Mourning Becomes Electra

by Eugene O’Neill

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1170

Mourning Becomes Electra, a trilogy consisting of Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted, is, though set at the end of the American Civil War, an adaptation of the greatest of Aeschylus’s trilogies, Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; English translation, 1777). Eugene O’Neill’s play illustrates the struggle between the life force and death, in which human attempts to express natural sensual desires and love of others or even of life itself are overcome by the many forms of death: repression derived from the Puritan religion, death-in-life engendered by society’s values, isolation, war, and physical death. This struggle is present not only in the plot structure (each play culminates in a death) but also the setting, in the actors’ faces, stances, and costumes, and in repetitive refrains.

Darkness, associated with death, pervades the plays: Homecoming, for instance, begins with the sunset, moves into twilight, and ends in the dark of night; The Hunted takes place at night; The Haunted spans two evenings and a late afternoon and indicates the inevitable coming of night, darkness, and death as Lavinia retreats to rejoin the host of dead Mannons.

The Mannon house itself, seen by the audience at the beginning of each play, stands amid the beauty and abundance of nature. It has a white Greek temple portico that O’Neill directs should resemble “an incongruous white mask fixed on the house to hide its somber grey ugliness.” That the house is an ironic inversion of the affirmation and love of life associated with the Greeks is soon obvious. Christine thinks of the house as a tomb of cold, gray stone, and even Ezra compares it to a “white meeting house” of the Puritan Church, a temple dedicated to duty, to the denial of life and love, and to death. The house itself is not only alienated from nature but also isolated from the community, built on the foundations of pride and hatred and Puritan beliefs. Its cold facade and isolation symbolize the family that lives within it, whose name indicates their spiritual relationship to Satan’s chief helper, Mammon. The curse of this house stems from the effects of materialism, Puritanism, alienation, and repression of what is natural—a death-in-life state.

The stiff, unnatural military bearing of the Mannons and the masklike look of their faces—on portraits of Orin and Ezra, on Christine’s face when she is about to commit suicide, on Lavinia’s face after Orin’s death—are further evidence that the family is dead in the middle of life. Even the townspeople comment on the Mannons’s “secret look.” The look indicates the Mannons’s denial of life, their repression of their sensual natures, and their refusal or inability to communicate with others. The dark costumes of the family also indicate the hold that death has on them and accentuates the green satin worn first by Christine and later by Lavinia as they struggle to break out of their tomb and reach life.

The instinct of love and life survives most strongly in the women, but even they are defeated. The search for pure love through a mother-son relationship is futile, for the Oedipal complex, as Orin finally realizes, leads beyond the bounds of a pure relationship. Family love, too, fails, as is evident in the relationships between Christine and Lavinia and Ezra and Orin. Even love between men and women is not sufficient to triumph over the alienation and loneliness of the Mannon world.

The leitmotif of the South Sea islands, symbols of escape from the death cycle of heredity and environment of New England society, is present throughout the three plays. The islands...

(This entire section contains 1170 words.)

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represent a return to Mother Earth, a hope of belonging in an environment far removed from Puritan guilt and materialism. Brant has been to these islands; Ezra wants to have one; Orin and Christine dream of being on one together, and they do finally travel to the islands but come to realize that they cannot become a permanent part of the island culture, but must return to the society to which they belong by birth and upbringing. The islands, symbols of escape, also finally fail the Mannons.

The Mannons try other avenues of escape from their deathly isolation. David Mannon attempts to escape with Marie Brantome but finally turns to drinking and suicide. Ezra escapes by concentrating on his business and then on the business of death—war—before he realizes the trap of death. Christine focuses her attempts to escape first on her son and then on Brant. Orin tries to escape through his mother’s love, then through Hazel’s, and finally, in desperation, in an incestuous relationship with Lavinia. Lavinia does not see the dimensions of the death trap and does not desire escape until her trip to the islands, where she experiences the abundance of guilt-free life. After her return, she is willing to let Orin die, just as Christine let Ezra die, to be free to love and live. Too late, however, she too feels the curse of the guilt associated with the Puritan beliefs and realizes that she cannot escape. Lavinia learns Orin was right: Those who kill also kill part of themselves each time they kill until finally nothing alive is left in them. She underscores this in her last conversation with Peter, remarking, “Always the dead between [us]. . . . The dead are too strong.” Death itself is the only real escape for the alienated, guilt-ridden Mannons.

Compared to its source, Aeschylus’s Oresteia, O’Neill’s themes and characterization seem shallow. Christine, who goads Ezra into a heart attack because of her hatred of his attitude toward their sexual relationship and her love of Brant, is no match for Clytemnestra, who revenges the death of her daughter, her insulted pride, and hatred of Agamemnon with a bloody knife. The neurotic weak Orin is likewise a lesser character than Orestes, whose strong speech of triumphant justice over his mother’s slain body breaks only with his horrified vision of the Furies. Ezra, however, is more human than Agamemnon, and Lavinia’s complexities far outstrip those of Electra: Lavinia’s recognition and acceptance of her fate is in the noble tradition of the tragic hero.

The radical difference in the intentions of the two playwrights accounts for some of these differences. Aeschylus, whose major themes are concerned with the victory of human and divine laws, concludes his trilogy with the establishment of justice on Earth and Orestes’ reconciliation with society and the gods; he affirms that good has come out of evil, order from chaos, and wisdom from suffering. In Mourning Becomes Electra, the curse is not lifted but confirmed at the end, as Lavinia gives up her futile struggle and succumbs to the psychological “furies” that drive human beings. Although O’Neill’s analysis may occasionally be oversimplified, Mourning Becomes Electra is one of the few twentieth century American plays that can truly be said to evoke the tragic emotions of pity, fear, and even awe.


Critical Overview