The Youth Who Read
Swinburne and Oscar Wilde
Everyone was so accustomed to Eugene O'Neill writing of dire matters (his "lightest word," a critic joked, "used to harrow up our souls and cause our knotted and combined locks to stand on end") that "Ah, Wilderness!" came as a great surprise. It seemed incredible that the author of "The Hairy Ape" and "Desire Under the Elms" and "Mourning Becomes Electra" could have written such a tender, sunny play, but there it was and since he had termed it "a comedy of recollection" many wondered whether it was autobiographical. The playwright said no. "It was," he once remarked, "a sort of wishing out loud. That's the way I would have liked my boyhood to have been." Another time he said that he "had no youth. 'Ah, Wilderness!' was a nostalgia for a youth I never had."
Yet the play is rooted in his past. Even though it scarcely reflects his own family history (the real picture, as the world now knows, is in the harrowing "A long Day's Journey Into Night"), it utilizes people, situations and other subject matter from his growing-up years in New London, Connecticut, where the O'Neills long maintained a summer cottage, the nearest thing to a home they ever had. Nat Miller and his wife Essie, the old-maid aunt and bibulous Uncle Side, they all are based upon people the playwright had known. Coming closer to home, even thought Richard Miller, nearly 17, is far from an accurate image of O'Neill at the same age—in summer 1906, the time of the story, Eugene was 17—the two boys have some things in common. If you look closely enough through the golden haze of nostalgia that envelops the play, softening the profiles of its characters, you can catch an authentic glimpse or two of young O'Neill in young Miller.
At 17 Eugene, already rebelling against conventional morality, against orthodox thought, devoured the writings of Ibsen and Shaw, of Swinburne and Oscar Wilde, and looked to anarchist Emma Goldman for insight on what was wrong with America and the capitalistic system. When he read Shaw's "The Quintessence of Ibsenism" he marked in red ink everything he agreed with, and ended with a book in which every page was aflame with color. Turning now to the O'Neill comedy, we find Richard Miller embarked on the same course, as his literary pronouncements indicate: Quintessence ("It's about Ibsen, the greatest playwright since Shakespeare!"); "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (one of the greatest novels ever written!"); Swinburne ("The greatest poet since Shelley! He tells the truth about real love!").
Allowing for the play's gentle spoofing and comic exaggeration, some notion of young O'Neill, full of ill-digested radical tenets and eager to shock his elders, can be gathered from the way Richard Miller sounds off: "I don't believe in this silly celebrating the Fourth of July—all this lying talk about liberty—when there is no liberty! (The play occurs on the holiday in 1906.) No, you can celebrate your Fourth of July. I'll celebrate the day the people bring out the guillotine again and I see Pierpont Morgan being driven by in a tumbril!" "Son," says Nat Miller, "if I didn't know it was you talking, I'd think we had Emma Goldman with us." But where Mr. Miller, a smalltown newspaper publisher, is amused—he's confident the boy will grow out of such nonsense—James O'Neill used to worry, for he know that his son had a mind and a will of his own, and a quarrel with life.
In the play Richard is in the throes of puppy-love over 15-year-old Muriel McComber, and her father is scandalized on coming across some letters to her from the boy containing choice passages of Swinburne ("That I could drink thy veins as wine, and eat/Thy Breasts as honey, etc."). After forbidding her to have anything further to do with him, McComber denounces the boy to his parents as "dissolute, blasphemous" and accuses him of "deliberately attempting to corrupt" his daughter.
This situation is based not on O'Neill's history in 1906 but on a romance he had in 1912, when he was 24 and the girl 18. By this time the proper folk of New London looked askance at him as a divorced man, as one who had been to sea and knocked around in the roughest places, as someone with bohemian tastes. While his reputation was bad enough, that of his brother Jamie, ten years older, was even worse, for he was know as a cynical wastrel and womanizer who divide most of his time between bars and the whore houses of Bradley Street; many townspeople, particularly those with nubile daughters, tended to lump Eugene and Jamie together as two of a kind. Nevertheless, even though the "nice" girls by and large gave Eugene a wide berth, there was one, Maibelle Scott, form a good family and a belle of the town—blonde, very pretty, all soft curves—who braved pubic opinion and her parents' displeasure in becoming his sweetheart. McComber's indignation about young Miller is only a slight exaggeration of how Mr. and Mrs. Scott felt about O'Neill. After he had taken Maibelle home from their first date, her mother said, when Eugene had left: "If you bring him to this house again, I'll shoot him!"
Unlike Nat Miller, who defends his son against McComber, O'Neill's apprehensive parents supplied his detractors with ammunition. When a girl phoned one day for Eugene, Mrs. O'Neill, mistaking her for Maibelle, warned her: "You'd better stay away from him. He isn't a good influence for you, or any other girl." And Mr. O'Neill, worried that Eugene might contract another hasty, ill-advised marriage, used to say that he would "see him in the gutter first" before he would support him and a wife.
Eugene had a champion, however, in Judge Frederick P. Latimer, editor of the New London Telegraph, where Eugene was working as a reporter when he began courting Maibelle. A man of character and kindness, with a homey personality, Latimer was fond of O'Neill and, though he himself had some reservations about him, considered him unfairly judged by the townspeople. "He was the cub reporter," the editor reminisced in 1926, "and the four things about him that impressed me at once were his modesty, his native gentlemanliness, his wonderful eyes, and his literary style. It was evident at once that this was no ordinary boy, and I watched what he thought, wrote and did with extreme interest." O'Neill in turn, from gratitude and affection for a man who served for a time as a reassuring father-image, used him as the chief model for the father in "Wilderness." Like Nat Miller, Latimer was a newspaperman of integrity, a devoted family man, and a well-read person who carried his learning lightly. "He's the first one," the playwright once said, "who really thought I had something to say, and believed I could say it."
Latimer's earliest memory of Eugene, in the care of a nursemaid, was of a "bashful little boy with brown shoes and a big flowing straw hat with a string under it and great dark eyes that seemed like they had been stolen from a frightened deer." Something of that child remained in the young man, for, according to Latimer, he would "grieve like a stricken collie if you so much as looked an unkind thought at him." At the same time, though, he had an opposite side, willful, opinionated, and used to court controversy with his advanced views. "When I sailed with him on the river or talked with him on moonlit nights or in the shadows of a smelly back room (of a saloon)," the editor said, "he used often to make me choke with wrath at the queer wildness of his ideas . . . I thought he was the most stubborn and irreconcilable social rebel I had ever met."
From the time O'Neill was on the Telegraph—he worked there only several months because his health broke down—until he quit New London for good a few years later, he had Latimer read practically all his writings; Latimer got to know him well. Summing up, he said years later: "There was something in Eugene at that time—an innate nobility which inspires and drives a man against whatever hindrance to be himself, however Heaven or Hell conspires to rob him of that birthright."
"Emphatically, he was 'different.' I thought it astonishing how keen was his wit, what a complete iconoclast he was, how richly he sympathized with the victims of man-man distress, how his imagination was running high as the festering skies above Ye Ancient Mariner; his descriptions strong and his spirit hot to produce something worthwhile for the sake of its own value and in utter scorn of its commercial value or conventional fame."
"If he could only be in one of two places in a town—the church or the jail—I know where I would find him!"
The Theatre Recording Society, 1970.
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