O'Neill, Eugene. Desire Under the Elms.
The play is set at a family farm in New England and starts in 1850.
There are enormous elms standing on both sides of the farmhouse, as if they were protecting and figuratively overpowering the house at the same time. The elms give an impression of fatal maternity and jealous love. There is a terrifying similarity between the elms and human beings. The elms are likened to exhausted women leaning their bodies on the roof and letting their tears fall there when it rains.
Simeon and Peter dream about going to California and digging gold. Their father is gone, claiming himself to be a prophet following the voice of God. The two brothers wait for his death to get their shares of the farm. They hate their father for letting them toil at the land. Their half-brother Eben hates his father too, for letting his mother toil in the same way and so causing her early death. Eben's mother was used to hard work and now she cannot find peace in her grave. She haunts the house, coming back to help Eben with his domestic duties. Eben claims the whole farm for himself, and not only its one third, because the farm belonged to his late mother.
In the evening Eben leaves to see Minnie, a married woman of about forty, who was once also old Cabot, Simeon, and Peter's lover. On returning, Eben brings the news of old Cabot's third marriage. Eben steals three hundred dollars, the money old Cabot saved and hid in a secret place which Eben was told about by his mother. His uses the money to buy himself the remaining two thirds of the farm from his brothers. The two brothers immediately leave for California, singing a merry song about that country. On their leaving, old Cabot and his new wife Abbie appear. Cabot curses his two sons and so do the two.
Abbie is fond of her farm, old Cabot reminds her that the farm is not hers, but theirs. Abbie is attracted to Eben who feels the same about her. Eben is trying to resists the temptation because he is fighting for his dead mother's right for her home and Abbie is his enemy.
Abbie is jealous of Minnie. Eben tells her that he likes Minnie better than her because Minnie is at least sincere. Abbie is also jealous of Eben because old Cabot inclines to prefer him as to the inheritance of the farm. Abbie tells old Cabot that Eben was trying to seduce her. In fact it was vice versa. Old Cabot promises Abbie that if she gives him a son, he will inherit the farm.
Abbie cannot inherit the farm because she is a woman and she is not of old Cabot's blood as his son would be. Cabot explains to Abbie his attachment to the farm. He built up the now prospering farm out of stony land. He draws a parallel to the Bible and to God's urging his people to build a church out of stones on a rock so that He would live within the stone walls. Cabot realizes that nobody understands him, including Abbie, and retires to the cow shed where he claims to feel best.
Abbie enters Eben's room and kisses him. She invites him to the best room which has been locked since the death of Eben's mother. Abbie tells Eben she feels as if something was present in the room. Eben claims that it is his mother and praises the qualities of the dead woman. Abbie promises to become Eben's mother and Eben's lover at the same time. The two confess they love each other. Eben claims their love is desirable for his mother because it would be his mother's revenge on old Cabot. His mother should be now able to find peace in her grave.
Abbie gives birth to a son. Neighbours are invited for the celebration and everyone but old Cabot knows that it is Eben's child. Old Cabot feels as if something was always present with him and even the celebration cannot abash it. He retires to his cows. He meets Eben at the yard and the two start arguing. Old Cabot promises to live as long as one hundred years so that his greedy heirs should not get the farm so easily. There is a fight. Abbie comes just in time to prevent old Cabot from strangling Eben.
Eben learns from old Cabot about Abbie's plan with her son. Eben himself should get nothing and would be driven away from the farm. Eben tells Abbie that he would love her, were not for her son. Abbie promises to do anything to win his love back. Abbie kills the child. Abbie tells Eben who at first thinks she has killed old Cabot and is ready to help her with hiding the evidence. He is terrified to find out hat his own son is dead. Eben blames Abbie for stealing from him the last thing which was remaining, his son. He is intent to call the provost to put Abbie in jail. Abbie is sorry that she had not killed old Cabot rather than her son.
Eben and Abbie reconcile. Eben suggest running away. Abbie refuses, she accepts her punishment. Eben wants to be punished together with her, he feels guilty in the same way as Abbie does. In emotion, old Cabot makes himself ready to leave the farm for good. When he finds out his money is gone, he thanks God for Eben's stealing it. He can now overwhelm the temptation of going to California and continue working at the farm. Abbie and Eben are brought away by a policeman. The latter stops to contemplate the beauty of the sky and the farm and utters the wish that the farm belonged to him.
Aged seventy-five, the owner of the farm. He is attached to the soil in an extraordinary way. He would prefer burning down the farm at the moment of his death rather to let anyone inherit it. The physiognomy of his face resembles a stone, his features are hard. Unlike his sons, he is a tough man, so tough that he is almost completely deprived of all human characteristics. His only visible weakness is the pride of his own strength and his greediness. He is short-sighted, which is symbolical also of his behaviour.
Towards the end of the play he seems to be capable of some basic human feelings (seems to love Abbie), but this fails to modify the overall impression of old Cabot as a selfish, tyrannous, and nearly bestial creature. There is hardly any hero in the play but Ephraim Cabot is the worst of the villains. He ends up in success, but of a peculiar nature: the farm remains in his possession, but he is left alone, hated by his family and laughed at by his neighbours.
Simeon Cabot and Peter Cabot
Aged thirty-nine and thirty-seven respectively, Ephraim Cabot's sons from his first marriage. They are not especially attached to the land, their motive for working at the farm is getting their share. They are primitive and rough.
Aged twenty-five, Ephraim Cabot's son from his second marriage. Both his physiognomy and his behaviour resemble that of a wild animal. He is reckless (does not respect his father), dishonest (commits a theft), and sensuous (frequently leaves the farm for night to see his lover(s)). He is weak, even womanish, he attends woman duties at the farm.
Eben competes with Ephraim Cabot to win the farm, he self-consciously works toward inheriting the land. He is also his father's rival in love. More favourable aspects of his character are revealed toward the end of the play. Unlike with his former lovers, he is apparently sincerely in love with Abbie, for whom he is capable of personal sacrifice. He ends up in failure, but in contrast to old Cabot he achieves at least some kind of moral victory in defeating some of the defects of his nature.
Aged thirty-five, Ephraim Cabot's third wife. She is an unprincipled woman with a sensuous face. She gives the impression of a calculating woman capable of anything to reach her aim. (First she marries old Cabot in order to get her own home, then she murders her child so as not to lose Eben's love). Toward the end of the play when Abbie and Eben are in love with each other, the actions of both are endowed by an aspect of humanity previously not manifested in either of them.
- a three-act play written in a colloquial language
- naturalistic, morbid, concerned with pathological aspects of human nature
- shows a deep feeling for the beauty of the landscape
- theme: a chilling struggle for the fulfilment of the individual's selfish desires
- shows various forms of passionate love: selfish love to land (old Cabot), generous love to a human being (Eben)
AuthorO'Neill, Eugene. (1888 - 1953).
Full TitleDesire Under the Elms.
First PerformedNY: Greenwich Village Theatre, 1924.
O'Neill, Eugene. Desire Under the Elms. (1924). In: Desire Under the Elms and The Hairy Ape. NY: Random House, 1959.