Playwright Eugene O’Neill wrote his modern version of a Greek tragedy in the 1930s, as the United States and the world were immersed in the Great Depression. Mourning Becomes Electra is set about 60 years earlier, in a period when the United States confronted the repercussions of the Civil War. Through his focus on a single family, the Mannons, O’Neill reflects on underlying social problems that he saw as continuing to plague American society.
The conflicts within the Mannon family encompass sibling rivalry as well as conflicts between members of different generation is. O’Neill uses socially unacceptable sexual desires and relationships to stand for the moral corruption within the family. These desires include both the Oedipal and Electra complexes, which involve heterosexual parent-child incestuous relationships. These inappropriate relationships set the children against the other parent and each other. In particular, Lavinia’s sexually-charged devotion to her father leads her to attack her mother, Christine. Far from being blameless, however, Christine has committed adultery. While her son, Orin, initially sides with Lavinia, their violent revenge ultimately destroys the siblings’ bond.
Beyond the immediate intra-family revenge plots, O’Neill contextualizes the family drama within American capitalist excesses and overseas expansion. The staunch Puritanism of Mannons is linked to their past financial success—a connection emphasized by their surname. The inequalities of class-based hierarchy are embodied in Adam Brant, whose wealthy father ‘s abuse of his poor mother prompt his desire for revenge. As the family implodes through murders and suicides, Lavinia turns her back on the family business. Her and Orin’s dreams of starting afresh in the Pacific stand for American expansion at the turn of the twentieth century. Through their inability to escape their past in their new island life, O’Neill further expresses concerns about imperialism.