Eugene O'Neill
 
New York Times, November 12, 1924

'Desire Under the Elms': Eugene O'Neill's Latest Play

By STARK YOUNG

"Desire Under the Elms," the first play by Eugene O'Neill to be produced since "Welded," was presented last night at the Greenwich Village Theatre and proved to be as unlike that drama as it was unlike "The Hairy Ape" or "The Emperor Jones." "Desire Under the Elms" reverts in character to the earlier "Beyond the Horizon," though it exhibits by comparison a fine progress in solidity and finish. It has less sentiment than this older piece and more passion; it is better written throughout; it has as much tragic gloom and irony but a more mature conception and a more imaginative austerity.

"Desire Under the Elms" is essentially a story of solitude, physical solitude, the solitude of the land, of men's dreams, of love, of life. The God behind the existence created on this New England farm is a harsh God, who is alone and is not understood. The minds of the people in this story are shaken and tinged with loneliness, with thwarted passion, with the trivial, the intense, the drab exaltation and denial of life. Underneath this solitude desire works, the redemption through love.

The children of old Cabot hate him. The youngest, the son of the second wife, remembers his dead mother, worked to death, and sees her about the place, risen from her grave. The father brings home a third wife. The two older sons go away to California; the younger stays and thinks to avenge his mother. In time he and the young wife come to love each other.

A son is born, which old Cabot thinks is to be heir to the farm, leaving the second wife's son adrift in the world. While a dance in honor of the new-born child goes on in the kitchen, the father and son quarrel outside; the son believes his father when he hears that the woman wanted a son only to cheat him out of the farm. He reviles her. To prove to him that it was the love of him and not the desire for the farm that had driven her to him, she kills the child. He runs off for the sheriff. The father turns the live stock loose in the woods and plans to go away, but when he finds the money gone from its hiding place, he believes that God another time has willed that he stand by the farm. The son returns from the sheriff's, he falls at the knees of the woman, takes part of the blame on himself, and they go away together to prison.

Robert Edmond Jones's setting for "Desire Under the Elms" was profoundly dramatic. The end of a New England farmhouse with its overhanging elms was for all practical purposes built there on the stage, with a wall of actual stone coming down to the footlights; a scene that was realistic but at the same time strangely and powerfully heightened in effect.

The general performance of the play was usually adequate though not often on a level with the writing. Mary Morris, however, whose career as the fair Gertrude in :Fashion" last year was one of the flowers of the season's acting, played the wife in "Desire Under the Elms," with a new and suppressed method that deepened at times into an admirable poignancy and a kind of grim, thin poetry that seemed the exact truth of her lines. Charles Ellis, though his work in the earlier scenes was less successful or convincing, played with real poetry the passage where the boy is possessed with love for the woman and for his child. Walter Huston as the old man was everywhere trenchant, gaunt, fervid, harsh, as he should be in the part. In his ability to cover his gradations, to express the natural and convincing emotion, and to convey the harsh, inarticulate life embodied in this extraordinary portrait that Eugene O'Neill has drawn, Mr. Huston showed his talent and proved to be the best choice possible for the role.

The scene of "Desire Under the Elms" that best illustrates the highest quality of the play is that in which we see the dance going on, the father outside the house, the young wife and her lover in the upstairs room in each other's arms beside the child's cradle, a scene written with such poetry and terrible beauty as we rarely see in the theatre, a scene that for these qualities of poetry, terror and at the same time unflinching realism rises above anything that Mr. O'Neill has written.  

 

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