New York American, October 3, 1933
By GILBERT GABRIEL
night the Theatre Guild began its sixteenth season by presenting
Eugene O’Neill’s new play, Ah, Wilderness!
This morning all the dolts in the creating and criticism will
be remarking that O’Neill has turned Tarkington.
But then, we shall have at once to add, as a matter of truth,
news, and salutation, that Ah, Wilderness! gave us an evening
of slyly superfine delight, and that it and its cast’s chief
visitor, George M. Cohan, met the premiere’s crowd on terms of
inexhaustible pleasantness and friendship.
himself, so I hear, explains Ah, Wilderness! as “a comedy
of recollection.” Comedy
is all it pretends to be – a very native American folk-comedy,
with none of those cosmic rumbles to which folk plays are usually
prone – and recollection certainly is in it, all around it,
permeating it as happily as the smell French lilacs in the garden of
any grown man’s half-forgotten youth.
so light a mood it has, so smiling and benevolent and utterly
optimistic a meaning, I make bold to wonder whether it isn’t also
entitled to be call a comedy of recantation.
For here is the
cavernous eye of O’Neill doing nothing except twinkle.
And here are at least six or seven of the former
O’Neill’s pet tragic situations – of misunderstood boyhood,
for instance, and of gentleman and prostitute, and of drunkard and
spinster – all treated to the very opposite of their old-time
terror and tears, all given the benefit of a quiet but unmistakable
and contagious chuckle.
Or perhaps this
new O’Neill is self-displayed chiefly to confound the few who
still thought that the old O’Neill dealt only in overtones and no
good humor. Little as
they deserve the pleasure, let these go sit in the front rows now.
Early in his
dramatic career O’Neill was already recounting “the background
of real life behind my work” as proof “that I have not written
out of the top of my head.” And
in Ah, Wilderness! He is obviously again recalling one of the
first chapters of that background, and writes it out of the bottom
of his heart. There is
a light of such paternal kindliness, an aureole of such genial
nostalgia, hung around the young high school lad named Richard
Miller in this new play, you are bound to know him as a creature of
autobiography, and to recognize Richard as Eugene in search of his
In “a large
small-town in Connecticut” (could it be New London, where
O’Neill himself was once a cub reporter and columnist, and where
the famous James, his father, had long had a Summer home?) in the
year of innocence of 1906, Ah, Wilderness! is set. It is all strictly domestic, in spite of one barroom spree
scene, and all wistfully reminiscent of the days when family life
was the life.
Miller of the town paper; Mrs. Miller, a couple of adult in-laws,
and the four Miller children . . . . these are the staple goods of
play. A few other
youngsters and oldsters tread on the fringe of it, sloe-ginning,
spooning, full of the prose and patter of perfectly sensible,
ordinary people, in benevolent contrast to Richard, the Millers’
second son, the Millers’ problem-child, the Millers’
But there’s no
special coddling or unhumorous pity for the Junior O’Neill.
He is just young Dick, not Young Woodley.
He reads Ibsen and Shaw on the sly, he spouts Swinburne and
Kipling at the wrong moment – and to the wrong people – and he
is a gangly and ornery as he (can be).
Young Richard is
the fond, fuzz-covered young histrion that all sadly middle-aged men
have to admit that they, too, were in their prep-school Galahad
days. He is you, I, all
of us at the damnfool age of seventeen – provided we were
seventeen somewhere around the jog-trot of 1906, before youth was
has made the social error of sending some too fervid poetical
quotations to his best girl. Called to account by two family heads, he celebrates this
Independence Day by swanking off with a college chum to prove his
manhood in the most sordid resort in town.
But his evil intentions fails as fast as his good.
Afraid of the cheap little female chippie, thrown out of the
barroom for being under age, he comes home at awful midnight to give
an exhibition of his first souse before the entire outraged family,
and to be swished off ingloriously to bed.
Next day brings
rewards; clean romance and katzenjammers, and a gentle but abysmal
lecture from Dad on the subject of 1906 morality and social hygiene.
Maybe 1933 is wiser as well as worldlier, after all.
there’s a tender spray of moonlit sentiment between good boy and
good girl, and a benediction of moonlight over the parents, too.
“I can only remember a few nights that were as beautiful as
this,” says Dad, “and they were long ago, when your mother and I
were young and planning to get married.”
And only a little while thereafter, with a snatch of the
Rubaiyat practically sung to “Silver Threads Among the Gold,”
the curtain comes down on the Familia Miller of Smalltown,
Connecticut, one-score-and-seven years ago.
theatre, a hitherto unheard-of honor, the Guild throws George
Cohan’s name up in large electric letters.
In fair exchange for which Mr. Cohan presents the Guild with
the best performance most of us have ever seen him give, either in
his own play or anybody’s. A
performance heart-deep in fatherly wisdom and humanity, as honest as
natural, and thoroughly understanding, masterly spoken throughout.
He and the boy, played by Elisha cook, Jr., -- and played
beautifully, too – make their scenes together unforgettably
The cast is good
all up and down the line, however.
It includes Gene Lockhart, welcomed back to straight roles,
Marjorie Marquis, Eda Heinemann, and a shrewd little youngster’s
bit by Walter Vonnegut, Jr. And
out of Robert Edmond Jones’s memory book of the wallpaper and
cherry-mahogany of his youth come some of the most authentic
It is a comfort and a treat, this Ah, Wilderness! I for one found it paradise now.
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