The third of the realistic plays completed during the period of his association with the Triumvirate was Desire Under the Elms, which O’Neill said he wrote at Ridgefield, Connecticut, “in the winter and spring of 1924” and finished in June.30 Like Welded and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, the new play accepted the recommendations of the prophets of the Art Theatre movement that a realistic play, to have value, must move toward a more profound realism, revealing the psychological essences and primitive mythic forces working in modern lives and attempting to reach a state of “spiritual abstraction.” O’Neill’s earliest plays in this vein were, on the whole, tortured, ambiguous and forced. In Welded and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, as in the earlier Diff’rent, the requirements of a scrupulous imitation of the appearances of life often obscured what O’Neill felt to be the spiritual essence behind life. Each of the earlier works is as much a case history of persons with vivid neuroses as it is the supernatural revelation of profound human and spiritual truth. In All God’s Chillun Got Wings, O’Neill manages to suggest not only that the characters of Jim and Ella are convincing human beings, realistically apprehended, but also that they epitomize general marital and racial problems. Yet their story is hurried in statement, and its resolution is as much melodrama as it is an action eliciting the “religious exultation over the truth” that O’Neill valued. The tension between the demands of the surface narrative and the symbolic underpinnings is dangerously strong.
In Desire Under the Elms, however, all strains are eased; surface and interior actions are brought into perfect conjunction. Technical experimentation is no longer self-assertively symbolic as were the shrinking rooms and follow-spots of the earlier plays. Now experiment serves realism and also, unobtrusively, opens the play to fuller perspectives. The characteristic dramatis personae—poetic hero, Strindbergian woman, materialistic brother, aloof and difficult father—are present, but they are drawn without the self-consciousness that derives from excessive autobiographical concern.* The typical themes—the yearning for a lost mother, for a home, for identification with a life force to be found in nature, and for the discovery of a god in marriage—are rooted, at last, in a credible fiction and characterizations. In all respects, Desire Under the Elms fulfills the promise of O’Neill’s early career and is the first important tragedy to be written in America.
O’Neill’s own response to the play was guarded. He wrote it rapidly and talked little about it while it was being written.** After it opened, O’Neill told Walter Huston, who played Ephraim Cabot, that he had dreamed the play in its entirety, a claim he also made for Ah, Wilderness!31 A note in his Work Diary indicates a more conscious process, saying that the “idea” for the play occurred to him in the fall of 1923.32 It is not possible to trace the elements of the dream, if dream there was, as scholars have traced the antecedents of Coleridge’s dream of Xanadu. O’Neill’s own play, The Rope, anticipated his use of the New England locale and the character of Ephraim. T. C. Murray’s Birthright, with its monologue describing the hardness of the farmer’s life, was centrally formative. The legends of Oedipus, Phaedra and Medea, along with Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, are nearly co-equal in importance. But there also exists the possibility of another, closer “source” than any of these—one whose proximity is so close as to raise a question of plagiarism. That work is Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted, produced by the Theatre Guild with Pauline Lord on November 24, 1924, twelve days after O’Neill’s play opened.
Interestingly, in 1925, Howard and the Theatre Guild were involved in a plagiarism suit by an author who claimed that Howard had stolen from him the central situation of a husband’s being incapacitated on his wedding night, leaving his bride to be seduced by another. In defense, searching for analogues to his comedy, Howard pointed out that They Knew What They Wanted was similar to the narratives of Candida, Pelléas and Mélisande and Paolo and Francesca, and he made much of the fact that it was intentionally patterned after the legend of Tristan and Isolde. So far as Howard was concerned, the incapacitation of the husband was the point at issue and he made no use of the parallels O’Neill’s play offered.
Howard’s attitude toward O’Neill’s work was warm and his praise unstinting. In December, 1924, he wrote to Barrett Clark expressing outrage for both himself and O’Neill after Robert Benchley had reviewed their plays as “French triangles.” He added that he was delighted with Clark’s review of Desire Under the Elms, and commented “There’s a fine play!”33 In an article in the New York Times, he was lavish with commendation,34 and in the preface to the original publication of his play he commented on the similarity between the two works, saying that he and O’Neill could agree “that no two plays could possibly bear less resemblance to each other than this simple comedy of mine and his glorious tragedy. . . .“
At the plagiarism trial, which Howard easily won, the judge accepted his testimony that the plot had been noted down in the summer of 1922 and that two acts of the scenario were in type by March, 1923. Howard’s correspondence bears this out: in June, 1923, he wrote to his sister that he had in hand two scenarios, a California comedy and a fantastic comedy about pirates. He wrote part of the California comedy in Europe in August, and, with the play unfinished, started his return trip in September, going directly to Hollywood, where his wife, Glare Eames, was to make a film with Mary Pickford. The play was finished in Hollywood by November 21, 1923, when he wrote to his agent, Harold Freedman, “I have today finished ‘They Knew What They Wanted’ which is the comedy I summarized to you last summer and which I wrote out in Venice. It is a good play, very human and funny and simple and clear—I think. It is my contribution to the Macgowan, O’Neill, Jones venture. I hope they will consider it a contribution.” There follows a letter of 1923, dated simply “Sunday,” discussing with Macgowan the casting of his play and suggesting that his wife, Glare Eames, who had played the lead in the Experimental Theatre production of Fashion, be considered as the heroine.
The evidence, therefore, places the script of They Knew What They Wanted in the hands of the Triumvirate several months before O’Neill began work on his scenario, at about the time he stated he got the “idea” for the tragedy. Curiously, at this point, the correspondence between Howard and the Triumvirate breaks off. No reply from Macgowan has been preserved in the Howard papers, and there is no further mention that the play was a contribution to the Triumvirate’s venture, except that in a deposition made at the time of the trial, Howard stated that the Theatre Guild was not the organization for whom the play was written.
In the end, proof
fails, yet the possibility remains suggestive, and the dubious story
of the dream, together with O’Neill’s uncharacteristic silence
about the play as he wrote it, breeds the suspicion that O’Neill was
aware that his planet and Howard’s were momentarily in uncomfortably
close conjunction. If so, it was not a matter of which either
playwright expressed cognizance, for neither work was diminished.
Perhaps all that needs to be said of the possibility is this: that if
O’Neill took anything of real importance from Howard, it was the
humanity, simplicity and clarity that Howard rightly found his comedy
to contain upon its completion. Howard’s major service was to make
the way smooth for O’Neill as Conrad’s The
Nigger of the Narcissus, Murray’s Birthright
and Ibsen’s Peer Gynt had
For whatever reason, O’Neill worked with unusual freedom in writing his tragedy. The lack of tension is revealed in many ways, perhaps chiefly in the play’s economy of means and its avoidance of startling stage effects and grotesque characterization. In All God’s Chillun Got Wings, the Congo mask is introduced into the play somewhat arbitrarily, accompanied by a lecture from Hattie as to its meaning and merits. The action associated with it, particularly Ella’s “murder” of the mask, forces a symbolic interpretation on the play that may well result in an effect of contrivance and unintegrated artifice. The symbolism arising from the setting of Desire Under the Elms, however, is of another order of merit. To be sure, as O’Neill describes the scene in a preliminary note, the meaning of his setting is explicit and forced. The elm trees brood over the house with “a sinister maternity . . . a crushing, jealous absorption. . . . They are like exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair on its roof, and when it rains their tears trickle down monotonously and rot on the shingles.” (202) Fortunately the novelistic rhetoric that links the elms with Eben’s dead mother and with an exhausted life force holds no meaning beyond the printed page. In the context of the play’s realistic action, the elms are not symbols in any discrete or absolute sense. Their meaning is reached only as the characters become aware of their presence, and as the elms, in consequence become part of the action. When, for example, Ephraim Cabot associates the evil he feels in the house with something dropping from the trees, their significance is made clear and psychologically plausible, their symbolism an element of the play’s core. They do not, as the Congo mask did, warp the drama’s action in order to justify their presence.
The design of the setting was O’Neill’s own, as the crude sketches he made to guide Robert Edmond Jones attest. The plan which permitted the simultaneous revelation of the interior and exterior of the house was created to solve the problems of the lengthy scene shifts that had destroyed the rhythm of Beyond the Horizon. O’Neill, who aimed again at the effect he had sought in the earlier play—a contrast of cramped and dark interior with radiant exterior— developed a simultaneous setting whose exterior walls were removed to reveal the rooms within. Settings using such devices are routine on today’s stages, but they were not in 1924. Whether the technique was O’Neill’s invention or not, the setting of Desire Under the Elms makes the first important use of the device on the modern stage and must rank as one of O’Neill’s most influential innovations.
Within the setting,
O’Neill moves the action easily, establishing in the swing from
interior to exterior a loosely defined rhythm that is amplified by the
cyclic pattern of time. The story is concentrated into three days, one
in summer, one in fall and one in spring. Each act follows the course
of its day from late afternoon or early evening until the following
dawn. The fluid unity of the setting and the cyclic control on the
action that his time-scheme exerts cause the play to approximate
classical unities of action, place and time and enable O’Neill to
avoid the picaresque narrative style of such a work as Chris
The use of time and place are successful in part because O’Neill has set the play firmly in a historical context. Desire Under the Elms was not his first venture into historical drama. The Fountain of 1921 marked his debut as a historian, but its romanticized view of history is unlike the realistic imagery he created of New England in 1850. O’Neill is entirely convincing that the Cabots sprang from that world. Unlike much that passes for history in theatre, the Cabots are not moderns in costume. To envision them as contemporary beings is not really possible, despite the Freudian overtones in their portraiture; neither can they be conceived of as coming from an earlier period in American history. They are only of their time and place. Notably the play contains no elaborate devices to suggest the period. A few specific references, such as those to the Gold Rush or the songs that are sung, establish the calendar time, but the reality of historical period like the symbolism emerges from the characters themselves. They could not exist in a time different from their own because their problems and their way of reacting to them arise from the world that O’Neill, now emerging as a major historical dramatist, has created for them. The setting, as it is in all great plays, is finally the creation not of the designer, but of the playwright, who evolves its reality through his action.
Such mastery of technical and stylistic means marks the work of a great dramatist of any period. The manifest technical ease eradicates the absurd distinction between the “commercial” and the “art” theatres. Certainly, when O’Neill’s tragedy was first produced it was a product of the avant-garde activities of the Triumvirate, staged in what was to become known as an off-Broadway theatre. Yet its standards were professional in the actors it employed, the critics it courted and the publicity on which it capitalized.*** Significant too is the fact that it was created within the limits set by an acknowledged and essentially commercial theatrical genre, the genre indeed of “Anna Christie” which O’Neill had mistrusted as too easy, too like routine Broadway fare.
Desire Under the Elms follows in its general pattern that of the American folk drama as it was developed in the 1920’s for popular commercial consumption. In these works, produced both on Broadway and in the regional theatres springing up throughout the country after the war, there evolved conventionalized patterns of action, character and belief that became for O’Neill among many others one form of theatrical language. The folk play centered thematically on the response of the characters to the land on which they lived. Close to the soil, their identities and destinies were shaped by a force they sensed moving in the earth. The influence of the land was shown in many ways, in the depiction of the hardship that comes when the land turns sterile or in the joy that the land in springtime brings to its people. Most frequently, the significance of the land was made clear by means of a character whose responsiveness to the earth served to bring into the range of consciousness the nature of the environmental forces that shape men’s destinies. Old Chris, responding to the sea rather than to the land, is such an interpreter, and, in the work of other dramatists, there are, for example, Tony in They Knew What They Wanted, Jeeter Lester in Tobacco Road and, to a lesser extent, Aunt Eller in Green Grow the Lilacs. This character, forming as he does an important link with the earth, is rooted where he belongs. In contrast, there is introduced into the action a nomad, usually a young man, who moves restlessly from place to place because he has not yet learned where he belongs. Joe in They Knew What They Wanted is a migrant worker, only dimly responsive to the beneficent influence from Tony’s grapevines. Matt Burke, although he is aware of the sea’s power within him, reveals something of the restlessness of the type, and Curly in Green Grow the Lilacs is another such character. The woman with whom these men come into contact is frequently an alien, often a city-dweller who comes to the land by accident, as Amy in They Knew What They Wanted came, or as Anna came to the sea—suspicious and a little afraid but discovering ultimately that she has come home.
Dialect and rural coloration necessarily form a feature of the style of these plays, and the narratives dramatize the lives of people whose horizons are limited and whose emotions are to a degree repressed, but who normally should be able to obtain a kind of blessing through the simplicity of the routines of their lives. It is of course possible for the dramatist to deny the possibility of blessing from the land. Tobacco Road, for instance, depicts rural existence as intolerable, ingrown, incestuous, damned. Yet even in this play, Jeeter’s only desire is to die as he lived on the land, and there is a moment at the end when he runs the soil through his fingers that suggests at least the possibility of benison in the earth.
Into this conventionalized pattern of dramatic narrative, Desire Under the Elms fits precisely. Ephraim’s sense of the earth as the source of his salvation, Eben’s feeling of dislocation on the farm, Abbie’s alien strangeness and her desire to come home are entirely in the tradition. The elements of incest and adultery, the violence, the crudity are all potentials of the pattern, and, in its thematic exploration of the nature of a “hard” and an “easy” God, the play sees the land both as fertile and as sterile, as giving blessing and as demanding cruel service.
When a dramatist works within a tried theatrical convention, he has two ways to proceed. He may either vary the essential pattern, as Somerset Maugham varies the late-Victorian triangle story in The Circle for the sake of a trick and a surprise ending, or he may fulfill it completely as Shaw uses the same pattern in Candida. The latter is the more difficult, but more rewarding course, and it is the one O’Neill followed in his folk tragedy. In doing so, he achieved a freedom and a security by the very fact that, through its knowledge of the conventions, his audiences could anticipate the movement of the narrative and understand it without the interference of surprise. Surprise blinds perception; suspense is movement toward the known; tension emerges from foreknowledge and expectation of consequence; satisfaction comes in the fulfillment of prediction. In Desire Under the Elms, there is conveyed a sense of operative destiny. The characters are fated men and women moving in predictable courses to known ends, an impression that is achieved partly by the dramatist’s acceptance of the elements of the genre.**** The result, for O’Neill is that within the pattern he is released from the necessity of devising fictions to embody his meaning. The fiction is there, and he can explore to the full the philosophical and theological implications of his action. The freedom he achieves is complete and the results are profound.
The multiplicity of
views it is possible to take of the action of
Under the Elms is a result of O’Neill’s freedom. His plays
immediately preceding the tragedy are not complex. Their ambiguities
appear to arise more from unwitting ambiguity of statement than from
subtlety of thought. In this play, however, interpretation is free
to move complexly on several levels that merge, finally, in a single
Desire Under the Elms is a result of O’Neill’s freedom. His plays immediately preceding the tragedy are not complex. Their ambiguities appear to arise more from unwitting ambiguity of statement than from subtlety of thought. In this play, however, interpretation is free to move complexly on several levels that merge, finally, in a single action.
At its least complex, seen as a realistic narrative of life on a mid-nineteenth-century farm, the play presents a convincing account of its characters moving in time. It is a work written in the best tradition of American realism. It is full, but not cluttered with detail; it is credible; and it produces that sense of local and particular inevitability that, in realistic drama and fiction, detailed psychological portraiture can sometimes evolve. In this primary, frontal view of the play, each individual is responsible for his fate. Despite the play’s grounding in psychological theory, O’Neill has not contrived destinies for his characters by forcing them into patterns prefabricated by Freud. Oedipal patterns of incest emerge both in Eben’s love for Abbie, and in his seeking out the prostitute Min, with whom his father and his brothers have slept. Yet such patterns in the action do not need a Freudian gloss to be understood. By contrast, the sociological and political theories which governed Arthur Miller’s determination of a fate for his Willy Loman, suggest that Willy’s fate is less a truth of his character than a demonstration of a thesis. The Freudian patterns of Desire Under the Elms, however, appear to be characteristic modes of behavior for the individuals under such circumstances as the play defines. Freud is used less for his theories than for his truth, a truth that had preceded Freud by millennia.
Again, viewed as a realistic narrative, the play contains elements characteristic of the naturalistic tragedy of Zola and Hauptmann—those grim, depressing narratives of small men and women defeated by societal and evolutionary forces they cannot control. Yet, as with his use of Freud, O’Neill convinces his audiences that this story is in no way contrived to demonstrate a sociological point. Focusing less on the pressure of external circumstance, more on the response to circumstance by the central characters, he strikes a just balance between an exploration of the harshness of their rural world and the people themselves. Ephraim, Eben and Abbie command sympathy not because they are victims of forces they cannot control, but because they are capable of choice and responsibility. The choices they make are not forced upon them, but O’Neill, aware of the pressures of the farm on its people, is careful to show how the choices evolved, and permit audiences to draw conclusions about that world from the perspective of his characters’ choices.
Although the play as a psychological and sociological work maintains an unforced and convincing quality of human truth, more impressive is the way in which it transcends naturalism and becomes a poetic tragedy, capable not only of presenting temporal, local and specific truths, but of achieving the more general perspective that important tragic drama holds on the human condition. Such perspective, after all, was what the drama of heightened realism was supposed to achieve.
The play’s narrative and its characters are entirely typical of O’Neill’s work. Eben is the hero touched with poetry, but unlike Robert Mayo, he is not a sentimental creation, taking out his frustration in moody longing for beauty. He has in him a “repressed vitality,” an animal quality that gives him maturity and manliness foreign to the earlier dreamer. Yet, like Mayo, he reveals the same need to belong. He seeks the same identification with nature and moves listlessly in alien places, in the kitchen, the world of women where he can sink no roots. His desire brings him into inevitable conflict with more hardened souls whose needs are less because they are aware of less.
Eben’s sensitivity is the core of the play’s poetic extension beyond simple realism. His sensibility creates a perspective within the action that permits a view of all the characters sub species aeternitatis, as images of more than particular, external truths. Eben’s need, which generates his habits of thought, enlarges the meaning of the life on the farm, giving the events the qualities of a symbolic action, and providing a context wherein may be understood general and universal meanings. Through Eben, for instance, the beauty of the farm is made real, and through his awareness, Abbie is linked with that beauty. He causes Ephraim to become aware of the natural forces that shape his life and enables him to define the nature of the hard and easy Gods, and to clarify the influences that are concentrated in the sinister elms. Through Eben’s touch of poetry, the farm is transformed, and what transpires there is heightened as is the action of great poetic drama.
To reinforce the generalized poetic perspective, O’Neill has given his dialogue special properties that lift it above merely realistic speech. No doubt the dialect spoken on the farm is real in that it can be heard in the mouths of New Englanders even yet. Furthermore, at no point is the rhetoric aggrandized beyond the level appropriate to the station of the characters. The decorum of the realistic theatre is rigidly observed. Yet as the dialogue is spoken, semi-literate and monosyllabic though it is, it emerges under the pressures of the emotions generated in the action as a special and rich language supportive of the play’s widest conceptions. It extends its meanings by overtone and implication to present both the multi-levels of the characters’ consciousness and, at the same time, their symbolic significance, welding both particular and general into a tonal pattern that has appropriateness, broad meaning and beauty.
Like all poetic
dialogue, O’Neill’s is rhythmic, but in this play there is none of
the overly crafted, highly conscious rhythmic effect found in other
of his works. Where rhythmic repetition occurs, it does so
naturally, as in Eben’s quasi-illiterate use of the word “warm”
and the ironic changes rung on the word “pretty” in his final
soliloquy in the play’s second scene:
The rhythm is
achieved through the repetition of words and broken phrases—in the
continual, choric repetition of “Ay-eh,” for example, or in such
passages as the “stichomythic” duet between Eben’s brothers,
Simeon and Peter:
To form imagery and rhythms that evolve naturally from character and setting, but which yet elicit from rural speech rhythms something of the strangeness, the uniqueness of poetry is a device O’Neill may have learned from the work of Synge and other dramatists of the Abbey Theatre. Whatever the source, the technique as displayed in the inarticulate self-justification of Simeon and Peter creates a vivid impression of the way in which diurnal realities obscure moral perception. At the same time, the words that suggest the simple rhythms of farm life provide a foil and balance to Eben’s fuller perception of the heart as a stone.
Eben’s imagery is
drawn from the reality of the farm, indeed helps to create that
reality. It is neither decorative nor inappropriately philosophical.
Like all else in this play, verbal imagery comes from character and
action, as Ephraim’s biblical cadences do, for instance, or as
Abbie’s desire for Eben is expressed in terms of her response to the
The partly ironic phallic imagery expresses Abbie’s langorous response to the sun’s heat. Beyond the moment, however, her words are to be heard as are the images of other more formal dramatic poems, within the context of a chain of images. Imagery of the sun forms a poetic motif threaded through the play. In the opening dialogue, for example, Eben, Simeon and Peter all respond to the setting sun:
For Simeon and
Peter, the sunset holds a vague promise of riches to be found in the
golden west, and, a little earlier, it has called to Simeon’s mind
the memory of his dead wife, Jenn, who had hair “long’s a hoss’
tail—an’ yaller like gold.” It conveys a sense both of loss and
promise and emblemizes the source of his restlessness and the end of
his quest. For Eben, the sun is less and more: a manifestation of
the beauty of the farm. It is the agent of the farm’s fertility,
but when it disappears he has no need to follow it beyond the hill
pasture that borders the universe. Although Eben hates the walls of
stones that bind in his heart, his desire is not to break out of
bondage but to find in the house and in the earth the life he needs.
The imagery of the sun thus arises in many contexts and develops
meanings crucial to the play. It is, in fact, the last image, where
all meanings that have accrued around it, those of nature, of love, of
covetousness, are synthesized and restated:
Through such skeins of imagery, O’Neill suggests the nature of the desires and destinies of his character on a broad, even symbolic, scale. Yet the imagery remains “natural,” its poetic structure concealed by the tight speech rhythms and the dialect that applies a styptic to its overly fecund flow.*****
Desire Under the Elms, bearing all the characteristics of O’Neill’s individual style and predilections, moving comfortably within the frame of popular dramatic tradition, extends its reach toward poetic tragedy in other ways than its dialogue. The narrative’s stress on murder and incest is potentially lurid and melodramatic, yet it also moves the work toward the special concerns of all tragic drama. However one may finally judge the play, its subject matter is neither trivial nor arbitrary. In this play, O’Neill was first attempting what he later undertook more explicitly in Mourning Becomes Electra: to construct a tragedy-by-analogy, using ancient Greek tragedy in an American setting in order that something of the power of the earlier dramatic literature would emerge and strengthen his own concepts.
The play is reminiscent of the circumstances of the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus, and in Abbie’s murder of the child, the dim outline of Euripides’ Medea appears. Neither Medea nor Hippolytus is a precise source for O’Neill’s story. He has used his “source material” much more freely than he did in Bound East for Cardiff or The Emperor Jones or than he was to do in Mourning Becomes Electra. The reminiscence is evoked by tone and texture more than by detailed imitation. What is important is the release of emotion the subject matter permits. One speaks hesitantly of a subject matter “proper” to tragedy. There can be no absolute prescriptions, yet the emotional range of this work is not readily paralleled in other plays of the period, even in O’Neill’s own, and this manifestation is in part attributable to the classical analogues. Further, the subject matter justifies in part the lyric eloquence with which the characters speak of their destiny. With such passions as theirs, they speak with convincing propriety in a heightened manner, and in the stark, seemingly elemental confrontations, they appear to be responding to a force of destiny that is at once real and mythic.
If tragedy is in any way ritualistic or if its enactments are to be purgative in any sense, the narrative must be a matter of important public concern. Sociological or political theories wrought into tragic stories are insufficient to provide more than the show of ritual. Great tragedy bespeaks the most profound psychological needs of the culture which produces it. The mythic qualities of the Oresteia or of Oedipus reflect qualities of Greek life which analysis more profound than that of history must reveal. These dramas are responses to myth, assuming its qualities and its relation to the central needs of the culture which cherished them. In their characters, language and action they give articulate form to the submerged communal desires of a people, and thus bring it to a level of popular awareness, provocative of passion and purgation. In search of such awareness, O’Neill reached back in time to mythic circumstances derived from an earlier culture and reshaped them to the basic story of human desire and its aftermath he narrated for modern America. In this way, he formed a story in a typical tragic pattern: his characters follow a course of sin and find redemption in recognition of error and the assumption of responsibility. Yet he did not do so in an attempt to be “Greek.” The pattern is reformed and domesticated, ultimately assumed as O’Neill’s own, and told for the sake of his own time.
That America between the two great wars was a mother-oriented society has been the subject of extensive recent comment. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, however, the truth was chiefly to be remarked in the drama which functioned as a reflector of a scarcely apprehended truth. Since it relies on mass responses, and is irrevocably public, as opposed to novel and poem which evoke private responses from individual readers, it necessarily speaks to and takes its life from those beliefs which many men hold in common. In a sense the drama tells everybody what everybody knows or at least chooses to believe. The stereotype and the cliché are elements of its life blood. The greatest dramatists see the human roots in these elements, and thereby speak to the truth that has evoked them, too easily, from popular belief.
In the films of the time, the mother’s boy was occasionally the subject for comedy and the basis of the comedic personality of such actors as Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon. For the most part, however, the films created the sense of the American hero as vigorous, competent, individualistic and self-reliant. This image, however, was denied in the drama, where the competence and inner strength of the American male was continually questioned. There, under many guises and with many changes of tone, he was shown to be a child questing through a hostile world in search of a lost mother. Sidney Howard’s The Silver Cord is perhaps the most obvious and painful example of the phenomenon, yet it is surprising in how many other plays a version of the quest appears, and how often the heroine fulfills in some measure the role of mother to the lost hero. Mention may be made of Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End, with its motherless slum children and its gangster-villain, Baby-Face Martin, who returns to the tenements of his boyhood to seek out a mother who rejects him. S. N. Behrman’s typical heroine is sought partly as a mother by the heroes loosed in her sophisticated salons, notably in the scene which ends the second act of Biography, between Marion Froude and Richard, the left-wing journalist. The quest is apparent in the comedies of Philip Barry, in, for instance, Holiday, where the nursery is seen as a place of special value because it is reminiscent of the dead mother, and it can be found in such works as Odets’s Awake and Sing, where Bessie Berger’s attempt to hold her family together during the Depression has forced her to withdraw from her family those necessary qualities of tenderness and love which alone will redeem them.
The theme of the lost mother and the weak and questing son was important to O’Neill for many personal reasons. Yet as the work of other dramatists amply demonstrates, it was not only his private concern. It was a theme important to his society, as that society was represented in microcosm in his audiences and in the public that read his works with sufficient eagerness to make them bestselling books. His assumption of a position of leadership in his theatre may well be attributed in part to his sensitive treatment of what was an American “universal,” a social truth, a cultural need.
Desire Under the Elms differs from other plays exploring this theme in that it does more than present a simplified, somewhat stereotypical response to the Oedipal drives in American society. Rather, centering on the theme as a basic pattern of American mores, it frames an action that attempts to understand the need by defining it in terms of large philosophical concepts that may be able to explain and thus partly to resolve the tensions the hopeless quest creates. Unlike most of his contemporaries who remained content with the observation of a social phenomenon, O’Neill provided a philosophical scheme that permitted a broad interpretation of his central concern. The scheme was Nietzsche’s.
In the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche, O’Neill found a congenial philosophy. He had read Thus Spake Zarathustra as early as 1907, and no doubt the quasi-mystical experiences involving the loss of consciousness in visions and dreams which he described in the persona of Edmund Tyrone made him responsive to Nietzsche’s description of the truth that could be revealed in Dionysian ecstasy. He was slow to find a use for Nietzsche in his drama, preferring the distillations to be found in Jack London, George Bernard Shaw or in George Cram Cook’s conception of the theatre as a Dionysian dance. Yet the identification with the sea of which he wrote in “Anna Christie” and Beyond the Horizon, the quest for a God that forms the thematic core of The Emperor Jones, The Fountain and The Hairy Ape, the ecstatic loss of self in marriage extolled in Welded, all point to his ultimate acceptance of Nietzsche’s doctrine as the theological matrix of his drama.
In using Nietzsche’s doctrine, O’Neill was necessarily highly selective. Desire Under the Elms does not dramatize the work of the philosopher but takes from his books, especially The Birth of Tragedy, the elements O’Neill felt to be compatible with his own sense of truth. With Nietzsche’s conception of the Dionysian way of life, O’Neill felt entirely in accord. He understood well that consciousness can be subdued by a kind of rapturous apprehension, analogous to drunkenness and to dreaming, and that through such intoxication, truths can be reached that are only dimly to be known through cognitive, structured perception.
Nietzsche equates the Dionysian apprehension with intoxication, a rapture that demolishes the defenses of the principium individuationis. He speaks of “the powerful approach of spring penetrating all nature with joy,” and describes how, when Dionysian emotions awake, man, as if he were under the influence of a narcotic, relinquishes self-awareness: “the subjective vanishes to complete selfforgetfulness.”35 Under the spell, “all the stubborn, hostile barriers, which necessity, caprice or ‘shameless fashion’ has set up between man and man are broken down. Now, at the evangel of cosmic harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, blended with his neighbor, but as one with him, as if the veil of Mâyâ had been torn and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious Primal Unity.”36 By the mystic rapture of Dionysus, “the spell of individuation is broken, and the way lies open to the Mothers of Being, to the innermost heart of things.”37
Although he was later to make Nietzsche’s vision of the “Universal Oneness” a subject of more explicit concern, in its broadest meanings his action implies the centrality of that concept to his play. Abbie takes Eben’s mother’s place; she is his lover and mother; she becomes pregnant. In her presence the farm becomes warm and fertile, and she and the farm become as one. Through her, Eben achieves an intoxicant rapture, born of a desire that transcends the walls of stones and the confines of the narrow rooms of the house. Together, in love, they come into a profoundly right relationship with the energy that vitalizes the earth, a force that is in effect the power of nature itself. The love story of Abbie and Eben is in effect a dramatization of the condition Nietzsche called “Dionysian.”
In opposition to the
Dionysian forces, Nietzsche placed powers he called “Apollonian.”
Apollo’s art Nietzsche described as incessantly hostile to the
As he develops the conception. Nietzsche maintains that the Apollonian could lead humanity by satisfying men’s need for beauty, and that he could create a hierarchy of joy that would free the world from the Dionysian hierarchy of terror.
O’Neill had little interest in the joy of Apollonianism. He understood, however, the concept of the constant hostility between the two powers and agreed that “Wherever the Dionysian prevailed, the Apollonian was routed and annihilated.”39 In Desire Under the Elms, O’Neill made the anti-Dionysian force approximate to Puritan Christianity, and he tied it in with a fundamentalist, Old-Testament deity, and with the rigorous repression of the flesh and the subjugation of impulse to rock-hard will. Nietzsche spoke of the Dionysian’s taking down Apollonian culture stone by stone, as if it had been built in the same way Ephraim erected the stone walls on his farm. Nietzsche’s imagery was perhaps as important as his thought, and from it O’Neill framed actions fundamental to his play—especially the conflict between a man who sought to achieve a Dionysian rapture and another who was dedicated to a life of unflinching self-denial and hardship, to whom the service of Dionysus seemed immorally easy and was in effect anathema.
The suggestion of the tragedy’s central conflict had been dormant in much of O’Neill’s earlier drama. The poet-heroes of whom he had written were to a man “Dionysian” in essence, if not detail. The great change in the new tragedy lay in the antagonist, who in his earlier versions had been only a materialist who sought to control the elements of his world. As Andrew Mayo gambled in wheat, as Jones made himself a materialistic Emperor, so all of O’Neill’s anti-Dionysians sought power in what they could clutch, enslave and manipulate. Ephraim Cabot marks a change in O’Neill’s view of the enemy. With Nietzsche’s help, O’Neill was able to see this opponent of the Dionysian as being in his turn a God-driven man, one who, despite his materialism and his stubborn individualism, also “belonged” to a power greater than himself. As O’Neill gained this perspective, what followed in the play was almost inevitable: the warfare of Eben and Ephraim became the embodiment of a theological conflict based broadly on the antagonism of the Dionysian and the Apollonian forces Nietzsche had described, a conflict fought in the “universe” of the farm, in the particular arena its center, the house, created.
The theological conflict is presented explicitly in Ephraim Cabot’s monologue in Part II, scene ii, when, moved by his desire for Abbie, he attempts to reach her by confessing something of his nature and telling her of the hardships in his past. The essence of his statement is that he has grown hard in the service of a hard God. “God,” he says, “hain’t easy”; His presence is in the stones that must be piled up in a cruel life of sacrificial service so that the farm may be fertile. The service is justified by God’s commandment to Peter to build his church on a rock. Ephraim says, “When ye kin make corn sprout out o’ stones, God’s livin’ in yew!” He tells Abbie of a time when in despair at so many stones, he gave up the farm and journeyed west and farmed a broad meadow where there were no stones, where “Ye’d on’y to plow an’ sow an’ then set an’ smoke yer pipe an’ watch thin’s grow.” But the easy way had no salvation in it, and he returned to the stony farm and re-entered the service of the hard God.
The loneliness of the life on the farm was part of Ephraim’s devotion, but at times, when hefting the stones became overbearingly difficult, when solitude made him “despairful,” he sought out a woman, the whore, Min, or he took a wife, the mother of Simeon and Peter, and later, when she died, the mother of Eben. His first wife stood beside him, working hard, but “she never knowed what she was helpin’.” With her, Ephraim was always lonesome. After her death, it was not so lonesome: “The farm growed. It was all mine! When I thought o’ that I didn’t feel lonesome.” His second wife, whom he married because her people contested his deeds to the land, was pretty and soft. Ephraim acknowledges that she tried to be hard but failed because “She never knowed me nor nothin’. It was lonesomer ‘n hell with her.”
Then, for a third time, he hears a call in the Spring, “the voice o’ God cryin’ in my wilderness, in my lonesomeness—t’ go an’ seek an’ find!” The voice in the wilderness has led him to Abbie, but in her presence as in the presence of the other women, he feels divided from his God, more lonesome, for this reason, than before he had found her. It is as if he had been driven by an alien force, not his hard God, but by another, one that stimulates desire and breeds weariness with the stones.
At the end of his monologue, he realizes that Abbie has not understood him, perhaps has not even heard him as she yearns for Eben in the adjoining bedroom. He leaves her and stumbles through the night to the barn, “whar it’s restful—whar it’s warm,” and as he rounds the corner of the house, he stretches up his arms into the night and cries out to a God he understands, “God A’mighty, call from the dark!” The hard God he has served is no longer there to hear him, and, as always when women come to the farm, he is wretched in his loneliness. The women—certainly Eben’s mother and Abbie—serve a different God, one who is soft, if not easy, fecund, closely allied with the generative powers of nature, and capable of desire. Later, in Strange Interlude, O’Neill will write of the two principles as God the Father and God the Mother. In Desire Under the Elms, the conflict between the hard and—in Ephraim’s term—easy Gods, the former associated with Ephraim’s ascetic Puritanism and essentially masculine strength, the latter associated with Abbie and the fertility of the farm, is the thematic center of the play.
The setting is larger than the stage can show. Conveyed in the dialogue is a picture of the farm, fertile but without the luxuriance associated with natural fertility, settled in a bowl of hills, a pale sky contrasting with the isolated, monumental elms in the farmyard. Rows of stone walls wander across it, marking its boundaries, and through them passes a road which leads vaguely “away.” At the center stand the house and barn, in good condition, but still suggesting buildings on the edge of ruin. The exterior walls are “a sickly grayish, the green of the shutters faded.” The shingles of the house are rotting from the water that drips off the elms. It is as if the house were deserted and had no life.
While ordinary enough, the house still contains a mystery, for its central room, Eben’s mother’s parlor, is dark and sealed away. It is not the ordinary closed parlor, reserved for company use only. It is a haunted room, inhabited by his mother’s ghost. Eben thinks of it as a room devoted to her memory. Caring for the house, cooking and doing the woman’s service, he moves as if he were an acolyte, tending a shrine from which the saint has gone.
The image of the house as a shrine or church is not entirely fanciful. The action of the play begins with the ringing of a bell from the porch as Eben calls his brothers to supper, much as a congregation is called to prayer by the tolling of a bell. His first word, spoken as he looks up to the sunset-colored sky, is “God!” followed by a word spoken with “puzzled awe,” the devotional “Purty!” The congregation that comes, the oxen-like brothers from the field, are in Eben’s view aliens who do not know the proper forms of devotion, for the service he has undertaken is the service of a priestess, not a priest, and the absent deity is female. Perhaps for this reason, as they approach the house, the men remember dead women. Simeon is reminded of his lost wife, Jenn, and Eben speaks fiercely of his mother.
Such memory has no sustenance. Jenn’s name evokes in Simeon and Peter a vague restlessness and is linked with the promise of California gold. Eben’s memory of his mother causes him to attack the life around him, blaming his brothers for their failure to help her or take moral responsibility for what happened to her. By turning continually to thoughts of his mother, he finds a way to rebel against the life he is forced to live, retreating from the farm’s hardness toward a warmer and more gratifying commitment.
Isolated on the land, the lonely men walk hopelessly through the tired routines of their lives, dreaming only of possessing something that might satisfy them. Simeon and Peter hold to their vision of the riches in the West; Eben dreams of possessing the farm. Both desires are loosely associated with women—Jenn, Eben’s mother—but for none of the brothers does the desire to possess material wealth betoken a real need. Simeon’s restlessness is merely a reaction to the loss of Jenn. His aim in going west is dimly comprehended, and, although it is clothed in the imagery of bright promise, its ill-success is suggested when he and Peter sell their rights to inherit the farm for the thirty pieces of gold Eben steals from Ephraim. Having sold their birthrights, they leave, quasi-biblical prodigals who will not return to their home.
Eben’s need, more articulated by his awareness, is manifested first as a lust for the land that if gratified will dispossess his father from the farm, leaving him in sole charge. Like his brothers, he at first seeks satisfaction in a dream of material possession, yet as the play proceeds it becomes clear that his hatred of his father and his legalistic claims of ownership are only signals of a truer desire, to rediscover through an identification with the land the security love of his dead mother brought him. He has filled the void her death created with vicious hatred, but for all that, his quest is positive and at heart selfless. He desires not to possess, but to be possessed by the force he knew in her love and which he associates with the “purty” land. What this implies is a total renunciation of the self.
His quest for the source of the feminine power in the land sets him apart from his brothers and brings him into fatal opposition with Ephraim and his hard God. To Eben, the prostitute, Min, whom he visits in a kind of incestuous revenge on his father, is warm and soft like the summer night, “like a wa’m plowed field,” and he acknowledges the birth of a force in him that is like the fertile power of nature itself, “growin’ an’ growin’—til it’ll bust out—!” Simeon, mocking him, says “Lust—that’s what’s growin’ in ye,” but lust is only the manifestation of frustrated desire. For Eben, the true, the consummate condition of being is to belong to the land as an unborn child belongs to the womb. Curiously, moved by this desire, his view of the land changes, and it is no longer stony and unyielding, but warm and filled with life.
Dominant at the heart of the play are, then, the two powerful forces moving through the land and giving it its character: a power that lies in the stones and a power that resides in the soil. The former demands the self-denial and the control Ephraim gives it; the latter promises peace and fulfillment in return for complete surrender. The characters are aware of them. Simeon acknowledges the presence of such powers when, speaking of the death of Eben’s mother, he says, “No one ever kills anybody. It’s allus somethin’. That’s the murderer.” (207) Others in the play respond in varying degrees of awareness to the forces that control their lives, as Ephraim calls to the God of the Lonesome, as Eben pays devotion to his mother’s ghost, and as Abbie speaks of the force of nature, saying that nature “owns ye . . . an’ makes ye grow bigger—like a tree— like them elums.” (229)
Essentially, it appears that the two forces are to be equated with the Gods Dionysus and Apollo. Yet while Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy provided the philosophical underpinning the drama evolved from O’Neill’s perception that men who are forced to serve alien Gods are doomed to loneliness. This had been Eben’s case until Abbie came, but when they have loved, the feminine principle asserts itself, and Abbie, in the service of the Mother God, finds contentment for herself and brings it to Eben. At the same time, however, Ephraim suffers a sense of alienation and loss—and specifically of the power to serve the hard God who appears to have been driven from the farm by the service Abbie and Eben pay to God the Mother.
Ephraim’s dispossession has been signaled by the desire that drove him out to “learn God’s message” in the spring. His language is that of an Old Testament prophet, but the desire that moves in him and that drives him to find Abbie is strange to him. He is made aware that he is withered and dry, a branch fit only for the burning, and to reassert his former devotion, he invokes the God of the Old and Lonesome. Simeon has said his father’s search for a wife was “whoring,” but it was more than this. In succumbing to the desire for life and in deserting the God of the Stones, he has whored not after a woman but a false God, God the Mother. Yet he cannot live in the alien God’s service. He says to Abbie, “It’s cold in this house. It’s oneasy. They’s thin’s pokin’ about in the dark—in the corners.” (238) In the end, he is driven from the house, an apostate cast into darkness.
The Dionysian God demands surrender and the suppression of any act of conscious will. Good lies in loss of consciousness, sexual rapture, drunkenness, and in an unthinking response to the life-giving forces of the earth. When he is possessed by it, even Ephraim pays halting tribute to its power by quoting Biblical images of sex and fertility (“yer belly be like a heap o’ wheat”) and when he is moved by desire, he tacitly acknowledges the presence of the Mother God, saying to Abbie that “Sometimes ye air the farm an’ sometimes the farm be yew.” (236) Such admission, however, is temporary and in Ephraim a madness that indicates how much he has deserted the limits of his proper devotion, limits that were defined by the stone walls he built as he sought to possess and subdue the farm. Ephraim’s is a God served by an unrelenting pressure of will, so single-minded as to amount almost to mania. Or so it seems to Ephraim’s neighbors who ridicule his servitude.
The Dionysian power is released when Eben takes Abbie in the night on the sofa in his mother’s parlor. Then the mother’s ghost disappears, and despite their adultery and their incest, they love free from guilt. The victory of the force they honor comes to a climactic celebration in the dance that opens Part III, the revel celebrating the birth of Abbie’s child by Eben. At the party, Ephraim, the supposed father, acts the role of the satyr, capering in the dance, drinking and bragging of his sexual prowess, while his neighbors mock him to his face. The revels mount in tempo and die at their height. Abbie leaves and joins Eben by their child’s cradle, and Ephraim drunkenly staggers outside to stand beneath the elms. The music dies, and a noise “as of dead leaves”—the gossiping whispers of the guests—comes from the kitchen. Then, Ephraim feels most strongly the maternal power concentrated in the trees:
At the Dionysian climacteric, Ephraim is alone.
Later, the guests gone, Ephraim convinces Eben that Abbie has tricked him into fathering the son who will finally possess the farm. Eben’s failure to believe in Abbie’s love marks the end of the Dionysian reign. He leaves her, crying that he is going to get drunk and dance, but after the betrayal, he is incapable of plunging into forgetful surrender to the God. Abbie clings to him and passionately asks whether he would forgive her if she could prove that she had not schemed against him: “If I could do it—ye’d love me agen, wouldn’t ye? Ye’d kiss me agen? Ye wouldn’t never leave me, would ye?” Eben replies sardonically, “I calc’late not. But ye hain’t God, be ye” (258)
Abbie’s murder of
her child is her attempt to be God, but the act of self-denying will,
the sin against love and the life of the Dionysians, is more proper to
the service of Ephraim’s God than to hers. Hearing of
her action, Eben cries out, “Oh, God A’mighty! A’mighty God!
Maw, whar was ye, why didn’t ye stop her?” To this, Abbie replies,
“She went back t’ her grave that night we fust done it, remember?
I hain’t felt her about since.” (261) Her words suggest that
perhaps now the ghost will return and wander restlessly, since the God
has left. Ephraim in his desolation threatens to set fire to the house
and barn: “I’ll leave yer Maw t’ haunt the ashes.” His words
are akin to recognition of the force that has haunted him:
considers going west, but at the last, he realizes he cannot leave.
At the end Ephraim’s God has returned to the farm vanquishing the maternal force that Eben and Abbie had served and betrayed.
Yet what is left for them, displays a final, perhaps unexpected, turn, and with the conclusion to his tragedy, O’Neill introduces a new motif in his writing, centering on a concept of the power of will. When it is no longer possible for them to belong to their God, the lovers have one recourse—to belong to one another. Earlier, their love generated the rapture that permitted them to achieve the Dionysian immersion into the life force. It brought them in tune with the fertility of the land and its divinity. Now, however, the God has left the land, and they are ejected from the Garden. As Adam accepted Eve’s sin, Eben must accept Abbie’s, for what is left to them cannot lie beyond themselves. In turning back to Abbie, after his violent rejection of her strange act of faith, Eben reestablishes their love so that they need to rely on nothing outward. Earlier, in Welded, O’Neill had written of two who attempted to find God in marriage, but in the final moments of Desire Under the Elms, there is only an assertion of responsibility and an acceptance of the destiny their love has brought. Without God, man has only himself to provide surcease from loneliness.
The play’s ending awakens echoes of older tragic patterns that conclude with the protagonist’s acknowledgement of his responsibility for a general guilt. Making such admission Eben becomes nearly heroic in the eyes of his father who speaks grudgingly of his admiration. Eben’s act is perhaps one which Ephraim’s God would exact from one of his servants, based as it is on a consciousness of guilt and a need for expiation. Yet in the reunion of the lovers, O’Neill is announcing strongly what will be a solution for those who cannot “belong.” It was a concept which he touched crudely in so early a play as The Web, and which in his final plays he will develop into a major statement: that when all is lost, the only good is in finding another being, equally lonely and alienated, in whose presence comfort can be gained and loneliness forgotten for a time.At the end, O’Neill’s God-oriented tragedy comes to focus on man. The shift is made without a jar, and the play achieves a fullness of statement and form which no earlier work of his had attained. It is a major work of art prepared by a playwright who in mastering his craft and completely understanding the implications of his theme had finally come of age.
* The elements of autobiography are traced in Gelb,
538 ff., and by Philip Weissman, “Conscious and Unconscious Autobiographical
Dramas of Eugene O’Neill,” Journal
American Psychoanalytic Association,
of the American Psychoanalytic Association,V, July, 1957, 432-60.
*** In February, 1925, the District Attorney of New York City tried to close the play, by demanding that it be completely rewritten. A “Citizen’s Play Jury” ultimately cleared the play of charges of obscenity. Similar accusations were to follow it on tour in many cities. Characteristically, O’Neill felt that the publicity hurt the play, saying “We got a large audience, but of the wrong kind of people.” (Cf. Gelb, 577)
**** The one “surprise” is Abbie’s murder of her child rather than her husband. She acknowledges this as an error. Yet in the play’s context, the death of the life that has come to her is made a vital issue, and the variation on the pattern is not a melodramatic shock.
* * * * * In this connection it should be noted that Ephraim’s monologue in Part II, scene ii is one of the great lyric passages in modern drama. The monologue is of course a characteristic of O’Neill’s style, yet unlike many it gives no sense of being forced on the occasion. It arises from the moment, and it remains entirely appropriate to the semi-literate man who speaks it, even as it is patterned into poetic rhetoric.
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