American History07 Jul 2010 03:50 pm
Far and away, Eugene O’Neill’s most famous and most widely-respected play is Long Day’s Journey Into Night. (Many critics have gone so far as to call it the greatest American play ever written.) O’Neill completed the play in 1942, after making the anguished decision to burn the manuscripts of the his nine-part cycle “A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed.” (The only surviving plays from that cycle are “A Touch of the Poet” and “More Stately Mansions.”) However, the play was not performed until 1956: three years after O’Neill’s death. (He had actually wanted the play sealed until 25 years after his death, but his wife at the time decided to publish it earlier.)
The main action of the play occurs “Monte Cristo Cottage,” the O’Neill family’s summer home in New London, Connecticut. (O’Neill’s father James was a well-known stage actor, and Monte Cristo was his biggest role.) The action — which touch on alcoholism, morphine addiction, and general domestic dysfunction — takes place in a single day, in the late summer of 1912. The O’Neills were at their cottage that summer, and the play clearly reflects actual traumas they suffered there. In fact, that summer was so important for O’Neill that “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” was not the only play that refers to it: “The Iceman Cometh” (1939) and “Hughie” (1942) were among the others.
But before that tragic trilogy, there was “Ah! Wilderness!” This 1933 play is the only comedy by O’Neill that is still regularly performed today, and it presents a very different picture of the playwright’s summers in New London. It’s a farce about a young man’s coming of age, Fourth of July fireworks and the more comical aspects of drunkenness. It makes for an interesting contrast with its better-known successor.
In fairness, “Ah! Wilderness!” represents an earlier time than “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”: early July, 1906 rather than mid-August, 1912. As the critic Stanley Kauffman pointed out, America changed drastically in the time in between. For a brilliant account of that transformation (also Kauffman’s suggestion) you can’t do better than E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel “Ragtime.”
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