O'NEILL AS SETH IN MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA
[As a guidance counselor at John Jay High School in Katonah, NY, where a ten-week honors-level course entitled "Eugene O'Neill" is offered, I elected in the spring of 1983 to return to the classroom along with my students. It was there, under the enthusiastic direction of J. Randolph Harris, who developed and taught the course, that I began to understand why teenagers at my school were fascinated by the plays of Eugene O'Neill. This article, part of a larger paper on the play, is a small tribute to the quality of the teaching I was fortunate enough to experience. --J. McQ.]
Seth Beckwith's seemingly unimportant role as the Mannon gardener in Mourning Becomes Electra is deceiving. Typically, because he is not in any way the central focus of the play's action, and because his speaking parts are relatively few, he would be considered a minor character. But it is Seth who plants the seed of Adam's true identity in Lavinia's scheming mind. ("Ain't you noticed this Brant reminds you of someone in looks? He ain't only like your Paw. He's like Orin, too--and all the Mannons I've known.") He is the singular chorus who often sets the mood, establishes the tone, and signals the action of the play with the haunting, mournful strains of the one sea chanty in his repertoire, "Shenandoah."
When Seth joins his friends, Amos Ames, Louisa, Minnie, Small, Silva and Mackel, he becomes very likeable. The result of the union is comic relief in the play. They gossip, drink, sing, tease, bet, enjoy each other. They provide rare moments in the play--moments to savor in the midst of murder, suicide, guilt and punishment. In a very local, "down-home" way they have fun together and one can have fun through them. ("God A'mighty, ye'd ought to see Abner! He's shying' at the furniture covers an' his teeth are clickin' a'ready. He'll come runnin' out hell fur leather afore long. All I'm wonderin' is, has he got ten dollars.") Seth has a rare knack for dialogue--rare for a gardener!
Seth and his friends evoke such autobiographical elements in the life of O'Neill that to separate them from the playwright seems tantamount to separating the skin from the body. O'Neill spent a part of his early life at sea; sea chanties were not unfamiliar to him. He spent a large part of his early life in bars; drunken, "lost" men were a focal point in his life. He understood them and wrote about them, particularly in The Iceman Cometh. He captured their language, seemed to identify with their lost hopes. He may have been more "at home" with them than the casual reader might expect. I suspect that he was. I suspect he stood a bit above Seth's friends, and so did Seth in Mourning Becomes Electra. Because of my suspicion, I would like to propose that Eugene O'Neill wrote himself into the play in the character of Seth Beckwith.
Interesting in this context is a comment of Somerset Maugham's in The Summing Up:
Seth's is the first voice in the play. He not only opens it with the singing of "Shenandoah"; he has the first speaking part, a comment on himself. ("How's that fur singin' fur an old feller? I used to be noted for my sea chanties.") It is very possible that O'Neill had himself in mind--old feller that he had become--to introduce a tale of familiar themes, with a doleful song of the sea. What model, other than himself, did he have in mind to set the scene, begin the story, focus audience attention? If it was to be a simple gardener, what "definite person" could it be? Is it not true that O'Neill helped his father garden in Long Day's Journey Into Night? Does he, almost immediately in the play, give himself away?
Seth issues the warning to Lavinia--"There's
somethin' been on my mind I want to warn you about"--which is the
introduction to the play's narrative. He takes special pride in the
warning, almost tipping the scales that he is more than an ordinary
gardener; he knows a family secret. ("Sometin I cal'late no one'd
notice 'specially 'ceptin' me.") O'Neill gives Seth the knowledge
which is pivotal to the play itself. Why did he use a gardener who
sings chanties to reveal the secret around which the play is based?
What "actual model" did O'Neill use other than himself to begin the
story plot? Is it not true that O'Neill created the story? Why,
then, since he alone invented the secret, did he not choose, in the
character of Seth, to reveal it? Is it not true that the O'Neill
family had a secret, that of Ella O'Neill's morphine
addiction? Is it not also true that Eugene O'Neill chose to
reveal the secret to the world in Long Day's Journey Into Night?
Revealing secrets, getting ghosts out of closets was seemingly
important to him. Why not consider the possibility that Seth.
O'Neill's creation. is O'Neill himself?
E. M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, discusses a character's reality in the following way:
I believe with others that O'Neill was a master at making his characters real. The evidence is purely circumstantial, but there is evidence in the play that he. Eugene O'Neill, speaks through. is, Seth Beckwith. When Seth is not present he uses his own voice and "sings" through Seth's song. That seems no accident, no slip of O'Neill's pen.
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