Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Eugene O’Neill’s debt to George Bernard Shaw

Ah Wilderness! takes place on the Fourth of July in what Eugene O’Neill calls in his first stage direction ‘a large small-town in Connecticut’. The play is not, as you would think if you had seen the recent production at The Young Vic, about growing-up, but about growing up in America at the beginning of the last century.

The action of the play hinges on a teenage boy’s infatuation with English literature. His mother, finding books of which she disapproves hidden in his wardrobe, tells his father ‘to give him a good talking to’. The books are by ‘that awful Oscar Wilde they put in jail for heaven knows what wickedness’ and Bernard Shaw, ‘the one who wrote a play about – well, never mind – that was so vile they wouldn’t even let it play in New York!’ Then there is Carlyle’s French Revolution, Poems and Ballads by Swinburne, The Quintessence of Ibsenism and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. She doesn’t blame Richard for it, thinking ‘there must be some boy he knows who’s trying to show off as advanced and wicked’, she just wants the books taken away. The other adults in the family make light of it, admitting to having read and enjoyed some of these books themselves when they were younger.

Then David McComber (‘a thin, dried-up little man’) comes to speak to Nat Miller, complaining that his son is ‘deliberately attempting to corrupt the morals of my young daughter Muriel.’ His evidence is in letters found by his wife ‘in one of Muriel’s bureau drawers hidden under the underwear’. Richard’s taste in literature is the issue again. ‘I can’t and I won’t have her innocence exposed to the contamination of a young man whose mind, judging from his choice of reading matter, is as foul – ’ etc. Nat Miller comes to his son’s defence but McComber says he should give him, not just a good talking to, but ‘a hiding he’d remember to the last day of his life!’

Miller throws him out, but not before McComber has given him a letter for Richard from Muriel, breaking off their relationship. The stakes are raised when McComber threatens to withdraw the advertising on which Miller, a newspaper man, depends. He in return threatens to ‘start a campaign to 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!’

Ah Wilderness! is the only play Eugene O’Neill wrote that reminds me of Shaw. O’Neill takes his title from one of ‘those awful books’ that Mrs Miller found in Richard’s wardrobe and his technique from another. Richard is not exactly Marchbank, but Shaw’s ‘strange, shy youth of eighteen, slight, effeminate, with a delicate childish voice, and a hunted tormented expression and shrinking manner that show the painful sensitiveness of very swift and acute apprehensiveness in youth, before the character has grown to its full strength’, makes Candida seem a possible model for the only one of O’Neill’s plays which could plausibly belong in the Shavian category of ‘Plays Pleasant’.

The sub-plot concerns the relationship between Mrs Miller’s brother and Mr Miller’s sister. Sid Davis regularly asks Lily Miller to marry him. Lily loves him but turns him down every time because he is a drunkard and always will be. The hopeless but never-ending affair between two people in their mid-forties, a counterpoint to the youthful romance between Richard and Muriel, is familiar O’Neill territory. But the counterpoint was missing at The Young Vic. There was no time for sub-plots or even for some of the other characters. Arthur, Richard’s older brother, had most of his lines cut. Three characters, Richard’s sister, Arthur’s friend from Yale and the Salesman, were cut altogether. Everything that did not relate directly to Richard was considered expendable.

His big brother is everything Richard does not want to be: conventional, respectable, proud to be American. ‘I wish we still belonged to England,’ he says in disgust at the end of Act One and when he calls the Fourth of July ‘a stupid farce’, Arthur says, ‘Never mind, Pa. Wait till we get him down to Yale. We’ll take that out of him!’  But there was nothing condescending or self-important about The Young Vic’s Arthur. Instead of being tall and ‘solemnly collegiate’, as O’Neill describes him, he was short and rather jolly, a likeable young man.

Wint Selby, Arthur’s friend, is ‘a typical, good-looking college boy of the period, not the athletic but the hell-raising sport type’. He is the one who leads Richard astray, persuading him to take Arthur’s place on a visit to a local pick-up joint. But Wint was cut, his lines given, implausibly, to Arthur who, one imagines, would not want to be seen anywhere with his younger brother, least of all at a pick-up joint.

The scene with Belle at the Beach House Hotel, in which Richard gets drunk and is thrown out by the barman, takes us into familiar O’Neill territory, dark and violent. The letters Richard wrote to Muriel turn out to be less damaging than the letter Belle writes to his father, an act of revenge on the barman which also gives the game away about Richard. Miller shows it to his brother-in-law, who confirms that the hotel ‘is nothing but a bed house’. They speak as men of the world. ‘That’s just the sort of damned fool thing he might do to spite Muriel – pick up some tart.’ They go on to discuss the possibility of infection.

But most of this was glossed over at The Young Vic, played for laughs or simply cut. Sid, like Arthur, was not played as O’Neill described him. Instead of being ‘forty-five, short and fat, bald-headed, dressed in what had once been a very natty loud light suit but is now shapeless and faded’, he was an attractive thirty-something, well dressed and in the prime of life. Without Sid and Lily to remind us what real life is like, we could believe that Richard and Muriel had something to look forward to. Without the Salesman who gets rid of Richard so he can have Belle himself, we could ignore the hypocrisy, the selfishness, the risk of infection. Without Belle screaming at the Bartender, ‘I’ll fix you for this, you thick Mick, if I have to go to jail for it,’ and the Bartender saying, ‘Them lousy tramps is always getting this dump in Dutch,’ we could imagine that all was well in America now that it didn’t belong to England.

O’Neill ended his play, deliberately or otherwise, as Shaw ended his. Miller and his wife stand together in the moonlight. He recites a couplet from The Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam and says, ‘Well, spring isn’t everything, is it, Essie? There’s a lot to be said for autumn. That’s got beauty, too. And winter – if you’re together.’ She says, ‘Yes, Nat.’ O’Neill’s last stage direction is: ‘She kisses him and they move quietly out of the moonlight, back into the darkness of the front parlour.’

Shaw ended Candida with Marchbank, the young poet, taking his leave of Candida and her husband. Candida ‘takes his face in her hands and, as he divines her intention and falls on his knees, she kisses his forehead. Then he flies out into the night. She turns to Morell, holding out her arms to him’ and says, ‘Ah, James!’ Shaw’s last stage direction is: ‘They embrace. But they do not know the secret in the poet’s heart.’

The play we saw at The Young Vic was about a boy growing up. It was a good play, but it was only half the play that O’Neill wrote. They left out some of his characters and put him on stage instead, moving the furniture, standing in for the barman, mumbling stage directions like magical incantations, a playwright looking back nostalgically on an incident from his youth, creating the kind of sentimental illusion Prospero creates in The Tempest. The other half, the half they left out, was the half O’Neill borrowed from Shaw, who has been accused of many things, but never of sentimentality or nostalgia.

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw

My next post, on 24 June, will be about ‘Hindle Wakes’ by Stanley Houghton.

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This entry was posted on June 10, 2015 by in Literature and tagged , , , , .
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