Ah, Wilderness! and Eugene O’Neill’s Nostalgia for a Time That Never Was

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In 1906, America bustled along at the frenetic pace it had commenced a half century earlier when industrialism revamped its labor, leisure and communication. The Wright brothers patented their illustrious invention, Chicago began construction on its first freight delivery tunnel system and Dr. Lee Deforest debuted his vacuum tube, which formed the foundation for the field of electronics. Meanwhile, Eugene O’Neill, aged 17, graduated from high school.

Reared in a household that was both dysfunctional and theatrical—his mother battled a morphine addiction while his father toured the nation for decades as the title role in a stage adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo—O’Neill had been shunted off to boarding school at age seven. By 1906, O’Neill’s resentment of his parents fueled his depression and early forays into alcoholism. Later on, these familial failings, and O’Neill’s resultant lack of faith in bourgeois values, served as the stimulus for his most gut-wrenching plays: Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh and Anna Christie, to name a few. And yet, in Ah, Wilderness!, O’Neill renders a teenage boy struggling with newfound independence and sexual feelings, and his parents’ wise, firm efforts to guide him towards a functional, happy adulthood. O’Neill wrote the play in 1933, but set it in 1906, creating a fantastical version of the adolescence he never enjoyed.

In Ah, Wilderness!, Richard Miller lives with his parents and siblings in a small Connecticut town. A newly minted high school graduate, Richard plans to attend Yale University in the fall; meanwhile, he is spending the summer reading books and plays by writers his parents deem too lascivious—Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw and the prurient Oscar Wilde—and wooing his first love, Muriel. When Muriel’s parents discover a passionate poem that Richard has given her, they forbid her to see him. This leads Richard onto an adventure fueled by his anger towards the conventional values that surround him, and by healthy adolescent curiosity. His parents, while flawed, never fail to tend to their children’s needs, and the entire family is buffered from life’s travails by laughter and their love for one another.

O’Neill with his second wife, Agnes Boulton, and son, Shane, in 1922.
O’Neill with his second wife, Agnes Boulton, and son, Shane, in 1922.

For his own part, the young O’Neill went off to Princeton University, but did so little schoolwork he was expelled after one year for “poor scholastic standing.” He drank excessively, married his first wife, Kathleen Jenkins, and fathered a child (perhaps in an attempt to create the familial bliss his childhood home lacked), then abandoned his wife and son and found work as a sailor. In 1912, while living at a rooming house in New York and downing bottle after bottle of cheap liquor, O’Neill made an attempt at suicide that was thwarted by a roommate. This skirmish with death was followed almost immediately by another, when he contracted a near-fatal case of tuberculosis. While recovering in a sanatorium, O’Neill made good use of his time by studying great playwrights like August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen, and began to write plays. He found success in 1916 when the Provincetown Players produced his play Bound East for Cardiff; that year he also married again (second wife Agnes Boulton), and would eventually have two more children, whom he would all but abandon while they were small. In 1920, his playwriting career accelerated when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Beyond the Horizon.

In the midst of all this turmoil, however, O’Neill spent a number of months living with a stable, small-town family. From September 1913 to March 1914, at age 25, O’Neill boarded with the Rippin family of New London, Connecticut. Sober, he made friends with the Rippins’ daughters, and attempted to participate in rituals of family life, however foreign they seemed to him. On Christmas, 1913, the Rippins presented O’Neill with small, thoughtful gifts. Since it had not occurred to O’Neill that he might be included in such a tradition, he had nothing for them; embarrassed, he left the house, and returned that evening with boxes of chocolates. At the same time, O’Neill challenged the family’s values, convincing the girls to read The Decameron and several plays by Gerhart Hauptmann. Around this same time, O’Neill’s father, desperate to help his faltering son, convinced Frederick Latimer, editor of the New London Telegraph, to hire O’Neill as a reporter. Though O’Neill admitted later in life that he was a “bum reporter,” he nonetheless curried favor with Latimer, who encouraged his writing.

Eugene O’Neill with his third wife, Carlotta Monterey.
Eugene O’Neill with his third wife, Carlotta Monterey.

Twenty years later, in 1933, O’Neill awoke one morning with an idea for a play. By this time, he had been awarded his third Pulitzer (of four) and also had moved on to his third (and final) wife, Carlotta Monterey. In less than a month, he finished a draft of Ah, Wilderness! He set the play in a Connecticut home not unlike the Rippins’, and created a father who edits a newspaper, modeled after Latimer. His central character Richard displays some of the traits O’Neill did in his youth: a penchant for reading, and an interest in revolutionary ideas. Yet Richard seems on track to succeed in college, with the guidance of ordinary middle-class parents. Richard’s father’s career in journalism does not reach the heights of either the senior O’Neill, who was a well-known and exceptionally successful actor, or the younger O’Neill, who became one of the most heralded playwrights of his era. But his parenting abilities far exceed those of the O’Neill men, who alternated between toxic interactions with their children, sending them away and abandoning them entirely.

Writing lightly and comically, O’Neill honors the fictitious Miller family, rather than mocking them. Yet, this kindly attitude towards the bourgeoisie failed to seep into his other work—and certainly failed to change his own familial relationships. Though he remained married to his third wife until his death, they separated several times and their relationship remained rocky. He cut off contact with his daughter, Oona, when her marriage to Charlie Chaplin displeased him, and disowned his son Shane, who struggled with heroin addiction. Both Shane and O’Neill’s other child, Eugene Jr., would eventually die by suicide. For O’Neill, demons remained inescapable. But in Ah, Wilderness!, we see the life O’Neill might have lived had his birthright been different. Of course, this happier life, had it come to pass, may or may not have included revolutionizing the American theater—as Eugene O’Neill did, in the midst of all his misery.


Buy tickets and learn more about Ah, Wilderness! here. Tickets start at just $25!