The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: Desire Under the Elms

Sophia Loren and Anthony Perkins in Desire Under the Elms

Eugene O’Neill’s plays can be grouped into three or four major categories. In Beyond the Horizon and Anna Christie, O’Neill wrote realistic plays with melodramatic elements. Starting with The Emperor Jones and culminating in Strange Interlude (which we’ll discuss in the next post), O’Neill dabbled in experimental plays. With Desire Under the Elms, O’Neill takes plots and themes from Greek tragedy and drops them into an American setting (in this case, Hippolytus by Euripides). In his final phase, he returned to realism, and wrote some of his greatest plays.

Like The Emperor Jones, only one movie version of Desire Under the Elms was made. Unlike The Emperor Jones, it’s not a good movie and doesn’t give a good sense of the play, mainly due to the miscasting (or misdirection) of Burl Ives and Anthony Perkins. Ives plays Ephraim Cabot, while Perkins plays his son Eben. Sophia Loren plays Anna, Ephraim’s young wife (in the play her name is Abbie Putnam). Unlike the men, she is mostly terrific. Loren and the gorgeous cinematography are really the only two reasons to watch this adaptation.

While the play starts (and stays) in 1850, the movie begins ten years earlier, when Eben’s mother creeps out with her son to show him where Ephraim keeps his gold. She tells him that Ephraim will work her to death, like he did his first wife, but that the farm and the gold belong to Eben. We then jump ahead to where an adult Eben is putting flowers on his mother’s grave, who has been dead several years. We meet his stepbrothers, Simeon and Peter, soon after. Ephraim leaves them to tend to the farm while he goes on a trip; Eben spends some of that time visiting the old widow in town, with whom he (and possibly many others before him) is having an affair. When Eben hears that his father has gotten married again, he tells his stepbrothers the news and offers to buy out their shares of the land for $300 each. They agree and head west for the Gold Rush, after first confirming that Eben told them the truth by waiting until Anna, an Italian immigrant, arrives.

She seems smitten with Eben at first sight, and it’s good that Loren brings enough sex appeal to scorch you through the screen, because there’s very little from Perkins. She promises Ephraim a son, but it’s her and Eben who eventually have a son together. Of course, Ephraim thinks the child is his, and in the weirdest scene in the film (where Ives lumbers around and shoves people, telling them to dance), he hosts a party for the neighbors in celebration of the birth. They, of course, have guessed at the truth, but he remains oblivious to their taunts. His two other sons return at this point with their wives, who are insulted by Ephraim, then danced with, then insulted again, at which point they leave with their husbands. This whole time, Eben refuses to come outside, and Anna is forced to brave the crowd with her son by herself.

The tragedy occurs when Eben thinks that Anna only wanted to have a child so that Ephraim can leave the farm to him and cheat Eben out of his inheritance. In order to prove that she loves Eben and isn’t using him, she kills the baby (offscreen). When she tells Eben what she has done, he gets the sheriff. When the sheriff arrives, Eben confesses to being partially guilty, and both of them are led off to prison, while Ephraim gets to keep his farm.

The early scenes in the movie aren’t in the play (up until the scene where the stepbrothers are talking about California gold), which means we don’t ever see Eben’s mother and we don’t meet Ephraim until he comes back with Abbie (at the end of Act I), but the adapted screenplay is a solid one, with most of the scenes and dialogue lifted directly from the source material (including the final line). This makes the miscasting even more apparent (not to mention the Elmer Bernstein score, which is a bit too melodramatic and bombastic for the type of tragedy O’Neill was going for).

In the play, Eben is described (in part) as having “black hair, moustache, and thin curly trace of beard” (Desire Under the Elms, 8), while Perkins has only the black hair. Ephraim is described (in part) as “seventy-five, tall and gaunt, with great, wiry, concentrated power, but stoop-shouldered from toil” (37), while Ives only gets the tall and stooped-shoulder parts right. But the physical differences wouldn’t matter if the acting were more attuned to the roles. Ives decided that Ephraim should talk in monotone for most of the movie when his monologues need to sing and his range needs to be large, while Perkins vacillates between one-note (usually when talking about his inheritance) and some slight vulnerability in his later scenes with Loren, until he thinks she’s trying to take his inheritance from him: then it’s back to one-note. And, like I said before, all the heat in their relationship is generated on Loren’s end.

Hopefully someday I’ll either get to see a production of Desire Under the Elms or someone will make a decent movie out of the source material. Until then, the best way to experience the play might be to read it and imagine better actors in the roles — excluding Loren, of course.

Works Cited

O’Neill, Eugene. Desire Under the Elms (taken from All God’s Chillun Got Wings: 3 plays by Eugene O’Neill). Butler and Tanner, Ltd, 1966.