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Desire Under the Elms


The music for O'Neill's tragedy of a family on a New England farm is simple, but it is interwoven carefully with aspects of the theme. As in The Calms of Capricorn, the journey to the gold fields is an important action, and O'Neill uses a song to bring it into focus. He calls it "the song of the gold-seekers," the same title he would use in the later play to suggest the underlying greed of the singers. The tune in this play is "Oh, Susannah!" It is heard at the end of part one, as two of the Cabot brothers break free from their bondage on the farm and head west.

The remaining musical needs are fiddle tunes played at the party old Ephraim Cabot stages to celebrate the birth of the baby he supposes to be his son. Against the dark action that will result in the murder of the child, the fiddler calls the dances and scrapes out the tunes "Lady of the Lake," "Pop Goes the Weasel," and "Turkey in the Straw." To the first two, the old man, who has been cuckolded by his son, dances "like a monkey on a string," interspersing his antics with war whoops and bragging comments on his virility; but at the scene's end, exhausted and disturbed by "somethin"' the music cannot drive away, he leaves the party. The fiddler makes malicious, gossipy comment, and with satiric intention to mock the old turkey-cock, he strikes up "Turkey in the Straw."

([The voices of Simeon and Peter] as they go off take up the song of the gold-seekers to the old tune of "Oh, Susannah!") [II, 337, 339, 340]

Oh! Californi-a - words traditional, music by Stephen C. Foster, tune: "Oh! Susanna," published 1848

Cabot Fiddle 'er up, durn ye! Give 'em somethin ' to dance t'! What air ye, an ornament? Hain 't this a celebration? Then grease yer elbow an ' go it!
Fiddler (seizes a drink . . . and downs it) Here goes! (He starts to fiddle "Lady of the Lake.") [II, 360]

Lady of the Lake - traditional

Cabot Go it! Go it! (Then suddenly, unable to restrain himself any longer, he prances into the midst of the dancers, scattering them, waving his arms about willy.) Ye're all hoofs! Git out o' my road! Give me room! I'll show ye dancin'. Ye're all too soft!
Fiddler (jeeringly) Go it, Ephraim! Go if! (He starts "Pop, Goes the Weasel," increasing the tempo with every verse until at the end he is fiddling crazily as fast as he can go.) [II, 361]

Pop Goes the Weasel - traditional

Cabot (Tuning up) Let's celebrate the old skunk gittin ' fooled! We kin have some fun now he's went. (He starts to fiddle "Turkey in the Straw." There is real merriment now. The young folks get up to dance.) [Il, 363]

Turkey in the Straw - tune: "Zip Coon," published 1834


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