Mourning Becomes Electra and Oresteia
Early in his composition of Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O'Neill stated his goal and problem: to create a "modern psychological drama using one of the old legend plots of Greek tragedy for its basic theme," asking "Is it possible to get [a] modern psychological approximation of the Greek sense of fate into such a play, which an intelligent audience of today, possessed of no belief in gods or supernatural retribution, could accept and be moved by."
O'Neill also wanted to present a play with a uniquely American sensibility, and so he set the play in post-Civil War New England because it evoked the "Puritan conviction of man born to sin and punishment." While O'Neill generally succeeded in his goal of adapting from an ancient Greek to a modern American viewpoint, in the process he changed the plays' character motivations, the ethical model, and the tragic ending. These changes have far-reaching thematic, psychological, and cultural implications.
To better understand Mourning Becomes Electra, we must examine the ancient Greek myth of Oresteia. The best-known retelling of the Oresteia might be the three-play cycle by Aeschylus.
The Oresteia myth concerns the house of Atreus, a doomed family cursed from its inception. According to legend, Atreus's grandfather, Tantalus, kills his son Pelops and serves the pieces of his body to the gods at a feast. Because of this atrocious crime, the gods restore Pelops to life and sentence Tantalus to eternal punishment in the underworld.
Atreus, one of the sons of Pelops and Hippodamia, becomes king of Mycenae. Cuckolded by his brother Thyestes, who covets his throne, Atreus seeks revenge. Atreus kills Thyestes's sons and serves them to their father at a banquet. Discovering Atreus' dastardly deed, Thyestes curses him and all his heirs.
Thyestes's son, Aegisthus, revenges his brothers' murder and kills Atreus. Thyestes takes over the throne of Mycenae, forcing Atreus' sons Agamemnon and Menaleus into exile. These events spark the tragic rivalry central to O'Neill's story between Agamemnon (Ezra Mannon) and Aegisthus (Adam Brant).
Agamemnon marries Clytemnestra (Christine), producing their daughters Iphegenia and Electra (Lavinia), and their son Orestes (Orin). Menaleus marries Helen. When Paris elopes with Helen, Agamemnon and Menaleus start the Trojan War to retrieve her.
While the Spartans (Menaleus is the king of Sparta) prepare their invasion fleet, Agamemnon goes hunting and kills a stag sacred to the goddess Diana, the virgin huntress. Angered by this act, Diane prevents the fleet from sailing unless Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphegenia. As a father, Agamemnon resists, but, believing Helen's rescue to be the will of the gods, he ultimately relents and agrees to Iphegenia's sacrifice. As the sacrifice begins, the goddess Diane changes her mind and spares Iphegenia, whisking her away to serve as a votive in a distant temple. Significantly, Agamemnon's family believes that Iphegenia is dead.
The role that Agamemnon plays in Iphegenia's death partly explains why Clytemnestra hates him and why she ultimately kills him. When Agamemnon departs for the Trojan War (As Ezra did for the Civil War), Clytemnestra (Christine) takes Aegisthus (Brant) as a lover, and plots her husband's murder.
After Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus kill him. The rest of the Oresteia centers around Electra's and Orestes's plans, at Apollo's urging, to avenge their father's death by killing their mother and Aegisthus. Electra plays no part in the story's end, which tells of Orestes's persecution by the Furies for committing matricide.
A court eventually hears his case and, when the court deadlocks, Athena casts the deciding vote, freeing Orestes from the Furies.
As we can see, each trilogy—the Greek and the American—chronicles the tragic story of a family corrupted by the sins by its ancestors. Aeschylus' version differs from O'Neill's in ways that tell us much about the societies that produced them.
(The entire section is 21,152 words.)