Eugene O'Neill
 

Billboard, October 14, 1933

Ah, Wilderness!

By EUGENE BURR

It can almost be reported the Eugene O’Neill has abandoned the Drayma after his long struggle with it and given us once mare a play – almost, that is, but not quite.  To be precise, Mr. O’Neill has given us two-thirds of one act of a play (something more than the Volstead percentage), but even that is cause enough for cheering when compared with the batting averages of Mourning Becomes Electra, Strange Interlude, The Great God Brown and other boob-ticklers of the Freud-and-folderol school.

The occasion is, of course, the opening of Ah, Wilderness!, presented by the Theater Guild in its home playhouse, with George M. Cohan featured in the cast – incidentally, the first time, I believe, that anyone has ever been featured in Guild billing.  Mr. O’Neill himself describes his play as “a folk comedy.”  That would be a good description of it if it were a comedy – but, unfortunately, it isn’t.  O’Neill has never been remarkable for his sense of humor; humor was, in fact, one attribute that even his most rabid and unseeing worshipers could never claim for him.  Even in the fine early plays those interludes that attempted comedy relief were pretty sad affairs.  In the later attempts they were even sadder.  A sense of humor is one of the two things that Mr. O’Neill most conspicuously lacks.

The other – and this holds true only of late years when he began to take himself Seriously (capital “S” please) – is his disconcerting and complete lack of even the rudiments of dramatic technique.  He has improved immensely in the present play over his immediately previous efforts – he has, in fact, almost reached the ability that he displayed when he first began writing – but the defect is still there.  He spins out interminably situations that should have been touched on; he is painfully explicit concerning items that he should merely suggest; his motivation of mere stage mechanics – getting people on and off and the rest – is amazingly awkward.  But then, it must be hard to get out of the marathon habits of Interlude and Electra; it is too much to expect that Mr. O’Neill could climb back to competence in one try.

Mainly it is the fault of the pitiful attempts at comedy, some of which, like the trite and obvious dinner-table-drunk scene, are merely cheap, and some of which, like the tasteless and horrible attempt to draw humor out of a sensitive lad getting drunk in a brothel, are frankly nauseating.  It was the humor – eminently unsuccessful tries at it – that made the first two acts of Ah, Wilderness! and the first scene of the third act seem overlong, pointless, uninspired and deadeningly, unendurably dull.  There are obvious situations in Ah, Wilderness! – plenty of them; there are hokey effects and trite melodramatics that would cause the critical gentry to land with both feet if the play had been written by anyone else.  But the last two scenes are sensitively and beautifully done.  They hold out a glowing promise for those determined lovers of the old O’Neill who steadfastly held to their admiration no matter how hard, in the later plays, O’Neill himself tried to discourage them.

And even (this is a note of pure gloom) in one of those two last scenes there is a long and useless soliloquy, adding nothing, meaning nothing that has not been said before, badly written and overwritten – as is so much of the play before it.

Yet, without the pitifully attempted humor, without the unconscionable padding, without the overwriting and bad taste, Ah, Wilderness! might have stood as a delicate and sensitive (tho rather obvious) study of adolescence.  In fact, barring the meaningless soliloquy, the last two scenes stand as such now. 

The story is a simple tale of the Miller family back in 1906 New England, and chiefly of Nat, the father, and Richard, the son who is going to Yale the following year.  Also included are Mother Essie; Arthur, who is in Yale already; Mildred, just beyond the awkward /16/ age; little Tommy; Aunt Lily, a prim old maid; and Uncle Sid Davis, mother’s brother, who has wanted to marry Aunt Lily for 15 years, but who still insists on getting drunk.

The play treats young Richard as his eyes first open to the meaning – the meaninglessness, rather – of life.  He is a serious lad, filled with the verboten writings of Oscar Wilds and that notorious lecher, Mr. Swinburne, with a smattering of Shaw, Ibsen and Omar Khayyam on the side.  He is in love with Muriel McComber, whose father is 1906 New England personified, and it is the treatment of this love that O’Neill reaches his fines understanding.  It is adolescent love – calf-love, if you will – but O’Neill realizes the deep truth that it is as real and terrible, as fraught with meaning and portent, to young Richard as the most publicized emotions would be to a 40-year-old man-of-the-world.  Essentially there is nothing comic about Richard and his love – and essentially O’Neill realizes it.  That is why the surface attempts at comedy are so tasteless, flat and stale.

When Mr. McComber finds that Richard has written excerpts from Swinburne to his daughter he makes Muriel write a note renouncing love.  So Richard sneaks off on a spree and is treated thereafter by his family with more understanding than any family has a logical right to show. In the end he meets Muriel on the beach, and there follows one of the loveliest of the theater’s love scenes, made so in great measure by the sensitive, delicate and entirely fine performances of Elisha cook Jr. and Ruth Gilbert, who play the roles.  Dicky is a fine lad at heart, and his father knows it.  His abortive attempt to sow wild oats has taught him only that the crops there-from yield no profit.  Father Nat tries to tell him the facts of a certain part of life in a bungled, embarrasses, heart-moving way, and in the end young Richard goes out on the porch to sit in the moonlight, while his father and mother, arm in arm, climb upstairs to bed.

Those last two scenes are sensitive and beautiful tremendously effective; they are the first thing that we have had to remind us of the earlier and finer O’Neill.

George M. Cohan is, of course, the father – and he heroically bolsters Mr. O’Neill’s play in spots where it sadly needs bolstering.  He is, as a matter of report, about the best actor to tread a Guild stage since Richard Bennett died tragically each night in He Who Gets Slapped; he could teach the tricks of the trade – the expert playing of comedy, tragedy, meller and everything else – to all those who have gone between.  And that includes the Lunts and who else have you.  If Walter Hampden ever relinquishes the rights to it, I’d like some day to see Mr. Cohan play Cyrano.

Elisha cook Jr. gives a sensitive and fine portrayal of young Richard, and Marjorie Marquis is splendid as the mother, Eda Heinemann is effective as always as Aunt Lily, and Gene Lockhart is allowed to overplay pretty badly on occasion as Uncle Sid.  Little Ruth Gilbert, whose past includes appearances in musicals, gives a touching and splendid performance in the brief bit she allotted as Muriel.  She and Cook between them – with O’Neill, of course – create a haunting loveliness that stamps the beach scene deep in the emotions and mind.

Those last two scenes in a great measure make up for the rest of the play – but, obviously, not entirely.  They do, however, indicate that Mr. O’Neill may eventually succeed in getting back to where he was in the beginning.  Ah, Wilderness! is a definitely promising play.

 

© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com