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 “intense mourning for his mother” (O’Neill had lost both his mother and brother in the previous two years). Certainly the yearning for the nurturing, protective mother permeates the work, not only in Eben’s speeches about his love for his mother and in his incestuous love for the wife of his father, but also in Abby’s speeches about her willingness to substitute for the mother. Further, both Abby and Eben strongly desire the land, which belonged to the mother, and which represents the same nurturing, protective qualities. This motif is further emphasized in O’Neill’s specific directions for the visual effects of the setting, in which he calls for two elm trees on each side of the house with “a sinister maternity . . . like exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair on its roof.”
The Oedipal conflict of father and son for superiority, through possession of the woman, underlies the action of the play. Ephraim’s superior maleness will be demonstrated unequivocally with the birth of a son by Abby. Eben’s secret knowledge that Abby’s son is his secures his male superiority as well as his claim to the farm. When Eben becomes jealous of Ephraim’s possessiveness of the baby, Abby, literally accepting his cry that he wishes the baby had never been born, murders the child to prove her love. She readily acknowledges her crime, Eben accepts his responsibility, and both resign themselves to punishment. Ephraim must remain on the farm. “God’s hard,” he says, believing that a force beyond himself has guided events.
The structure of the play is one of O’Neill’s tightest; its three acts are economical and swiftly moving. O’Neill’s innovative set design of the original production made use of a house exterior and interior: When a scene occurred in one room, the exterior wall could be removed, and scenes set in different rooms could be viewed simultaneously. This allowed for an easy flow from one scene to another. The lighting also contributed, providing a contrast between the brightly lit exterior and the dim, shadowy interior.
O’Neill’s use of language is masterful; the...
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