Walter Mencken 10 a.m., March 13
O'Neill's Absent Youth
An exercise for writers: compose a long account of your childhood, only make it the opposite of the one you lived.
Eugene O'Neill did just that with Ah, Wilderness.
The play's set in a small-ish, Connecticut town similar to New London where the O'Neills spent their summers. It's the Fourth of July, 1906. As the Miller family plans various activities, the parents worry that the children might get sick on cotton candy or injured lighting fireworks.
Richard, age 17, is reading Shaw, Swinburne, and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (where the play's title comes from). Angered by apparent rejection, he decides to come of age.
But no matter how hard Richard tries to escape innocence, Ah, Wilderness won't let him. Although there are moments of sadness - as when a melancholy song intrudes on the festivities - the play keeps on the sunny side and depicts a time of straw hats, seersucker suits, and summer balloons floating in the blue. Even the local drunk's a sweetheart.
When he was 17, O'Neill admits, he was already on "the pace that kills along the road to ruin."
It was 1906, his first year on his own. He and older brother Jamie frequented the saloons on Bradley Street, in New London (a small-ish Connecticut town). They favored the Winthrop Hotel bar, down by the railroad station, where female companionship came at a price (and where Richard goes to lose his virginity).
"Eugene began to run wild," writes a biographer, "his personality to develop a darker, fiercer edge."
In September, 1932, blank depressed and exhausted from writing Days Without End, O'Neill had a dream early one morning. It looked like his alternate youth. He woke up, had a complete play in his head (which was rare), and it was a comedy (a first). He "never had even a glimmer of an idea about it before," and wrote Ah, Wilderness in less than a month.
The writing, so far from his tragic vein, revived his spirits.
When he finished, he didn't know what to think. Everything came so easily he couldn't trust it. He locked it in his desk and wouldn't tell anyone.
"This opus is entirely different from anything I've ever written," he finally confessed to his friend, the critic George Jean Nathan. It had "nothing of the O'Neill play about it."
Nathan suggested some cuts, but no rewriting, and Ah, Wilderness opened at the Guild Theatre in 1933. It ran for 285 performances.
"I like it because I have a real affection for its characters and its period," said O'Neill years later. "It's the way I would have liked my boyhood to have been...a sort of wishing out loud."
More like this:
- Public Input Stifled at Sweetwater's Board Meeting — July 26, 2012
- Stage Directions — April 8, 2012
- Ah, Wilderness at New Village Arts — Aug. 14, 2011
- O'Neill in Bondage — May 10, 2007
- I Was a Bad Sailor — Jan. 18, 2007