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 understanding, allow them to guide Richard through his struggles toward maturity without undue family tension.
In many ways, the most remarkable characters in the play are Sid Davis and Lily Miller, ill-fated lovers whose proposed marriage has been put on hold because of Sid’s drinking problems and continued association with loose women. O’Neill sets these comic realizations up as contrasts to Richard and his sweetheart, Muriel McComber. All of Sid’s drunken actions, however humorously regarded by the family and by the audience, cannot hide the serious nature of his problem, which has frustrated his career and his love affair. It is not only Richard’s adverse reaction to his own first drunkenness but also his understanding of what drink has done to his uncle that leads him to reject a similar way of life for himself.
Although this play is set in the era of the playwright’s own adolescence, O’Neill’s growing-up years were considerably different from those of the Miller children. O’Neill traces some of the difficulties of the tragic relationships in his own family in such plays as Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1947). In Ah! Wilderness ,...
(The entire section is 755 words.)