In the shadow of two elms sits a stately but aging farmhouse, overseeing rocky and walled farmlands, owned and operated by Ephraim Cabot since he purchased the land as a young man over 40 years ago. This farm, with the blood, sweat, and toil of the family worked into its very soil and harvest, is all that Ephraim has to show for a life lived hard. The rocky New England earth, futile terrain for so many farmers, has kept Ephraim, two subsequent wives, and the three sons of those two wives alive and in small profits for many years, due to his backbreaking efforts and his demands to his family. Simeon and Peter, Ephraim’s two oldest, are responsible for the everyday upkeep of the farm while Ephraim is away on a long personal journey, but Eben, their half-brother and the only son of Ephraim’s second wife, is bent on restoring his name to the farm property in honor of his deceased mother. All three men watched their father work their mothers into exhaustion and death, and all have felt the effect of that slave-like bond to his expectations as well. When Eben discovers that his father has married again, which further weakens his claim to the farmland and cuts Simeon and Peter out entirely, Eben uses his father’s secret stash of gold to pay Simeon and Peter for their shares of the farm. The two oldest brothers leave for California, and dreams of the Gold Rush, and Eben remains to defend his territory.
When Eben meets Abbie, his father’s new young wife, the attraction between the two is palpable. Abbie clearly intends to keep the farmland for herself upon Ephraim’s passing, and Eben is still desperate to seek vengeance for his mother, so their connection is driven by power struggle as well as sheer passion and a sense of the forbidden. It appears impossible for either Abbie or Eben to emerge with the inheritance each believes they are owed, so the two take advantage of their connection and scheme together, to drastic and terrifying ends. Eugene O’Neill’s understated craft is skillfully present in the script for Desire Under the Elms, emphasizing the atmospheric and metaphorical while still connecting with the most common elements of humanity. This three-act drama, dark and thoughtful, captures the drive for self-ownership and agency that comes along with property and legacy, and illustrates how greed and a wholly self-serving way of life is a poor way to produce fruit from hard labor. Inspired by Euripides’ tragedy of Phaedra, Theseus, and Hippolytus told in Hippolytus, O’Neill brings gruff realism to the themes explored by the ancient epics and grounds them once again in simple existence.
Desire Under the Elms guide sections