A major American dramatist, Eugene O’Neill is best known for his unrelentingly tragic dramas and concentration on adult themes and contexts. Ah! Wilderness is the major exception in the O’Neill canon in its comic approach to family problems. Although certainly not originally intended for the young adult audience, the play evocatively captures bittersweet memories of growing up in the early twentieth century. Indeed, the play is perhaps most meaningfully understood as an American nostalgic family comedy, a subgenre of romantic comedy, in which a past time, often the childhood context of the author, provides the setting, with details projected realistically and evocatively. The characters are likeable and well meaning, if comical, and characterization dominates action, with children playing an important role. The playgoer or reader experiencing the nostalgic family comedy often feels that the past presented in the play is somehow better than the present and mourns the loss of values and the passing of a simpler way of life.
O’Neill’s attention to evoking exact details from his childhood is masterful. Whether it be lyrics to popular songs of the time, the use of slang, attention to details about Fourth of July celebrations, room furnishings and clothes, or the proverbial double-standard morality in relation to gender issues, the play is rich in its creation of the past. The major characters are likable but not without flaws. Richard is presented as an intelligent and enthusiastic, if rebellious and impetuous, teenager whose commitment to ideal goals and high romantic standards save him from temptations that might ruin his future. Essie and Nat are wise but sometimes overindulgent parents, puzzled by their children’s and especially by Richard’s actions. Yet their love for each other and their family, their patience and...
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Although not primarily intended for young adults, Ah! Wilderness can be enjoyed by this age group because of its sensitive depiction of adolescent and parental interactions. Perhaps for young readers the most accessible of O’Neill’s plays, the drama effectively reveals the positive qualities of American nostalgic family comedy and provides an interesting comparison to other works in the genre, including such plays as Clarence Day’s Life with Father (1920) and John Van Druten’s I Remember Mama (1944) and such television shows as Happy Days or The Waltons. What sets Ah! Wilderness apart from many other American nostalgic family comedies, however, is O’Neill’s refusal to allow the work to become overly sentimental. By including Sid’s unrelenting alcoholism and its codependency effect on the other family members, O’Neill keeps the tragic elements that are so pervasive in his other plays close to the surface of this comedy and keeps the drama from becoming hopelessly maudlin. O’Neill’s tragedy Long Day’s Journey into Night can be profitably read as a contrasting but parallel play about a family (O’Neill’s own) whose members fail to come to grips with relationships in the constructive manner portrayed by the Millers.