Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 938
In adapting Oresteia, Eugene O'Neill set himself a challenging task. He explains he that hoped to create a "modern psychological approximation of [the] Greek sense of fate" and sets the play in New England because it evokes the "Puritan conviction of man born to sin and punishment." Critics continue to debate to what extent O'Neill succeeded in his project.
In its early reviews, Brooks Atkinson praised the play as "Mr. O'Neill's masterpiece," and John Mason Brown characterized it as "an achievement which restores the theatre to its high estate."
However, Eugene Burr derided the play as a "marathon by an author who takes himself too seriously... who wastes his own and his audiences' time by delving into morbid psychology that is just as unreal, just as fundamentally unimportant—and certainly as unentertaining—as the sentimentality which is verboten [forbidden] by his devotees."
According to George H. Jensen, O'Neill was an experimenter in technique who attempted ambitious projects; an "epigrammatic evaluation of O'Neill's career might be that he wrote some of the very best and some of the worst plays of the twentieth century."
Most critics consider the play one of O'Neill's best works. Some praise the piece for its insight into the human condition. Barrett H. Clark, for example, perceived the playwright's search "for a rational explanation of life and death, and what used to be called sin and evil."
Yet Clark also criticized Mourning Becomes Electra for a lack of emotion, describing it as "a tearless tragedy, remote, detached, august, artfully shaped, cunningly devised, skillfully related and magnificently conceived. It is concerned only indirectly with life as most of us see and feel it: it is comparable not so much to music or painting as to architecture."
Some critics characterize O'Neill's work as sensational, exploiting sex and violence without offering substantial motivation or explanation. For example, in Mourning Becomes Electra, his repeated use of incest shocks and promises some powerful thematic significance.
According to Clark, it instead lacked "complexity, darkness, or genuine passion ... [it seems] the mentalized fantasy of an adolescent temperament, and totally incompatible with the portentous philosophical attitudes it is meant to support."
Frederic Carpenter concurred that the play suffers from excessive reliance on Freudian notions of the Oedipus complex (in which a male child loves the mother and wants to eliminate the father) and the Electra complex (in which the female child loves the father and wants to eliminate the mother):
These protagonists [Orin, Christine, Lavinia, and Ezra] seem to have been born damned. Except for Electra [Lavinia], they do not achieve tragedy; they become merely the helpless victims of their inherited natures ... this psychological equivalent of original sin.
While many critics perceive that Orin is motivated by jealous Oedipal rage against his mother's infidelity, Carpenter asserted that his acts were the product of his mad heroism during battle. This interpretation makes O'Neill's point more political than psychological, in that "Orin seems to be driven by the tortured conscience of all modern men, in their realization of the evil of world war."
According to Michael Manheim, Mourning Becomes Electra disguised the playwright's "compulsion to reveal (while carefully hiding) the personal melodrama of his family home." Manheim identified two key themes: the "events and emotions centering on Ella O'Neill's addiction and later death" and "O'Neill's hostility toward his mother."
Manheim maintained that these conflicts appear most prominently in the play with the "sinning" or "suicidal" Christine representing Ella, while the "outraged" Lavinia and "guilt-ridden" and Orin symbolize Eugene.
One reason for the contradictory nature of O'Neill's critical reception may stem from the stereotypically American notion that sees everything bigger as better. According to Brustein, O'Neill's work seemed "afflicted with the American disease of gigantism," which accounts for the playwright's epic ambitions.
Ideally, O'Neill hoped to see the six-hour trilogy performed one play a night over three nights. More than one critic believed the play would have benefited from cutting and compression. John Mason Brown no doubt expressed the thoughts of many when he wrote that parts of the play, particularly "The Haunted, seem overlong ... That it is longer than it need be seems fairly obvious, as does the fact that, like so many of O'Neill's plays, it stands in need of editing."
The other side in this debate about the epic pretensions of O'Neill's work, of course, claims that some stories—arguably that of the Mannon family—require a wealth of narrative detail and need to be told in epic fashion.
While praising The Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, and Ah, Wilderness!, Bernard De Voto found much of the playwright's other work—including Mourning Becomes Electra—falling short.
De Voto contended that at best O'Neill "is only the author of some extremely effective pieces for the theatre. At worst he has written some of the most pretentiously bad plays of our time."
De Voto also asserted: "What he tells us is simple, familiar, superficial, and even trite—and because of a shallow misunderstanding of Freud and windy mysticism, sometimes flatly wrong."
While admitting that O'Neill "has given us many pleasurable evenings in the theatre," De Voto maintained that "he has never yet given us an experience of finality, of genius working on the material proper to genius, of something profound and moving said about life. Just why, then, the Nobel Prize?"
While critics may debate the value of this play, almost all would agree that O'Neill has made important contributions toward today's American theatre. He moved beyond the early century's obsession with melodrama to embrace realism and naturalism, and lead the way for major dramatists to come, among them Edward Albee, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
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