Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms is one of the playwright’s most intriguing early works, and is exemplary of his desire to unite the modern and the ancient Greek. Written and first performed in 1924, it is influenced by the stories of Oedipus, Medea, and Hippolytus. The language is that of the New England vernacular in the antebellum period, making the play a hallmark of naturalistic theater. There are also tinges of Freud and Nietzsche in the work, thinkers with whim O’Neill was very familiar.
O’Neill described his play thusly: “a tragedy of the possessive –the pitiful longing of man to build his own heaven here on earth by glutting his sense of power with ownership of the land, people, money –but principally the land and other people’s lives.”
According to Walter Huston, the actor who played Ephraim Cabot in the first staging of the play, O’Neill composed it in one night between Christmas Eve and New Year’s of 1923. He continued to work on it into 1924, completing the script in June. His time spent in Brook Farm, Connecticut, no doubt influenced his depiction of a lonesome, melancholy New England landscape.
O’Neill worked with those who were part of the famed “Triumvirate” -- producer Kenneth Macgowan and Robert Edmond Jones, the set designer. They were the most progressive theater group in the wake of the Provincetown Players.
The play debuted on November 11, 1924 at the Greenwich Village Theatre in New York City. It attracted the attention of city authorities, which tried to shut it down on the basis on obscene sex and violence. It was also targeted for censorship in Boston, Los Angeles, and London. Avoiding shutdown, it went on to play 208 times in New York and was acclaimed by critics. It also brought O’Neill a great deal of attention and money.
Two major revivals were staged in 1952 and 2009; in the latter, Brian Dennehy played Ephraim Cabot, Pablo Schrieber played Eben Cabot, and Carla Gugino played Abbie Putnam. A film version was produced in 1958.