Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
O’Neill conceived of creating a modern psychological drama rooted in Greek legend in the spring of 1926, but Mourning Becomes Electra was not completed until the spring of 1931. Actually a trilogy of three full-length plays, it opened in October and was deemed a masterpiece by more than one critic. O’Neill said: “By the title Mourning Becomes Electra I sought to convey that mourning befits Electra; it becomes Electra to mourn; it is her fate; black is becoming to her and it is the color that becomes her destiny.”
The Greek source for O’Neill was the Oresteia of Aeschylus, from the fifth century b.c.e., the trilogy detailing the relationships of the house of Atreus. In the first play, after the siege of Troy, Clytemnestra murders her husband, the victorious Agamemnon; in the second, their son Orestes, with his sister Electra, murders his mother and her lover Aegisthus; in the third, Orestes is hounded by the Furies for matricide but is eventually freed from his guilt and acquitted of the crime. O’Neill reworked much of this story; he also drew upon the versions of Electra by Sophocles and Euripides, which focus upon the daughter, a haunted woman, torn by hate and love and never at peace.
The Mannon family (the name may be associated with “mammon” and the family’s materialism) is the center of O’Neill’s play, which is set in New England immediately after the Civil War. The house is described in the stage directions as resembling a white Greek temple, with six columns across the front porch. In the first play, The Homecoming, Christine Mannon (Clytemnestra) has taken a lover, Adam Brant (Aegisthus), while her husband, Ezra (Agamemnon), has been fighting in the war. Daughter Lavinia (Electra) is jealously aware of the affair and threatens her mother with exposure. In this section, mother and daughter are rivals for the love of Ezra and Adam.
When Ezra returns, Lavinia desperately tries to win his love and attention from her mother, as Ezra makes an impassioned effort to communicate with Christine, begging her to love him. Thinking only of her lover, she rejects him, and when he has a heart attack, she administers poison rather than medicine. In his death throes, he reveals Christine’s crime to Lavinia.
The triangular structure of the second play, The Hunted, includes Lavinia, Christine, and the newly returned battle-scarred Orin (Orestes). Each woman is...
(The entire section is 1023 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The American Civil War is over, and in their New England home Christine and Lavinia Mannon await the homecoming of Ezra Mannon and his son, Orin. Lavinia, who adores her father, detests Christine because of Ezra’s love for his wife. For her part, Christine is jealous of Orin’s love and hates her husband and daughter. In this house of hidden hatred, Seth, the watchful gardener of the old mansion, sees that Lavinia also despises Captain Brant, a regular caller at the Mannon home.
The Mannons, descended from old New England stock, have their family skeleton. Dave Mannon, Ezra’s brother, had run off with an American Indian woman named Marie Brantome. Seth, seeing the antagonism between Lavinia and her mother, discloses to Lavinia that Captain Brant is the son of Marie and Dave Mannon.
Embittered by her mother’s illicit romance with Brant and jealous of her hold on Ezra, Lavinia forces Christine to send her lover away. Christine is too strong a woman to give in entirely to her daughter’s dominance. She urges Brant to send her some poison. It is common knowledge that Ezra has heart trouble, and Christine plans to rid herself of the husband so that she will be free to marry Brant. Lavinia cruelly reminds her mother that Orin, her favorite child, had been born while Ezra was away during the Mexican War.
When Ezra, a kind and just man, comes home, he realizes that Christine shrinks from him while pretending concern for his health. That night in their bedroom, Ezra and Christine quarrel over their failing marriage. Ezra has a heart attack, and when he gasps for his medicine Christine gives him the poison instead. As he lay dying in Lavinia’s arms, the helpless man feebly but incoherently accuses Christine of his murder. Lavinia has no proof, but she does suspect that her mother had a part in her father’s death.
After Ezra’s death, Peter and Hazel Niles, cousins of the Mannons, visit the mansion. Peter is a rejected suitor of Lavinia, and Hazel is in love with Orin. Lavinia spies on her mother constantly. When Orin comes home, the two women vie for his trust, Lavinia trying to raise suspicion against her mother and Christine attempting to regain her son’s close affection. Uncomfortable under her daughter’s looks of silent, sneering accusation, Christine finally realizes that Lavinia found the box of poison. While Hazel, Peter, and Christine try to make a warm welcome for Orin, Lavinia hovers over the group like a specter of gloom. Able to get Orin alone before Lavinia can speak to him, Christine tells her son about Lavinia’s suspicions concerning Captain Brant and Ezra’s death, and she tries to convince him that Lavinia’s distraction over Ezra’s death has warped her mind.
Orin, whose affection for his mother makes him dislike Ezra, believes Christine, but the returned...
(The entire section is 1162 words.)