Friday, April 26, 2019
Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O’Neill
Greek tragedy in rural New England
Desire Under the Elms, one of Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill’s better known dramas, premiered in 1924. The story is based on the ancient Greek myth of Phaedra, Hippolytus, and Theseus, but O’Neill’s play does not adhere strictly to the plot of the source material. The drama takes place on a farm in New England. In the opening act, Peter and Simeon Cabot and their considerably younger half-brother Eben Cabot are discussing their father Ephraim, who owns the family farm. The older sons are wondering when the old man is going to die so they can take over his land. Fed up with waiting for their due share of the farm, they are contemplating running off to California to hunt for gold. Eben, on the other hand, harbors a strong hatred for his father for having worked his mother to death. Eben dreams of someday taking his revenge on the old man and reclaiming the land that he believes rightfully belonged to his mother. Everyone’s plans are upset, however, when it is revealed that Ephraim has remarried, and will soon be returning home with his much younger bride.
Desire Under the Elms is one of O’Neill’s more popular and successful plays, having been staged in many productions over the past century and adapted into a Hollywood film in 1958. The script certainly contains some meaty parts for the three leads. Eben, Ephraim, and the stepmother/third wife Abbie Putnam all get their fair chance at scenes of emotional power. When reading the play in book form, however, it does not come across as effecting as many of O’Neill’s other works. For starters, the entire play is written in a sort of hillbilly accent that doesn’t really call to mind New England. The word “yes” is transcribed as “ay-eh,” “home” is “hum,” and “pretty” is “purty.” Not only does this apostrophe-studded hick transcription make for difficult reading, but it renders the characters less sympathetic, as if O’Neill himself were making fun of them. The accent doesn’t come across as true-to-life as do those of the patrons of the waterfront bar in Anna Christie or the coal shovelers of The Hairy Ape. On stage, skilled actors would be unlikely to stick exactly to the text and could craft a believable accent to sell the characters, but on the printed page you’re stuck with the language as written.
The plot of the play is very predictable. There really isn’t any story development that you don’t see coming a mile away. These are archetypal characters acting out a scenario that is thousands of years old. Originality or surprise, therefore, probably aren’t the main objectives here, but rather to allow the audience to experience universal scenes of love, anger, and grief that are familiar but nonetheless powerful. Even so, Abbie’s climactic act does not come across as realistic, at least not when set in the twentieth century. Here it feels like a contrivance calculated to squeeze as much anguish out of the characters as possible. After the intensity of that moment, the conclusion seems timid by comparison, more epilogue than finale. The final line of the play reads almost like a joke and is indicative of a disconnect that persists throughout the story between the tone of the language and the tone of the events in the story.
In general, I enjoy reading O’Neill’s work, and I respect him as one of America’s preeminent playwrights. Desire Under the Elms is a good play, but in a career studded with masterpieces it doesn’t shine as brightly as many of O’Neill’s other renowned works.
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