Unlike his other plays of dark and harrowing life such as Desire Under the Elms (1924), Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! (1933), a light farce-comedy, dubbed by the Left as “an ocean of whipped cream,” positively, wittily, sentimentally, and sympathetically depicts an American middle-class family at the beginning of the twentieth century. The spirit of love, tolerance, mutual concern, sympathy, understanding, and independence tinged with meaningful family discipline of the Millers is O’Neill’s “wishing out loud.” The American-ness is further reinforced by having July Fourth as the backdrop throughout the play—a time to celebrate, a time to relax, a time to enjoy and allow no threatening seriousness to interfere. Every wrong step is ignored; every slip is forgiven.
In this dramatic comedy—a nostalgic view of the America O’Neill knew as a youth—O’Neill called it a “comedy of recollection”, the playwright presents Richard Miller, “going on seventeen, just out of high school,” bearing “a restless, apprehensive, defiant, shy, dreamy, self-conscious intelligence about him” (Travis Bogard. The Later Plays of Eugene O'Neill: Ah, Wilderness! [New York: Random House, 1967], 14). The play focuses on the adolescent growing pains of Richard in the throes of discovering English poet Swinburne, Persian poet Omar Khayyam, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, Bernard Shaw, and socialism—treated with a dose of sympathy. The young Richard’s father Nat Miller, owner of the Evening Globe of a large small-town in Connecticut, master of middle-class common sense, deftly and tolerantly manages his son’s “socialist gabble and anarchist sentiments.” Employing his paternal humor, he benevolently interprets his young son’s dawning intellectual proclivity and radical tendencies as “adolescent rebelliousness.”
Richard’s doting mother, “the type of middle-class mother, the Mother’s Day Mother,” however, regards her son with affable consternation. The young protagonist essentially remains untouched by evil temptations and impulses, “free of corruptive influence.” Yet on the night of July Fourth, he tentatively, hesitantly, impulsively, crosses the threshold of the ‘forbidden’ world of barroom frequenters and prostitutes—the Pleasant Beach House and the company of Belle, “a typical college ‘tart’ of the period, and of the cheaper variety.” And he emerges from that experience “slightly wiser” as he confesses to his mother: “I won’t do it again. . . . It didn’t make me happy and funny like it does Uncle Sid” (Bogard, 100). Upon his Uncle Sid Davis’s questioning, Richard further frankly admits that “it only made me sadder—and sick so I don’t see any sense in it. . . . But I’m not sorry I tried it once—curing the soul by means of the senses, as Oscar Wilde says. . . . Life is all a stupid farce! I’m through with it!” (Bogard, 100 101).
Richard is now confident, secure, and firm in his resolve to marry one day his innocent childhood sweetheart Muriel, daughter of David McComber who initially believes that Richard is “dissolute and blasphemous—with deliberately attempting to corrupt the morals of my young daughter” (Bogard, 23). Toward the end even he turns out to be “meek as pie.” All the change has come about because they all “seem to be completely surrounded by love.” Finally Richard’s father Nat Miller is convinced that his son is not on the road to ruin. He feels self-assured that his son will “successfully weather the storms of adolescence.” He confides in his wife Essie: “And I don’t think we’ll ever have to worry about his being safe—from himself—again. And I guess no matter what life will do to him, he can take care of it now” (Bogard, 131). As Edwin Engel argues, “the theme of Ah, Wilderness! is the passage from the creative and exploratory period of youth to a more seasoned stage of maturation supported by love and peace” (Thomas Siebold, ed., "O’Neill’s Harmonious Vision in Ah, Wilderness!" In Readings on Eugene O’Neill [San Diego, CA; Greenhaven Press, 1998], 127).
The play is concerned with adolescence and maturity, innocent rebelliousness and experimentation, stable family relationships that allow room for growth and individuality by providing security and love in the spirit of tolerance and understanding. The play further sprinkles splendor of romantic poetry and sentimental music, beauty of emotions and rigor of intellectuality. “Miller’s favorite epithet, ‘darn,’ sprinkled throughout the play, consistently makes any domestic explosions—actual fireworks or political ones—unthreatening (‘Darned youngster!’). Prior to Richard’s political critique of Independence Day, we are warned by Miller that his son’s ‘read meat nowadays . . . . [is] love poetry and socialism’” (Joel Pfister. Staging Depth; Eugene O’Neill and the Politics of Psychological Discourse [Chapel Hill: University North Carolina Press, 1995], 170).
“The play was outside O’Neill’s experience, autobiographically. . . . It described . . . the happy boyhood and adolescence which he might have had, but which the tragic background of his family’s life had made impossible. The play is, therefore, partly a comedy of wish fulfillment” (Frederic I. Carpenter, Eugene O’Neill [Boston: Twayne Publishers, Rev. edn., 1979], 142). The Nobel Laureate admitted “that’s the way I would have liked my boyhood to have been.
Ah, Wilderness! is in the final analysis a cheerful comedy, a “comedy of observation,” a “comedy of wish fulfillment,” a “comedy of recollection.” And, more significantly, it is an American comedy of the early twentieth century that is as relevant in the early twenty-first century. It is a comedy that celebrates love, tolerance, and individuality, though “it also suggests the dark underworld of alcoholism, prostitution, and spiritual despair.” (Carpenter, 142) And for all its warmth the play is essentially laced with irony. Yet “all’s right with the world.” Ah, Wilderness! presents a wholesome recipe for family togetherness that recognizes the growing pains of its younger members.