Banned in Boston and England, narrowly escaping a ban in New York, and its Los Angeles cast arrested for obscenity, Desire Under the Elms, with incest, adultery, and infanticide openly treated, brought O’Neill into conflict with various censors and brought much of the public to the box office. It ran for 208 performances on and off Broadway and may be the first important American tragedy.
The play demonstrates O’Neill’s exploration of Greek theater. It does not derive directly from any particular play, but its material echoes Hippolytus and Medea, which contain incest and infanticide. The inhibited, puritanical society of New England in 1850 seemed to O’Neill appropriate for the epic Greek quality he sought. A further debt to the Greeks occurs in the sense of an inevitable fate awaiting the participants, Ephraim Cabot, his son Eben, and Ephraim’s new wife, Abby Putnam.
The desire of Eben and Abby for each other is apparent from the moment she steps into the house, although it is masked by Eben’s antagonism and her caution. He is loyal to the memory of his dead mother, whom he feels was robbed of her land and worked to death by Ephraim. The farm is his, he believes, and Abby is an intruder, seeking to steal his inheritance. She, in turn, has learned to fight for what she wants, and now she seeks security and a place of her own.
If Eben were not there, quite likely Abby would have made a good wife for Ephraim as long as he lived; however, the mutual physical attraction of Abby and Eben cannot be resisted. In a powerful scene in which Abby lures Eben into the parlor and declares her love, promising that she will take the dead mother’s place, “with a horribly frank mixture of lust and mother love,” the adultery is consummated.
One psychoanalytic critic noted that the play seems to have been written by someone in...
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