Mourning Becomes Electra
Mourning Becomes Electra
EUGENE O’NEILL 1931
Mourning Becomes Electra is considered O’Neill’s most ambitious work. In the play, he adapts the Greek tragic myth Oresteia to nineteenth-century New England. Generally, critics praised the play as one of O’Neill’s best. Even though performances ran almost six hours long, audiences seemed to agree; it ran for 150 performances.
Like Oresteia, O’Neill’s play features themes of fate, revenge, hubris, adultery, and honor. Many critics note that the play reflects his recurring concerns about the unsuccessful struggle of an individual to escape a tragic fate and the dark nature of human existence. The play is structured as a trilogy, with three different plays—The Homecoming, The Hunted, The Haunted—comprising the story.
In 1888 Eugene O’Neill was born in New York City to a theatrical family. His father was the noted actor James O’Neill, who became famous for his starring role in Alexander Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo. During his childhood, Eugene traveled with his family on the theatre circuit.
In 1906 O’Neill attended Princeton University before being expelled for a drunken prank later that year. In 1907, he moved to New York, where he held several jobs. In 1909 he sailed to Central America to prospect for gold. Critics believe that his experiences in Honduras provide the setting and background for one of his most successful plays, The Emperor Jones. Disillusioned with the work, O’Neill returned to New York.
O’Neill worked as a seaman on ships sailing to South America, Africa, and Europe. His experiences as a sailor and working odd jobs on foreign waterfronts became the basis of his early maritime plays, such as Thirst (1914), Bound East for Cardiff (1916), The Long Voyage Home (1917), and The Hairy Ape (1922).
O’Neill returned to New York in 1911 and supported himself working odd jobs and living among the poor and downtrodden. These experiences provided the background for such later plays as The Iceman Cometh (1946) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956). He worked as an assistant stage manager and actor with his father’s theatre company, which provided him with theater experience.
In 1912, O’Neill worked as a reporter for the New London Telegraph. Diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1913, he spent six months in the Gay lord Farm sanitarium.
During his convalescence, O’Neill decided to become a playwright. After recovery, he entered Harvard to study with George Pierce Baker. He became involved with an experimental theater group, the Provincetown Players, who in 1916 put on his first produced play, the one-act Bound East for Cardiff.
O’Neill won the Pulitzer Prize four times and received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1936. At the time, he was only the second American writer to receive that international honor, the first being novelist Sinclair Lewis.
Despite his financial and critical success, O’Neill retreated into seclusion in the late 1930s. Though he continued writing, theater companies infrequently performed his plays. He returned to the stage with The Iceman Cometh in 1946. He died in 1953.
It took the posthumous revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night in 1956 to reestablish his esteemed position in the American theater. The success of O’Neill’s plays since then proves his stature among the most prominent of American dramatists.
Homecoming: Act I
In a small New England seaport town a group that functions as a Greek chorus—Seth Beckwith, Amos Ames, Louisa, and Minnie—sit in front of the Mannon home. They explain that the patriarch of the family, Ezra Mannon, serves as a general in Grant’s army. A wealthy man, he is expected to return soon to rejoin his wife, Christine, and his two children, Lavinia and Orin.
As the scene progresses, Peter Niles asks Lavinia for her hand in marriage, which she refuses. Lavinia discloses that she followed her mother to New York, where she was carrying on an adulterous affair with Adam Brant. Seth, the family’s elderly gardener, implies to Lavinia that Adam is David Mannon’s son. The Mannon family disinherited David, Ezra’s uncle, after he ran off with a French-Canadian nurse of humble origins, Marie Brantome.
Adam’s arrival upsets Lavinia; they talk about “the Blessed Isles” of the South Pacific, which he has visited and describes as an early paradise. Lavinia tells Adam she knows the secret of his parentage. Adam informs Lavinia that he intends to take revenge on Ezra, who refused to help Adam’s poor, sick mother when she was dying.
Homecoming: Act II
Talking in Ezra’s study, Christine admits that she feels incapable of loving her daughter Lavinia, because she reminds her of her disastrous honeymoon and poor sexual relations with her husband. Christine states that she prefers her son Orin, because she was pregnant with him while Ezra was away fighting in the Mexican War.
Lavinia confronts her mother about her affair with Captain Brant. Christine agrees to stop seeing him. When Adam arrives, Christine tells him what has occurred and encourages him to get her some poison: she will kill her husband. She has already told others that Ezra has a weak heart, and she plans to poison him and claim that he had a heart attack.
Homecoming: Act III
One week later, Ezra returns home from the Civil War. He is obviously weak and dispirited from his war experiences. He tells his wife that he wants to try to start again and improve their marriage. She pretends to agree.
Homecoming: Act IV
The next morning Ezra and Christine make love. He suddenly realizes that she made love with him because she hoped he would have a heart attack and die. Christine tells Ezra the truth about her affair with Adam and his parentage. Ezra has a heart attack. Instead of giving him his medicine, Christine gives him the poison. Lavinia enters as Ezra gasps his dying words: “She’s guilty—not medicine.”
The Hunted: Act I
The second play in the trilogy opens outside the Mannon house two days after Ezra’s death. Again, a group of five local people form a chorus, gossiping about what has occurred and repeating rumors.
Orin returns from the war. Lavinia is jealous over her mother’s preferential treatment of Orin. Christine, who despised her husband and loves her son Orin, hates Lavinia; she blames Lavinia for convincing Orin to go off to war.
The Hunted: Act II
Ezra’s body is laid out in the study. Lavinia tries to convince Orin that Christine murdered their father and shows her brother the box of poison. Orin refuses to believe her, though he takes the poison from her and hides the evidence. He does not seem to care that his mother has murdered her father—in his perverted mind, he considers it a chance to have a sexual relationship with his mother.
However, when Lavinia informs him of Christine’s affair with Adam, Orin becomes jealous and threatens to kill him. Lavinia takes the poison back from Orin and places it on her father’s body. Christine sees the poison and begs Lavinia not to tell Orin.
The Hunted: Act III
Lavinia enters and Orin tells her about his heroic deeds during the war. She tries to convince him that Christine murdered Ezra, but he will not believe until her until she reveals that their mother did so to cement her relationship with her lover, Adam Brant.
The Hunted: Act IV
At night on a clipper ship at an East Boston wharf, Adam Brant has a discussion with the Chantyman. The Chantyman reports that Lincoln and Mannon are dead. He states that though reports
indicate Ezra died of heart attack, he knows from working for him that he was too cheap to have a heart. Brant gives him money to continue drinking and the Chantyman leaves.
Christine arrives to tell Adam about Ezra’s death. Lavinia and Orin spy on them, and when Orin sees his mother embrace Adam and overhears her declarations of love he resolves to kill him. After Christine leaves, Orin shoots Adam. Then Orin and Lavinia mess up the cabin to make it seem as though Adam was killed in a burglary.
The Hunted: Act V
The next night, Hazel comforts Christine, who is secretly worried about Adam. Hazel leaves and Orin arrives, telling Christine he has murdered her lover. Orin wants to run away with his mother. Christine goes inside and kills herself.
The Haunted: Act I, Scene One
One year later, a chorus of local residents discusses the rumors that the Mannon house is now haunted. Lavinia and Orin enter; she looks like her mother Christine, while he resembles his father Ezra. Lavinia claims that the dead have “forgotten” them.
The Haunted: Act I, Scene Two
Inside the Mannon house, Lavinia and Orin discuss their recent trip to the “blessed isles,” where Lavinia hoped to free Orin of his feelings of guilt for Christine’s death. It becomes clear that while on vacation Lavinia had a sexual experience with an island man. She claims to love Peter and expresses hope that they will be married. She asks Peter and Hazel to help console Orin, and “make allowances for any crazy thing he might say.”
The Haunted: Act II
Alone in Ezra’s study, Orin writes a letter describing the many sins of the Mannon family. When Lavinia enters, he criticizes her for not trusting him. Lavinia admits to her sexual relationship with Avahanni, one of the islanders; faced with Orin’s jealousy, she then denies it.
Orin fears losing Lavinia to Peter; furthermore, he is afraid that Lavinia will kill Orin to marry Peter. Orin promises to give Peter the confession letter if Lavinia goes through with the wedding or if Orin should die.
The Haunted: Act III
Peter and Hazel discuss their concerns about Orin with Lavinia: his behavior is increasingly erratic. Orin gives Hazel the confession, telling her that Lavinia must never marry and be happy, for “She’s got to be punished!”
When Lavinia realizes that Hazel has read the confession, Lavinia agrees to “do anything” if she will return it to Orin. Orin retrieves the manuscript. When the others leave, he makes Lavinia call off her marriage with Peter and insinuates that they should commit incest as a way to bind themselves to each other. Lavinia refuses, crying out, “You’re too vile to live! You’d kill yourself if you weren’t a coward!”
Orin goes off to clean his pistol as Peter arrives. Peter wants to take the gun from Orin, worrying about letting him clean a weapon in his confused mental state. Lavinia insists on discussing their upcoming marriage. As they hear a pistol shot, she hides Orin’s confession manuscript.
The Haunted: Act IV
Three days later, Seth sings as Lavinia picks flowers in front of the Mannon house. Hazel arrives and accuses Lavinia of driving her brother to commit suicide. Hazel begs Lavinia to break off her engagement with Peter, or at least let him read what Orin had written.
Lavinia refuses. When Peter arrives, she begs him to make love with her immediately. She asks him to want her so badly he would kill to have her, because that is what she’s done, telling him, “I did that—for you!” Then, she calls out, “Want me! Take me, Adam!”
Shocked, Peter calls off the wedding. He demands to read Orin’s confession. Lavinia admits that she and the islander had sex, that she was his “fancy woman.” Peter leaves her for good.
Lavinia, as “the last Mannon,” decides that she must punish herself. She orders the shutters on the windows nailed up to keep out the light. As the play ends, Seth pulls the window shutters closed as Lavinia walks into the house, closing the door behind her.
A middle-aged carpenter, Amos and his wife Louisa form part of the chorus in Homecoming and The Haunted.
Louisa is the wife of Amos. She appears as part of the chorus of local people in Homecoming and has a taste for vicious gossip.
Doctor Joseph Blake
Doctor Blake is a “stout,” “self-important” family physician, who, as part of the chorus in The Hunted, provides background on Ezra’s medical condition. After relating Ezra’s symptoms, Christine has convinced the doctor of the seriousness of her husband’s heart condition. This helps Christine conceal the actual cause of Ezra’s death—murder by poison.
A manager of the Mannon family’s shipping company, Josh and his wife Emma appear as part of the chorus of town folk in The Hunted, providing insight into the backgrounds of Christine and the family.
Captain Adam Brant
Brant is the black sheep of the Mannon family; it is his quest for revenge that propels the play. When his father, David Mannon, is exiled from his family for marrying Marie Brantome, Brant’s family falls into ruin. When he is old enough, he runs off to sea. When he returns, he discovers his father has drunk himself to death, and, shockingly, David’s nephew, Ezra, refused to help Brant’s poor, sick mother.
After his mother’s death, Adam vows revenge on the other Mannons. This desire for vengeance motivates his pursuit of Christine and ultimately drives the play’s action.
The Chantyman chats with Brant near the ship in The Hunted and gives him information about Ezra. Brant gives him money to continue drinking, and the Chantyman leaves.
Hazel is Peter Niles’ sister and Orin’s fiancee. She loves Orin and tries unsuccessfully to separate him from his sister Lavinia. Less naive than her brother Peter, Hazel sees the evil surrounding the Mannon family; her efforts to save Orin from that evil fail.
Everett Hills is a Doctor of Divinity of the First Congregational Church and married to Mrs. Hills. Both appear as part of the chorus of local people in The Hunted.
Mrs. Hills is married to Everett Hills, a Congregational minister. Both appear as part of the chorus of local people in The Hunted.
Ira is a member of the chorus of townsfolk in The Haunted. He is a whiskered farmer who walks with a cane. Believing the Mannon house to be haunted, he and others bet Abner Small ten dollars that he cannot spend the night there.
Christine is Ezra Mannon’s wife and mother of Lavinia and Orin. She hates her husband and has an incestuous love for her son. While Ezra was away fighting in the Civil War, she began a passionate affair with Adam Brant. They plan to kill Ezra so they can be together.
- In 1947, RKO Pictures released an adaptation of the play, which starred Raymond Massey, Rosalind Russell, and Michael Redgrave. The film compresses the play’s six hours of action into three.
When Ezra returns from the war, he and Christine make love, but she does so in hopes that he will have a heart attack and die. When he realizes this, he does have a heart attack. When he demands his medicine, she gives him the poison. He realizes that she has poisoned him while he is dying. After Brant is murdered by Lavinia and Orin, Christine commits suicide.
Brigadier-General Ezra Mannon
Ezra is Christine’s husband and father of Lavinia and Orin. He is the patriarch of the Mannon family. As the play opens, he returns from the Civil War.
A hardhearted businessman, Ezra refuses to help his brother’s Canadian-Indian wife Marie Brantome when she really needs it. As a result, she dies and her son, Adam Brant, vows revenge.
Realizing the precarious nature of his marriage to Christine, he hopes to reconcile with her after he returns from the war. He is oblivious to her plans to murder him until they are making love—the realization that she wants to kill him causes him to have a heart attack. Christine gives him poison instead of medicine and he dies.
Lavinia is the daughter of Ezra and Christine Mannon and Orin’s sister. She is meant to resemble the Electra figure in O’Neill’s retelling of the Orestia. She is a manipulative, evil woman.
Although she is somewhat in love with Captain Brant, she convinces Orin to kill him. She then drives her mother Christine to suicide. The two siblings travel to the South Seas to escape their mutual guilt and Lavinia sleeps with a local man. Exploiting Orin’s feelings of guilt over Brant’s murder and their mother’s suicide, she drives him to commit suicide too.
Toward the end of the play, Lavinia almost believes it possible for her to be happy and escape the guilt of her past. Ultimately, she realizes that as the last Mannon, she has sinned and must punish herself. In the last scene, she orders the flowers removed from the house, the windows shut up, and closes herself inside, presumably never to exit alive.
Lavinia presents a complex character, with strong and forbidden desires as well as powerful, if reprehensible, needs for revenge. In a sense, she seems trapped in a web of emotional and sexual desires—for her father Ezra, her brother Orin, and her mother’s lover Brant. Moreover, she acts without conscience—until the end, when her conscience comes back to haunt her.
Orin is the youngest son of Ezra and Christine. A First Lieutenant of Infantry, he served in the Civil War under his father and is recognized as a courageous soldier. After getting wounded, he returns from the war overcome by the death and destruction.
In love with his mother, Orin helps Lavinia murder her mother’s lover, Brant. He does this to revenge the murder of his father; also, he is jealous of Brant’s relationship with his mother.
Orin is engaged to Hazel. She wants to take Orin away from Lavinia, perceiving the destructive and sick bond the two siblings have. Yet Orin will not allow this; he even suggests to Lavinia that they consummate their relationship as a way of binding themselves together in sin and guilt.
Orin writes his confession and history of Mannon family sins, which he threatens to give to Peter if Lavinia leaves him. Orin’s guilt and incestuous feelings lead to his destruction. He feels he has lost the love of his mother and of his sister.
Eventually Orin breaks his engagement with Hazel and commits suicide, “accidentally” killing himself while cleaning his gun.
Part of the chorus of townsfolk in Homecoming, Minnie is Louisa’s cousin. She is known as a gossip.
Captain Peter Niles
A member of the U.S. Artillery, Peter is Hazel’s brother and Lavinia’s boyfriend. He wants to marry her, but she keeps him at a distance. He becomes uneasy when she resists handing over Orin’s confession. Finally, Lavinia shocks Peter by suggesting that they have sex prior to marriage.
In an emotional fit of passion, she cries out to him—not his name, but that her mother’s lover, Adam Brant. Horrified, Peter ends their engagement, condemns Lavinia, and storms off. Though not a bad person, Peter seems naive, unable to see Lavinia’s dark, complex personality.
Silva is a member of the chorus in The Haunted. A Portuguese fishing captain, he is one of those who bets Abner Small that he cannot stay overnight in the supposedly haunted Mannon house. They win the bet, though Abner refuses to pay.
Abner forms part of the chorus of local people in The Haunted. He is the hardware store clerk who accepts the bet that he can spend the night in the supposedly haunted Mannon house. He runs out after a short time, refusing to pay the ten dollars he has lost.
Revenge serves as a primary motivation for the play’s actions. Seeking to revenge the death of his mother, Marie Brantome, Adam hopes to destroy the Mannon family, especially Ezra.
The Mannon family is a complex web of revenge scenarios: Christine wants revenge on her husband for her unhappy marriage; Lavinia wants revenge on her mother for killing her father; Orin wants revenge on Brant for sleeping with his mother.
Paradise is an obsession for many of the play’s characters. As a seafaring family, early generations of Mannons had sailed to beautiful South Pacific isles. Orin wants to run away with his mother Christine—an attempt to escape societal norms so that he can sleep with his mother. Christine wants to go with her lover, Adam.
Eventually, Orin does eventually go to the islands with his sister Lavinia. During their visit, she has sex with one of the islanders. In O’Neill’s play, the island paradise—offering erotic possibilities and freedom from materialism—becomes a symbol of all that New England society is not.
Incest and incestuous desire lie behind most of the relationships central to Mourning Becomes Electra. Ezra’s daughter Lavinia loves her father; Christine’s son Orin loves his mother, and Lavinia and Orin love each other.
While O’Neill presents these relationships as unconsummated desires, Orin does urge Lavinia to sleep with him in act three of The Haunted, hoping that by committing incest that they will be bound together in sin and guilt. His sister refuses.
Sin and Guilt
O’Neill’s work illustrates his fascination with sin, guilt, punishment, and redemption. In Mourning Becomes Electra, the sins include murder (Christine’s killing of her husband; Lavinia and Orin’s killing of Adam); adultery (Christine’s with Brant); suicide (Christine’s and Orin’s); and premarital sex (Lavinia’s with the islander).
In a sense, Ezra murders Brant’s mother by refusing the sick woman money for food and medicine. Also, Lavinia “kills” Christine and Orin by driving them both to commit suicide.
Orin’s feelings of guilt lead him to write his confession, which he threatens to give to Peter if Lavinia marries him. At the play’s end, Lavinia’s guilt forces her to give up hopes of happiness and to punish herself, as the last Mannon, by rejecting love and shutting herself in the house.
Traditionally in Greek tragedies, the chorus consists of masked actors who dance and chant. Generally, they do not participate in the action itself, which allows them to remain objective and offer advice or commentary. They often present background information and represent the community’s position or traditional values. In the Mourning Becomes Electra trilogy, the groups of local
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Consider how setting the play after the Civil War and in New England impacts the play’s themes and meaning.
- Several times during the play, music serves to underscore the themes of Mourning Becomes Electra. Discuss the role music plays in O’Neill’s play. What do the songs tell us about the characters who sing them, and about the play and the character’s actions in general?
- Compare and contrast O’Neill’s play to the original Oresteia. Other than the obvious changes in setting, what other alterations did the playwright make? How do these changes function to modernize and deepen the play? What changes would you make to set it in the 21st century?
people whose conversations and actions open the plays serve as the chorus.
Expressionism is a style of art that expresses internal experiences and psychological truth. Such art does not present a realistic image of world, but instead tries to create in the viewer a powerful “true” experience of a particular emotion, feeling, or state of mind.
Many of O’Neill’s plays have expressionistic elements: masks, which conceal the actor’s faces; and asides, in which actors address the audience without others on stage hearing. Expressionistic elements in Mourning Becomes Electra include the pairing of characters (Lavinia resembles Christine and Orin resembles Ezra) and the symbolism of the Mannon house, which resembles a Greek temple.
Naturalism is a nineteenth-century theory that developed in the wake of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Naturalists perceived people as products of their heredity and environment. Naturalistic drama presents a vision of human life as akin to that of animal nature, in which these Darwinian drives motivate people. In many ways, these forces of nature minimize or even eliminate the individual’s free will.
Naturalistic elements in Mourning Becomes Electra include the ways the characters’ personal histories and environments determine their actions and motivations.
Realistic theater attempts to present realistic character actions, situations, and motivations. Furthermore, the stage recreates the experience of a real situation. Realistic drama avoids melodramatic acting, stagy effects, and dramatic conventions like a deus ex machina, character asides, and soliloquies.
The setting refers to the place in which the play’s actions take place. Settings often have a symbolic value. For example, the neoclassical architecture of the Mannon mansion in Mourning Becomes Electra resembles a Greek temple, so the setting reminds us that the play itself offers a retelling of a cycle of Greek tragedies.
Born in 1888, Eugene O’Neill’s life spanned some of the most important events of contemporary history. While he played no actual role in the events themselves, the issues involved—particularly those related to democracy and materialism—figure prominently in his plays.
O’Neill came of age during America’s Progressive Era. Interested in politics and political philosophy, the young playwright associated with the radicals and reformers who comprised his Greenwich Village and Provincetown circle of Bohemian friends.
A close friend of John Reed, the journalist known for his book about the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, O’Neill had a longtime affair with Reed’s wife, the journalist Louise Bryant. Many critics believe that O’Neill based Strange Interlude’s love triangle on this experience. O’Neill’s writings explore the problems confronting American society, particularly rampant materialism, loss of individuality, and lack of spiritual values.
During the first twenty years of the twentieth century, more than ten million European immigrants arrived in America. O’Neill’s father and his family had come to America during an earlier wave of immigration, arriving from Ireland in 1850. Factory jobs and mass transit drew millions of people to the cities, and America became an increasingly urban nation. Many immigrants brought with them a tradition of union activity and joined the American labor movement.
During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt attempted to regulate large corporate interests and enforce anti-trust statutes. In 1902, he forced an arbitrated settlement during a major coal strike. President William Howard Taft, though less aggressive than Roosevelt, generally continued his predecessor’s progressive policies, breaking up the Standard Oil Company’s monopoly, and establishing a Children’s Bureau and Department of Labor.
President Woodrow Wilson urged banking reform and anti-trust actions, supported farm loans and a ban on labor by children under fourteen—though the Supreme Court deemed this later action unconstitutional. In 1920 the 19th Amendment to the constitution gave women the right to vote.
Domestically, politicians did little to end segregation, halt the rising influence of the Klu Klux Klan, or curb the practices that prevented many African Americans from voting. In two plays, O’Neill created a leading role for a black man: The Emperor Jones (1920) and All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924). Both plays appeared as productions of the Provincetown Theatre.
This was also an era of American imperialism. Overseas, the United States fought a war with Spain in 1898 and gained colonial influence in places like Cuba and the Philippines. In 1903, American gained dominance over Panama and began the construction of the Panama Canal.
In Europe, industrialization, colonialism, and militarism resulted in World War I. Wilson tried to maintain American neutrality, restricting trade with the warring parties. However, the United States entered the war in 1917. After the war ended in
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1931: America is in the midst of a severe economic depression, known as the Great Depression. Led by President Franklin Roosevelt, the federal government proposes and implements a series of social programs known as “The New Deal.”
Today: The country benefits from a robust and growing economy. Although there is still a wide chasm between the well-off and poor segments of society, most people enjoy low interest rates, low unemployment, a booming stock market, and cheap and accessible sources of fuel.
- 1931: Most Americans travel by train or ship. Commercial aviation is very limited, and cars are becoming more popular and financially viable for the middle classes. This improved mobility allows people to move from the cities into surrounding suburbs.
Today: Most Americans travel by car and airplane. Airline price wars decrease airline fares, allowing many Americans to travel frequently and cheaply.
- 1931: Robert Frost’s Collected Poems wins a Pulitzer Prize, philanthropist Albert Schweitzer publishes My Life and Thoughts, Disney releases its first color film, Flowers and Trees, and the “Star-Spangled Banner” becomes America’s National Anthem.
Today: Frost remains a popular and influential poet. Schweitzer’s ideal of dedicating one’s life to serving others inspired many, as seen in Mother Theresa’s work with the sick and Jimmy Carter’s work for Habitat for Humanity. Today, most films we see on television and in theaters are in color.
Declining wages, farm economy problems, protectionist tariffs, and overproduction of manufactured goods contributed to the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, which threw millions of people out of work. While President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies of government spending to stimulate employment did improve conditions somewhat, the American economy did not fully recover until the Second World War.
In Mourning Becomes Electra, O’Neill’s symbolic use of the post-Civil War setting reveals his understanding of American history and ideology, raising parallels between an earlier war fought for firm ideological beliefs and WWI, which was fought in large measure over colonial issues. He also compares New England’s nineteenth-century Puritan heritage with contemporary America, in which conformity and materialism contribute to cultural relativism and the lack of a moral compass.
In adapting Oresteia, Eugene O’Neill set himself a challenging task. He explains he that hoped to create a “modern psychological approximation of [the] Greek sense of fate” and sets the play in New England because it evokes the “Puritan conviction of man born to sin and punishment.” Critics continue to debate to what extent O’Neill succeeded in his project.
In its early reviews, Brooks Atkinson praised the play as “Mr. O’Neill’s masterpiece,” and John Mason Brown characterized it as “an achievement which restores the theatre to its high estate.”
However, Eugene Burr derided the play as a “marathon by an author who takes himself too seriously. . . who wastes his own and his audiences’ time by delving into morbid psychology that is just as unreal, just as fundamentally unimportant—and certainly as unentertaining—as the sentimentality which is verboten [forbidden] by his devotees.”
According to George H. Jensen, O’Neill was an experimenter in technique who attempted ambitious projects; an “epigrammatic evaluation of O’Neill’s career might be that he wrote some of the very best and some of the worst plays of the twentieth century.”
Most critics consider the play one of O’Neill’s best works. Some praise the piece for its insight into the human condition. Barrett H. Clark, for example, perceived the playwright’s search “for a rational explanation of life and death, and what used to be called sin and evil.”
Yet Clark also criticized Mourning Becomes Electra for a lack of emotion, describing it as “a tearless tragedy, remote, detached, august, artfully shaped, cunningly devised, skillfully related and magnificently conceived. It is concerned only indirectly with life as most of us see and feel it: it is comparable not so much to music or painting as to architecture.”
Some critics characterize O’Neill’s work as sensational, exploiting sex and violence without offering substantial motivation or explanation. For example, in Mourning Becomes Electra, his repeated use of incest shocks and promises some powerful thematic significance.
According to Clark, it instead lacked “complexity, darkness, or genuine passion. . . [it seems] the mentalized fantasy of an adolescent temperament, and totally incompatible with the portentous philosophical attitudes it is meant to support.”
Frederic Carpenter concurred that the play suffers from excessive reliance on Freudian notions of the Oedipus complex (in which a male child loves the mother and wants to eliminate the father) and the Electra complex (in which the female child loves the father and wants to eliminate the mother):
These protagonists [Orin, Christine, Lavinia, and Ezra] seem to have been born damned. Except for Electra [Lavinia], they do not achieve tragedy; they become merely the helpless victims of their inherited natures. . . this psychological equivalent of original sin.
While many critics perceive that Orin is motivated by jealous Oedipal rage against his mother’s infidelity, Carpenter asserted that his acts were the product of his mad heroism during battle. This interpretation makes O’Neill’s point more political than psychological, in that “Orin seems to be driven by the tortured conscience of all modern men, in their realization of the evil of world war.”
According to Michael Manheim, Mourning Becomes Electra disguised the playwright’s “compulsion to reveal (while carefully hiding) the personal melodrama of his family home.” Manheim identified two key themes: the “events and emotions centering on Ella O’Neill’s addiction and later death” and “O’Neill’s hostility toward his mother.”
Manheim maintained that these conflicts appear most prominently in the play with the “sinning” or “suicidal” Christine representing Ella, while the “outraged” Lavinia and “guilt-ridden” and Orin symbolize Eugene.
One reason for the contradictory nature of O’Neill’s critical reception may stem from the stereotypically American notion that sees everything bigger as better. According to Brustein, O’Neill’s work seemed “afflicted with the American disease of gigantism,” which accounts for the playwright’s epic ambitions.
Ideally, O’Neill hoped to see the six-hour trilogy performed one play a night over three nights. More than one critic believed the play would have benefited from cutting and compression. John Mason Brown no doubt expressed the thoughts of many when he wrote that parts of the play, particularly” The Haunted, seem overlong . . . That it is longer than it need be seems fairly obvious, as does the fact that, like so many of O’Neill’s plays, it stands in need of editing.”
The other side in this debate about the epic pretensions of O’Neill’s work, of course, claims that some stories—arguably that of the Mannon family—require a wealth of narrative detail and need to be told in epic fashion.
While praising The Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, and Ah, Wilderness!, Bernard De Voto found much of the playwright’s other work—including Mourning Becomes Electra—falling short.
De Voto contended that at best O’Neill “is only the author of some extremely effective pieces for the theatre. At worst he has written some of the most pretentiously bad plays of our time.”
De Voto also asserted: “What he tells us is simple, familiar, superficial, and even trite—and because of a shallow misunderstanding of Freud and windy mysticism, sometimes flatly wrong.”
While admitting that O’Neill “has given us many pleasurable evenings in the theatre,” De Voto maintained that “he has never yet given us an experience of finality, of genius working on the material proper to genius, of something profound and moving said about life. Just why, then, the Nobel Prize?”
While critics may debate the value of this play, almost all would agree that O’Neill has made important contributions toward today’s American theatre. He moved beyond the early century’s obsession with melodrama to embrace realism and naturalism, and lead the way for major dramatists to come, among them Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams.
In the following essay, Schmidt analyzes O ‘Neill’s attempt to modernize Oresteia, and how these changes affected the theme and structure of the play.
Early in his composition of Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O’Neill stated his goal and problem: to create a “modern psychological drama using one of the old legend plots of Greek tragedy for its basic theme,” asking “Is it possible to get [a] modern psychological approximation of the Greek sense of fate into such a play, which an intelligent audience of today, possessed of no belief in gods or supernatural retribution, could accept and be moved by.”
O’Neill also wanted to present a play with a uniquely American sensibility, and so he set the play in post-Civil War New England because it evoked the “Puritan conviction of man born to sin and punishment.” While O’Neill generally succeeded in his goal of adapting from an ancient Greek to a modern American viewpoint, in the process he changed the plays’ character motivations, the ethical model, and the tragic ending. These changes have far-reaching thematic, psychological, and cultural implications.
To better understand Mourning Becomes Electra, we must examine the ancient Greek myth of Oresteia. The best-known retelling of the Oresteia might be the three-play cycle by Aeschylus.
The Oresteia myth concerns the house of Atreus, a doomed family cursed from its inception. According to legend, Atreus’s grandfather, Tantalus, kills his son Pelops and serves the pieces of his body to the gods at a feast. Because of this atrocious crime, the gods restore Pelops to life and sentence Tantalus to eternal punishment in the underworld.
Atreus, one of the sons of Pelops and Hippodamia, becomes king of Mycenae. Cuckolded by his brother Thyestes, who covets his throne, Atreus seeks revenge. Atreus kills Thyestes’s sons and serves them to their father at a banquet. Discovering Atreus’ dastardly deed, Thyestes curses him and all his heirs.
Thyestes’s son, Aegisthus, revenges his brothers’ murder and kills Atreus. Thyestes takes over the throne of Mycenae, forcing Atreus’ sons Agamemnon and Menaleus into exile. These events spark the tragic rivalry central to O’Neill’s story between Agamemnon (Ezra Mannon) and Aegisthus (Adam Brant).
Agamemnon marries Clytemnestra (Christine), producing their daughters Iphegenia and Electra (Lavinia), and their son Orestes (Orin). Menaleus marries Helen. When Paris elopes with Helen, Agamemnon and Menaleus start the Trojan War to retrieve her.
While the Spartans (Menaleus is the king of Sparta) prepare their invasion fleet, Agamemnon goes hunting and kills a stag sacred to the goddess Diana, the virgin huntress. Angered by this
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (411 BC) is a comic—and perhaps the first—anti-war play.
- Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage (1895) describes the experiences of a young soldier during the Civil War.
- Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903) considers whether people act the ways they do because of nature (genetics, hormones) or nurture (environment, family life, social experiences).
- Considered by many critics the perfect one-act play, John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea (1904) chronicles the story of a mother who has lost her husband and all her sons to the sea.
act, Diane prevents the fleet from sailing unless Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphegenia. As a father, Agamemnon resists, but, believing Helen’s rescue to be the will of the gods, he ultimately relents and agrees to Iphegenia’s sacrifice. As the sacrifice begins, the goddess Diane changes her mind and spares Iphegenia, whisking her away to serve as a votive in a distant temple. Significantly, Agamemnon’s family believes that Iphegenia is dead.
The role that Agamemnon plays in Iphegenia’s death partly explains why Clytemnestra hates him and why she ultimately kills him. When Agamemnon departs for the Trojan War (As Ezra did for the Civil War), Clytemnestra (Christine) takes Aegisthus (Brant) as a lover, and plots her husband’s murder.
After Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus kill him. The rest of the Oresteia centers around Electra’s and Orestes’s plans, at Apollo’s urging, to avenge their father’s death by killing their mother and Aegisthus. Electra plays no part in the story’s end, which tells of Orestes’s persecution by the Furies for committing matricide.
A court eventually hears his case and, when the court deadlocks, Athena casts the deciding vote, freeing Orestes from the Furies.
As we can see, each trilogy—the Greek and the American—chronicles the tragic story of a family corrupted by the sins by its ancestors. Aeschylus’ version differs from O’Neill’s in ways that tell us much about the societies that produced them.
In Aeschylus’ version of Oresteia, Electra and Orestes suffer because of the sins of their patriarch Tantalus, their grandparent Atreus, and his brother Thyestes. Thyestes’s desire for power leads him to betray his brother’s trust. The focus of Aeschylus’ plot reveals the anxieties about political stability and legal due process which concerned Athens during the 4th and 5th centuries BCE.
Significantly, critics view the concluding play Eumenides as dramatizing the way the Athenian concept of justice evolved from a system based on revenge to one based on the rule of law.
O’Neill’s work also tells us much about the society in which he lived. In many works, the playwright presents America’s greatest failing as its materialism—of valuing money above all else and of seeing people and things only in terms of their material value. Perhaps most obviously, note how much “Mannon” resembles “mammon,” the biblical term for worldly material concerns.
In Mourning Becomes Electra, the Mannon family’s “sin” is its betrayal of the American ideal of being a classless society, one that rejects a caste system that defines people by their economic background. Lavinia’s and Orin’s suffering results from the struggle between their great-uncle David Mannon and the Mannon family.
When David marries Marie Brantome, a Canadian woman of lower social class, the Mannons drive him out of the family. When David needs money, Ezra Mannon—Lavinia’s and Orin’s father—cheats David out of his fortune and ultimately contributes to Marie’s death. So, while the rivalry by the brothers in the Oresteia concerns sexual desire and power, the American trilogy explores common O’Neill themes—most specifically the violation of class boundaries.
When the Mannons ostracize David and Marie, they help destroy the newlyweds. Furthermore, Ezra Mannon, by swindling David, shows that he values money more highly than family. From O’Neill’s perspective, then, the “sins” that set the action of the play in motion seem uniquely American.
O’Neill’s interest in the attractions and dangers of materialism comes from his immediate family. Eugene believed that his father, the talented Shakespearean actor James O’Neill, exchanged commercial for artistic success. James spent most of his life performing the role of Edmond Dantes in Charles Fletcher’s theatrical adaptation of Alexander Dumas’s novel, the Count of Monte Cristo, a role which brought him fame and fortune.
When Eugene O’Neill retold the story of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy in Mourning Becomes Electra, he naturally made some changes. The first two plays in O’Neill’s trilogy, Homecoming and The Hunted, rather closely follow the first two plays in Aeschylus’ trilogy, Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers.
However, critics disagree as to how faithfully O’Neill follows Aeschylus’ Eumenides in the third play in the trilogy, The Haunted. Some critics believe that he abandoned the Aeschylean model, but others contend that the dramatic symmetry remains intact, if only symbolically.
For example, O’Neill presents no actual trial scene that parallels that of the Athenian court in The Eumenides. In act II of The Hunted, however, Orin addresses the portrait of his father Ezra, a judge, as “Your Honor,” creating a venue of crime, judgment, and punishment, and symbolically echoing the Aeschylean play.
Yet while there may be general similarities between the Greek and American trilogies, O’Neill’s characters, their actions, and the play’s overall message differ substantially from those of Aeschylus. Key among these is that Electra has disappeared from the Eumenides, but Lavinia plays the central role in The Haunted and arguably, as the last surviving Mannon, in the trilogy itself.
“WHERE AESCHYLUS RESOLVES THE BLOOD FEUD IN THE RULE OF LAW, REDEEMING THE SOCIETY IF NOT ALL THE INDIVIDUALS, O’NEILL WILL HAVE NONE OF THAT. BEYOND TWO DAMAGED INDIVIDUALS, PETER AND HAZEL, THE MANNONS LEAVE BEHIND NOTHING, CERTAINLY NOTHING THAT REDEEMS OR HEALS SOCIETY.”
O’Neill explains that he intended in The Haunted to interpret the Electra story from a new perspective, presenting her in heroic terms. In his notes for the play, he tersely wrote: “Give modern Electra figure in play tragic ending worthy of character. In Greek story she peters out into undramatic married banality.”
According to Frederic Carpenter, O’Neill’s Electra (Lavinia) must confront the evils of her family and herself and live with that evil. I see Lavinia as adopting a rather existential or Byronic attitude toward her transgression. She identifies a law (matricide), which she has had the strength of will to violate. She knows herself to be guilty and could escape punishment, but she also questions the legitimacy of living in a world without values. She will not allow the world to punish her, though, and so punishes herself instead.
Another difference between the Greek and American versions of the Oresteia can be seen in O’Neill’s characters, which differ sharply from those of Aeschylus. This changes the ways audiences view their psychological motivations and the nature of their crimes.
In the Oresteia, for example, Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon in part because she holds him responsible for the death of their daughter. While we may not agree with Clytemnestra’s retaliation, we can sympathize with her as a grieving mother mourning the loss of her child at what she believes to be her husband’s hand. This may not justify murder, but it makes revenge seem understandable, if not excusable.
In O’Neill’s trilogy, Christine’s reasons for murdering her husband Ezra seem venial and vague. In part, she no longer finds him sexually attractive, but this hardly seems ground for murder. When the audience meets Ezra, he seems sick and frail; while he may have done wrong to Marie and left Christine unsatisfied, he provokes pity.
O’Neill also changes the motivations behind the actions of Orin and Lavinia. While Orestes kills Aegisthus out of duty to revenge his father, Orin’s motivations for killing Brant seem murky. True, he claims to be sorry at his father’s death and does feel some responsibility to revenge him, but Orin really only acts when Lavinia points out to him that Christine chose Brant over Orin. Principally, Orin acts out of incestuous jealousy, not paternal feeling.
The same incestuous desires cloud the purity of Lavinia’s motivations, who seems to love her father almost in a wifely way.
I do not intend to condemn the psychological aspects of O’Neill’s play, but rather to show how these psychological motivations diminish the characters and their actions. While we may not admire Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, Electra, or Orestes, Aeschylus presents them as bold, larger than life, of heroic proportions if not actually heroes. O’Neill’s changes make his characters very different.
According to Carpenter, Ezra seems less a war hero than a broken old man. Christine’s feelings toward her husband Ezra and her lover Brant seem driven less by mighty passions than by neurosis. Christine’s death by suicide rather than by Orin’s hand makes them both smaller and anti-heroic. Orin too appears diminished, since he cannot find release by struggling against the Furies as Orestes does in Aeschylus’ The Eumenides. Instead, Orin commits suicide to escape his conscience.
It becomes difficult to view any of O’Neill’s characters—Lavinia, Brant, Orin, and Christine—as sympathetic, heroic, or noble. They all seem weak, unethical, and evil.
Part of the problem here is that the Oresteia poses moral dilemmas but offers no real solutions. Both Agamemnon and Orestes must choose between obeying their duties to their families or to the gods.
Agamemnon consents to having his daughter Iphegenia sacrificed, but only because he believes he must follow the will of the gods. Orestes obeys Apollo in revenging his father and killing Clytemnestra and her lover. Neither faces an easy or obvious decision. Clytemnestra conspires to murder her husband because of his role in what she believes to be the death of their daughter.
All in all, their reasons seem justified—if not justifiable—certainly far more than the compulsions of the Mannon family. O’Neill’s characters have options; they simply refuse to exercise them.
O’Neill makes another change: setting. By making the Oresteia American, critics contend that O’Neill changes the play’s ethical basis from a shame culture (in which one’s sense of right and wrong comes primarily from how one will be seen and judged by others) to a guilt culture (in which a one’s ethical sense is internal, and one is judged by one’s self).
O’Neill’s shift from a Greek shame culture to an American guilt culture accounts for the ending. If shame—the opinion and judgment of others—characterizes Greek culture, public judgment by a court seems purely natural. If guilt characterizes American culture, then the self-punishment of O’Neill’s characters (Christine’s and Orin’s suicides, Lavinia’s self-imposed isolation) seems an extension of that guilt ethic.
This shift has consequences, however. Arguably, O’Neill’s tragedy leaves audiences in some sense unsatisfied in comparison with the tragedies of Aeschylus. According to John Chioles, the Greek playwright balances tragedy’s “inevitability” with its “containment,” and by the end of his Oresteia trilogy, the world that has been torn asunder has been reassembled, “pieced together and healed anew.”
No such healing occurs at the end of Mourning Becomes Electra, when we see instead “the ultimate pessimism of O’Neill’s world.” While O’Neill acknowledges the individual and family tragedies, his drama fails to reconcile the effects of these actions with their ramifications in the wider community.
Where Aeschylus resolves the blood feud in the rule of law, redeeming the society if not all the individuals, O’Neill will have none of that. Beyond two damaged individuals, Peter and Hazel, the Mannons leave behind nothing, certainly nothing that redeems or heals society.
This seems congruent with O’Neill’s modernist vision, balanced with a healthy dose of romantic pessimism. In general, O’Neill’s plays explore ethics in an early twentieth-century world which, in the wake of industrialism, materialism, and war, seems to lack values. His characters’ actions reveal profound psychological complexity, questioning the nature of individual consciousness and human identity, ethics and spirituality.
Significantly, modernist art often remains fragmentary and introspective. In that sense, one key difference between the Oresteia and Mourning Becomes Electra comes from the ending, where O’Neill’s play offers no sense of closure, no orderly universe. Yes, the individuals involved have been punished in one way or the other, but society remains unhealed, unlike the ending to Aeschylus’ Oresteia.
That link between tragedy and social healing is missing, but it somehow seems more realistic or true in a society that has seen the atomic bomb and the Holocaust. In O’Neill, tragedy offers no social reintegration; instead, Mourning Becomes Electra remains modernist in its (ir)resolution.
Source: Arnold Schmidt, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
In the following essay, Maufort argues that O ‘Neill used Melville’s Pierre as a source, and that together O ‘Neill and Melville show a criticism of Puritan American family relationships.
O’Neill’s dramatization of family relationships in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, his culminating masterpiece, is admittedly autobiographical. Moreover, disguised portraits of the O’Neills abound throughout the entire canon, a feature which critics have repeatedly underlined. Mourning Becomes Electra undoubtedly represents a notable exception to that pattern. In this drama, O’Neill resorts to various artistic models to depict the conflicts besieging the house of the Mannons. Besides obvious references to Aeschylus and Shakespeare, there exists a more obscure literary allusion in Mourning Becomes Electra: muted reminders of Herman Melville’s neglected novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities, that have hitherto largely escaped critical attention.
At first glance, to assert that O’Neill may have been indebted to Melville in the composition of his trilogy would seem exaggerated. And yet I submit that a direct connection is highly probable, an impression reinforced by the many analogies linking the two works. Critic Joyce D. Kennedy, who first pointed out the possible kinship between the
“IN PIERRE AS IN MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, THEN, ONE WITNESSES A MOVEMENT TOWARDS AGNOSTICISM.”
novel and the play, conjectured that O’Neill had been introduced to Pierre by his scholarly friend Carl Van Vechten. The latter, who had strongly contributed to the Melville revival of the twenties, visited the O’Neills at Le Plessis in the summer of 1929, a period during which the dramatist drafted his play. The fact that comparable plot incidents occur in both Pierre and Mourning Becomes Electra could therefore constitute a tangible result of O’Neill’s and Van Vechten’s conversations.
In addition, O’Neill appears to have nurtured a life-long admiration for Melville which concretized itself in a 1921 press interview. He then described the hero of Diff’rent, Caleb Williams, as an Ahab-like captain: “He belongs to the old iron school of Nantucket-New Bedford whalemen whose slogan was ‘A dead whale or a stove boat.’ The whale . . . is transformed suddenly into a malignant Moby Dick . . . .” In a hitherto unpublished introduction to Hart Crane’s White Buildings, the playwright further alluded to Melville’s mystical vision of the sea: “In Crane’s sea poems . . . there is something of Melville’s intense brooding on the mystery of ’the high interiors of the sea.”’ In a private communication, Louis Sheaffer informed me that, according to Agnes Boulton, O’Neill’s second wife, the dramatist was fascinated by Moby Dick. Finally, it may not be purely coincidental that in Mourning Becomes Electra Orin Mannon evokes yet another romance by Melville, Typee. In a lyrical confession, he asks his mother, “Have you ever read a book called ‘Typee’—about the South Sea Islands? . . . I read it and reread it until finally those Islands came to mean everything that was peace and warmth and security.”
In view of these hints, I regard the influence of Pierre upon Mourning Becomes Electra as plausible. The resemblance between the two works, however, resides primarily in a relationship of confluence, more than of influence, originating in the authors’ affinity of vision. Considered in that perspective, Pierre offers a privileged observation post from which to examine the “Americanness” of the family feuds O’Neill delineates. Through such an analysis, the playwright emerges as a writer imbued with both the cultural and literary heritage of his nation.
As critics have remarked, Pierre and Mourning Becomes Electra possess features strongly reminiscent of the stories of Orestes and Hamlet. Both Orestes and Pierre, in attempting to avenge paternal honor, engage in conflictual relationships with their mothers. Isabel Banford, Pierre’s half-sister, qualifies as a latter-day counterpart to Electra, for in leaving his manorial estate to live with Isabel as her husband, Pierre indirectly provokes the demise of his mother. Owing to his hesitations, Pierre can also be regarded as a replica of Shakespeare’s romantic Hamlet.
The plot of Mourning Becomes Electra, like that of Pierre, owes a great deal to the myth of Orestes. Indeed, Lavinia Mannon urges her brother Orin to take the life of Adam Brant, Christine Mannon’s lover. She thus hopes to punish her mother for plotting the death of the family head, Ezra Mannon. As a result of Orin’s violent deed, Christine eventually commits suicide. Further, the action of O’Neill’s play also recalls that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Lavinia’s first task consists of convincing her brother of Christine’s guilt. Likewise, Hamlet must dispel his own doubts before deciding to act. In short, the plot incidents devised by the writers to portray the intricacies of their heroes’s family crises derive their most strikingly identical features from Aeschylus and Shakespeare.
While in the works of these classical authors, the incest motif performs a restricted role, in Pierre and Mourning Becomes Electra it acquires a paramount importance. Melville’s and O’Neill’s male characters experience odd feelings towards their domineering mothers. In Pierre, Mrs. Glendinning adopts an authoritarian conduct when dealing with her son and praying that he may “remain all docility to me.” However, Pierre lives with her in perfect harmony, giving her a “courteous lover-like adoration.” In the opening pages, Saddle Meadows, the Glendinnings’s estate, could even be decoded as a symbol of the Biblical paradise. Pierre enjoys there the beauty of a “scenery whose uncommon loveliness was the perfect mould of a delicate and poetic mind . . . .”
The buried incestual metaphor defining Pierre’s link to his mother is duplicated in Orin’s affection for Christine Mannon. As in Melville’s novel, the mother’s mixture of mild authority and loving gentleness forms an essential component of Mourning Becomes Electra. Indeed, Christine’s tenderness is rooted in possession, as is evidenced in her exclamation, “Oh, Orin, you are my boy, my baby! I love you!” And yet, the male protagonist spontaneously confesses his erotic bond with the maternal heroine, while betraying his wish of living with her in the islands of Typee:
ORIN. Someone loaned me the book... those Islands... I used to dream I was there. And later on all the time I was out of my head I seemed really to be there. There was no one there but you and me. And yet I never saw you, that’s the funny part. I only felt you all around me. The breaking of the waves was your voice. The sky was the same color as your eyes. The warm sand was like your skin. The whole island was you.... A strange notion, wasn’t it? But you needn’t be provoked at being an island because this was the most beautiful island in the world—as beautiful as you, Mother!
If Saddle Meadows functions as an image of the celestial paradise on earth, where mother and son can enjoy unmitigated bliss, the islands of Typee play a comparable role in O’Neill’s drama. Ironically, one might get the impression that the playwright uses Melville’s Typee in order to reproduce in his trilogy an atmosphere of happiness comparable to the initial chapter of Pierre. This phenomenon inevitably leads one to consider the divergences separating O’Neill and Melville in their treatment of the mother/son relationship. As a typical writer of the twentieth century, O’Neill integrates his Melvillean model into a modified context, thereby distancing himself from the meaning of his source. He demonstrates his awareness of the limited value that Orin’s projects can preserve in the terrible world of New England. Whereas Melville’s Saddle Meadows actually shelters the characters, Orin’s allusions to Typee remain purely abstract. Moreover, his hopes are threatened by Christine’s love affair with Brant. That O’Neill should debunk his character’s aspirations by applying the modernist technique of literary quotation testifies to the highly innovative nature of Mourning Becomes Electra.
The two authors’ rendering of the brother/sister incest motif is even more unique than that of the mother/son relationship. This theme offers considerable insight into their concept of the American family. In Pierre, the hero declares his passion for his half-sister on the first night of their stay in the city:
He moved nearer to her, and stole one arm around her; her sweet head leaned against his breast; each felt the other’s throbbing... his whole frame was invisibly trembling. Then suddenly in a low tone of wonderful intensity, he breathed: “Isabel! Isabel!”. . . “Call me brother no more!... I am Pierre and thou Isabel, wide brother and sister in the common humanity... the demi-gods trample on trash, and Virtue and Vice are trash!..”
In a kindred manner, Orin Mannon suggests his secret love for Lavinia: “(. . . He stares at her and slowly a distorted look of desire comes over his face). . . There are times when you don’t seem to be my sister but some stranger with the same beautiful hair—(He touches her hair caressingly).”
Significantly, both Pierre and Orin prefer to regard their sisters as strangers bearing no kinship to them. Through these portrayals of perverted love affairs, the two writers obliquely indict the Puritan environment that allowed such a desecration of parental links to occur. Pierre and Mourning Becomes Electra focus on the doom of fated Puritan families whose members are stifled by a narrow code of moral principles. Being the unconscious victims of that background, Pierre and Orin adopt distorted sexual behaviors resulting in the disintegration of their lives. The Glendinning house is eventually shattered by murder and death, while the Mannons become prey to an implacable fate. Clearly, O’Neill and Melville reject the harsh set of Old Testament ethics underlying their heroes’ religious system.
As with the mother/son incest motif, O’Neill seems simultaneously to adhere to Melville’s view and to negate the validity of his philosophy. The dramatist’s possible borrowing from Melville appears woven into a larger context, tending to complicate the situation detectable in Pierre. If in Melville’s work the protagonist is motivated solely by his Oedipal longings, in Mourning Becomes Electra the source of the action proceeds from a more intricate design. At first, Peter Niles, prompted by Lavinia’s indifference to his proposals, informs the young heroine of Adam Brant’s affair with Christine Mannon. The report infuriates Lavinia and awakens her desire for revenge, thwarted as she feels in her secret loving admiration for Brant. She then seeks to bring Orin to murder the sea captain, after clearly evidencing Christine’s guilt. Out of a thinly veiled love for his sister, Orin finally agrees to act according to her wishes.
In Pierre, that fatal step requires a lesser number of transactions. Indeed, Isabel’s letter to the hero does not, as is the case in Mourning Becomes Electra, constitute the result of a series of events. With his method of amplifying the impact of his apparent model, O’Neill seems to indicate that the strange bond between Orin and Lavinia exceeds in horror and complexity that uniting Pierre and Isabel. In Mourning Becomes Electra, the pressure of Puritanism, causing the degeneration of a genuine brother/sister relationship, deprives mankind of any hope of salvation.
Not only do the two writers regard the disappearance of family cohesion as a product of American Protestantism; they also endow this gradual decline with tragic resonances. In Pierre and Mourning Becomes Electra, one discovers elements of an innovative tragic form, one that seeks to ennoble the American common man. Although they remain the hereditary proprietors of manorial estates, Glendinnings and Mannons alike are subjected to the psychological woes that any New World citizen could experience. It is precisely the magnitude of the heroes’ sufferings that confers upon Pierre and Mourning Becomes Electra their tragic aura.
But in the end, one can only speak of near-tragedy when considering these two works. First, Pierre is written in a novelistic form which is generally not associated with pure tragedy. Second, the almost exclusively psychoanalytical nature of the characters’ conflicts reduces the impact of the artists’ tragic endeavors. Their creatures manifest marked Oedipal fixations, which, while they contain in themselves a tragic potential, tend to mitigate the social and metaphysical implications embedded in Aeschylus’ and Shakespeare’s dramas. Residing in the protagonists’ psychological turmoil, the concept of fate displayed in Pierre and Mourning Becomes Electra acquires an inner shape. Orin and Pierre are literally imprisoned within their own soul and prove unwilling to assume the full consequences of their public acts. Indeed, they choose to commit suicide while Lavinia, unable to face the world, buries herself alive.
This testifies, in my opinion, to Melville’s and O’Neill’s ironical stance, which emerges with perhaps even darker pessimism in the playwright’s work. Whereas at first, the authors seemingly confer a tragic nobility upon their heroes, they subsequently deny them the benefit of any spiritual enlightenment. The two artists imply that true tragedy cannot exist in the New World, owing to the exaggeratedly private—psychoanalytical, to use a modern critical term—quality of the crises characterizing American family relationships. Thus adopting a view that corresponds to the night side of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Melville and O’Neill offer us a bleak picture of the possibilities of tragic elevation in America.
A final point of confluence between Pierre and Mourning Becomes Electra consists of their common metaphysical import. In these works, O’Neill and Melville explore the essence of the connection between members of American families and the divinity presiding over their destinies. Both come to the bitter conclusion that no God can improve the tormented relationships in which such family members are engaged. The hero of Pierre never succeeds in understanding his link with the deity, a failure best expressed through his sudden discovery of Plotinus Plinlimmon’s pamphlet, “Chronometricals and Horologicals.” This treatise, advising the reader not to seek to interpret God, tells of the impossibility of reconciling the horror of the human plight and divine goodness. In other words, Plinlimmon suggests, “in things terrestrial (horological) a man must not be governed by ideas celestial (chronometrical).” Struck with the “Profound Silence” of God’s voice, Pierre nearly “runs, like a mad dog, into atheism.” God remains indifferent to the sufferings Pierre incurs while living with his half-sister Isabel. The hero qualifies as an American Enceladus, a character who, in his efforts to attain divine status, is confined to the earth:
You saw Enceladus the Titan, the most potent of all the giants, writhing from out the imprisoning earth... still turning his unconquerable front toward that majestic mount eternally in vain assailed by him... Enceladus was both the son and grandson of an incest; and even thus, there had been born from the organic blended heavenliness and earthliness of Pierre, another mixed, uncertain, heaven-aspiring, but still not wholly earth-emancipated mood....
Orin Mannon, another New World Enceladus, feels estranged from a heavenly God and consequently gropes in the darkness of the earth. He dimly realizes that he must rely on his own strength in order to survive the psychological crisis generated by his Oedipal desires:
ORIN. And I find artificial light more appropriate for my work—man’s light, not God’s—man’s feeble striving to understand himself, to exist for himself in the darkness! It’s a symbol of his life—a lamp burning out in a room of waiting shadows!
In Pierre as in Mourning Becomes Electra, then, one witnesses a movement towards agnosticism. In his trilogy, with the aid of Melville’s novel, O’Neill presents us with a portrait of a torn apart family bereft of the help of God, thus prefiguring the agnostic universe of Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
If one admits that O’Neill kept Pierre in mind while composing Mourning Becomes Electra, one is forced to note that the confluence between the two works resides in the moral, tragic, and metaphysical probings of their authors. Like James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, O’Neill apparently resorts to the technique of literary quotation, as defined by Jean Weisgerber, in order to structure his drama. Mourning Becomes Electra can be regarded as a mosaic of literary allusions, whether to Aeschylus, Shakespeare, or Melville. Moreover, comparing this trilogy with Pierre offers a new image of O’Neill as a writer belonging to the tradition of American literature. In addition, I have suggested that, in two instances, O’Neill qualifies Melville’s notion of the family unit in America and amalgamates his borrowings within a highly personal framework. To this end, he manipulates ironic commentaries—his reference to Typee—and the device of amplification—evident in the complex structure in which Orin’s murder is inserted. This double angle of vision reveals the profundity of the playwright’s delineation of family relationships in Mourning Becomes Electra. In the process of translating the ancient patterns of Aeschylus’ and Shakespeare’s works to describe the American components of such conflicts, he was most probably aided by the legacy of Melville’s Pierre.
Source: Marc Maufort, “The Legacy of Melville’s Pierre: Family Relationships in Mourning Becomes Electra,” in The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter, Summer-Fall, 1987, Vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 23−28.
Bette Charlene Werner
In the following essay, Werner contends that the theme of the islands in ONe ill’s play represents the recovery of the paradise of the original bond between mother and son.
In the plays of Eugene O’Neill, the breaking of the bond between a son and a mother is a common pattern, figuring an original fall from innocence. Just as O’Neill’s biography can be read as a series of unsuccessful attempts to re-establish in adulthood the kind of exclusive attachment with a woman that would replicate and replace the broken filial-maternal bond, his plays can be seen as a series of imaginative struggles with the same need. In O’Neill’s vision, maternal abandonment is the original sin, and life is a series of necessary, but futile, attempts of men always to try to remake in some way the original closed pairing of mother and child. This theme, dealt with explicitly in Desire Under the Elms, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten, forms also the essential basis for understanding Mourning Becomes Electra. While critical attention to O’Neill’s trilogy has tended to focus particularly on the character and point of view of Lavinia in the play (an emphasis explicable in terms of the title of the work), O’Neill’s treatment, not of Electra’s story, but of the Orestes myth can take us closer to the fructifying imaginative origins and meaning of Mourning Becomes Electra.
The theme of the Blessed Islands reveals O’Neill’s central intention in the trilogy. The islands represent the paradisal world of prenatal existence, where a child, rocked in the warm lullaby of his mother’s self, forms with her a perfect and unviolated unity. Birth is the first evil, a beginning of estrangement that the processes of living inevitably worsen. The child’s sense of betrayal when he realizes that the woman he loves is not just his own pure mother, but also another man’s mistress, impels him to retaliate, to punish her by attacking her lover and to abandon her, too—to leave and to seek out another. While her betrayal brings pain, his revenge stirs the more wrenching affliction of guilt. Seeking a new partner then, he attempts to find in adulthood a replication of the original island unity of love with a mother, an exclusive closed circle of two. But peace is impossible in Eden, given the nature of Eve. Woman is the first betrayer, who lets pure love turn to passion. She is the original deceiver, who is not only mother, but mistress.
O’Neill works out this pattern of human experience through three generations of the House of Mannon. The prototype for the women in the play is the Canuck nurse girl Marie Brantome. Marie is first of all seen as a madonna image, then recognized in her passionate nature as a fallen woman. After her follow Christine Mannon and then Lavinia.
“THE IDYLLIC PEACE OF THE ISLANDS IS DECEPTIVE, THOUGH, AND IMPERMANENT. THE BLESSED ISLES DO NOT REMAIN THE INNOCENT HAVEN ORIN HOPED FOR—A PLACE OF NURTURING PEACE WITH A MOTHER. THEY PROVIDE SOMEHOW A CHANGING ATMOSPHERE FOR LAVINIA.”
Each of these women first mothers and then deserts a Mannon son for a lover, as her own fatal femininity blossoms. The betrayed are Ezra and Orin. Adam Brant and Peter Niles embody the masculine potential to initiate the same kind of filial-maternal estrangement.
Seth’s description of Marie Brantôme indicates the original of a pattern to be repeated throughout the chronicle. Ezra Mannon idealized Marie. Seth explains:
He was only a boy then, but he was crazy about her, too, like a youngster would be. His mother was stern with him, while Marie, she made a fuss over him and petted him.
But besides being a mother-like nurse to him, Marie was alive to passion too, “always laughin’ and singin’—frisky and full of life—with something free and wild about her like an animile” (Homecoming, III). Ezra’s pained outrage when he realizes the implications of her womanly nature is clear. Seth says: “Ayeh—but he hated her worse than anyone when it got found out she was his Uncle David’s fancy woman” (Homecoming, III). Ezra is the child furiously hurt by the discovery of his mother’s passionate involvement with a lover.
The experience is repeated for him in marriage. It was apparently Christine’s resemblance to Marie that first attracted Ezra to her. She has the same copper yellow hair. He strokes it with an attitude of awe, trembling, as he gropes mentally for its significance: “Only your hair is the same, your strange beautiful hair I always—” (Homecoming, III). While his own insight is never explicit, Ezra’s attempt to understand the loneliness he feels in marriage suggests that what he longs for is actually a remaking of that exclusive and perfect union of a child with a mother.
The marriage has somehow failed to fulfill the hope he once held for it. Before their marriage, he says he felt sure Christine loved him, but afterwards he knew himself incapable of what he wanted most, “Able only to keep my mind from thinking of what I’d lost” (Homecoming, III). During their courtship her eyes spoke to him, but after their marriage they were only full of silence. He sensed there was always “some barrier between us—a wall hiding us from each other” (Homecoming, III). Death as the end to life’s slow process of dying holds no terror for Ezra, but death in terms of her husband being killed seems somehow queer and wrong. He feels it would be “like something dying that had never lived” (Homecoming, III). His wish for an achieved union in love with her takes the form of a daydream of going off together on a voyage to find some island to be alone together. He promises, “You’ll find I’ve changed, Christine. I’m sick of death! I want life” (Homecoming, III). The wish has a quality of desperation to it: “I’ve got to make you love me!” (Homecoming, III).
That Christine has provoked his passion is part of her betrayal. When she recalls to him his treatment of her as a wife, he answers with scorn: “Your body? What are bodies to me? I’ve seen too many rotting in the sun to make grass greener” (Homecoming, IV). The island-mother image of green earth is corrupted in association with her. He flails out against her:
Is that your notion of love? Do you think I married a body? You made me appear a lustful beast in my own eyes!—as you’ve always done since our first marriage night! (Homecoming, IV)
While physical desire may have been sated, his deeper need for love remains somehow untouched. Ezra feels betrayed by Christine as he was before by Marie Brantôme.
Like Marie, Christine has also taken a lover. The transformation in her that makes the returned soldier Ezra instinctively uneasy is her awakened sensuality. She has filled the house with flowers in anticipation of Brant’s arrival, not his. Her taunt to Lavinia indicates the nature of the outlook she has rejected: “Puritan maidens shouldn’t peer too inquisitively into Spring! Isn’t beauty an abomination and love a vile thing?” (Homecoming, III). Christine’s blossoming womanhood is her affirmation of life, but it carries with it the seeds of death as well. It leads to her murder of Ezra and desertion of Orin, and finally to her own suicide.
Adam Brant’s dialogue furthers the development of the island theme in the play. Brant’s romantic descriptions of the South Sea islands he remembers establish their connection with a paradise before the fall, an Eden associated with existence as yet unspoiled, with life yet unborn. Lavinia recollects his talk about the native island women who “had found the secret of happiness because they had never heard that love can be a sin” (Homecoming, I). And Brant assures her “they live in as near the Garden of Paradise before sin was discovered as you’ll find on this earth” (Homecoming, I). The island colors of green land, blue sky, and golden sun are the same colors associated with first Christine and then Lavinia, with their green velvet gowns, blue eyes, and strange golden hair. The quiet peace of Brant’s description evokes prenatal slumber within the womb: “... the sun drowsing in your blood, and always the surf on the barrier reef singing a croon in your ears like a lullaby!” (Homecoming, I). He notes, “You can forget there all men’s dirty dreams of greed and power!” (Homecoming, I). They are “The Blessed Isles” (Homecoming, I).
Lavinia’s unsettling question put to him about whether one can forget there also men’s “dirty dreams of love?” (Homecoming, I) indicates the precarious basis for this paradise. The islands are inhabited by the naked native women. And it is women with their capability for feeling and stirring passion that can obliterate the paradise of untainted and unbroken mother love.
In Brant’s story too there are repetitions of the theme of desertion between a child and a mother. Brant says that when he was seventeen, he “ran away to sea—and forgot I had a mother” (Homecoming, I). The sea and his ship became substitutes for the mother he left. He says that women are always jealous of ships, they always suspect the sea (Homecoming, I); and his description of sailing vessels, “Tall, white clippers,... like beautiful, pale women” (Homecoming, I), establishes them as an image of feminine purity in his mind. Lavinia reminds Christine of how much his ship means to Adam, and he himself compares Christine to the Flying Trades: “You are like sisters” (Homecoming, II). Their plan for escape together after Ezra is murdered involves his desertion of his ship, an abandonment that destroys for him any hope for real happiness with her.
When Brant first spoke of going away with Christine, he had mentioned the islands: “By God, there’s the right place for love and a honeymoon!” (Homecoming, II). But, as she reminded him, the closed circle was impossible as long as Ezra was alive. Christine hoped that their complicity in this murder would bind Adam to her irrevocably. Fearing the changes of time and her aging, she calculated on the crime sealing a permanent bond:
You’ll never dare leave me now, Adam—for your ships or your sea or your naked Island girls—when I grow old and ugly. (Homecoming, II)
For both of them finally the alliance is vile and grotesque. The attempt to remake somehow in adulthood a community of two can be based only on other betrayals.
The island imagery of prenatal union is fully developed in the description of Christine’s relationship with her son Orin. Christine reminisces with Orin after his homecoming: “We had a secret little world of our own in the old days, didn’t we?—which no one but us knew about” (The Hunted, II). She claims that Ezra hated his son because he knew that she loved the boy better than anything else in the world (The Hunted, II). The exclusion is something Ezra himself attested to: “You had turned to your new baby, Orin. I was hardly alive for you any more. I saw that” (Homecoming, III). But the original union is broken; mother and son have been separated. Orin’s father took him away to a war, and he blames his mother now for the scarcity and coolness of her letters during his absence (The Hunted, II).
Upon his return, she attempts a reconciliation with him: “We’ll make that little world of our own again, won’t we?” (The Hunted, II). Her winding the bandage on his head wound is a symbolic gesture of swaddling and binding together again that recalls the earlier figure of the Canuck nurse girl. He leans against her knees, dreamily describing the South Sea islands again in a way that makes clear their maternal meaning for him:
Those Islands came to mean everything that wasn’t war, everything that was peace and warmth and security. I used to dream I was there.... There was no one there but you and me. And yet I never saw you, that’s the funny part. I only felt you all around me. The whole island was you. (The Hunted, II)
To Orin the islands are mother.
Orin hoped to escape from the death of war by coming home again finally, but he curses his recovery from his battle injury when he recognizes his mother’s guilty hand in his father’s death:
I should never have come back to life—from my island of peace! But that’s lost now! You’re my lost island, aren’t you, Mother? (The Hunted, III)
He is willing to forgive her, though, the sin of this murder. Ezra was a threat to their own special love. Orin can still dream of a life with his mother, even if she has now become a lost island.
It is only when Lavinia convinces him of Christine’s involvement with Brant that Orin finally breaks with his mother. It is Christine’s and Brant’s use of the island imagery that assures Orin of Christine’s betrayal of him. As Lavinia and Orin eavesdrop during their shipboard meeting, Christine begins to talk about going away with Brant to the islands. Brant goes on, expressing the pull of hope he feels for something he no longer really believes in:
Aye—the Blessed Isles—Maybe we can still find happiness and forget!. . . The warm earth in the moonlight, the surf on the barrier reef singing a croon in your ears like a lullaby! Aye! There’s peace, and forgetfulness for us there—if we can ever find those islands now! (The Hunted, IV)
Steeped in the guilt of murder and sick with the sense of failure to make good on his own aspirations in his calling at sea, Brant recognizes the islands for an unachievable daydream. But Orin, overhearing, is convinced now that his mother has been a traitor to him.
It is this conviction that enables him to resolve upon and accomplish Brant’s murder. The motivation of revenge is clear in his furious comment to Lavinia, “And my island I told her about—which was she and I—she wants to go there—with him!” (The Hunted, IV). After Lavinia has arranged that he overhear the plans of Christine and her lover, it becomes easier for Orin to kill Brant. He shoots the man at close range and, in a scene of violation which follows, rips open drawers in the ship’s cabin, rifles the place, tears things apart, goes through the dead man’s pockets, and finally steals Brant’s revolver. He destroys and attempts to take the place of this rival. Announcing Brant’s death to his mother, Orin explains: “I heard you planning to go with him to the island I had told you about—our island—that was you and I!” (The Hunted, V). When she only moans with grief, he tells her that he will help her to forget:
I’ll make you forget him! I’ll make you happy! We’ll leave Vinnie here and go away on a long voyage—to the South Seas—(The Hunted, V)
Lavinia is right in recognizing her brother’s goal as a retreat to infancy: “Are you becoming her crybaby again?” (The Hunted, V). Orin still wants to reestablish his exclusive childhood hold on his mother’s affections.
When Christine kills herself, that hope is eliminated. Orin is beset with the guilt of having first killed Brant and then having taunted his mother with the murder. With her dead now, there is no further hope of a reconciliation. He recognizes his plight with despair: “I’ve got to make her forgive me! I—! But she’s dead—She’s gone—how can I ever get her to forgive me now?” (The Hunted, V). She has in a final act of betrayal now irrevocably left him.
To find some other way to live, some other hope, Orin turns to his sister Lavinia. It is Orin and Lavinia who actually sail off to the Islands. Lavinia becomes a mother to him, nursing him like a sick child to life.
The idyllic peace of the islands is deceptive, though, and impermanent. The Blessed Isles do not remain the innocent haven Orin hoped for—a place of nurturing peace with a mother. They provide somehow a changing atmosphere for Lavinia. A threatening aspect in her nature is awakened there. Orin tells Peter Niles:
They turned out to be Vinnie’s islands, not mine. They only made me sick—and the naked women disgusted me. I guess I’m too much of a Mannon, after all, to turn into a pagan. But you should have seen Vinnie with the men—!(The Haunted, I, ii)
Orin accuses Lavinia of admiring the handsome, romantic-looking island men and desiring their attentions:
Oh, she was a bit shocked at first by their dances, but afterwards she fell in love with the Islanders. If we’d stayed another month, I know I’d have found her some moonlight night dancing under the palm trees—as naked as the rest. (The Haunted, I, ii)
He declares that it was his brotherly duty to take her away. He is jealous of the passionate nature he senses stirring in her and attempts to secure her unchanged for his own.
His sense of her awakening sexuality as the sin that will destroy their closeness becomes clear in his further accusations. He implies that she enjoyed the lustful looks of the native Avahanni and that something passed between the two. Although Lavinia avers it was only a kiss she shared with the islander, the moment marks the beginning of another betrayal for Orin. She shouts at him. “I’m not your property! I have a right to love!” (The Haunted, II). Lavinia explains that she loved the islands: “They finished setting me free” (The Haunted, I, ii). She has come to the conclusion that “Love is all beautiful” (The Haunted, I, ii). And with her new boldness she turns from Orin to Peter: “We’ll be married soon.... We’ll make an island for ourselves” (The Haunted, I, ii). Lavinia chooses to leave Orin just as Christine did before her.
Like Christine, she also tries to cover for her desertion of Orin by pushing him toward Hazel. Orin realizes by this time, however, the impossibility of any such hope of remaking the world of his childhood:
No. I’m afraid myself of being too long alone with her—afraid of myself. I have no right in the same world with her. And yet I feel so drawn to her purity! Her love for me makes me appear less vile to myself! And, at the same time, a million times more vile, that’s the hell of it! So I’m afraid you can’t hope to get rid of me through Hazel. She’s another lost island! (The Haunted, II)
His letter revealing all the crimes of the Mannon family is his last resort to prevent Lavinia from abandoning him to marry Peter. Lavinia has become Marie Brantome to him (The Haunted, III). Just as Marie deserted Ezra, Lavinia is now bent upon leaving him. Recognizing the impossibility of ever recovering innocence and peace again in life, Orin turns to death for an answer. He determines upon suicide:
Yes! It’s the way to peace—to find her again—my lost island—Death is an island too—Mother will be waiting for me there—Mother! (The Haunted, III)
Lavinia persists in her hope for an earthly paradise just a while longer. She clings wildly to Peter as her brother goes out to shoot himself, talking with desperate hope of a time when they will be married and have a home and a garden with trees: “Hold me close, Peter! Nothing matters but love, does it? That must come first! No price is too great, is it?” (The Haunted, III).
Besides Lavinia’s sending Orin to his death, it is clear that this marriage would be based on other desertions as well—Peter’s abandonment of his mother and sister. Hazel tells how the plan has already broken his mother’s heart and come between him and her too:
You’ve changed him. He left home and went to the hotel to stay. He said he’d never speak to Mother or me again. He’s always been such a wonderful son before—and brother. (The Haunted, IV)
Hazel’s jealous love for her brother prompts her to introduce the topic of Orin’s letter. His last resort becomes hers as well, as she tries to stop with it the processes of changing and leaving that life invariably brings. Though Peter comes to her haggard and tormented with the guilt of his desertions, Lavinia still hopes to snatch from life some moment of bliss.
It is only when in her frantic appeal for love she slips the name of his predecessor in her affections, Adam, that she gives up the hopeful illusion: “Always the dead between! It’s no good trying any more!” (The Haunted, IV). Lavinia throws away the lilacs she had brought into the thouse and lets the windows be boarded up again. The conclusion of the play confirms the Mannon outlook that Ezra had so much wanted to defy: “Life is dying. Being born was starting to die. Death was being born” (Homecoming, III). Christine once asked wistfully, looking at the fresh young girl Hazel, “Why can’t all of us remain innocent and trustful?” (The Hunted, I). Persistence in innocence is an impossible hope, like the Blessed Isles, an irretrievable dream that exists only once for a while in prenatal slumber. The peace of Eden is precariously held as long as there is a “yaller-haired wench” in the garden ready to say, “Take me, Adam!” (The Hunted, IV and The Haunted, IV).
Source: Bette Charlene Werner, “Eugene O’Neill’s Paradise Lost: The Theme of the Islands in Mourning Becomes Electra,” in Forum, Winter, 1986, Vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 46−52.
In the following essay, Young describes Lavinia as the “American Electra” but Christine as the “most tragic member of the Mannon family.”
It is often an intellectual game among students of drama to debate who is the center of a play, whose story is being told. With some plays it’s not much of a game: Hedda Gabler, for instance, is appropriately named since Hedda is, shall we say, the cornerstone of nearly all the triangular relationships in Ibsen’s play. Ultimately all roads lead to Hedda (until of course the very end, when George and Thea get together). Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra is also, I think, properly named; but here, despite the title, it is not quite so clear to whom the play belongs. O’Neill set out to write a trilogy that would do for Electra what Aeschylus had done for Orestes, and in some ways he succeeds. In the end it is Lavinia, the American Electra, who must rid the world of the Mannons while simultaneously becoming a strange apotheosis of what it means to be a Mannon. Yet it is not Lavinia but her mother, Christine—Clytemnestra’s counterpart—who is the most tragic member of the Mannon family because she more clearly wishes and strives to be free of the “Mannon curse.”
The Mannon curse is to be forever bound to one’s dead relatives; it is the fatal web which binds each character to the others and which ultimately binds the play together. The play is their cumulative ghost, and so of course it is not quite accurate to single out one character as the heart of the trilogy. But even within the inextricabilities of the Mannon web, the stories of the two women dominate the drama.
The main story is Vinnie’s desire to be more like her mother. However, Vinnie never knows this is the story: even at the end she won’t admit that she’s never had a life of her own. And it is for this reason, this blindness, that Vinnie is more pathetic than tragic. Only at the very end does she take on tragic dimensions, when she realizes that there is no running from her punishment and indeed that she must punish herself.
But up until the final part of the trilogy it is Christine’s play. Christine sees—she sees the oppressive nature of her Christian responsibilities; she sees her life slipping by—and she wants her freedom. The underside of American literature—the vast sensual wilderness underneath the Puritan ideal—that Lawrence describes in his Studies in Classic American Literature, becomes manifest in Christine’s desire for Captain Adam Brant and a life on the virgin soil of a faraway island. Caught in what Lawrence calls “the mechanical bond of purposive utility,” she feels she has a “right” to love, as her son Orin later says of her. Interestingly, when Vinnie virtually “becomes” her mother toward the end of the play, she too believes she has a “right to love.” Vinnie cannot imagine another life without becoming someone other than herself. But once Christine gets a taste of love and freedom she will not give it up, and she will not be beholden to Vinnie. In the end, rather than submit to Vinnie’s blackmail, she quite literally takes her life in her own hands. Christine’s main failing, beyond a certain pathetic longing for youth and beauty, is that she doesn’t see clearly enough that she’s acted too late, and acting too late is the heart of tragedy.
“BUT UP UNTIL THE FINAL PART OF THE TRILOGY IT IS CHRISTINE’S PLAY. CHRISTINE SEES—SHE SEES THE OPPRESSIVE NATURE OF HER CHRISTIAN RESPONSIBILITIES; SHE SEES HER LIFE SLIPPING BY—AND SHE WANTS HER FREEDOM.”
Vinnie wants her mother to live according to the way things are, to live up to the traditional standards of mid-nineteenth century New England. Appalled at learning of her mother’s adultery, she threatens to tell her father unless Christine gives up Brant: “You ought to see it’s your duty to Father, not my orders—if you had any honor or decency.” Vinnie is ever cognizant of her Puritan chores: “I’m not marrying anyone,” she tells her mother. “I’ve got my duty to Father.” Christine’s immediate answer shows an awareness of responsibility as well as its traps, something Vinnie would never admit: “Duty! How often I’ve heard that word in this house! Well, you can’t say I didn’t do mine all these years. But there comes an end.” There comes an end to “duty,” and to life itself. Vinnie can only see the timeless portraits of the Mannon line and their stony pride reaching through history. Indeed, Vinnie is herself described as having the timeless quality of an “Egyptian statue.”
But Christine has been married for twenty years to a man she doesn’t love. She has become less and less her husband’s lover and mate and more and more the person who takes care of the family. She is mother to all and yet finally rejects her role and family, and the Mannon “tomb,” for her pagan Captain (who turns out, ironically, to have a fair share of Mannon in him) and the promise of romance and adventure in the South Seas, where the Christian doctrine of sin is unknown.
I’ve been to the greenhouse to pick these. I felt our tomb needed a little brightening. (She nods scornfully toward the house) Each time I come back after being away it appears more like a sepulchre! The “whited” one of the Bible—pagan temple front stuck like a mask on Puritan gray ugliness! It was just like old Abe Mannon to build such a monstrosity—as a temple for his hatred. (Then with a little mocking laugh) Forgive me, Vinnie. I forgot you liked it. And you ought to. It suits your temperament.
Yes, mourning becomes Lavinia. Even in the end, when she nails shut the windows and retreats inside to punish herself and end the Mannon line, her sacrifice fulfills the Puritan creed. A noble act, perhaps; a necessary act; but still too willingly accepted. Why didn’t she stay on the South Sea Islands where she had become a more natural woman? The answer, it seems, lies in the double edge of the play’s message: consequences must be faced and in doing so you simultaneously fulfill and carry on the need for Puritan sacrifice. Vinnie’s response to her mother’s “there comes an end” is, “And there comes another end—and you must do your duty again!” Ad infinitum!
But even if one accepts Lavinia’s sacrifice as an act of courage, and a moment of insight, on the whole she is more pathetic than tragic. She doesn’t see, or if she does she won’t admit what she sees. She won’t admit what is obvious to others—that she is a poor imitation of her mother. Brant describes Vinnie’s face as a “dead image” of Christine’s. Orin realizes that Vinnie can never admit that she wanted Brant.
ORIN: And that’s why you suddenly discarded mourning in Frisco and bought new clothes—in Mother’s colors!
LAVINIA: (furiously) Stop talking about her! You’d think, to hear you, I had no life of my own!
ORIN: You wanted Wilkins just as you’d wanted Brant!
LAVINIA: That’s a lie!
Only Vinnie’s subconscious allows her to admit her desire for Brant. She mistakenly calls out for “Adam” when asking Peter to make love to her.
Christine is a tragic figure because she possesses more of a mind of her own and realizes, nevertheless, that she has wasted much of her life. She doesn’t fully realize, however, what the past has done to her, how cruel she’s become. For much of the play Christine underestimates the Mannon curse—to be forever tied to one’s dead relatives because of an unwillingness to face the truth about one’s living relatives. As Adam returns too late to his dying mother’s bedside, and as Ezra tries too late to be open and loving with Christine, so Christine responds too slowly to years of bitterness toward Ezra and Lavinia. And bitterness is the handmaiden to cruelty. But it does not undermine Christine’s victory as the central tragic figure of Mourning Becomes Electra.
Source: William Young, “Mother and Daughter in Mourning Becomes Electra,” in The Eugene O ‘Neill Newsletter, Summer-Fall, 1982, Vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 15–17.
Ronald T. Curran
In the following essay, Curran discusses how the concept of the islands fails for certain major characters in O ‘Neill’s play, dominated as they are by Puritanism.
Approximately at midpoint in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1929, 1931), Orin Mannon leans his head on his mother’s knee and in a “dreamy and low and caressing” voice announces that Melville’s Typee (1846) provided him with a sense of peace in the midst of the American Civil War and stimulated “wonderful dreams” about her:
Someone loaned me the book. I read it and reread it until finally those Islands came to mean everything that wasn’t war, everything that was peace and warmth and security. I used to dream I was there. And later on all the time I was out of my head I seemed really to be there. There was no one there but you and me. And yet I never saw you, that’s the funny part. I only felt you all around me. The breaking of the waves was your voice. The sky was the same color as your eyes. The warm sand was like your skin. The whole island was you.
Orin did not read Typee critically. If he had, he would have recognized that Tommo’s quest for a Polynesian retreat was a failure. The South Pacific contained no prelapsarian Eden. Like many of the early reviewers of Typee, Orin read his own interpretation of primitivism into the novel. For him Typee Valley, Tahiti or Imeeo became literally his mother.
The nineteenth-century Rousseauistic yearning for uncorrupted civilizations and noble savages attracted readers to books about the South Seas; while this contributed to the popularity of Typee and Omoo, it banished Melville to premature obscurity. His barbed ambiguities troubled the delicate hearts of the American public which wanted to root in the past for the lost Golden Age. The popular sense of primitivism, like Orin’s, was opposed to Melville’s own more profound approach. The public sought escape while Melville looked for an explanation of his sense of culture failure.
James Baird has explained that primitivism attends a sense of culture failure expressed mainly in the disintegration of religious symbolism. In Typee Melville refutes the naive primitivism of Rousseau. His experience in the South Seas under-mined the Frenchman’s notion of the moral superiority of primitive peoples. Afterwards, as Baird has pointed out in Ishmael, Melville embraced an authentic primitivism, “the mode of feeling which exchanges for traditional Christian symbols a new symbolic idiom referring to Oriental cultures of both Oceania and Asia. . . [Baird’ italics]. Melville’s nineteenth-century, New-England audience and O’Neill in Mourning Becomes Electra follow mainly in Rousseau’s footsteps: encouraged by the collapse of the Puritan theological basis for the Protestantism of New England, they distort the past. Melville, on the other hand, uses the past—mainly Oriental culture—as a source of new symbols to replace those of Protestant Christianity. Thus Orin’s South Pacific island offers an escape, while Melville’s affords an opportunity to attempt a reintegration.
“O’NEILL RE-EMPLOYS IN VARIOUS FORMS THE CONVENTIONAL IMAGE OF EXOTIC ISLANDS IN ORDER TO GAIN A UNIVERSALLY-CONDITIONED RESPONSE FROM HIS AUDIENCE—ESCAPE FROM UNPLEASANT REALITY—, BUT THE ISLANDS FAIL FOR THREE IMPORTANT REASONS....”
In Mourning Becomes Electra everyone has an island. Orin has his own vision of Melville’s Marquesas, and Captain Brant cherishes his Blessed Isles and promotes their image for Christine and Lavinia. Even Ezra has one, although his more vague retreat closely resembles most people’s image of a refuge, since it has no specific location and promises him the emotional luxuries which would damn nearly every one of us, were we to possess them all concurrently. Love. Peace. Happiness. Forgetfulness. Guiltlessness. Those common emotional wishes, which, if we could just get mind and heart to cooperate, would insure that equilibrium we never quite strike. In fact, towards the end of the trilogy, with merely a wag of the tongue, Orin makes an unattainable island of Hazel Niles, who is barely a body of emotions, let alone a piece of land. Lavinia, too, shows similar disregard for geography when she tells Hazel’s brother, Peter, “We’ll make an island for ourselves on land....”
It would be somewhat dishonest, however, to dismiss the significance of the various forms of Blessed Isles in Mourning Becomes Electra merely as popular metaphors for human wish-fulfillment. They acquire a deeper meaning when we look at them in the light of modern psychology and Rousseauistic primitivism. This is not to say that the play is heavily indebted to Freud or Rousseau. Neither its use of modern psychological insight nor its approach to primitivism is highly technical. Both, in fact, are employed much as they were in the nineteenth century by such writers as Hawthorne in The Marble Faun and Melville in Typee. A general knowledge of both the psychology and the peculiar form of primitivism in the trilogy adds a dimension to our understanding of the work. For in Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O’Neill reinterprets the failure of Rousseauistic primitivism in the light of twentieth-century psychological insight. The play is a modern version not only of the Oedipal tragedy in Aeschylus’ Orestia trilogy but also of the failure of the doctrine of chronological primitivism in a culture dominated by Puritanism.
Rousseauistic primitivism underlies the various concepts of the Blessed Isles in Mourning Becomes Electra, but O’Neill’s primary emphasis is upon the chronological aspect of Rousseau’s mode of primitivism—that earlier stages in human existence were better or wholly good. By extending this naive concept to every major character in the trilogy, he emphasizes the sense of culture failure motivating each person’s desire for escape.
Particularly, that culture failure is rooted in the destructive influence of Puritanism on the Mannon family. It distorts their relationships without providing a reassuring creed around which to structure their lives. This negative religious legacy descends from the father’s side and inhibits Ezra, Orin and Lavinia, whom Christine refers to as a Puritan maiden and who questions whether Brant’s Blessed Isles can make men forget their “dirty dreams” of love. Christine also refers to the “Puritan gray ugliness” of the Mannon home and claims that each time she goes away and returns it becomes “more like a sepulchre! The ‘whited’ one of the Bible....” Mourning Becomes Electra, like Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” indicts Puritanism for encouraging neurotic sexual notions.
O’Neill, then, adds a few more lashes to the already striped carcass of Puritanism in American letters. In Mourning Becomes Electra he scores that religious legacy generally for reinforcing the Oedipal complexes which haunt Lavinia and Orin. Classical though it may be in its structure, O’Neill’s trilogy employs a knowledge of modern psychology in order to explore a nineteenth-century theme and to pin the blame once again on Puritanism. Prudish attitudes toward sex underlie and strengthen the Freudian determinism which besets the Mannons. And the indirect effect of those attitudes on both Lavinia and Orin make chronological primitivism attractive to them as each wishes to go back in time in order to slough off the destructive sexual frustration they feel.
The Blessed Isles, however, fulfill different needs for both—renewal of Lavinia’s basic sensuality and ultimately reinforcement of Orin’s Puritan repression. Christine is Orin’s Blessed Isle; naked Polynesian women only disgust him. Announcing his suicide, he exclaims: “Yes! It’s the way to peace—to find her [mother] again—my lost island—Death is an island of peace too—Mother will be waiting for me there....”
O’Neill, of course, overemphasizes one facet of Rousseauistic primitivism—the sexual freedom of primitive peoples. The New-England Puritan preoccupation with the evil of sexual pleasure explains the majority of the emotional difficulties in Mourning Becomes Electra. The women in the play—and in O’Neill’s plays generally—tend to be extreme types: good women (like mother) and bad or “fancy women” in the terminology of Seth, the caretaker; Minnie and Abbie in Desire Under the Elms or Marie Brantome and Christine Mannon in Mourning Becomes Electra. When even the good women shows signs of natural sensuality, they become, to use Orin’s words, “whores”. Once Eve is diddled by the serpent, it seems she becomes at the same time a fallen and a scarlet woman. In Nabokov’s phrase, she contracts the “apple disease.”
Orin, as his thoughts on Typee will reveal, wants to return to those prelapsarian days before the knowledge of sexual sin. In wanting to regress, he wishes not only to repudiate his individuality, but, more significantly, he wants to deny history—his own and his family’s. Such a denial involves the destruction of one’s identity. Ultimately, that denial means the disintegration of the self. For however doubtful the virtues of historical progress, the development of personality is inextricably bound to the forward movement of one’s civilization. Irving’s Rip Van Winkle attempted to deny history, sleeping through the Revolutionary War, and he awakened to find himself an anachronism. Captain Brant, who has not learned Tommo’s lesson, shares Orin’s belief in Rousseau’s dream of escape by voyaging back in time to an island garden of Eden. Christine, not Fayaway, becomes his Eve, and he, like Tommo, leaves his island paradise. Brant finds his love among his own people and in his own time and place. But he is fated by the Mannon curse never to make his escape to the Blessed Isles where he feels he can play a trick on time.
For both Brant and Ezra Mannon, the islands represent mainly an escape from the present and an opportunity to turn back time. Ezra tells Christine, “I’ve got a notion if we’d leave the children and go off on a voyage together—to the other side of the world—find some island where we could be alone for a while. You’ll find I have changed.” Brant had told Christine earlier that he admired the naked native women because they had found the secret of happiness—“they had never heard that love can be a sin.” “They live in as near the Garden of Paradise before sin was discovered as you’ll find on earth.” Each feels that the islands will enable him to shed the stigma of sin which his New-England Puritanism had bequeathed to sensual love. They want to regress, however, to unlearn rather than to modify. Change for them means a return to the innocence of childhood, for Orin almost a prenatal existence. Brant’s repeated reference to “the surf on the barrier reef singing a croon in your ears like a lullaby!” pairs him with Orin, whose Blessed Isle is his mother. Unable to come to terms with their Puritan legacy, they wish instead to recover the purity of childhood, not of the supposedly uninhibited adulthood of the noble savage.
They associate inhibition with immaturity. Each interprets chronological primitivism naively, supposing that relationships with primitive peoples, isolation from their Puritan environment, and communion with nature will dissolve religious inhibitions. This error precipitates their tragic fate because they wrongly associate psychic with historical time. The Mannons believe that visiting peoples living in an earlier period of historical development can change their unconscious minds. They mistake the nostalgia aroused by a pleasant vacation for a spontaneous cure for their psychological condition. They wish to begin again with a clean slate in the Lockian sense because they do not realize that the noble savages they admire bear the markings of their own unique culture. Primitives’ consciences are not without guilt either; they contain indigenous forms of “sin,” and so-called primitive men are not the children of Eden whom Ezra and Brant wish to become again and can only become with the loss of their respective selves. All of the Mannons ultimately accept some form of this delusion. Even though Lavinia seems to have made a partial recovery during her vacation in a South Pacific Eden and an innocent affair with Avahanni, she too is forced to accept her self and her place in the New England of her day.
Hazel and Peter Niles act as foils to Lavinia and Orin: they become an ironic pair of noble savages in New England. Their childlike innocence affirms the ideals of purity and wholesomeness in contrast to the guilty Mannon consciences of Orin and Lavinia. These uncorrupted neighbors embody the elemental values of the Blessed Isles. Nonetheless, Orin recognizes the impossibility of attaining expiation and happiness through marriage to Hazel when he admits that “She’s another lost island!” Lavinia, too, accepts finally that Peter can never be the Adam she mistakingly calls him, and she can never be his Biblical wife. No one returns to the prelapsarian garden in Mourning Becomes Electra, for O’Neill makes the simplemindedness of brother and sister Niles almost as unattractive as the Mannon guilt.
Orin’s allusion to Typee in the play suggests that O’Neill is telling the same tale of paradise lost as Melville had told eighty-three years before. Like Melville, O’Neill recounts not only the failure of Rousseauistic primitivism, but also illustrates clearly in his ironic treatment of the various forms of Blessed Isles that any such wish is at best illusory. O’Neill, however, criticizes Puritanism, not missionaries, for developing a destructive guilt syndrome. When sex and sin are equated, love relationships are frustrated and they intensify our sense of isolation instead of our feelings of mutuality. Guilt isolates all the Mannons, and its source can be traced to the effect of Puritanism on their lives. To each successive generation of Mannons the fathers bequeath a sense of sexual sin, and the consequences of that inheritance far outstrip the influence of any more palpable wrongdoing such as that of which Hawthorne’s Pyncheons were gulty. The sins of the fathers in the Mannon family are the result of their collective acceptance of that aspect of Puritanism which considers sexual pleasure in or outside of marriage as sinful.
In Mourning Becomes Electra, Captain Brant, a figure of renewal like Holgrave in The House of the Seven Gables, is murdered. His death ends any chance of atonement and regeneration for the Mannon family. The destructive effects of Puritanism kill Ezra, Captain Brant, Christine, and Orin as surely as does the psychological fate born of the Oedipus complexes of Orin and Lavinia. O’Neill re-employs in various forms the conventional image of exotic islands in order to gain a universally-conditioned response from his audience—escape from unpleasant reality—, but the islands fail for three important reasons: first of all, guilt is best relieved through some form of public confession in one’s own community rather than privately and in isolation from it; second, Brant’s epithet, “Blessed Isles,” borrows an adjective the Christian connotations of which belie the islands’ efficacy: these can never be given divine approval because the sexual license they suggest cannot be sanctified by the Puritan god of the Mannons. Finally, the islands must fail because they represent a happiness that can be gained only through the sacrifice of one’s identity.
In Mourning Becomes Electra, O’Neill both updates the Orestia trilogy with his knowledge of modern psychology and localizes the universal Oedipal pattern which Aeschylus depicted by showing that for one part of the American character at least that pattern is reinforced by New-England Puritanism. Writing in this thematic tradition, O’Neill shows his kinship with the major writers of the American Renaissance, especially Melville and Hawthorne.
Source: Ronald T. Curran, “Insular Typees: Puritanism and Primitivism in Mourning Becomes Electra,” in Revue Des Langues Vivantes, Summer, 1975, Vol. 4, pp. 371–77.
Horst Frenz and Martin Mueller
In the following essay, Frenz and Mueller argue that Hamlet and Mourning Becomes Electra “show similarities in plot wherever there are plot differences between Hamlet and the Oresteia” and that a comparison of the plays of Shakespeare and O’Neill “help to define the fundamentally different concept of action that separates O’Neill’s trilogy from the Oresteia.”
There has been general critical agreement that Mourning Becomes Electra was modeled on the Oresteia, and the publication of O’Neill’s work diary has strengthened this assumption. On closer investigation, however, the similarities between the two plays are superficial, and more fundamental parallels may be found in O’Neill’s trilogy and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The latter play shares its basic plot with Mourning Becomes Electra, and it can be shown that in other ways, too, O’Neill owes more to Shakespeare and less to Aeschylus and to a genuine experience of Greek drama. One may indeed speak of a direct influence of Hamlet, but it is quite possible that the American playwright was not aware of it. The comparison of Hamlet and Mourning Becomes Electra will not only prove that these two plays show similarities in plot wherever there are plot differences between Hamlet and the Oresteia but also help to define the fundamentally different concept of action that separates O’Neill’s trilogy from the Oresteia.
First of all, the murder of Ezra Mannon resembles the murder of Hamlet’s father more closely than that of Agamemnon. Ezra Mannon is poisoned. It is easy to see the reason for this change. Since the crime had to remain undetected for the family drama to unfold free from outside interference, open violence was irreconcilable with the setting O’Neill had chosen for his trilogy. In the Oresteia, the murder of Agamemnon makes Clytemnaestra and Aegisthus the absolute rulers of Argos. At the end of the Agamemnon, after Clytemnaestra has proudly acknowledged her deed to the helpless Chorus, tyranny is established in Argos. Clytemnaestra’s shameless confession, which indicates the absence of any authority to punish her, is crucial to the trilogy, since it justifies Orestes’s revenge. In the Oresteia, as well as in the Electra plays of Sophocles and Euripides, secrecy surrounds the return of the avenger. Intrigue is restricted to the concealment of the avenger’s identity until the moment of retribution. In Mourning Becomes Electra, on the other hand, the crime itself is the secret, and the plot necessarily deals with the story of its discovery. That is to say, Mourning Becomes Electra shares its basic plot with Hamlet.
There are other differences between the Oresteia and Mourning Becomes Electra that have been overlooked because O’Neill’s identification of Lavinia with Electra has been accepted too readily. In the Greek tragedies Electra is the disinherited princess and her humiliation is the result of her father’s death. In Mourning Becomes Electra the order is reversed. According to its position in the American trilogy, Homecoming should be an Agamemnon tragedy; actually, the play is dominated by the conflict between mother and daughter. The death of the father is only one episode in an Electra drama. Far from causing the humiliation of Electra-Lavinia, the death of Agamemnon-Mannon actually terminates it. In Lavinia’s and Christine’s struggle for power, the daughter’s discovery of the poison is the decisive event. The last remnant of Christine’s doubtful ascendancy over Lavinia has now disappeared: Lavinia, casting off the role of the disinherited princess, assumes that of the avenger. There is no comparable situation in the Oresteia; for a parallel we have to turn to Hamlet. It has been suggested that Hamlet is both Electra and Orestes, and it may be argued that the discovery of his father’s murder effects in Hamlet the change from Electra to Orestes. The frustration and the humiliation for which he lacked an “objective correlative” in the first court scene are absorbed by his new duty and his will to revenge.
In Hamlet the ghost scene achieves all at once the reversal that takes up the entire first part of O’Neill’s trilogy. The discovery of the murder suddenly gives direction to Hamlet’s profound but aimless disgust at his mother’s “adultery.” In Mourning Becomes Electra this reversal occurs gradually. Homecoming shows Lavinia at various stages of knowledge; each increase in knowledge is a step toward ascendancy, which she finally achieves with the discovery of the poison. The Lavinia who squabbles with her mother about the right to show the garden to strangers and who wilfully shuts herself off in her room is as contumacious as Electra; she is stronger than her mother, but she still lacks the power to break her authority. The quarrel, however, points to a change. Lavinia knows something about Christine that will give her power. At the end of the brief conversation she throws down the gauntlet:
LAVINIA (harshly): I’ve got to have a talk with you, Mother—before long!
CHRISTINE (turning defiantly): Whenever you wish. Tonight after the Captain leaves you, if you like. But what is it you want to talk about?
LAVINIA: You’ll know soon enough!
CHRISTINE (staring at her with a questioning dread—forcing a scornful smile): You always make such a mystery of things, Vinnie.
The unexpected revelation of Brant’s identity turns Lavinia’s knowledge of her mother’s adultery into an even more effective weapon than she had thought. It gives her a superiority that is only seemingly and temporarily offset by the return of Mannon, who lends fatal support to his wife’s authority. Mannon’s dying words and the discovery of the poison make Christine the helpless victim of Lavinia’s revenge.
“THUS IT IS NOT ACCIDENTAL THAT O’NEILL REPLACES THE MURDER OF CLYTEMNAESTRA WITH THE SUICIDE OF CHRISTINE. THE CHANGE WAS NOT MERELY DUE TO THE SETTING OF THE TRILOGY AND THE EXIGENCIES OF THE PLOT; IT TELLS SOMETHING ABOUT O’NEILL’S IDEA OF ACTION. IN MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA A SUICIDAL ELEMENT IS CONTAINED IN ALL ACTION; ONE MIGHT ALMOST SAY THAT ACTION IS SUICIDE.”
Ashley Dukes, one of the critics of the London premiere of Mourning Becomes Electra, maintains that Mannon’s return from war is like the return of Hamlet’s father from the realm of death. But Mannon’s death more closely parallels the ghost scene. Mannon’s dying words: “She’s guilty—not medicine” (I, iv) are like the “Remember me” of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet’s reaction to his father’s command is this:
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there:
And the commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter.
He confirms his vow by jilting Ophelia. Lavinia, too, rejects Peter’s proposal from a sense of duty to her father. The parallel is valid if we consider that the sudden discovery is replaced in Mourning Becomes Electra by a series of partial revelations.
In this lives of Lavinia and Hamlet the call to revenge is the turning point that ends the humiliations of the past. Orestes’s revenge takes a different course. His chief obstacle is the power of Clytemnaestra and Aegisthus, represented by the bodyguard at the end of the Agamemnon, and indirectly by the status of Electra at the opening of the Choephoroe. Lavinia lacks no opportunity to execute her revenge, but she wants to do it without arousing the suspicion of outsiders. Again Hamlet is the model, for the similar character of the crime entails a similar course of revenge. When Hamlet first hears the truth from his father he exclaims:
Haste me to know’t, that I, withe wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge (I, v)
But as soon as he meets his friends he realizes the difficulty of action: the need for secrecy forces Hamlet to modify his desire for instantaneous revenge.
The motif recurs in Mourning Becomes Electra, most explicitly when Christine initiates Brant into her plan. Brant has all sorts of ideas how he might “sweep” to his revenge: “If I could catch him alone, where no one would interfere, and let the best man come out alive as I’ve often seen it done in the West!” (I, ii). Christine replies succintly: “This isn’t the West.” Indeed, it is not. The house of the Mannons reminds one far more of the court of Denmark.
The need for secrecy and “indirections” (Hamlet) guides Lavinia’s revenge. Her first task is to convince her brother of her mother’s guilt just as Hamlet has to dispel his own doubts. Both of them decide to become actors and stage situations in which the criminal will betray himself. However, some time elapses before an opportunity arises. Hamlet mystifies the court by his antic disposition. In Mourning Becomes Electra Lavinia “mystifies” her mother who, like Claudius, recognizes the threat in her daughter’s behavior. Later, when the roles are reversed and Lavinia has identified herself with her mother, she is terrified by Orin’s deliberate mystification (I, i; II, i; III, ii). Hamlet’s pretended madness furnishes Claudius with a pretext to remove the prince from the court; in Mourning Becomes Electra. Christine tries to convince Orin that Lavinia is mad (II, ii). The struggle between Christine and Lavinia corresponds to that of Claudius and Hamlet, but it takes very different forms. The two women fight for the possession of Orin, and it is during the intrigues which this struggle involves that Orin becomes a true Mannon. The spoiled child of whom we had heard in Homecoming and who at his first appearance in Hunted is still associated with Peter and Hazel undergoes a change as he is drawn into the tragic circle. He exemplifies the truth of Christine’s outburst: “Why can’t all of us remain innocent and loving and trusting? But God won’t leave us alone. He twists and wrings and tortures our lives with others’ lives until—we poison each other to death” (II, i). The spread of poison once corrupted Christine herself, and in the final play of the trilogy its all-pervasive power is again revealed in Lavinia’s frantic but hopeless attempts to rid herself of it. Even Peter and Hazel are almost infected by it. At one point Hazel implores Lavinia not to marry Peter, who is already showing signs of her baneful influence (III, iv). The theme of poisoning thus develops a motif of the plot in a manner very similar to that of Hamlet. There the theme of poisoning occurs with many variations. The corruption of Laertes by Claudius is perhaps the best parallel to the corruption of Orin. Laertes runs into Claudius’s trap with pathetic eagerness. His corruption, which he himself realizes only in his death, is conveyed to the audience much earlier. To Claudius’s suggestion that he should fight Hamlet with an unbuttoned rapier Laertes replies:
I will do’t:
And, for that purpose, I’ll anoint my sword.
I bought an unction of a mountebank
So mortal that but dip a knife in it,
Where it draws blood no cataplasm so rare,
Collected from all simples that have virtue
Under the moon, can save the thing from death
That is but scratched withal. (IV, vii)
The Laertes who carries poison with him is very different from the young man who set out for France.
Christine fails to keep Orin on her side. She does not want Orin to be alone with Lavinia before she has spoken to him; hence, her anger at Peter: “Why didn’t you call me, Peter? You shouldn’t have left him alone!” (II, i). But Lavinia literally intercepts Orin, and her few words with him are enough to undermine Orin’s trust in his mother. For a moment, indeed, Christine seems to win. It is with great reluctance that Orin tears himself from his mother to follow Lavinia to see his father’s corpse (II, ii). The dialogue of Lavinia and Orin in the presence of the dead father is superficially modeled on the kommos of the Choephoroe, where the dead king is also “present.” But unlike Orestes, Orin cannot be incited to action by Lavinia’s words alone. Christine has too cleverly anticipated her accusations. Therefore, Lavinia suggests that they give Christine and Brant a chance to meet again at a place where Orin and Lavinia can overhear their conversation (II, iii). That meeting in the following act bears some resemblance to the scene in which Ophelia is used as a decoy. While Lavinia and Orin are plotting, Christine has followed Orin and is terrified to find the door locked. Lavinia seizes at her chance and on the spur of the moment stages a “mouse-trap.” She places the medicine bottle on the dead man’s chest and tells Orin to watch Christine closely. In like manner, Hamlet and Horatio resolve not to take their eyes off the king. Both times the “play” succeeds. The similarity extends even to the reactions of Hamlet and Orin. Hamlet loses his control and forfeits half his triumph. Orin, too, is tempted to forget himself and is only restrained by Lavinia’s warnings. Even so, the revelation is too much for him: he “stumbles blindly” out of the room (II, iii). His breakdown and his savage irony may be compared to Hamlet’s hysterical behavior after Claudius’s exit.
Like Lavinia, Orin is a descendant of Hamlet; actually, each represents a different interpretation of Hamlet. Lavinia lacks the reflection and irresolution of the popular Hamlet; she does not hesitate to act with speed and determination. She is very much like the Hamlet of Wilson Knight’s “Embassy of Death.” In fact, Knight’s portrait really fits Lavinia better than Hamlet. Lavinia may well be called a superman even among the Mannons, who are all in their own way superhuman. Her obsession with truth and her strength of will lead her to reject escape in any disguise. Escape in Mourning Becomes Electra takes two forms: it is either illusion or death. Mannon’s public career, Christine’s affair with Brant, and Orin’s dreams of a South Sea island belong to the former; the suicides of Christine and Orin, to the latter. Now Lavinia does not differ from the others in her attempt to escape into illusion; she tries harder than anyone else. She differs from the other characters in being herself the obstacle to her own happiness. Her penetrating intellect ultimately prevents any self-deception; it can bear the truth. Mannon, Orin, and Christine come to see the truth and realize the futility of illusion only to escape into death. Lavinia alone survives. She is the incarnation of the Mannon evil, “the most interesting criminal of us all,” as Orin calls her (III, i, 2), and in this respect, too, she resembles Knight’s Hamlet from whom death emanates.
Orin is a much less original creation. He is the disillusioned Romantic. Like the popular Hamlet, he is weak and oversensitive. He is either bullied by his mother or by his sister. He is given to reflection and is by nature unwilling to act; when he acts he does so in a state of blind excitement, a trait considered an essential feature of Hamlet by critics who think of him as the melancholy Dane.
Orin’s share in the action is much slighter than Lavinia’s; he does not come to the fore until Haunted, the plot of which is a pale echo of the preceding events. He is a portrait rather than a character revealed in action, except for his relation to Hazel, which may well be modeled on Hamlet’s relation to Ophelia. Hamlet turns from his thoughts about suicide when he sees Ophelia:
Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia. Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d. (Ill, i)
Likewise, Orin is attracted to Hazel—whether he has just returned from war or wishes to escape the burden of his guilt—because she is an unchanging image of peace. But Hazel’s innocence also provokes Orin’s cynicism. His bitter remarks about war (II, ii) are meant to shock Hazel; in this regard they resemble Hamlet’s obscenities in the play scene. In Haunted, Orin is led by his sense of duty to jilt Hazel just as Hamlet jilts Ophelia. Something of the intensity of Hamlet’s feeling for Ophelia shows through her report of his farewell. His savage insults in the decoy scene are but the other side of these feelings. The same contrast is found in Orin:
I have no right in the same world with her. And yet I feel so drawn to her purity! Her love for me makes me appear less vile to myself! (Then with a harsh laugh) And, at the same time, a million times more vile, that’s the hell of it! (Ill, ii)
When he finally jilts Hazel, he first asks her gently not to love him any more (III, iii), but then changes to taunting cruelty to make the farewell final (III, iii).
Hazel offers the key to Christine’s tragedy, for in a sense Christine is never so much herself as in the two short scenes with Hazel (II, i, v), which are modeled on the relationship of Gertrude with Ophelia. To compare Christine and Gertrude may seem strange at first. Gertrude is neither guilty of murder nor is it clear whether she has committed adultery. Hatred is foreign to her nature; in all she says and does she reveals her sincere affection for Ophelia and her great love for Hamlet. But above all, there is something very vague about her. Only once, in the closet scene, does she come to the fore, and then only to recede into a shadowy and ambiguous background. It is in this scene that Gertrude is shown lacking parental authority, just as Christine, in her various confrontations with her daughter, is handicapped by the loss of this authority.
There is a deliberate contrast between Gertrude’s pale portrait in the play and the violent colors in which Hamlet and his father paint her offense. Christine, on the other hand, is a Gertrude with the merciful veil of ambiguity torn from her face; in a sense she is the woman one would expect from what Hamlet and his father say about Gertrude. There is no doubt about her adultery: we see her as she abandons a respectable husband to “prey on garbage,” in favor of the “son of a low Canuck nurse girl” (I, i). We do not know whether Hamlet’s imagination is accurate when he describes Gertrude’s passion for Claudius, but Lavinia is an eyewitness of the clandestine rendezvous of Brant and Christine in a squalid New York hotel, and she dwells on it with the perverted pleasure Hamlet at times takes in sordid details (I, ii).
Although the events at Elsinore are concerned with Gertrude, she hardly takes part in them. Her only active interest seems to be the match between Hamlet and Ophelia; it is typical of her remoteness that she should continue to talk about it when it has long ceased to matter. When she hears from Claudius that Polonius has found the reason of Hamlet’s madness, she replies:
I doubt it is no other but the main;
His father’s death, and our o’erhasty marriage. (II, ii)
Polonius’s news fascinates her. It is she, not Claudius, who asks him to come to the point, and when Claudius and Polonius have only the success of their scheme in mind, Gertrude looks to the future and addresses Ophelia:
And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish
That your good beauties be the happy cause
Of Hamlet’s wildness: so shall I hope your virtues
Will bring him to his wonted way again,
To both your honours. (Ill, i)
The link between Gertrude and Ophelia is maintained in the following act. It is Gertrude who first receives the mad Ophelia; she also reports her death. At Ophelia’s funeral Gertrude once more returns to the match in words whose quietness contrasts with the ranting of Hamlet:
Sweets to the sweet! Farewell.
I hoped thou shouldst have been my
I thought thy bride-bed to have decked,
And not have strew’d thy grave. (V, i)
The constant association of Gertrude and Ophelia in the spectator’s mind balances the slanders of Hamlet and his father; her kindness to Ophelia belies at least their more extreme accusations. Gertrude looks at Ophelia with a twofold regret. She knows that she has offended Hamlet and seizes at the prospect of the match in order to secure his happiness as well as to regain his affection. It is understandable why marriage should appeal to her as the best means to this end: she herself had once experienced happiness in marriage. Her vision of the future is nostalgic; it attempts to regain the past.
The queen is choosing a young court lady as a match for her difficult son: so far the plot fits both Hamlet and Mourning Becomes Electra. But Christine acts from fear rather than from solicitude for Orin. Also, she thinks primarily of her own interest; she uses Hazel as Claudius uses Ophelia. Whether Gertrude’s plan is quite unselfish it is impossible to tell. Christine hopes that by furthering the romance between Orin and Hazel, which she had hitherto obstructed, she can isolate Lavinia and prevent her from winning Orin to her side. Thus she proposes a “conspiracy” between Hazel and herself, insinuating the danger that lies in Lavinia’s jealousy. But the innocence with which Hazel at once goes into the trap and yet refuses to believe anything evil about Lavinia surprises and touches her, and a well of affection springs up for Hazel in whom she sees her own past reflected:
Hazel: Poor Vinnie! She was so fond of her father. I don’t wonder she—
Christine (staring at her—strangely): You are genuinely good and pure of heart, aren’t you?
Hazel (embarrassed): Oh, no! I’m not at all—
Christine: I was like you once—long ago—before—(then with bitter longing) If I could only have stayed as I was then! (II, i)
Just as Gertrude may see her former happiness in the mirage of a happy marriage between Hamlet and Ophelia, so the thought of Hazel makes Christine recall her time of courtship, which she describes to Lavinia: “No. I loved him once—before I married him—incredible as that seems now! He was handsome in his lieutenant’s uniform! He was silent and mysterious and romantic! But marriage soon turned his romance into—disgust!” (I, ii). Then her eyes spoke and were full of life, as Mannon says in his clumsy attempt to break the barrier between them (I, iii). There was a time when she resembled Marie Brantome, the nurse girl, whose memory is invoked in the scene before Mannon’s entrance in order to make the contrast between past and present as poignant as possible. Christine wants nothing so much as to be young Christine again. Her affection for Hazel and her longing for innocent youth spring from her desperate fear of growing old: “I can’t let myself get ugly! I can’t!” (II, v).
A portrait of Gertrude would be incomplete without mention of her timidity and lack of initiative. In these respects, too, Christine resembles her; for her actions, premeditated as they may appear, are actually reactions to forces over which she has no control. And it is blind fear that makes her commit her fatal mistakes. The fearful Clytemnaestra is, of course, known to Sophocles and Euripides, but Aeschylus shows her as a woman of immense courage. O’Neill’s Christine commits the crime of the Aeschylean Clytemnaestra, although by nature she is much more like Gertrude.
One must keep in mind the fact that O’Neill’s idea of action is quite different from that of the Oresteia. In Aeschylus the problem of necessity always presents itself as a fateful choice: Agamemnon makes a decision “when he put on the yoke of necessity” (Agamemnon); Orestes decides to kill his mother. Aeschylus has no abstract concept of fate, let alone a fate that deprives action of its meaning or relieves the agent of his responsibility. He even lets his Chorus speak out against a determinism that denies responsibility and thinks of crime as something that merely happens (Agamemnon). The consequences of an action are determined by the original choice, and this choice may not in our sense be “free,” but Aeschylus would never have denied its existence.
In Mourning Becomes Electra, and to a certain extent in Hamlet, we find a very different concept of action. It is summarized by Horatio:
So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on the inventor’s heads. (V, ii)
A contrast between deliberate actions that miscarry and rash or intuitive actions that are decisive runs through the whole tragedy of Hamlet. While Orestes asks: “What shall I do?” before proceeding to kill his mother, Hamlet comes to rely on intuition. His attitude toward action is exemplified by his account of his adventures at sea:
And praised be rashness for it, let us know,
Our indiscretion sometime serves us well
When our deep plots do pall. . . .
Up from my cabin,
My sea-gown scarf’d about me, in the dark
Groped I to find out them....
Being thus benetted round with villainies,
Ere I could make a prologue to my brains,
They had begun the play—I sat me down. (V, ii)
It is a corollary of such an intuitive view of action that the agent becomes a sufferer: the events happen to him as well as to the person he acts on. Hamlet dies with Claudius; their deaths are one action, as the deaths of Agamemnon and Clytemnaestra are not. In Mourning Becomes Electra, such ideas are carried to an extreme. Action is no longer the result of choice and loses all significance; it becomes a stage in some pathological process that ends in death. Orin committed his “heroic” deeds in a kind of trance, in which he saw a blurred face—his own, his father’s?—which he had to kill over and over again. He sees this face again when he looks at Brant whom he has just killed:
Orin: By God, he does look like father!
Lavinia: No. Come along!
Orin (as if talking to himself): This is like my
dream. I’ve killed before—over and over.
Orin: Do you remember me telling you how the
faces of the men I killed came back and
changed to Father’s face and finally became
my own? (He smiles grimly) He looks like
me, too! Maybe I’ve committed suicide....
It’s queer! It’s a rotten dirty joke on
someone! (II, iv)
Thus it is not accidental that O’Neill replaces the murder of Clytemnaestra with the suicide of Christine. The change was not merely due to the setting of the trilogy and the exigencies of the plot; it tells something about O’Neill’s idea of action. In Mourning Becomes Electra a suicidal element is contained in all action; one might almost say that action is suicide. There is a telling ambiguity in the account of Mannon’s death which will illustrate this paradoxical statement. Christine’s plan is easily summarized. Shortly after she hears of Mannon’s imminent return, Christine begins to plan the murder of her husband should it become necessary. She spreads a rumor of his heart disease and chooses what seems a safe way of acquiring the poison with which to do the murder. The confrontation with Lavinia convinces her that the time to act has come. She dispatches Brant to get the poison, and in the night of Mannon’s return she deliberately provokes a heart attack and gives him the poison instead of his medicine. In this outline each step of the action appears to be initiated by a decision on the part of Christine, but this is not the way things happen in the play. Christine never decides to kill Mannon; the encounter with Lavinia rather pushes her into a situation in which she suddenly realizes that her plan has started moving. At first everything works surprisingly smoothly, particularly since it emerges that Mannon’s disease is more serious than he had cared to admit. But Christine had not considered the nature of the victim. The Mannon whom she planned to murder was the man of whom Orin will later say:
Death sits so naturally on you! Death becomes the Mannons! You were always like a statue of an eminent dead man—sitting on a chair in a park or straddling a horse in a town square—looking over the head of life without a sign of recognition—cutting it dead for the impropriety of living! (II, iii)
There is something innocent about Christine’s plan, simply because it had never occurred to her that the man whom she was going to murder was not already “dead.” When Mannon in his awkward fashion tries to remove the barrier between them and reveals that behind his mask he is alive and suffering, Christine realizes with growing dread what her plan really involves. For a moment Mannon has doffed his mask and beneath it she sees a man who in his way loves her deeply. In helpless terror she exclaims:
For God’s sake, stop talking. I don’t know what you’re saying. Leave me alone. What must be, must be! You make me weak! (Then abruptly) It’s getting late. (I, iii)
Mannon, “terribly wounded,” dons his mask and becomes once more a pale ghost: Christine can proceed with her plan. She decides to bring on his heart attack. But at the beginning of the following act we see a timid Christine moving away from her husband’s bed and the scene of the fateful action. Mannon calls back, turns on the light, and insists on talking to her. For the quarrel that develops between them it is important to remember what Christine had earlier said to Brant:
I couldn’t fool him long. He’s a strange, hidden man. His silence always creeps into my thoughts. Even if he never spoke, I would feel what was in his mind and some night, lying beside him, it would drive me mad and I’d have to kill his silence by screaming out the truth! (I, ii)
Something similar is happening now, only it is not Mannon’s silence that drives her toward the murder. Far from pursuing her plan, Christine is persecuted by Mannon’s insinuations and coarse insults until she breaks under the strain: she tells the truth. That this collapse enables her to carry out her plan no longer matters. O’Neill does not say explicitly that Mannon would have died of his heart attack, but he strongly suggests that Christine’s murder is supererogatory. Christine and Mannon tear off one another’s masks and the truth that appears is more deadly than any poison could be. The only certain victim of the poison is Christine herself, for it provides Lavinia with the weapon that will drive Christine into suicide. If one insists on calling Christine’s death premeditated murder, one might just as well argue that Mannon commits suicide. Both arguments assume that every action requires a responsible agent, but that is precisely the assumption which is denied in O’Neill’s trilogy.
Finally, in Aeschylus the form of the trilogy has a meaning: Orestes is the third man in a chain of tragic events. He belongs to the third generation after the original crime of Thyestes; his fate is the third to be decided after the deaths of Agamemnon and Clytemnaestra. As the “third savior” he is unobtrusively compared to Zeus, who is king in the third generation after Ouranos and Kronos. Will he succeed in breaking the chain of crime and retribution? That is the question the Chorus asks with great anxiety at the end of the Choephoroe ; it is answered in the third play, the Eumenides. The three parts of Mourning Becomes Electra, on the other hand, are like the progressive stages of a disease. The form of the trilogy has lost its meaning; Mourning Becomes Electra is really one very long play that does not end until the pathological process has come to an end.
The traditional assumptions about the relationship of Mourning Becomes Electra and the Oresteia, then, should be revised. O’Neill misled himself and his critics by maintaining that the Oresteia was a blueprint for his trilogy. Mourning Becomes Electra significantly departs from the Oresteia, and wherever it does so it goes parallel with Hamlet. The murder of Ezra Mannon follows the poisoning of Hamlet’s father, and the revenge plot based on the secrecy of crime and revenge rather than on the concealment of the avenger’s identity also has Hamlet as its model. Lavinia and Orin are both descended from Hamlet rather than from Electra and Orestes, respectively. The relationship of Hamlet and Ophelia is the pattern for the relations of Peter and Hazel to Lavinia and Orin, and the relationship of Hazel and Christine is strikingly similar to that of Ophelia and Gertrude.
The comparison between Hamlet and Mourning Becomes Electra throws a new light on the “Greekness” of O’Neill’s trilogy. Critics commonly contrast the “happy end” of the Oresteia with the grim pessimism of Mourning and then either condemn O’Neill for his extreme pessimism or—as Roger Asselineau has done recently—praise him for the deeper insight and greater daring with which he carried the story to its bitter end. But the difference is not one of degree or of mood. We have seen that the Oresteia and Mourning Becomes Electra employ entirely different concepts of action. It is simply not true that O’Neill, as he said himself, psychologized Greek fate. For the “fate” that O’Neill considers so typical of Greek tragedy does not exist. There is no evidence that O’Neill’s approach to Greek drama ever freed itself from the critical prejudices that persist even to this day; he saw Greek tragedy through the spectacles of a popular determinism. There is nothing in Mourning Becomes Electra which would suggest that O’Neill ever had an original experience of Greek drama in general, or of the Oresteia in particular. No doubt, he knew Aeschylus’s trilogy well, but he must have read it with a notion, at once very strong and rather vague, of what a Greek tragedy ought to be like. He never penetrated to the Greekness of it; nor was he inspired by it. O’Neill’s trilogy is no more Greek than the house of the Mannons: it only has a Greek facade.
Source: Horst Frenz and Martin Mueller, “More Shakespeare and Less Aeschylus in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra,” in American Literature, 1966, Vol. 38, pp.85−100.
Joseph Wood Krutch
In this favorable review of O’Neill’splay, Krutch appraises the original production o/Mourning Becomes Electra as possessing all the “virtues. . . which one expects in the best contemporary dramatic writing.”
Except for a dinner intermission Eugene O’Neill’s new trilogy, Mourning Becomes Electra (Guild Theater), runs from five o’ clock in the afternoon until about eleven-fifteen in the evening. Seldom if ever has any play received a reception so unreservedly enthusiastic as this one was accorded by the New York newspapers and, to begin with, I can only say that I share the enthusiasm to the full. Here, in the first place, are those virtues—intelligence, insight, and rapid, absorbing action—which one expects in the best contemporary dramatic writing. But here also are a largeness of conception and a more than local or temporary significance which put to rest those doubts which usually arise when one is tempted to attribute a lasting greatness to any play of our generation. O’Neill, though thoroughly “modern,” is not dealing with the accidents of contemporary life. He has managed to give his—I am almost tempted to say “our”—version of a tale which implies something concerning the most permanent aspects of human nature, and it is hard to imagine how the play could lose its interest merely because of those superficial changes which take place from generation to generation. For this reason it may turn out to be the only permanent contribution yet made by the twentieth century to dramatic literature.
As the title suggests, O’Neill’s fable follows, almost incident for incident, the main outlines of the Greek story. Though he has set the action in New England just after the Civil War, his Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon and his Electra persuades Orestes to bring about the death of their common mother. Nor do such changes as are necessarily made in the motivation of the characters so much modify the effect of the story as merely restore that effect by translating the story into terms which we can fully comprehend. It is true that Electra loves her father and that Orestes loves his mother in a fashion which the Greeks either did not understand or, at least, did not specify. It is true also that the play implies that the psychological quirks responsible for the tragedy are the result of a conflict between puritanism and healthy love. But this is merely the way in which we understand such situations, and the fact remains that these things are merely implied, that the implications exist for the sake of the play, not the play for the sake of the implications. It is, moreover, this fact more than any other which indicates something very important in the nature of O’Neill’s achievement.
Hitherto most of our best plays have been—of necessity perhaps—concerned primarily with the exposition and defense of their intellectual or moral or psychological backgrounds. They have been written to demonstrate that it was legitimate to understand or judge men in the new ways characteristic of our time. But O’Neill has succeeded in writing a great play in which a reversal of this emphasis has taken place at last. Because its thesis is taken for granted, it has no thesis. It is no more an exposition or defense of a modern psychological conception than Aeschylus is an exposition or defense of the tenets of the Greek religion, even though it does accept the one as Aeschylus accepts the other. It is on the other hand—and like all supremely great pieces of literature—primarily about the passions and primarily addressed to our interest in them. Once more we have a great play which does not “mean” anything in the sense that the plays of Ibsen or Shaw or Galsworthy usually mean something, but one which does, on the contrary, mean the
“WHAT WE DO IS MERELY TO ACCEPT THESE FABLES AS THOUGH THEY WERE FACTS AND SIT AMAZED BY THE HEIGHT AND THE DEPTH OF HUMAN PASSIONS, BY THE GRANDEUR AND MEANNESS OF HUMAN DEEDS.”
same thing that “Oedipus” and “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” mean—namely, that human beings are great and terrible creatures when they are in the grip of great passions, and that the spectacle of them is not only absorbing but also and at once horrible and cleansing. Nineteenth-century critics of Shakespeare said that his plays were like the facts of nature, and though this statement has no intellectual content it does imply something concerning that attitude which we adopt toward Mourning Becomes Electra as well as toward Shakespeare. Our arguments and our analyses are unimportant as long as we attempt to discover in them the secret of our interest. What we do is merely to accept these fables as though they were facts and sit amazed by the height and the depth of human passions, by the grandeur and meanness of human deeds. Perhaps no one knows exactly what it means to be “purged by pity and terror,” but for that very reason, perhaps, one returns to the phrase.
To find in the play any lack at all one must compare it with the very greatest works of dramatic literature, but when one does compare it with “Hamlet” or “Macbeth” one realizes that it does lack just one thing and that that thing is language—words as thrilling as the action which accompanies them. Take, for example, the scene in which Orin (Orestes) stands beside the bier of his father and apostrophizes the body laid there. No one can deny that the speech is a good one, but what one desires with an almost agonizing desire is something not merely good but something incredibly magnificent, something like “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...” or “I could a tale unfold whose lightest word....” If by some miracle such words could come, the situation would not be unworthy of them. Here is a scenario to which the most soaring eloquence and the most profound poetry are appropriate, and if it were granted us we should be swept aloft as no Anglo-Saxon audience since Shakespeare’s time has had an opportunity to be. But no modern is capable of language really worthy of O’Neill’s play, and the lack of that one thing is the penalty we must pay for living in an age which is not equal to more than prose. Nor is it to be supposed that I make this reservation merely for the purpose of saying that Mr. O’Neill’s play is not so good as the best of Shakespeare; I make it, on the contrary, in order to indicate where one must go in order to find a worthy comparison.
Space is lacking to pay fitting tribute to the production and acting of the play. It must suffice to say that both they and the setting do it justice. Both Nazimova as Christine (Clytemnestra) and Alice Brady as Lavinia (Electra) contribute performances hardly less notable in their own way than the play, and, indeed, everyone concerned in the production may be said to share somewhat in the achievement. Mourning Becomes Electra reads well; when it comes to life on the stage of the Guild Theater it is no less than tremendous.
Source: Joseph Wood Krutch, “Our Electra,” in the Nation, Vol. CXXXIII, no. 3463, November 18, 1931, pp. 551−52.
Richard Dana Skinner
Claiming that the playwright “has at last written a straightforward tragedy of major proportions,” Skinner offers a positive review of the debut production of O ‘Neill’s play.
Eugene O’Neill has at last written a straightforward tragedy of major proportions. For reasons which I shall try to explain later on, it would be lacking in a true sense of proportion to call it a “great” tragedy—in spite of the fact that many of its passages are infused with the true greatness of the tragic spirit, and in spite of the further fact that in structure, in sequence and in rhythm, the three plays composing the trilogy, “Mourning Becomes Electra,” contain, by all odds, the finest dramatic writing of O’Neill’s career.
As to the general character of this ambitious trilogy, it is already widely understood that O’Neill has made the deliberate experiment of transposing the basic legend of several of the most important Greek tragedies into the atmosphere and period of New England immediately after the Civil War. One can see clearly that O’Neill has felt, in the perfect outer form and inner emotional turmoil of New England, the modern counterpart of ancient Greece. Essentially, however, he is not writing a tragedy of New England, but a tragedy of universal proportions expressing one of the oldest psychological problems of the tragic spirit, and merely using terms and circumstances sufficiently close to the present day to give it an immediate and understandable quality for modern audiences.
“Mourning Becomes Electro” is a restatement for our own century of the story of the house of Atreus, of the murder of Agamemnon by his wife, Clytemnestra, of the vengeance wreaked upon her by Agamemnon’s children, Electra and Orestes, and of their further pursuit by the Furies for having committed the sin of matricide. The core of Greek tragedy obviously lay in just such conflicts of obligation. Electra and Orestes were caught between the obligation to avenge their father’s murder and the unspeakable horror of being forced, as part of that vengeance, to kill their own mother, thus piling crime upon crime through generations. The Greeks, always highly objective in their expression of such problems, made their tragic characters chiefly the victims of fate. Revenge was ordered by a god. But, in executing that revenge, another god was offended, and demanded in turn further punishment for the new crime.
O’Neill now restates this classic tragic dilemma, but in a spirit which is far removed from Greek objectivity. He summons up, instead of fate and factious gods, those mysterious inner impulses of the neurotic mind which modern psychologists have attempted to chart and label under the names of various “complexes.” He summons them in terms of a mother’s jealousy of her own daughter, of a son’s jealousy of his father, and of a daughter’s unconscious desire to occupy in the household the triple mental role of wife, mother and sister.
In all fairness to modern psychologists, it should be said that these explanations of tragic motives represent merely one school of thought, and a rather extreme and partly discredited one at that. When a young man shows signs of moral weakness, for example, and is unable to face the independent responsibilities of manhood, the more advanced psychologists are content to say that he is regressing to a childish attitude and to a time when all decisions were made for him and when any rebuffs of the world could soon be forgotten at a mother’s knee. Such a man might easily prefer for a wife the maternal type of woman who mothers him in difficulties, to a more independent type who forces him
“O’NEILL NOW RESTATES THIS CLASSIC TRAGIC DILEMMA, BUT IN A SPIRIT WHICH IS FAR REMOVED FROM GREEK OBJECTIVITY. HE SUMMONS UP, INSTEAD OF FATE AND FACTIOUS GODS, THOSE MYSTERIOUS INNER IMPULSES OF THE NEUROTIC MIND WHICH MODERN PSYCHOLOGISTS HAVE ATTEMPTED TO CHART AND LABEL UNDER THE NAMES OF VARIOUS ‘COMPLEXES.’”
to face responsibilities squarely. He might also resent a domineering father who tried to drive him from his mother’s apron strings. All these weaknesses and hidden resentments might easily result in a neurotic state of mind, in violent excesses of rage and remorse and in a perpetual inner conflict leading to a tragic outcome. The other and older school of psychologists would attribute the same neurotic symptoms to the young man’s unadmitted and abnormal attachment to his own mother and to a definite jealousy of his own father. O’Neill uses the explanations of this latter school to describe the motives for his tragedy. Every one of his main characters is tied to a definite incestuous desire. This is more than evident at each successive stage of the trilogy, even though O’Neill carefully avoids using any of the modern psychological jargon.
Electra (Lavinia Mannon in the play) is doubly moved to avenge her father’s death by the fact of her jealousy of her mother in relation to two men, her dead father and her mother’s lover, who is also a cousin of her father, with many of her father’s personal traits. Again, Orestes (Orin Mannon in the play) seeks in Electra (Lavinia) a substitute for the morbid love of his dead mother, and then, in the horror of his discovery, commits suicide. A dozen such deep and sinister currents of perverted emotion fill the course of the play, logically enough if you once accept the premise of O’Neill’s school of mental analysis, but without any of the subtler modifying influences which a broader and less heavily sexualized interpretation would bring.
O’Neill departs still further from the Greek tradition and feeling in quailing before the possibility of matricide. Lavinia and Orin are content to avenge their father’s death by killing their mother’s lover. Nevertheless, when the shock of his death leads their mother to commit suicide, Orin feels as guilty as if he had killed her. Lavinia does not share this sense of guilt. But when Orin, too, kills himself, then, at last, Lavinia shuts herself up in the house of tragic memories, to expiate through years of silent though proud seclusion, the sins of her family. Symbolically, at least, O’Neill has chosen to end with the theme of the outcast and blind Oedipus, Lavina shutting out the sight of the world and living in it no more.
Essentially, then, “Mourning Becomes Electro.” is not a Greek tragedy except in the bare outlines of the plot. Even the plot avoids the Greek culmination of matricide. The play is utterly modern (though hardly up to date) in its analysis of motives, and as far removed from the Greek spirit as Freud from Aristotle. What we have is a deeply involved story of abnormal desires transmitting themselves bit by bit into a chain of tragic and terrible consequences, into an overwhelming sense of guilt for each character in turn and at last into the lonely expiation and pride of Lavinia—a pride which lets her say “I ask forgiveness of no one. I forgive myself!” In the very height and stature of this pride we fail to discover the rumor of resurrection which alone could lend the note of great lyric tragedy to this dark story. The trilogy is written with restrained intensity, with superb emotional power and with tremendous climactic pace. It holds both emotions and interest with unrelenting firmness. It is a work of greatness in playwriting but it fails to emerge as a great tragedy. It is limited by the proud self-pity of its ending and by that symbolic blindness which does not presage resurrection from the house of the dead.
The Theatre Guild has given a production of extraordinary beauty and austerity to this group of three plays. In selecting Robert Edmond Jones to create the settings, and Alice Brady, Alia Nazimova, Earl Larimore and Thomas Chalmers for the leading parts, the Guild has shown rare aptitude in putting together exactly the qualities of artistry needed to bring the utmost of beauty and distinction from the sinister material of the plays themselves. No matter what one may think of the play material, there can be no question that, as the Guild has mounted it, it becomes one of the most distinguished exhibits we have had in many years of the power of the theatre to create and sustain illusion. The three plays of the trilogy are given in one day, the first play in the afternoon and the second and third in the evening. It might be added, at this point, that O’Neill has abandoned for the purposes of this trilogy the entire bag of theatrical tricks with which he has distorted so many of his plays. There are none of the asides of Strange Interlude, and there are no masks. In consequence, every moment is used to advance the dramatic action without the impediment of theatrical padding. The plays run through swiftly and directly in the writing as well as in the production.
Philip Moeller has directed this trilogy with consummate artistry and finely disciplined restraint. It is easily the best work of his career. The stage settings by Robert Edmond Jones catch the spirit of the plays with extraordinary fidelity. The stage curtain shows the Greek-Colonial facade of the gloomy house of Mannon and shows, more strikingly than any words could possibly explain, what is in O’Neill’s mind—namely, the sense of identity between the spirit of New England and the spirit of Greece. Both the interior and the exterior scenes of the house itself, and the scene of a chipper ship at its dock in Boston, are typical expressions of Mr. Jones’s finest artistry, that is, his ability to combine realism with an overpowering atmosphere of universal suggestion.
But it is the acting cast, after all, which deserves the maximum amount of praise for its complete mastery of one of the most difficult tasks ever assigned to a group of actors. The Lavinia of Alice Brady is one of the truly astonishing figures of the modern theatre. The way in which she manages to convey a torrent of interior emotions through an exterior of calm austerity is an achievement almost without parallel. The part of the mother, as played by Alia Nazimova, is also a performance of unquestioned greatness. Her sea-captain lover is played by Thomas Chalmers with downrightness and clear understanding, and Earl Larimore brings to the part of the weakling, Orin, the full terror of growing insanity.
In general, it is still true that O’Neill exhibits through this trilogy the picture of volcanic emotions violently at war with his intellect. These emotions, which might become his greatest creative gift, still lack utterly the disciplined direction of an informed will. Certainly it is the character of Lavinia who seems to be the creative artist in O’Neill, just as it is the distracted Orin who represents his lack of intellectual stability. There is no question that O’Neill is a true artist, and with true artists it is never possible to separate completely the artist from his work. There is still nothing to indicate that O’Neill, as an artist, has yet achieved that self-mastery which, if once united with his creative power, might easily make him one of the great playwrights of all time. There is too much in this “Electro” trilogy to recall the futile search and the ultimate tragedy of “Dynamo,” and yet—if Lavinia, as a symbol of O’Neill’s power, should ever emerge from her darkened house of the dead, we would unquestionably witness something of astonishing beauty.
Source: Richard Dana Skinner, Review of Mourning Becomes Electra, in the Commonweal, Vol. XV, no. 2, November 11, 1931, pp. 46−47.
Brustein, Robert. “Eugene O’Neill,” in The Theatre of Revolt: An Approach to the Modern Drama, Little, Brown, & Co. 1964, pp. 329–59.
Carpenter, Frederic I. Eugene O’Neill, Twayne Publishers, 1979.
Clark, Barrett H. Eugene O’Neill: The Man and His Plays, Dover, 1947.
De Voto, Bernard. “Minority Report,” in Playwright’s Progress: O ‘Neill and the Critics, edited by Jordan Miller, Scott, Foresman, & Co., 1965, pp. 108–12.
Jensen, George H. “Eugene O’Neill,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 141–63.
Black, Stephen A. Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy, Yale University Press, 1999, 480 p.
A comprehensive, well-documented biography of O’Neill.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Eugene O’Neill Chelsea House, 1988, 183 p.
Collection of critical essays on O’Neill’s work.
Bogart, Travis, ed. Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill, Yale University Press, 1988, 602 p.
O’Neill’s collected letters provide insight into his life and work.
Stroupe, John H., ed. Critical Approaches to O’Neill, AMS Press, 1988.
Comprised of critical essays on O’Neill’s work.