O'NEILL'S FUNNY VALENTINE
When the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York produced Ah, Wilderness! one February, its advertising called the play "O'Neill's valentine to America," thereby wedding a positive image to a seasonal come-on. We don't as a rule associate O'Neill's theatre with tributes to this country, much less to the imminence of spring, and though I hate to come down--slightly--on the side of darkness and bleakness, what we end up with in this comedy is a bouquet of roses that sports at least as many thorns as blossoms. Or, to liquefy the trope, a toxic nectar.
To start with, the name of the play: O'Neill adapted it from Fitzgerald's famous stanza,
In which all the nouns, as in German, lead off with capitals. There is not much difference between Oh, Wilderness! and Ah, Wilderness! other than the one vowel and a pursed versus an elongated mouth, except that the Oh could connote passion, the Ah a mood of reminiscence that might be cheerful or might not. A wilderness doesn't strike us as an upbeat topic for a play. We could assume the word carries irony, but irony usually goes the other way: an upbeat word implies or includes something else, as in Beckett's title Happy Days.
The play, set in New London, Connecticut, opens on the holiday of holidays, July 4th, in the year 1906. Despite the screens, hot-weather flies buzz into the house the second anyone opens a door. Outside, eleven-year-old Tommy keeps setting off firecrackers that make everybody inside Jump. Apart from these trivial irritants, the atmosphere in the home of the Miller family breathes serenity, time out from work, but not altogether from domestic routine. In the supposedly traditional spirit of Independence Day, the dramatic temperature will remain mostly low, from the first scene on.
O'Neill puts climaxes into the first three acts and the first two scenes of Act Four, such as a squabble between Nat Miller, the good-natured editor and paterfamilias, and a neighbor, Dave McComber, who sells "dry goods" and whose daughter Muriel has received wildly affectionate billets doux from Nat's 16-year-old son Richard; or we have Uncle Sid's drunken and funny outburst about lobsters, love, and liquor; or Muriel's threat, uttered on the beach, to walk out on Richard. These and other moments of conflict or excitement are soft-pedaled for the most part. So is the last scene of the play, which turns into an anti-climax: Richard and his father launch a man-to-man talk of the kind that is almost unimaginable today; but Nat grows suddenly abashed and the scene subsides into a reconciliation as Richard kisses his dad good-night. Then he steps outside, meditating and looking, according to his father, "like a statue of Love's Young Dream." His parents kiss and move out of the moonlight "into the darkness of the front parlor."
A tranquil ending. Or is it? The critical consensus tells us that we caught O'Neill here in a mellow, nostalgic mood that enabled him to compose a comedy, for a change, about a typical New England family of yore. The tone evoked in this 1932 work resembles that of Wilder's Our Town, produced three years later, although I would submit that in that play too we are being exposed not to the idyll of small-town America but to its constrictions.
Perhaps we should look back and see what has happened to the characters in the course of the action. The final embrace of Nat and his wife Essie may bring them together, but they were never far apart. Nat, whom another character calls "a good scout," has in his personality a touch of the poet that responds to his son's adolescent, poetasting fervor. More enlightened than the average father of the time (insofar as we know anything about that fictitious entity), he appears eager to please--that is, not displease--his wife, although he sometimes fails. He used to swim well; now he has become "rusty." If we regard swimming as what it was for the playwright, an act of liberation, we might say that he now stays within conventional limits. His daughter Mildred does more or less the same: she remarks that she likes the water "wonderful and warm" when she goes in and that she doesn't swim "so awful far."
Mother Essie, who has raised or is still raising six offspring, plays Nat as the heavy--"Wait till your father comes home"--but she ascribes the children's misdoings, as she sees them, to his influence. A woman held down by domestic chores and cares, she has to give vent to her anxieties by nagging everybody else in the family. One of her favorite adjectives is "nice." Nice has negative meanings, such as not causing discomfort or worry. She lives conscientiously up to the decreed standard of a wife and mother: fussy domestication. If she feels any larger discontents, she wouldn't think of expressing them; to do that wouldn't be "nice." And so we can't accept the clinch between her and Nat in Act Four as signifying much more than resignation to more years of the same.
But what about the play's durably on-and-off love affair, which does go astray--that between Lily and Sid? And what about the junior romance between Richard and Muriel?
Lily and Sid are already in-laws, the younger siblings respectively of Nat and Essie, and already fond of each other when the play starts. They are possibly drawn together by socially received opinions of the time to the effect that an unmarried man of 45 must be a drifter while an unmarried woman of 42 must be, well, unmarriageable. Nat and Essie call Sid "a card" and "a case" and "a caution." Sid makes people laugh to ward off their contempt or ridicule, but his formidable sense of humor needs alcoholic lubrication before it gets into gear. Describing how lobsters make love, or saying he invented them, or marching around the living room to his own rendition of "In the Sweet By and By," he breaks everyone up. When he recovers from a drinking jag, though, he turns remorseful and reverts to the naughty boy who "was always getting punished--and see what a lot of good it did me!" Sid, a free spirit when under the influence, has no place in that society except as a drunken buffoon and a warning, a role he feels ashamed of when sober. He can't hold down jobs, has no prospects. He and Lily may perhaps "meet on that beautiful shore" or "in the sky by and by," but not in this particular lifetime.
Lily looks at first glance like a prototype of the prim schoolmarm who advises her niece against indulging in excessive loops and flourishes in her handwriting and advises her brother and sister-in-law against encouraging Sid's clownishness; but she proves herself to be, in her own way, a nonconformist. She will not marry for the sake of becoming a married woman in order to acquire that much respectability and escape from people's pity for an old maid. Richard thinks she has driven his uncle to drink, but he misunderstands her. Lily is a proud woman; she will wed only a man she can idealize. Sid has let her down too many times. As some consolation she may act as substitute mother to her students and to her nephews and niece; but she feels more like the Millers' boarder than a family insider. She and Sid will not make a match, but they may well strike us as being partners in unfulfillment, if not undeserved sterility.
In the teenaged pair, Muriel and Richard, we find a marriage ordained by local assumptions. An assured income and an assured level in the social hierarchy--these represent the summit of his parents' ambitions for a young fellow in 1906, as they do for most middle-class parents eighty years later.
Muriel's mother, Alice, doesn't appear in the play. Still, we are told she was a good-looking girl, like Essie. And like Essie again, she hunts through her child's underwear to unearth paper she considers forbidden--in the case of Basle, Richard's books; in the case of Alice, the lush love letters Richard has written Muriel. Essie, in other words, stands in for both mothers. And it happens that Muriel resembles Essie in being short, plumpish, attractive, and a scold. For Dick, being with his sweetheart is much like being with his mother. She's similarly shockable; she doesn't like even mild oaths or smoking or people who drink or get out of control. Her first lines when she sneaks out of doors to see him on the beach consist of reproaches ("I'll bet you'd forgotten I was even coming ... You might think of me for a change"), and more reproaches punctuate her dialogue through the scene. She doesn't want to sit in the boat or gaze at the new moon ("That's not much to look at") or stay long, for fear of being punished. When she hears about Richard's encounter with Belle, a good-time girl in a local tavern, she wishes him dead. When he remonstrates with her she bites his hand and tries to run away. Actually Muriel doesn't come across as quite the sourpuss I've made her seem by selective quotation. Rather, she is young woman any man could have married in 1906. She acquiesces without question in other people's plans for her and Richard. She doesn't want to muddy any waters. She's suppressed and oppressed and repressed. Richard himself observes that she is "afraid of life."
He isn't. Yet. Richard has just about reached the age of--significant word--independence. As he tries with youthful enthusiasm and courage and a certain panache to break out of the mold that destiny has in store for him, he sloshes around in the era's new literature of "pure" feeling and "sheer" intellectualism as ungovernably as his uncle Sid does in liquor. They form a notable contrast, these two. If Sid reformed, he'd very likely turn into another desperately repentant proselytizer like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh; as it is, he will probably decline slowly into a Jamie Tyrone. If Richard were never to reform according to the lights of his family and community, he'd turn into the Con Melody of A Touch of the Poet, a fulltime poseur; as it is, he will probably wind up as a Billy Brown, the commercially successful hero of The Great God Brown, but a Billy Brown who manages at an early age to repulse a soul-invasion by the aesthetic and ascetic Dion Anthony.
Richard has two chances to assert his independence and model himself on Hedda Gabler's admirer, Eilert Loborg. First, he might make a night of it with Belle in or near the tavern, a young woman who will accept even under-age "johns," but he can't bring himself to do so; the inhibitions imposed by his upbringing win out. Later, on the beach, before Muriel's arrival for a tryst, he stares at the moon, communes with nature, and feels half in love with easeful death; but instead of rowing away in the boat and the moonlight to the great elsewhere, he and Muriel sit in the shadows and settle his future. Vine leaves in his unruly hair? Not a hope. She'll buy him expensive pomade to tame it, flatten fur into glossy leather. She'd like him to follow his father and three older brothers through Yale. In after years, if he doesn't watch out, instead of taking over his father's newspaper he may slide, under Muriel's pressure, into running his grumpy father-in-law's business. Dry goods indeed! He's already come by some of them in the form of Muriel. The married couple will purchase, a house and cram it with kids and furniture, as his parents have done. We learn from the first stage direction that the "fairly large" sitting-room in which much of the action takes place has two book cases in it, two double doorways, a screen door, a sofa, a writing desk and its chair, four more chairs, a big, round table, three rockers and three armchairs. With that many obstacles, even a room say 700 square feet in area (20' by 35') would cause acute traffic holdups, maybe an occasional gridlock. It's no wonder Nora the maid has trouble serving dinner.
And now, with your permission, it's time for a station break while we introduce the play's one Norwegian and two Irish godfathers, none other than Henrik Ibsen, Oscar Wilde, and Bernard Shaw. Various other literary names crop up in the text, from Kipling and Swinburne to Carlyle and, of course, the Fitzgeralded Omar Khayyam; but Ibsen, Wilde, and Shaw seem to recur pointedly. Richard calls The Ballad of Reading Gaol "one of the greatest poems ever written." Richard is not given to understatement and dotes on the word "greatest," but he uses it accurately. For him Ibsen is "the greatest playwright since Shakespeare," a judgment any critics who know the drama since Shakespeare would have to concur in today, although today's critics would cravenly and mechanically hedge their bets and say "perhaps the greatest." Richard finds Shaw "the greatest living playwright," which in 1906 he unquestionably was. Richard owns two books by--as Essie has it--"that awful Oscar Wilde they put in jail for heaven knows what wickedness." Arthur, the brother still at Yale, explains, "He committed bigamy," at which, Sid "smothers a burst of ribald laughter."
Arthur would be too young to recall Wilde's trial and death; but the memory would still be fresh in the family of the recent New York productions of Ghosts and Mrs. Warren's Profession. Ghosts had a reception slightly less frozen than the one it had met with in London. (William Winter, a leading critic here, described it as "a gem of decadence," but Richard owns a copy of Shaw's Quintessence of Ibsenism, which cites the London reviews in some detail. As a devout reader he must know that Winter's coldness didn't measure up to theirs, which went right off the temperature charts and plunged into indecency.) However, the American reviewers made up for their timidity when they greeted Mrs. Warren's Profession. That play, says Essie, the amateur critic, was a piece of theatre "so vile they wouldn't even let it play in New York." She is thinking back to the previous October when the single performance of Mrs. Warren by Arnold Daly's company, preceded by a single performance nearer home, in New Haven, which has slipped Essie's mind, had both been shut down by the police.
As a nineteenth-century homosexual and a seditious author, Wilde had personified a challenge to the type of family life conducted by the Millers and their neighbors. In Ghosts and several plays that followed it, Ibsen had written of the frustrations, even neuroses, the scandal mongering and petty enmities, and the subjugation of the women in similar, if smaller, communities in Norway. As for Shaw, he permeates this play, not only in that Richard views himself as a Eugene Marchbanks ("Out, then, into the night with me," he yells as he "stalks out, slamming the door behind him," after a tiff with his mother), but also because, whether by chance or design, he and his mother have the same names as two of the characters in The Devil's Disciple. This last play, Shaw's only one set in new England, takes place during--and deals with--the War of Independence. Its eponymous hero, Richard Dudgeon, provokes the people of Websterville, New Hampshire, into resisting the English as he contends with his puritanical mother and other relatives. An orphan girl named Essie, continually irked during the action by being asked whether she is "a good girl," represents the youthful impetus of the revolution, American's young independence. Treated as something of a colonial possession by the Dudgeon family, Essie finally becomes recognized as a person in her own right and is given the last spoken line of the play.
End of the break. Back to the text, if we ever left it. Is Richard Miller really the young man Eugene O'Neill once said he wished he'd been (a remark cited in practically every published commentary on the play)--O'Neill, who spent his active career striving to retain his spiritual and social independence? If we reconsider Richard's progression through the four acts, we see that his aspirations are quashed, but in the most gentle, disarming fashion. He didn't want to go to Yale, but thanks to his father's affable insistence, he will. He didn't want to toe the line or have to hide his books. He couldn't make up his mind about Muriel, unless she behaved like an acolyte, a willing receptacle for his impassioned messages. O'Neill could never have dwindled into the accommodating Richard whom his mother, in one of her echoes of Shaw, calls "a good boy." But in the Richard of Act One, even with his extravagant manners, we may well glimpse the young O'Neill, in the Richard who explains, "I don't believe in all this silly celebrating the Fourth of July--all this lying talk about liberty when there is no liberty! The Fourth of July is a stupid farce!" From that point on Ah, Wilderness!, instead of being a frolicsome exception to the O'Neill canon, belongs to it securely, harmonizing with the tones and themes found in The Hairy Ape, The Great God Brown, Strange Interlude, and Mourning Becomes Electra through to his adumbrations for the unfinished play cycle "A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed."
If Richard is decorously stifled, what happens to the other characters, especially the women? At the beginning of the holiday Essie and Lily have no fixed plans. They are at the disposal of the men. Nat and Sid go off to a picnic booze-up, Nat as a small release from his working routine, Sid to drown his woes at being unemployed. The women sit home and wait--and wait--and fret about the children and do the usual housework and cooking. When Sid returns he will fall asleep and forget his promise to take Lily to see the fireworks display. The teenaged girls will slip into the same pattern of frustration as their female elders. Mildred must cut out the flourishes and loops that adorn her handwriting. Muriel must be protected from literature, ideas, and intimations of sex. In the tavern scene the scornful treatment of Belle by a bartender and a salesman echoes this attitude toward women as lesser beings. The fortunately married ones like Essie are worker bees whom the men mollify by letting them assume the airs of queens.
Thus, if Ah, Wilderness! is any sort of a valentine, it pays its love and respects to the playwrights O'Neill wanted to feel worthy to follow--in particular, Bernard Shaw--not to small-town America. In New England, he tells us, prudery and coyness have overtaken the yearnings for independence. Puritanism has returned in a cushioned, twentieth-century form. But O'Neill keeps his moralizing at such a soft pitch that it is hardly detectable. He does so partly by mocking Richard's overblown theatricality as he voices his early sentiments of rebellion, partly by suggesting a genuine underlying warmth in the Millers' feelings toward one another, and partly by dispelling the generation gap in the closing scene between Richard and his father. All the same, for those who stay in that enclave of genteel smothering, the wilderness is going to have to remain paradise enough.
-- Albert Bermel
© Copyright 1999-2011 eOneill.com