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A Mis-Remembrance of Things Past: O’Neill’s “Nostalgic Comedy”

Eugene O'Neill's Monte Cristo Cottage, New London, Connecticut.

Eugene O’Neill on Ah, Wilderness!:

“No, it is purely a play of nostalgia for youth, a sentimental, if you like, evocation of the mood of emotion of a past time which, whatever may be said against it, possessed a lot which we badly need today to steady us.”
Letter to Eugene O’Neill Jr. dated May 13, 1933

By September 1932, Eugene O’Neill was America’s preeminent dramatist. Drawing on inspiration ranging from personal experience to classical Greek drama, he had already successfully experimented with several dramatic forms and won three Pulitzer Prizes.

In the remaining two decades of his life, O’Neill would go on to even greater accomplishments. He was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936, still the only American dramatist to be awarded the honor, and penned what ultimately became his most celebrated works: The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten and Long Day’s Journey into Night.

With such significant achievements over a 39-year career, why focus on September 1932? It was in this month and year that O’Neill wrote Ah, Wilderness!, aptly subtitled A Nostalgic Comedy of the Ancient Days When Youth Was Young, and Right Was Right, and Life Was a Wicked Opportunity. “Nostalgia,” with its wistful connotation, is not often a word associated with Eugene O’Neill. “Comedy” is even less frequently linked. What inspired this admitted “change from the involved and modern and tragic hidden undertones of life” with which the playwright regularly grappled?

That O’Neill was cursed with a deeply troubled childhood is not surprising to anybody familiar with his work. Born in a Broadway hotel to James O’Neill and his wife, Mary Ellen Quinlan, Eugene grew up on the road and once he was old enough, in various boarding schools. It was only during the summers that the family lived at home—a cottage James O’Neill bought by the harbor in New London, Conn. And even these summers were far from idyllic. James was a popular romantic actor who played the Count of Monte Cristo nearly 6,000 times, a choice that to Eugene suggested valuing financial security over artistic integrity. James was a self-involved man who struggled with alcoholism. Eugene’s older brother, Jamie, had a propensity for frequenting not only bar houses but also bed houses, where Jamie introduced a teenaged Eugene to his first prostitute. Their mother never fully recovered from the loss of her second son, Edmund, and spent Eugene’s childhood in and out of a morphine haze. O’Neill divulges this upbringing with brutal honesty in Long Day’s Journey into Night, set in the Tyrones’ New London living room on a single August day in 1912.

With such a sordid past, it may seem odd that O’Neill was tempted to try his hand at nostalgic comedy. He could hardly long to return to his childhood. And it is unlikely that he would be inclined to make jokes about it. Ah, Wilderness! is set in Nat Miller’s sitting room (a room described with striking similarity to the Tyrones’ living room) in an unnamed Connecticut town (much like New London) around July 4, 1906.

Seventeen-year-old Richard Miller is off to Yale in the fall (summer 1906 found O’Neill preparing for his first semester at Princeton). Thus, the setupis largely autobiographical. Yet, with the warmhearted Miller family’s celebration of Independence Day, O’Neill harkens back not to his days in the “Monte Cristo Cottage” but to an imagined childhood—a childhood he never had. He elucidates both the roots of his nostalgia and the intention of the comedy in a letter to his son written in January 1933.

Ah, Wilderness! “is more the capture of a mood, an evocation [of] the period in which my middle ’teens were spent—a memory of the time of my youth—not of my youth but of the youth in which my generation spent youth…It is a comedy…not satiric…and not deliberately spoofing at the period (like most modern comedies of other days)…but laughing at its absurdities while at the same time appreciating and emphasizing its lost spiritual and ethical values.”

In writing Ah, Wilderness!, O’Neill not only paid homage to the Turn of the Century, simple as the moment in history may have seemed, but also recognized that the “spiritual and ethical values” of the early 20th century remained relevant in September 1932. And it is this reverence for an era past that has allowed it to stand the test of time.

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