Desire Under the Elms was the last of Eugene O’Neill’s naturalistic plays and one of his most effective. The structural set, showing the entire farmhouse with one wall removed, was an innovation in its day. In this play, O’Neill’s daring reduction of human motives to the simple impulses of love, hate, lust, and greed gives an impression of human nature as convincing and complete as the more complex studies of his later plays.
One of O’Neill’s most admired and frequently performed plays, Desire Under the Elms provoked enormous controversy during its first stagings. Some audiences were scandalized by what one critic called “distresses” that “range from unholy lust to infanticide, and include drinking, cursing, vengeance, and something approaching incest.” In Los Angeles, the cast was arrested for having presented a lewd, obscene, and immoral play. A bizarre trial followed, in which at one point the entire court witnessed a special private performance. The jury was finally dismissed when they could not resolve their deadlock, eight members voting for conviction and four for acquittal.
It gradually became apparent that O’Neill was aiming at something more than a shocking revelation of unconscious drives and primordial fears, elements that were clearly subordinate to his larger purpose of reintroducing authentic tragic vision to American theater. O’Neill’s supporters could point out that the Greek and biblical sources that had inspired the play were replete with the very “immoralities” he depicted.
Euripides’ Hippolytos(428 b.c.e.; Hippolytus, 1781) and Jean Racine’s Phèdre (1677; Phaedra, 1701) served as O’Neill’s principal models. These works both draw on the archetypal plot in which a father returns from a journey with a wife, who falls in love with her new stepson. This attachment, at first resisted or concealed, results in a struggle between father and son, in which the father achieves a Pyrrhic victory that costs him both son and spouse. The situation is tragic in that all participants are forced to make conscious choices of evil for the sake of a higher good. It is fate that so structures events as to necessitate the downfall of essentially noble characters. O’Neill complicates the classic plot by introducing Old Testament motifs: the hardness and vengeance of God; the superiority of justice over mercy; and the battle among sons for birthrights and fatherly favor. He also relies on Freudian psychology in his treatment of sexual relationships.
It is questionable whether...
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