Eugene O’Neill’s greatest play up to this point in his career and the finest American tragedy to be written until then, Desire Under the Elms premiered on November 11, 1924, at the Greenwich Village Theatre in New York City. O’Neill informed Walter Huston, who played the lead as Ephraim Cabot in the premiere of Desire Under the Elms, that he dreamed the entire plot one night between Christmas and New Year’s Eve 1923. It was conceived during one of the most frantic periods in O’Neill’s career, and he worked in fits and starts over the late winter and spring 1924, discontinuing work on his new script to oversee productions of Welded, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, The Ancient Mariner (his adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem), and a revival of The Emperor Jones, with Paul Robeson taking Charles S. Gilpin’s place as Jones. He completed the script on June 16, 1924, and its premiere on November 11 coincided with a revival of the SS Glencairn series. Two months later, the production headed uptown to the Earl Carroll Theatre for a run on Broadway, and following that it went on a road tour across the country.
The play’s “distresses,” as one reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune reported, “range from unholy lust to infanticide, and they include drinking, cursing, vengeance, and something approaching incest” (Hammond 170). Such “distresses” led the New York district attorney Joab Banton to attempt its censorship by levelling charges of obscenity against the production. As with the premiere of O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, judges summarily cleared the play of all charges. Banton inadvertently advanced the play’s profile, however, and long queues at the ticket counter followed the publicity.
Desire Under the Elms made O’Neill a small fortune, and he sarcastically credited Banton for his good luck. Once, after paying his dentist, O’Neill reportedly laughed, “But don’t thank me, thank that so-amiable District Attorney!” (quoted in Alexander 37) The play was also banned in England by the lord chamberlain, who succeeded in delaying its British premiere until 1940. Many cities across the United States banned it as well, even Los Angeles. In 1926, O’Neill wrote the notoriouss muckraker Upton Sinclair, “I hear they have ‘pinched’ my play ‘Desire Under the Elms’ in your Holy City, Los Angeles. Well, well, and so many of the pioneers are said to have come from New England! Boston has also banned it” (quoted in Alexander 38). During the Los Angeles trial, a judge ordered the touring group to perform scenes in the courtroom, after which they were duly exonerated.
Desire Under the Elms rises above the simple local-color piece on New England life it might appear superficially, though that function of the play should never be dismissed out of hand. With it, O’Neill artfully combines his most powerful themes and influences—Greek tragedy, father-son relations, the search for a mother god, the struggle between practical and sensual impulses. Moreover, the play also treats the Oedipus complex, a condition defined, if not invented (as O’Neill liked to point out), by the famed psychologist Sigmund Freud, in which sons feel a subconscious desire to kill their fathers in order to marry their mothers. The staging is also some of the most innovative of O’Neill’s career. Though the set is permanent, O’Neill specified that only the rooms in which the action takes place should be visible at any given time, making the farmhouse replicate the systole and diastole of the four chambers of the human heart. It was the fourth production by what the press called the triumvirate, an experimental trio that essentially replaced the Provincetown P layers as the most audacious and forward-thinking theater group in the country; the group included O’Neill as playwright, Kenneth Macgowan as producer, and Robert Edmond Jones for set design. With Desire Under the Elms, the triumvirate powerfully answered the call of the nationwide Art Theatre Movement, “that a realistic play, to have value, must move toward a more profound realism, revealing the psychological essences and primitive mythic forces working in modern lives and attempting to reach a state of ‘spiritual abstraction’ ” (Bogard 199). Since its first production, Desire Under the Elms has sustained critical admiration, enjoyed many revivals (including, in 2009, a critically acclaimed production starrring Brian Dennehy as Ephraim Cabot at the Chicago’s Goodman Theatre), and serves as the focus of a well-warranted body of scholarship.
The Cabot farmhouse somewhere in New England on an early summer evening in the year 1850. Also on the permanent set stands a stone wall in front of the farmhouse with a wooden gate at center; a path leads around the right side of the house to the front door. Two windows are on the top floor and two on the bottom. One of the upper windows is the father’s, Ephraim Cabot, and the other windows are his three sons’—Eben, Simeon, and Peter Cabot. The bottom left window looks into the kitchen, and the right right into the parlor. Two massive elms loom over each side of the house. Their branches hang down over its battered roof, and O’Neill symbolically describes them in womanly terms: “There is a sinister maternity in their aspect, a crushing, jealous absorption. They have developed from their intimate contact with the life of man in the house an appalling humaneness. . . . They are like exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair on its roof, and when it rains their tears trickle down monotonously and rot on the shingles” (2:318). The trees emit a green glow that contrasts starkly with the house’s tatty, gray exterior.
Part 1, Scene 1
Eben Cabot, a fine-looking 25-year old with “defiant, dark eyes [that] remind one of a wild animal’s in captivity” (2:319), steps out from the house and loudly rings a hand-held dinner bell. “God! Purty!” he exclaims, looking up at the sunset; he then looks down, spits in disgust, and goes back inside. Eben’s half brothers, Simeon and Peter, both in their late 30s, stand outside and also take note of the sunset’s beauty. The yellow glow reminds Simeon of his long-deceased wife, Jenn, who had hair “yaller like gold” (2:320); Peter is reminded of the actual gold recently discovered in California. Together they discuss their prospects on the farm: Should they await the death of their 75-year-old father, who likes to brag that he will live another 25 years, to claim the farm as their own? Or should they light out to California and prospect for gold? Peter suggests that they might declare Ephraim legally insane. Overhearing the discussion from the kitchen window, Eben remarks he wished their father were dead instead, then calls them in for supper. Lured in by the smell of bacon, Simeon and Peter head like domestic cattle for the kitchen.
Part 1, Scene 2
The kitchen. Austerely neat, the space contains little but a table with four chairs at center, a cookstove in the right rear corner, and a poster advertising the gold rush in California hanging on the back wall. The brothers chide Eben for wishing their father dead. Eben asserts that Ephraim murdered his mother by working her too hard on the farm. Simeon enigmatically mumbles, “No one never kills nobody. It’s allus somethin’. That’s the murderer” (2:322). Eben blames his half brothers for not protecting his mother, whom he believes had rightful ownership of the farm, but they insist there was always too much work to worry over much else. When challenged, Eben reluctantly offers the same excuse. The brothers ponder over the motives behind their father’s absence. A month earlier, Ephraim drove off in his buggy to “learn God’s message t’ me in the spring, like the prophets done” (2:325). The older brothers ridicule Eben for planning to call on a promiscuous local woman named Min, who is nearing 40; all three elder Cabot men have engaged in sexual relations with her. Eben storms out but pauses briefly to take in the brilliant sunset. “I don’t give a damn how many sins she’s sinned afore mine or who she’s sinned ’em with,” he cries out, “my sin’s as purty as any one on ’em!” (2:326).
Part 1, Scene 3
Nearing sunrise the following morning; the interior of the brothers’ bedroom is visible. Eben returns and wakes the men with news from the village that their father has remarried a “female ’bout thirtyfive— an’ purty, they says.” The brothers curse bitterly, “Everythin’ll go t’ her now” (2:327). Simeon and Peter settle on the move to California. Eben promises each of them 300 dollars from his mother’s savings if they relinquish their shares in the farm, money that would enable them to travel to California by boat. Changing the subject, Simeon and Peter scoff at Eben’s adventures with Min, and Eben responds with words that signify ownership rather than love: “What do I care fur her— ’ceptin’ she’s round an’ wa’m? The p’int is she was his’n—an’ now she b’longs t’ me!” (2:329). Simeon derisively insinuates that Eben might try to “own” their father’s new bride as well (foreshadowing the affair to come), but Eben responds contemptuously, “her—here—sleepin’ with him—stealin’ my Maw’s farm! I’d as soon pet a skunk ’r kiss a snake!” Simeon and Peter mordantly speculate over what their “new Maw” will be like (2:329).
Part 1, Scene 4
The brothers have relocated to the kitchen. The elder brothers eat heartily, while Eben’s plate remains untouched. Simeon and Peter accept Eben’s offer to buy them out; at the news, Eben is overcome “with queer excitement” (2:331). Now believing he has sole ownership, Eben vows to work the farm diligently, and he exits to inspect “his” farm with an “embracing glance of desire” (2:331). “It’s purty! It’s damned purty! It’s mine! . . . Mine, d’ye hear? Mine!” (2:331). The other two remain in the kitchen drinking whiskey. At first, they vow not to work, but they soon grow restless, unable to relax after so many years of hard labor. They decide to join Eben with the chores, but he returns to announce their father’s arrival. The older brothers exit to pack for the trip west. Now alone, Eben pulls up a floorboard under the stove where his father has hidden his mother’s savings, then replaces the board before the men reemerge with packed carpet bags. Eben ceremoniously pours 600 dollars in 20-dollar gold pieces on the kitchen table. Simeon hands Eben the paper that grants him their shares. They mumble disaffected, vaguely lamenting goodbyes.
At the kitchen table, Eben reads over the informal deed in a trance; the other two look down to the barn where their father, accompanied by his new wife, is unhitching his buggy. Simeon takes the wooden gate off its hinges and tucks it under his arm, shouting, “We harby ’bolishes shet gates, an’ open gates, an’ all gates, by thunder!” (2:334). But the brothers “congeal into two stiff, grim-visaged statues,” as Ephraim and Abbie Putnam come up the path. Abbie, ignoring the two men, gloats over her new property “with the conqueror’s conscious superiority” (2:335). “I’ll go in an’ look at my house,” she says after a perfunctory introduction to the brothers, who scornfully warn her not to take that attitude with Eben. The brothers proudly inform their father that they plan to leave the farm that day to seek gold in California; they circle around him, performing a gleeful Indian war dance. Ephraim backs away uneasily, assuming his sons insane and scolding them for their lust “fur the sinful, easy gold o’ Californi-a” (2:336). Continuing their war dance, the brothers whoop and cheer over their newfound freedom, pick up stones and, at the count of three, hurl them through the parlor window. Cabot flies at them in a fury, and they race off singing a goldrush song to the tune of “Oh, Susannah!”
Abbie’s head appears from her new bedroom’s window, expressing delight over her new home. She then enters the kitchen and takes in Eben’s youthful good looks. Eben too feels a powerful sexual attraction to her, but scoffs at her claims to ownership. Though her possessiveness is unrelenting, she exposits on her mournful life story (see Characters section) and seductively pleads with Eben to befriend her. Eben stalks off, infuriated at his latest rival. Outside, Ephraim is cursing his older sons, and Eben contemptuously denounces Ephraim and his Puritan God. Father and son go off to work; Simeon and Peter are heard in the distance singing; and “Abbie is washing her dishes” as the curtain falls (2:340, emphasis mine).
Part 2, Scene 1
An oppressively hot Sunday afternoon two months later. Dressed in her Sunday best, Abbie rocks languorously on the porch rocking chair. Eben’s head appears from his bedroom window, and Abbie senses his presence. He glances around, spits in disgust, and disappears. A moment later he emerges outside, and, after some vicious repartee, “They stare into each other’s eyes, his held by hers in spite of himself, hers glowingly possessive. Their physical attraction becomes a palpable force quivering in the hot air” (2:341). Abbie suggestively reflects on the heat: “Ye kin’ feel it burnin’ into the earth—Nature—makin’ thin’s grow—bigger ’n’ bigger—burnin’ inside ye— makin’ ye want to grow—into somethin’ else—till yer jined with it—an’ it’s your’n—but it owns ye, too—an’ makes ye grow bigger—like a tree—like them elums” (2:342). Eben willfully defies Abbie’s seduction and characterizes her marriage to his father as a form of prostitution.
Eben departs on a visit to see Min. Ephraim enters looking softer, younger, and healthier than in the previous scene. Abbie remarks that Eben is the “dead spit ’n’ image” of Ephraim, though Ephraim believes, like his older sons, that Eben takes after his mother. The old man hints that his youngest son will eventually inherit the farm. Abbie wrathfully informs her husband that Eben has left to consort with Min and announces he tried to seduce her as well. In a rage, Ephraim threatens to “end” his son (2:345), but Abbie’s resolution wavers, and she settles him down. She inquires if they were to have their own son whether he would leave the farm to her. He exultantly replies that if she gave him a son, he would do anything she asked. “ ‘An’ God hearkened unto Rachel’!” Ephraim joyfully quotes the Song of Solomon, “An’ God hearkened unto Abbie!” (2:347).
Part 2, Scene 2
Eight o’clock that same evening. The two upper bedrooms are now exposed. Ephraim and Abbie sit side by side on their bed, and Eben sits forlornly on his. Ephraim declares the farm requires the son. Abbie dully responds that it is she, not the farm, who needs a son. Eben rises from his bed and stares directly into the wall separating him from Abbie, and “Their hot glances seem to meet through the wall” (2:348). He stretches out his arms to her, and Abbie, almost telepathically aware of his movements, rises from the bed. Eben flings himself down on his bed in agony. Ephraim details his personal history (see Characters section); throughout this impassioned monologue, Abbie is intent upon Eben on the other side of the wall. Ephraim, noting his wife’s distraction, angrily accuses her of learning nothing. She promises to endow him with a son, which thrills him. Nevertheless, disturbed by “thin’s pokin’ about in the dark” of the house (2:350), he moves off to sleep with his cows, where he can find peace. Eben and Abbie continue staring hotly at each other through the wall. Abbie goes to his bedroom. They kiss passionately, but Eben abruptly pushes her away. They argue over Eben’s attentions to Min and Abbie’s possessiveness of the farm. She departs with an invitation for him to court her properly in the parlor. Eben cries out in dismay for his deceased mother, dresses, and heads for the door.
Part 2, Scene 3
A few moments later in the parlor. O’Neill describes the space as a “grim, repressed room like a tomb in which the family has been interred alive” (2:352). Abbie is perched on the arm of a horsehair sofa. Candles light the gloomy space. Eben enters, hat in hand. They are both terrified. Abbie senses “somethin’ ” in the room, a presence that first disturbed her but seems to have softened with Eben’s entrance. In his turn, Eben senses the spirit of his mother, whose remains were shown in that room after her death. Eben asserts that his mother would hate her replacement, but Abbie feels the spirit is kind to her and vows to emulate his mother’s love. She embraces him with a “horribly frank mixture of lust and mother love” (2:354). They pledge mutual devotion, and “their lips meet in a fierce, bruising kiss” (2:355).
Part 2, Scene 4
The exterior of the farmhouse at dawn. Now dressed in his work clothes, Eben appears from the house looking unusually contented and self-assured. Abbie’s head pokes through the parlor window, and she calls out to him for one last kiss. Eben feels his mother’s spirit can rest at last. He warns Abbie that Ephraim will soon return from the barn. She blows him a kiss and disappears into the house. Ephraim enters, staring at the sky. “Purty, hain’t it?” he asks his son, who responds by mocking his father’s old age and impaired eyesight. Ephraim interrogates him suspiciously. Eben tells Ephraim that he felt his mother’s spirit go to its grave; he then orders his father to work. “I’m the prize rooster o’ this roost,” he says and boldly exits. Irritated by this encounter, Ephraim grumbles over Eben’s soft-headedness— “Like his Maw” (2:357)—and goes in to breakfast as the curtain falls.
Part 3, Scene 1
A night in late spring the following year. The upper bedrooms and kitchen are exposed. A cradle is set up in Ephraim and Abbie’s bedroom. A party is brewing in the kitchen to celebrate the birth of Abbie’s child. Eben sits despondently in his bedroom, head in hands. Benches are placed along the walls in the kitchen to accommodate the guests—a group of drunken farmers, their wives, and a number of young men and women from the neighboring farms. A small whiskey keg sits at the rear. Abbie and Ephraim are there. Abbie wears a shawl and looks pale and forlorn, desperately anxious for Eben’s arrival. Ephraim appears drunk and excitable. Unbeknownst to the Cabots, the guests all know the child is Eben’s, not Ephraim’s, and they joke and wink to each other in barely concealed hilarity.
Ignorant of the guests’ prodding remarks, Ephraim cajoles the fiddler into playing a danceable tune. The fiddler strikes up “Pop, Goes the Weasel.” As the tempo rises, so too in speed and vigor does the now 76-year-old Ephraim’s dancing steps. He boasts loudly over his physical prowess and the “Injuns” he has killed and scalped. At length, the fiddler stops, exhausted, while Ephraim appears barely out of breath. Upstairs, Eben goes into the adjoining bedroom to view the baby. “His face is as vague as his reactions are confused, but there is a trace of tenderness, of interested discovery” (2:362). Ephraim steps outside for air, and a woman declares loudly, “What’s happened in this house is plain as the nose on yer face!” (2:362). Unconscious of the sniping guests, Abbie retreats upstairs to join Eben. The lovers worry over the possibility of Ephraim finding out the baby is Eben’s, then kiss passionately. Outside, Ephraim can feel the presence Eben and Abbie felt in the parlor in part 2, scene 3. “Even the music can’t drive it out—somethin’ ” (2:363). He departs for the barn to rest; the fiddler begins “Turkey in the Straw,” and the revelers intensify the celebration, this time over “the old skunk gittin’ fooled!” (2:363).
Part 3, Scene 2
The exterior a half hour later. Eben wistfully stares up at the sky. Ephraim enters from the barn looking tired and preoccupied. Once he sets eyes on Eben, his distracted manner changes to vindictive pride. He asks why Eben does not join the party, where he might find a future bride, and insinuates that by marrying he might inherit the farm. Eben contemptuously retorts that the farm was his mother’s and now his by rights. Ephraim insists the farm will be Abbie’s after his death; he then adds that she accused Eben of attempting to seduce her. In a rage, Eben thrusts Ephraim aside with the intent to murder Abbie, but he underestimates his father’s strength. They grapple ferociously, and Ephraim swiftly gets the upper hand by grabbing Eben by the throat. Abbie emerges from the house and desperately attempts to separate them. Ephraim releases his grip and flings his son to the ground, assuring Abbie, “He ain’t wuth hangin’ fur” (another noteworthy foreshadowing; 2:365–366).
Ephraim rejoins the party, triumphant and laughing contemptuously over the thought of his defeated son. Eben accuses Abbie of seducing him to gain rights to the farm and threatens to inform Ephraim of the truth about their child and to head out west to join his brothers. “I wish he never was born!” he says of the baby, “I wish he’d die this minit!” (2:367). Abbie obtains Eben’s halfhearted assurance that if she proves there was no scheme and rectifies their terrible situation, he will believe she loves him “better’n everythin’ else in the world!” (2:368).
Part 3, Scene 3
Before sunup the next morning; the kitchen and Ephraim’s bedroom are visible. Eben sits despondently in the kitchen with his carpetbag on the floor. Ephraim is asleep upstairs, and Abbie is leaning over the crib, “her face full of terror yet with an undercurrent of desperate triumph” (2:369). She cries out in anguish but, seeing Ephraim stir, stifles her sobs and heads down to the kitchen. She throws her arms around Eben, who stands coldly aloof. “I done it, Eben! I told ye I’d do it!” she shouts. “I’ve proved I love ye—better’n everythin’—so’s ye can’t never doubt me no more!” Eben remains unmoved, but he admits his father should never know of the baby’s true father, as Ephraim would be sure to “take it out on” the child (3:369). Abbie seems not to hear him, telling him that now there is no reason for him to leave. Eben slowly realizes she has killed someone, but at first assumes it is Ephraim. When he realizes she has killed their baby, he condemns her as a murderer and runs off in horror to inform the sheriff (2:371).
Part 3, Scene 4
An hour later; the same rooms are shown as in the previous scene. “The sky is brilliant with the sunrise” (2:371). Abbie is doubled over the kitchen table with her head in her arms. Ephraim awakes in the bedroom with a start. He dresses and heads downstairs. In the kitchen, he prattles for a time in innocent chatter until becoming aware of Abbie’s state. She confesses to the crime, and Ephraim races upstairs to verify it. He returns demanding an explanation, and she confesses hatefully that she loves Eben and that the child was theirs. “If he was Eben’s,” Ephraim declares after some contemplation, “I be glad he air gone!” (2:373) When Abbie tells him Eben has gone to get the sheriff, Ephraim declaims the injustice of his life—“God A’mighty, I be lonesomer’n ever!” (2:374).
Eben appears on the path. Ephraim warns him to quit the farm after the sheriff takes Abbie away “or, by God, he’ll have t’ come back an’ git me fur murder, too!” (2:374). Once Ephraim is gone, Eben enters the house and throws himself at Abbie’s feet, begging forgiveness. The sheriff has been notified, but Eben has had a change of heart, and he now wishes to escape with Abbie. She refuses, feeling her punishment will be well-deserved. He promises to accept responsibility as well. Ephraim returns. First mocking their romance, he announces he has set the farm animals free and plans to join Simeon and Peter out west. He opens the floorboard and discovers the money gone. Eben tells of the exchange in part 1, scene 4. Ephraim declaims the deterministic, puritanical view that “I kin feel I be in the palm o’ His hand, His fingers guidin’ me. . . . It’s a-goin’ t’ be lonesomer now than ever it war afore—an’ I’m gittin’ old, Lord—ripe on the bough. . . . Waal— what d’ye want? God’s lonesome, hain’t He? God’s hard an’ lonesome!” (2:377).
The sheriff enters accompanied by two men to take custody of Abbie. Eben cries out that he “helped her do it. Ye kin take me, too” (2:377). Ephraim stares at his son “with a trace of grudging admiration,” then starts off to round up his cows. All three say strangely cordial good-byes; Eben and Abbie kiss. Eben comments, perhaps for the last time on the beautiful sunrise, and Abbie joins in his admiration. The sheriff takes a look about the farm and utters the final, ironic lines of the play: “It’s a jim-dandy farm, no denyin’. Wished I owned it!” (2:378).
Desire Under the Elms is one of Eugene O’Neill’s greatest achievements as a tragedian; others include Mourning Becomes Electra, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. Written well before these later masterpieces, Desire Under the Elms exhibits O’Neill’s full talent as a playwright relatively early in his career, though there had been many missteps along the way and several more to follow. Desire Under the Elms builds upon the tragic elements of his early play The Rope, in which a New England farmer named Abraham Bentley unsuccessfully attempts to will over 50 $20 gold pieces to Luke, his son by his second, much younger wife; but Luke’s hatred for the bitter old New Englander prevents the truth of the father’s benevolent intention from being revealed. Desire Under the Elms also looks forward to Mourning Becomes Electra with its handling of New England tragedy and A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions, the only surviving plays of his planned cycle on American acquisitiveness, A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed.
At the time of composition, O’Neill was dividing his time between New York and Brook Farm, his home in Ridgefield, Connecticut. The region apparently inspired a melancholy in the playwright that sets the play’s psychological tone: As he later wrote Lawrence Langner, “Ridgefield always drove me to hard cider, acidosis, and the Old Testament in the weepy, muddy, slush-and-snow days” (quoted in Alexander 33; a descriptive and telling personal sketch of O’Neill and his mood at Ridgefield can be found in Malcolm Cowley’s “A Weekend with Eugene O’Neill”). A triumph of local color, Desire Under the Elms is also a masterful expression of literary naturalism and a boldly modernist experiment all in one powerfully rendered yet compact articulation.
O’Neill’s innovative set reflects the stony image of the New England farmer, as the stone wall can be read as a symbol for God’s hardened will (Ephraim), imprisonment (Simeon and Peter), and a womblike partition from the outside world (Eben; see Ranald 1984, 175). The wall and the house behind it thus contrast effectively with the mournful elms and the “purty” glow of the sun as it rises and falls. In addition, the Cabots’ dialogue is uncharacteristically restrained for an O’Neill play, and it is not exactly meant to replicate the early New England vernacular; rather, O’Neill was “trying,” as he maintained, “to write a synthetic dialogue which in a way should be the distilled essence of New England” (quoted in Alexander 28). Most of the dramatic action is credible, though arguably the infanticide in the penultimate scene is a mistake. Critic Peter Hays finds that “the infant’s death is largely a plot device, a shocking way for Abbie to prove her love and for Eben to prove his maturity in accepting part of the blame” (436). Given Abbie’s discovery of her actual, untamable passion for Eben—the love that foils her plans for possession of the farm—it is difficult to imagine her killing their child, the ultimate bond between them and the symbol of their shared future. Conversely, killing off Ephraim, which would seem the most logical course of action if a character must die to prove one’s love, would undermine O’Neill’s acceptance of and near love for Ephraim’s character. For O’Neill, the bitter old New Englander is the personification of struggle and hardship. One might even see Ephraim’s death, if O’Neill had chosen to kill him off, as a kind of suicide. O’Neill himself once professed, “I have always loved Ephraim so much! He is so autobiographical!” (quoted in Alexander 36).
O’Neill’s portrayal of New England Yankees, members of the regional tradition whose lineages go back to the Puritan settlers, is a by-product of the local color tradition. There are great similarities between this work and James A. Herne’s Shore Acres (1892), which also deals with a family squabble over the future of a New England farm, this time in Maine; as well as Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted, the play that beat Desire Under the Elms for the Pulitzer Prize in 1924 and resembles O’Neill’s plot to such an extent there was some question over plagiarism by O’Neill (who had read the script several months before beginning work on his own project [Bogard 201–202]). Local color as a literary mode has often been condemned for its superficiality and lack of the inherent truths in staging “spiritual abstractions.” But O’Neill posited that the setting and Yankee attributes of the characters are the most important aspects of the play: “What I think everyone missed in ‘Desire’ is the quality in it I set most store by—the attempt to give an epic tinge to New England’s inhibited lifelust, to make its inexpressiveness poetically expressive, to release it” (quoted in Alexander 28). As such, critic Brenda Murphy aptly argues that “in developing this mode of dramatic representation, he opened a new level of meaning and a new way of meaning to the local-color realism traditionally associated with rural simplicity” (129).
New England Puritans were a religious group who practiced Calvinist theology and fled persecution in their homeland, England, by settling in the Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies in the 17th century. The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups defines the essential characteristics of the Yankee, traits Ephraim epitomizes, as “discipline, work, and the permanence of the establishment” (Handlin 1,028). In addition, Puritan deserters who settled in the West were reportedly scorned by their countrymen: When Cotton Mather wrote in the early 1700s about “patriotism and love of country, he meant loyalty to New England” (Handlin 1,028); this calls to mind Ephraim’s ephemeral flight to the plains and his contempt for Simeon and Peter’s abandoning the farm “fur the sinful, easy gold o’ Californi-a” (2:336). The Puritan God was a pitiless, wrathful figure, most famously described in Jonathan Edwards’s bloodand- thunder sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (Handlin 1,741). This Calvinist theology informs the pious Ephraim’s worldview: “God’s hard, not easy! . . . I kin feel I be in the palm o’ His hand, His fingers guidin’ me. . . . God’s hard an’ lonesome!” (2:377). Throughout his life, Ephraim experienced periods of rebellion from his angry God, moving West where it was too “easy,” courting Min, reveling in the celebration of his (presumed) son’s birth, and growing “soft” over Abbie’s matrimony with him. But each time God called him to task and, in Ephraim’s eyes, reminded him that he was but a “servant o’ His hand” (2:349). In the final scene, Ephraim’s disaffected reaction to Abbie and Eben’s deception is entirely predictable to Ephraim: “Waal—what d’ye want? God’s lonesome, hain’t he? God’s hard an’ lonesome!” (2:377).
In spite of the fact that O’Neill abandoned Irish Catholicism early on, he also took a disdainful view of contentment and “soft” living, which is most probably what he meant by identifying Ephraim rather than Eben as being “so autobiographical.” This is a point of confusion, as O’Neill’s personality more evidently resembles Eben’s contradictory consciousness. Nevertheless, O’Neill believed that a full life can only be achieved through trial, tragedy, and suffering. He publicly, if not always privately, equated contentment with bourgeois complacency and spiritual bankruptcy. In an article in the Philadelphia Public Ledger (January 22, 1922), for instance, he faced critics who considered his plays morbidly tragic with a dry note of sarcasm:
Sure I’ll write about happiness if I can happen to meet up with that luxury, and find it sufficiently dramatic and in harmony with any deep rhythm in life. But happiness is a word. What does it mean? Exaltation; an intensified feeling of the significant worth of man’s being and becoming? Well, if it means that—and not a mere smirking contentment with one’s lot—I know there is more of it in one real tragedy than in all the happy-ending plays ever written. (quoted in Clark 96–97.)
To O’Neill, the notion of tragedy as “unhappy” is a “mere present-day judgment” (quoted in Clark 97). According to him, the Greeks (and later the Elizabethans) understood the uplifting attributes of tragedy, and it was with this conviction that he wrote Desire Under the Elms. Three Greek tragedies inform the play’s dramatic action: Euripides’ Medea and Phaedra and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. In the first, the Colchian princess Medea marries Jason, who legendarily leads the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece, and she bears two of his children. Jason eventually falls in love with another princess, Creusa, and the vengeful Medea kills the princess along with her own two children. Medea is generally cast in a sympathetic light, however, thus emphasizing the intensity of her love rather than her infanticide, just as O’Neill does with the character Abbie Putnam.
In Phaedra, the title character, the minotaur’s half sister and Theseus’s wife, falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus. After Hippolytus rejects her, she commits suicide, but not before charging Hippolytus with rape. This resembles Abbie’s false accusation (out of a similar desperation) that Eben attempted to seduce her. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus, the king of Thebes, unknowingly marries his mother, Jocasta, after killing his father, Laius. In Sophocles’ version, Jocasta hangs herself upon learning the truth, and Oedipus puts out his own eyes in symbolic punishment for his figurative blindness. (Ephraim’s poor eyesight is brought up several times in Desire Under the Elms.) No such shame appears in Desire Under the Elms, only exaltation, though Abbie and Eben will undoubtedly be hanged for murder.
Sigmund Freud, the illustrious German psychologist, was just then gaining a wide following in the United States. Freud notoriously employed the Oedipus myth to describe the subconscious desire of all men to kill their father in order to marry their mother. Freud called this condition the “Oedipus complex.” Because of Eben’s intense attachment to the memory of his mother (a recurring motif in American drama; see Bogard 214–215), his hatred of his father, and his subsequent sexual relationship with his stepmother (which is technically incest, though they are not blood-related), many critics singled out Freud, rather than the Greek myth, as the guiding source for Desire Under the Elms. But O’Neill dismissed this popular assumption: “To me, Freud only means uncertain conjectures and explanations about the truths of the emotional past of mankind that every dramatist has clearly sensed since real drama began. . . . I respect Freud’s work tremendously—but I’m not an addict!” (quoted in Alexander 38). Thus, with Desire Under the Elms, O’Neill “[demonstrates] one of his greatest strengths—as myth user rather than myth maker. Here and in Mourning Becomes Electra he combined ancient myths with modern psychology to examine American emotional and cultural equivalents,” as Margaret Loftus Ranald has written (1998, 67).
This co-optation of Greek mythology in literature and psychology is a trend of modernism also employed by one of O’Neill’s greatest philosophical influences, Friedrich Nietzsche. As the tragic flaw in each of the borrowed mythical characters is the supremacy of internal desire over external reason, the larger struggle thus springs from this tension. Nietzsche, and later Freud, discovered a metaphor for this phenomenon in the struggle between the Greek gods Apollo, the sun god, and Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, as outlined in Nietzsche’s classic work The Birth of Tragedy (1872). The Apollonian impulse brings us full circle back to puritanical belief, typified in Ephraim Cabot’s character, in “discipline, work, and the permanence of the establishment.” We might also include reason, logic, order, and deference to social norms. The Dionysian impulse, in contrast, favors the irrational, the emotional, the creative, and the uninhibited spirit (Floyd 1985, 281), often acted out by the chorus (the revelers at Ephraim’s party in the case of Desire Under the Elms) in scenes of drunkenness, dancing, and music. Nietzsche contended that the most profound tragedies combined the Apollonian with the Dionysian impulses. But as the form of Greek tragedy developed, from the more openly imaginative Sophocles to the more naturalistic, or realistic, plays of Euripides, the Dionysian elements began to wane. Thus, Nietzsche called for a rebirth, or rebalancing, of the two. O’Neill answered this call with Desire Under the Elms and soon after even more explicitly with The Great God Brown.
Eben is caught between these two elements of his makeup—the “hard” and the “soft.” While Ephraim symbolizes the Apollonian side (hard) and his mother and Abbie the Dionysian (soft), O’Neill shows the two collide in Eben, who strikes Ephraim as taking after his mother, and the brothers and Abbie as taking after his father. On the one hand, Eben expresses his Apollonian impulse in the form of his practical, if avaricious, desire for possession of the farm, his handling of his brothers more as competitors for real estate rights than as siblings, and his initial rejection of Abbie as a competitor for those rights. On the other, he betrays his Dionysian side in several ways: through his vision of the farm’s beauty rather than its financial value; his passionate need for female companionship (first with his mother, then Min, then Abbie); his connection with the mother spirit that dwells in the parlor and more figuratively in the elms overhanging the sides of the house; and the ardent, near telepathic connection between him and Abbie in part 1, scene 4, and throughout her seduction of him. Eben thus experiences a heightened form of redemption by demonstrating his spiritual love for Abbie, one that conquers both his desire for the farm and his horror over the murder of their child.
O’Neill famously declared that “in all my plays sin is punished and redemption takes place” (quoted in Floyd 285). If one were to fully take him to task on this absolute, it might not stand up, but it certainly fits with Desire Under the Elms. The sins of avarice, incest, and infanticide are redeemed in the final scene, in which the spiritual love inspired by Abbie prevails in the conflicted consciousness of O’Neill’s tragic hero. And Abbie Putnam, though initially intending to seduce Eben for control of the farm, experienced a love so transcendent over all other desires that she willingly killed her own child to prove it.
Some might also read the play as centering on Ephraim rather than Eben, and thus his destruction of two wives through unendurable hard work, dispassionate neglect, and his inalterable belief in a “hard” God is redeemed through his fate to suffer the loneliness that had plagued him throughout his life. “Truth, in the theatre as in life,” according to O’Neill, “is eternally difficult just as the easy is the everlasting lie” (quoted in Alexander 34). Ephraim’s enduring strength enables him to discover “truth” in life, “hard an’ lonesome” as it may be (2:377). Thereby the “somethin’ ” that is the organizing principle of the play, the puritanical God figure, might be read as the naturalistic forces determining the fate of all characters, Abbie’s natural desire, Eben’s mother, or a wraithlike manifestation of Ephraim’s haunted past.
Ephraim Cabot’s son and Simeon and Peter Cabot’s half brother. Eben is 25 years old in the opening scene, where O’Neill describes him as “tall and sinewy. His face is well-formed, good-looking, but its expression is resentful and defensive. His defiant, dark eyes remind one of a wild animal’s in captivity. Each day is a cage in which he finds himself trapped but inwardly unsubdued.” Eben’s fierce, predatory qualities are highlighted by his black hair, a mustache, and a “thin curly trace of beard” (2:319), contrasting with his half brothers’ more bovine characteristics. Unlike Simeon and Peter, Eben is strongly attached to the Cabot farm, partly because he has the strong, acquisitive nature of his father, and partly because he is powerfully connected to the memory of his deceased mother, who died 10 years before. This split in his nature can be understood as a combination of the Dionysian (his mother’s maternal warmth) and Apollonian (his father’s strict adherence to Puritanical theology and hard living). Friedrich Nietzsche, O’Neill’s great literary and philosophical influence, argued in The Birth of Tragedy that together these impulses form the basis of the best of ancient Greek tragedy.
Eben believes that the farm is rightfully his, as his mother had some legitimate claim on its ownership. At the same time, he demonstrates a much stronger bond with the land and the natural order of things than any other character in the play, with the possible exception of Abbie. Along with his two half brothers, whose mother was Ephraim’s first wife and who was also worked to death on the farm, he loathes his father and wishes him dead. In part 1, scene 3, Eben offers to buy his brothers’ shares of the farm for 600 dollars in gold coins that his mother had saved and that his father was hiding. The brothers depart with their small fortune to strike out for California and join the gold rush that has just begun there. Once their departure is settled, Eben is confronted with a new competitor for rights to the farm—Ephraim’s third wife, Abbie Putnam.
At first Eben hates Abbie, who is 35, for her intrusion on his plans to co-opt the farm from his father. Abbie attempts to seduce him to form an alliance against Ephraim, but in spite of her covetous designs, she falls in love with him. He eventually returns her love, and they have a child together, one that Ephraim believes is his. Their incestuous relationship calls to mind that of the Greek character Phaedra (Abbie), who attempts to seduce her stepson Hippolytus (Eben). He also plays Oedipus, the Greek tragic hero who kills his father Laius (Ephraim, though Ephraim survives) and marries his mother, Jocasta (Abbie). Abbie goes on to kill their child to prove her love to Eben, calling to mind a third Greek myth, Medea, in which Medea kills her own children when Jason’s infidelity is revealed. O’Neill offers a more redemptive ending than it might appear on the surface, in that the love shared between Eben and Abbie surmounts the avaricious tendencies the characters displayed in the play’s first two parts. In the final scene, Eben and Abbie admire the sunrise as the sheriff and his men lead them away to the gallows. Ephraim will maintain the farm and live the rest of his days in a terrible state of perpetual loneliness like Lavinia Mannon in Mourning Becomes Electra.
A New England farmer in his mid-70s; Eben, Peter, and Simeon Cabot’s father and Abbie Putnam’s husband. O’Neill describes Ephraim as “tall and gaunt, with great, wiry, concentrated power, but stoop-shouldered from toil. His face is as hard as if it were hewn out of a boulder, yet there is a weakness in it, a petty pride in its own narrow strength. His eyes are small, close together, and extremely nearsighted, blinking continually in the effort to focus on objects, their stare having a straining, ingrowing quality” (2:334–335). Ephraim is the quintessential New England Yankee, possibly the most affecting example in all of American drama: He is a hardworking, God-fearing Puritan fated to suffer his life in a state (largely of his own construction) of severe loneliness. He is also representative of the Apollonian impulse (the practical), as opposed to the Dionysian (the creative). As such, critics point to Ephraim Cabot as an avatar of O’Neill’s father, James O’Neill, who similarly equated hard work and property ownership with salvation and would also have been 76 (Ephraim’s age in the final part) had he still been alive. Oddly enough, O’Neill himself considered Ephraim one of his favorite creations because he is “so autobiographical!” (quoted in Alexander 36).
Ephraim has worked the same farm for 50 years, survived two wives (three soon after the action of the play, as Abbie will go to the gallows for killing her son), and warded off the acquisitive desires of his three sons to take over the farm. A month before the opening scene, Ephraim rode out “t’ learn God’s message t’ me in the spring” (2:325). His return comes in part 1, scene 4, wherein he brings “hum” a new wife, Abbie Putnam. Forty years his junior, Abbie has married in order to take the farm as her own after his death. His son Eben is her only competitor, as Ephraim’s other two sons, Simeon and Peter, desert the farm upon her arrival to prospect for gold in California. Abbie and Eben soon fall in love and secretly carry on a relationship behind Ephraim’s back.
Ephraim’s monologue in part 2, scene 2, a speech to Abbie that Margaret Loftus Ranald considers the “great key to the theology of the play” (1984, 175), exposits his entire life history, including the theological lessons learned along the way: He came to the farm 50 years earlier and worked himself to the bone removing stones to make a workable farm. Others in the area either died or moved west; Ephraim remained, hardening physically, emotionally, and spiritually. At one point, he too emigrated west. Life farming the plains proved too “easy,” however, and he heard God’s voice scold him for his indolence: “This hain’t wuth nothin’ t’ Me. Git ye back t’ hum!” (2:349). Obediently returning to New England, Ephraim soon married. Before his first wife’s untimely death, she bore Simeon and Peter. Over time, he grew lonesome and married again; this was Eben’s mother, whose parents contested his claim to the farm. Sixteen years later, she died as well, and his hatred for his sons grew as they made their own claims on the farm. God spoke to him again, ordering him to find a new wife, and he did—Abbie. Throughout Ephraim’s monologue, Abbie and Eben appear to exchange love messages telepathically through the wall separating their bedrooms, and to assuage Ephraim’s anger over her distraction, she promises to endow him with a boy. When a child arrives the following spring, Ephraim, unaware the child is Eben’s, throws a celebration in which the townspeople all share the knowledge that the child is the product of the incestuous relationship between Eben and Abbie, and they joke about it behind his back. In the final scene of the play, Abbie confesses the child was Eben’s and that she killed it to prove her love to Eben. Resigned to end his years in loneliness, Ephraim heads off to work as the lovers head off to the gallows.
Ephraim’s Cabot’s second son, Simeon Cabot’s brother, and Eben Cabot’s half brother. Peter is 37 years old. O’Neill describes him, like his brother Simeon, in terms of comparison with Eben: “built on a squarer, simpler model, fleshier in body, more bovine and homlier in face, shrewder and more practical” (2:319). Peter, like Simeon, has a bovine quality that connotes the hard-working, dispassionate New England Yankee, “their bodies bumping and rubbing together as they hurry clumsily to their food, like two friendly oxen” (2:321). Unlike his father Ephraim, whom he loathes, Peter is willing to abandon both the farm and New England for the more profitable venture of prospecting for gold in California. In this respect, along with whiskey drinking and father envy, both brothers resemble O’Neill’s brother James O’Neill, Jr. (Jamie), who moved to California with their mother, Mary Ellen “Ella” O’Neill, to oversee James O’Neill, Sr.’s real estate interests after his death. In part 1, scene 4, he sells his share of the farm to Eben for 300 dollars in gold pieces. Peter articulates his and Simeon’s view of the farmhouse as a form of imprisonment and the stone wall in front as a symbol of that condition: “Here—it’s stones atop o’ the ground—stones atop o’ stones—makin’ stone walls—year atop o’ year—him ’n’ yew ’n’ me ’n’ Eben—makin’ stone walls fur him to fence us in!” (2:320). When Ephraim returns with his new wife, Abbie Putnam, he and Simeon celebrate their newfound freedom by performing an Indian war dance around their father and throwing stones through the parlor window. They depart singing a gold-rush song to the tune of “Oh, Susannah!”
Ephraim’s Cabot’s eldest son, Peter Cabot’s brother, and Eben Cabot’s half brother. Simeon is 39 years old, and he lost his wife, Jen, 18 years before. O’Neill describes both Simeon and Peter in the same terms of comparison with Eben: “built on a squarer, simpler model, fleshier in body, more bovine and homlier in face, shrewder and more practical” (2:319). Simeon, like Peter, has a bovine quality that connotes the hardworking, dispassionate New England Yankee, “their bodies bumping and rubbing together as they hurry clumsily to their food, like two friendly oxen” (2:321). Unlike his father, Ephraim, whom he loathes, Simeon is willing to abandon both the farm and New England for the more profitable venture of prospecting for gold in California. In this respect, along with whiskey drinking and father envy, both brothers resemble O’Neill’s brother James O’Neill, Jr. (Jamie), who moved to California with their mother Mary Ellen “Ella” O’Neill to oversee James O’Neill, Sr.’s real estate interests after his death.
In part 1, scene 4, Simeon sells his share of the farm to Eben for 300 dollars in gold pieces. He symbolically removes the wooden gate from the stone wall in front of the house, which symbolized to both him and his brother the imprisonment of Ephraim’s reign. When Ephraim returns with his new wife, Abbie Putnam, Simeon and Peter celebrate their newfound freedom by performing an Indian war dance around their father and throwing stones through the parlor window. They depart singing a gold-rush song to the tune of “Oh, Susannah!” Putnam, A bbie (Abbie Cabot) E phraim Cabot’s third wife and Eben Cabot’s lover. Abbie arrives on the farm, the newlywed bride of Ephraim, in part 1, scene 4, and she instantly displays her desire to claim ownership of the farm. Her first line in the script reads, “Hum!. . . It’s purty—purty! I can’t believe it’s r’ally mine” (2:335). Abbie is 35 and thus Ephraim’s junior by 40 years. Like Cybel in The Great God Brown and Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten, Abbie represents an earth mother, sensual and close to nature, “buxom, full of vitality” (2:335). Though she marries Ephraim for the practical purpose of achieving a sense of ownership, she shares Eben’s “unsettled, untamed, desperate quality.” Upon their first meeting, after appraising her rival’s strength, “her desire is dimly awakened by his youth and good looks”; Eben also is “physically attracted” to his new challenger for rights to the farm (2:338).
At their first encounter, Abbie attempts to win Eben over by confessing her life. She has no memory of her mother, who passed away when she was very young. As an orphan, Abbie worked as a domestic servant until marrying a “drunken spreer” with whom she had a child that died in infancy (2:339). Her husband later died as well, and though she celebrated her freedom for a time, she was soon back working in domestic servitude. She envied her employers’ homes but had given up hope of achieving one of her own until Ephraim appeared. She married him with his assurance that his “hum” would be part hers.
Abbie initially intends to seduce Eben in order to form an alliance against Ephraim, but they soon fall in love. In part 2, scene 3, they meet in the parlor where Eben’s mother was shown after her funeral. The two lovers apprehend “somethin’ ” in the room (2:354). According to Eben, it is his mother’s spirit, which at first seems malevolent to Abbie but softens once Eben appears and the two consummate their love. Abbie vows to take Eben’s mother’s place in his heart, thus emphasizing the incestuous nature of their relationship and equating her with the mythic Greek characters Phaedra, who attempts to seduce her stepson Hippolytus, and Jocasta, who marries her son Oedipus, who had killed his father. They have a child together, though Ephraim believes the child is his. When Ephraim tells Eben that Abbie “says, I want Eben cut off so’s this farm’ll be mine,” (2:365) Eben accuses Abbie of playing him for a fool. She therefore kills their son to prove her love to him, now evoking the Greek tragedy character Medea, who killed her two children for vengeance against her husband, Jason, for leaving her. Abbie also represents the sensual, life-affirming impulse of the Greek god Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine, whom the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued was a necessary component in tragedy to offset the more practical god of the sun, Apollo. In the end, after Eben had rushed off to inform the sheriff of her murderous act, he returns and embraces her love for him, willing to share her punishment over the murder of their son. As the two are being led away by the sheriff and his men to the gallows, O’Neill combines all of these mythological elements, allowing the Dionysian to supplant the lovers’ hard and acquisitive Apollonian impulses.
The sheriff, who is addressed as “Jim.” He arrives with two men and his pistol drawn in the final scene to take Abbie and subsequently Eben into custody for the murder of their child. Jim has the final, ironic lines of the play: “It’s a jim-dandy farm, no denyin’. Wished I owned it!” (2:378). His acknowledgement of the farm’s beauty echoes the sentiments of the Cabot family; at the same time, his envy is clearly misplaced, given the tragedies that have occurred there. Jim is one of several lawmen who conclude O’Neill’s plays with an ironic line, including The Web and The Great God Brown.
Alexander, Doris. Eugene O’Neill’s Creative Struggle: The Decisive Decade, 1924–1933. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.
Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Clark, Barrett H. Eugene O’Neill: The Man and His Plays. Rev. ed. New York: Dover, 1947.
Cowley, Malcolm. “A Weekend with Eugene O’Neill.” In O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, edited by Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin, and William J. Fisher, 1–16, 41–49. New York: New York University Press, 1961.
Floyd, Virginia. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment. New York: Ungar, 1985.
Hammond, Percy. “Desire Under the Elms,” New York Herald Tribune, November 12, 1924. In O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, edited by Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin, and William J. Fisher, 170–171. New York: New York University Press, 1961.
Handlin, Oscar. “Yankees.” In Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, edited by Stephen Thernstrom, 1,028–1,030. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.
Hays, Peter. “Child Murder and Incest in American Drama.” Twentieth Century Literature 36, no. 4 (Winter 1990): 434–448. Murphy, Brenda. American Realism and American Drama, 1880–1940. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Ranald, Margaret Loftus. The Eugene O’Neill Companion. New York: Greenwood Press, 1984.
———. “From Trial to Triumph (1913–1924): The Early Plays.” In The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill, edited by Michael Manheim, 51– 68. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
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.