinking of suicide because of her rejection of him, so he took the eleven dollars he had saved up for a birthday present ("I've still got almost five left") and went to a low dive. He somewhat upgrades the tale of the Pleasant Beach House, making Wint Selby a Yale senior and the tarts New York chorus girls with whom he drank champagne. However, he warms too much to his subject and Muriel bites his hand when he tells of one girl who sat on his lap and kissed him. She threatens to go home and the two have a lovers' quarrel. But then they make up, Richard suggesting that maybe he needn't go to Yale and instead will work for his father so he and Muriel can be married sooner. Muriel, very practically, opposes that plan. As always, when in doubt, he falls back on quotations as they speak of their honeymoon, Muriel suggesting Niagara Falls, but Richard quoting Kipling: "on the road to Mandalay! We'll watch the dawn come up like thunder out of China."

Act IV, Scene iii: The Miller sitting room at about 10 P.M. the same night. Mrs. Miller is working happily on a doily while Mr. Miller is reading some of the books confiscated from Richard's room. He is amused by Shaw and thinks Swinburne has "a fine swing to his poetry" despite his choice of "loose women" as subject. He has also re-read The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and enjoyed it—except for the parts about drinking. Mildred has told her parents of Richard's tryst, and while they are pleased, they are also concerned about disciplining him for disobedience and drunkenness. Mr. Miller says he won't let Richard go to Yale, but his wife thinks that would not be proper, since the other boys have gone. This, of course, is bluff, as Mr. Miller hastens to explain, and Mrs. Miller thinks about the great career Richard is going to have as a lawyer, doctor, or writer. They discuss Muriel and decide that he could do a lot worse, though Nat suggests that the infatuation won't last after he leaves home. Mrs. Miller, a true romantic, is glad that he will always have this moment to remember. Lily is out walking with Sid, Arthur is with Elsie Rand, and Mildred is with her latest beau. Everyone seems to be in love, and even Mr. McComber has been reconciled, apologizing to Nat, who has also gained some new business. "It's been a good day."

The sound of the front door is heard and Richard enters "like one in a trance, his eyes shining with a dreamy happiness." He sits down on the sofa, unconscious of anyone; it is not liquor this time, but love. Nat sends his wife away and talks to his son about his behavior the previous night. Richard insists that he had not gone to bed with Belle. Then, "with a shamefaced, self-conscious solemnity," Nat delivers the necessary lecture on sexuality, prostitution, and finally exclaims, "I never had anything to do with such women, and it'll be a hell of a lot better for you if you never do!" Richard is shocked that his father might have thought him capable of such infidelity since he plans to marry Muriel. Then Richard asks about his punishment. Nat replies that he had thought of refusing Richard the chance to go to Yale, a suggestion that the young man greets with joy. However, on hearing that Muriel believes that Nat will not wish his son to forgo college, he insists that his son go to Yale: "Muriel's got good sense and you haven't."

Richard is then sent to call his mother, and they all talk about the beauty of the evening. Mr. Miller says he remembers very few nights of similar beauty, "they were so long ago, when your mother and I were young and planning to get married." Richard is momentarily astonished at this comment and then realizes that they, too, were once young like him: "You sort of forget the moon was the same way back then—and everything." He kisses both his parents with shy reconciliation and goes out to sit on the piazza. The Millers gaze out at the moonlight. Nat is feeling happy that Richard can take care of himself now. They prepare to go up to bed, Mr. Miller saying he is too tired to say his prayers. They look at Richard "like a statue of Love's Young Dream," and Nat quotes from the Rubáiyát, going on to say that "there's a lot to be said for Autumn. That's got beauty, too. And Winter—if you're together." Mrs. Miller kisses him as they move out of the moonlight.

 

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