Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms is dark, twisted and powerful. Written in 1924, it deserves its reputation as a classic, replete as it is with timeless themes.
Ephraim Cabot is as hard and twisted as a stunted tree. He’s 75 and has gone to town to find himself a third wife after working the previous two to death. While he’s gone, his youngest son Eben steals his money and uses it to pay off his brothers so that they’ll sign over their share of the farm to him and leave. Ephraim comes home with a scheming, 35-year-old wife who immediately lusts after young Eben.
None of the characters are noble, kind or honest. This is a play about greed, lust and revenge and, as can be expected, it all goes horribly wrong.
Eben, who is the closest thing to a hero we have, is small-minded, land hungry and fuelled by hate. At the start of the play he describes to his brothers his visit to Minnie, the village woman he liked until he discovered she’d been intimate with his brothers and his father before him:
EBEN: Walkin’ thar, fust I felt ‘s if I’d kiss her; then I got a-thinkin’ o’ what ye’d said o’ him an’ her an’ I says, I’ll bust her nose fur that! […] Waal – when I seen her, I didn’t hit her – nor I didn’t kiss her nuther – I begun t’beller like a calf an’ cuss at the same time, I was so durn mad – an’ she got scared – an’ I jest grabbed holt an’ tuk her! (Proudly) Yes, sirree! I tuk her. She may’ve been his’n – an’ your’n, too – but she’s mine now!
Amid these dark themes there’s a surprising amount of humour and warmth. I couldn’t help feeling that all the characters had been stunted on this rock strewn land, starved of education or compassion so that their hardness and greed were tragic but inevitable.
I want to read Sam Shepard’s Buried Child now. Desire Under the Elms felt almost like a precursor to Shepard’s vengeful family. I think I might have a copy of it here somewhere …
Publisher: Random House
Cast: 4M, 2F + villagers, Sheriff and fiddler (some of whom could be doubled)