‘Desire Under the Elms’ by Eugene O’Neill – A Greek Tragedy on a New England Farm


‘Desire Under the Elms’ by Eugene O’Neill    (1923) – 70 pages


The reason I read the plays of Eugene O’Neill is for their psychological intensity. In such plays as ‘The Iceman Cometh’, ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’, ‘Moon for the Misbegotten’ and others O’Neill delves more deeply into what it is to be human than other playwrights before or since. If you get a chance, read or watch one of these plays either in the theater or on TV and you will see what I mean.

‘Desire Under the Elms’ is one of O’Neill’s earlier plays, written in 1923. O’Neill always did have a way with giving his plays enticing titles. His experimental idea for this play was, I think, a good one. He would take one of the ancient Greek tragedies, in this case Euripides’ Hippolytus and loosely update it into a United States play. ‘Desire Under the Elms’ takes place on a New England farm around the year 1850. Instead of Theseus, Hippolytus, and Phaedra, we have Ephraim, Simeon, Peter, Eden, and Abbie.

Old man Ephraim has worked two wives to death keeping his stony farm land producing, and now he’s working his three sons to death. Meanwhile Ephraim’s off to the city to find wife number three. Two of the sons, Simeon and Peter, decide to run away to California to find gold while he is gone, but youngest son Eden decides to stick around. Soon Ephraim returns with his new wife Abbie who is quite young, only in her thirties. Abbie is repulsed by old man Ephraim, and she only married Ephraim because she was in terrible financial straits. Since the young son Eden hates his father, Ephraim decides he wants to have another baby son to inherit the farm, and Abbie says she’s willing, because she wants the farm for herself. Meanwhile Abbie and Eden naturally develop a strong attraction for each other.

As you would expect in a play written by O’Neill, he captures the way these New Englanders talk perfectly. However the plot is straight out of Greek tragedy. When we people of today read these old Greek tragedies, we can handle the often disturbing and gory plots which include patricide, matricide, and even infanticide, since we are so far removed from these ancient Greek people. However ‘Desire Under the Elms’ brings one of these terrible events directly home to us here. It is almost too gruesome, overwrought, and intense for us modern playgoers, including myself , to handle.

There is a 1958 movie of ‘Desire Under the Elms’ starring Anthony Perkins, Sophia Loren, and Burl Ives, but the consensus is that this movie isn’t very good so I didn’t watch it. I believe that under the right circumstances, someone could make a powerful movie of this play.


Grade:    B+




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