Desire under the elms was written by American play write, Eugene O’Neill in 1924. It is said that in this masterpiece O’Neill successfully incorporates Greek drama by reliving Greek mythology through Phaedra, Hippolytus and Theseus. A play with many themes, such as this one, is also flooded by symbolism and irony, but above all a prevailing theme «sticks out» right from the title: Nature, ‘the natural world and the individual’s very essence’. More specifically the relationship between human beings and nature; the human nature of desire, of «pathos» lingering under the unbeatable, ever growing, strong and steady elms.
Right after the readers’ first encounter with nature in the title, at the turn of the page O’Neill has them in for a surprise, his masterpiece was written in vernacular American? «God! PURTY! » are the first two words uttered in the play. Acording to Alfred Hickling theatre review in the guardian, O’Neill was the first to publish a play in vernacular American bringing the natural environment of every day speech on the surface. Furthermore, in more than one parts of this play, one can note how intuition and second-sense play a major role.
Intuition emphasizes the close bond between humans and nature and how their senses were acute before they were contaminated by the modern way of life. At the beginning of the play when the three boys discuss the arrival of the father, they say that they knew he was not dead because they could sense he is near: Hain't I as far-sight as he's near-sight? Don't I know the mare 'n' buggy, an' two people settin' in it? Who else ? An' I tell ye I kin feel 'em a-comin', too! (He squirms as if he had the itch.
Later on, in the play, Cabot and Abbie have a conversation about having a son then she promises to give him one. At the question to how she can promise, she claims to have second sight: ABBIE--I got second-sight, Mebbe (? ). I kin foretell. (She gives a queer smile. ) I believe ye have. Ye give me the chills sometimes. (He shivers. ) It's cold in this house. It's oneasy. They's thin's pokin' about in the dark--in the corners. (He pulls on his trousers, tucking in his night shirt, and pulls on his boots. )
During the above quote it is noticed that, Cabot senses something uneasy, something poking in the corners. He mentions this about four-five times in the script, only for the reader to discover that this was him sensing the affair between Eben and Abbie, which further demonstrates a strong correlation between second sense and intuition with human nature. Later on the same night, Abbie and Eben consume their love in Eben’s dead mother room and the second sense reappears: «ABBIE--When I fust come in--in the dark--they seemed somethin' here.
he question of desire ( the desire of lust, love, greed, hatred, and belonging) is ever present in the play and can be found in every character and their interpersonal relations. Ephraim has become a victim of his natural impulse towards greed. He is a very selfish man and has known no love in his life.
He constantly feels cold in the house and seeks for warmth in nature, on his farm or in the barn, sleeping with the animals, trying to overcompensate for something he is psychologically lacking. Down whar it's restful--whar it's warm--down t' the barn. I kin talk t' the cows. They know. They know the farm an' me. They'll give me peace. (He turns to go out the door. )I rested. I slept good--down with the cows. They know how t' sleep. They're teachin' me
This cold derives from his heart, which with the years has become like the stones that he clamed to have left his soul on. Waal- ye’ve thirty year o’ me burried in ye- spread out over ye- blood an’ bone an’sweat-rotted away-fertilizin’ ye-richin’ yer soil- prime manure, by God, that’s what i been t’ye! His comfort with the animals, the land and the rocks identifies his close tie with nature. After Abbie, his third wife affirms that Cabot cannot take the land with him, he answers: «(thinks a moment--then reluctantly) No, I calc'late not. after a pause--with a strange passion) But if I could, I would, by the Etarnal! 'R if I could, in my dyin' hour, I'd set it afire an' watch it burn--this house an' every ear o' corn an' every tree down t' the last blade o' hay! I'd sit an' know it was all a-dying with me an' no one else'd ever own what was mine, what I'd made out o' nothin' with my own sweat 'n' blood! (a pause--then he adds with a queer affection) 'Ceptin' the cows. Them I'd turn free. » What can be noted is the lack of affection for his own blood as opposed to the affection he has for his animals.
He is not thinking of leaving something to his sons, but rather shows affection towards his animals by expressing his desire that they be set free when he passes, which demonstrates that the root of his desire is to fulfill and to persevere in light of his bond with nature. Further on in that act, he continuous to show his possessiveness by saying that he could have never left it to his wife for she is not he, but he would leave it to his son, for his son is him: I'm yewr wife. That hain't me. A son is me--my blood--mine. Mine ought t' git mine.
An' then it's still mine--even though I be six foot under. D'ye see? » There are plenty of points in the text where Cabot shows the intensity of his tie with his natural environment. He has such high self esteem and he is so fulfilled with his land that he has no feelings of when everybody leaves and he is alone, because he is left with what is of greater value to him, which is nature. That sense of accomplishment and responsibility to his driving force is more meaningful to him than any close proximity to another character in the play. Simon and Peter are Cabot’s older sons from his first marriage.
Simon and Peters’ nature is greed and desire for more as well, but in a different manner; they value gold above anything else and work their father’s land only in the prospect of owing pieces of it some day. Unlike their father, they have no particular ties with their natural environment; instead, they feed their lust for gold with constant reminders of California. When their time comes to battle between staying on their land and giving it away for the price to take an unsecure journey to find gold in California, their natural desire clouds there common sense and they sign off their share of land to their brother.
This is a clear demonstration of Simon and Peter being conquered by their own nature. EBEN--(anxiously) Will ye sign it afore ye go? PETER--Let's see the color o' the old skinflint's money an' we'll sign. (They disappear left. The two brothers clump upstairs to get their bundles. Eben appears in the kitchen, runs to window, peers out, comes back and pulls up a strip of flooring in under stove, takes out a canvas bag and puts it on table, then sets the floorboard back in place. The two brothers appear a moment after. They carry old carpet bags. ) EBEN--(puts his hand on bag guardingly) Have ye signed?
Be that the money? Eben is Cabot’s son from the second marriage. He is also tied to his natural land, the stones, the animals, but not for the same reasons. In Ebens case the land represents his mother and therefore him. Not because of his tie to nature, not because he feels the «soul» of the stones, but because of his anger towards his father. He blames Cabot for working his mother to the grave, and the land belonged to her and thus as revenge the land belongs to him. Ebens tie to nature is different.
Because of his encounter with Abbie, his tendancy twards lust and desire was opeanly manifested. « (They stare into each other's eyes, his held by hers in spite of himself, hers glowingly possessive. Their physical attraction becomes a palpable force quivering in the hot air. ) » All through the first part of the play, Eben tries to overcome his natural urges and talk sense to himself. There is a long battle between nurture (what he was raised to believe by his mother) and nature (what his desires are). This internal turmoil is confusing and painful until finally he gives in to his desire for Abbie..
Through Ebens lost battle, the power of nature is shown. He looses this battle once again at the end of the play when he ignores his instinct to believe Abbie that she has murdered their son for love and reports it to the sheriff. Soon after this, nature prevails and he realizes the love for her, but again defeated he has to pay the consequences of his deed. Abbie’s constantley gives in to her human nature. She lives by her desires, the desire to belong somewhere, the desire to love and be loved, and the desire of acceptance.
Her sense of belonging is what led her to marry an older man so that she could have her own home and land in order to belong. «... an' so he had to wuk fur others an' me too agen in other folks' hums, an' the baby died, an' my husband got sick an' died too, an' I was glad sayin' now I'm free fur once, on'y I diskivered right away all I was free fur was t' wuk agen in other folks' hums, doin' other folks' wuk till I'd most give up hope o' ever doin' my own wuk in my own hum, an' then your Paw come. . . .This be my farm--this be my hum--this be my kitchen!
An' upstairs--that be my bedroom--an' my bed! I'll wash up my dishes now. » Abbie illudes herself with believing she can overcome her urges. All through the play she suppresses her lust and passion for Eben so that Cabot does not understand, but halfway throughout the play, Abbie seems to loose control. During the feast that Cabot has for the birth of his son, Abbie constantly asks various strangers for the whereabouts’ of Eben disregarding their reactions and showing no care for the fact that they are implying her affair. The complete loss of her battle is shown during her breakdown with Eben.
After their argument she is left believing that the baby is what has come between them. With no logic to guide her but her natural instinct to conquer him, she kills their son in his sleep. She claims to have proven now her love for Eben and completely disregards the legal ramifications and the consequences this will have on their relationship. This is the strongest part of the play where the prevailing nature of human desire is portrayed, because of Abbie's extreme and uncontrolled force being unleashed after losing the fight with her self control.
In conclusion it is clearly noted that in Desire under the elms all of the characters at one point or another battle with their own human nature. Though some of the characters' battle with their nature is an internal struggle, whilst others succumb to their nature and destroy human relationships as a consequence, in varying degrees they are faced with their human nature. Eugene O’Neill portrays these battles through endless reoccurring dilemmas and feelings of his characters, only to leave the reader with a sense of hopelessness towards their passions and desires, as the resolutions of each situation are bitter sweet and often painful.
After these tumultuous battles, the battle ends with Cabot alone on his land and Nature to have prevailed amongst all of the characters. The final words of the play are said by the sheriff while he arrests Abbie and Eben. Through these last lines, O’Neill shows the never ending cycle that nature has by implying the true nature of lust and greed that comes out of the sheriffs sole: (looking around at the farm enviously--to his companion) It's a jim- dandy farm, no denyin'. Wished I owned it! »