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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 11


Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra:
An Overview of Structural and Thematic Traits

Shanjida K. Boksh, Ph.D. and Shahed Ahmed, Ph.D.
Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Bangladesh

In any discussion of O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, it is inevitable to brood over the Greek mythology because more than an external frame or structure, the myth is intrinsically connected with the meaning of the play. The play is as concerned with the exploration of the condition of man’s existence with Fate as the Greek original was. Fate in O’Neill’s play is in fact a technical device, a frame for the exploration of man’s troubled inner world. Since the modern play largely evokes the same sense of Fate as did the Greek myth, we could say that the meaning of O’Neill’s play is in its technique. The evocation of man’s inner world, the attempt to explore the internal roots and sources of his conscious behavior and existence—all this is familiar territory for most of O’Neill’s plays, and Mourning Becomes Electra could bear incidental thematic comparison with, say, Long Day’s Journey into Night and Desire Under the Elms, for the Life/Anti-Life theme on the one hand, the “rejection of the past theme” on the other. The exploration of man’s inner world, particularized by some private lives, becomes a drama of private tragedy, and places Mourning Becomes Electra, like O’Neill’s other plays, on the one hand in a line stretching as far back as the Elizabethans, and on the other in one of the two major streams of modern drama. This paper will look into four aspects of Mourning Becomes Electra: (i) the Oresteian myth framework and its application and modification (ii) the modern sense of psychological fate which the play evokes (iii) the technique by which the inner world or the unconscious becomes as strong a Fate in the modern play as in the Greek myth (iv) the modern as well as the historical tradition within which the play falls.[1]

The three-part story of Mourning Becomes Electra consisting of “The Home-coming,” “The Hunted,” and “The Haunted” is formally patterned after the Oresteian trilogy first set down by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes, Pindar, and others.[2] But perhaps MBE is closest to Aeschylus’s Oresteia. In Oresteia, Agamemnon, the head of the cursed house of Atreus, goes off to Troy to fight the war, leaving Argos in Clytemnestra’s care. Clytemnestra takes Aegisthius as her lover and rules Argos with him. Agamemnon returns, after having sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, and for this is murdered by Clytemnestra and Aegisthius. Electra, the other daughter, waits for the return of the son, Orestes, who returns and kills Clytemnestra. But his deed haunts him; he is troubled and pursued by the Furies as the Erinyes and wanders disconsolately to be finally cured only when Athena calms the Furies into the Eumenides who in fact, at the end of the play cross the stage gently and close it.

In MBE, the house of Atreus is the Mannon house, Christine is Clytemnestra, Ezra Mannon returning from the war is Agamemnon, Captain Adam Brant is Aegisthius, Lavinia is Electra, and Orin is Orestes. Christine takes Adam Brant as her secret lover in Ezra’s absence, and on Ezra’s return, murders him with Brant’s help. This marks the end of the first section, “The Homecoming” corresponding roughly to Oresteia’s first section, “Agamemnon.” The second section of O’Neill’s play begins with Lavinia waiting for Orin’s return from the civil war to put things right. In the meantime, with the help of the old servant, Seth, she trapped Adam Brant into admitting that he is Ezra’s step-brother, the illegitimate son of a Canadian maid servant by Ezra’s uncle, and that he has actually got involved with Christine to avenge his mother’s death which had been slowly and relentlessly brought on her by the vindictive Mannons. Orin returns, is alternately pulled by Christine who tries to deflect him from Lavinia’s revelations, and by Lavinia who reveals all. Brother and sister follow Christine to Brant’s ship where Orin shoots Brant, Christine kills herself, and the second section, “The Hunted” ends. This, too, parallels the second section of the Oresteia, the “Choephoroa.” In the third and final section of O’Neill’s play, Orin and Lavinia go off on a long sea voyage to China and the Southern Isles. Now Lavinia encourages Orin towards his girlfriend, Hazel, which she had not done before, and she herself encourages Peter whom she had discouraged before. But the Orin-Hazel affair is abruptly broken off by Orin’s growing suspicion of incestuous feelings in himself for Lavinia which in the end he can no longer hide from her. With Lavinia’s repulsion of him at this discourse, Orin shoots himself. Finally, in the love scene with Peter, Lavinia unwittingly finds Adam’s name on her lips, is horrified at its implications, immediately breaks off the affair, and orders the house to be boarded up with her inside; and this marks the end of the third section, “The Damned” and also of the play. In subject matter (internal torment and unrest) if not in final resolution, this section thus echoes the concluding unit of the Oresteia, the “Eumenides.”

The patterning of details after the outline of the Oresteian trilogy is obvious. Like Electra through Orestes, Lavinia through Orin is the vehicle of retribution against Christine (Clytemnestra). Like Orestes, Orin is haunted and his death is like the implicit judgment of the Furies against Orestes. Both Agamemnon and Ezra Mannon are victorious generals returning from war only to find treachery and death at home, and which is for both the beginning of a massive and bloody domestic ruin. As is the contest of East and West in the Greek play, so is the war of North and South in O’Neill’s Civil War trilogy. Like Agamemnon, Ezra returns from war not to find peace but war in a fiercer guise. Moreover, O’Neill’s setting provides ironies as brilliant as the Greek play’s: Ezra having fought for the Union comes home to a household of disunion and discord to a wife who has been plotting how to secede from him, and Christine longs for the imagined paradise of the South while Ezra has been fighting the South, and so on.

There are important departures from Aeschylus in O’Neill’s play, and in these departures lie its full meaning. Examples of such departures at the simplest level would include facts such as the following: Agamemnon is a proud but careless returning hero stabbed to death whereas Ezra is a sick man who asks for medicine and is poisoned to death; whereas Orestes kills Clytemnestra himself, Orin does not actually kill Christine himself, even though he does cause her death; Electra is never the main figure of Aeschylus’s trilogy whereas MBE in a crucial sense concerns Lavinia more than anyone else; the Orin-Hazel, Peter-Lavinia relationships are not there in Aeschylus’s play. More importantly, for Ezra the real and persistent Civil War is not the one in the battlefield but the one in his house—the silent war between himself and his wife and which has put up a wall between them. Christine has always wanted romance, mystery, love, while Ezra’s background has been puritan (“The Homecoming” 481), which schism accentuated by time has made Christine sensual and voluptuous, and Ezra hollow and wooden. The loneliness and separation in both their lives have developed opposite complexes in both. Christine has developed an introverted love for Orin and later for Adam Brant to feed her passion and longing for love, while Ezra has sought refuge in a career of intense extroversion, becoming mayor, judge, general, seeking peace of spirit in the company of crowds. Even at the surface level, these complications on the characters stemming from their own given natures are not there in Aeschylus.

A more basic difference of O’Neill’s play from Aeschylus is in the fact that where Clytemnestra’s hatred and murder of Agamemnon have an immediate cause (the latter’s sacrifice of Iphigenia), Christine’s hatred and murder of Ezra have no such obvious and immediate cause. Actually, the cause is there but hidden. The cause for Christine’s behavior is Ezra himself. It is Ezra’s lovelessness (his “anti-loveness” or “anti-lifeness”), his sterile consciousness which is best summed up by the “Mannon look,” the sick, hollow greyness of spirit which seems to characterize the family. It is this that from the very beginning of their marriage has driven Christine to where she is now (“The Homecoming” 507-08). This is the intellectual center as well as the “moral” of the whole story: Ezra deserves what happens to him.

A still deeper difference of MBE from Oresteia is the fact that Ezra Mannon’s “lovelessness” is shown to be the product of a quarrel going back one generation—the quarrel between Ezra’s father, Abe, and Ezra’s uncle, David over the latter’s passion for the Canadian servant girl, Mary Brantome.[3] In anger as well as in jealousy, Abe had David Mannon thrown out of the house and disinherited, and built the present house for his family. David and Mary had lived and died in penury, leaving their son, Adam Brant, embittered and revengeful (Seth’s conversation with Lavinia) (“The Homecoming” 471). The hate stemming from that incident had built this house and had subsequently transformed the family. Ezra’s sterile temperament is an infectious product of the earlier hate, as also are the perverted behaviors and desires of the other major characters. Because Christine hates Ezra,she also hates his child, Lavinia, which is an extension of her war with her husband. Conversely, and as a result, Lavinia has developed an obsession for her father and in turn, comes to embody his stern and stoical military temperament and his anti-love, anti-life nature, which is the opposite of her mother’s near-manic “love of love.” Thus, Christine’s obsessive hatred of her husband has produced repression in the daughter (stage directions describing Lavinia and Christine).[4]

Psychological aberrations in the characters due to antecedent familial causes are in fact part of the whole incest motif, and which is the single biggest departure of O’Neill’s play from Aeschylus’s.[5] Incest shadows the lives of all the major characters in MBE. Christine sees Orin as a love-substitute for her husband. She says to Lavinia: “Well, I hope you realize I never would have fallen in love with Adam if I’d hadOrin with me. When he had gone there was nothing left” (“The Homecoming” 482). Lavinia’s obsession with her father tends to the extent of rivaling or substituting Christine’s place with him (or even the other way round, because she hates her mother she wants to be the wife to her father). Orin has incestuous feelings for Lavinia when towards the end of the trilogy she becomes Christine like. Adam is attracted to both Christine and Lavinia because to him they look like his mother (“The Homecoming” 473), and Lavinia is secretly attracted to Adam, who is her mother’s boyfriend and hence a sort of father figure to her, because of an unconscious desire to supplant her mother sexually. Incest is the psychological fate with which all the characters are cursed and by which they are doomed. Incest here is what the Furies were in Aeschylus—avenging Fate.

Clearly, both Aeschylus and O’Neill describe the history of a chain of crime and punishment. In both plays the factors are shown to be so predisposed that crime continues to be committed under the pretext of justice which Normand Berlin calls “psychological determinism” (Berlin Three Plays 54) and new crimes call for new punishment, and retribution demands retribution. But to the question—can this spiraling malevolence in no way be halted—where Aeschylusanswers positively, through Law, Piety, and Reason (The Nation 551-67), O’Neill’s answer is negative. Because Orin sees no way to halt the malevolence and perversion within which they are all inextricably bound, he commits suicide. Even though Lavinia attempts to escape the psychological deformities of her family’s past by reviving the affair with Peter (in which it is clear she has no real commitment), in the end she acknowledges the emotional aberrations within her as her destiny and volunteers herself as her own punisher. Thus, where Aeschylus is implicitly optimistic, O’Neill is starkly pessimistic. Man’s troubles, his inherently poisoned nature and inner sickness, are far too deeply ingrained to be put right by his own acknowledged resources. Hence, Shaughnessy claims, in MBE, “the characters are apparently denied redemption” (Shaughnessy 103). In other words, O’Neill’s play suggests that the whole gamut of contemporary life is too disposed to perversion and criminality and hence doomed to degeneration and bloody extinction. O’Neill’s prospective revengers, for instance, are themselves inwardly warped and mutilated long before they face the challenge of dealing out retribution. They themselves have an illness of spirit, unlike their pure, uncorrupted Greek counterparts. They are not detached spectators able to formulate nobly unselfish resolves of vengeance because they are themselves bound organically within the same ills that they are trying to eradicate.

This fate of O’Neillian man, this inner sickness which in this case happens to be psychological mutilation in the shape of incest may also be seen to have Christian implications as Roy Batten house has shown (Törnqvist 40-41). Abe and David Mannon’s quarrel may be the original evil, and all that has happened since, its retributive corrupting influence. Evil has spread to Abe’s descendants and in turn corrupted them (Ezra, Lavinia, Orin), and to David’s progeny, Adam, and corrupted him too. Both descendants seek revenge, so that from the original evil incident natures have become warped and unnaturalness, and carnage let loose in the world. The David-Abe quarrel over Mary was the Original Sin and what happened to their descendants, the punishment. Also, Adam is David Mannon and MaryBrantome’s son: he is the false savior to whom both women (Christine and Lavinia) are attracted.

For O’Neill, psychological polarities are always more important and these may also be seen to be built into the religious configurations and supplementing them. Thus, the mother-daughter split may be seen as the war of flesh against spirit (Christine), and the war of spirit against flesh (Lavinia), or the war of Hebrewism (Ezra, Lavinia) against Hellenism (Christine, Mary), or simply the war of Puritanism against Romanticism. The description of the house (“Homecoming” stage direction Act I) which Lavinia and Christine respectively call “home” and “tomb” would conceivably follow this scheme of the Puritanic warring against the Romantic, or of repressive Hebrewism warring against life-giving Hellenism. This last polarity, that of Romanticism and Puritanism, may also make MBE a typical American tragedy as these would be the two most contrary streams that divide the Mannon family as it had in some respects divided American history in the antebellum era. Mark Maufort thinks O’Neill revisits Melville’s Typee through his depiction of the contrasting figures of Brant and Lavinia where the former represents Rousseauistic ideals and the latter epitomizes the sexual repression of New England Puritanism (Maufort 88-89). Also, the Civil War has been depicted by historians as a cultural confrontation between “Yankee and Cavalier,” the stern citizen and the debonair hedonist, the energetic merchant and productive manufacturer in the North in opposition to the lazy plantation owner and his leisure-class pretentions in the South. While Ezra and Christine express these vying temperaments, the son Orin and the daughter Lavinia vacillate from one to the other, each feeling the romantic impulse to love and escape, and also the duty to see justice done even if mingled with revenge (Diggins 213-14).

The complicated antecedent causes, stemming from an incident in the long forgotten past and continuing into the future despite everyone’s efforts to the contrary, do take on the ramifications of as powerful a Fate as is evoked in the Greek trilogy, and they do make the characters appear as convincingly in the grip of universal forces as are the characters in the Greek originals. Specifically in O’Neill, Fate is psychological mutilation, or from the Christian perspective, diseased and perverted nature due to some original sin of the past, or simply, the characters’ past and unconscious. Joel Pfister and James Robinson thus views that O’Neill’s determinism was in large part itself determined by the Greek tragedians, Freud, and early twentieth century American culture all of which figured the family as a form of Fate (Pfister 20-30; Robinson). In other words, in place of a supernatural or other-worldly order O’Neill has used philosophical or “psychological determinism.”

To show how important the idea of a psychological determinism plays part in his plays, O’Neill himself made clear in several statements he made about his drama. In 1925, in the unpublished “Author’s Foreword” to GGB, he said: “If we have no heroes to portray, we have the subconscious, the mother of Gods and heroes” (Winther 178-85). By using the subconscious, O’Neill could not only eliminate the contrast between ancient religious tragedy and modern secular tragedy, by it he could create as internal fate as powerful and as mysterious as a hidden god. “In short the idea of the unconscious made possible the writing of tragedy in a godless age” (Winther 178-85). One of the first questions O’Neill asked when he searched for a modern manner for treating the Electra story: “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 by no belief in gods or supernatural retribution could accept or be moved by” (Winther 194)? In other words, he wondered what could substitute the old god or supernatural order. The answer he provided through his play, MBE, and which is the modern substitute for the Greek sense of Fate (or supernatural or otherworldly order), is determinism. In this he was largely right since no modern audience would accept supernatural retribution. With the Fates, Furies, and Gods dead, the heavy burden of responsibility which the Fates could handle in the Electra theme was through the subtler psychological means. The determining god must be a psychological one—the unconscious. The characters must be interpreted by modern science in the light of a psychological fate which would be as real as the primitive Greek fate: “The unavoidable entire melodramatic action must be felt as the working out of psychic fate from past—thereby attain tragic significance—or else—a hell of a problem, a modern tragic interpretation of classic fate without benefits of gods—it must, before everything else, remain modern psychological play—fate springing out of family” (Winther 180). Because the workings of this psychological fate are more complex than that of the Greek fate, modern science must explain all of them very clearly for the psychological fate to be as overwhelmingly convincing as Greek fate. Perhaps, this is why MBE is over schematic in its depiction of psychological polarities.

In MBE, instead of having Fate or supernatural powers as the cause of Orin’s behavior, O’Neill has something psychologically as explicit as “Puritan conviction of man born to sin” (stage directions to “The Homecoming”), just as he has for Ezra’s barren temperament the similarly precise psychological explanation, “sexual frustration by his Puritanic sense of guilt turning love to lust” (stage directions to “The Homecoming”). Every detail of the play is built around this principle of psychological fate. Lavinia says to Seth: “there’s no rest in this house which grandfather built as a temple of Hate and Death” (“The Hunted” 5), and Seth says to Lavinia: “there’s evil in that house since it was first built in hate—and it’s kept growing there ever since” (“The Hunted” 10). Thus, it isn’t a supernatural power but rather love, hate, jealousy, a puritanic conscience, etc. are the moving factors behind the construction of the Mannon house and the main events of the play. The motivating forces are all inward and psychological. To avoid giving responsibility to the characters’ behavior to capricious gods, and to make the audience realize that there are sufficient human reasons for their behavior, the family’s history is recounted deterministically to make their story convincing to a modern audience. As O’Neill put it: “When the play is over, all the characters are accounted, in that every action is explained in relation to physical, psychological, and social forces” (Törnqvist 14). In these terms, MBE is a successful rendering of “modern psychological approximation of the Greek sense of Fate” which here is determinism.

The most comprehensive statement O’Neill made about his aims and objectives in his drama is perhaps the one contained in the letter he wrote to AH Quin in 1925. In it he said his ambition was:

To see the transfiguring nobility of tragedy in as near the Greek sense as one can graspit, in seemingly the most debased lives ... I am always trying to interpret Life in terms of lives, never just in terms of character. I am always acutely conscious of the Force behind—Fate, God, our biological past creating our present, whatever one calls it—Mystery certainly—and of the eternal tragedy of Man in his glorious self-destructive struggle to make the Force express him instead of being, as an animal is, an infinitesimal incident in its expression. And my profound conviction is that this is the only subject worth writing about and that it is possible—or can be—to develop a tragic expression in terms of transfigured modern values and symbols in the theatre which may to some degree bring home to members of a modern audience, their ennobling identity with the tragic figures on the stage.[6]

MBE reflects these aims thematically as well as structurally.

There are three structural devices in the play which show how O’Neill attempted to bring about what he said he wanted. The first is the emblem of motif, used repetitively to bring up the same idea or incident in endless variation. The second is the play’s extreme length, a structural feature that MBE shares with most of O’Neill’s later plays (SI, LDJN, IC). The third is the mask, a typical O’Neill-ian device, used pointedly and repeatedly. The first two devices—the structurally and thematically repetitive emblem or motif and the extreme length—have a connection and can be considered together. A large part of MBE is repetitive which is noticeable particularly because of the play’s extreme length. Thematic repetitiveness is chiefly evident in the proliferation of incestuous impulses in the characters’ interactions. Some examples which we have already noted would include: Christine’s attachment to Orin as a substitute for her husband; Lavinia’s attachment to her father in an attempt to supplant her mother’s role with her father; Adam Brant’s attachment to Christine despite the fact that he is her husband’s cousin; and most importantly, Adam’s and Lavinia’s attraction for each other despite Adam being to her mother’s lover and so a father-substitute, and she being to Adam his lover’s daughter and so a daughter substitute (Törnqvist 21). The incest motif as the central background to all the similarly developed and aborted relationships serves as a figure, and by its repetition attempts to expose and stress the same condition which makes up modern existence for all mankind, “the dark, inscrutable forces behind life.”

Structural repetition, through similar developments and treatment of similar incidents and situations, also attempts to re-administer the same note relentlessly in larger and smaller doses building up a subtle narcotic effect and attempting to inculcate in the audience the ingrained horror and frenzy that is to lead to the merging of the individual with the Life Force. As O’Neill himself described it: “Repetition of the same scene—in its essential spirit, sometimes even in its exact words but between different characters—following plays as development of fate-theme demands this repetition.”[7] The repetition serves, in other words, to give a mystical sense of universality and inscrutability. This is manifest in the fact that the three sections of O’Neill’s trilogy repeat essentially the same situation and incident but on a slightly higher pitch each time. In the first section, Lavinia and Christine are both waiting for Ezra, but for opposite reasons. Lavinia’s world has been put wrong by Christine ever since Ezra had gone—by her unlovingness towards her family, and by her illicit love affair with Adam Brant. Lavinia hopes to put it right (that is, escape this wrong world, or escape this fate or fight this fate), with the help of Ezra. Christine’s life with Ezra was abnormal and unloving (because of Ezra), and she has put it right by and struck the path of personal happiness through her affair with Adam. Now, that is threatened by Ezra’s return which may mean a return of her old fate of unlovingness. She hopes to cling to her righted world, that is fight her old fate, either by disposing of him in some way—murder. Ezra is the root cause through whom the “curse,” the “fate” of the Mannons goes back into ancestral legend and becomes a vague, relentless, menacing god. The Mannon curse is the crime of lovelessness, of emotional and psychological sterility, the inability to have feelings of love. Ezra, in the early years of his marriage, had, by his own spiritual barrenness, induced a sterile lovelessness in his wife, who initially had been very loving. But since then, in the Mexican war and in the Civil war, he has repented: he has realized his “curse,” and come home determined to fight it. By now, the circle has turned full. His wife has become hopelessly unloving who rebuffs him, and eventually murders him.

The second section, “The Hunted,” repeats the pattern of the first section, but on a higher key. Lavinia and Christine are both again waiting apprehensively, this time for Orin. Lavinia, in the previous section, had hoped to put her world right by Ezra’a help and fight the wrong fate she saw descending on the house. But Ezra got killed. So now her world is more threatened, and she needs Orin even more than she had needed Ezra to put it right. Similarly, Christine’s recently acquired world of life-giving forces, her love affair, is again threatened: Lavinia possesses evidence of her guilt and with Orin’s help will use it against her. So she waits for Orin even more tensely than she had waited for Ezra in the first section. But things have gone too far. Orin is not to be deflected from his course of vengeance and in short order puts paid to both Christine’s and her lover’s plans. In the third section, Lavinia and Orin, having put their world right, try to resume “normal,” healthy life, only to find that the aberration and the abnormality are now within them. This terminal realization is the cue of their own, last response to their “curse:” their self-extinctions. Thus, the pattern of struggle which the characters enact in each section against their respective “fates,” is the same. Only, the struggle is a little more desperate and intense each time. The stakes are progressively higher and the characters more hopelessly involved each time. This repetition stresses the solipsistic, cyclic order of the characters’ lives, the sense of their lives being a recurring pattern of despair from which there is no escape and within which they are all bound by differently moving time.

In a sense, the use of masks—the “Mannon look”—has the same objective as the technique of structural and thematic repetition: to bring up the idea of man(as opposed to particular human beings, the idea of “Life” and not lives), in the grip of universal forces. The idea of sameness which the repeated use of the Mannon look (mainly in the stage directions) tries to convey, is a way of typifying generalized man. The Mannon look running through successive generations of the family is really the face of all mankind; the Mannon family is life in micro-dimensions. The use of the mask is also a way of objectifying psychological fate and showing how man is trapped by it. The Mannon exterior is their punishment: this is what they areall doomed to be. Beneath the Mannon face, though, the human face quivers occasionally before disappearing forever.

An additional feature of the structure which is related to the inexorableness of the play’s sense of fate is the ending. As Lavinia goes into the house at the end of the final section, ordering Seth to nail up the door and windows from the outside and asking him to tell “Hannah to throw away the flowers,” there is a terrible sense of finality.[8] In Lavinia, the last member of the family carrying the Mannon “curse,” being buried alive, is the curse being buried alive—exactly the effect of something evil and leprous being buried in the earth. This suggestion of a conclusive finality is a point of departure of MBE from O’Neill’s other plays, which are mostly inconclusive. In Lavinia, the woman, being buried alive, the physical source of the regenerative power of human life is also being buried alive. Considered in such terms, the trilogy’s ending amounts to the most blatantly pessimistic judgment on humanity that O’Neill has so far attempted in his career.

Yet another structural feature that contributes to the generalized inevitability of the play’s sense of fate is the minor characters. They are semi-choric figures who represent the outside world that watches the inner world of the play even as it mirrors the deficiencies and blindness of that inner world. Although like us they are always looking in and at the house, and occasionally informing us about and commenting on the plot, they have the same traits as the characters they are observing. The lower characters’ weakness for liquor is paralleled by Adam Brant’s, their lasciviousness by Orin’s and Ezra’s. Lavinia shows the same prudishness and hatred of Christine as Louisa and Emma. Minnie, like Christine, is a foreigner to the neighbourhood. Although O’Neill said that the choruses “represent the world outside which always sees without really understanding,” and which is really so since in their conversations the lower characters are always mistaking appearance for reality, yet even in this they parallel the Mannons: Ezra and Orin are fooled by Christine, Christine and Adam believe murder will set them free, and Lavinia does not realize her own internal aberration until the very end. In sum, thus, the minor characters, in their lower spheres, help universalize the implications of the Mannon drama.

Thematically, MBE merits comparison with DUE because one of the central polarities in both DUE and MBE is between the forces of Life and Anti-Life or between Eros and Thanatos. In MBE, it was the Anti-Life spirit in Abe which had thrown David and Mary out, torn down the house, and rebuilt the present one. The house itself shows this with the white, Hellenic, life-suggesting columns of the house contrasting with the somber, sickly, anti-life greyness of the walls of the house itself. A similarly symbolic contrast is afforded between the grey walls of the house and the luxuriant green of the trees surrounding it. Significantly, that this visual polarity is maintained, the action is so arranged that the house remains in the forefront of our vision for most of the play. Similarly, in DUE, the Cabot farmhouse is sickly grayish and stony, suggestive of anti-life and a puritan equivalent of the Mannon residence, while the green of the elms is the vegetative, life affirming force denied in the house since the death of Eban’s mother. Ephraim’s two wives represent life and nature thwarted as do most of the women in the play, most obviously Abbie. The difference from MBE is of course the victory of the life force in some measure in Abbie’s and Eban’s recognition of true feelings for each other, whereas in MBE it is the force of anti-life that wins, manifest finally in Lavinia’s permanent self-incarceration.

A similar comparison can be made between MBE and LDJN, in terms of the “rejection of the past” theme. In an obvious sense, the Mannon story is an attempt to escape the past. Christine’s murder of Ezra, Lavinia’s and Orin’s pursuit and persecution of Adam and Christine, Lavinia’s encouragement of Peter, and even finally Lavinia’s self-entombment—these can all be seen as a series of failed flights from the past. LDJN is also an obvious journey to escape a past that is unhappy and tragic. This is the cause and motivation of Mary’s addiction, Jamie’s alcoholism, Edmund’s illness, and James’s stinginess and thwarted dreams. But the journey is into night, into despair, the past overwhelms the characters. Like MBE, the ending of LDJN is negative. Another similarity of LDJN with MBE is its similarly cyclical theme: long day’s journey into night, followed by endless repetition of the same every day. This conveys the same sense as in MBE of an inexorable fate from which there is no escape, the feeling that “the past is the present.” In both plays such feelings are reinforced by structural and thematic repetitiveness. In all three plays—MBE, DUE, and LDJN—the nucleus of the action is the family: the Cabots in DUE, the Mannons in MBE, and the Tyrones in LDJN. In all three plays the family is the metaphoric nucleus of O’Neill’s tragic universe.MBE ranks third, in matter of importance, in O’Neill’s dramatic canon, after LDJN and the IC, and hence critics and scholars today consider it a decisive achievement in his winning the Nobel Prize in 1936. “The universal appeal of the trilogy lies,” according to Virginia Floyd, “not in its technical brilliance but in its majestic ability to show, in a moving dramatic story, characters driven inexplicably to their unavoidable tragic destinies by uncontrollable forces—family fate acting upon human passions” (Floyd 405).

MBE is the story of the Mannon’s private tragedy. Generically, the play falls in the tradition of dramas of personal tragedy which can be seen to descend from Arden of Feversham (1592), Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness (1607), Nicholas Rowe’s Jane Shore (1714), George Lillo’s The London Merchant (1714), and from the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Normand Berlin, however, views that like the Oresteia trilogy and Hamlet, the plays which were “most internalised by O’Neill,” MBE has “revenge as the main theme” (Berlin O’Neill’s Shakespeare 103). If we consider modern drama to fall in one of two broad streams: political drama such as that which Bernard Shaw, Clifford Odets, Bertolt Brecht, John Osborne, Edward Bond write; and psychological, artistic, and private drama such as that which Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams or Tom Stoppard write,then O’Neill’s place in the latter stream is obvious. In its concern with the inner world, with the unconscious, MBE has thematic similarities with the plays of Pinter (The Homecoming, Old Times), and Beckett (Endgame, Waiting for Godot). If one sees the death in MBE as results of the characters’ struggle with their pasts, their unconscious, with themselves, and if one remembers Mack Maynard’s memorable observation about the tragic hero (in Hamlet) being slain not just in the field of battle but also in the battle with himself (Maynard 60), then it might be possible to see how O’Neill’s MBE shares with Hamlet, and other great drama of this genre, profound echoes of the essential human condition.


[1] Abbreviations:
MBEMourning Becomes Electra; DUEDesire Under the Elms; GGBThe Great God Brown; LDJNLong Day’s Journey into Night; ICThe Iceman Cometh; SIStrange Interlude.

[2] See The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature edited by Sir Paul Harvey, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1969, and PW Harsh’s A Handbook of Classical Drama, Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press, 1977; see the discussion of O’Neill’s distance from his sources in O’Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by John Gassner, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall Inc., 1964, 81-2.

[3] This is a difference of MBE from the Oresteia, not from the more elaborate pre-Homeric legendary material that describes the internecine hereditary war with which Pelops’ children are cursed for his treacherous murder of Myrtilus, Oenomaus’s chariot driver. See the article under “Pelops” in Harvey 311. Although the Oresteia may have been meant to allude to this larger material, and although O’Neill may have both known that and consulted that material, he shows the effects of antecedent causes in the characters’ lives in different terms. In neither the Oresteia nor the pre-Homeric material, is the curse on Pelop’s children of a specifically psychological nature.

[4] Lavinia’s favourite words are “duty” and “justice,” while Christine’s are “love,” “peace” and “happiness”: which in fact characterize them. “The Homecoming,” 462-63.

[5] The only instance of incest in the Greek material pertaining to the house of Atreus is not in the Oresteia, but in the pre-Homeric legend of Pelops. Thyestes’s fathering of Aegesthius through his own daughter, Pelopia, Harvey, 311.

[6] Actually, Adam and Lavinia are attracted to each other precisely because, to him she looks like his mother and is for him his mother incarnate (“The Homecoming” 473), and to her he embodies the “Mannon look.”

[7] See the last scene of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard for comparison.

[8] If we say that the minor characters represent the normative level of the play as opposed to the thematic level of the play which the Mannons in center ground represent, then, it is possible to see more clearly O’Neill’s technique of naturalistic expressionism (here meaning quite simply, naturalism plus expressionism). The minor characters are very detailed in characterization—in accent, dialect, mannerism and they perfectly capture the provincialism and parochialism of New England. Yet, they are also instrumental in conveying the essence of a universal theme in the Mannon story. Thus, they are realistic, provincial and parochial New England characters at the same as they help us watch a timeless, classical theme.


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