Mourning Becomes Electra As a Modern Tragedy

Eugene Gladstone O’Neill is one of the greatest American playwrights, he is known for plays such as “Long Day’s Journey into Night” ,”Beyond the Horizon” (1920), “Anna Christie” (1922), “Strange Interlude” (1928), “Mourning Becomes Electra”(1931)and The Iceman Cometh (1946). His plays probe the American Dream, race relations, class conflicts, sexuality, human aspirations and psychoanalysis. He often became immersed in the modernist movements of his time as he primarily sought to create “modern American drama” that would rival the great works of European modernists such as Ibsen, Strindberg and G.
B. Shaw. O’Neill was a great admirer of classical theatre and as a young man he had read Friedrich Nietzsche’s work about the origin of Greek tragedy, in consequence he was very familiar with the subject and the techniques of representation. The ideas of the German critique and philosopher guided his dramatic works, in which he manifested the ability to adapt the defining characteristics of the classical tragedy to a modern script and audience.
Thus, it is not surprising that we encounter God Dionysus in “Lazarus Laughed” (1928) or an adaptation of Oedipus’ character in “Desire Under the Elms(1924). As for “Mourning Becomes Electra” (1931), O’Neill explores Greek tragedy, attempting to modernize it. The play is based on Aeschylus’s trilogy The Oresteia (though it is closer to Sophocles’ Electra than to Aeschylus’ plays). In a 1931 letter to drama critic Brooks Atkinson, O’Neill wrote, “Greek criticism is as remote from us as the art it criticizes.

What we need is a definition of Modern and not Classical Tragedy by which to guide our judgments” (Letters 19886: 390). The play (a trilogy made up of three plays) examines a post-Civil War American family. The scene in “Mourning Becomes Electra” is laid on a carefully chosen setting- a city in New England, immediately after the Civil War. It is remarkable whatsoever that O’Neill set the plot against such a historical background that had been previously chosen for the setting of great American novels by writers such as W. Faulkner or Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is well known that the South was the cradle of American aristocracy, which after the Civil War underwent a severe decay, thus providing a suitable climate for recreating a Greek tragedy. . The plot of the first two parts of the trilogy- Homecoming and the The Hunted closely follows the pattern of the events described in Agamemnon and the The Libation Bearers (Choephoroi): Ezra Mannon (Agamemnon) who ad just come back from the war was killed by his wife –Christine (Clitemnestra) with the help of her lover, captain Adam Brant(Aegisthus); further on Lavinia (Electra), the Mannons’ daughter, forces her brother Orin(Oreste) to punish the murder of their father. The Erinnyes[1] take the shape of madness in Orin’s case, as he feels responsible for the death of his mother and he is haunted by the feelings of guilt and remorse. The third part of the trilogy differs at some extent, as Orin kills himself while Oreste is exonerated of his guilt.
There are many other details that are different from Aeschylus’ trilogy: for instance, Ezra Mannon didn’t sacrifice Iphigenia before leaving, his death and that of other characters is also different: the sword is replaced by the poison, and the matricide was a suicide caused by the son’s conduct. However, in spite of all these differences, O’Neill largely maintains the plotline of the Greek trilogy. Besides the plot, O’Neill preserves elements of “Oresteia” such as the use of masks, which enables him to individualize the tragic heroes from that of the anonymous group of the Chorus.
All of the Mannons are described as having a very peculiar expression which reminds of a mask, just their eyes seem to have a certain vitality:”Her face is unusual, one is struck at once by the strange impression it gives in repose of being not living flesh but a wonderfully life-like pale mask, in which only the deep-set eyes are alive”(the description of Lavinia, p. 7); these masks that they naturally bear are a mark of their hero-like status which places them above the rest of the community, formed of characters such as servants or neighbors.
It is remarkable how O’Neill contrives to preserve the Chorus, which is a fundamental element of the Greek tragedy. Although it is not as dramatic as the tragic Chorus of the classical Greek plays, each and every of the three parts of “Mourning Becomes Electra” begins with the performance of a chorus formed of different men and women that comment upon the Mannons, the history of their family, revealing to the audience details about the behavior and the character of the heroes.
Moreover, the setting chosen by O’Neill is similar to the classical one used by the Greeks. It is known that in Aeschylus’ times a wooden wall was used as a background of the setting, the wall usually stood for a palace or a temple and this exactly the same as in O’Neill’s trilogy, as the greatest part of the action takes place in front of the Mannon’s residence which is described as being an enormous stone mansion that has the aspect of a Greek temple(the temple of god Apollo) “with a white wooden portico, with six tall columns”[2].
However that was the typical construction for a house that belonged to an American aristocratic family in the XIX century. In “Mourning Becomes Electra”, O’Neill brought into consonance the fundamental traits of the Greek tragedy and the specific elements of modern theatre, thus creating a modern tragedy that would please the contemporaneous audience. The tragedy of the House of Atreus is relocated in New England, at the end of the Civil War (the action of the play takes place between 1865 -1866), creating in this way an appropriate atmosphere.
There are also allusions regarding the Gold Rush (p. 31), the assassinate of President Lincoln (p. 82) or the abolition of slavery (p. 256). Given this historical framework, “Mourning Becomes Electra” has a series of both thematic an stylistic elements that provide a modern like character, making a tragedy of our times out of it. First of all, one can observe how the puritan environment that surrounds the characters, enables O’Neill to have a modernist approach to the Greek expression of Fate.
Quite similar to the Greek tragedies in which there is an obvious interference of the gods in the life of the “mortals”, or the tragic flaw or the hubris are put on the account of a supernatural force, and the mistakes of the ancestors inflict upon the present, in O’Neill’s work the presence of a power that prevails above all is also encountered. One the one hand, it is the history of the Mannons that triggers the tragedy(Adam Brant comes to revenge his father, who was disinherited), the portraits of the Mannons hanged throughout the house play an important part as they seem to observe and govern the Destiny of their descendants.
On the other hand, the characters seem to accept quite naturally the rigor of destiny, for instance, Mrs. Hills, one of the members of the chorus that performs in the beginning of the second part, blames the Destiny for the death of Ezra Mannon, although she also casts a spiritual and divine shadow: “Maybe it is fate. You remember, Everett, you’ve always said about the Mannons that pride goeth before a fall and that someday God would humble them in their sinful pride”[3].
In between the lines 469-470 of Agamemnon the same matter is dealt with, as the chorus speaks about the danger of receiving too much praise, referring to Agamemnon who victoriously came back to Argos:“There is peril in the praise; Over-praised that he hears; For the thunder it is hurled from God’s eyes”[4]. Mrs. Hills is the wife of Everett Hills, a minister of the North-American Congregational Church, so apparently, Zeus took the shape of a puritan god.
It is a god that handles the threads that control the humans (according the Puritan belief in predestination), a god of justice who punishes those who transgress the strict moral code of New England’s puritan society. There are several innuendoes that continuously remind us that we deal with a Puritan milieu: Christine hates the house she lives in because of its “Puritan grey ugliness”(p. 34), she calls Lavinia “Puritan maiden”(p. 78) and her hatred towards Ezra Mannon is put on account of his Puritanism which prevents him to fully satisfy his wife in their love relationship. (p. 102).
Even though O’Neill inserted the idea of Fate and predestination in his trilogy, this is just the surface layer, a pretext to conceal the real human frailties that are the source of tragic. The tragic flaw or the hubris are in fact of a different nature than that in the classical Greek plays (Fate), it is the hero’s weak and instinctual nature that urges him to commit reprehensible deeds such as murder or incestuous behavior. In his eagerness to adapt the classical legend to the modern times, O’Neill took into account the psychological developments of his time, especially when creating the heroes.
One can foresee in his characters the projection of Sigmund Freud’s and Carl Gustav Jung’s theories about the importance of the subconscious, infantile sexuality, and the relationship between parents and children. In Mourning Becomes Electra we can observe a wide range of emotional disorders that trouble the characters in their family relationships: Orin obviously manifests Oedipus’ complex, as the main reason of his revenge (him killing Aegisthus) is not that of making justice, but rather his desire to get rid of his mother’s lover.
Subsequently, once the mother is dead, the incestuous feeling develops towards his sister, Lavinia, given her physical resemblance with her mother, Orin displaces the love he once had for his mother to Lavinia. As far as Lavinia is concerned, she clearly suffers of Electra’s complex, as she passionately loves her father and permanently looks up to usurp her mother’s place. The origin of this disorder has its roots in Lavinia’s childhood as she was rejected by her mother ever since she was born. In her pursuit to supervene upon her mother’s position she unconsciously yearns for the love of Adam Brant(who physically resembles her ather, Ezra Mannon). Her feelings for Adam Brant and the hatred that she feels for her mother are in fact the true reasons of her revenge. Lavinia comes to acknowledge this in the end of the play when her subconscious plays her a trick (she calls her fiance, Peter, by the name of Adam) and commits what Norman Berlin calls “a Freudian slip”[5]. Although O’Neill denied to have had a deep knowledge of the theories that stood at the basis of psychoanalysis[6], it is beyond doubt that these principles surround the entire work, enhancing the characters with peculiar traits and motivations.
Thus, it results a classical legend in modern psychological terms that were widely disseminated among the society of the XXth century, in consequence easy to understand for the contemporaneous spectators. Moreover, it is obvious that Mourning Becomes Electra does not have the poetic quality of Oresteia, as O’Neill doesn’t use the verse as a means of expression; although at times the tone might seem solemn and dignified, we deal with a work that is written in colloquial prose, full of phrases and idiomatic expressions appropriate to the social class that the heroes belong to.
Even the language of the chorus reflects the speech of the American working class of the time, with their peculiar syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation. Although some representative literary figures wrote theatre in verse[7], the contemporary audience was not much accustomed to attend such a performance. O’Neill does not disappoint his audience in this matter.
In conclusion, Eugene O’Neill encompasses in “Mourning Becomes Electra” all the aspects of modern civilization such as the Puritan environment, psychology and language attached to the distinctive features of Greek tragedy that he preserves from the original: the plotline, the masks, the chorus and the setting that convey an attractive uniqueness, which makes the play to be one of the most popular and praised works of the American literature.
If Oresteia enabled Aeschylus to get the first prize of the drama contest held in Athens in 458 A. D. , “Mourning Becomes Electra” contributed to the awarding of Eugene O’Neill with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936.

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