Mourning Becomes Electra Critical Evaluation
by Eugene O’Neill

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1,170 words.)