Critical Analysis of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!

On July 1, 1932, Eugene O’Neill visited his boyhood home, Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, Connecticut. It looked smaller than he remembered and poorly maintained. He wished he had never gone. Two months later, however, on the morning of September 1, 1932, he awoke at his home Casa Genotta on Sea Island, Georgia, with the setting (Monte Cristo), plot, characters, themes, and even title of a full-length play that, according to O’Neill, he envisioned from a dream “fully formed and ready to write” (quoted in Alexander 172). Three weeks later, on September 27, O’Neill completed the first draft of his only mature comedy, Ah, Wilderness! “Wrote the whole damned thing in the month of September,” O’Neill boasted to his friend, the editor Saxe Commins (quoted in Gelb 190). After a tryout of the play in Pittsburgh, followed by several substantial cuts, the Theatre Guild’s immensely popular production of Ah, Wilderness! opened in New York City on October 3, 1933, and received very fine reviews. But the play, often referred to as O’Neill’s “digression,” confused as much as beguiled audiences unused to America’s “master of the misbegotten” working outside the tragic vein.

Ah, Wilderness! takes place during New London’s Fourth of July celebration in the year 1906. The Miller family of the play, though similar in many respects, should not be mistaken for O’Neill’s own family, which he immortalized later in his autobiographical masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night. Rather, the Millers are a wish-fulfillment fantasy, a sentimental portrait of the happy, middle-class New England family O’Neill longed to have been born into. Nevertheless, the adolescent poet/child Richard Miller shares many traits with his creator, and beneath the veneer of the Millers’ nostalgic innocence lies more than a touch of cynical reality. O’Neill dedicated Ah, Wilderness! to his producer George Jean Nathan, “who also,” he wrote, “once upon a time, in peg-top trousers went the pace that kills along the road to ruin” (quoted in Alexander 181).

Ah, Wilderness! continues to draw large audiences around the globe. Since its 1933 premiere, two film adaptations have been made, one a musical entitled Summer Holiday (1948); it has also been adapted as a Broadway musical, Take Me Along (1959) and a made-for-television miniseries.

Emily Goss (Muriel McComber) and Matt Gall (Richard) in Ah, Wilderness!, directed by Steve Robman/Photo by Craig Schwartz


Act 1

The Miller family sitting room in “a large small-town in Connecticut” (New London) at around 7:30 in the morning on July 4, 1906. The room is decorated in the “scrupulous medium-priced tastelessness of the period.” Two bookcases line the walls packed with “cheap sets” of literature, young adult fiction, and “the best-selling novels of many past years” (3:5). Sunlight streams in from the windows. A set of sliding doors opens to an unlit parlor in the back, and another to a well-lit parlor and the front door; a screen door leads to the outside porch, and a table sits at center with five chairs positioned around it. The Millers have just finished breakfast. Essie Miller’s voice commands her son, Tommy, to return to the table and finish his milk. Tommy, a blondhaired, chubby 11-year-old, appears at the doorway to the back parlor, impatient to begin the Fourth of July festivities. His father, Nat Miller’s, voice can be heard in the dining room offstage. Essie grants Tommy permission to go outside, and he rushes out the screen door. Nat shouts not to set off firecrackers too close to the house.

Mildred Miller, a tall, slightly mannish, but attractively vivacious 15-year-old girl, and her brother Arthur, a 19-year-old with a heavyset build and collegiate attire, enter from the back parlor. Mildred and Arthur tease each other about their plans for the day and who they expect to spend it with. Essie, a woman of about 50 with a “bustling, mother-of-the-family manner,” carps at Tommy’s having thoughtlessly left the porch door open. Lily Miller, her 42-year-old sister-in-law, who looks like the “conventional type of old-maid school teacher,” defends the boy’s excitement over the holiday. Nat, a tall, thin man in his late 50s with “fine, shrewd, humorous gray eyes,” and his brother-in-law Sid Davis, a squat 45-year old “with the Puckish face of a Peck’s Bad Boy who has never grown up,” follow close behind (3:7).

Nat, the owner of a local paper called the Evening Globe, and Sid chat amiably about Sid’s new job as a reporter in Waterbury, Connecticut, as a series of firecrackers explodes loudly outside. Essie goes out the screen door and orders Tommy away from the house. Throughout the scene, Tommy’s firecrackers continue to explode, “not nearly so loud as the first . . . but sufficiently emphatic to form a disturbing punctuation to the conversation” (3:8). Nat and Sid discuss the Sachem picnic they will attend, and Essie quips that those picnics are simply an excuse to drink. Lily assures her that Sid, an alcoholic, has reformed, though from his joking response he has not—“They’re running me for president of the W.C.T.U.” (the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement) (3:9). Nat defends Sid’s right to celebrate on the Fourth of July. They all report their plans for the day: Arthur will go to a picnic with his girlfriend Elsie Rand and another couple; Mildred to a beach party; and Essie and Lily, who had not yet made plans, decide on a drive in the family Buick. Sid offers to escort Lily to the fireworks; she accepts on the condition that he not get intoxicated at the picnic. They all discuss the missing Richard, Nat and Essie’s son. Mildred remarks that he must be writing a poem for his paramour, Muriel McComber, and the rest discuss his obsession with books and poetry, particularly the kind associated with political radicalism, which Essie has found hidden in his room.

They call for Richard, and, book in hand, he appears from the doorway of the back parlor. Richard, almost 17 and dressed in preppy clothes, closely resembles both parents, though with “something of extreme sensitiveness added—a restless, apprehensive, defiant, shy, dreamy, self-conscious intelligence about him” (3:12); his character waffles between being “a plain simple boy and a posey actor solemnly playing a role” (3:12). Distracted by his reading, Richard gets tripped by Mildred as he enters the room; he responds by pushing her onto the couch and tickling her with his free hand. They ask what his plans are—the beach party? a date with Muriel? playing with Tommy and the firecrackers?—but he rejects them all, considering the Fourth of July a “stupid farce.” “I’ll celebrate the day the people bring out the guillotine again and I see Pierpont Morgan being driven by in a tumbrel!” he shouts. Everyone stifles laughter but Arthur, who is offended by his brother’s lack of patriotism. “Son,” Nat responds with tolerant good-humor, “if I didn’t know it was you talking, I’d think we had Emma Goldman with us” (3:13). Richard has been reading Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution and is astonished to find that his father has read it too. He defends his other favorite authors, the ones he hides from his mother—Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Algernon Charles Swinburne, along with The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. This last sparks admissions of appreciation and short recitations from both Sid and Lily, then Richard himself, all of which shocks Essie.

Arthur spots Muriel’s father, David McComber, a dry-goods merchant who advertises in Nat’s newspaper, approaching the house. Arthur and Mildred head off to catch the trolley downtown, and the rest flee from McComber’s disagreeable company. “I only wish I didn’t have to be pleasant with the old buzzard,” Nat quips, “but he’s about the most valuable advertiser I’ve got” (3:18). Nat invites McComber into the sitting room. After some brief pleasantries on the part of Nat, McComber announces he has come regarding Richard’s “dissolute and blasphemous” behavior “deliberately attempting to corrupt the morals” of his daughter (3:19). Nat adamantly defends his son’s integrity, chalking up his rebelliousness to that of a typical adolescent. McComber shows Nat poems that Richard had given Muriel and demands he punish the boy. Their argument becomes heated, and McComber threatens to remove his advertisement from Nat’s newspaper. Nat responds by refusing his advertisement from ever being run again and vows to help an outside dry goods company take over McComber’s business. Leaving Nat with the poems and a letter from Muriel to Richard, McComber departs, disturbed by the threat but retaining a superior look of indignation.

Sid reenters, impressed with Nat’s ability to deal with McComber. But Nat believes his son did, in fact, cross the line of decency by sending one particularly “warm” poem to young Muriel—Swinburne’s sexually-charged “Anactoria.” Richard appears, and Nat scolds him for having exposed a young girl to the material. He demands to know if Richard has sexual designs on Muriel, and Richard indignantly responds that they are engaged, and he would never sully her reputation. He insists he gave her the poems to “give her the spunk to lead her own life, and not be—always thinking of being afraid” (3:25). Nat hands him the letter. Richard reads it silently; his face grows “wounded and tragic,” then “flushed with humiliation and wronged anger.” “The little coward!,” he shouts, “I hate her! She can’t treat me like that! I’ll show her!” (3:25). Hearing his mother and Lily’s voices coming from the back parlor, he shoves the letter in his pocket and claims he is too sick to join the family in any of their activities. When pressed, he again curses the Fourth of July, and the family reluctantly leave him in the sitting room, as the curtain falls.

Act 2

The Millers’ dining room just after six o’clock that evening. A dark rug covers the floor in a room too small for the “medium-priced, formidable dining-room set.” A chandelier hangs from the center above; in front of two windows stands a “heavy, ugly sideboard with three pieces of silver on its top.” The wallpaper is “a somber brown and dark-red design,” and a doorway leads to the side porch with a china closet to its right. Essie and the family’s “second girl,” Norah—“a clumsy, heavy-handed, heavy-footed, longjawed, beamingly good-natured young Irish girl—a ‘greenhorn’ ” (3:27)—attempt with comic difficulty to set the table and turn on the chandelier’s lights. Essie voices her exasperation over Norah’s clumsiness and dismisses the girl. Her sister-in-law Lily, wearing a new dress, steps in from the back parlor to help. Essie insists she relax after a year of “teaching a pack of wild Indians of kids” (3:28). She regrets that such a fine woman should be without a husband and children. Noticing her new dress, Essie warns her not to expect Sid to be sober after spending the day celebrating with his friends from town; however, she adds that Lily might reconsider Sid as a husband, now that he makes enough money to settle down: “I know darned well you love him. And he loves you and always has” (3:29). Lily refuses to consider marrying him while he continues to drink but reassures her that teaching and life with the Millers makes her feel less like a “useless old maid” (3:30). Essie praises her stalwartness, then tells her about a shared family joke on Nat. He has always claimed to be allergic to bluefish, but she has served him bluefish for years, lying to him that it is weakfish.

Essie heads out to warn Tommy not to give away her secret, and Richard enters from the back parlor. Since receiving Muriel’s letter, Richard, “after his first outburst of grief and humiliation, has begun to take a masochistic satisfaction in his great sorrow, especially in the concern which it arouses in the family circle” (3:31). Lily’s face shows some worry, but Richard announces that he has never taken Muriel seriously. When he pushes this line too far, his aunt grows offended by his cynicism. Essie returns and asks if Richard is hungry; he shrugs off the thought of food with theatrical disdain. She tells him that he deserves to lose Muriel after exposing “a nice girl like her things out of those indecent books!” (3:32). Richard storms out reciting, “Out, then, into the night with me!” (3:33). Essie and Lily go into the sitting room. Richard reappears and, contrary to his prior scorn for food, is caught by Norah pilfering some olives. She scolds him, then heads back into the kitchen. Wint Selby, a classmate of Arthur’s, appears at the side door, beckoning to Richard in hushed tones. He has set up a date for that night with two “swift babies from New Haven,” Belle and Edith, and is disappointed to hear Arthur has left for the night. Richard has 11 dollars (money he meant to spend on a gift for Muriel) and convinces Wint he has much experience with drinking and older women. He says he can lie his way out of family festivities. They agree to meet at the Pleasant Beach Hotel at 9:30 that night. Richard will entertain Belle while Wint goes off with Edith. Richard considers this a perfect revenge for Muriel’s deception.

Wint heads off into the night. Tommy enters, hungry for dinner. Essie reenters, saying they will have lobster and bluefish and reminding Tommy not to blow the secret they share about Nat. Lily follows close behind her. From a distance, Sid can be heard singing drunkenly as he and Nat approach the house. Mildred runs into the room, stifling a fit of laughter, and Essie sternly orders everyone to sit. Nat enters in a jovial mood, only slightly intoxicated. He slaps Essie playfully on the behind, and everyone bursts into laughter. Scandalized by her husband’s behavior, Essie shouts for Norah, also laughing, to bring the soup to the table. She then orders the children to behave. Nat warns everyone that Sid has had too much to drink but hopes no one will hold it against him on a holiday. Sid enters, drunk but trying hard, at first, to conceal it. He acts out a comedy routine that amuses everyone but Lily. Nonetheless, his sense of humor while drunk—drinking soup without a spoon, accusing Nat of being shamefully intoxicated, and wooing Norah playfully—even wins over Lily for a time.

Nat inquires whether the dinner is bluefish, and Tommy explodes into laughter. Essie informs her husband that he has eaten bluefish for years with no allergic reaction. Nat stubbornly refuses to eat the fish and changes the subject. Talk of swimming provokes him to retell a story about saving his friend’s life 45 years before, a story they have heard hundreds of times. They laugh again at his expense, but Essie jumps to his defense. Sid continues joking brazenly and begins eating lobster, shell and all. When he refers to Lily as a tragic alcoholic, Essie sends him off to bed. He departs singing a Salvation Army marching song. Everyone laughs, and Lily accuses them all, including herself, of enabling Sid’s alcoholism, then excuses herself.

Nat tells the remaining family members that Sid lost his job at the Waterbury newspaper. He will, of course, offer him a position at his own newspaper as long as he stops “his damn nonsense.” He orders the children outside. Richard remains, however, and blames Lily for Sid’s condition—“like all women love to ruin men’s lives! I don’t blame him for drinking himself to death! What does he care if he dies, after the way she’s treated him!” (3:49). Nat orders him never to speak like that again and storms out. Essie scolds Richard, then follows her husband out. Feeling “bitter, humiliated, wronged,” he then smiles rebelliously and says, “Aw, what the hell do I care? I’ll show them!” (3:50). He charges out the screen door as the curtain falls.

Act 3, Scene 1

Around 10 o’clock that night in the back room of the Pleasant Beach Hotel. Four tables with chairs fill the room, which is dimly lit by “two fly-specked globes in a fly-specked gilt chandelier” hanging from the ceiling; a stairway to rooms upstairs and the “Family Entrance” are at the rear wall right; at left, front, a swinging door to the bar. A nickelin-the-slot player piano plays “Bedelia.” Cigarette and cigar butts are strewn on the floor, and each table has a cuspidor. A 20-year-old woman named Belle, attractive but cheap-looking, is discovered sitting with Richard, who nurses a flat beer and looks “horribly timid, embarrassed and guilty, but at the same time thrilled and proud of at last mingling with the pace that kills” (3:51). The bartender, a toughlooking Irishman with a “foxily cunning, stupid face and a cynically wise grin,” looks on at them with amusement from the doorway to the bar. Richard is spending generously, which keeps Belle in good spirits, but she does not fully understand his intentions. Her intentions are clear enough—to persuade Richard to go upstairs with her and pay her for sex. She convinces him to “have a man’s drink,” and he orders a sloe-gin fizz, ordering like someone “in the know”; she winks at the bartender to get him “something that’ll warm him up” (3:53). The bartender returns with the drink, and Richard gives him a dollar—far too much—and the bartender thanks him now respectfully. He encourages Belle to keep at him and exits.

Belle offers Richard a smoke, though she must conceal hers—women can only smoke upstairs. She taunts Richard into downing the powerful drink in one gulp, which he does; she then takes a seat on his lap. “He looks desperately uncomfortable, but the gin is rising to his head and he feels proud of himself and devilish, too.” She kisses him full on the lips, making him extremely anxious, and offers to take him upstairs for only five dollars. According to her, that’s half price because she has become “just crazy” about him (3:55). Richard makes for the door, overcome with “timidity, disgust at the money element, shocked modesty, and the guilty thought of Muriel”; but he reconsiders, now seeing the “tart” as a “romantic, evil vampire” (3:56). He still refuses to take her upstairs, however, which makes her furious, and he gives her the five dollars for nothing. Belle calls for another round, promising to pay for his drink, and asks why he does not want to get his money’s worth. He admits to swearing an oath of fidelity to a girl, then preaches reform to her. This infuriates Belle, and she taunts him that Muriel is probably unfaithful to him. They fall into an angry silence. A salesman enters, and he and Belle regard each other knowingly.

Richard commences a melodramatic poetry recitation. Belle abandons Richard’s lap and sits with the salesman, who happily eggs Richard on. “This gal of yours don’t appreciate poetry,” he says. “She’s a lowbrow. But I’m the kid that eats it up” (3:60). Richard recites lines from Henrik Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabbler, and then, comprehending the salesman’s motives with Belle, abruptly swears to protect her from disrepute. Belle and the salesman laugh at him. The salesman advises the bartender to turn the young man out for being underage, and the bartender roughly kicks Richard out onto the street. When the salesman asks Belle who her young escort was, he recognizes the name, deduces Richard is Nat Miller’s son, and, out of respect for Nat, goes out to make sure Richard safely catches the trolley home. This revelation terrifies the bartender, as Miller is a respected man in the community. He lambastes Belle for failing to inform him of Richard’s identity. When she defiantly yells back at him, he orders her out, threatening to call the police. Belle exits and vows revenge, slamming the door behind her. “Them lousy tramps is always getting this dump in Dutch!,” he remarks with a sigh, and the curtain falls (3:62).

Act 3, Scene 2

The Miller family’s sitting room at around 11 o’clock that night. Essie, Nat, Lily, Mildred, and Tommy are discovered. The adults are in a terrible state of worry over Richard’s whereabouts. Mildred is practicing her signature, and Tommy can barely keep his eyes open. Nat is reading a newspaper, Essie is sewing a doily, and Lily is reading a novel, but these distractions fail to alleviate their anxiety. Essie is the most evidently upset. Mildred passes around her new signature, and the adults absentmindedly praise her work. Everyone offers Essie a rational explanation for Richard’s tardiness—he has missed the trolley, is spending time with Muriel, is staying out to watch the fireworks. None of these explanations work, and Essie sends Tommy off to bed. They hear someone come through the front door, but it is Arthur, whistling “Waltz Me Around Again, Willie” and appearing “complacently pleased with himself” (3:66). Once apprised of the situation, Arthur assures his mother that Richard must have gone to the fireworks but did not ask to go because of his radical pose. “Didn’t you hear him this morning showing off bawling out the Fourth like an anarchist? He wouldn’t want to reneg on that to you—” (3:67). Nat heartily agrees.

Arthur has been with Elsie Rand, and Mildred teases him and voices her dislike of Elsie, “the stuck-up thing!” (3:67). Nat persuades Arthur to sing, accompanied by Mildred on the piano, to ease their mother’s anxiety. Sid enters from the front parlor terribly hungover and visibly contrite—“nervous, sick, a prey to gloomy remorse and bitter feelings of self-loathing and self-pity” (3:69). He begins to apologize, but Nat silences him so they can hear Arthur and Mildred. They begin, but Arthur’s songs are melancholic, sentimental favorites that make everyone gloomier still. Sid lets out an apology between songs, which Nat and Essie accept out of hand, but he gets no response from Lily. Arthur sings another song, even sadder than the last, and at the finish Sid blurts out an apology to Lily for missing their engagement that evening. Lily says nothing; then, “in a passion of self-denunciation,” Sid agrees that what he did was unforgivable. He begins to weep, which is “too much for Lily.” She rushes over to console him, “swamped by a pitying love,” then kisses him on his bald head and “soothes him as if he were a little boy.” This perks Sid up, and “the dawn of a cleansed conscience is already beginning to restore to its natural Puckish expression” (3:71).

Arthur and Mildred begin an upbeat song, “Waiting at the Church,” and Sid joins in with the line, “Can’t get away to marry you today, My wife won’t let me!” (3:71). Everyone laughs but Essie. Then Sid cheerfully reminds Lily of a time when they saw Vesta Victoria sing the song in New York; but the trip is a bad memory for Lily because of Sid’s drinking, and she sadly responds that she does remember. Essie insists someone do something about Richard. Nat and Arthur have decided to look for him in the car when he stumbles through the screen door, his clothes disheveled and torn. Essie thinks he has gone mad, but Nat and Sid assure her that he is just drunk. Richard begins reciting poetry and lines from Hedda Gabler, as he had at the bar, but then “his pallor takes on a greenish, sea-sick tinge,” and he cries out to his mother as a little boy might, “Ma! I feel—rotten!” (3:74). Essie moves to him, but Sid steps in and, being “the kid who wrote the book,” promises to take care of him. Sid and Richard go upstairs. Essie frantically wonders who “Hedda” is. “Oh, I know he’s been with one of those bad women,” she says, horrorstruck. Nat tries to calm her, as “Lily and Mildred and Arthur are standing about awkwardly with awed, shocked faces,” and the curtain falls (3:74).

Act 4, Scene 1

The same sitting room, around one o’clock in the afternoon. The Miller family has just finished lunch. Nat’s face is set in “frowning severity,” and Essie’s is “drawn and worried.” Lily appears “gently sad and depressed.” Sid is “himself again,” unconcerned about the night before. Mildred and Tommy are “subdued, covertly watching their father,” though Arthur acts “self-consciously a virtuous young man against whom nothing can be said” (3:75). Nat volubly expresses irritation for being dragged home on a workday to deal with Richard, who has been confined to bed. Tommy inquires why no one will tell him what Richard has done. His curiosity irritates Nat further, and Essie sends the children out of the room. Lily decides to take a walk, and Sid moves to join her, but Nat asks him to remain. Essie demands her husband punish Richard, but confuses him by expressing maternal concern and backhandedly relinquishing her son of guilt by blaming Nat’s temper for the rebellion. She had interrogated Richard earlier about the woman “Hedda” and discovered that she is a character from a book (Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen). She goes upstairs to bring him before his father.

Nat wakes up Sid, who had dozed off during Essie’s recriminations. He shows Sid a note delivered to his office by a woman who, according to one of the mailroom boys, looked “like a tart.” It accuses the bartender at the Pleasant Beach House of serving Richard, aware that he was underage. “If you have any guts,” the note ends, “you will run that bastard out of town.” Sid deduces correctly that “she’s one of the babies” and “had a run-in with the barkeep and wants revenge” (3:78). Nat understands he must have a talk with Richard about sex. He says he did so with his older sons Wilbur, Lawrence, and Arthur, but Richard’s innocence always shamed him out of it. Essie returns with news that Richard is sleeping. Outwardly irritated but inwardly relieved, Nat heads back to his office.

Richard appears moments after his father’s departure with an expression of “hang-dog guilt mingled with defensive defiance” (3:81). Essie accuses him of pretending to be asleep to avoid his father’s wrath, but he shows a defiant lack of concern about punishment and expresses no remorse for what he did because it was “wicked or any such old-fogy moral notion.” He has decided never to drink again; it made him feel sick and sadder than he was before, not happy like it does Sid. “Life is all a stupid farce!” he yells. “It’s lucky there aren’t any of General Gabler’s pistols around—or you’d see if I’d stand it much longer!” (3:82; Richard refers to the suicide of the heroine of Ibsen’s play). “You’re a silly gabbler yourself when you talk that way!” she retorts, but she gives in to motherly concern after mention of suicide. Reminding him that he is not permitted to leave the house, she heads off to an appointment. Sid offers some cynical advice about drinking and women—“Love is hell on a poor sucker”—then falls back to sleep (3:83).

Mildred enters. She has a letter to Richard from Muriel. At first she tries to make him swear never to drink again, but her excitement over its contents takes over and she hands him the letter. In it, Muriel confesses that her father made her write the previous letter, which had broken off their engagement, and that she loves him and wants to meet him that night. She plans to sneak out to meet him, and he realizes he needs to leave that moment, while their mother is out. In spite of herself, Mildred admires his devotion to Muriel and looks at him with wonder as he makes his escape. Sid begins to snore as the curtain falls.

Act 4, Scene 2

A beach on the harbor at almost nine o’clock that night. A grassy bank rises “half-diagonally back along the beach, marking the line where the sand of the beach ends and fertile land begins” (3:85–86); a painted white rowboat lies on the beach, and the boughs of two willow trees arch over the scene. The bow of the rowboat is darkened by the shadow of a willow, while the stern, along with a section of the beach, is illuminated by the “soft, mysterious, caressing” light of a new moon (3:86). A hotel orchestra can be heard in the far-off distance. Richard is discovered sitting on the rowboat, twirling his straw hat and impatiently awaiting Muriel. He haltingly confers with himself on the events of the previous night and his love for Muriel. Belle, he concludes, was “just a whore. . . . Muriel and I will go upstairs . . . when we’re married . . . but that will be beautiful. . . .” He then recites from Oscar Wilde’s “Panthea.” Moved by the words, he muses over the beauty of the night. “I love the sand, and the trees, and the grass, and the water and the sky, and the moon . . . it’s all in me and I’m in it . . . God, it’s so beautiful!” (3:87). The town hall clock strikes nine—the hour Muriel designated for their meeting. He quotes from Algernon Swinburne’s “Laus Veneris”: “And lo my love, mine own soul’s heart, more dear / Than mine own soul, more beautiful than God” (3:88).

Annoyed by his own sentimentality, Richard assumes a disaffected air. “Mustn’t let her know I’m so tickled. . . . [I]f women are too sure of you, they treat you like slaves . . . let her suffer for a change” (3:88). Muriel appears on a path between the two willows. She calls out in a frightened voice, while Richard assumes a disaffected air. He pretends to have been thinking about “life,” and that the time had passed quickly waiting for her. She asks him to come out of the moonlight. “Aw, there you go again,” he retorts, “always scared of life!” (3:88). Muriel takes offense at this cavalier disregard for the risk she took to meet him. Threatening to leave, she starts back to the path, but Richard pleads with her to stay. Muriel is “happily relieved—but appreciates she has the upper hand now and doesn’t relent at once” (3:89). When Richard tries to kiss her, she refuses but promises to kiss him at some point in the night—“maybe” (3:90). Richard coaxes her into the moonlight, and they sit together on the rowboat. She relates sneaking out of the house past her bedtime and tells him she must return before 10 o’clock, when her parents go to bed.

Richard gloomily blames her letter for what transpired the previous night. Withholding the details, he says her letter made him view life as a “tragic farce” (3:91). Muriel begs him to tell her what happened, but he continues that he even considered suicide. Eventually he admits he spent the money he saved to buy a gift for her at the Pleasant Beach House, the “secret house of shame.” He lies that he went with a Princeton football star and that they entertained two chorus girls—one of whom tried to kiss him. At one point, he goes on, he fought a barkeep to defend the chorus girl’s honor, then got drunk on champagne. She demands to know if he kissed her and starts to cry, shouting he is a liar when he says they did nothing. When she tries to run, he grabs her by the arm, begging her to listen, but she bites him and takes off toward the path.

In a tone of painful despair, Richard now insists she go home, which stops her. Working himself up over her accusation, he indignantly admits, “And what if I did kiss her once or twice? I only did it to get back at you!” (3:95). She relents that she will forgive him as long as he promises he did not fall in love, which he does. Again he tries to kiss her, and this time she shyly accepts. They complain about the long wait until marriage, and again he quotes Swinburne. Muriel—“shocked and delighted” at the line “more beautiful than God!”— scolds him lightly. They pledge mutual love for one another, and Muriel suggests they go to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon. “That dump where all the silly fools go?” Richard responds. “No, we’ll go to some far-off wonderful place.” Searching his mind for an alternative, he “calls on Kipling to help him”: “Somewhere out on the Long Trail—the trail that is always new—on the road to Mandalay! We’ll watch the dawn come up like thunder out of China!” (3:97). “That’ll be wonderful, won’t it,” she dreamily utters, her head on his shoulder, as the curtain falls.

Act 4, Scene 3

The Miller family sitting room, Nat and Essie sitting contentedly in their chairs. Nat reads from a pile of Richard’s books, which he has confiscated, while Essie contentedly sews her doily. Mildred has confessed to Richard’s liaison with Muriel, so they are no longer worried. In fact, they sound quite forgiving, though he must be punished somehow. Nat praises George Bernard Shaw as a “comical cuss—even if his ideas are so crazy they oughtn’t to allow them to be printed”; Algernon Swinburne has a “fine swing to his poetry—if he’d only choose some other subjects besides loose women”; and he likes the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám even better the second time around, “that is, where it isn’t all about boozing” (3:98). Essie teases him for pretending to read them for Richard’s sake, as he has been devouring them all evening.

Nat plans to bluff Richard into believing that he will no longer be permitted to attend Yale. Essie responds by complimenting their son on his “exceptional brain,” the proof ironically in “the way he likes to read all those deep plays and books and poetry,” which rouses a sly smile from her husband. She continues that Richard “could do worse” than Muriel, though she had a poor opinion of her in the past (3:99). She informs him that Arthur is with Elsie Rand, Mildred with her latest beau, and Sid and Lily have gone to listen to the orchestra. “Then, from all reports,” Nat says, “we seem to be completely surrounded by love!” In addition, McComber apologized earlier that day, admitting that “kids would be kids,” and Nat secured a profitable new advertiser for his newspaper. “It’s been a good day, Essie—a damned good day!” (3:101).

Richard enters “like one in a trance, his eyes shining with a dreamy happiness, his spirit still too exalted to be conscious of his surroundings, or to remember the threatened punishment” (3:101). Essie expresses immediate concern, but her husband says, “No. It’s love, not liquor, this time” (3:102). He asks her to leave them alone and tells Richard to take a seat. This snaps Richard out of his reverie. Chastising him for his drunken behavior, Nat reveals that he knows about the “tart” at the Pleasant Beach House. Richard swears he never went to bed with her. Nat believes him but asks how he met the lady; when Richard points out that his father would not want him to snitch, Nat agrees, then commenses to lecture him about prostitution. He informs his son that prostitutes do, in fact, serve a purpose— “it’s human nature”—but that one must be careful. “You just have what you want and pay ’em and forget it” (3:104). His delivery becomes increasingly lame and faltering, and Richard finally breaks in, shocked that his father would suggest such a thing when he plans to marry Muriel. Delighted at this, Nat still believes Richard needs punishment and threatens to forbid him from attending Yale. This backfires, as not going to college would allow Richard to marry Muriel faster. Nat insists, then, that he must go to Yale.

Richard calls his mother back inside, and they comment on the beautiful moonlit night. Richard asks if he might stay up and watch the Moon set, and his parents agree he can. Richard kisses his mother good night, then his father, and rushes out onto the porch. “First time he’s done that in years,” Nat says, bewildered. “I don’t believe in kissing between fathers and sons after a certain age—seems mushy and silly—but that meant something!” (3:106). Nat asks Essie for permission not to say his prayers, as he is too tired; she agrees he should go straight to bed. She turns out the light, and the room fills with moonlight. He puts his arm around her while they both gaze out the window at their son. “There he is,” Nat says, “like a statue of Love’s Young Dream,” and then he quotes from the Rubáiyát: “Yet, Ah, that Spring should vanish with the Rose! / That Youth’s sweetscented manuscript should close!” (3:107). They both express the notion that fall and winter can be beautiful too, as long as they are together. She kisses him, and they move silently toward the front parlor as the curtain falls.


Ah, Wilderness! is most often read as a complicated wish-fulfillment fantasy on the part of its author—an idealized projection onto the stage that revisits O’Neill’s tumultuous past and offers a subtextual commentary on his difficult present as a largely absentee parent and, more broadly, the tumultuous 1930s. That O’Neill means the Miller home to call to mind his own family’s house, Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, Connecticut, is clear from his stage directions, in which the Millers’ sitting room is nearly identical to that of the Tyrones’ in his most autobiographical play Long Day’s Journey into Night. Aside from having five chairs instead of four, along with a few small-town middle-class flourishes, the only substantial difference lies in the choice of books on the shelves: Richard Miller hoards his “advanced” literature in his room, whereas Edmund Tyrone, O’Neill’s closest autobiographical avatar, has a bookcase reserved for his collection in the sitting room itself, books by Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Nietzsche, and August Strindberg that starkly contrast with the more conventional fare of his father, James. The difference in time periods—1912 for the later play, 1906 for Ah, Wilderness!—is autobiographically significant as well. In 1912, O’Neill was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a lung disease he believed he had contracted during his rootless time drifting through waterfront dives in Manhattan and sailor towns around the globe. In that year as well, O’Neill had attempted suicide at Jimmy “The Priest’s” bar. In 1906, on the other hand, his parents were traveling abroad on an international tour; O’Neill, like Richard, was about to matriculate into an Ivy League school (Princeton, not Yale), and he and his brother, James O’Neill, Jr. (Jamie) had the run of the town—with its rather confusing blend of conventional pleasantries and debauched revelries. “If he ever had it,” Travis Bogard writes of O’Neill’s choice for Ah, Wilderness!, “the summer of 1906 was a time of freedom from pressure and pain” (359).

Ah, Wilderness! was a terrific success at the box office, and it remains one of O’Neill’s most revived plays. Nevertheless, at the time of composition and well after, the playwright was struggling desperately with his “god play” Days Without End, a full-length experimental work that, after over two years of revision, disappointingly flopped when the Theatre Guild finally produced it in December 1933. O’Neill then sank into a depressive state that effectively isolated him from the stage for 12 years. (Days Without End has fallen into well-deserved obscurity and is rarely revived.) “From a biographer’s point of view,” Stephen A. Black suggests of the incongruity of composing such different plays in the same period, “the most important aspect of the composition of Ah, Wilderness! is that O’Neill could write it at all, especially at a time when writing Days Without End immersed him in unpleasant aspects of his relations with his mother and his wives. That it could spring fully formed from a night’s sleep implies that in fundamental ways he understood the family relations that allow the young to grow into their various selves and emerge from dependency” (379–380).

Ah, Wilderness! obscures most of the O’Neill family’s dysfunctional aspects. O’Neill treats these in many plays, but they are vanquished from the Millers’ dramatis personae through personality distribution (Bogard 360–361): His father James O’Neill’s better qualities are discovered in Nat and his shortcomings in Sid; his brother Jamie’s corrupting nature and streetwise sensibility can be found in Wint, Sid, and the salesman; and, if less obviously, his mother Mary Ellen “Ella” O’Neill’s maternal side has been conferred upon Essie and Lily Miller. O’Neill expressed a profound warmth toward these revised, fictional family members. “And do you like Pa and Ma and all the rest?” he asked his friend and editor Saxe Commins. “Fine people, all of them, to me. Lovable” (quoted in Alexander 179). His true love from New London, Beatrice Ashe, who declined to marry O’Neill in 1916 for his drunkenness and lack of prospects, combines in Mildred (looks), Lily (unrequited love), and Muriel (exposure to licentious poetry by her intellectual boyfriend) (Alexander 175–178). It was, coincidentally or not, 16 years since Beatrice had broken off her engagement to O’Neill, as it is with Lily and Sid in the play.

O’Neill biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb find that Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day’s Journey consist of “two sides of a coin—one a genial glimpse of what the O’Neill family, at its best, aspired to be, and the other a balefully heightened picture of his family at its worst” (192). The Gelbs and others find the source of the Miller family chiefly in O’Neill’s boyhood friend Arthur McGinley’s family, and many of their names are adapted for O’Neill’s purposes. Nat Miller also resembles Frederick Palmer Latimer, a local judge who edited the New London Telegraph and encouraged O’Neill’s writing career in the early 1910s. Latimer once remarked that O’Neill might one day exhibit “a very high order of genius” (quoted in Sheaffer 405). Fending off assumptions that the play was strictly autobiographical, O’Neill asserted that he personally had never enjoyed a childhood of any kind. “That’s the way I would have liked my boyhood to have been,” e said about the play. “It was a sort of wishing out loud” (quoted in Alexander 173).

O’Neill’s title comes from one of his favorite poems, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which Richard is startled to discover his family, even the priggish Aunt Lily, are familiar enough with to recite lines from memory. Omar Khayyám’s lines, and the 11th–12th century Persian writer’s body of work as a whole, reflects O’Neill’s desire to mourn the loss of an innocent and fragile time but also to celebrate the joyful nature of life’s sensual pleasures combined with romantic love. O’Neill derived the title Ah, Wilderness! from this quatrain, translated by Edward Fitzgerald:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

O’Neill’s decision to replace Oh with Ah changes the meaning of the title more significantly than it may appear at first. He believed the interjection ah better expressed the sense of nostalgia he was looking for (Gelb 197), specifically a “nostalgia for our lost simplicity and contentment and youth” (quoted in Alexander 186). But if John Patrick Diggins considers Ah, Wilderness! “a testament to the country’s character, especially the ‘homely decency’ of the much-maligned middle-class” (256), strangely, the title, as Thomas F. Van Laan has pointed out, places the emphasis squarely on the tragedy of life in the wilderness, not on the hopeful paradise now associated with the mythic American middle class (100).

Producers of the play’s many revivals often misdirect their audiences’ attention to “paradise,” a phenomenon Doris Alexander considers “more than a desecration, by producers ignorant of the past, who tried to make it live as a lie about the nature of American life in the present” (188). It would be a travesty, for instance, for a production to adopt contemporary furnishings for the Miller home—or from any other time—as opposed to the carefully designated turn-of-the-20th-century look O’Neill specifies in his stage directions. O’Neill was, to use his character Cornelius “Con” Melody’s favorite quote from Lord Byron in A Touch of the Poet, “among them, not of them.” The “large small-town” folk represented in Ah, Wilderness! are meant to capture “the spirit of a time that is dead now,” O’Neill explained to his son Eugene O’Neill, Jr., “with all its ideals and manners & codes . . . a memory of the time of my youth—not my youth but of the youth in which my generation spent youth—” (quoted in Gelb 191).

Middle-class America generally stands as an oppositional sphere in American literature, particularly for modernists like O’Neill—a sphere in which the sensitive soul is torn asunder by those same “manners & codes” that radiate from the stage so compassionately in Ah, Wilderness! For example, in O’Neill’s first full-length play, Bread and Butter, the autobiographical character John Brown’s social philosophy more closely resembles the brand of philosophical anarchism (what one of O’Neill’s favorite philosophers Max Stirner called “egoism”) that O’Neill finally claimed as his own, rather than the communist anarchism of Emma Goldman that Richard Miller touts in Ah, Wilderness! In the latter play, Richard declares that rather than observe the Fourth of July holiday with the rest of the family, he will “celebrate the day the people bring out the guillotine again and I see Pierpont Morgan being driven by in a tumbrel!”—to which his father, Nat Miller, replies, “son, if I didn’t know it was you talking, I’d think we had Emma Goldman with us” (3:13).

In Bread and Butter, on the other hand, John intones the egoist’s line to his father that his unconventional sister’s “duty to herself stands before her duty to you” (1:142). “Rot! Damned rot!” Brown rejoins, “only believed by a lot of crazy Socialists and Anarchists” (1:142). John continues with a line that might have come directly from Stirner, who held ownership of the self, what he called “ownness,” above all other considerations: “You consider your children to be your possessions, your property, to belong to you. You don’t think of them as individuals with ideas and desires of their own” (1:143). O’Neill once distinguished between comedy and tragedy as essentially based upon the actions of the characters in the end; as Doris Alexander notes: “Tragic characters are driven from within to violent conclusions; comic characters make comic compromises” (188). As such, John Brown commits suicide in the end of Bread and Butter, while Ah, Wilderness! concludes with Richard Miller gazing romantically at the moonlight.

O’Neill later applied John’s parenting strategy to his own wayward son, Shane O’Neill, with whom, along with Eugene O’Neill, Jr., he had celebrated the Fourth of July at Casa Genotta, his Sea Island home, two months before conjuring Ah, Wilderness! in his sleep. “You must find yourself,” he advised Shane, “and your own self. You’ve got to find the guts in yourself to take hold of your own life. No one can do it for you and no one can help you. You have got to go on alone, without help, or it won’t mean anything to you” (quoted in Bowen 267). The significance of O’Neill assigning communist anarchism to Richard Miller and philosophical anarchism to John Brown is that Miller is the subject of a comedy, and his social philosophy makes him sound naïve in the idyllic, middleclass atmosphere of the Miller home; Brown, on the other hand, is a tragic figure, and his philosophy— O’Neill’s—proves itself impotent against the malignant forces of middle-class social convention (Dowling 56). Ellen Campbell has suggested that in Ah, Wilderness! “our most distinguished, truthtelling dramatist explores the conventions of this sector of our culture [the middle class] and finds many of its values life-enhancing.” If this is the case, O’Neill had clearly revised his thinking since Bread and Butter and, more importantly, since the birth of his children. By the 1930s, after three children, a world war, and the devastating effects of a depression, he seemed to have found surcease in a time, now dead, when family living seemed to make more sense than it had in the 1900s and 1910s.

“If there seems to be a large dash of sentiment,” one reviewer promised her readers, “let us hasten to assure the more modern minded that they need have no fear. O’Neill’s writing is always straight” (Wyatt 149). Richard’s movement toward experience— his time at the ironically named Pleasant Beach Hotel, his exposure to prostitution and drunkenness there, his accompanying hangover, his deliriousness over Muriel’s kiss, his exposure to his father’s view on the nature of male sexuality, and so on—appears to move him toward the wilderness and away from paradise. But then he returns, perhaps more worldly-wise but even more contented to enjoy the beauty of the moon and the warmth of his loving family (symbolized by his kiss on Nat’s cheek).

Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day’s Journey are, in fact, two sides of a coin for O’Neill’s recollections of family life in the early 20th century (comedy/ tragedy), but those two sides exist within Ah, Wilderness! as well. Tommy’s firecrackers to celebrate the Fourth, for instance, are comical but also add a sensation of outer violence juxtaposed with the sitting room’s inner peace. At first they make the family “jump in their chairs,” but then Essie orders her son to take his noisemakers to the back of the house and says, “Now we’ll have a little peace.” “As if to contradict this,” O’Neill writes, “the bang of firecrackers and torpedoes begins from the rear of the house, left, and continues at intervals throughout the scene, not nearly so loud as the first explosion, but sufficiently emphatic to form a disturbing punctuation to the conversation” (3:8, emphasis mine).

Additionally, the scene with Belle is a cunning and perverse foreshadowing of Richard and Muriel’s quarreling and lovemaking on the beach in act 4, scene 2. Richard’s two scenes with young women—first Belle, the prostitute at Pleasant Beach, and then Muriel, the “proper” girl on an actual beach—present the adolescent young man with two options in sexual relations. In comedy, Thomas Van Laan specifies, “any deviation from the social norm is preposterous” (107), and so in the context of this play Richard inevitably repents and chooses Muriel. O’Neill at his age, and his avatar Edmund Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey, had pursued the Belle option, and the need for repentance haunted the playwright for the rest of his life. O’Neill’s subliminal wish fulfillment comes through clearly, then, when he moves Richard away from Belle. In actual life, the 16-year-old O’Neill would have gone upstairs, and Nat Miller, innocent and respectable as he appears on the surface, would have understood and forgiven.

O’Neill did find love in marriage, but it brought on the kind of all-consuming, alternating feelings of adoration and suffering we find in Welded, a play about his relationship with his second wife, Agnes Boulton, that also includes a prostitution scene. (Timo Tiusanen aptly regards Richard and Muriel’s dialogue on the beach as a parody of Welded, [243].) “The play is about ninety percent wish fulfillment and ten percent the real thing,” writes Michael Manheim. “If anything, it is O’Neill’s attempt to dramatize not his early life so much as his idealized recall of life before the Fall” (101). According to O’Neill’s Work Diary, Richard’s complacent acceptance of a stable middle-class existence will be short-lived, however. O’Neill, in fact, planned a sequel to Ah, Wilderness! in early September 1934. This time, the play would be a tragedy that would explicitly convey the sense of loss he meant audiences to experience with Ah, Wilderness!

O’Neill’s sequel was to take place in either 1919 or 1921. In it, Sid has reformed because a doctor informed him he might die if he continued drinking (more echoes of O’Neill’s brother Jamie, who did die of alcoholism), but he now takes on a hypocritical “puritanical disapproval of drink.” Essie dies in 1919 from the shock of one of her sons’ death while fighting in World War I. Tommy, whom O’Neill describes as “typical, restless, hard-drinking wild disintegrated ‘lost generation’ ” (Floyd 1981, 241), was an aviator in the war and also dies in 1919. All we know of Lily is that she now runs the Miller household, while Mildred is on the verge of divorce, has taken a lover, and is a negligent parent of two. Richard has graduated from Yale, taken a position at Nat’s paper, and then gone to war, returning “maimed, embittered, idealism murdered.” Arthur is a loathsome businessman, a “smug, social-climbing country club, golfing success” who marries into a wealthy family and has children; like his sister, he takes a lover on the side. Nat Miller is “prostrated by the death of his wife—lost, bewildered in changed times—waiting for death—feels children alien, can’t understand their view” (Floyd 1981, 242).

Since the premiere of Ah, Wilderness!, some critics curtly assert that given the play’s quaint setting, sentimental plot, and complacent characters, if O’Neill had not been its author, “it would have faded into the oblivion it deserves” (quoted in Van Laan 100). Others contend that Ah, Wilderness! is far more complicated than it at first appears, a “nostalgic family comedy,” yes, but one “whose true meanings exist in the currents of evil and despair beneath its bright and sparkling surface” (Kimbel 137). There can be no question of the play’s sentimentality, as O’Neill made his intention in this respect perfectly clear: In his own words, the play’s “whole importance and reality depend on its conveying a mood of memory in exactly the right illuminating blend of wistful grin and lump in the throat—the old tears-and-laughter stuff on exactly the right delicately caressing tone” (quoted in Alexander 186).

Van Laan identifies three clichés O’Neill adopts to his purposes: “sentimental stereotypes,” the “Fourth of July myth of independence and equality,” and the “notion of family life as the ideal form of existence” (Van Laan 101). Such clichés make the play as paradoxical in American literary history as it does in the O’Neill canon. (O’Neill did try his hand at a full-length comedy on the American middle-class much earlier with his 1916 play Now I Ask You, which also shows the disaffected middle-class rebel entertaining suicide à la Henrik Ibsen’s heroine Hedda Gabler.) O’Neill himself recognized that Ah, Wilderness! was “out of my previous line” and explained his mysterious deviation this way:

My purpose was to write a play true to the spirit of the American large small town at the turnof-the-century [sic]. Its quality depended upon the atmosphere, sentiment, an exact evocation of the mood of a dead past. To me, the America which was (and is) the real America found its unique expression in such middle-class families as the Millers, among whom so many of my own generation passed from adolescence into manhood. (quoted in Kimbel 137–138)

But deliberately or not, Ah, Wilderness! urges us to contemplate our own realities in the face of idealization, thus powerfully answering the question of why the “master of the misbegotten,” America’s most tragic dramatist, would write a comedy essentially romanticizing middle-class America. In Ah, Wilderness! everything turns out as it should, the most sacred convention of comedy—that is, right until you step out of the theater.



Bartender at the Pleasant Beach Hotel. O’Neill describes him as a “stocky young Irishman with a foxily cunning, stupid face and a cynically wise grin” (3:51). In act 3, scene 1, the bartender serves Richard Miller and gets Richard very drunk in collusion with a prostitute from New Haven named Belle. When a salesman arrives, he advises the bartender to throw Richard out for being underage, which he does. When Belle reveals his name, the salesman identifies Richard as the son of Nat Miller. Fearing Miller will run him out of town, the bartender rails against Belle for not telling him beforehand; he then threatens to call the police. Belle swears revenge and later delivers a note to Richard’s father, Nat Miller’s, office accusing the bartender of knowingly serving Richard.


A prostitute from New Haven. Belle is one of two prostitutes whom Wint Selby, a classmate of Arthur Miller’s at Yale University, has invited to his town to celebrate the Fourth of July with sex. Wint had originally hoped Arthur Miller would entertain her while he went upstairs with the other, named Edith; but Arthur is previously engaged, so his younger brother Richard goes instead. O’Neill describes Belle as “twenty, a rather pretty peroxide blonde, a typical college ‘tart’ of the period, and of the cheaper variety, dressed with tawdry flashiness. But she is a fairly recent recruit to the ranks, and is still a bit remorseful behind her make-up and defiantly careless manner” (3:51). In act 3, scene 1, Richard and Belle perform a comic, though harshly realistic scene in which Belle attempts to seduce him upstairs for a sexual liaison that will cost him five dollars. Belle voices confusion about Richard when he refuses her advances; he seems innocent but also wealthy and fairly knowledgeable. When Belle turns against him viciously, he gives her the five dollars for nothing. This delights her but perplexes her further about his intentions. When a salesman enters the bar, Belle moves to his table, as Richard has annoyingly begun trying to reform her. The salesman identifies Richard as the son of the local newspaperman Nat Miller, and the bartender, fearful for his job, threatens to call the police if Belle refuses to leave. Belle swears revenge and delivers a note to Nat Miller’s office the following day, accusing the bartender of knowingly getting Richard drunk. Belle is one of many examples of prostitution in the O’Neill canon, though generally O’Neill’s prostitutes are more nurturing and sympathetic characters.

Davis, Sid

Essie Miller’s brother and Nat Miller’s brother-in-law. A ne’er-do-well newspaper reporter, Sid is 45 years old, “short and fat, baldheaded, with the Puckish face of a Peck’s Bad Boy who has never grown up” (3:7). He dresses in once-fashionable but now faded and worn clothing. Though a talented reporter, he has recently been fired for drunkenness from his position on the Standard in Waterbury, Connecticut; however, Nat Miller will grant him a job at his paper. Sid has been in love with Lily Miller, Nat’s sister, for 20 years, but she broke off their engagement 16 years prior to the action of the play because of his binge drinking. Nevertheless, they are still very much in love. “He’s easily led,” Essie says of her brother, trying to convince Lily to reconsider marrying him, “but there’s no real harm in him” (3:29).

Sid gets drunk with Nat Miller at a picnic to celebrate the Fourth of July; when he returns to the Miller home for dinner, he amuses the family with his drunken antics and ribald sense of humor. Meanwhile, he has neglected to honor his promise to Lily to escort her to the fireworks show. When Essie eventually sends him away to sleep off his drunk, Lily accuses them all of enabling his alcoholism. After several hours, Sid returns to the sitting room, hungover and contrite. He begs Lily’s forgiveness for missing their date; she ignores him at first, but once he begins weeping, she tenderly forgives him.

Sid epitomizes the word avuncular. It is Sid who nurses Richard Miller, after the teenager arrives home drunk, as in his own words, he “wrote the book” (3:74). He resembles O’Neill’s father, James O’Neill, in his theatricality, steady drinking, and warmth; but he also represents the darker side of the play, calling to mind O’Neill’s older brother, Jamie O’Neill—the failure of a roustabout punished too much as a child, bored with smalltown existence, and rebelling in the only way he could. In act 4, scene 1, when he and Nat discuss Richard’s punishment for getting drunk, he says, “If you remember, I was always getting punished—and see what a lot of good it did me!” (3:79).

McComber, David

Muriel McComber’s father. A dry-goods merchant who advertises in Nat Miller’s newspaper, McComber a typical small-town businessman dressed in plain black clothes whose appearance reflects his parochial views on love, literature, and life: “He is a thin, dried-up little man with a head too large for his body perched on a scrawny neck, and a long solemn horse face with deep-set black eyes, a blunt formless nose and a tiny slit of a mouth” (3:19). In act 1, McComber appears at the Miller home and attempts to coerce Nat Miller into putting an end to the brewing romance between his daughter Muriel and Nat’s son Richard Miller. McComber considers Richard “dissolute and blasphemous” (3:19), a claim based chiefly on the letters Richard has written Muriel and the contaminating influence of the literature he exposes her to. When Nat takes offense at McComber’s characterization of his son, McComber threatens to remove his advertising from his paper. Nat calls his bluff, saying that unless McComber apologizes, he will remove the advertisement himself and “encourage outside capital to open a dry-goods store in opposition to you that won’t be the public swindle I can prove yours is!” (3:21). McComber leaves behind a letter from Muriel, one he coerced her to write that breaks off her relationship with Richard. McComber’s “meek as pie” offstage apology that “kids would be kids” is one of the loose thematic threads that, in the convention of comedy, O’Neill ties neatly together in the end (101).

McComber, Muriel

Richard Miller’s girlfriend and David McComber’s daughter. Muriel is a “pretty girl with a plump, graceful little figure, fluffy, lightbrown hair, big naïve wondering dark eyes, a round, dimpled face, a melting drawly voice” (3:88). Richard has been accused by her father, David McComber, of corrupting her, and McComber threatens to remove his advertisement from Richard’s father, Nat Miller’s, newspaper if their relationship persists. He also forces Muriel to write Richard a letter breaking off the relationship herself. Although we only meet Muriel in act 4, scene 2, her perceived betrayal fuels Richard’s rebellious, spiritually wounded pose throughout the play. Muriel escapes from her parents’ home at night to meet Richard on a moonlit strand of beach. She first appears “in a great thrilled state of timid adventurousness” (3:88). Throughout the scene, the two manipulate each others’ emotions in the manner of adolescent love. When Richard quotes to her from Algernon Swinburne’s “Laus Veneris”—“And lo my love, mine own soul’s heart, more dear / Than mine own soul, more beautiful than God”—she is “shocked and delighted” but scolds him lightly for his blasphemy (3:97).

Muriel resembles the real-life Maibelle Scott, a young love of O’Neill’s whom he wooed with rebellious literature; and John Patrick Diggins also finds her in O’Neill’s early love interest Marion Welch, to whom O’Neill wrote romantic poetry in 1905 (161). In act 4, scene 1, Richard’s sister Mildred Miller arrives with news from Muriel that she wishes to meet Richard that night. O’Neill and Scott also had a “go-between” named Mildred Culver; thus O’Neill uses the sister’s name and the name of a family in the play who host a picnic that Mildred attends (Floyd 1985, 431–432).

Miller, Arthur

Essie and Nat Miller’s third son and Richard, Mildred, and Tommy Miller’s older brother. Arthur is 19 and the eldest Miller child still living at home. A Yale student, Arthur is “tall, heavy, barrelchested and muscular, the type of football linesman of that period, with a square, stolid face, small blue eyes and thick sandy hair” (3:6). Throughout the play, Arthur’s “manner is solemnly collegiate,” and he dresses in the most fashionable college styles of the period. O’Neill portrays Arthur as a self-righteous and humorless small-town dullard, although a relatively harmless one compared to Edward Brown, Jr., in Bread and Butter. Arthur contributes little to the action of the play and is usually off with his girlfriend, Elsie Rand. There is some presence in his absence, however, as his classmate Wint Selby believes Arthur would be game to meet up with two “swift babies” from New Haven (3:34). This makes Arthur, who poses as a respectable young man beyond reproach, a hypocrite as well. His compassionate side emerges in act 3, scene 2, however, when he sings sentimental favorites to soothe his worried mother.

Miller, Essie

Nat Miller’s wife; Tommy, Mildred, Richard, and Arthur Miller’s mother; and Sid Davis’s sister. About 50 years old, Essie is “a short, stout woman with fading light-brown hair sprinkled with gray, who must have been decidedly pretty as a girl in a round-faced, cute, small-featured wide-eyed fashion.” She commands other members of the household, especially her incompetent “second girl,” Norah, in a “bustling mother-of-the-family manner” (3:7). Based on O’Neill’s boyhood friend Art McGinley’s mother, Evelyn “Essie” Essex McGinley (Sheaffer 405, Gelb 195), Essie is O’Neill’s idealization of the middle-class mother figure: attentive to her children, stern but fair, innocently blind to the ways of the world, and somewhat illogical in her judgments, but in a charming and harmless way. Like her husband, Nat, to whom she is devoted, her love is so complete and unconditional that she can forgive nearly all of the family’s minor transgressions— Richard’s late-night, drunken behavior and secret liaison with his girlfriend Muriel McComber; her brother’s heavy drinking; and even Norah’s ineptitude. Critics compare her to Mrs. Brown in Bread and Butter, Margaret Anthony in The Great God Brown, and both Mrs. Light and Mrs. Fife in Dynamo, among others, though she is even further idealized in the way that she devotes herself to her husband and children (Floyd 424). She resembles Mary Tyrone, who is based on O’Neill’s mother, Mary Ellen “Ella” O’Neill, in many respects, though unlike Mary, Essie’s “snobbery is short-lived, her guilt concerns her being over-weight, and her hysteria relates chiefly to her son’s keeping late hours” (Manheim 101).

Miller, Lily

Nat Miller’s sister and Essie Miller’s sister-in-law. Lily is 42 years old, “tall, dark and thin. She conforms outwardly to the conventional type of old-maid school teacher, even to wearing glasses” (3:7). She speaks softly and exudes a saintly air of kindness; although she is a spinster, she finds that her nieces and nephews (her brother Nat’s children) and her students during the school year are sufficient to fulfill her maternal needs. Lily and Sid Davis, Essie’s brother, fell in love 20 years before, but when he proposed to her, she refused on account of his regular drinking binges. Essie continues to urge her to marry Sid, as she knows the two love each other and has faith in Lily’s ability to reform him.

Sid returns home drunk on the Fourth of July, having forgotten his promise to take Lily to the fireworks. At first she refuses to forgive him, but when guilt reduces him to tears, she comforts him reassuringly. Looking forward to Mary Tyrone, the avatar of O’Neill’s mother in Long Day’s Journey into Night, in the way Mary might have commented about her son Jamie (O’Neill’s brother), Lily describes Sid as “irresponsible, never meaning to harm but harming in spite of himself” (quoted in Sheaffer 405). Biographers differ on who from O’Neill’s childhood in New London, Connecticut, she might resemble most: Bessie Sheridan, a spinster schoolteacher (Sheaffer 195) or Lillian “Lil” Brennan (Gelb 195), both cousins of O’Neill’s.

Miller, Mildred

Essie and Nat Miller’s daughter, and Tommy, Richard, and Arthur Miller’s sister. Mildred is 15, vivacious, and romantic. O’Neill describes her as “tall and slender, with big, irregular features, resembling her father to the complete effacing of any pretense at prettiness” (3:6). Nevertheless, her lively manner and “fetching smile” make her considered attractive by all who know her. Mildred’s character has a slight role in the play, and when she is not innocently spending time with local boys, she plays the role of childish observer to the more mature goings-on in the family. Although she does not approve of Richard’s disobedience, she appears visibly impressed with his romantic side and at one point acts as a go-between for him and his girlfriend, Muriel McComber.

Miller, Nat

Essie Miller’s husband; Tommy, Mildred, Richard, and Arthur Miller’s father; and Lily Miller’s brother. O’Neill describes Nat as “in his late fifties, a tall, dark, spare man, a little stoopshouldered, more than a little bald, dressed with an awkward attempt at sober respectability imposed upon an innate heedlessness of clothes,” with eyes that are “fine, shrewd, humorous” (3:7). Miller is the father of five sons and one daughter. The owner of the local Evening Globe, Nat is O’Neill’s idealization of the middle-class head of household: a good provider, responsible, fair-minded, caring, intellectual when necessary, and extremely protective of his family. He drinks, but only socially, and spends most of his evenings home with his wife, Essie, whom he adores. In act 1, local dry-goods merchant David McComber comes to the Miller home and threatens to remove his advertisements from Nat’s newspaper if Nat refuses to punish Richard for sending his daughter what he considers obscene poetry—Wilde, Swinburne, Omar Khayyám, among others. Nat responds by calling his bluff and, in turn, threatening to remove the advertisement himself and back an outside dry goods merchant to compete with McComber. When he discovers Richard has spent a night with a “tart,” he falteringly explains to his teenage son that human nature demands prostitution, but to be careful not to entangle it in his life. This revolts Richard, since he plans to marry Mildred, and Nat happily drops the subject. Nat also delights in reading Richard’s “advanced” literature, prompting Essie to tease him for pretending to read it to keep an eye on Richard, but actually enjoying it himself.

O’Neill’s biographers have found three sources for Nat Miller from Eugene O’Neill’s youth in New London: His character is a composite portrait of John McGinley, his boyhood friend Art McGinley’s father; Judge Frederick Palmer Latimer, the editor of the New London Telegraph, whom O’Neill worked under for a time; and O’Neill’s own father, James O’Neill (Sheaffer 405; Gelb 195). Nat Miller is, according to Thomas F. Van Laan, the most valued male figure in the context of the play, given that Nat is “a respectable, professionally successful, adult male with more common sense, wisdom, and self-discipline than the other adult males of the play” (104). Nat’s character closely resembles James Tyrone, the character based on James O’Neill in Long Day’s Journey into Night. But in contrast to the elder Tyrone, as Michael Manheim explains, “the pomposity is short-lived, the drinking controlled, the compulsion [for his profession] healthy, and the illusions—which concern a distaste for bluefish—the subject for a good deal of harmless family mirth” (101).

Miller, Richard

Essie and Nat Miller’s fourth son; Tommy, Mildred, and Arthur Miller’s brother. Richard is one of a long line of Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical avatars, including John Brown in Bread and Butter, the Poet in Fog, Robert Mayo in Beyond the Horizon, Stephen Murray in The Straw , and Simon Harford in More Stately Mansions, all of whom culminate in his intensely personal character of Edmund Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night. But unlike the others, Richard is innocent and curious, rather than prematurely experienced, tragic, and cynical. In appearance, Richard takes after both parents, as Edmund Tyrone does, but he differs in that he is “of medium height, neither fat nor thin” nor handsome, in contrast to the tall and wiry Edmund (and O’Neill). In temperament, however, he comes closer: “There is something of extreme sensitiveness added—a restless, apprehensive, defiant, shy, dreamy, self-conscious intelligence about him. In manner he is alternately plain simple boy and posey actor solemnly playing a role” (3:12).

Enamored by some of the same authors, poets, and playwrights who had influenced O’Neill as a young man—so-called advanced literature represented by such writers as Algernon Swinburne, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde—Richard is given to quoting passages from these writers to help express his moods. He disdains the Fourth of July holiday as a “stupid farce.” “I’ll celebrate the day the people bring out the guillotine again and I see Pierpont Morgan being driven by in a tumbrel!” His tolerant father responds: “Son, if I didn’t know it was you talking, I’d think we had Emma Goldman with us” (3:13). Richard Miller hoards his radical literature in his room, whereas Edmund Tyrone openly has a bookcase reserved for his collection in the sitting room. Unlike Edmund, Richard seems as yet incapable of expressing his feelings and desires in his own words. Consequently, one gets the impression that his adolescent romance with Muriel McComber seems fuelled more by romantic poetry than by love for the 15-year-old.

At 16, Richard is slated to attend Yale University, but his adoration of Muriel makes him wish he was heading straight for the workplace, specifically his father’s newspaper, so they might be married sooner. Thus, when Nat Miller punishes him for ignoring a curfew by telling him he cannot attend Yale, Richard is delighted; so Nat comically reverses the punishment—now Richard must go to Yale. The structure of the play revolves around Richard’s movement from innocence toward experience, a quest he consciously views as revenge against Muriel, whose father had forced her to write a letter breaking off their relationship. It begins when Richard accepts an invitation from his brother Arthur’s college friend Wint Selby to go to the ironically named Pleasant Beach Hotel, where he is exposed to prostitution and gets drunk for the first time. The following day, he experiences his first hangover, which is mild, then defies his parents’ punishment that he must stay home and meets Muriel at a moonlit beach, where they quarrel but eventually kiss. When Richard arrives home, Nat Miller explains his view on the nature of male sexuality—that prostitutes are essentially a product of human nature, and so the best thing is to “have what you want and pay ’em and forget it” (3:104). This philosophy disgusts Richard, who plans to be faithful to Muriel. Richard thus moves toward “wilderness” away from “paradise,” then returns, perhaps slightly more worldly-wise but more contented to enjoy the beauty of the moon and the warmth of his loving family (symbolized in the final scene by his kiss on Nat’s cheek).

Miller, Tommy

Essie and Nat Miller’s youngest son; Arthur, Richard, and Mildred’s brother. The first character to appear on the stage, Tommy is “a chubby, sun-burnt boy of eleven with dark eyes, blond hair wetted and plastered down in a part, and a shiny, good-natured face” (3:5). An irrepressible youth, Tommy’s mild antics and sustained misbehavior exasperate his mother. In act 1, scene 1, Tommy goes outside before the others have left the dining room and begins lighting off firecrackers that add a touch of anxiety in the otherwise idyllic atmosphere of the Miller home. At first they make the family “jump in their chairs,” but then Essie orders her son to the back of the house and says, “Now we’ll have a little peace.” “As if to contradict this,” O’Neill writes, “the bang of firecrackers and torpedoes begins from the rear of the house, left, and continues at intervals throughout the scene, not nearly so loud as the first explosion, but sufficiently emphatic to form a disturbing punctuation to the conversation” (3:8, emphasis mine). Tommy’s presence throughout the play is one of impish observer, misbehaving son, and annoying little brother.


The Miller family’s “second girl” (servant). O’Neill describes Norah in similar ways to Cathleen, the Tyrones’ second girl in Long Day’s Journey into Night, as a “clumsy, heavy-handed, heavyfooted, long-jawed, beamingly good-natured young Irish girl—a ‘greenhorn’ ” (27). Norah adds an Irish touch to the play, along with some comic relief as she appears incapable of doing her job and consistently arouses Essie Miller’s exasperation. In act 2, Norah considers Sid Davis’s drunken performance very funny, which looks forward to Cathleen’s defense of James Tyrone’s drinking in Long Day’s Journey as a “good man’s failing” (3:774).


Traveling salesman and customer at the Pleasant Beach Hotel. O’Neill describes him as a “stout, jowly-faced man in his late thirties, dressed with cheap nattiness, with the professional breeziness and jocular, kid-’em-along manner of his kind” (3:58). When the salesman enters the back room of the bar with a grin, he observes Richard Miller and a prostitute named Belle glowering sullenly at a table. He and Belle recognize their mutual needs for one another—sex and money, respectively—and Belle sallies over to his table. The salesman enjoys Richard’s drunken recitation of poetry, though Belle laughs at Richard. When the salesman advises the bartender to throw Richard out, as he is drunk and obviously underage, the bartender does so. Belle then reveals that Richard’s last name is Miller, and the salesman recognizes him as the son of the powerful newspaperman Nat Miller. He goes out to help Richard home, in respect to Nat, whom he considers “a good scout” (3:62). The salesman shares some traits with Jamie O’Neill, whose most successful role was in the play The Traveling Salesman. Nevertheless, Doris Alexander points out that with this salesman character, O’Neill reverses all that his brother had done to him in adolescence: Instead of coaxing him to drink, the salesman sends him out of the bar; instead of seducing him with prostitutes, he takes Richard’s away; and in the end, rather than egging him on to further exploits, he leads him safely back home (3:182).

Selby, Wint

A classmate of Arthur Miller’s at Yale University. O’Neill describes him as a “typical, goodlooking college boy of the period, not the athletic but the hell-raising sport type. He is tall, blond, dressed in extreme collegiate cut” (3:34). Wint has invited to town two prostitutes from New Haven named Belle and Edith, whom he refers to as “swift babies” (3:34), to celebrate the Fourth of July. Originally he hoped to match up Arthur Miller with Belle, but because Arthur is occupied with his girlfriend, Elsie Rand, Wint decides to take Arthur’s younger brother Richard Miller instead. “I’m not trying to lead you astray, understand,” he assures Richard disingenuously in act 2 (3:34). In this way, Wint resembles Jamie O’Neill, O’Neill’s older brother, whom the playwright presents as having done precisely that—led him astray—through the character James “Jamie” Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night.

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Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
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Van Laan, Thomas F. “Singing in the Wilderness: The Dark Vision in Eugene O’Neill’s Only Mature Comedy.” The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill, edited by John H. Houchin, 152–160. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Wyatt, Euphemia Van Rensselaer. “A Great American Comedy.” The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill, edited by John H. Houchin, 149–150. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Source: Dowling, R. M. (2009). Critical companion to Eugene O’Neill: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York, NY: Facts On File.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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