Eugene O’Neill was born of drama, theatre, and addiction. His father was a traveling actor. The family went wherever he did. Eugene, in fact, was born on the road (in the Barrett, a Broadway hotel), as was his brother, who later drank himself to death. Eugene Jr did, too. The playwright’s younger son also committed suicide, but that was long after Eugene himself had passed away at that age of 65.
Eugene’s early years continued this nomadic existence, in the body, mind and heart. He quit Princeton after a year, escaped to 6 years on the sea (and in the bottle), and attempted suicide himself, before experiencing a sort of rebirth in 1913. Eugene was on his third marriage (with Carlotta Monterey) by the time he wrote his one and only comedy: Ah, Wilderness! (1933)
Knowing this in retrospect, after seeing the play, it seems a sort of miracle that he was able to write it at all. It’s a strange mishmash of romantic sentimentalism, realism, and activism. There’s the drunk Uncle Sid, brilliantly written as lovable, hilarious and an ultimately pathetic worldly figure. There’s Aunt Lilly, pining in vain for Sid to change. The parents, Essie and Nat, bicker back and forth. Clearly Essie is the backbone of the relationship, a strong, nagging woman who knows Nat far too well for his own good. Nat is amicable and non-confrontational. They comprise a small slice of a slew of other characters.
The plot revolves-sort of-around the youngest son, who spouts off socialist sentiments, advocates for a change of government, does not believe in celebrating the Fourth of July, reads inflammatory and passionate works constantly, and is deeply and capriciously in love.
Having more modern preferences for storytelling, this play was rather difficult to follow. It does not have a central character; it is not driven by character development nor a strong plot. It rather portrays a volatile day in the life of a family. Although the way they react, you get the impression that this is more routine than unusual. But if you begin to aggregate the characters, it could be argued that there is a meta-character.
The play seems to be about love. Romantic, platonic, and physical. Unrequited, actualized, fictionalized. However if you look at family and society as characters, the themes both deepen and expand. It’s about the raw power of influence, about consequence, small town dynamics, appearance versus reality. It’s about acceptance in many ways. Despite the flaws of each individual character, which are highlighted through the play, they accept each other. And in the end, maybe it’s about innocence. And its erosion.
I’m still not sure how to explain the title, though. Maybe family and society are this wilderness. On the surface cultivated, but beneath the veneer, spurred by something more base and primitive.