Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!"

By Eugene O'Neill

An early edition of the play. R.M. Flynn

When Eugene O’Neill was awarded the 1936 Nobel Prize for Literature, the man who gave the presentation speech noted that “the esteemed writer of tragedies astonished his admirers by presenting them with an idyllic middle-class comedy.” That comedy is Ah, Wilderness! It is the only comedy the playwright ever wrote and critics feel that it expresses O’Neill’s vision of what he might have wished his youth and family life had been.


This play is subtitled “A Comedy of Recollection in Three Acts.” Most uncut productions run close to three hours. The setting is a "large small-town" in Connecticut in 1906. The action takes place over two summer days beginning on the morning of July 4th and ending late at night on July 5th.


Cast size. There are 15 characters: 9 males and 6 females.

Nat Miller is the head of the household and the owner of the local newspaper. He in his late 50s and is definitely a respected member of the local community.

Essie Miller is his wife and the mother of their children. The script identifies her as being around 50 years old.

Arthur Miller is the oldest child still living at home, age 19. (Note: This play was published first in 1933, when the playwright Arthur Miller had just graduated from high school, so there's no connection between the character's name and the future famous American playwright.) Arthur is a self-important college student, a Yale man, home for the summer.

Richard Miller, age 17, is the pivotal character in this play. He is an avid reader of the classic poets, a romantic, and he features himself as somewhat of a poet as well. He frequently quotes 19th-century poets like Oscar Wilde, Henrik Ibsen, Algernon  Charles Swinburne, George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, and Omar Khayyam.

Mildred Miller is the only girl in the family. She is 15 years old—the type of sister who likes to tease her brothers about their girlfriends.

Tommy Miller is the energetic 11-year-old youngest child in the family.

Sid Davis is Essie's brother, and therefore Nat's brother-in-law and uncle to the Miller children. He is a 45-year-old bachelor who he lives with the family. It is commonly known that he enjoys a cocktail or two now and then.

Lily Miller is Nat's sister. She is an unmarried 42-year-old woman and she also lives with her brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephews. She broke off her engagement to Sid 16 years earlier because of his drinking.

Characters who appear only in one scene

Muriel McComber is a 15-year-old girl and the love of Richard's life. Her name comes up in Act One, but her only scene—when she sneaks out at night to meet Richard—comes in the final act of the play. (You can watch a rehearsal of this scene here.)

David McComber is Muriel's father. In Act One, he visits Nat to complain about a letter that Richard sent to Muriel, a letter filled with poetry he copied from Swinburne’s “Anactoria” that is full of suggestive imagery. McComber then delivers a letter from Muriel (one that he forced her to write) to Richard. In it she says that she is through with him and this sends Richard into gloomy, dramatic despair.

Wint Selby is a classmate of Arthur's at Yale. He shows up shortly after Richard has read Muriel’s letter. He is the bad influence who invites Richard to meet him at a bar to spend some time with “a couple of swift babies from New Haven” later that night. Richard accepts, in part to show Muriel that  “she can’t treat me the way she’s done!”

Belle, age 20, is described as “a typical college tart of the period, and of the cheaper variety, dressed with tawdry flashiness.” In the bar scene, she tries to convince Richard to “go upstairs with her” and when that doesn't happen, she gets him to drink more and more until he finally gets drunk.

The bartender owns the bar and serves Richard several drinks.

The salesman is another customer in the bar on that particular night.

Norah is a somewhat inept housekeeper and cook that the Millers employ.

Ensemble. Since only one scene takes place in a public place, there is little to no opportunity for ensemble roles. The only "crowd scenes” could be a few extras in the bar.


The majority of the action takes place in the interior of the Miller home. Other than the scene that occurs in the back of the bar in a small hotel and another scene that occurs on the strip of beach along the harbor, the home is the main setting.


Because this place so strongly reflects small-town America in the early 1900s, it requires costumes from that time period.


Characters sing, whistle, and listen to a variety of popular music from the early 1900s. Song titles and some lyrics are printed in the script.

Content issues?

Even though this might not appear to be the case with the following list of issues, this play actually communicates high standards of moral conduct.

  • Uncle Sid drinks too much and it makes him happy and funny, but he pays (and has been paying) the consequences for imbibing too much and the price is his relationship with Lily.
  • Belle (a girl who drinks and smokes!) is ready to "take Richard upstairs" for only five dollars since she has to pay her rent, but Richard turns her down and in his first experience with alcohol, he gets drunk and loud.
  • Richard gets in big trouble when he gets home and feels rotten the following morning. He learns his lesson and declares, "I'm never going to be such a fool again, I tell you."

Language issues?

The strongest language that comes out of the characters' mouths are words like “Hell” and “Damn.” If you choose to perform display with young people, you will have to review the differences in the following terms as they were used in 1906 as opposed to how they are used nowadays: “Queer” meaning strange or unusual, “Gay” meaning happy and cheerful, and “Blow” meaning to “pick up the tab.”  

In 1959 the Hallmark Hall of Fame aired a production of the play. You can watch Act III here

To view some production photos, click here.

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Your Citation
Flynn, Rosalind. "Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!"." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, Flynn, Rosalind. (2020, October 29). Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!". Retrieved from Flynn, Rosalind. "Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!"." ThoughtCo. (accessed October 26, 2021).