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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 6


Primogeniture in the Plays of
Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller

Stephen Marino
St. Francis College

Vanity Fair’s 2007 revelation of the existence of Arthur Miller’s Down syndrome son subsequently provoked moral outrage from certain quarters about Miller’s (mis)treatment of Daniel.  One of the more intriguing aspects of this brouhaha concerned Miller’s inclusion of Daniel in his will, which apparently complicated Daniel’s eligibility for social services provided by the state of Connecticut, his state of residence.  Miller is a playwright for whom much of his work is seen through the lens of autobiography, and beyond the gossip and innuendo, the Daniel Miller imbroglio provokes discussion on how inheritance and the handing down of property and wealth operate in Miller’s plays. 

Much has been analyzed about the preponderance of male characters in Miller’s dramas, especially how the conflicts among fathers, sons, and brothers operate in the family unit, in society, and the consequent psychological and moral issues these conflicts raise. However, little criticism has focused in depth on how birth order, in particular primogeniture, the legal, moral, and familial rights and expectations of first borns, particularly sons, works in many plays. Throughout his dramatic canon, Miller illustrated a skewed form of primogeniture where the first-born male is not necessarily or clearly the favored son, nor does he, despite the father’s intentions, inherit what he desires; often younger sons inherit the father’s traits or legacy. Moreover, the conflicts which Miller creates among brothers and fathers and sons often complicates the notion of strict primogeniture, such as Amos and David in The Man Who Had All the Luck, Chris Keller and his dead brother Larry in All My Sons, Biff and Hap in Death of Salesman, and Walter and Victor in The Price. Miller’s late play, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, shifts focus to the legal rights of a daughter, Bessie, versus those of an illegitimate son, Benjamin and to the power of wives in inheritance issues.

Miller’s use of primogeniture provokes further interest in how it operates in other twentieth century American playwrights, particularly Eugene O’Neill, a dramatist who had a debatable influence on the development of Miller’s craft.  O’Neill, like Miller, is a playwright for whom much of work is seen through the lens of autobiography and is similarly dominated by male characters. O’Neill criticism, like Miller scholarship, has focused on how the conflicts among fathers, sons, and brothers operate in the family unit, in society, and the consequent psychological and moral issues these conflicts raise.  However, O’Neill’s plays, much more than Miller’s, include female characters that significantly influence the conflicts among fathers, sons, and brothers. Moreover, some of O’Neill’s female characters wield a marked power as it relates to primogeniture, birth order, and the legal rights of inheritance.  The influence of these women skews the notion about the rights of sons and brothers, such as Robert and Andrew Mayo in Beyond the Horizon, Orin, Lavinia, and Adam in Mourning Becomes Electra, and Jamie and Edmund Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Desire Under the Elms is arguably the O’Neill play in which primogeniture and inheritance rights are most complicated because of the powerful influences of Eben’s dead mother and Ephraim’s third wife Abbie.

I hope this discussion augments some of the traditional views of how the conflicts between sons and fathers operate in O’Neill and Miller's work—although my remarks are an overview of what is a huge topic that connects to so many perspectives of their plays. 

Primogeniture—the rights of first-born children, especially sons—has had a powerful influence on western culture and one could give myriad examples: from Jacob stealing the blessing from Esau to Edmund and Edgar in King Lear to even the perversity of Austin and Lee in True West.  Miller’s attitude about the primacy of the first-born male was probably most influenced by the cultural attitudes in which he was inculcated by his Jewish immigrant parents, attitudes that combined with his distinctly American upbringing.  James Robinson maintains that: “Miller’s upbringing in a patriarchal Jewish culture undeniably served to reinforce for him the mythic authority of male ancestors, and their connection to moral law” (139). After all, Miller often discussed his frequent rivalry with his older brother Kermit and his later success as the younger brother.  In Timebends, he details that Kermit “as the eldest son had all the responsibility and I had all the fun” (10). Miller early on in his life paired Kermit with his father as a “force for order and goodness.” Kermit wore braces on his teeth and as Miller wrote: “I was not the eldest son and to my great relief even then was not regarded as worth the money” (46).  He describes the eldest son’s responsibility that Kermit felt to rebuilding the family’s fortune. When Miller won his first Hopwood Award at Michigan, he admits his guilt at having left Kermit “to prop up the family while, I, the inferior student, went off to college (226).  He also transmits both sons’ service to the “idealized father” (226) they saw in Isadore.  And after his first success with All My Sons, Miller writes, “I wanted and did not want to excel over my brother, or more precisely, the little boy in me did not want to, even as I knew perfectly well what pride Kermit took in my success (276).”

In this regard, it is clear that in many plays sons, not daughters, dominate the preference for inheritance of rights, property and wealth: the best example probably being in The Crucible, Giles Corey’s refusal to answer aye or nay to his witchcraft indictment so that, as Elizabeth Proctor explains, “his sons will have his farm (135).”  Death of a Salesman is arguably the model text for examining strict primogeniture; it is the one play in Miller’s entire canon where the father’s preference for the older son, Willy for Biff, is evident throughout the entire action. Hap, the younger son, cannot even get Willy to notice him: the pathetic refrain of “I’m losing weight, you notice Pop? (33)” indicates his secondary status as the younger son.  

When we examine the passing down of material goods, wealth, and property, Biff the elder, is clearly the favored son who will inherit Willy’s goods with all the rights of primogeniture. Willy clearly intends for Biff to be the beneficiary of the $15,000 in insurance money. The play even strongly reinforces male primogeniture inheritance. When Linda asks Willy if he would he be in for any of Ben’s money, Willy tells her that Ben has five sons, understanding his place as an heir in a long line of succession.  Willy, too, is a younger son, who has not inherited much of the wild spirit of their father, as Ben has. The line of succession is also enforced by Bernard who has two sons, but Willy’s line will die with Biff and Hap, who have little hope for heirs.

There are other elements of primogeniture meant to contrast with Willy.  Salesman employs a metaphor of royalty to indicate succession. Lawrence Rosinger pointed out the metaphor of prince in the play. Willy, speaking of his deceased boss, asserts: “That man was a prince, he was a masterful man” (14).  The word “prince” is used again in the restaurant scene, when Willy goes to the washroom and Biff says to Miss Forsythe: “You've just seen a prince walk by. A fine, troubled prince. A hardworking, unappreciated prince” (114).  The play clearly makes a contrast between Frank and Willy as princes—Howard has inherited the business, a legitimate passing down of the title, whereas Willy as a troubled prince has little material wealth to pass to his sons. Moreover, Willy’s claim to have named Howard does not give him the right as the paterfamilias; Howard has no family ties to him.  As in All My Sons, material wealth is not the only legacy passed on to sons. Willy has passed immorality to both his sons lying, cheating, stealing, drabbing, wenching, adultery. But is ironic that although Willy prefers to pass material goods to Biff, Hap has inherited Willy’s legacy to be “number one man.”

Eugene O’Neill’s complicated attitude toward inheritance and the handing down of property and wealth obviously was formed in the hot cauldron of his family relationships, its Irish-Catholic traditions, the vagabond life of traveling on the American theatre circuit, and the elder O’Neill’s attitude towards wealth and property.  We can spend hours discussing Eugene’s adulation of his older brother Jamie, his estrangement and late life reconciliation with his father, James’s expectations and disappointments over both sons as heirs to his legacy, and the complicated role of Ella. Two incidents in particular illustrate how Eugene was directly influenced by inheritance.  After the elder O’Neill’s death, Jamie became Ella’s de facto secretary as she attempted to sort out his complicated real estate holdings and other aspects of his substantial wealth.  While on a trip to Los Angeles to sell a valuable piece of property, Jamie tried to convince Ella to give him the most important part in the estate without sharing it with Eugene.  She resisted him, but Eugene was wised up by a trusted family friend, and that ended his idealization of and relationship with Jamie, who died a short time later (Black 10).

O’Neill’s own commentary on inheritance and family rights is intriguing.  Arthur Miller, who wrote the New York Times Book Review for the 1988 publication of O’Neill’s letters, noted the large number of letters that O’Neill wrote to and about his children. Miller writes that there is “no more painful irony to contemplate in the events of his life than how his own ‘cursed’ family evolved (458).”  Miller quotes from a letter that O’Neill wrote to his second wife Agnes from their house at Spithead in Bermuda: “Our home. Our home! I feel that very much about Spithead, don’t you? That is place is I some strange symbolical fashion our reward, that it is the permanent seat of our family—like some old English family estate.  I already feel like entailing it in my will so that it must always be background for our children!” (458)  Miller points out the irony that O’Neill’s two sons committed suicide and that he disowned Oona after her marriage to Charlie Chaplin (458).

Perhaps O’Neill’s use of primogeniture is part of his obsession with, as Edward Shaughnessay has pointed out, the “greed and possessiveness in the national psyche” (158).  But like Miller, O’Neill dramatizes a skewed form of primogeniture and inheritance rights. O’Neill wrote plays where issues of inheritance, the passing on of wealth, the ownership of land and siblings rights are central. Women are crucial in the action and usually are, as Anne Fleche judges, the “unstable female character who is nevertheless structurally central to the competing male narratives around her” (1). Of note are “The Rope,” Beyond the Horizon, and Mourning Becomes Electra. For example, in Beyond the Horizon, the older son, Andrew, the logical rightful heir to the Mayo farm is cut off by the unexpected love between the younger brother, Robert, and Ruth.  In Mourning Becomes Electra, Lavinia is the surviving heir to an estate in which she shuts herself.

However, inheritance rights are particularly complicated in Desire Under the Elms. Written right after Jamie died (Could Jamie’s attempt have been on O’Neill’s mind?), analysis of the significance of inheritance perhaps has been overshadowed by criticism that examines the play from mythic, tragic, and psychological perspectives.  However, from the outset, the play is concerned with inheritance, wealth, and possession. In fact, the central conflicts of the play center on the ambiguity of who has the right to inherit Ephraim Cabot’s farm. In this, O’Neill illustrates an ambiguity over inheritance rights and entailment that developed in America after the revolution (and opposed to the strict English primogeniture system).  Strict primogeniture broke down in the states primarily because of the vastness of the American continent—there was more land for more sons—(and that is clearly at play in Desire, where Simeon and Peter—give up their claim to the land to go out west for California gold.)  However, cultural forces from the Yankee/Colonial roots, European immigration, and the position of women still projected powerful influences on primogeniture in American society. 

The central conflicts of Desire Under the Elms—be they Oedipal, psychological, mythic, or tragic--center on the rightful inheritance of Ephraim Cabot’s farm.  But the play skews this from the opening scene.  Simeon and Peter, the older sons of Ephraim’s first wife, imply that they have earned the right to the farm “by our sweat” (4).  They further imply their legal right to the farm when they say, “We got t’ wait till he’s under ground” (5). This seeming enforcement of male primogeniture is immediately challenged in the second scene of the play, when Eben, the son of Ephraim’s’s second dead wife, proclaims he is “her heir” and he argues exactly about who will own the farm. When Simeon and Peter express their desire to go out west and find their riches, Eben declares: “Ye won’t never go because you’ll wait here fur yer share o’ the farm, thinkin allus he’ll die soon.” When Peter declares “Two thirds belongs t’us, Eben responds:  “Ye’ve no right. She wa’nt yewr Maw. Didn’t he steal it from her?  She’s dead.  It’s my farm (7).”  This important conversation raises the questions of just how inheritance works in the 1850 New England society of the play.  All three sons are claiming their part of the farm, but Eben is claiming sole ownership through the entailing of his dead mother, something that seems contradictory. However, Eben’s claim to a matrilineal form of ownership has some basis.  He claims that Ephraim worked his mother to death, which secured her claim to the farm, but this is the same claim Simeon and Peter make about their hard work.  In addition, twice in the play, there is mention that Eben’s mother’s relatives initiated court action claim for the farm—which raises the interesting issue of whether Ephraim had a will.  At the time, O’Neill wrote the play in 1924, American law maintained that if a man died intestate, then the property and wealth was divided equally among the surviving wife and children—although the play takes place in 1850—a time when male inheritance of property was more strongly practiced. Yet widows did inherit farms; the picture of the poor farm widow is well established in American culture. Moreover, this matrilineal claim is the same exact one that Abbie will make: that her status as Ephraim’s wife gives her possession to the farm. 

The news that Ephraim has taken a third wife further complicates the issue of ownership.  Peter and Simeon decide to go out west and Eben lures them with Ephraim’s hidden cache of money.  He gets them to sign over shares of the farm, triumphantly declaring: “It’s Maw’s farm agen! It’s my farm! (15). Of course, the appearance of Ephraim and Abbie complicate what Eben thinks is his sole possession of the farm.  In fact, Abbie’s first spoken words as she inspects the outside of the house indicate why this 35 year old has married the 75 year old Ephraim: “I can’t b’leive it r’ally mine” (20).  Yet the conflict (and attraction) between Abbie and Eben over the ownership of the house is set immediately when she wants “go in an’ look at my house (20).

The initial meeting between Eben and Abbie is filled with the contradiction of their desire to both love and hate each other. Their physical attraction is palpable, but he desires to protect his farm and her paramount desire is to possess what she perceives is her home.

Part 2 sc. 1 is an important turning point in regards to inheritance rights. Eben and Abbie bicker over ownership of the farm, but at this point, the play turns its attention to reinforce the legal ownership of the farm to Ephraim, who is in a maudlin mood and begins thinking about his mortality.  He even says to Abbie: “But after three score and ten the Lord warns ye t’prepare (pause) That’s why Eben come in my head.  Now that his cussed brother is gone their path to hell, they’s no one left but Eben” (29)—a line which clearly enforces Eben’s place as son and legal heir.  However, Abbie is not to be cut out of what she believes to be her right and she says: “Hain’t I yet yer lawlful wife?” (29).  Here Ephraim reveals his real desire to leave the farm to no one—that no one deserves to possess the farm which he created out of his own sweat and blood. Moreover, he would rather burn it down, destroy the crops, and turn the cattle free than have any one else possess it.  It is notable that in1925 O’Neill called the play “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 owner ship of land, people, and money” (Mandl 2). However, when Abbie concocts the story of Eben trying to make love to her, she successfully turns Ephraim away from any thought of willing the farm to Eben.  Ephraim then laments: “What son o’mine ‘ll keep on hre t’ the farm—when the Lord does call me? Simeon and Peter ir gone t’ hell-an Eben follower ‘em” (31).  Abbie says “There’s me”..I’m yewr wife.”  But Ephraim at this point clearly enforces a male inheritance of the farm saying: “That ain’t me. A son is me—my blood—mine.  Mine ought t’git minr. An’ tne it’s still mine—even though I be six foot under. D’ye see? (31) And it is then that Abbie gets the notion to give him a son to and he subsequently promises to will the farm to her.

On the night Abbie conceives a son by Eben, her possession of the literal house also can be seen in her insistence in occupying the parlor room where Eben’s maw was laid out. Their desire—Eben’s release from the ghost of his maw and possession of his father’s wife and Abbie’s desire to ensure her legacy—result in the consummation of their lust.  Ironically, their infant son becomes another possession about which to argue: Eben says to Abbie: “I don’t like lettin’ on what’s mine is his’n”.

In part 3 scene 2, Eben and Ephraim continue to argue about farm ownership.  Ephraim tells Eben that marrying a country girl could ensure his ownership of a farm and Eben insists he already owns one. However, Ephraim tells Eben that the farm belongs to his new son, something that again contradicts strict male primogeniture and in his fury, Ephraim tells Eben about Abbie wanting him cut out declaring: “An the farm’s her own!”

However, at the end of the play two twists occur over the desire for the farm.  In his confrontation with Abbie over Ephraim’s remarks, Eben screams about the baby: “I wish he never was born! I wish he’s die this mint! I wish I’d never sot eyes on him!”  Consequently, Abbie, in her mania as an unstable O’Neill female character, attempts to change things that cannot be changed.  She asks Eben if he believed that she loved him before the baby came.  She now says she hates the baby and Eben insist that she does not, because it will steal the farm for her.  However, Abbie’s desire for Eben unexpectedly outweighs her desire for the farm and she kills her son—her warped justification for the infanticide being her desire to return to the past.

The other twist occurs with Ephraim planning to abandon the farm, setting the stock free and taking his hidden wealth to find his “true sons o’ mine,” contradictorily reestablishing Simeon and Peter in his lineage. But when he discovers the truth of the baby’s paternity and Eben’s theft of his cash, he has no choice, as God determined: he will roundup the stock and stay on the farm. Thus, the play ends with a reinforcement of Ephraim’s sole ownership of the farm—albeit now without heirs—which is a intriguing part of O’Neill’s land plays: the inherited land is left in ruins, its ability to thrive ambiguous.


Andrews, Susanna. “Arthur Miller’s Missing Act.” Vanity Fair 565 (Sept 2007): 252.

Black, Stephen. “Celebrant of Loss: Eugene O’Neill 1888-1953.” The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill, ed. Michael Manheim. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998, 4-17.

Fleche, Anne. “A Monster of Perfection: O’Neill’s Stella.” Feminist Readings of Modern American Drama. New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1989.

Mandl, Bette. “Family Ties: Landscape and Gender in Desire Under the Elms.” The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter 1.2 (Summer-Fall 1987), 19-35.

Miller, Arthur. The Crucible, Text and Criticism. Gerald Weales, ed. New York, New York, Penguin Books, 1977.

---. Death of a Salesman. Text and Criticism. Gerald Weales, ed. New York, Penguin Books, 1977.

---. “A Fabulous Appetite for Greatness.” New York Times Book Review. (Nov. 6, 1988) 12-13; rpt. The Theatre Essays of Arthur Miller. Robert A. Martin and Steven R. Centola, eds. New York: DaCapo Press, 1996, 455-459.

---. Timebends, A Life.  New York: Grove Press, 1987.

O’Neill, Eugene.  Desire Under the Elms. Three Plays. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Robinson, James. “All My Sons and Paternal Authority.” Critical Insights, Arthur Miller. Brenda Murphy, ed. Massachusetts: Salem Press, 2011.

Rosinger, Lawrence. “Miller’s Death of a Salesman.Explicator 45, no. 2 (Winter 1987): 55-6.

Shaugnessy, Edward. “O’Neill’s African and Irish-Americans: Stereotypes of ‘Faithful Realism’?” The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill, ed. Michael Manheim. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998, 148-163.



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