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At the Roots of O'Neill's 'Elms'

BY Arthur Gelb
FROM The New York Times, March 2, 1958

Film Version of Play Recalls Complexity of Its Origins

A few months after his "Desire Under the Elms" opened at the Greenwich Village Theatre on Nov. 11, 1924, Eugene O'Neill wrote a friend, apropos the play's having fought its way to the top in New York, "Fancy that -- with infanticide!"

O'Neill's amused comment might well be applied to the fact that more than thirty-three years later his tragic masterpiece has fought its way onto celluloid -- with its infanticide intact.

The ironic thing is that despite threats of closing and censorship during the play's New York run and a tactful skipping over Boston when it went on tour, it was in Los Angeles that "Desire" ran into real difficulty.  There, in 1926, a modest policeman named Taylor, delegated to examine the play on behalf of the city's suspicious Board of Education, found his sense of decency offended, his face ablush with embarrassment and his feelings terribly hurt.  His dismay resulted in the whole cast's being arrested and charged with presenting an obscene play.

Historic Irony

Well, times have changed and now the city that winced under a stage production of "Desire" has given birth to an officially-sanctioned movie version that sticks fairly close to the earthy and brutal story line of the play.

The movie has its premiere here on March 12 at both the Odeon and Sutton Theatres.  But not even the seal of Hollywood's newly emancipated Production Code can guarantee that it will have clear sailing.  Already, officials of Chicago, having seen a preview, have restricted the film to "Adults Only," stirring up echoes of the furor originally caused by the stage production, when a struggling young actor named Don Hartman saw it three times and was overwhelmed by its originality and stark beauty.  Mr. Hartman, then a long way from Hollywood, made up his mind that some day he would have a hand in interpreting "Desire Under the Elms."

In 1950, after having worked at a number of movie studios and having tried, in vain, to create an interest in making a film of "Desire" -- censorship was always the problem -- Mr. Hartman became production head of Paramount.  He found he could option the O'Neill play for $5,000, against a ceiling price of $75,000, and he began to play his waiting game.  Movies were becoming more adult by the hour, and Mr. Hartman felt his own hour had just about come.

By His Own Hand

Two years ago, a Paramount employee accidentally came across a file containing a thirteen-page screen treatment of "Desire," a treatment that O'Neill had prepared in 1928.  In this flagrantly bowdlerized movie synopsis, which O'Neill obviously wrote to conform to the censorship of that era, he transformed Abbie Putnam, the New England woman who is the play's pivotal character, into Stephanie, a Hungarian immigrant girl.  O'Neill also altered the woman's status from that of the new wife of old Ephraim Cabot, the patriarchal farmer, to that of housekeeper; he deleted the seduction by the woman of Ephraim's young son, Eben, and wrote our the birth -- an murder by the woman -- of Eben and Abbie's baby.  The last gesture may have been suggested by a critical uproar in certain quarter after the play opened that held it was impossible for a New England woman to commit infanticide (supporters of the play argued that Lizzie Borden was a New England woman of even more ruthless bent than Abbie Putnam).

Borrowed Device

What was left, in O'Neill's screen version, was precious little of the power, truth and tragedy of "Desire Under the Elms."  Hollywood had not bought it in 1928 and Mr. Hartman did not want it now.  He wanted to do the movie only if it could follow the play's story line.  But the treatment did give Mr. Hartman the idea of using an immigrant girl as a more widely acceptable heroine.

In 1956, Mr. Hartman felt out the Production Code Administration, received a conditional go-ahead, picked up the option and engaged Irwin Shaw to do as faithful an adaptation as possible.

O'Neill would have been astonished at what the Code was willing to accept.  It is strange to think of O'Neill, who always wrote as he pleased without regard for the Broadway box office, making that long-ago compromise to motion pictures, particularly in view of the fact that he considered "Desire" one of his best plays.  He once wrote a friend: "I have always loved Ephraim so much! * * * He's so autobiographical!"  Since he did not elaborate on this remark, it is difficult to know in what specific respect O'Neill considered the 75-year-old Ephraim Cabot to be auto biographical.  But a New York psychiatrist, Dr. Philip Weissman, who has made a psychoanalytical study of O'Neill's plays, recently concluded that "Desire" was O'Neill's "unconscious autobiography," and a number of O'Neill's close friends were aware, during its writing and production, that the play's conflicts echoed O'Neill's own emotional problems with his parents and brother.

Father Image

Dr. Weissman compared the play with the "conscious" autobiography, "Long Day's Journey Into Night," now winding up a long run on Broadway.  He pointed out that the character of James Tyrone who, in "Long Day's Journey" is admittedly modeled on O'Neill's own father, has many obvious points of similarlity with Ephraim Cabot.

"In both dramas the father is portrayed as a older man who is powerful, patriarchal and penurious.  Both men have an intense passion for property," Dr. Weissman declared.

O'Neill, whose ideas for plays often came to him in his dreams and who once told Walter Huston that he had dreamed most of "Desire," resented any implication that his work consciously was influenced by Freudian precepts.  Writing in 1925 to his physician, O'Neill inquired, "Have you happened to see 'Desire Under the Elms'? * * * The Freudian brethren and sisteren (sic) seem quite set up about it and, after reading quite astonishing complexes between the lines of my simplicities, claim it for their own. * * * They are hard to shake!"

Again, in a letter to a scholarly inquirer, O'Neill wrote: "Playwrights are either intuitively keen analytical psychologists -- or they aren't good playwrights. * * * I respect Freud's work tremendously -- but I'm not an addict!  Whatever Freudianism is in 'Desire' must have walked right in 'through my unconscious.' "

Freudian, unconscious, or what have you, it is surely suggestive that while O'Neill was writing "Desire" -- during the winter and spring of 1924, and while he was still married to his second wife, Agnes Boulton -- he made an occasional habit of retiring to the barn of his new England estate; his Ephraim Cabot, it may be recalled, spent many of his nights sleeping in the barn with the livestock, in preference to his farmhouse.  Although conditions on the O'Neill estate, which was in Ridgefield, Conn., bore little resemblance to those that prevail on the stony farm that is the setting for "Desire," it did have certain resemblances.  There were plenty of elms and stone fences about, for one thing.

Hard Heritage

A young man who had worked with the Provincetown Players, where O'Neill's early plays were produced, and who had typed O'Neill manuscripts in New York, was installed by O'Neill in the Ridgefield house to type "Desire."  His work was pleasantly interrupted each morning by the dramatist, who would invite the young man for a walk.  Once, during the course of a three-mile hike over the beautiful Connecticut countryside, O'Neill broke a long, characteristic silence to point out some typical New England stone fences, and explain them in terms of their being the old New England farmers' roots -- symbols of the life they wrenched from the flinty earth.  O'Neill quoted some lines from his manuscript -- "* * * Stones atop o' stones -- year atop o' year * * *"  and "Ye kin read the years of my life in them walls."


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