Wilderness | By Amy Glynn Greacen
I went to a prep school in Oakland, California, where I’d earned instant Bumpkin status for the misdemeanor of living in a far-flung suburb at the foot of the Las Trampas Regional Wilderness. Its downtown had a poisonous-looking old bar, Elliott’s, which my mother often pointed out had been the haunt of a famous playwright named Eugene O’Neill, and that his home, Tao House, now a National Historic Site, was up on the ridge. So what I knew about O’Neill, at thirteen, when our drama department mounted a production of Ah! Wilderness, was that he’d been brilliant, a local, and a drunk.
O’Neill’s only comedy is widely considered one of his more forgettable plays, a sort of featherweight Long Day’s Journey Into Night, where the drunks are jolly and benign, no one makes an irreversible mistake, and everything comes out right. It’s O’Neill’s youth as he wished it had been; an idyllic fantasia. It takes place on Independence Day, 1906. O’Neill’s avatar-protagonist, Richard Miller, is a college-bound middle-class smalltowner. He’s in love: with a neighbor girl, but mostly, with love itself – and with books. The dialogue is peppered with quotations from Ibsen, Wilde, Swinburne, and especially, Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam:
Richard: “Poems and Ballads by Swinburne,” Ma. The greatest poet since Shelley! He tells the truth about real love!
Mrs. Miller: Love! Well, all I can say is, from reading here and there, that if he wasn’t flung in jail along with Wilde, he should have been. Some of the things I simply couldn’t read, they were so indecent…And last there was a poem – a long one – the Rubay – (sharply) what is it, Richard?
Richard: “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam”! That’s the best of all!
Mrs. Miller: (Grunts) Humph!
Miller: Oh, I’ve read that, Essie.
Mrs. Miller: Why, Nat!
Miller: got a copy down at the office now. There’s fine things in it, seems to me – true things.
Mrs. Miller: (a bit bewildered and uncertain now) Why, Nat, I don’t see how you –
Richard: (enthusiastically) Gee, it’s wonderful, isn’t it Pa? Remember this? (even more enthusiastically)
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Ah! Wilderness were Paradise enow!
It’s a simple, warm-spirited little story: we follow Richard on his first foray into adulthood. His first kiss, his first heartbreak, his first one-too-many, his first brawl – all of which he experiences, spouting verses at every step so that we see the Romantic glut of unrequited love, carnal love, exultant inebriation, wistfulness and sorrow he’s been reading transmute from mere exhilarating ideas, to something real. Nightingale and Rose. Gin and Djinn. Thorn-pierced breast, genie out of bottle. Done.
We read, blocked, performed. And those quattrains and ballads colonized me, in all their florid glory; perfect rhythms, elegantly neat rhymes. I realized combinations of words, of sounds, could cast spells. Could illuminate, reflect, exorcise, beatify. Feverish Swinburne, opulent Fitzgerald, alternately sly and chastened Wilde – of course Richard was in love with them. Who wouldn’t be? They brimmed over with passion – both in the words, and for them. I devoured every work referenced in that play, and kept going. Thorn. Djinn. Done.
Even with O’Neill’s house practically in my backyard – the only American playwright ever to win the Nobel – I never shook the Bumpkin rap in high school. But I didn’t care anymore. Like Richard, I had found an entirely larger world. Personal experience would catch up fast enough – for the time being, like a child who gets the cadence of a knock-knock joke ages ahead of the content: the sounds, the aural tricks, the feelings they conjured, were enough.
I’ve never understood why people don’t think more of this play. It gets dismissed as sentimental; too easy, too painless, too mannered. Why? He rendered a moment, that fulcrum, innocence tipping to adulthood, in language so burnished you ache just reading it. O’Neill’s life was wretched. The poems he used – Romantic, formally perfect, anachronistically, adorably scandalous – were a portal to a perfected past, Time’s own distillate, eau de vie. It was alchemy, and it was genius. And I’ve hiked those trails in the Las Trampas Ridge, to places where you can look down on Tao House. And I can tell you, carving a perfected moment, a tiny civilization, from a wilderness: it’s no small thing.
NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Amy Glynn Greacen’s work has appeared and/or is forthcoming in Southwest Review, Southern Poetry Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Poetry Northwest, NER, The Best American Poetry 2010, The Best American Poetry 2012, and elsewhere. Though primarily a poet, Amy is also a sometime essayist, novelist and food writer. She lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she occasionally moonlights as a jazz singer and does her best to avoid bumpkinhood.