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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. II, No. 3
January, 1979



It is well-known that Eugene O'Neill relied throughout his career upon biblical and classical parallels in an effort to transcend what he believed to be the naive naturalism of American theatre and to lend structural and thematic coherence to his plays. As early as 1915 O'Neill had written with Harvard classmate Colin Ford a play called Belshazzar, based on an episode from the Old Testament, while in Rope (1918)--the manuscript of which he destroyed soon after completion--he used the Genesis story of Jacob, Isaac, and Esau, and again, in Lazarus Laughed (1927), retold a famous story from the New Testament. In The Great God Brown (1926), the strange Nietzschean hybrid Dion Anthony brought together in his very name the primitive pagan and Christian elements that are in conflict in much of O'Neill's work, while in The Iceman Cometh (1946), Christian mythology was inverted into a nihilistic fable about the necessity of illusion in a godless universe. And O'Neill's great trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), based upon the Oresteia of Aeschylus, is perhaps the most ambitious adaptation of a classical subject in American drama. Occasionally, O'Neill even used multiple parallels within a single play; a good example of this is Desire Under the Elms (1924), in which at least four such substructures are at work.

Of these four parallels, three have been previously pointed out by critics.1 Perhaps the most salient of these is O'Neill's use of the Phaedra myth, with the ill-fated triangle of Theseus, Phaedra and Hippolytus clearly serving in Desire as a structural prototype for the relationships of O'Neill's Ephraim, Abbie and Eben Cabot, respectively. A second, though somewhat less rigid, parallel derives from the Oedipus legend, with Eben Cabot as a modern Oedipus; the brooding spirit of his dead mother, which lives symbolically through his stepmother, as Jocasta; and, again loosely, Ephraim as a frustrated Laius. And a third parallel has been shown to exist in the loose but suggestive equation of Cabot with the Old Testament prophet Hosea. In addition to these three parallels, I wish to suggest a fourth, also from the Old Testament.

One of the first things we notice about Desire Under the Elms is that each of the four major male characters bears a biblical name. Peter, for example, may be associated--if only, like Rocky in The Iceman Cometh, for negative reasons--with the biblical rock (petrus) upon whom the church was founded; it is he who throws a rock through the window at Abbie, his new stepmother. Against both Peter and his brother Simeon, who may be associated with the Simeon of Genesis 49:5, stands Eben, whose final integrity tragically but fully warrants his name (Hebrew, stone of hope). And, finally, there is Ephraim, whose name suggests the progenitor of the tribes of Israel. These four names are not only appropriate to the rural New England setting of 1850, but resonate well with the legalistic, Old Testament ethos of the play as a whole. The significance of these names has also been pointed out before by critics, yet no one, to my knowledge, has offered either a source or a significance for the name of Abbie Putnam. While the name Abbie is of course a diminutive of Abigail (source of joy), there is a good possibility that O'Neill derived the name from a minor heroine of the Old Testament, who appears in the following passage from the first Book of Kings:

Now King David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he gat no heat. Wherefore his servants said unto him, Let there be sought for my lord the king a young virgin; and let her stand before the king, and let her cherish him, and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat. So they sought for a fair damsel throughout all the coasts of Israel and found Abishag a Shunhamite, and brought her to the king. And the damsel was very fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not. (I Kings 1:1-4)

Beyond the obvious aural similarity of the names Abishag and Abbie, several parallels between the biblical story and O'Neill's play exist. The name of the former derives from the Hebrew avishagh, which means "the father wanders," and it incidentally illustrates the fateful action of Ephraim at the beginning of the play as he goes out to seek a mate. King David, too, "wanders," if only by proxy, in order to find Abishag the Shunhamite. And in both cases this wandering is brought about by a serious lack of sexual vitality or "heat:" "I been hearin' the hens cluckin' an' the roosters crowin' all the durn day," says Ephraim. "I been listenin' t' the cows lowin' an' everythin' else kickin' up till I can't stand it no more." Both King David and Ephraim require women considerably younger than themselves to be restored to happiness and health, although both Abbie and Abishag ultimately fail to fulfill this task. Abishag the Shunhamite shares with Abbie the tripartite role of nurse, lover, and, symbolically, mother, to an aging ruler, and like Abbie, if less culpably, inspires the sexual competition of a younger son. In I Kings 1:5 a young soldier named Adonijah appears, who, like handsome Eben, is not only a younger son in competition with his lord and master, but is described as "a very goodly man." Having previously attempted to usurp the throne, shortly before the death of David, Adonijah infuriates Solomon, David's successor, by entreating him for the hand of Abishag. Solomon has Adonijah executed; so too, presumably, will Eben Cabot be executed.

Given the consistency of biblical names among all the other Cabots, as well as the other parallels we have noted--which allow the fourth, and new framework of Eben-Adonijah, Ephraim-David (or Ephraim-Solomon, David's successor) and Abbie-Abishag to emerge--it seems quite possible that O'Neill derived Abbie's name and, to some extent, her role, from the Old Testament.

--Patrick Bowles

1Cf. Edgar F. Racey, Jr., "Myth as Tragic Structure in Desire Under the Elms," Modern Drama 5 (May 1962), 42-46; Jay Ronald Meyers, "O'Neill's Use of the Phèdre Legend in Desire Under the Elms," Revue de littérature comparée 41 (Jan.-Mar. 1967), 120-125; Egil Törnqvist, "Jesus and Judas: On Biblical Allusions in O'Neill's Plays," Études Anglaises 24 (1971), 41-49; and (for the Hosea parallel) Peter L. Hays, "Biblical Perversions in Desire Under the Elms," Modern Drama 11 (February 1969), 423-428.

(The Interpreter's Bible Dictionary states that the name Abigail derives from the Hebrew words meaning "my father rejoices." --Ed.)



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