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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XII, No. 3
Winter, 1988


(IN THIS ISSUE)

WHAT'S IN A NAME? THE SIGNIFICANCE OF
"MANNON" IN MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA

In a memo written in his work diary during early work on Mourning Becomes Electra at Cap d'Ail, France, Eugene O'Neill gave himself these instructions on the subject of names in the American trilogy he was basing on Aeschylus' Oresteia:

Names of characters--use characteristic names with some similarity to Greek ones--for main characters at least--but don't strain after this and make it a stunt--no real importance, only convenience in picking--right names always tough job.1

There follows a list of the names of the major Greek characters in the Oresteia legend, with possible American equivalents, including those actually used in the final draft of the play.

O'Neill's suggestions that the names chosen would have "no real importance" besides reminding us of their Greek originals and that his only criterion for selection would be "convenience in picking" appear to preclude seeking any deep meaning in the names of Mourning Becomes Electra. But in a perceptive study of the significance of character names in O'Neill's work, Egil Törnqvist has shown that the question is more complicated than O'Neill's words would indicate.2 He points out that in writing Mourning Becomes Electra, O'Neill was in search of "characteristic names" like the Greek ones, a phrase Törnqvist analyzes in this way:

By "characteristic" O'Neill must have meant: (1) recognizable as New England names of the 1860's; (2) indicative of the mental qualities of the bearers (369).

Törnqvist then examines the first names of the characters in Mourning Becomes Electra to show that they are "characteristic" in both of his senses, thus proving that we must be wary of O'Neill's assertion that names in the trilogy will have no real importance, and attentive to his concern with finding the right names for his characters.

But Törnqvist makes no attempt to explain the significance of the surname Mannon. He gives his apparent reason earlier in the article:

If surnames usually carry less significant meanings than Christian names [in drama], there is a good reason for it. Unless the surname is given but to one character in the play, its meaning must be reasonably compatible with all who share it or else seem insignificant (363).3

Perhaps Törnqvist looks for no special significance in Mannon because some who bear the name in the trilogy--e.g., Ezra, Christine, and Orin--seem temperamentally disparate, i.e., are divergent in 'mental qualities." But O'Neill portrays all the members of this family as bound together by a common psychological fate symbolized by the "Mannon look" which all of the family wear. As Amos Ames says of Christine's strange look in "Homecoming":

Secret lookin'--'s as if it was a mask she'd put on. That's the Mannon look. They all has it. They Prow it on their wives....They don't want people to guess their secrets.4

And at the end of "The Haunted," Lavinia, in her own words the last Mannon, includes Christine and Orin in her reckoning of the guilty Mannon dead for whom she must atone for the rest of her life (178). On their faces and in their souls, the Mannons bear the same terrible stamp, and it is worth asking if the family name in any way reflects the fact.

Any analysis of the meaning of Mannon must begin with Ezra Mannon, the family patriarch whose name is O'Neill's imitation of the Greek Agamemnon, the name of the king of Argos in the Oresteia. It is well known that Aga-mennon means "the very-steadfast," signifying particularly the Greek hero's prowess in defensive battle. There is clear evidence in "The Hunted" that O'Neill was quite aware of this fact, for he has Orin say this of his father, Ezra Mannon, the Agamemnon of Mourning Becomes Electra:

Do you know his nickname in the army? Old Stick--short for Stick-in-the-Mud. Grant himself started it--said Father was no good on an offensive but he'd trust him to stick in the mud and hold a position till hell froze over (94).

Like Agamemnon, Ezra Mannon is steadfast, so we can see that on one level Mannon is a pun on -mennon, "steadfast." This epithet is applicable to the entire family since they all persist in their tragic destiny even when, like Ezra (who returns from the war seeking a new loving relationship with his wife), Christine (who fights assimilation to the Mannon ways), and Lavinia (who tries to escape both the Mannon name and fate through marriage to Peter Niles), they attempt to repudiate the hateful Mannon legacy. Here, then, is evidence that thg Mannon family name signifies that the Mannons are "steadfast" in their collective doom.5

-- Richard F. Moorton

NOTES

1P. 531 in "Working Notes and Extracts from a Fragmentary Work Diary," pp. 530-536 in European Theories of the Drama, ed. Barrett H. Clark (2nd ed. New York: Crown, 1947); originally published as "O'Neill's Own Story of 'Electra' in the Making," New York Herald Tribune, Nov. 3, 1931.

2Egil Törnqvist, "Personal Nomenclature in the Plays of O'Neill," Modern Drama, 8:4 (Feb. 1966), 362-373. Subsequent citations will be included parenthetically in the text.

3Törnqvist observes that usually a particular significant surname is given to only one character in a play, or is significant for only one of those to whom it is given. However, he does consider certain surnames in O'Neill significant for more than one character, such as that of Captain and Mrs. Keeney in Ile (365), the Harfords and the Melodys in the cycle plays, especially the completed A Touch of the Poet (372), and Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten (372-373).

4The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, II (New York: Modern Library, 1982), 9. Subsequent citations will be included parenthetically in the text.

5In O'Neill, Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1973), Louis Sheaffer points out that Mannon is also a pun on Mammon which is intended to emphasize the fact that the family is the richest in town (338).

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