Filtering America’s Past Through
Eugene O’Neill is known as America’s greatest tragic playwright, but one of his most popular plays, Ah, Wilderness!, created a picture of our country set in 1906 in which the lives of the characters and the aura of their town is filtered through sunlight. Visually and linguistically the comedy represents an age of innocence and charm. Set on the Fourth of July, it celebrates an America as yet untouched by world war, widespread poverty, divorce, and other social ills that now form a part of our memory of the twentieth century. O’Neill said he had presented the “real America.” Depression era audiences accepted this view when it premiered and hoped for a return to those happy times. The vision of life constructed by O’Neill has continued to appeal to audiences as a hopeful representation of past reality during the vicissitudes of World War II, the Cold War, and Viet Nam. In recent times it has charmed audiences with its depiction of a past which O’Neill, himself, did not experience and which, in the wake of recent tragedies and the contemporary ironic view of life, seems paradoxically to be both real and imaginary.
The play is often described as a “dream play” and, in fact, is both literally and figuratively that. O’Neill woke one morning to find that he had literally dreamed the entire play, complete with title, and made a complete outline for it that day. Figuratively, the play is a dream of what American life in a small town was in 1906. As such, it has been perceived as a play of almost total innocence and naiveté, a world filtered, as it were, through sunlight. It is also generally described and remembered as a charming picture of the innocence of youth and young love. In the following pages I am going to analyze the actuality of these perceptions. Beginning with the play itself, one may ask if it is indeed so very innocent and naïve and sunny. Next, since the play is often described as autobiographical, with O’Neill serving as his own model for Richard, how valid is that idea? Finally, since the time that passed after World War I and the movement of America into the Depression affected the reality of the perceptions of this period of pre-war prosperity, how accurate is the depiction? Finally, I will examine the reality of the period in which O’Neill wrote the play and the effect of the play on audiences and critics of that time and then do the same with the period of the end of the twentieth century in which the play was successfully revived at Lincoln Center.
A close reading of the play reveals that it is indeed a comedy, but far from the light-hearted fairly shallow piece of entertainment as it is often described. The simple story concerns a newspaper editor Nat Miller and his wife Essie and their nearly seventeen year-old-son, Richard. The young man fancies himself a rebel and has read Swinburne and other controversial writers, sending excerpts of their work to his innocent young girlfriend, Muriel. When her father learns of it, he imprisons her at home and demands that Nat punish Richard. In the course of the play the Fourth of July is celebrated, Richard is lured to a hotel frequented by prostitutes and their customers, and finally meets with his Muriel in the moonlight on the beach where they share their first kiss and vow to love one another. The last scene is a touching reconciliation between Richard and his parents and then them alone in the moonlight as Nat says, “Well, Spring isn’t everything, is it, Essie? There’s a lot to be said for Autumn. That’s got beauty, too. And Winter—if you’re together.”
Barrett H. Clark, a critic who both encouraged and admired O’Neill, wrote in one of the first major studies of the playwright (revised in 1947): “There are no philosophical implications in this simple serious comedy, and there is scarcely a hint of ironic intention; it comes rather as a quiet interlude in the work of a playwright who had not so far in his writing career been content to use the theater merely as a means of showing character detached, as it were, from the ulterior complications of human existence. At first glance his view may seem accurate, but there are dark elements in the play as a whole, particularly in the second act. Before the play opened George M. Cohan (who gave his finest performance as a serious actor as Nat Miller), gave an interview in which he stated that he felt the play provided evidence that the public wanted literature, not light entertainment. The interviewer said that Cohan talked banter about everything except the play, over which he “waxed serious . . . almost pious.” Cohan said, “It’s a study in human nature, I guess you would call it a comedy, but it’s got a tragic theme—no . . . it’s got a serious note in it.”
One of the social problems which form the underpinning of the comedy is that of drinking. It comes up at the beginning of the play on the morning of the Fourth of July as Nat Miller and his brother-in-law, the irrepressibly comic Sid, discuss their plans to go to an annual picnic for men only. Both Mrs. Miller and Lily Miller his “old-maid” sister indicate concern about the drinking which will take place there. Sid had been engaged to Lily, the name signifying her purity, sixteen years before but she broke it off because of his drinking. For this period, neither of the women is unusual in her concern about drinking. We think of Prohibition as a failed experiment which came after World War I. In fact, the problems of alcoholism for both adults and youth were so serious that long before that many states passed prohibition laws. Many people of intelligence and sophistication supported movements against the particular problems associated with the heavy drinking of men, and the increasing amount of drinking by women. In other words, the temperance movement was not supported only by extremists wielding axes. The concerns were reflected in plays and novels in which depicted the ruin of family life and the deep concern about the drinking among young persons. In 1907, one year after this play is set, Tennessee’s “Four-Mile Law,” which made it illegal to sell liquor within four miles of a school, had been put into effect in many major American cities.
The play actually presents drinking as a serious problem, but the audience tends to remember the comedy associated with Sid’s drunkenness. The heights of the comedy, the scenes which absolutely delight audiences, are those in which Sid and Nat come back from the picnic. O’Neill says Nat is “mellow” enough to give his wife a “smacking kiss” and “slap her jovially on her fat buttocks” in front of his children and the servant (37-38). Sid is so drunk that he is in a daze. Nevertheless, he is able to make jokes and turn the Fourth of July lobster dinner into a hilarious disaster with him eating lobster shells and making a wonderful comic exit as he leaves to sleep off his drunkenness, forgetting that he had promised to take Lily to the fireworks.
As indicated, this is an extremely funny drunk scene. However, the act as a whole is constructed rather like a one-act play that moves from comedy to a tragic note. In that sense it has the structure which O’Neill later described as his plan for The Iceman Cometh:
When Sid exits, everyone laughs, even Lily, but she jumps from her seat and says, “That’s just it—you shouldn’t—even I laughed—it does encourage—that’s been his downfall—everyone is always laughing, everyone always saying what a card he is, what a case, what a caution, so funny—and he’s gone on—and we’re all responsible—making it easy for him—we’re all to blame—and all we do is laugh!” (48)
Of course Lily is right. Sid is back in town because he was fired for drunkenness—drink has ruined his hopes of marriage to Lily and his chances of keeping a job. He has also lost his self-esteem as revealed when he responds to Richard’s vow never to drink again. He says, “with drowsy cynicism—not unmixed with bitterness at the end,”
The women in the play are also concerned about Richard and other young men drinking. Richard is lured into his drunk scene by a Yale freshman, “the hell-raising sport type.” He has dated up “a couple of swift babies from New Haven” and wants to have Richard buy drinks for one of them, Belle, while he takes the other, Edith, upstairs for sex. In the event, Richard does drink a beer, then a drink that Belle tells the bartender to doctor so it will make him drunk. Again, O’Neill creates very funny drunk scenes both in the bar and at home. Richard quotes poems and passages from Hedda Gabler causing his mother to burst into tears and exclaim, “Oh, it’s too terrible! Imagine our Richard! And did you hear him talking about some Hedda? Oh, I know he’s been with one of those bad women, I know he has—my Richard!” (74)
In Richard’s case it seems drink is unlikely to ruin his life as it has Uncle Sid’s. He is so sick and feels so terrible that his father, mother, and his sweetheart Muriel are all convinced that he will avoid drink in the future. His father and Uncle Sid, however, are more concerned about another social problem that is suggested in the play. That is the question of prostitution and venereal disease.
An interesting contrast to O’Neill’s reputedly innocent and naïve picture of 1906 is Booth Tarkington’s novel Seventeen. In his utterly charming picture of the life of the period there are no prostitutes, no drinking, and the worst papa has to put up with is ukuleles and talk about love. In O’Neill’s play there is quite a different tone—truly a much more sophisticated and knowing tone. Anyone familiar with O’Neill’s plays knows that the presence or discussion of prostitutes (who are often sympathetically depicted) is fairly constant from the early plays to the last. In this play Richard is shown with Belle, a woman who says she usually charges ten dollars to go upstairs, but is willing to go up with him for only five dollars because he is so handsome. (Carrying our minds back, we have to remember that five dollars was a lot of money then.) The place in which they are drinking is absolutely sordid, the back room of a hotel where “they only charge you two dollars to go upstairs.” (55) The description of the room concludes, “A brass cuspidor is on the floor by each table. The floor is unswept, littered with cigarette and cigar butts. The hideous saffron-colored wall-paper is blotched and spotted.” (51) O’Neill depicts Richard as distressed by the proposal to go upstairs and disturbed by the obvious decadence of Belle, rather than excited. In fact, he tells her that she should reform. However, his doctored drink and her kisses are warming him until they are interrupted by the fortunate entrance of a traveling salesman (calling to mind a role played with success by O’Neill’s brother, that habitué of whore houses, Jamie). He provides a more likely customer than Richard and the scene in which the increasingly drunk Richard spouts poetry and the salesman encourages him for fun is a fine piece of comic writing. The salesman finally tells the bartender that Richard is under age and he is roughly thrown out. As in the lobster dinner scene, the mood swiftly changes after the salesman reveals the name of Richard’s father and leaves to be sure the young man gets on his trolley safely:
The passage would not have seemed out of place in Anna Christie or The Iceman Cometh and is a far cry from Tarkington’s Seventeen. The problem of “bad women” in American society was a source of great concern not only because of the supposed immorality involved, but because of the danger of venereal disease. In The Iceman Cometh Hickey says that his many nights spent with prostitutes caused him to “pick up a nail” which he then passed on to his innocent wife. In Ah, Wilderness! O’Neill refers obliquely, but darkly to the problem. Lily tells Essie Miller the reason she broke off with Sid and never could marry him, despite her love for him: “It’s sixteen years since I broke off our engagement, but what made me break it off is as clear to me today as it was then. It was what he’d be liable to do now to anyone who married him—his taking up with bad women.” Essie’s weak defense is that Sid always claimed he was drawn into a party and “never had anything to do with those harlots.” (30) A more realistic picture of the danger is drawn in the discussion between Sid and Nat on the fifth of July when the revengeful Belle has sent a note describing the events of the evening before. Sid, displaying the knowing quality of Jamie O’Neill, says, “She’s one of the babies, all right—judging from her elegant language.” However, he resents Nat’s implication that he corresponds with all the tramps in town and might recognize the handwriting. He clearly knows the Pleasant Beach Hotel, describing it as “nothing but a bed house.” Concerned, he says, “I hope you’re wrong, Nat. That kind of baby is dangerous for a kid like Dick.—in more ways than one. You know what I mean.” (79)
Again, O’Neill’s comic approach to the material obscures the seriousness of the problem when Nat attempts to talk to Richard about it. His whole speech relates to the reality of sexual drives, the long history of prostitution, and the dangers of contracting a disease and how to avoid it, but the speech is so disjointed and he is so embarrassed that it is one of the comic highlights of the play. Again, O’Neill subverts the danger of overt seriousness through his craft as a writer of comedy. Nevertheless, the dark elements are suggested in the play and Brooks Atkinson asked O’Neill in 1933 if the play could not have been a tragedy as likely as a comedy.
Turning to the question of autobiography, it is frequently taken for granted that O’Neill was depicting himself in the character of Richard and that the play is essentially about young love. It has often been suggested that his sorrow over the long lost early love Beatrice Ashe is the keynote and inspiration for the play. However, there are few similarities between Richard and the young O’Neill. The chief similarities are that both young men were interested in radical writers and engaged in revolutionary talk and the similarity in age: Richard is nearly 17 and in 1906 O’Neill was 17. But O’Neill’s romance with the young Beatrice Ashe, too innocent and proper to respond to his passion, occurred when he was nearly 26, had been married and divorced, and had fathered a son. Writing in 1945, O’Neill discussed his manner of writing and said that the play had been easy to write as it all came to him in a dream and he had some memories to help him. “Of these (contrary to legend) few were autobiographical. The idea that Richard in the play resembles me at his age is absurd. I was the exact opposite.”
There is certainly evidence to support that view. Thanks to Jamie, O’Neill had been introduced to alcohol and to prostitution at an early age. He began drinking at fifteen and, as is well known, had terrible problems with alcohol until he quit in 1926. It is also well known that his family life was quite unhappy. In New London he spent much of his time drinking beer with some other young boys and going to the twelve brothels in New London. The Gelbs describe these as “rickety wooden structures flanking the police station.” James O’Neill was so concerned about both Eugene and Jamie that at one time he felt he should warn the parents of some “impressionable daughters to keep them away from his profligate sons.” A long way from Nat Miller’s view of Richard.
However, if one shifts from the view of the play as primarily about youth and young love, there is more to reflect on in terms of autobiography than has generally been discussed. While the play seems to center on Richard and his frustrated romance with Muriel, in fact, the play in performance, from the earliest production to the present, focuses much more on Nat Miller, his philosophical stance (especially regarding radical literature and in contrast to the Muriel’s conservative father), and to his love for his wife, the mother of his six children. At the time O’Neill wrote the play he had been through incredible difficulties: the problems of his parents and his brother and the unhappiness of their deaths, two divorces, the scandal and publicity of his flight with Carlotta Monterey, and difficulties of getting his major plays produced. At the time he woke with this dream, this play of a happy family, he was in a sense recently arrived in a safe harbor. The Theatre Guild was producing his plays, he had received critical success, and, most importantly, he was happily living in the home in Georgia which his wife Carlotta had created and which was devoted to making it possible for him to work. There were other elements related to his age. Around the Fourth of July in 1931 he had visited his old home in New London. He later wrote, “Perhaps it is because I am growing old that I begin to look back fondly on my youthful days in a part of the country that was my one real home in those times.” Now he had a real home and wrote to screenwriter Robert Sisk, “We are very happy about it. It really is a peach of a place. First home I’ve ever built. So it’s a proud new thrill.” The letter was interrupted because he was “full up with visitors.” On the Fourth of July in 1932 he had the happiness of entertaining his son Shane and his son Eugene O’Neill, Jr. with his bride, Betty. In contrast to the accepted picture of O’Neill as the distant father who ignored his children and spent his days in melancholy, he wrote that he “was on the hop leading fishing and swimming parties—and talking parties.” Brooks Atkinson who interviewed O’Neill immediately after the premiere of Ah, Wilderness, gives a further picture of his mood and outlooks at this time! Noting that O’Neill was then forty-five, he wrote,
Atkinson concluded that “his soul was in excellent condition.” Given O’Neill’s circumstances at the time of the writing, the most meaningful autobiographical element might well be the love between Nat and Essie. The play can be seen as a love song to Carlotta. The play ends, not with the scene between Richard and Muriel, but between the 59 year old Nat and his plump wife who is in her fifties. Even the reference to the death of young love is not dark—Essie says maybe the romance with Muriel won’t last (as O’Neill’s with Beatrice Ashe did not), but concludes, “Well, anyway, he’ll always have it to remember—no matter what happens after—and that’s something.” (100) At this time O’Neill was 45 and Carlotta was only somewhat younger. When the play was published, he inscribed her copy with the lines about mature love.
Before production began he wrote the director, Philip Moeller, “I know we’re going to have a lot of fun doing this play.” After it opened, he wrote to Kenneth Macgowan,
Indeed, the play did move the audiences and critics. It is interesting to see how it was perceived in 1933. It is easy to imagine how welcome this overtly comic play was to Americans. Deep in the Depression, with unemployment high and plays closing for lack of audiences, this play drew crowds first in New York, then when Cohan took it on tour, and then on a West Coast tour with Will Rogers as Nat Miller. By 1932, American industry was turning out less than half its 1929 volume, crop prices had dropped, and “on a single day in April, 1932, one-fourth of the state of Mississippi fell under the auctioneer’s hammer.” An anonymous critic who had returned to New York from a tour of the country, seeing the “busted banks and idle factories” concluded that the play was just was the country needed—“people’s minds everywhere are too harassed with real, and to many, hitherto unheard-of worries” that constructs of unhappiness on stage were not what was needed. “Even another ‘Strange Interlude’ would be just a bit too much.” So he wrote that this play with its warmth, humor, and tenderness was more than welcome “as the packed and delighted theater sufficiently indicates.” (He also notes that it answered some recent criticism of the Theatre Guild by being a positive view of America by an American playwright.) Walter Winchell praised the play for the “tenderness and the comfort that it offers” which brought a lump into his throat. Many of the critics commented on the “truth” in the play. One critic wrote, “The deep emotion of his writing, the simplicity of his tale, and the sweetness of its telling combine to lift ‘Ah, Wilderness!’ to a grace that is true and right and compelling. Not knowing, I think, whether to laugh or cry, the First Audience had the decency to do both.” He concluded that “without antiquarian insistence,” O’Neill showed all the ingratiating detail of that life and time.
The notion of truth expressed in the critical reaction is interesting because there was an immediate tendency to compare the play with Tarkington’s popular 1916 novel Seventeen. Gilbert W. Gabriel began his review by saying “all the dolts in creation and criticism will begin by saying Eugene O’Neill has turned Tarkington.” As indicated above, Tarkington’s delightful tale is in an entirely different mode, broadly funny and without a serious note or reference to social problems—a long way from the Pleasant Beach Hotel. John Mason Brown noted the difference, saying, “O’Neill does not cheat to get his laughs. He refuses to content himself with superficialities or to indulge in the tempting distortions by means of which Mr. Tarkington, Mrs. Franken and a score of others have won easy chuckles when handling slightly similar themes.” At the same time, O’Neill expressed his opinions about the play in interviews and letters. He obviously viewed it as something more than a toss-off comedy written as a break between serious work. He clearly viewed it as a play that was both real and imagined from a distance. He wrote to Eugene O’Neill, Jr. that it was:
Similarly, he wrote to Saxe Commins:
Pleased by the success of the play, O’Neill wrote Macgowan, “I knew it would hand you a reminiscent chuckle. It’s a play which seems to hit all ages and classes one way or another—even, judging from letters and talks—the modern college youth whom I thought would be sure to be superior. The production goes merrily along—looks good for the rest of the season.” Little did he suspect how merrily it would go along. It was published in Burns Mantle’s Best Plays series as one of the ten best plays of the year. There were two movie versions, an almost instant revival by the Theatre Guild and the play has been performed constantly throughout the world ever since 1933. I was amazed by the sheer number of programs and advertisements for productions that are in the files at Lincoln Center. One of these was a highly successful 1997 production of the play by the National Asian American Theatre Company with Ron Nakahara as Uncle Sid.
Not surprisingly the events of the twentieth century and the strong presence of irony in much of contemporary writing and criticism affected critical response to the 1997 production of Ah, Wilderness! at Lincoln Center. In the mostly favorable critical response there was a recognition of the darker elements in the play—partly as a result of the material in biographies of O’Neill and his late plays. Fintan O’Toole, heading his review “Happy days are here again in a positively winning revival” wrote, that it was “less a comedy than an elegy for a warm, safe, lost world” and that director Daniel Sullivan “does full justice to that wistful undertow beneath the play’s pleasant surface.” Michael Feingold, too, noted that “his staging pushes the dark side into the foreground.” Donald Lyons wrote, “O’Neill in a comic vein was still O’Neill, and the glorious production of ‘Ah, Wilderness!’ at the Vivian Beaumont makes palpable the darkness enveloping the little island of light that is the Miller family . . . There’s a subtly dry, ironic quality to the dialogue, as if it were being filtered through memory.”
Naturally, some critics found the play old-fashioned and sentimental. Not surprisingly, Robert Brustein weighed in on the negative side, calling the play “an old warhorse” which seemed very long. In response to the questions raised in the play, he asked, “Who cares?” He concluded that the play is too comfortable and asked, “Did that lost Eden of ideals and manners and codes ever really exist?” Jonathan Kalb found the play annoying because it wasn’t funny, but people were laughing. Sneering at the dialogue, he said, “The reminiscence is so glassy-eyed, sappy, and psychologically superficial that it simply won’t stand, either as a portrait of precocious adolescence or a sepia snapshot of 1906 New England.” Reflecting the Zeitgeist of America in the nineties, he said that O’Neill could not have believed in the optimism in the play any more “than he did in faeries” and that sitting through the play was “like suffering through a nightmare of ‘niceness.’” Peter Marks, while writing a highly positive review, nevertheless reflected some of the same Zeitgeist, saying that the play seemed a “mild brew” but that perhaps it is just “that a really nice family is less interesting than a really vicious one.” Nevertheless, he found the evening delightful as did Westsider critic, D. L Lepidus, who noted that although the evening was three hours long “it seems a lot shorter than most two-hour plays.” Audiences agreed and the play was a big success, even without superstars to draw them in. Chris Jones offered a good summation of the production:
In creating this comedy, O’Neill was drawing on his knowledge of playwriting absorbed from years of theatre-going as a child and a young adult, his studies with Baker, and his years of writing and rewriting plays. He created a play which had Depression audiences laughing and still speaks to audiences with memories of Viet Nam, assassinations, and terrorist attacks. His skill allows us to view this “happy time” and enter into it for the length of the play.
Beneath the happiness is the darkness of the time in which the play was written, the darkness of his own life, and the serious implications of Omar Khayyam’s poems: “Yet, Ah, that spring should vanish like a rose, that youth’s sweet-scented manuscript should close.” Great craftsman that he was both in comedy and tragedy, O’Neill filtered the darkness through sunlight through most of the play and bathed it in moonlight at the end.
Eugene O’Neill, “Ah, Wilderness!,” Complete
Plays, ed. Travis Bogard, 3 vols. (The
Library of America, 1988), p.107. Further
references to this play will be quoted
parenthetically in the text.
Barrett H. Clark, Eugene O’Neill: The Man and
His Plays (New York: Dover, 1947), pp.
Quoted in Yvonne Shafer, Performing O’Neill:
Conversations With Actors and Directors (New
York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), p. 52.
J. C. Furnas, The Late Demon Rum (New
York: Capricorn Books, 1973), p. 312.
Ibid., p. 319.
Quoted in Louis Sheaffer, O’Neill, Son and
Artist (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), p.
Brooks Atkinson, “O’Neill Off Duty,” New York
Times 10 August 1933, n. p.
Eugene O’Neill, Selected Letters, ed.
Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer (New York:
Limelight Editions, 1988), p. 571.
Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb, O’Neill: Life
with Monte Cristo (New York: Applause,
2000), pp. 199-200.
Ibid., p. 770.
O’Neill, Selected Letters, p. 402.
Atkinson, n. p.
O’Neill, Selected Letters, p. 421.
Ibid., pp. 363-364.
John A. Garraty and Peter Gray, ed., The
Columbia History of the World (New York:
Harper & Row, 1972), p.1011.
Unidentified clipping Lincoln Center Library.
Quoted in a Theatre Guild advertisement Lincoln
Unidentified clipping, Lincoln Center Library.
Unidentified clipping, Lincoln Center Library.
“Ah, Wilderness!,” Lincoln Center
Library, n.p. Italics mine.
O’Neill, Selected Letters, p. 412.
Quoted in Doris Alexander, Eugene O’Neill’s
Creative Struggle (Pennsylvania:
Pennsylvania University Press, 1992), p. 188.
Eugene O’Neill, The Theatre We Worked For,
ed. Jackson R. Bryer (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1982), p. 207.
Fintan O’Toole, “Open Wide and Say ‘Ah,
Wilderness!,’” Daily News 19 March 1998,
Michael Feingold, “More Bids for Fun,” clipping
Lincoln Center, n. p.
Donald Lyons, “Balmy Connecticut,” Wall
Street Journal 19 March 1998, p. A16.
Robert Brustein, “The Two O’Neills,” New
Republic, clipping Lincoln Center Library,
Jonathan Kalb, “Ah, Wilderness!,” New York
Press 1 April 1998, p. 37.
Peter Marks, “Ah, Wholesomeness!,” New York
Times 18 March 1998, E1.
D. L. Lepidus, The Westsider 26 March
1998, p. 13.
 Chris Jones, “Ah, Wilderness!,” Variety 23 March 1998, p. 11. Italics mine.
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