As in a previous O’Neill review, I find myself thinking of Robert Brustein’s classic work of criticism The Theatre of Revolt. Brustein sees this play as a crucial turning point for O’Neill, when he began to reassess the “messianic” style he had been writing in and look to a subtler, more naturalistic approach. It’s hard to disagree with Brustein on this point. It was not long after writing Ah, Wilderness! that O’Neill started work on his final sequence of plays. Those plays, in my opinion, finally made him the master dramatist he had previously only been impersonating. However, Brustein is not particularly kind to Ah, Wilderness! itself. While he does not attack O’Neill’s only (official) comedy, he views it as a slight work, more important as a stepping stone than as its own work of art. While Ah, Wilderness! is indeed a stepping stone, I happen to feel it is at least a near great play, in and of itself.
Brustein’s lack of respect is probably related to the fact that Ah, Wilderness! is an unambiguous comedy. While we all pretend otherwise, the immense value of the comic continues to go unregarded in numerous circles. There is a common feeling that a comedy cannot possibly be truly deep or meaningful. To me, this makes as much sense as pretending that joy and laughter are unimportant parts of life. Why shouldn’t art, in addition to examining what makes too much of life agonizing, also explore the things that make us happy and want to slog on despite our pain? Ah, Wilderness! is a masterfully wrought comedy. To be sure, as was noted by the great critic and O’Neill friend Brooks Atkinson, it is comic more in general tone than in any lines or situations. That being said, there are some definite moments where readers (and audiences) will laugh warmly and hard. One line, in the remarkable final scene, should bring any house down if handled well by the production. Throughout the play, O’Neill’s laughter is always kind and sympathetic, even when it carries sharp perceptions about foolishness and immaturity. O’Neill was starting to develop the almost overwhelming sympathy for the flaws of human beings that would inform his final masterpieces.
That brings me back to the “stepping stone” point. While Ah, Wilderness! is definitely a crucial move away from grand ambition, I think it also demonstrates O’Neill’s new immersion in dramatic structure, big or small. It isn’t that O’Neill abandons his themes. He simply learned that, by wedding them to a sound literary and theatrical foundation, he could better explore and communicate them. This is still a discovery that can be hard for authors to make. For all his attempts to move in earlier, larger-scale plays, it is astonishing how a quiet piece like this, where the goal was primarily to make the audience laugh, can be so much more effective in capturing the heart. Parts of the final scene are so beautifully written, so pulsing with O’Neill’s new-found control over his language and technique, it is hard to think of them without going misty! O’Neill seems to be reveling in his exciting new power to make his characters speak like real people and matter to others. While it never stops being simply entertaining, the final scene of Ah, Wilderness! is strangely breathtaking in some ways.
Perhaps O’Neill, under other circumstances, might have written other comedies. Sadly, he had darker things to explore. Many have noted that Ah, Wilderness! was, in many ways, an attempt to dream a joyous youth he never really had. Anyone passingly familiar with O’Neill will know well that his sympathy for human suffering was not something he was remotely capable of carrying into much of his personal life. Still, Ah, Wilderness! shows us the start of O’Neill’s attempt to intricately work out in art what he could not handle in his own life. In my view, the attempt was ultimately a triumphant one, a view I feel can be detected in the uncanny peace that hangs over his last tragedies. Eugene O’Neill the man was probably broken beyond repair by the time he wrote Ah, Wilderness! However, this play, and those that followed, would prove that broken man to be a true artistic hero.