Eugene O’Neill’s life was far from idyllic or even stable. His father, a successful actor who continually uprooted his family to go on tour, suffered from alcoholism; his older brother Jamie, also an alcoholic, eventually drank himself to death; his mother became addicted to morphine shortly after his birth; O’Neill himself developed a drinking problem while still a teenager, attempted suicide in 1912, and contracted tuberculosis later that same year; two of his three marriages ended in divorce; and his elder son committed suicide at the age of forty. With such a wealth of trauma from which to draw, it is no wonder that many of his dramas are heavily autobiographical. His sole comedy—Ah, Wilderness!—is no exception, however sugar-coated it may be. In the words of Michael Manheim, Ah, Wilderness! is “dominated by O’Neill’s determination to trowel honey over bitterness” (Eugene O’Neill’s New Language of Kinship [New York: Syracuse University Press, 1982], 103).
The play’s title reflects these opposites. “Wilderness” suggests something untamed, unpredictable, and perhaps dangerous—a place or time in which one might become lost and perish—but the “Ah” which precedes it expresses a sentimental satisfaction with, even an affection for, that wilderness. The idea of wilderness is a recurring motif in O’Neill’s work. “O’Neill’s early plays had idealized the wilderness of the sea and the jungle. The end-papers of all his published plays had been decorated by the design of a breaking wave. . . . [The] collected edition of all his work issued in 1934 was entitled The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: Wilderness Edition” (Frederic I. Carpenter, Eugene O’Neill: Twayne’s United States Authors Series Online [New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1999], Chapter 5 <http://www.galenet.com>).
But the wilderness in this play is less readily apparent than the sentiment. At first glance, life seems sweet in the Miller household. Nat and Essie Miller are fond, tolerant parents, their children fairly well-adjusted. The problems and conflicts of their immediate family are minor, ranging from Essie’s insistence on serving Bluefish to Richard’s turbulent but innocent love life. Ah, Wilderness! describes “the happy boyhood and adolescence” which O’Neill “might have had, but which the tragic background of his family’s life had made impossible.” O’Neill himself said of the play, “That’s the way I would have liked my boyhood to have been” (Carpenter).
At the age of fifteen, O’Neill discovered his mother’s morphine addiction after she tried to “throw herself into the Thames River outside [her New London] cottage while undergoing withdrawal.” In the months and years following, he embarked on a rebellious spree in which he rejected his parents’ religion, drank heavily, patronized brothels, and immersed himself in “radical political tracts” as well as the works of Ibsen, Nietzsche, Shaw, Swinburne, and Wilde, among others (Travis Bogard, ed., Eugene O’Neill: Complete Plays: 1932-1943 [New York: Library of America, 1988], 970).
While Richard Miller, the central character of Ah Wilderness!, lives in a kinder, gentler world than that of his creator, he undergoes a similar journey. O’Neill describes him as “going on seventeen, just out of high school,” having “a restless, apprehensive, defiant, shy, dreamy, self-conscious intelligence about him” (Ah, Wilderness!, Complete Plays: 1932-1943, 12). This intelligent youth, on the verge of a new life at Yale, desperately wants to be seen as an adult. He, like O’Neill, explores “radical” literature and ideas, determined to rebel against something. But, alas, unlike O’Neill, his life has failed to produce any real injustice against which he can rail, so he looks to society at large: “The land of the free and the home of the brave! Home of the slave is what they ought to call it—the wage slave ground under the heel of the capitalist class, starving, crying for bread for his children, and all he gets is a stone! The Fourth of July is a stupid farce!” (13).
Richard tries to be cynical and radical in his beliefs about society and in his choice of literature, and he thinks he’s being sophisticated and forward-thinking in his attempts to broaden Muriel’s mind, but what he really wants is quite conventional: to experiment with kissing, go to university, marry Muriel, and, in general, do manly things (such as going to parties and getting drunk like his revered father and uncle).
And, of course, when tragedy strikes (in the form of Muriel’s rejection), he doesn’t do something “advanced” as his mother puts it (15), but rather leaps upon the opportunity to get drunk in the company of a prostitute. Ultimately, however, Richard is too well-grounded and idealistic to lose his footing in this perilous territory. He says afterward that he “won’t do it again . . . not because I think it was wicked or any such old-fogy moral notion, but because it wasn’t any fun. It didn’t make me happy and funny like it does Uncle Sid. . . . But I’m not sorry I tried it once” (82). Unlike O’Neill, he emerges relatively unscathed, with only a hangover on his conscience, and the audience feels assured that, in his struggles through the wilderness of adolescence, Richard is more likely to follow the moderate path forged by his father than to wander aimlessly like his Uncle Sid.
Ironically, Richard learns in the course of an evening what Sid hasn’t managed to grasp in decades. Sid still makes youthful mistakes even though, chronologically, he’s well into adulthood. He seems to want what Nat and Essie Miller have, but rather than follow Nat’s responsible lead, he spends his time drinking, womanizing, and losing jobs. He seems bewildered by his situation and doesn’t quite understand why Lily wants nothing to do with him. He’s torn between the conflicting beliefs that his behavior is adolescent and that it is manly: He realizes that he does not compare well with Nat, who, despite his occasional indulgence in drink, is a solid family man with gainful employment; however, he feels compelled by peer pressure to demonstrate his manhood by patronizing bars and brothels. “What if they are drunk?” he asks. “It’s a good man’s failing” (40). O’Neill describes him as having “the Puckish face of a Peck’s Bad Boy who has never grown up” (7), and, indeed, he hasn’t.
While Richard is a happier version of O’Neill, Sid is an incarnation of O’Neill’s alcoholic older brother, who appears in several other plays in less innocent form. “Modeled on Jamie, whose alcohol rendered him the uproarious buffoon and whose sobriety found him submissive and crestfallen, Sid is here freed from the mask of savage cynicism which the far more insecure Jamie could never escape. Sid dominates the stage when he is on it, as does Jamie in all his dramatic variants” (Manheim 102).
But Ah, Wilderness! is not simply wish-fulfillment or a sugar-coated version of O’Neill’s personal history: “Despite the determination to evade . . . there is also the determination to forgive. The forgiveness is perhaps most apparent in his characterization of Jamie in Sid Davis. . . . Sid’s characterization suggests a [true] forgiveness, one which refuses to whitewash, to bend his brother’s better qualities into saintliness.
Appealing as he is, Sid will remain the rest of his days a drunk and ne’er-do-well” (Manheim 104). And one can expand that statement to say that O’Neill’s portrait of Richard shows O’Neill’s determination to laugh at his own youthful foibles and even forgive himself.
Ah, Wilderness! is a play about growing up and finding one’s proper place in life; it can seem at times like an early television sit-com, but whereas a sit-com would leave us with the trite message that its characters will, in time, find that proper place in life, O’Neill does not. While Richard’s problems have been resolved for the time being, Sid and Lily seem permanently trapped in their unhappy stalemate. Although Ah, Wilderness! contains a good deal of sweetness, it also holds more than a little of the darkness with which O’Neill was more closely acquainted.