A few weeks before rehearsals began for Ah, Wilderness!— playwright Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy—director Steve Scott sat down with Production Dramaturg Neena Arndt to share his insights on the play and its place within O’Neill’s canon.
Neena Arndt: Tell me about your relationship with Eugene O’Neill’s work. How were you introduced to him, and why do his plays speak to you?
Steve Scott: My first directing project in college was a scene from Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I had fallen in love with the story prior to that, because I saw the film version with Katharine Hepburn; I just thought it was fascinating. I don’t think I ever had any great academic affinity for O’Neill, but the way in which he portrayed his characters and the kinds of issues that his characters dealt with appealed to the tragic part of me when I was younger. I remember reading Desire Under the Elms and Strange Interlude, which I found very odd, but there was an attempt to capture the grandeur of human emotion in a way that I didn’t think contemporary playwrights did. There was something almost operatic about O’Neill’s emotional scope. And then later, as I became more serious about studying plays and playwrights, I was amazed by the experimentation that O’Neill adopted throughout his career, trying all sorts of different ways of storytelling.
NA: How did Ah, Wilderness! fit into that?
SS: I find Ah, Wilderness! compelling because it takes all of the things that we know about O’Neill and flips them. I don’t think I came to this play until much later, quite frankly, because when I was in graduate school and we studied the works of O’Neill, Ah, Wilderness! was kind of shunted aside as some kind of aberration—like a sketch O’Neill wrote one day when he was in a good mood. Given the mass of his works, it wasn’t terribly significant. I didn’t really explore Ah, Wilderness! until a few years ago at Roosevelt University, where I teach. I was looking for a show that had a large cast and dealt with young people and the things they experience. I read it and found it, first of all, very funny and sweet, but as profound in many ways as some of his tragic plays. It’s just that in Ah, Wilderness! the characters find ways, through their family and relationships, to deal with hardships that prevent those events in their lives from becoming tragedies. So much of O’Neill is about people feeling like they’re isolated and alone, even within a family—but the lovely thing about Ah, Wilderness! is that the members of the Miller family connect and work with each other, and they embrace that. This was something that O’Neill himself seemed to lack; he saw himself as an outcast, but yearned to be part of a real family almost in a fantasy way. I think we all long for a family we can really be a part of. Some of us were lucky enough to grow up in that family, some of us weren’t. But as we reach adulthood, that’s a kind of primal need: to find family, whether through blood relationships, marriage etc., who will nurture us. And that’s what Ah, Wilderness! shows us.
NA: This play is set in 1906 and deals with American life at the turn of the 20th century— a time that O’Neill, having been born in 1888, remembered. But he wrote the play in the 1930s, so it was a period piece even at the time it was written. Why do you think this era was compelling to O’Neill, and why might it be compelling to contemporary audiences?
SS: It was a time of incredible change in America— especially incredible political change. America was essentially growing up, emerging from an adolescence into young adulthood. American society was starting to define itself beyond some of its 19th century struggles. Obviously there were a lot of new things to grapple with in terms of roles people played, and in terms of the mechanization of society. The automobile and telegraphs–all these foreign things that started to connect us–are, in a way, similar to what we’re dealing with now, in our Digital Age. So the play is filled with characters who emerged from a certain tradition, coming into a new world where the rules are not so clear, and might not make much sense and are being questioned. I think that’s part of every generation; but that era was kind of the most chaotic and convulsive time for that kind of social exploration, and has a great deal of relevance to what we’re seeing today. So there are tremendous links between the energy and obstacle of the time and the growing awareness of self. People weren’t quite as restricted to class or gender roles–though by today’s standards, they certainly were–but they started to realize that there is more to life than simply doing what you’re told. It was the beginnings of a modern world.
NA: Two generations are represented in the play—parents and children. The central character in the play, Richard is a teenager. Do you look at the play differently now than you might have a few decades ago?
SS: The themes this play touches on—in terms of family and relationships and figuring out your identity—are ones that I’ve dealt with in my own work, consciously or unconsciously, for 40 years. The fact that Ah, Wilderness! is, for want of a better term, a comedy, where things generally end up well, is significant to me at the age that I’ve reached. It’s almost like looking back to where I was at age 20, and where I was at 40, and, heavens, when I was 60, and thinking, “Yeah, those problems I faced were important, but you know what? I’ve survived, and look—here I am.”
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