A Conflict between the Dionysian and Apollonian Forces

O'Neill understood the concept of the constant hostility between two powers, which the German philosopher Nietzsche had described as Dionysian and Apollonian; and O'Neill also agreed that wherever the Dionysian power prevailed the Apollonian was routed and annihilated.

Eugene O'Neill (1888- 1953)

In Desire under the Elms, 0'Neil 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 in which Ephraim Cabot erected the stonewalls 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 in effect hateful.

With Nietzsche's help, O'Neill was able to see Ephraim Cabot, the opponent of the Dionysian ideal as being a God-driven man, one who, despite his materialism and his stubborn individualism, also belonged to a power greater than himself. Therefore what happens in the play is almost inevitable: the warfare between Eben and Cabot becomes the embodiment of a theological conflict based broadly on the antagonism of the Dionysian and the Apollonian forces, a conflict fought in the universe of the farm, in the particular arena its center, the farm-house, created. The theological conflict is presented explicitly in Cabot’s monologue in part Two, Scene II, when, moved by his desire for Abbie, he tries to reach her by confessing something of his nature and telling her of the hardships in his past life. The essence of his long account is that he has grown hard in the service of a hard God. God, he says, is not easy; God's presence is in the stones that must be piled up in a cruel life of sacrificial service so that the farm may become fertile. The service is justified by God's commandment to St. Peter to build His church on a rock. Cabot tells Abbie of a time when, in despair at so many stones, he gave up the farm, journeyed west, and farmed a broad meadow where there were no stones. 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.

Dominant in the heart of the play are the two powerful forces moving through the land and giving it its character, a power that lies in the stones and a power that dwells in the soil. The former demands the self-denial and the control which Cabot gives it; the latter promises peace and fulfillment in return for complete surrender. The characters are aware of them and respond in varying degree of awareness to the forces that control their lives, as Cabot calls to the God of the lonesome, as Eben pays devotion to his mother's spirit, and as Abbie speaks of the forces of nature, saying that nature "owns you and makes you grow bigger like a free-like those elms." Essentially, the two forces are to be equated with the two gods known as Dionysus and Apollo. Yet, while Nietzsche provided the basis for the play, the play evolved from O'Neill's perspective 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 made love to each other, the feminine principle asserts itself, and Abbie finds, in the service of the mother-God, contentment for herself and she brings it to Eben also. At the same time, however, Cabot suffers a sense of alienation and loss, especially a loss of the power to serve the hard God who appears to have been driven away from the farm by the service Abbie and Eben pray to God the Mother.

The Dionysian power is released when Eben makes love to Abbie on the sofa in his mother’s parlor. Then the ghost of mother disappears and despite their adultery and their incest, they are free from any sense of guilt.  The victory of the Dionysian forces comes to a climax with the dance which is arranged by Cabot to celebrate the birth of a son to Abbie. At this party, Cabot, the supposed father, dances wildly, drinking and boasting of his sexual vigor while his guests mock him to his face. The celebration increases in tempo, and comes to an end at its height. Abbie leaves and joins Eben by their child's Cradle, and Cabot drunkenly staggers outside to stand beneath the elms. The music dies and a noise like that of the gossiping whispers of the guests comes from the kitchen. Then. Cabot feels most strongly the maternal power concentrated in the elms: "Even the music can't drive it out— something. You can feel it dropping off the elms, climbing up the roof, sneaking down the chimney, poking in the corners. There is no peace in the house, there is no rest living with folks. I'll go to the barn and rest a spell". At this climax of the Dionysian celebration, Cabot is alone.

The ending of the play reminds us of older tragic patterns that conclude with the hero's acknowledgement of his responsibility for a general guilt. Making such an admission, Eben becomes merely heroic in the eyes of his father who admires Eben for standing by Abbie the moment of crisis.