Menu Bar


Ah, Wilderness!


In 1932, O'Neill completed his "comedy of recollection," Ah, Wilderness!, the first sign of his interest in drama based openly on his past life.  The new direction was to result in the great autobiographical plays written at the end of his career:  The Iceman Cometh, Hughie, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and the story of his own family, Long Day's Journey into Night, a play that stands in tragic parallel to Ah, Wilderness!

In the comedy, O'Neill created from memories of his family and friends in New London, Connecticut, a sentimental account of a seventeen-year-old boy's attempt to find his way into manhood.  Set on July 4, 1906, in the home of Nat Miller, the editor of the small town's newspaper, the central action follows the boy's attempt to revenge himself on what he feels to be his sweetheart's failure in love by taking up with a "swift baby" from New Haven in a local saloon.  Around Richard Miller's frustrated attempts to sin in the manner of the fin d siècle poets he reads in secrecy, O'Neill formed a beguiling picture of turn-of-the-century, middle-class family life, including as a subordinate action a never-to-be consummated romance between Mrs. Miller's spinster sister, Lily, and Miller's alcoholic brother, Sid.

Ah Wilderness! is warmed with song.  Within minutes of its first curtain, Arthur, Richard's elder brother, enters, and starts to whistle "Waltz Me Around Again Willie" while he reads the morning paper.  A moment or so later, Uncle Sid burst into a political parody of "Mighty lak' a Rose," and at the end of the first act the morose Richard whistles "Waiting at the Church," a song that holds an ironic relation to the action, since it accompanies the entrance of Sid and Lily as they set out for the Sachem Club Fourth-of-July picnic where Sid's drunkenness will confirm Lily in her resolve not to marry him.  The song will be heard again at the end of act 3 when Lily accepts the fact that she will be "waiting at the church" for the rest of her life.

In his tragic treatment of his family's life in Long Day's Journey into Night, set in the same room as the central action of Ah, Wilderness!, there is no music except for a Chopin waltz the mother feebly tries to play at the end.  Music like all aspects of family life in the tragedy is a heartbreaking memory.  For the Millers, however, it is part of the source of life itself—a free expression of joy and sorrow, irony and simple amusement.  It is heard on the player piano in the saloon where Richard teeters on the edge of sexual experience and, while the family anxiously awaits his return to the fold, it provides solace in the form of an impromptu concert by Arthur and his sister, Mildred.  Arthur practices his singing on the sly and sings for his supper at the home of his sweetheart, Elsie Rand, in what was evidently one of the routines of the wooing ritual.  He is a ready participant in the small musicales that were a feature of turn of the century evenings at home.

Sentimentally rubato though his singing is, the effect on Arthur's troubled audience is instant and striking:

Miller gazes before him with a ruminating melancholy, his face seeming to become gently sorrowful and old.  Mrs. Miller stares before her, her expression becoming more and more doleful.  Lily forgets to pretend to read her book but looks over it, her face growing tragically sad.  As for Sid, he is moved to his remorseful, guilt-stricken depths.  His mouth pulls down at the corners and he seems about to cry.

Throughout the play, music is the medium for forgiveness and the reassertion of love.  Against the background of Arthur's singing, Sid stammers out an apology to Lily, who, partly melted by the song, forgives him.  Music also signals forgiveness when Richard is finally reunited with his sweetheart, Muriel.  In act 4, scene 2, the love scene at the harbor beach, the two hear music from the hotel dance band drifting faintly across the water, mysterious and charming, overcoming their adolescent posturing and bringing them into an embrace.(1)

The dialogue is filled with quotations from late nineteenth century poets.  Music intertwines with their lines to soften and color nostalgic recollection, holding the action on course as comedy, and stabilizing its mood.  By comparison, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which may also be called a "comedy of recollection," is austere, even dry.  The music—choir practice, the Mendelssohn Wedding March, a hymn for a funeral.  Wilder's characters lack the impulse toward musical expression that makes Ah, Wilderness!, among many other delightful things, a small anthology of turn of the century popular ballads.(2)

(1)  The actuality was perhaps less romantic than O'Neill remembered it.  In a letter of July 24, 1905, written to an early sweetheart, Marion Welch, the young O'Neill commented about the orchestra playing at the Pequot House in New London (the unnamed scene of the play):  "I have not even been up to hear the orchestra at the Pequot for fear I should be overcome by pleasant memories (and the bum music)."

(2)  The Samuel French acting edition of the play includes two songs for Arthur not called for in the text of the play published by Random House during O'Neill's lifetime.  These are "March, March Down the Field" and "I Just Can't Make My Eyes Behave" in act 3, scene 2.  The music for these songs is include here.

([Arthur] goes to the table, lights his pipe and picks up the local morning paper, and slouches back into the armchair..., beginning to whistle "Oh, Waltz me Around Again, Willie" as he scans the headlines.)  [III, 6, 66]

"Waltz Me Around Again Willie" - words by Will D. Cobb, music by Ren Shield, published 1906

Sid—(grins and sings) "Dunno what ter call 'im But he's mighty like a Rose—velt."  [III, 8]

Mighty lak' a Rose - words by Frank L. Stanton, music by Ethelbert Nevin, published 1901

(In the front parlor, Arthur begins to sing rollickingly "Waiting at the Church, "and after the first line or two Mildred joins in.  Sid's face lights up with appreciation and, automatically, he begins to tap one foot in time, still holding fast to Lily's hand.  When they come to "sent around a note, this is what he wrote, " he can no longer resist, but joins in a shaky bawl) "Can't get away to marry you to-day, My wife won't let me!"  (As the song finishes, the two in the other room laugh.  Miller and Sid laugh.  Lily smiles at Sid's laughter.  Only Mrs. Miller remains dolefully preoccupied, as if she hadn't heard.[III, 26, 71, 88, 711]

Waiting at the Church - words by Fred W. Leigh, music by Henry Pether, published 1906

(...from the front yard, Sid's voice is heard singing "Poor John!"[III, 36]

"Poor John!" - words by Fred W. Leigh, music by Henry E. Pether, published 1906

([Sid] gives an imitation of a Salvation Army drum.)  Boom!  Boom!  Boom!  Come and be saved, Brothers!  (He starts to sing the old Army hymn...  Miller and his wife and the children are all roaring with laughter.  Lily giggles hysterically.[III, 47]

In the Sweet By and By - words by S. Fillmore Bennett, music by Joseph Philbrick Webster, published 1868

([Belle] sings to the music from the piano, her eyes now on Richard)  "Bedelia, I'd like to feel yer."  (The bartender laughs.  She smirks at Richard.)  Ever hear those words to it, Kid?  [III, 52]

Bedelia - words by William Jerome, music by Jean Schwartz, published 1903

(Arthur begins to sing.  He has a fairly decent voice but his method is untrained sentimentality to a dripping degree.  He sings that old sentimental favorite, "Then You'll Remember Me."[III, 69]

Then You'll Remember Me - words by Alfred Bunn, music by Michael William Balfe, from the opera The Bohemian Girl 1843

(Arthur sings the popular "Dearie," playing up its sentimental values for all he is worth.  The effect on his audience is that of the previous song, intensified...[III, 70]

Dearie - words and music by Clare Kummer, published 1905

([Arthur] whistling "March, March Down the Field" Yale song.[French Ed. 85]

Down the Field - words by Caleb W. O'Connor, music by Stanleigh P. Friedman, published 1911

(In the front parlor Mildred plays "I Just Can't Make My Eyes Behave" rather quietly.[French Ed. 91]

I Just Can't Make My Eyes Behave - words and music by Will D. Cobb and Gus Edwards, published 1906


© Copyright 1999-2007