Eugene O'Neill
 

New York American, October 3, 1933

Personal Element

By GILBERT GABRIEL

Last 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.

O’Neill 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.

But 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 lost youth.

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.

Editor Nat 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’ poet-in-their-midst.

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 labeled flaming.

Young Richard 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.

But, anyway, 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.

Outside the 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 touching.

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 setting.

It is a comfort and a treat, this Ah, Wilderness! I for one found it paradise now.

 

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