Stage Door Review

Desire Under the Elms

Monday, November 15, 2021

✭✭

by Eugene O'Neill, directed by Tim Carroll

Shaw Festival, Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

October 23-December 12, 2021

Abbie: “I hain't bad nor mean – ‘ceptin’ fur an enemy – but I got t' fight fur what's due me out o' life, if I ever 'spect t' git it.”

One of the pleasures of the Shaw Festival is to see classics of the late 19th- early 20th-century that other theatres have unaccountably neglected. This is the period of the Festival’s original mandate and one of the richest periods in world drama. This season the Festival presents its first-ever production of the classic tragedy by Eugene O’Neill Desire Under the Elms from 1924. The play will fill in a gap in regular theatre-goers knowledge of O’Neill (1888-1953) and in the genre of Naturalistic drama that was in the ascendant during his lifetime. The production itself is taut and the acting intense.

Naturalism is an artistic movement heavily influenced by Darwinism and sought to show how human beings were products of their heredity, environment and circumstances. The movement had its greatest effect on the novel as is evident in the works of Émile Zola such as Thérèse Raquin (1867) or Germinal (1885) and in those they influenced such as American novels like McTeague (1899) by Frank Norris or Ethan Frome (1911) by Edith Wharton or in a Canadian novel like Maria Chapdelaine (1913) by Louis Hémon.

The most famous Naturalist drama still regularly staged is Miss Julie (1888) by August Strindberg, although the Shaw has still not got around to it. Strindberg overcomes the general bleakness of the naturalist point of view by focussing so strongly on how heredity and environment have affected the psychology of the characters.

This is also true in Desire Under the Elms. The play is set set inside and outside a farmhouse in New England in 1850. The farm is owned by Ephraim Cabot (Tom McCamus), and worked by Simeon (Kristopher Bowman) and Peter (Martin Happer), sons from Ephraim’s first marriage, and Eben (Johnathan Sousa), a son from his second marriage. None are happy. The first remarks we hear are from Simeon and Peter fantasizing about going to California to try for the gold found there. Eben is firm about staying because he believes the farm belonged to his mother and that she never signed it over to Ephraim when she married him. All the talk is of inheritance, either biological or of property, with Simeon and Peter frequently calling Eben the “spit” of Ephraim, an irony since Eben hates Ephraim so much.

Ephraim has left his three sons and gone to the (unnamed) city for the first time in 30 years. When he returns he shocks them all because he has brought along his new wife Abbie (Julia Course), a woman young enough to be his daughter. The remarriage upsets all hopes Simeon and Peter may have had of inheriting the farm and after calling Abbie a “whore” they slip off for California with Eben’s help. Eben stays to fight and the dialogue is filled with characters’ correcting others’ use of possessive pronouns. Abbie calls the farmhouse “my house”, Ephraim calls it “ours”, but Eben says it’s “his”.

Abbie’s arrival immediately makes her and Eben enemies in terms of property. Yet, they are nearly the same age with Eben being called a younger version of Ephraim. It’s natural that Abbie is more than simply attracted to Eben while Eben is attracted to Abbie though he struggles against it. When Abbie confesses to Eben that she married the old man only for his property, the lust between the two takes on a new importance. The situation is very much like that in Zola’s Thérèse Raquin where an unloved husband stands between the desires of a wife and her lover, but O’Neill manages the plot in an even more disturbing manner.

O’Neill has given both Abbie and Ephraim long narratives where they tell their life stories that explain how they have become the people they are. Ephraim believes the farm is his, even if he married Eben’s mother for it, because he worked the farm and made it his. Abbie grew up in poverty and after one failed marriage  feels lucky to have married Ephraim to gain the security that his property affords. In none of the characters’ talk is there any mention of love. The primary concerns are food, shelter and sex. All four men, as it turns out, have gone to the same village prostitute for sex.

In this way O’Neill shows how poverty coarsens the souls of humankind and shrinks its world down to the very basics with no room for any “higher” feelings. The point of such a depiction in Naturalist literature is not to condemn the poor but to reveal yjr curse that poverty is since physical want leads to spiritual want. The Naturalists’ bleak portraits of the poor were meant to encourage society to help relieve the physical want of the underclass and to help raise them from the sordor of simple animality to realize their full humanity.

O’Neill demonstrates that it is not that higher feelings in his characters do not exist but that that have been weighed down by concerns for the basics of life. One sign is Eben’s fierce devotion to his deceased mother, the only person who ever loved him. Another sign, the motivator of the action in Act 2, is the transformation of simple lust between Eben and Abbie to love. When we first meet Eben and later when we meet Abbie we have no clue such nobility of feeling could reside in such seemingly materialistic people, but, despite contemplating and committing an horrific deed, O’Neill shows that they are capable of such selflessness.

Although Desire Under the Elms is a Naturalist play. O’Neill adds a strong non-Naturalistic element by paralleling his characters to those in Greek mythology. The most famous example of a stepmother falling in love with her stepson is that of Phaedra, the new wife of Theseus, who falls in love with his son Hippolytus. (This is the same Theseus, who slew the Minotaur and released Athens from its deadly tribute.) The myth is the subject of Euripides’ Greek tragedy Hippolytus (328 BC) and of Seneca’s Latin tragedy Phaedra (c. 54 AD), although the supreme version of this myth is certainy that of Jean Racine in his French tragedy Phèdre (1677).

The significant changes O’Neill brings to the tale is that O’Neill’s Phaedra (Abbie) falls in love with his Hippolytus (Eben) while his Theseus (Ephraim) is present rather than in his absence as in the myth. This lends the story an even greater sense of danger. Even more important is that O’Neill’s Hippolytus falls in love with Phaedra, rather than reviling her for her semi-incestuous passion. Further, O’Neill’s Phaedra is not consumed by guilt for her ethical transgression. Abbie sees none and goes even farther than Phaedra in pursuing her love. O’Neill uses the myth to universalize characters’ situation, finding the eternal in the ordinary which was part of the Modernist project evident in a novel such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1920), where everyday Dublin life is informed by Homer’s Odyssey.

Thus, O’Neill presents his drama as both particular and universal at the same time. To reflect this, set designer Judith Bowden has created a completely non-Naturalistic set. While the original production featured a farmhouse on stage, the building that is so central to the characters’ battles, Bowden has flattened the building so that there is only one upright wooden support post. The “house” is now only wooden siding, a door and two windows that serve as the floor of the stage.

Visually, this is a clever way of showing that Cabots’ house is a battleground and a treasure house of secrets. Practically, however, the set looks treacherous with its uneven surface and projecting handles. It is to the actors’ credit that they move about on the set so easily even though we tend to fear an error at any time.

As director Tim Carroll has likely been heavily influenced by Croatian director Selma Dimitrijevic, who was originally slated to direct the play and even outlined her approach to it before she was prevented from travelling to Canada due Covid restrictions. Carroll has uncharacteristically given the play numerous instances of non-Naturalistic blocking as when Abbie and Eben speak to each other while standing side-by-side facing opposite directions. This lends the action an abstractness, which like O’Neill’s use of myth, works to counteract the text’s emphasis on materiality.

Such a process would not work without the total dedication of the cast who are completely united in walking this fine line between the abstract and the particular. Martin Happer, Kristopher Bowman and Johnathan Sousa make an excellent set of stepbrothers, whom they clearly gradate in terms of intelligence and expression. Happer makes Peter the nearly inarticulate and the most brutish in behaviour. One step higher is Bowman, whose Simeon is more articulate but but only slightly less brutish than Peter. Sousa’s Eben is the character with whom we identify most both because he can express more complex ideas and because he seems capable of finer feelings. Peter and Simeon make fun of Eben as someone who would kiss a prostitute rather than have sex with her.

Sousa is well paired with Julia Course as two young people whose instant enmity also betrays their instant attraction. Both Sousa and Course carefully detail how Abbie and Eben’s lust gradually transforms itself into love. Sousa is superb in conveying the conflicting emotions that imbue every word he says to Abbie. Course is expert at depicting how Abbie seems to entrap herself in her own plot. Given the depressing setting and given the couple’s darker thoughts and deeds, that love should emerge from such an environment is both the cause for hope and for tragedy in the play.

Tom McCamus gives a masterly performance as Ephraim. McCamus makes the farmer’s speech violent and distasteful and he shows us that the 76-year-old man contemplates brutal actions that he knows he cannot physically carry out. He shows that Ephraim’s frustration with his life and with others has led him to a nihilistic point of view where he would rather destroy everything rather than let anyone have what is “his”.

The central irony of the play is that with all the initial concern for possessions, the three main characters all come to realize that in reality they possess nothing that is tangible. We can see that Simeon and Peter’s longing for gold in California is an illusion. But, we also come to see through the lives of Ephraim, Eben and Abbie that the notion of possessing things at all is a meaningless illusion.

The emphasis on the importance of illusion in dictating how people view themselves and the world links this early play to all of O’Neill’s other plays right up to his final work Long Day’s Journey into Night (written 1941-42). It is a major gift to theatre-lovers that the Shaw has staged this play in so fine a production. It helps us understand not just the tensions of the period in which it was written but the genius of one of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights. This is the fourth play by O’Neill that the Shaw has presented and there are many more that justly deserve revival.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Julia Course as Abbie and Johnathan Sousa as Eben; Johnathan Sousa as Eben, Kristopher Bowman as Simeon and Martin Happer as Peter. © 2021 David Cooper.

For tickets visit www.shawfest.com.