heart of an artist’s mystery cannot be plucked out. Although external
qualities of his imagination reveal themselves for analysis and
evaluation, its generative powers hide its nature even from its
possessor. It is a deep tidal current whose force and direction can be
only dimly traced by the movement of surface waters. The exhausting
labor of writing Mourning Becomes
Electra was a disciplining of the imagination, a prolonged, painful
contraction, a brutal reining-in of the self. For a decade, justified
and encouraged by the belief of the partisans of the Art Theatre,
O’Neill had written romances. His friends had pointed to the romantic
drama as a way for the Art Theatre to move, and for O’Neill, starting
from picaresque tales that asserted the life force of the sea as a God,
the development toward the extravagant climax of Lazarus Laughed and the anticlimax of Dynamo was in the context of his time as inevitable as it was
self-betraying. Yet O’Neill, despite a literary taste formed on Jack
London and the turn-of-the-century British poets, was no romancer.
Against the continuous expansion of his dramas in
length and narrative, there worked a desire to explore a small subject
matter within clearly defined limits. The characteristics of his
handwriting, tiny, chisled, closed, bears symbolic testimony to the fact
that his writing was really dedicated to exploring a private world, the
life of a few people shut in a dark room out of time. To stretch the
imagination and journey to Bethany, Xanadu, Spain or mysterious tropical
forests was wrong. Whatever their numerical size, O’Neill’s casts
are essentially small family units. The new approach to characterization
that had begun with The Great God Brown and Strange
Interlude takes him inward and downward toward himself, and the
plays become increasingly autobiographical. The limits narrow; the
subject becomes what lies within himself. The artistic aim is no longer
to find God but to know that subject completely. Thus, imagination
contracted, and the discipline of Mourning
Becomes Electra bore unexpected fruit.
There was first paralysis. Days Without End was a work which he forced to completion, but there is no freedom in it. The work, the last of the theological romances, the final tracing of man’s quest for God, is lifeless, contrived; it is knotted, as if in some way the exhaustive work on the trilogy had produced a spasm of the imagination which left O’Neill powerless to continue.
Yet release came. Not for the play he fought to an end, but for another, one in which the imagination found a different outlet and moved easily forward to another country. In September, 1932, while he labored at the third draft of Days Without End, he awoke remembering the dream of a play. In a long day’s work, he wrote out the scenario of Ah, Wilderness!, and within six weeks had completed the play.* “Only once before,” O’Neill said, “has a plot idea (that of Desire Under the Elms) come to me so easily. I wrote it more easily than I have written any other of my works. . . .”8 In the midst of the contorted, jammed creative work on Days Without End, the easy letting-go seemed almost miraculous, a matter for wonder that the imagination could slip its chain and work so spontaneously. The play, however, was the first fruit of the self-discipline of Mourning Becomes Electra, and, while the ease was deceptive, the result was prophetic.
Ah, Wilderness! was not entirely the result of a sudden thawing of the imagination. In June, 1931, approximately a month after he and Carlotta O’Neill had returned from their long European exile, the two returned for a day to New London. O’Neill at first looked in vain for his former home, “Monte Cristo Cottage.” When he found it, small and unimpressive, surrounded by new construction, he felt it a pitiful thing as the sources of memory revisited often seem. Mrs. O’Neill called the house “a quaint little birdcage,” and quoted O’Neill as saying in some dismay that he should not have come.9 What the sight stirred in him has no easy name. Regret and pain, to be sure, and perhaps more—a sense of debts unpaid and benefits forgot. His life, which in its exterior dimension had gone through a long succession of houses, each more stately than the last, was an encompassing circle around that house, the fixed foot of his movement through the world. Mrs. O’Neill rightly called it a cage, for it was so to O’Neill’s spirit. There his needs had formed, his life-in-art begun. The physical return, after a long pilgrimage around the world, is symbolic of a more profound return to his source in anguish of the mind and spirit. He did not enter physically, but the house contained his truth, and he walked it in imagination almost—as the easy genesis of Ah, Wilderness! suggests— in spite of himself. Yet not quite. That summer, across the sound from New London, he sketched notes for a play he thought might be titled Nostalgia. Later, he wrote to Langner that Ah, Wilderness! represented “the paying of an old debt on my part—a gesture toward more comprehensive, unembittered understanding and inner freedom—the breaking away from an old formula I have enslaved myself with. . . .”** The old, dead world gave on a new creative life.
In creating the Miller sitting-room, O’Neill made his first direct incursion on the autobiographical substructure of his life. He entered with joy, colored by nostalgia. With evident delight, he drew in detail the substance of his boyhood world—of the year 1906, when he, like his protagonist, Richard Miller, was seventeen***** and planning to go to a university in the fall. He created from the citizens he had known in New London, a series of pleasant portraits. The family of the postmaster John McGinley was large, a girl and seven boys, including an Arthur, a Tom, a Lawrence and a Winthrop. The Millers have one girl and five boys, including in addition to Richard an Arthur, a Tommy and two who do not appear, Lawrence and Wilbur. Arthur’s close friend is named “Wint.” Nat Miller, the editor of the local paper, is based on Fred Latimer, for whom O’Neill worked on the New London Telegraph. He recalled his affair with Maibelle Scott and invoked the shade of a girl friend from 1905, Marion Welch, to provide images of Richard’s romance with Muriel McComber. In other major and minor ways, he brought the New London citizenry to life.******
It is the Fourth of July. The town in the grip of an American folk ritual comes vividly to life: fireworks, lodge picnics, outings in the motor car, moonlit beaches, old songs, gardens and, underlying the pleasant manifestations, something of the actual economic and social structure of the “large small-town in Connecticut.” Within the family, too, O’Neill has used actuality—as, for example, the blue fish “allergy” and the tale of the heroic swimming rescue which Nat Miller tells, and which were both drawn from the repertory of James O’Neill. Like Mourning Becomes Electra, the comedy is fixed in a historical perspective, and its evocation of the reality of the past is full and accurate.
That the comedy is also true is a point to be considered. Reading it with the hindsight provided by Long Day’s Journey into Night, it seems a romantic falsehood, but 1906 was not 1912, the year in which the tragedy was set. By 1912, the books in the sitting-room cases had changed from “boys and girls books and best-selling novels of many past years” to a sterner collection including Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Marx, Ibsen, Shaw, Strindberg, Swinburne, Rossetti, Wilde, Dowson. As Richard Miller matured to Edmund Tyrone, the books the boy hid on the shelf in his wardrobe were moved downstairs—a small sign of a darkening world closing around the family. O’Neill called the comedy “a dream walking,” “a nostalgia for a youth I never had,” and spoke of the play’s having depicted “the way I would have liked my boyhood to have been.”10 At seventeen, however, O’Neill had yet to enter on his renegade and roving life, and there were moments when the sun shone and when laughter was heard in the dark rooms. Reviewers of the original production were reminded of Booth Tarkington’s burlesques, of the pangs of adolescence, and pulled forth all the synonyms for “sentimental.” At the same time they began to play an autobiographical game, reading “O’Neill” for “Richard Miller.” Many of them suggested that at the heart of the matter there lay more than nostalgically glossed reminiscence.
O’Neill’s life in 1906, as his biographers have depicted it, was not unhappy. He had learned of his mother’s dope addiction when he was fifteen, but in the spring of 1906, she had returned from a sanatorium in good spirits, and gave signs that she might yet overcome her addiction. She had also successfully passed through an operation for a breast tumor. James and she had gone abroad, and in New London, the two O’Neill boys were on their own. Richard Miller, evidently, is more innocent than Eugene was in that year. With Jamie, he made the rounds of bars and occasional brothels, living the life of a young rake with considerable enthusiasm. It was not, however, a dark world he experienced that summer. If he ever had it, the summer of 1906 was a time of freedom from pressure and pain.
Something of this is reflected in Ah, Wilderness! The experiences which he assembled to embody the story of a boy “in peg-top trousers (going) the pace that kills along the road to ruin” (181) are fragments of good times—a “dream walking,” and like a dream shaping things that were into a thing that never was.
The play has a dream’s truth, for under its surface a structure exists that is not easily seen in the play alone. The work contains many ironic echoes of past concerns. As Richard draws Muriel from the shadow into the moonlight on the beach, the movement of light and shadow on the pier when Dion seduces Margaret can be recalled. The poet’s sensitiveness, characterized as “a restless, apprehensive, defiant, shy, dreamy, self-conscious intelligence,” (193) that marks Richard as O’Neill’s fictive self recalls many an earlier hero. So too, Richard, seeking a whore as a defiant gesture against the life he leads, may recall Eben and Dion and Michael Cape. The play’s use of sound—the firecrackers, the sound of dance music in the distance, the sense of the turn of the seasons in an unending cycle of life, the use of chiaroscuro, defined by moonlight, are all spun from O’Neill’s earlier technique and themes. The difference is that here all events, all “effects” project a sense of well-being and peace, and are not used to go aggressively, painfully “behind life.” Yet behind the façade of well-being, as in the substructure of a dream, the truth exists.
However masked, Ah, Wilderness! is direct autobiography. In its fictions, he has combined what he has seen and admired outside his life into a disguised version of his own realities. The room, not fogbound but lighted to brightness by July sun and the moon, is the first clue. The family in the room is the second. Richard’s father is wise, able, solicitous, friendly. In all respects, he is responsible and humanly successful. In the house, however, there is another man, Miller’s brother-in-law, Sid Davis, merry, but shiftless, a habitué of the Sachem Club and the masculine world of the town. Sid is a failure, as lacking in responsibility as he is in malice. With the wisdom born of drunken experience, he cares for Richard when the boy comes staggering home from his first excursion to the town saloon, standing in loco parentis to the sick child. If Richard’s two fathers be combined into one man there would be created the image of a man of talent and potential destroyed by a fatal lack of responsibility. In such a man, failure would emerge as a warping sense of guilt. Superimposed, the two characters suggest a figure not unlike that of O’Neill’s father as he drew him in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Divided, real guilt is dispersed.
Ella O’Neill, depicted as Mary Tyrone in the latter play, showed herself to have qualities of charm. She was, in the early part of the play, solicitous and capable of laughter and love. To the Tyrone men, she is what a mother should be. As the night moves on, these motherly characteristics dislimn, and she turns from her family, withdraws into herself, denies her womanliness and vanishes into the memory of her girlhood before sexual responsibility and its demanding devotions were forced on her. In the Miller household, as with the men, two women are in residence, Richard’s mother, in all respects what a mother should be, and her sister-in-law, Lily Miller, a spinster, in love with Sid, yet refusing to accept him as he is and thus denying life by refusing responsibility for love. Their resemblance to Mary is not exact, for neither woman in the comedy is so tortured as the tragic heroine. Yet something of Mary’s complex qualities are divided between the two.
The division makes it possible to treat both Sid and Lily gently because responsibility is removed from them as it could not be removed from Ella and James O’Neill. O’Neill, eliminating the crucially identifying details of his father’s talent and his mother’s addiction, creates the father’s sister and the mother’s brother. Their frustrated love for one another parallels and silently comments on the love of Nat Miller and his wife, and brings qualities to the whole that move it nearer to the truth without ruining the comedy. From the days of Beyond the Horizon, O’Neill had repeatedly brought forth upon his stage characters who stood in closely related opposition to one another: hero and alter ego, man and his double. The comic tones hide the fact that he has done the same in this play, but it is important to recall that in the fifth draft of Days Without End, written shortly after Ah, Wilderness!, he split the central character into two roles. The division of his father and mother into two roles in Ah, Wilderness! alone makes possible their presentation in a comic context.
The freeing of the family members from guilt and responsibility continues. It is not Richard’s older brother who introduced Richard to a life of “sin,” but the brother’s college friend who, ignorant of Richard’s virginity, cannot be blamed for leading him astray. Thus Jamie’s “stand-in” bears none of Jamie’s responsibility for corrupting his younger brother. Significantly too, the family is filled out with another brother, ‘Tommy, and the void left by the death of James O’Neill’s second son is filmed over. Richard’s own innocence obscures and mitigates Eugene’s experience. Eugene, in 1906, has the experience to which Richard pretends. The difference was vast. Richard’s introduction to sex is an adolescent fantasy: the “swift baby” from New Haven whom he meets in the night on the town and who tries in vain to coax him to take her upstairs bears no resemblance to the creature who initiated O’Neill into sexual life.11 In the words of The Iceman Cometh, she is a “tart,” not a “whore,” and sex becomes a naïve posture of the will, not an ugly fact of experience.
The dark currents
moving in the play are not to be suspected from the placid surface.
The comedy denies them by perfecting imperfections and making pain
impossible. Although Richard attempts to move out of the right current
of his life, to perform a vindictive, self-destroying act of will, he
by no means goes so far as Eugene was to go when he left New London
for the bottom of the world. Richard’s small excursion passes, and
nothing essential is changed. He returns to life, and turns back into
the slow cycling seasons. “There he is,” his father says as
Richard moves into the benevolent, gentle moonlight, which weaves a
spell like that of the Caribbean moon: “There he is—like a statue
of Love’s Young Dream.” To his wife Nat quotes The
And he adds, “Well, Spring isn’t everything, is it, Essie? There’s a lot to be said for Autumn. That’s got beauty, too. And Winter—if you’re together.” (298) Listeners can barely discern in the closing phrases Cybel’s more urgent message to Dion, “Life is all right if you let it alone.”
* Gelb, 761. Langner, 282, says the writing required only four weeks. Clark, 137, quotes Burns Mantle as saying the first draft was completed “within a month” and that it was virtually the final form of the play. The script, together with that of Days Without End, was submitted to the Theatre Guild at the end of July, 1933, and was quickly put into rehearsal. It opened after a brief out-of-town try-out on October 2, 1933.
** Langner, 284. O’Neill, thinking presumably of the autobiographical elements, and the need for self-understanding expressed in Days Without End, includes that play with Ah, Wilderness! as indicative of his new freedom.
In Ah, Wilderness!, O’Neill
calls for Richard to enter from upstairs “from the sitting-room.”
(269) In the play this is in error, since the scene is played in the
sitting. room set and Mrs. Miller has gone through the front parlor to
call her son from upstairs. O’Neill’s slip may reflect the fact that
the room in Monte Cristo Cottage which he used as a basis for both
settings was in fact a kind of sun porch opening into both parlors. It
was the kind of informal room that today would be called a “family
room,” and appears to have been a later addition to the house. It is
possible that the name “sitting-room” was originally applied to the
bright front parlor, and was later transferred by the family to the less
formal accommodation. In any case, upstairs lies through the front
parlor and it is from that direction that Mary Tyrone appears in the
last act of Long Day’s Journey
**** In his interesting study entitled O’Neill’s Scenic Images, 357, Timo Tiusanen has suggested that a version of the plan of this room recurs in ten settings in different plays—whenever O’Neill depicted a middle-class living room. He properly notes “an autobiographical origin of this scenic pattern.” (357)
***** O’Neill, on July 4, 1906, was seventeen and a half; Richard is “going on seventeen.”
****** Cf. Gelb, 8 1-87; Sheaffer, passim.
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