Eugene O’Neill was heavily influenced by ancient Greek myths and stories, particularly those of Euripides. One of the most significant sources for his famed Desire Under the Elms is the tale of Hippolytus.
Euripides composed Hippolytus for the city Dionysia of Athens in 428 BC; for this work he won first prize as part of a trilogy. It is based off the myth of Hippolytus, the son of Theseus, which predated the play by some time. Euripides had undertaken this myth in an earlier work (now lost).
The play begins in the town of Troezan, where Hippolytus, the son of Theseus, is being raised and trained by the king of Troezan, Pittheus. Theseus is currently voluntarily exiled for murdering a neighboring king and his sons. Hippolytus has incurred the wrath of Aphrodite for maintaining celibacy and refusing to worship her, preferring Artemis. Aphrodite concocts a plan of revenge by leading his stepmother, Phaedra, to fall in love with him.
Hippolytus openly worships Artemis and is warned about Aphrodite's anger, but ignores the warnings. In the meantime, Phaedra grows ill from her love of Hippolytus. She confesses to her nurse the true cause of her illness, which shocks her. Phaedra plans to die with honor but the nurse claims to have a magical charm to cure her.
The nurse tells Hippolytus of his stepmother’s feelings for him, insinuating that he ought to sleep with Phaedra. Hippolytus is horrified and plans to tell Theseus the truth when he returns. Phaedra is devastated and hangs herself.
When Theseus comes home, he finds Phaedra dead but does not know why. He finds a letter on her person that says Hippolytus raped her; Theseus is furious and cruses his son, planning for his death or exile. He carries out his plan by calling on his own father, Poseidon, who in turn promises to make good on the three wishes he owes his son.
Hippolytus tries to clear his name but a binding oath prevents him from telling his father the truth. Theseus exiles Hippolytus.
A messenger arrives and informs Theseus that as Hippolytus was leaving in his chariot, a bull came out of the sea, frightening his horse and dragging him through the rocks to a point near death. The messenger implores Theseus to believe that Hippolytus is innocent, but Theseus refuses and is gleeful about his son’s suffering.
Finally, Artemis arrives and tells Theseus the truth about his son and Phaedra. She also acknowledges that this is all Aphrodite’s fault. Hippolytus is brought in, and Artemis says she will seek revenge on Aphrodite by hurting the person the goddess falls in love with next. Hippolytus musters enough strength to tell his father he forgives him, then dies.
The online guide to ancient Greek literature explains, “Among the themes of the play are: personal desire vs. the standards of society; uncontrolled emotion vs. excessive control; unrequited love; the sacrosanct nature of oaths; hastiness in judgment; and the distasteful character of the gods (as they to give in to pride, vanity, jealousy and anger).”