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...
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