Menu Bar

A Connecticut Yankee in the Wilderness:
The Sterner Stuff of O'Neill's Comedy


BY Edward L. Shaughnessy
FROM The Recorder: A Journal of the American Irish Historical Society, 1989

Like most of us, Eugene O'Neill could say one thing today, something quite different tomorrow. By way of apologia, he sometimes invoked Walt Whitman (a useful strategy): "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself." Take these two characterizations of the conventional American dream. First, we hear a voice whose timbre seems unfamiliar:

... my purpose was to write a play (Ah, Wilderness!) true to the spirit of the American large small-town at the turn of the century. Its quality depended upon atmosphere, sentiment, an exact evocation of the mood of a dead past. To me the America which was (and is) the real America found its unique expression in such middle-class families as the Millers among whom so many of my own generation passed from adolescence into manhood.1

Had his name been Norman Rockwell, the playwright could not have tapped more deeply into the average American sentiment. His words elevate the sanctity of village green and Home-sweet-Home. But they don't remind us much of the O'Neill who created Brutus Jones and the "hairy ape," Nina Leeds and Lavinia Mannon, Larry Slade and Jamie Tyrone. Indeed, his standard characterization of the national idyl was made up of equal parts acid and anger. Here is a broadside he fired when The Iceman Cometh was first produced: "This American Dream stuff gives me a pain. Telling the world about our American Dream! I don't know what they mean. If it exists, as we tell the whole world, why don't we make it work in one small hamlet in the United States?"2 Vintage O'Neill. We may be forgiven, then, if we are somewhat unsure when he speaks in softer tones about American life. Since his works typically summon us to the brink of the abyss, we wonder if we ourselves have not been made the target of his cynicism. Perhaps in Wilderness! we discover a blend of Celtic-American magic. Whatever, the play is a comedy, a wonderful comedy.

The piece was so good-natured, in fact, that O'Neill himself seemed a bit giddy before releasing the script to the Theater Guild. Had it not been convincingly positive, it would never have appealed to George M. Cohan, the Yankee Doodle Dandy, who played Nat Miller in the first Broadway tour. Many observers, including members of the Theater Guild who produced it, were nonplussed when O'Neill suggested casting the song-and-dance man to play the part of Richard's father. They were hardly less surprised when Cohan accepted the role. But, as the sons of popular Irish-American troupers, George M. and Eugene felt a sentimental bond. This turn of events must have amused O'Neill. For Cohan was skeptical of "intellectuals" (members of the Guild?), just as the playwright himself was often uncomfortable in the presence of the professional cognoscenti.

Although Cohan was at first fearful that O'Neill "might try to pull some of that highbrow stuff," he was pleased to discover a "regular" fellow of the theater who "wasn't born on the corner of Forty-third Street and Broadway for nothing".3 And they were linked in another important way: their fathers, said Cohan, "practically started the Catholic Actors Guild." But neither allowed sentiment to dictate business. The Dandy wanted top billing: "I come first. It's got to be Cohan and O'Neill." And Eugene knew well George M.'s box-office value: "I believe Ah, Wilderness! can go on, with Fred Stone, say, or someone else—not as profitably as with Cohan, but still profitably, or, at least, breaking even."5 The most interesting fact in this episode, however, is that Cohan had never before appeared in any play not written by himself. In his own way, then, Cohan was complimenting O'Neill (even if he did elbow the playwright offstage by ad-libbing and extending the running time by 25 minutes). At any rate, Cohan clearly added something to the early popularity of the play. Thus, O'Neill was simultaneously boosted and bedeviled by the man who wrapped himself in the stars and stripes.

Ah, Wilderness!
works because O'Neill knew the old theater inside out—his father's theater, which Eugene claimed to hate and which he ranked no higher than Dion Boucicault's. Even so, he had absorbed the stock-in-trade of the day's popular comedy. In that carpenter shop he had mastered the stereotypes of character and situation, some of them only lightly disguised Boucicaultian, sure fire stock-in-trade. For instance:

1. The lovable drunk wringing merriment from every moment and even exploiting his weakness for a laugh. Sid Davis's total predictability thereby makes him all the more appealing;

2. The young and awkward lovers, pretending sophistication and acting grown up, yet confirming at every step our reassuring assumptions that they are God's sweetness visited upon the world again, their very souls the models of innocence;

3. The fussy and somewhat befuddled mother, fretting over her son's behavior but unwilling to have the father chastise him too severely: she seems to say, "Punish him, but don't hurt his feelings";

4. The wise but gentle father, who can yet recall the pleasant effects of moonlight on young love;

5. The maiden aunt, disappointed in love but still affectionate and generous; satisfied, she says, to be close to the children of her brother's union.

The playwright protested that this sort of thing was entirely new to him. But he knew that old theater only too well; and he had a marvelous good time putting it together. As he wrote to Eugene, Jr., ". . . it's new ground for me .... But what pleasure I got out of writing it! It was such a change from the involved and modern and tragic hidden undertones of life I usually go after. It's about the last play they would ever suspect me of writing."

Is this play, then, radically different from the rest of O'Neill's work? Or, despite its lightness and good cheer does it possess "the sterner stuff' that is the hallmark of his work. The cannonading of middle-class hypocrisy, tastelessness, and shallowness—albeit it is in the gentler form of comedic chiding. If Eugene O'Neill created the play, its fabric will reveal his stitching. A comedy it may be, but not one bereft of the "tragic hidden undertones . . . I usually go after."

O'Neill could not escape himself. Because he was a serious dramatist, he inevitable brought muscle to his work. He could no more fail to provide substance than he could shed his skin. Of course, any good play has staying power, some content that will outlast those changes in values and style certain to occur over time. Ah, Wilderness! is such a play. In locating its endurance quotient, we have to determine what its constants are in relation to human nature. It will not do merely to say that children wish to test authority, that adolescents fall into love too soon, that parents worry about their children's judgment, and so forth. We could make similar observations about Romeo and Juliet. Nor will it do to remark that many plays have been centered in the family. For what would we have asserted but the obvious?

Well known it is, of course, that O'Neill gave us two plays about his young manhood, each centered in the family. And, although one stands as this century's consummate tragedy and the other as "a comedy of recollection," both focus on the individual's first knowledge of alienation from his domestic world. The most fundamental difference in these presentations, however, is that the tragic Long Day's Journey into Night presents the family as the world in itself, as the metaphor for all human relations and interactions. But in Wilderness! O'Neill places the family in the larger context of the community. Thus, since the plays' givens are in this sense unlike, each renders reality differently. Journey presents a symbolic world shut down at the end in fog and darkness. In it dates and place names hardly matter; the past is the present. But the comedy gives us a world so real that every corner is tacked down in the history and life of the moment: July 4, 1906. Its statement is truer, then, in socio-political terms. This point is not insignificant.

O'Neill places his fragile hero, Richard Miller, in an authentic (and therefore somewhat intimidating) turn-of-the-century New England background. Real names, places, and institutions give us a sense that we know this world: Waterbury and New Haven; Yale, Harvard, and Princeton; the sitting U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt; the financier J. Pierpont Morgan, against whom Richard, the teenage iconoclast, rails. The Millers' Buick, perhaps a status symbol, was probably more a toy than a necessity; thus when Nat suggests a "drive around town and out to the light-house," we do not fret that there could not have been many miles of paved road.

Professor John Henry Raleigh has thrown light on the use of songs and song titles. He notes that most of the numbers were of recent vintage or were well known in the period: "Mighty Like a Rose" (Act I), 1901; "In the Sweet Bye and Bye" (Act II), a 19th-century Salvation Army hymn, sung by Uncle Sid; "Dearie" (Act II), 1905. Let us recall that parents and children were probably not so divided in their musical tastes as they have since become. In Act II, when Richard visits the prostitute in the back room of the bar, Belle complains to the bartender that the player-piano keeps playing the same tune: "Say, George, is 'Bedelia' the latest to hit this hick burg? Well, it's only a couple of years old! You'll catch up in time! Why don't you get a new roll for that old box?" In fact, the song was published in 1903. The point is that all these items lend authenticity to the background.7

If called upon to name them, what authors would we name as attractive to the neophyte rebel of 1906? The answer is easy: those that Richard is reading (who are those that Eugene O'Neill was reading that year). Richard admires the writers both for their ideas and for their shock value upon his elders. He flaunts names that suggest his Fourth of July independence (many of them the very ones James Tyrone condemns in Long Day's Journey). But Nat Miller is more amused than outraged at his son's catalogue of heroes: Ibsen, Shaw, Wilde, Swinburne, and Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubaiyat. The principle of confrontation turns to humor. (Perhaps we are reminded of the later Marian-the-Librarian whose selections—Chaucer, Rabelais, and Balzac—scandalize the sober folk of River City, Iowa.)

Richard Miller is the centerpiece. As he seeks to liberate himself from family and middle-class values, his future has both tragic and comic possibilities. We know that in Long Day's Journey O'Neill surveys the same ground, where stalked the demons that would later deform his spirit: a costly war with his father, the morphine enslavement of his beloved mother, ambivalence toward his brilliant but self-destructive brother; his loss of faith, his sense of homelessness, his wish to lose himself forever in the fog. But when the sophomoric Richard utters a version of fin de siecle pessimism, his pose does not fool us. He declaims with Byronic bravado, "Life is a joke .... everything comes out wrong in the end!" We know, in part because of the play's tone, that as he moves into his wilderness, he is still tethered to home: O'Neill will bring him back a bit unsteady but unscathed by tragedy.

The playwright's own ambivalence toward family life (represented in the differing views presented in Journey and Wilderness!) is grounded in his attraction to the salutary aspects of normal domestic life. For he was caught here in an emotional dilemma. He could no more approve the Millers' political and social views than he could accept those of his own father. Therefore, when Richard ridicules the sentimental patriotism of the holiday, we hear O'Neill's voice. When the young hero condemns the day's laissez-faire policies that permit the economic pillaging of Pierpont Morgan, the author is on his side. But O'Neill sees as well that Richard is supported by a domestic tranquility which views his rebellion as predictable and, within limits, acceptable behavior. Such "permissiveness' promotes a young person's growth—emotional, intellectual, and moral.

Richard raises a few eyebrows but little hell. His racy literary tastes mildly offend his mother's delicate sensibilities, but he is surprised to discover that his maiden aunt quotes easily from the love lyrics of Omar Khayyam. He censures the rapacity of Pierpont Morgan as worthy of the guillotine, only to find that his father is also acquainted with Carlyle's "French Revolution." Richard causes the near apoplexy of David McComber, father of his sweetheart Muriel, by introducing her to "dissolute" and "blasphemous" influences. The elder McComber confronts Nat with Richard's verses, found by his wife "in one of' Muriel's bureau drawers hidden under the underwear." Miller detects his neighbor's low-voltage prurience and defends his son's honor and natural high spirits.

Why, you damned old fool! Can't you see Richard's only a fool kid who's just at the stage when he's out to rebel against all authority, and so he grabs at everything radical to read and wants to pass it on to his elders and his girl and boy friends to show off what a young hellion he is! Why, at heart you'd find Richard is just as innocent and as big a kid as Muriel is!

Richard likes to think of himself as worldly and experienced. In fact, he is unable to hold the small quantity of gin he consumes in the bar; and he is paralyzed when the prostitute invites him into her business chambers. Richard may for a time have convinced himself that he feels alienation in a purposeless universe, that metaphysical ambiguity born of his sense of cosmic indifference (what in a few decades would be called angst). But his affectations convince no one, since he has not really convinced himself. Deep down, he knows where his existential bread is buttered.

In addition to the historical and cultural authenticity of background, we discover a deeper realism, a view of family life that is psychologically valid. For, although the play gives an affectionate view of domestic ambience, it is neither cloyingly sentimental nor melodramatically frightening. The children are bright and attractive but simultaneously capable of bullheadedness. Yet, since they stand on a firm moral soil, they are grounded in something solider than Rockwellism. Here O'Neill praises the typical values of American life, "the real America (which, as he said) found its unique expression in such middle-class families as the Millers among whom so many of my own generation passed from adolescence into manhood." But why does he do this in Ah, Wilderness! when he had scorned such sentiments as hypocritical in earlier plays O'Neill remarked that, while he meant to be generous about middle-class virtues, he was also picturing his youth as he might have wished to live it. If we discover in the play a certain amount of day-dreaming, then, he was not unwilling to admit its presence. Ah Wilderness!, he said, was a "dream walking." The emphasis is upbeat, it is true, but the Millers do not inhabit a fairyland. They represent the limitations as well as the strengths of their class. Their tastes are always bourgeois, therefore. O'Neill takes care to describe their decorations and furnishings with brutal fidelity. The parlor " fairly large, homely looking and cheerful in, the morning sunlight, furnished, with scrupulous medium-priced, tastelessness of the period". Two bookcases adorn the precincts: one is "filled with cheap sets," the other "crammed, with, boys' and girls' books and the best-selling novels of many past years—books the family really have read". Again, "the walls are papered white with a cheerful, ugly blue design." Everything is typical, all is normal. We may wish to recall, however, that "normal" carries positive implications: "standard; functioning or occurring in a natural way."

We are given a small-town New England normality, to be sure. The mother is at home, attendant upon her domestic responsibilities; the father leaves each day for work; the children go to school and perform chores. An uncle and aunt are in evidence; neighbors and classmates drop by. How different is all this from life in the same house and neighborhood as portrayed in Long Day's Journey into Night. There the mother is deranged by narcotics; the father and sons are drinking heavily; and no one comes by or calls (except the doctor to confirm the further blight that all have felt imminent from the beginning). There the house, a very symbol for the family, is itself finally enshrouded in fog.

In Wilderness! all the tragic possibilities, though present, are muted. Thus O'Neill describes the alcoholic failure, Sid, not as one in the fraternity of drunks in The Iceman Cometh but as "short and fat, bald-headed, with the Puckish face of Peck's Bad Boy who has never grown up." Behind his merry manner and incessant silliness, however, Sid is still in love with Lily, who turned down his proposal of marriage some sixteen years earlier. Unspoken but evident is his human failure. He reminds all of his own (and their) lost opportunities—the most recent, his being fired from yet another job. How the story of Sid and Lily might have served as the stuff for another kind of play the actors, I think, must always keep in mind. Here sensitive directing and acting will carry us some distance behind the comedy's smiling facade.

Put another way, there surfaces in this cheery family circle the spectre of debilitating alcoholism and the threat of deadly cynicism. All this is viewed with kindly tolerance, yes. But we should understand that tolerance signifies no condescension. Because the possibilities for deep injury at every moment threaten, the family situation is real. Wilderness! creates an unusual appeal, neither mordant nor saccharine. If we think about it, such is the mature tolerance that provides the greatest support for the insecurity of youth.

Adolescence is that time when one undergoes baffling stress and pain, unwanted but apparently necessary shapers of personal identity. To undergo this experience is to move into one's own wilderness. And it is scary. We cannot always find our way back home when we have finished experimenting for the day, or week, or year. But in this developmental stage we find it more natural than in any other to test roles. Thus, like any other 17-year-old boy, Richard Miller is divided, "alternately plain simple boy and posey actor solemnly playing a role." He is fitting himself out in the costume of social rebel. Such a type is contemptuous of the mere freedom achieved by the democratic masses; he finds their patriotism, as measured by his own high mindedness, an embarrassment. Richard is so divided, but not in the dramatic context of other O'Neill romantic heroes (which is to say, of Eugene O'Neill himself). The difference is that Richard feels the quite natural emotional strain but not the metaphysical ambiguities that can devastate adolescence and young adulthood. Richard's good fortune derives in part, no doubt, from his parents, who are secure in their own roles and love for each other.

Nat and Essie Miller do not blame each other for their own lost opportunities. Confident in the present, they possess a guarded certainty of the future, precisely that certainty that their own less secure children need. Richard especially does not suffer the additional strain of parental warfare added to his own life-division at seventeen. (Is it any wonder that Eugene O'Neill saw in this home and family something he wished might have been the reality of his own lost youth?)

What Richard does in this play is perfectly normal: He tests limits, the limits of what is permissible within the context of family and community. He knows then that there are agents who will enforce the rules. He has the sense, that is, of how far he can stray into the wilderness and still maintain his bearings. The claim for independence makes the Fourth of July implications quite obvious, but it is pleasant to recall that rebels frighten even themselves. And what Richard wants most is the order and goodness established by his parents, at least he wants to know that he can retreat into that. This is why he tries to convert Belle, the baby prostitute (and she wouldn't mind being saved by a lad like Richard).

There is substance and not mere froth in Ah, Wilderness! Its calculated nostalgia offers something more than a willful and self-induced sentimentalism. This play has muscle as well as heart and more realism than we might think on first viewing (or reading) it. Long Day's Journey is a far greater play, of course. But we gain from the former almost no sense of time or identifiable location. We can discover in the tragedy no connection between the events in the play with the actual history of America in the early century. Edmund Tyrone, Richard Miller's counterpart, often speaks in universal symbols (day, night, fog, sea). But the comedy evokes a real world, the recognizable dimensions in which the Millers and their neighbors take part in the traffic of daily life: their house, the house next door, the park, the newspaper office, the light-house, the hotel bar. Their world is inhabited by other (normal) people who go to college and live in a country with a named President. In this setting a boy who strays into an uncertain zone, his own wilderness, can return. And we feel the texture of a time and place now gone but recoverable to us through popular history.

The play is superbly crafted, a happy blend of tone, pace, themes and variations. Each incident derives from an earlier, credible source; each joke springs from the established lines of character and situation. Everything works. The late Jack McQuoid of Belfast, veteran of three O'Neill parts, once remarked on Edward Golden's high regard for Ah, Wilderness! As a director Golden ranked the dinner scene as the greatest such moment in all drama (not only comedy). That the play was written by an inveterate tragedian does not lessen the workmanship of the comedy; Wilderness! was Boucicault lifted to art. Because he put it together so well and because he exploited situations without crushing them ham-handedly, O'Neill carried the action through to a happy ending that is justified.

All the relationships in Wilderness! are structured on love, trust, and remembered experience. Richard learns that his own parents have had a romantic past. (This discovery, though commonplace, seems to be no less shocking from generation to generation.) If O'Neill has not created elsewhere many characters who feel deep trust in their fellows, here trust in each other's basic value lends a quiet dignity to the proceedings. It has not been fashionable for some time now to say it, but let us risk a maudlin moment ourselves: We all want to be good and to count for something greater than our money and our possessions. That is normal, and in the right story, rightly told, such, an assertion might surprise us but we will accept it.

Ah, Wilderness! is what it is, a wonderfully constructed piece of the sort certain to win mass approval. It warms the heart, recalls the old days, and reminds those who have lived through such times of their own lost youth. The theme has to do with the cyclical nature of things. Spring is exciting and a little unpredictable; thus, we delight in the sportiveness of Richard and Muriel. But a further implication is that autumn and even winter are equally natural states which suggest mellowness and wisdom. Youth must be lost; indeed, existence itself perishes. But this play does not lament these sobering truths; rather, it comes to terms with them. All is thereby universalized. In one way, the characters are nobody; in another way, they are everybody.

Long Day's Journey into Night also begins in morning sunlight, but it closes down in fog and under the staggering weight of time. O'Neill's comedy, though, moves into the nimbus of a mid-summer's night. It works, I believe, because the love, songs, and moonlight (their effects deftly muted) are a natural part of the setting and season. Ah, Wilderness! is a "dream walking," the dramatist had said. If he could not sustain the mellowness, however, O'Neill must for a moment have felt blessed. It was as if he wished to share that moment with his tragic fellows, and say: "It's time for all those out in the wilderness to come home for the night."


1. Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 762.

2. Croswell Bowen, The Curse of the Misbegotten: A Tale of the House of O'Neill (New York: McGraw-Hill & Co., 1959), 1). 315.

3. Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1973), p. 419.

4. Gelb, op. cit., p. 770.

5. Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill, ed. Travis Bogard and, Jackson Bryer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 442.

6. Ibid., p. 409.

7. John Henry Raleigh, The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965), pp. 77-79.


© Copyright 1999-2007