Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O'Neill: Introduction

As an American writer of modern tragedy Eugene O'Neill is democratic. He wrote plays in the style of Greek tragedy, but he has also given a distinct modernist touch to his plays even if they are after the style of Greek Tragedy. Although he put his plays in the dimension of attic (Greek) tragedy, he has detached himself from certain forceful dictation of the Greek tradition.

Eugene O'Neill (1888- 1953)

Unlike the Greek playwright, he deliberately chose a New England farmer and his family as the protagonists of his drama. This trend to introduce a humble character as the protagonist of the play is itself a kind of experimental break with the canonical demand. Towards this direction off, inverting the canonical imperative, O'Neill is the first trend-setter. In a Greek tragedy fate animates its tragic world, whereas the emotional forces of jealousy, resentment, lust, and incestuous love animates Desire under the Elms.

Desire under the Elms is set on a typical rocky New England soil. There is a contrast in the play's representation of two different kinds of life. The unyielding toughness on that land contrasts with the easy life to be made from gold mining in California. Ephraim Cabot, the seventy-five year old father, has been made hard and physically powerful by his work. He has just taken a third wife, the young and scheming Abbie. His youngest son, Eben, has decided to stay on the Farm While his two other sons plan to go to California and put New England behind them.

The sense of having been dispossessed of his farm by his new stepmother drives Eben to hate Abbie, who has married the elder Cabot merely to inherit his farm. At first, the sparring between Abbie and Eben is based upon calculating self-interest, but eventually their feelings overpower them. Lust turns to love, and the son they produce is passed off as old Cabot's, although the townspeople have no illusion about whose child it is.

The farm itself is a powerful presence in the play. Whenever old Cabot thinks he should give up and follow the promise of easy money in California, he feels God's presence urging him to stay. God operates for Ephraim as the Oracle in Oedipus Rex, giving him a message that is painful but must be obeyed. The rock on the farm are unforgiving, and so is the fate that Abbie and Eben face. Theirs is an impossible love, everything they do to prove their love condemns them even more. The forces of fate center on the farm. When the play opens, Eben says of it, "God/Purty" When the play ends, the sheriff praises the farm and says he surely would like to own it, striking a clear note of irony: The agony of the play is rooted in lust- lust for the farm that parallels the lust between Abbie and Eben.

The play is haunted by the ghost of Eben's mother, whom Ephraim married primarily for her farm. Her ghost is exorcised only after the cycle of retribution has begun. Old Cabot has committed a crime against her, and now he must become the victim.

The language of the dialogue is that of New England in the Mid-nineteenth century. Living in New England, O'Neill understood the ways and the language of its people. He seems to have imagined the "down-east" flavor of Maine in the language, and he has been careful to build the proper pronunciation into the dialogue. This folksy way of speaking helps emphasize the peasant like qualities in these New England farmers. O'Neill's careful use of language is reminiscent of Synge's masterful representation of the Irish-English speech in Playboy of the Western World.

The language of 0'Neill's characters has a rocky roughness at times. Characters are economical, they often answer in a single word: "Ay-eh". Faithful to his vision of the simple speech of country folk, O'Neill avoids giving them elaborate Poetic soliloquies. Instead, he shows how, despite their limited language, rural people feel profound emotions and act on them.

O'Neill Carefully links Abbie with Queen Phaedra, who is Euripides' play Hippolytus and in Racine seventeenth-century play Phaedra finds herself uncontrollably desiring her husband's son as a lover. Racine and Racine's audiences could easily imagine such intense emotions overwhelming a noblewoman because they thought that nobility felt more intensely and lived more intensely than ordinary people. But O'Neill is trying to make his audience see that even unlettered people can feel as deeply as tragic heroes of any age do. The Cabots are victims of passion. They share their fate with the great families of the Greek tragedies.