Drama hates waste. Or rather, it hates extraneity. Maybe all stories do, the idea being that anything superfluous to the core plot is redundant and so needs cutting. Personally, I’m not so sure. I think drama’s a bit like alcohol in this respect. You want it strong enough to have an effect, even to cause a pleasurable shudder, but served up too pure, it can prove seriously debilitating, even deadly.
Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms is not just neat, it’s distilled to a coma-inducing level. Take out the assorted townsfolk, who do little but interject, and the first scene, which serves to introduce a character via reportage and, in fairness, allow a final twist, and you’re left with a perfectly-constructed, robust love-triangle.
Ephraim Cabot, a 76 year-old farm-owner in New England, has married a woman half his age, Abbie Putnam. She starts an affair with his son Eben, who has bought his brothers’ share of the inheritance. Determined to secure ownership herself, Abbie gets herself pregnant by Eben, passing the child off as Ephraim’s. It’s a powder keg ready to blow. All it takes is for Ephraim to discover the truth, not difficult to manufacture given Eben’s resentment of his father. (Besides, the whole town already knows what Ephraim doesn’t.)
It’s a perfectly volatile combination; a Schwartz triangle that can’t be sustained. Tendency towards entropy dictates that something will give and so – if you don’t want to know the result, look away now – Abbie kills the child to prove her love for Eben. The play was O’Neill’s first attempt at a contemporary Greek tragedy and places great stock in the inevitability of that downfall. It’s a taut sinew of a play – as appealing as a mouthful of gristle.
Beyond the play’s clockwork mechanism of plot, what else do we get? A little sense of place, with a thick hillbilly dialect and, in Sean Holmes’ production, the lethargic twangings of a country guitar. O’Neill himself chucks in a few abstract ideas – here and now against the distant promise of elsewhere, hard graft versus procured fortune – but these hover vaguely above the play’s crux, swirling in and out without really proving definitive.
O’Neill’s setting, for example, is telling. He shuts out the world with his titular Elm Trees. ‘They bend their trailing branches down over the roof,’ he writes in the play’s foreword, ‘They appear to protect and at the same time subdue.’
Designer Ian MacNeil has almost entirely done away with them. Instead, he places the Cabot farm in another vacuum; the void. Even the sky has retreated; a white screen lit in various sun states seems to be sneaking off stage right. Outdoors scenes take place on a huge empty stage – a walkway through the auditorium allowing greater distance – and give the appearance of countryside so deep it could be another planet. If there is a tree, it is a cubist version, hanging upside down, more like a kitchen ventilation unit than anything else. Even the house itself is blank; its walls are different shades of blue, as if waiting for CGI backgrounds. MacNeil’s is not a whole, but isolated rooms wheeled on and off for different scenes. At all times, the world beyond is emphatically absent.
Otherwise, Sean Holmes production is pretty faithful to the piece, played for emotional truth rather than any searching commentary. Watching it, there’s almost nothing to read; no physical ticks that send your braining tripping into metaphor. It’s naught but story; just three figures locked in an impossible tangle. Finbar Lynch is flint as Ephraim, compact and sharp. Morgan Watkins brings an opposite density to Eben, a hollow-headed dolt, while Denise Gough purges without particularity. In fact, only Lynch manages legible specificity. Watkins and Gough remain in the realm of gesticulation rather than gesture.
It leaves the play bald; too bald for me and, judging from the titters that increase throughout the second half, I wasn’t alone. This wasn’t laughter of discomfort, but of disbelief; one of ridicule in the face of contrivance. Take the moment, after we’ve seen her kill the child, when Abbie bursts into the kitchen, where Eben is sitting stock-still and far-off. ‘I done it, Eben! I told ye I’d do it! I’ve proved I love ye – better’n everythin’ – so’s ye can’t never doubt me no more!’ When she announces having ‘killed him’, Eben, quite understandably, think she means Ephraim. By having the scene played out before us, we can’t make the mistake alongside him and both the awkward glitch in the scene and the simplicity of the alternative solution undermine the play.
This is O’Neill manipulating his characters, as Michael Billington has pointed out, but it’s also designed with only drama in mind. It is a moment that could only take place on the stage. It is completely unfettered by logical thinking or the world beyond the elms and, as such can have no real bearing on either. It means the best one can do with Desire Under the Elms is admire the artistry of O’Neill’s dramatic construction.