Sunday 1 October 2017

Desire Under the Elms

Sheffield Crucible
30th September, 2017, matinee

I know little of Eugene O’Neill’s work. I know, I know, I’m letting the side down yet again, what kind of theatre critic am I? While I admit to having scant knowledge of playwrights and theatre history (my co-blogger is the play buff around here), I do know when I like something, and Desire Under The Elms certainly piqued my interest. Part Greek tragedy, part Freudian psychological drama, I can see now how O’Neill was ideally positioned as a predecessor to the likes of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in the way he scrutinises the American Dream and the way he places family relationships at the core. Sam Yates’ production brings a potent earthiness to a play which is occasionally a difficult watch, but is shot through with urgency, melancholy and tension.

Set in New England at the end of the nineteenth-century, old farmer, Ephraim Cabot, returns home after a long trip with his new wife, Abbie, in tow, much to the chagrin of his youngest son, Eben, who is fixated on the death of his own mother and is scheming to take over the family farm. Matters become complicated when Abbie attempts to seduce Eben – betrayal and tragedy ensue.

Now, I feel the need to air a personal gripe I have regarding the way women are generally written by men, primarily concerning the ‘predatory’ or ‘sinful’ woman trope. From the biblical belief that the fall of man is a direct result of Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, to the classic Greek tragedy plot regarding the drastic actions of the heroine resulting in death and devastation for all, there is a sense that men are forever blaming women for their own transgressions, an ethos that I’m definitely not on board with. So while Abbie is a sympathetic character – there is the feeling that she does what she does out of genuine emotion (be it love or lust) and a canny opportunism which is necessary under the desperate circumstances in which she finds herself – there remains a niggling air of misogyny to O’Neill’s writing. Even the personal flaws of the male characters are boiled down to what is seen as unhealthy femininity, for example, Ephraim constantly berates Eben for being dumb, foolish and ‘soft’, traits which he claims Eben inherited from his ‘soft’ mother.

However, this is a side issue, the main crux of O’Neill’s tragedy stems from problems surrounding identity, place and the economic and industrial transformation of the USA in the late nineteenth-century. Gone are the traditional means of accumulating income, hard won by years of work, in favour of the promise of instant wealth that accompanied the Californian gold rush. The American Dream has metamorphosed into a blend of entitlement and opportunism, and the old-time labourers and businessmen are pushed out of joint. Therefore, while Eben’s half-brothers sell their shares of the farm in order to chase the golden dream in California, both Ephraim and Eben are tragically clutching to the past; Ephraim is reluctant in the face of change, claiming that when everyone else is dead and gone he’ll be a hundred years old and still working, while Eben’s crisis of identity stems from an unhealthy attachment to his dead mother and an conscious desire to not follow in his father’s footsteps while subconsciously mirroring Ephraim’s actions (not least by sleeping with the same women, local prostitute, Min, and Abbie). Add to this the Freudian quasi-incestuous relationship at the centre of the play – Abbie finally succeeds in seducing Eben by kissing him ‘like a mother kisses a son’ while the candlelit shadow of Eben’s real mother lingers in the background – and O’Neill has painted a pretty grim portrait of end-of-the-century rural life, in stark contrast to the optimism displayed by those heading west to seek their fortune.

In the excellent programme articles, O’Niell is quoted as saying the American Dream’s ‘main idea is that everlasting game of trying to possess your own soul by the possession of something outside of it’. This is particularly pertinent in the regards to the tussle for ownership of the farm, of Abbie, and Abbie’s own attempts to ‘possess’ Eben at whatever cost. As O’Neill says, this inevitably leads to ‘losing your own soul and the thing outside of it, too’, thus being an ideal grounds for tragedy, the American Dream is forever doomed to fail due to the incessant nature of change and the ‘everlasting game’ to keep up with it.

All this talk of possession and souls puts me in mind of two other great romantic anti-heroes of the nineteenth-century, Cathy and Heathcliff, and the Wuthering Heights comparison doesn’t end with incestuous undertones and the destructive obsessions of the characters. Chiara Stephenson’s set is a wild and barren dustbowl of a landscape, distant wheat fields being the only marker of the farm’s prosperity, while Luke Halls’ projections of ever-changing clouded skies and Jon Clark’s lighting create a brooding and oppressive atmosphere. Furthermore, as all good gothic tragedies exemplify, the breaking of tensions is paired with the breaking of the storm – thunder rages as the characters’ lives fall apart.

Matthew Kelly casts an appropriately imposing figure as Ephraim, his slow-limping gait betraying his aging frailty while his lofty stature and strength demonstrate his powerful legacy and capacity for intimidation. Meanwhile, Aoife Duffin’s Abbie is brash, loud and slyly manipulative, yet on her knees amidst the dirt she appears small, fragile and desperate, her trajectory is ultimately heart-breaking. As Eben, Michael Shea gives a terrifically assured performance, conveying all the anger, despair, lust, naivety and fear of the young man. During the interval we overheard a couple of complaints from fellow audience members about the accents being unintelligible. However, I understood every word and what’s more I feel the accents contribute a fascinating element of simultaneous authenticity and alienation which heightens the gothic atmosphere; the accents are identifiably American, yet unfamiliar to us because these rural dialects are culturally underrepresented and, thus, socially forgotten and seemingly as obsolete as the farming industry was during the height of the gold rush. So, while perhaps the most controversial aspect of Yates’ production, the uncompromising commitment to the dialect gets a thumbs up from me.

Yates has accomplished an intense and haunting production of an intriguing and thematically rich play. Ghosts, earth, sex, gold, light, dark, storms and death – O’Neill’s play is both elemental and ethereal, tragic and prosaic, and if this, my first taste, is a mere snapshot of his work then I’m dying to see what else this most unsettled writer accomplished throughout his illustrious career.

Desire Under The Elms plays at the Sheffield Crucible until 14th October.

Aoife Duffin as Abbie Putnam and Matthew Kelly as Ephraim Cabot in Desire Under the Elms. Photo: Marc Brenner

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